Sermon Seeds February 11, 2018

Sermon Seeds February 11, 2018

Last Sunday after Epiphany Year B
Transfiguration

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Lectionary citations:
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Worship resources for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday Year B are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Mark 9:2-9

Focus Theme:
Called to Resurrection

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

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. There are times when we feel we are 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, unaware of the wondrous, transformative power of God at work in the world, especially in the life of the church.

In approaching this text, Stephen L. Cook draws on Annie Dillard's wonderful reflection in Teaching a Stone to Talk, the familiar passage about "wearing crash helmets" to church instead of ladylike hats, but he also quotes her description of us churchgoers as "cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute" (New Proclamation Year B 2009). There's a rather painful thought for beginning our reflection!

Drama and clarity

Perhaps it's reassuring, then, to read that, for Peter, James, and John, the Transfiguration is a moment of drama and clarity that, despite its stunning power, eludes them. "He did not know what to say," the text says about Peter. This, from 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" (Texts for Preaching Year B). 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 (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). (I wonder how many of us can imagine incorporating such a practice in our spiritual lives.) 

Something important is breaking forth

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. The glory would now pitch its tent on earth…." But this is a "political breakthrough" that will require organization, leadership, and, conveniently, Peter himself in a position of power (New Proclamation Year B 2009).

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.

Raised expectations

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, 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. They can't get their minds wrapped around it all.

This sounds familiar

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 disciples weren't around for Jesus' baptism, when God spoke not to the crowd but to Jesus, privately, about his identity. We read that 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.

While this time the disciples are around for the revelation, by sight and sound, 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.

The many facets of glory

The word "glory" is often used in sports and military settings. One is reminded by the movie, Glory Road, that championships lie at the end of a long sports journey, bringing "glory" that lasts just a little while, until a new season begins. 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 that, paradoxically, we "give" to God (as so many people did, in the Gospels, when they were healed).

Yearning for glory once more

It's easy to understand why the disciples, being faithful Jews, chafed at the suffering of their people under Rome (only the latest empire in a long list of them) and yearned 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.

Jesus' disciples in every age (including this story) seem to long for "the glory that they can see without the message that they must hear," Beverly Gaventa writes. And yet, she notes: "Over and over Mark lifts up both aspects of Jesus' identity, relentlessly recalling that the suffering will yield to triumph, but that the triumph cannot be had without the price of the cross" (Texts for Preaching Year B).

God doesn't give up on us

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. "And the church, too," Deborah Krause writes, "in spite of its hard-heartedness and faithlessness, is continually offered the opportunity to be with Jesus in his glory through ministries of God's kingdom proclamation in this world" (New Proclamation Year B 2006). Engaged in seeking the healing of the world rather than our own glory, we begin to understand 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" (Feasting on the Word Year B).

Those are lovely words, but how do they translate for the life of faith in a 21st-century, post-modern (or whatever comes after post-modern) world? If those outside the church read this mission statement, how faithful to it do you think they would find us? Would they witness lives transformed, hearts broken open?

Closing the season of Epiphany

This Transfiguration 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 has your congregation come to deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and then, a deeper understanding of who you are, as a people 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?

What "booths" are we raising up?

Indeed, is it possible that our building projects 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, because we were paying attention to something else?

If God spoke to Jesus directly at his baptism and to the disciples at the Transfiguration, proclaiming him the Son of God, in what ways might we be more 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 make such a proclamation, to understand its call, and to follow?

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

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."

Huston Smith, 20th century
"Might we begin then to transform our passing illuminations into abiding light?"

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

Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth, 21st century
"His aim was the glory of God, but the glory of Philip pleased him too."

Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord, 21st century
"I understood that I was being shown the future: shards of what would come to be. Often, I cried out for the pain of it. But other times, I was comforted, because I saw, for an instant, the pattern of the whole."

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, 21st century
"Whatever good, true, or perfect things we can say about humanity or creation, we can say of God exponentially. God is the beauty of creation and humanity multiplied to the infinite power."

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."


Lectionary texts

2 Kings 2:1-12

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?" And he said, "Yes, I know; keep silent." Elijah said to him, "Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho." But he said, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?" And he answered, "Yes, I know; be silent." Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan." But he said, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Psalm 50:1-6

The mighty one,
   God the Sovereign,
speaks and summons the earth:
   from the rising of the sun to its setting.

Out of Zion,
   the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.

Our God comes
   and does not keep silence,

before God is a devouring fire,
   and a mighty tempest all around.

God calls to the heavens above
   and to the earth,
that God may judge God's people:

"Gather to me my faithful ones,
   who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!"

The heavens declare God's righteousness,
   for God indeed is judge.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

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.


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!