Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, February 7
Astounding Glory/Wholly Holy
Eternal God, you revealed to the disciples the everlasting glory of Jesus Christ. Grant us who have not seen and yet believe, the gift of your Holy Spirit, that we may boldly live the gospel and shine with your transforming glory, as people changed and changing through the redeeming presence of our Savior. Amen.
Luke 9:28-36 (37- 43)
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
[On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.]
All Readings For This Sunday
2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
Luke 9:28-36 (37- 43)
1. How do we integrate our glimpses of God's love, our tastes of God's glory, into the everydayness of our lives?
2. When have you seen "the glory in the grey"?
3. Is transformation really a sudden thing, or a day-by-day, perhaps even hour-by-hour process?
4. As the United Church of Christ looks back on its own story, where were mountaintop moments when we caught a glimpse of God's glory right here, in our midst?
5. How are we listening to the Stillspeaking God's command to "listen to Jesus"?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
We've come to the end of another season of Epiphany, when we're particularly attuned to the ways and times that God is manifested in our lives and in the life of the world. Here on the edge of Lent, as we turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem and the mount of Calvary, we pause on another mountain for one of those "peak experiences" so sought after even by post-Enlightenment, scientifically minded folks, as well as by those who call themselves "post-modern." What is that about, that deep human longing to taste, however briefly, the transcendence of God?
Peter, James, and John got much more than a brief taste. They had one of those intense, ecstatic experiences that might have transformed their lives then and there, except that they didn't know what to do with it when it happened. Sleepy-headed Peter, the text says, practically babbled, "not knowing what he said" (9:33), offering to put up tents and preserve the experience. We are sure that he was, of course, only trying to be helpful.
Be quiet and listen, Peter
Those of us who think that every situation requires us to DO something, however well-intentioned our efforts, are called back to faithfulness (and perhaps simplicity) by the voice of God in the story: "This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him!" Lori Brandt Hale imagines a "cosmic hand" from heaven, "reaching down to give Peter a good 'you-are-missing-the point' slap upside the head." We might imagine God's annoyance that Peter didn't have sense enough to remain silent at such a moment. If Moses was told he couldn't see God and live, perhaps Peter should have been told that he couldn't see God and talk so much.
Let's be real: that whole experience up on the mountain must have been frightening for Peter, James and John, and when we're afraid, even in sort of a good way, we don't know what to do. Peter, like any good extrovert, starts talking. And thinking. And making suggestions: I know, let's erect a monument, he says. At least that's what we would do today: let's mark the spot where this great, memorable thing happened. However, as R. Alan Culpepper observes, Peter's attempt to enshrine his mountaintop experience wasn't what Jesus had in mind: "Faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment," instead, faithfulness follows God in trust toward the future.
Busily making meaning of experience
Peter, of course, is very much like many of us. We often try to talk our way into understanding, try to process an experience so that we can absorb its meaning and make that meaning part of who we are. That's what we humans do, because we're meaning-seekers at our core. But this story is, first, about Jesus and who Jesus is, and the disciples are invited into an incredibly intimate moment with him, when God speaks of God's own beloved Child. Ann Svennungsen notes the difference between Moses' encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, with its Ten Commandments, and this one, with Peter, James, and John on hand, with one simple command to "listen to Jesus." Don't talk, don't do; just listen. It seems that we find that one simple command as challenging as all ten of the Commandments given to Moses.
In the midst of teaching and healing, Jesus has called his followers to stop and pray, to be open to and strengthened by God's unexpected and indescribable grace, instructed by the voice of the Stillspeaking God, and empowered to continue on the path of Jesus, no matter where it leads. In these conversations, he's told them what's expected of him, and what will be expected of them as well (9:18-27). It seems that Peter and the others are not so keen on these recent words of Jesus about suffering and death, because they're understandably hoping for deliverance from, and maybe even triumph over, their enemies, the Romans (maybe with a little revenge and a bit of glory thrown in). But Jesus hears another call, and he follows it faithfully, inviting his friends, and us, to come along.
Moses and Elijah are the stories, "older than old"
Scholars focus on several details in this story, an unusual one even for the Gospels, with their many accounts of miracles. Most commentators explain the presence of Moses and Elijah as confirmation that Jesus is in continuity with the faith, the story, of his people, that he is the fulfillment of what has come before. Or, as Richard Swanson puts it so evocatively: "Moses and Elijah…are characters from some of the oldest stories told among Jews. They are more real than Peter, James, and John….more real than Caesar…Quirinius…Pontius Pilate…." Moses and Elijah aren't just figures from history, but "figures who are the stories that are older than old."
N.T. Wright also illuminates that connection to what has come before: "The word for 'departure' is exodus," he writes. "In the new Exodus, Jesus will lead all God's people out of the slavery of sin and death, and home to their promised inheritance – the new creation in which the whole world will be redeemed."
Stories that go together
The lectionary brackets the passage immediately following the Transfiguration but it's much more powerful to read the two stories together, as one story. We may not have been up on that mountain with Peter, James, and John, but we can see who Jesus is in what he does with the little boy in the grips of a demon. We might say that in his healing of the child, Jesus demonstrates what the mountaintop experience meant. In fact, N.T. Wright reminds us that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell these stories in this order, as if they "go together: the mountain-top experience and the shrieking, stubborn demon."
Scholars "hear" meaning in the voices of the text as well, even though this passage seems to be mostly about seeing. God's voice, after all, was heard during the glorious episode up on the mountain, but God's power is dramatically revealed in what happens below, where people are suffering: Sharon Ringe suggests that the demon's recognition of Jesus' power, in a sense, confirms what the voice of God said at Jesus' baptism. And Kimberly Miller van Driel makes a poignant connection between the voice of God in the cloud and the anguish of a father in the crowd, each of them speaking of a beloved only child.
Glory and vulnerability
It seems true, then, that in our own lives, thousands of years later, our experience of God, rather than being our own private pursuit and comfort, is inextricably linked to our response to the suffering of the world, and that makes us vulnerable ourselves. Paradoxically, mysteriously, it also seems that the closer we draw to God, the closer we draw to one another and to one another's pain (and joy, of course). Spiritual growth and even true religion itself, then, are expressed in a deeper commitment to compassion and justice for the world God loves.
I'm reminded of an exquisite prayer by Walter Brueggemann, the great biblical scholar who has spent his life helping us to connect with the God of the Bible. His prayer could be for this very occasion, a prayer to Jesus, up on the mountaintop, but headed down to the people below, who yearn for wholeness. He asks God to "move off the page to the trouble" of the world, to "the peace negotiations, and cancer diagnoses, and burning churches, and lynched blacks, and abused children. Listen to the groans and moans, and see and hear and know and remember, and come down!"
What does it all mean today?
And so we meaning-making, meaning-seeking people of faith can't resist our need to ask, "What does this story mean?" First, commentators seem to agree that we are commanded, with Peter, James, and John, to "listen to [Jesus]!" Jeffrey L. Tribble, Sr., urges us to be faithful to our experience of God by being clear, as Jesus was, about our identity and our mission, and not to be deterred or determined by outward success or failure as measured by our current culture. Instead, we should stick with Jesus, abiding in his presence, like Peter, James and John, and we might add, the women who faithfully accompanied him as well.
Our hunger for the experience of God's presence
Earlier in this reflection I mentioned the pursuit of mountaintop experiences by people of faith, and then made the statement that this story is (first) about Jesus and who Jesus is. However, I don't see things quite the same way as Stephen Farris does when he claims that this story is only about Jesus and not about us at all. If our relationship with Jesus, with God, is that – a relationship – then I think it's a good thing to consider our hunger for and response to experiences of God's presence. That question leads to other, rich reflections on the human need to "taste and feel" God with us. (The world certainly bombards us with invitations to taste and feel - and own and take and use - so many things and even people at times. It's enough to distract us from our deepest needs.)
For example, Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, "Thin Places," is a great starting point for reflection on our spiritual hunger. She spends little time analyzing what happened up on the mountaintop that day (or down below, afterward). In fact, she describes the Transfiguration as something too daunting to talk about, even though its presence in the Gospels has spurred countless people down through the ages who have tried to explain its meaning. (In an age of science and technology, everything can be explained.)
Instead, Taylor talks about "thin places." She writes as a preacher who knows the Bible, a pastor who senses what goes on in the human heart, and a seeker herself who traveled to Ireland where her understanding of thin places was deepened by a pilgrimage up (and back down) a holy mountain. Like our ancestors in faith in ancient times, we humans search for God, but we won't be persuaded by scientific proof or logical arguments about the truth we seek. We want to experience God, not just acquire head-knowledge about God. Taylor describes the thin places so cherished in Celtic spirituality as "cracked doors" that give us a glimpse of heaven and a sense of God's presence.
Holding the vision of healing and light together
It's not that something spiritual happened up above, on the mountain, and then something material, something physical, down below in the town. After all, the people were astounded by the greatness, the glory, of a God who healed a father's only little boy, perhaps as astounded as Peter, James and John were up on the mountain by the vision of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. If we could recover the ability to hold the spiritual and material in a unity that is much healthier than the split between the two that has dominated us for centuries, it will transform everything in our lives, not just up on the mountaintop, but every single day, down here in the lived experience of "the plain," or the town, or the office, or the suburb, or the city...wherever our spiritual journey takes and keeps us.
Thinking about the way "the appearance of Jesus' face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white" (9:29), and then about the way the crowd was "astounded at the greatness of God" (v. 43), I was drawn to consider the experience of light. Not just any light, but Jesus, the Light of the World. Perhaps what happened up on that mountain is that the disciples were given a precious opportunity to see and feel what is present always, the light and glory of God in all of creation, including in us, but that day it just burst forth in Jesus, and their eyes were practically blinded and they didn't know what to do.
Stories of brilliant light
I'm reminded of two stories about a brilliant light that I read long ago: The first one is from the conclusion of War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk's fine novel on World War II (note: spoiler alert). At the end of a long story of indescribable suffering and loss, a young mother, Natalie, is reunited with her child, Louis, after their terrible ordeal in a concentration camp. When the child who has refused to speak slowly begins to sing along with his mother's lullaby, the two men watching the mother-and-child reunion "each put a hand over his eyes, as though dazzled by an unbearable sudden light."
The second story was told by a surgeon about a young couple, after the doctor had to perform a disfiguring surgery on the wife's face so that she could live. As a result of the surgery, the young woman would never be able to smile on one side of her face again. The surgeon felt very bad about this, and watched with a heavy heart as the husband went into his wife's room and saw her for the first time, a line drawing her mouth down on one side. "I think it's kind of cute," he said, "your crooked little smile." The doctor said that he had to look away from these two young people, as if the light were too bright for him to bear.
These stories connect me with the almost inaccessible story of the Transfiguration much as the story of the boy's healing does in Luke's Gospel: those flashes of brilliant light that made those who watched a scene of transcendent, almost unbearable, beauty cover their eyes…that light is what came to my mind when I thought of Jesus all glorious and full of light, up there on the mountaintop with his disciples.
Holding this all together
If we can at last hold the spiritual and material together, won't we care better for the environment in which we live and breathe? J. Philip Newell, the theologian of Celtic spirituality, thinks so, but he also believes that such a wholistic spirituality will affect how we regard the communities of which we are a part. We're reading about God's glory and light in the Gospel of Luke, but Celtic spirituality looks to John's Gospel, where light is present at the very beginning, and "we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth" (1:14b).
Newell draws on John's Gospel to help us see God's glory in everything, and his reflection feels like poetry: "From that inaccessible light of God all life comes forth, whether that be the morning light of the burning sun, the yellow brilliance of the sunflower growing from the dark ground or the glow of starfish emerging in the depths of the sea. It is the light within all life." To see it, of course, we have to use more than our physical eyes; perhaps we have to learn to see with our heart and our soul. And yet, at the same time, God is so far beyond our knowing, "always more than the wind and the waters, other than the bear and the child, greater than thought and image."
God is everywhere and anywhere
Taylor expands on this theme of encountering God in and through creation in her wonderful book An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, a handbook that helps us to encounter God in the everyday experience of human life, here, in the midst of creation, "the House of God." In her chapter on the spiritual practice of "waking up to God," she writes of God as "the More, the Really Real, the Luminous Web That Holds Everything in Place."
Taylor remembers a time when people encountered God out in the world rather than limiting themselves to temples and churches, because they understood that they could encounter God anywhere and everywhere. God was with them wherever they went, even though there were places, here and there, where God's presence was keenly felt, if only for a moment. Doesn't this remind us of Jesus, on the move from that mountain, headed to another one, where he would show us once again what God's love looks like, but this time, without light, and without glory?
Yet another Lenten journey
As we prepare to embark on our Lenten journey, how do read and hear this text as a call to take what we have experienced out into the world? Thomas Merton once said, "We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time." How do we integrate our glimpses of God's love, our tastes of God's glory, into the everydayness of our lives? Are we awake, alert to what God is doing in the world, and in our lives, and in the life of our congregation? Is transformation a sudden thing, or a day-by-day, perhaps even hour-by-hour process?
As the United Church of Christ looks back on its own story, where were mountaintop moments when we caught a glimpse of God's glory right here, in the very human existence of our denomination? Outside our General Minister and President's office is a display of photographs that remind me of such mountaintop moments, and I love that part of a tour of our national offices when we pause to remember when Dr. King or Bishop Desmond Tutu addressed General Synod (or when the GS delegates responded to a call from Cesar Chavez to come to California), or to consider the gift of UCC members like Jackie Robinson and Andrew Young. How are we listening to the Stillspeaking God's command to "listen to Jesus" in the way we live our lives today?
Where is God?
All the earth – all creation, broken yet beautiful, is full of the presence of God. We don't have to climb a mountain to find God, although we might have to turn off our cell phones, our computers, and our television sets long enough to notice…like our ancestor Jacob, who said, "God is in this place, and I wasn't aware of it" (Genesis 28:16). God is in the beauty of nature, in all its glory; God is in those moments of unconditional, tender love we share; God is there, between the lines, when we share our stories and our fragile hopes; God is there, in our suffering and in every moment of rescue, restoration, and resurrection. But be careful - the light is so bright – you may need to shield your eyes.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Thomas Merton, 20th century
"We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time."
George MacLeod, founder of the modern-day Iona Community, 20th century
"Show us the glory in the grey."
Hafiz, 14th century
"An awake heart is like a sky that pours light."
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, 21st century
"...he liked his transcendence out in plain sight where he could keep an eye on it -- say, in a nice stained-glass window -- not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade."
Irenaeus, 2nd century
"The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and to be alive consists in beholding God."
Barbara Brown Taylor, 21st century
"Fortunately, the Bible I set out to learn and love rewarded me with another way of approaching God, a way that trusts the union of spirit and flesh as much as it trusts the world to be a place of encounter with God."
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