Dazzling Jesus

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One of my favorite events each year is the annual tour given to the kindergarten and first grade Godly Play class.  There, I get to nerd out on stuff that they’ve been learning, but that most people don’t give a second thought to.  We talked about the word nave, and how it is built to look like the hull of a ship.  We got to touch the 1905 paten and chalice given in honor of Frederick and Sadie Price before the second Christ Church in Bowling Green was destroyed by fire.  They had the chance to see what the church looks like from the pulpit, lectern, and behind the altar.  Standing there, I asked the group why they thought we had candles in churches.  One, very practical child, guessed that it was so we could see better, which was, of course, true.  We went on to talk about how the candles in the church remind us of the light of Jesus, and how when we come to worship, that light comes alive in us, and we get to carry it out into the world.

What I didn’t think to tell them was that this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is all about the light of Christ.  The image above is from a painting of the Transfiguration by Carl Bloch (c. 1865), and I think it captures visually what the English translations of Mark’s account fall short on.  That is, Bloch’s painting shows us what Mark means when he says that Jesus’ clothes became “dazzling white.”  The Greek word is something akin to glistening, sparkling, or shining.  It isn’t that Jesus’ once dusty tunic became Clorox white, but rather, it light up like the noonday sun.  There, atop that mountain, Peter, James, and John became privy to the fullness of the light of Christ.

As they made their way back down to meet the waiting crowd, Jesus commanded his disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after his resurrection.  Stories about the light of Christ aren’t necessary when the light is standing right in front of you.  As time has passed, however, the need to tell the story and to share the light has grown.  As 21st century followers of Jesus, we are called to let the light of Christ shine through our lives, and the best way to keep that light shining brightly is by regularly returning to the source.  You could travel to the Mount of the Transfiguration, or, more practically, you can attend worship, commit to regularly praying and reading the Bible, and sharing the love of God with those inside your sphere of influence.

In the transfiguration, the fullness of the divinity of Jesus was made manifest by way of a voice from heaven, two prophetic witnesses, and the shining of a bright light.  Only one of those is available to us on an ongoing basis.  As I often say during the Offertory Sentences this time of, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your Good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

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Transfigured… Again?!?

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You don’t have to be a lectionary preacher for very long to realize that a few stories carry a bit more weight than all the rest.  John the Baptist gets a lot of love in the lectionary.  Toward the end of the year, things get pretty heavy with the mini-apocalypses.  This Sunday, we have another one of those lessons that gets a lot of air time, the story of the Transfiguration.  Because it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, the Transfiguration is an easy one to cycle in all three years.  In the Lectionary, we hear it read every Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and we hear both Matthew’s and Peter’s versions of it read on the actual Feast of the Transfiguration.

It can be difficult to find new things to say about these oft-repeated lessons.  The usual suspects seem to always appear.  Peter’s befuddled comments make it easy to say “we can’t stay on the mountain top.”  Moses and Elijah allow the preacher to talk a bit about the prophecy surrounding the Messiah.  The terrible darkness is a point of entry, as is the dazzling white of Jesus raiment.  But after ten years of Last Epiphanies, my initial reaction to the whole thing is

Transfigured… Again!?!

Writing this blog and my larger homiletical process have taught me that most of the time, I’m preaching to myself.  What I write here and what I say in the pulpit are usually indicators of how I’m feeling or what I’m struggling with at any given time.  Clearly, this whole post has been about me and my stuff, but I wonder if our people feel this too?  Do those who don’t spend hours each week immersed in the Lectionary notice when these things pop up again and again?  Do they hear something read on Sunday and say, “really, we’re doing this again?”  Do they wonder how the preacher comes up with something new to say, or, rather, do they wonder why the preacher always seems to say the same thing when these things cycle back around?

Thankfully, I’m not preaching this week.  In fact, given the content of the last three paragraphs, it is timely that I’m taking a vacation this weekend.  As I wonder what else I might say here about the Transfiguration, I’m thankful that I share the pulpit with two really good preachers who I know put in the word of study and prayer, and especially for my colleague Becca, who will preach a fine sermon on a difficult set of passages this week.  I’m praying for you, dear reader, and for the work you do.

Where did you see God today?

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website.


Cassie and I moved to south Alabama in 2007, almost two full years after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Mobile Bay.  Two years might seem like a long time after a storm, but estimates were that it would take as much as a decade to rebuild after such a catastrophic event.  For three summers, I joined the Saint Paul’s youth group on a trip to work at Mission on the Bay in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.  To give you an idea of the extent of the work, we were still demolishing houses in 2010; five years after the storm.  Mission on the Bay was a joint venture between the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the local Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  It welcomed teams of youth, college students, and adults year-round to help people rebuild their homes and their lives.  They offered a place to stay, three square meals a day, and the case work, tools, and expertise required to do the job safely and effectively.   Because of the wide variety of groups, they chose not to offer any sort of chapel service or structured devotional time.  Each group leader was welcome to create their own.

Our first summer there, I did all kinds of prep work.  I created a devotional journal, complete with Scripture readings, reflection questions, and discussion topics.  It only took a day to realize the error of my ways.  After “sleeping” in a Quonset hut that barely got below 80 degrees, working all day in the south Mississippi July sun, and showering in a trailer with one-thousand percent humidity, none of us could think straight.  The devotion time was mostly just staring at each other followed by the airing of teenage grievances over who took the most breaks or drank the last Gatorade.  I quickly decided to change things up for year two.  This time, under the shade of a live oak tree that had seen more than its fair share of storms, I asked the kids the same question every night of our week together, “Where did you see God today?”  Their answers ranged from the sublime to the mundane.  We saw God in the neighborhood children who brought us popsicles at lunch time and in the elderly woman who had taken in as many neighbors as she could after the storm, many of whom were still there.  We saw God in a refreshing dip in Mississippi Sound and the ability to use power tools.  As the week went on, it became clear that God can be seen everywhere, if we are willing to allow the Spirit to open our eyes.

Peter, James, and John would have had no problem answering the “where did you see God today” question after this morning’s Gospel lesson.  I doubt they expected to experience such an awe-inspiring event as they joined Jesus on one of his usual hikes up the mountain to pray, but this day, something special happened.  This day, they got to see God fully present in the person of Jesus.  Not that God wasn’t always fully present in the person of Jesus, just that normally, their eyes couldn’t see it in its full glory.  Today was special.  Eight days after Peter had first declared Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus had, in turn, first predicted his death for the sins of the world, Peter, James, and John saw, first-hand, that Jesus really was the chosen one of God.  With his face transformed and his clothing as bright as lightening, they saw the glory of God in him.  They overheard him talking with Moses and Elijah about the death that he had predicted, the final exodus the disciples so desperately hoped he could avoid.  They heard, with a mixture of fear and awe, the voice of God confirming what they had come to understand, Jesus truly was the Son of God.

Even in that profoundly miraculous moment, I suspect they could have missed it.  Had their eyes not been tuned to the Spirit’s frequency, all of this may have happened while they dozed off on the sidelines.  It happened on the night Jesus was arrested, why couldn’t it have happened here?  Yet, they were blessed in seeing.  They were tuned in with the help of the Spirit, and there, atop that holy mountain, they saw God.

It is so easy, as we go about the ongoing rhythms of life, to miss opportunities to see God.  The hamster wheel of work, school, vacation, sports practices, doctors’ appointments, or however we define our days and weeks can get spinning so fast that it becomes impossible to pause for even a moment to see God.  Which is why, I think it is important, from time to time, to break the routine, to be caught short, and to be forced to see things in a different way.  Take today, for example.  The Sunday before the start of school could be like every other Sunday on the calendar.  We could come, say our prayers, sing a few hymns (if we are so inclined), receive communion, and then get about our day; ignoring completely that God will be joining us on school buses and in classrooms for the next nine months.  Rather than just going about the routine of life, today we pause, and look for God.  We will, in a few minutes, take time to pray God’s special blessing upon students, teachers, support staff, school board members, parents, and volunteers as a new school year begins.  After that, we will gather our prayers around an altar made of paper boxes and ask God to open our eyes to see his hand at work in the world about us to be empowered for ministry through the bread and wine, the body and blood of his Son.

God is already present in these one-hundred-twenty-thousand sheets of paper.  They were purchased from my Discretionary Fund, thanks to your generosity, and will be donated to Parker Bennett Curry and Dishman McGinnis Elementary Schools where they will take a small portion of the burden off hard working faculty who serve some of the most vulnerable in our community.  You may recall from my third sermon at Christ Church, that for years I have volunteered at Foley Elementary School.  I told you the statistics of fifteen hundred students, 80% of whom are in poverty and 50% who come from single parent homes.  This week, I had the chance to meet Angie Slocum, the school counselor at Dishman McGinnis, an elementary school seven blocks that way (points to reredos).  Angie told me the story of a school that has grown by nearly 50% over four years ago and now serves almost 500 students, 99% of whom are on free and reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator.  That is a 99% poverty rate in our own backyard.  I saw God there.  I saw God in the 80 volunteers who mentored children last year.  I saw God calling us to help mentor the nearly 80 others who were still on the waiting list.  I saw God in teachers, counselors, administrators, secretaries, and janitors who were working, with immense pride, to ready their school to meet the needs of their students.  I left the school and immediately filled out my volunteer application.  I have plenty of extra copies, so let me know if you’d like to join me at Dishman McGinnis to see God and be God’s hand at work helping some of the least in our community experience God’s love while receiving an opportunity to find their way onto the first rung on the ladder to success.

If the Feast of the Transfiguration teaches us anything, it is that God longs to be seen.  If we invite the Spirit to open our eyes, we will see God, but beware: seeing God will change your life.  You’ll never see the world the same way again.  Volunteering at an elementary school might not be for you, but I promise you, God is ready to be seen by you somewhere. Whether it is at a Wednesday lunch, Living Waters for the World, HOTEL, INC., or some other servant ministry, God is waiting to be seen, to crack your heart open, and invite you to serve.  Open your eyes, pay attention, and learn to see by routinely asking yourself this simple question, “where did I see God today?”

Why so negative?

The more I read Luke’s version of the Transfiguration, the more I’m wondering about the reactions to this text, both within my own being as well as from what I read and hear in sermons and sermon resources.  This came to light especially this morning as I read a reflection on Matthew’s version of this passage that was posted on the Christian Century website back when it came up in late February of this year.  Jason Micheli’s piece, entitled “What preachers get wrong and Peter gets right about the Transfiguration” noted that no where does Jesus or God rebuke Peter for his desire to build some booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  As I read the article, and as I’ve re-read the passage this morning, I’ve noticed that Peter’s question isn’t the only part of this story that stirs up negative reactions in me, and has me wondering why?

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Now, to be fair, some of these negative feelings come from the conflation of all these stories into one meta-narrative in my mind.  Luke’s version of the larger narrative arc doesn’t include Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ first passion prediction eight (or six, depending, it doesn’t really matter) days earlier.  In fact, the way the story gets broken out, at least on the Lectionary Page, doesn’t even include the eight day reference.  Still, it is there, and so when I see that Jesus chose to take Peter along with James and John, my initial thought is, “what does Jesus have up his sleeve here?”

Then, there is the usual visceral reaction to good old quick-to-speak-slow-to-think Peter who blurts out in his mix of fear, bewilderment, and exhaustion, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings…”  Here too, the text gives us some reason to think that Peter’s words are silly.  Luke notes, as other do as well, that Peter didn’t know what he was saying.  Yet, why do we just assume that this reaction is dumb?  Couldn’t it be possible, as Micheli suggests, that staying on the mountain to worship the glory of God present fully in Jesus the Son, is a perfectly reasonable reaction to the Transfiguration?  Isn’t all of life a call to worship?  To see the beauty of God’s handiwork in creation?  To give thanks for the grace of God made flesh in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son?  To make room for the Spirit at work within us on an ongoing basis?  Why do we assume Peter’s reaction to be stupid?

It happened to me a third time today, as I read the words of God from the cloud to be a rebuke rather than a loving affirmation.  Is the command to listen to the Chosen Son born out of frustration on God’s part that disciples hadn’t been listening, or a loving word that says, “If you listen, this world could be a much better place.  If you take heed, the Kingdom of God is actually quite near”?  Sure, the disciples often misunderstand what Jesus is trying to say and do, but don’t we all?  Are we, or maybe better, am I so quick to judge the disciples for the slowness in understanding because I think I know better?  My negative reaction to various characters in the text betray that I do not.  Instead, perhaps I would do well to slow down and listen.

A Key Missing Detail

The story of the Transfiguration occurs four times in the New Testament.  Each of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – have their own version, though it is likely that Matthew and Luke based their stories off of Mark’s original.  It also shows up in the Second Letter of Peter, one of only a handful of references to the ministry of Jesus in the letters.  On Sunday, we’ll hear Luke’s account, and there is plenty to be gleaned from what occurs in which version of the story, but what has really struck me today is that there seems to be a key detail missing in three out of the four versions of the Transfiguration.

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One of the surest signs in Scripture that one is having a true theophanic experience are the words “Do not be afraid” or “have no fear.”  We hear it again and again from the lips of angels, from the resurrected Jesus, and even the Lord God Almighty.  It is the first word of comfort to those who are, understandably, afraid of what they are seeing before their very eyes.  It seems only reasonable, then, that somewhere in a scene in which Jesus’ clothes are described as a flash of lightening, we might hear someone offer these words of comfort to the terrified Peter, James, and John.  Yet, Luke, Mark, and 2 Peter are all silent.

Matthew’s Gospel includes it, but only after the whole scene has ended.  Peter, James, and John, having all but fainted with fear, are met by Jesus, now all alone, who touches them and tells them to “be resurrected” and “have no fear.”  I can’t help but wonder, given that only eight days ago (in Luke), Jesus had told them about his death and called on them to lose their lives for his sake, why this particular phrase is missing.

Part of it, I supposed, is the reality that fear is an appropriate reaction to what they are seeing and experiencing.  In the thought of ancient Israel, to encounter God was to die, and not only were they seeing Jesus brought to glory right before their very eyes and Elijah and Moses standing alongside him, but the cloud of God’s presence was right there, looming right above them.  If they weren’t afraid, there was something wrong with them.  But to what end?  What purpose does their fear serve?  Is it, quaking in your boots fear and trembling?  Or, as is more likely, is it the holy awe that is often associate with the fear of the Lord?

Not a lot of answers today as my mind runs in 30 different directions, but I know this, there must be something to that fear.  Some reason that these words aren’t there.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the Proverbs tell us, and maybe that’s the gift the disciples received on that holy mountain: the beginning of wisdom.

A Midsummer Night’s Stress Dream

Don’t worry.  I’m not going all high brow on you, dear reader.  I think I stumbled my way through Romeo and Juliet, but honestly, I never really cared for Shakespeare.   My theory that he was a hack is never a popular one, but it is my best guess as to why his plays are so hard to understand.  Iambic pentameter be danged.

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Now that I have sufficient raised your ire, let me get to the point of this post.  This week is one of those rare occasions when a Major Feast takes precedence over a Sunday.  Rather than hearing the lessons appointed for Proper 13 in Year A, Episcopalians will get to hear the story of the Transfiguration for the second time this year (we hear it read from one of the Synoptic Gospels every Last Sunday after the Epiphany).  This mid-summer jaunt from the comfort of Matthew to the mountaintop in Luke is a challenging one.  Our go-to preaching resources are all focused on feeding of the five thousand, we will have to navigate the mid-summer’s night stress dream that is an exhausted Peter, James, and John trying to wrap their brains around what they are seeing on the top of that mountain all by our lonesomes.

So, what are we to do?  Let me tell you where not to start.  Do not, I repeat, do not even consider eschewing the Transfiguration for Proper 13A.  It is bad form, to say the least, and will make you liable to Title IV charges.  If, then, we have to preach the Transfiguration, it seems that prayer would be a good place to start.  We who are weighed down with the pressures of a new program year, who might struggle with preaching an all too familiar text in a new way, who are back from vacation and can’t seem to guzzle enough coffee, who are blogging snark at almost 9pm, should probably turn to God for help.  Like it was for Peter, James, and John, we will be blessed by being present to God in the Transfiguration.  Who knows, we might even begin to see the work of our Savior with new eyes.

So tonight, as I burn the midnight oil as payment for two weeks of non-contiguous vacation, I’m turning to prayer and listening for what God has to say through Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and Peter, James, and John.

Jesus’ Exodus

Luke’s account of the Transfiguration has several details that aren’t included in Mark’s version.  This makes sense for a couple of reasons: first, Mark is in a hurry and details, unless absolutely necessary, are superfluous; second, Mark is the first gospel written, so the story is logically going to grow as time passes.  One of the details that Mark and Matthew both gloss over, but Luke decides to include is the topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

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“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

If it weren’t for the second half of that sentence, having this come on the heels of Jesus being rejected at Nazareth, one could think that Moses and Elijah were giving Jesus a hard time for his almost being thrown off a cliff in his hometown.  There, Jesus walked to safety “through the midst of them,” not unlike Moses and the people of Israel walking to safety from Pharaoh’s army between the Red Sea’s walls of water on their left and right. Alas, that isn’t the exodus they were talking about.

Instead, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were talking about the new Exodus, God’s saving work for the whole world, which Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem.  This Exodus wouldn’t involve blood on the door posts of those who would be saved, but instead, the blood on the cross would serve as the saving mark for all of creation.  The people wouldn’t flee from the evils of one place for the promise of another, but instead, the promise of God’s kingdom would find a way to overcome the evils of this world.  The Exodus of Jesus will bring us to a promised land that doesn’t inhabit time and space, but rather is available not matter who we are, where we live, or when we accept God’s grace.

The conversation about the Exodus is good news, but the disciples are unable to hear it that way.  They’re weighed down with sleep: simultaneously confused and amazed by what they are seeing.  It’ll take Jesus dying on a cross, rising to life again, ascending into heaven, and ten days after that before the Spirit will come and begin to make sense of it all.  In the meantime, like the people of Israel in the desert, the disciples follow Jesus, unsure of where they are going.