Thin Places

Thin Places

Sunday, February 19
Last Sunday after Epiphany
Transfiguration Sunday

Focus Theme
Thin Places

Weekly Prayer
Holy God, you have revealed the glory of your love in Jesus Christ, and have given us a share in your Spirit. May we who listen to Christ follow faithfully, and, in the dark places where you send us, reveal the light of your gospel. Amen.

Focus Reading
Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

All Readings For This Sunday
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Focus Questions

1. How would you define "glory"?

2. Does "the sacred" surprise us, or do we have to seek it?

3. What are the things we do today when we experience "the sacred"? How do we humans respond to such an encounter?

4. What were those disciples hoping for, and in what ways do our hopes match theirs?

5. Why do you think the Epiphany season ends with the Transfiguration of Jesus, just before Lent begins?

Reflection
by Kate Huey

Mountaintop experiences are part of the life of faith. There are times when we feel lifted up, taken up to a place a little closer to God and God's glory, where the barrier between heaven and earth, for just a moment, seems to fall: something Celtic spirituality calls a "thin place." There are times when we feel we're hearing God speaking to us, telling us things, giving us direction, comfort, joy. These times, alas, do not come often, no matter how much we long for them. We live our lives mostly down here on the ground, often unaware of the wondrous, transformative presence of God, a reality beyond our ability to express in words. Sometimes, it seems as if even our worship services and religious practices unintentionally dull our awareness of this Presence, when they should, ideally, help us to draw near to God. The remarkable American writer Annie Dillard is known for her observation in Teaching a Stone to Talk, about the need for "wearing crash helmets" to church instead of ladylike hats, and about us as "cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute." There's an uncomfortable thought for beginning our reflection!

Perhaps it's reassuring, then, to read that, for Peter, James, and John, the Transfiguration of Jesus is a moment of clarity that, despite its stunning power, escapes them. "He did not know what to say," the text says about Peter. Peter, who has seen demons expelled, the paralyzed walking, the blind restored to sight! He may not know what to say, but at least he wants to do something in response to what he's just experienced. Beverly Gaventa thinks that Peter's suggestion, "however well intentioned, reduces the event to a photo opportunity." However, Craig Evans suggests that Peter sees in this experience the beginning of "the last day," and believes that the same things that had happened during the exodus were about to happen again. "To commemorate the exodus Jews celebrated the Feast of Booths by living in small booths or huts for seven days," Evans writes. Stephen Cook follows this line of thought, too: Elijah's appearance, he writes, must have meant that "God's ultimate, open restoration of all things must be at hand." Now, Peter assumes, "God's reign is a done deal; God's glory has broken through for good," Cook writes; "The glory would now pitch its tent on earth...." But this is a "political breakthrough," Cook says, that will require organization, leadership, and, conveniently, Peter in a position of power. There's work to be done, and Peter's mind is on glory, not suffering and loss. So Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to keep quiet about what's happened, until they get the whole story, the big picture that includes suffering, death, and resurrection.

Getting our minds wrapped around what Jesus is saying

Just as we understand that the religious authorities have a basis for their sense of duty about protecting the Law and the religious customs of their people, so we also understand that Peter and the others have high expectations for the Messiah, and suffering and death aren't on the list. Mountaintop experiences are definitely on their list, but not the kind on a cross on a hill. They want to see booths raised, not a cross. Things aren't fitting together for them: the expectations, the glimpses they're getting of the reign of God, and this talk of Jesus about suffering and death and, most perplexingly, his resurrection. As the saying goes, they can't get their minds wrapped around it all. While this text comes right in the middle of Mark's Gospel, it reminds us of the passage back at the beginning, when Jesus was baptized. In Mark's Gospel, these three disciples weren't around for Jesus' baptism, when God spoke not to the crowd but to Jesus, privately, about his identity. We read that baptism text at the beginning of the Epiphany season; today, at the end of that season, we read this, Mark's second revealing story about Jesus' unique identity. This time, the disciples are around for the revelation, by sight and sound, but they still can't put it all together. They do not know what to say. They long for glory, they think it's within their grasp, and yet Jesus tells them to be quiet. Everyone knows glory is only glory if other people know you have it.

Glory on the field and glory in heaven

The word "glory" is often used in sports and military settings. The movie, "Glory Road," reminds us that the glory of championships lies at the end of a long, hard climb: in the case of the Texas Western basketball team, the "glory" they experienced momentarily lives on in our memories because people recognized its groundbreaking significance, as a team of all African American young men upset the favored team from the University of Kentucky. How could anyone watch that game and not feel a glorious joy? Some years ago, an excellent movie called, simply, "Glory," told the story of African American soldiers during the Civil War. In both sports and war, glory is hard-won, after suffering and self-sacrifice and extraordinary effort. It is earned. And it is elusive. However, in the life of faith, glory belongs to God, and it is something we give to God (as so many people did, in the Gospels, when they were healed). 

It's easy to understand why the disciples, faithful Jews, chafed at the suffering of their people under Rome (only the latest in a series of empires) and longed to taste glory again. But this week's text is a command both to see and to hear, to listen to Jesus and to accept the path to the cross. Beverly Gaventa observes that Christians in every age have wanted the glory without paying the price, and yet the Gospels make it clear that the path of discipleship leads to the cross. (Of course, it then leads to resurrection, as our faith is an Easter faith.) No matter how often the disciples, including these three in the inner circle, failed to grasp what Jesus was saying, he never gave up on them.

That's good news for us as well. Being the church, the Body of Christ in the world today, we have the same opportunity to encounter thin places, to experience the holy, to taste God's glory in the most unexpected of places. Engaged in seeking the healing of the world rather than our own glory, we'll come to deeper understanding of who Jesus is. Rodney Hunter puts it this way: "Jesus' mission was not to make a big deal of himself or to elevate his followers to positions of power, authority, and prestige through identification with him. It was rather to point through and beyond himself to God and to God's coming reign on earth, and to invite his followers to find their voice in bearing witness to this transforming, redemptive God." If those outside the church read this mission statement, how faithful to it do you think they would find us?

Ending the Epiphany season with a question or two

This text, which manifests Jesus' identity so dramatically, brings the season of Epiphany to a fitting close before we begin the journey of Lent. During this Epiphany season, how have you come to deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and then, a deeper understanding of who you are, as a person of faith? What are moments of insight, when you both saw God's glory and heard God still speaking to you, calling you to the path of discipleship? What are glimpses you have had of a light too bright for any of us to see, that drew a response from you, a desire to do something, as Peter had, to mark this event? Is that something our churches do, like Peter--mark the event, look backward, instead of forward, see only partial truths instead of the big picture? Is it possible that our "work," even in the church, may distract us from more important things? Do we walk right by the brightest lights and sweetest sounds and miss the most important moments of our journey in faith, those thin places, because we were paying attention to something else? God spoke to Jesus directly at his baptism and to the disciples at the Transfiguration, proclaiming him the Son of God: when have we been like the Roman centurion who saw Jesus on the cross and exclaimed, "Surely this man was the Son of God"? What do we need to see, and what do we need to hear, in order to understand, and to follow?

For a preacher's version of this reflection, go to www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.

For Further Reflection

Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century
In my youth, growing up in a Jewish milieu, there was one thing we did not have to look for and that was exaltation. Every moment is great, we were taught, every moment is unique.

Dori Grinenko Baker, 21st century (adapted from her grandmother's journal, in Doing Girlfriend Theology)
God is so large she requires all life to express herself.

Sofia Cavalletti, 20th century
Help me draw nearer to God by myself.

Walter Brueggemann, 20th century (The Prophetic Imagination)
It is evident that immunity to any transcendent voice and disregard of neighbor leads finally to the disappearance of passion.

William Wordsworth, 19th century
But trailing clouds of glory, do we come from God, who is our home.

Jonathan Edwards, 18th century
Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.

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Contact Info

Kathryn Matthews Huey
Dean of the Amistad Chapel
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115
216-736-3855
hueyk@ucc.org