Reflectionary, Transfiguration, Year A


Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.

Exodus 24:18 (Transfiguration Sunday)

In the short-lived hiking phase of my life, I made it to the top of half-a-dozen mountains in New Hampshire, and I carry a vivid memory of the view from one on an overcast day. Atmospheric conditions masked the reality I knew from a past trip to this mountaintop; instead of 360 degrees valleys and peaks, it looked like a sea of billowing waves in shades of bright grey, the mountains like little islands, with barely a difference in color-shading to mark where the sky began. It was the same view, and not the same; something I expected, yet something I had never seen before.  

“Moses went up into the mountain of God,” Exodus 24:13 tells us, onto a mountain covered with a cloud, but not just a cloud; it was the glory of the LORD. Moses waited for six days while that glory “was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain;” at the foot of the mountain, the people could see it. God put on a show for them, but when Moses did not come down again for forty days, in their fear that he was gone for good and that there God was not going to save them, they melted all their gold down to create an idol to worship instead. 

Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus, and they saw Moses and Elijah talking with him. They were fine until “a bright cloud overshadowed them” and the divine voice spoke, echoing the heavenly affirmation at Jesus’ baptism. Awestruck, fearful, the disciples threw themselves on the ground. They were in the presence of – what?!? Could they trust their perceptions?

In this era of propaganda and marketing, social media and political campaigns, our perceptions are being messed with all the time. What are we noticing? Has truth changed? How do we know if what we are seeing is real or true? 

On the Day of Transfiguration, nothing essential about Jesus changed. What changed is what the disciples knew about him. They had known a friend, a teacher, a wise person; now they experienced the brightly blinding presence of the Divine declaring Jesus to be Son of God.

That day on the mountaintop, I let myself rest in my weather-addled perceptions. Maybe the clouds had something to say to me. To know the truth, be open to noticing something unexpected. We are the ones who will be changed. 

Would you like to receive reflections like this one in your email inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers.

Jesus, The Bible, Year A, Year B

Amazed to be a Christian

At the end of Year A, I’m always a little amazed I’m still a Christian. I find Jesus becomes less and less comprehensible (and likable) as the gospel nears its end, and by that I mean the parts that lead up to the Last Supper. Once you reach that point, it’s got its eccentricities (spirits rising from tombs, earthquakes and so forth), but it’s basically similar to the others in its account of the end.

Pretty Jesus. I met him in Sunday School.

No, the difference is how Jesus goes on speaking in riddles. Think about Luke’s Jesus. He gives us stories that make sense (the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan) and a Jesus who cries in the Garden and who assures the thief on the cross that today they are going to be in paradise together. Or Mark’s Jesus, bemused, mostly, by the predicament in which he finds himself, giving it one last blast about the Temple being taken down and leaving us with arcane arguments about the “desolating sacrilege,” but I feel he’s sympathetic at the end.

[John’s Jesus, of course, is (a) already God and (b) not spread out over an entire lectionary cycle, but that’s another story.]

But Matthew gives us tough material, these hard-to-parse parables that come at the end: the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the three servants with their talents and finally the separating of the sheep and the goats. We don’t like them. They make God sound mean, and wasn’t the whole point of Jesus for God to sound less mean? More forgiving? More gracious?

Why end on a note of three stories in a row where people are being shut out of the banquet, thrown into the outer darkness, left to weep and wail and gnash their teeth?

Rob, who built Hoagie’s ramp,
 loves Buddy Jesus.

I’m reading interpretations (by smart people, scholars, even my friends) who want to say that God is not the master of the servants given the talents, God is not the bridegroom turning away the bridesmaids who forgot to bring extra oil which doesn’t seem fair since the bridegroom was late in coming, but how many of us would try to say that God is NOT the King sitting on the throne and judging between the nations as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats?

Yeah, that.

I know what I want the kingdom of heaven to be like. I don’t know what it’s really like, but I know what I want it to be like, and I’m basing it on the words of scripture that stand out for me as most loving and challenging, not most threatening.

About to tell a scary one. See Matthew 21:33ff.

And this Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, sounds a little threatening.

So it’s not surprising that every three years I have a little crisis of faith.

I can’t explain the wise and foolish virgin bridesmaid girlies and the mean old bridegroom who keeps everyone waiting and then shuts the door. I can’t explain the guy who *killed* the people who didn’t come to the wedding banquet.

I just don’t feel like these stories are from or about Jesus. But there they are, in the red letters in some editions. I’m forced to confront them and reconsider him every Year A.

And then I read the sheep and the goats again, and I’m back on track. *That’s* the point, you see, and the message may be lost to us in the other stories because we don’t understand first century customs or we’re missing some significant current event that would shed light on the matter or the author of Matthew had his own axe to grind with someone who will remain nameless because we just don’t know who it was.

The sheep and the goats remind us that the thing we need to do most is not judge or show up at parties but to love. Love God, love each other (including those not like us) the way we love ourselves (and those most like us), and especially love the people who are in trouble of all kinds.

It’s hard to be so far away from the time and place in which the stories were written down. We know that even before they were recorded, they were told over and over and reinterpreted to suit the context and reorganized to make a point and added to from sources we suspect exist but cannot produce and given a gloss of theological flavor by each of the gospel writers.

Pretty soon we’re starting Year B. That’s my favorite. That Jesus feels less, well, varnished.

He’s Original Jesus.

(The real) Episode 1 Jesus.

I’m looking forward to visiting with him again.