Sermon Seeds: Attentive to Mystery and Prophecy

Last Sunday after Epiphany Year A
Transfiguration Sunday

Lectionary citations
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 17:1-9
Women’s Week 2014 additional reflection on Matthew 17:1-9 (KMH)
Reflection on Matthew 17:1-9 by Karen Georgia Thompson
Reflection on Exodus 24:12-18 (KMH)

Weekly Theme:
Attentive to Mystery and Prophecy
UCC Women’s Week 2014

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

We might locate this text in two different ways: first, in our observance of the church year, and then within the Gospel itself. We’re coming to the close of the season of Epiphany, the season of light, and preparing on Wednesday to begin Lent, a time of preparation for the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It seems fitting to end the season of light with a light so bright that no one on earth can produce it, a flash of brilliant, blinding revelation that illuminates not only who Jesus is (just in case that wasn’t clear by now), but also Jesus’ mysterious words about his coming suffering, death, and rising again (during which it will be especially important to remember who he is). 

The passages just before this one are edgy exchanges between Jesus and the religious authorities, among the disciples, and between Jesus and his disciples. Things are indeed getting tense on what Thomas Long calls a “death march” to Jerusalem, as Jesus enters “the gloomiest season of his life” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). 

There’s contention and challenge from the Pharisees and Sadducees who, ironically, ask for “a sign from heaven” (16:1), and Jesus turns them down. Even the disciples, who have witnessed some remarkable things in their travels with Jesus, are trying his patience. He has to review what they’ve seen, to refresh their memories, and doesn’t sound too happy that they haven’t made the connections. They’re too busy having a little theological debate about yeast, but at least they’re trying.

By the time Peter responds with a “good answer!” to Jesus’ question about who he is, we can sense Jesus’ urgency in getting these disciples ready for what is to come. And if Peter is their leader, along with James and John (they would later be seen as such in the early church, even before the Gospel was written down), it must strike Jesus as important to solidify their understanding. The Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign from heaven, but Peter, James, and John are the ones who actually receive one.

Jesus asks his disciples, in Chapter 16, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answer with the names of great prophets, figures of faith from the past, names that would evoke respect and loyalty among their people. Then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter gets the answer right, even without the sign from heaven: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (16:16). Jesus connects all of this to his coming suffering, and on the mountaintop, for just a few moments, his three disciples get a glimpse of what’s really true: Jesus, in a brilliant, blinding light, with a heavenly voice once again proclaiming him God’s Beloved Son. In this light, the face and clothes of Jesus “gleam with the favor of God,” Long says; Jesus is “not a victim, but a victor; not the one despised and rejected by the world, but the one beloved and well pleasing to God.” No matter what the disciples are about to witness and experience, this glimpse is something so powerful that they can hold onto it and the truth it imparts about the identity of the One they follow: “Look! This Jesus of splendor is who he really is,” Long writes. “When Jesus is accompanied by Moses and Elijah, it is a pulling back of the curtains of time to show that Jesus is continuous with all that God has promised and given in the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). It can’t be insignificant that one of the figures with Jesus, Elijah, is also one of the prophets that the crowds have identified with him.

The connection between suffering and glory is subtly but powerfully made by Matthew in the way he tells the story of both the transfiguration and the crucifixion of Jesus. Dale Allison lists the similarities and lines up the contrasting images and features of the two stories, one the “twin” of the other. For Allison, and for us, these “two scenes represent the extremities of human experience…[Jesus] shows forth in his own person both the depths of pain and anguish which human beings have known and what we all long for – transfiguration into some state beyond such pain and anguish. Jesus is the great illustration of both pain and hope; he is humanity exalted and humanity glorified” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Allison’s reflection seems to bring the “otherness” of the Jesus of the Transfiguration onto our radar screen. When asked, we say who we believe Jesus is, but we really couldn’t bear such a bright light if it were always there before us. And yet, when our own experience of suffering and loss is brought under the shelter of Jesus’ own life lived here, as a man who also suffered and died, who was tempted and betrayed, then we can go on, even “to Jerusalem” and everything that awaits us, everything we have to face in our lives. Just as surely as we know that Jesus experienced pain and loss, and rose again, we know that we too will share in that new life. We live our lives “in pain and hope.” We may not get the dramatic visual confirmation that Peter got after his passionate proclamation of Jesus as “the Son of the Living God,” but we have our glimpses, here and there, now and then, throughout our lives, of who this Jesus is. And we can proclaim that truth, Allison says, “only in the light of Easter” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Peter, James, and John may have had their bright, shining moment with Jesus, and we too have our mountaintop experiences, but all of these are just an indication, a hint, of what is yet to be. Perhaps Allison is right to compare this to “a movie preview”: an early church document saw it as the promise “of what heaven will be like and an illustration of what awaits Christians” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

In the meantime, while we trust in that future, we live in this ordinary present, with its extraordinary moments and experiences. Each time we turn from those moments of brilliance, we turn back to the work, the ministry, that awaits us. Jesus, who often touches people in need, reaches down and touches the disciples, raising them up to return down the mountain, and set out to Jerusalem. Lent approaches, and we are invited to join them on the way.

Do you ever wonder what it would be like if we could see past outer appearances and witness the bright inner beauty of each person, each child of God? What would happen if every Christian saw, in everyone, including those “despised and rejected by the world,” a beloved child of God, shining and radiant on the inside? What effect would that have on the world?

Women’s Week 2014 Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews Huey

(This reflection is a supplement to the one above.)

If I were preaching on the Transfiguration text from the Gospel of Matthew on this Sunday that also begins Women’s Week 2014 in the United Church of Christ, I would of course first honor the insights of scholars and of tradition about the mountaintop experience that illuminated Jesus’ true identity for Peter, James and John (and for believers, including us, in every age). Perhaps we’ve forgotten Jesus’ baptism, when the sky opened up and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” which should have made Jesus’ identity perfectly clear. Just in case we have forgotten, Epiphany, the season of light, comes to a close with one more story about light: Jesus’ face, shining “like the sun,” his clothes “dazzling white,” and then a “bright cloud” overhead, with a voice that once again pronounces him God’s “Beloved” Son – only this time, we also hear the command to “listen to him!” 

Some scholars claim that this text is only about Jesus’ identity being revealed before he goes on to Jerusalem and his death. The story, they insist, is not about us, about who we are or who we are called to be as followers of this Jesus. However, it seems to me that this perspective makes it exceedingly difficult to access layers of meaning in the text; in fact, it almost seems to over-simplify the whole story. We might easily imagine those three men – Peter, James and John – going back down the mountain with all of their questions answered, their doubts resolved, and their confusion dispelled. Except that we know that’s not what happened, and the disciples will continue to stumble along, right up to the crucifixion and on to the empty tomb.

I confess that I approached this additional reflection, then, with a measure of trepidation: the story of the Transfiguration does not lend itself easily to the experience, insights, and gifts of women. This morning, a colleague and I acknowledged the almost “men’s club” feel to the story about Jesus, three male disciples, two male prophets and (traditionally) God the Father in heaven, speaking to them in this intimate and life-changing way. It was a moment they would always remember, something special that only they shared, and while we all know that the women were present in many places throughout the Bible, they clearly were not invited up to the top of that mountain.

Fortunately, one scholar opens the possibility of exploring deep layers of meaning in this story: according to Stanley P. Saunders, the “Transfiguration is enigmatic, symbolically dense, and resists singular interpretations” (Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence). We can assume that makes room for the voices of women as well, almost as if we too were there on the mountain that day, even though women, unfortunately, do not appear in the most familiar mountaintop experiences, with Moses or Peter, James and John. Women were at the empty tomb, at the foot of the cross, in the kitchen and at Jesus’ feet in the story of Mary and Martha, and alert to the crisis of a wine shortage at a wedding feast in Cana. They also danced when the seas parted for the people of Israel to escape the Egyptians (Miriam), covertly helped the Israelite spies before the battle of Jericho (Rahab), hid the Hebrew babies from Pharaoh’s murderous intent (the midwives), and, like Ruth and Naomi, they’ve quietly taken care of one another within one patriarchal setting after another. But taken up on top of the mountain for one of those transcendent experiences of God? Not so much.

So if I were preaching on this text at the start of Women’s Week, I hope I would shed a bit of light on the many ways we catch a glimpse of God’s presence and power in our lives, and not just through (male) apostles, church leaders and teachers, but through the lives and words, the actions and gifts, of women, and not only in the church.

The first challenge we face, however, is holding in tension both the nearness and the otherness of God: in the Transfiguration, we experience Jesus as human, climbing up that mountain with his friends, but we also experience the transcendence, the divinity, if you will, of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. How do we begin to describe, let alone experience, transcendence? The great writer, Annie Dillard, has famously suggested that we should wear “crash helmets” to church instead of our Sunday best (whatever that may be these days): “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” (Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters). The Transfiguration, we remember, is about that spiritual power, that transcendence, that otherness, but we have been too strenuously taught that the spiritual and the physical are split apart: the spiritual being higher, better, holier, and, as it turns out, more “male” than the physical, which is lower, more problematical, more tempting, more fallen, more embodied, and, as it turns out, more “female.” (The earth, too, that is, creation, by its very physical nature, has been pronounced fallen and lesser, as our treatment of it bears out.)

The result? We have not been conditioned, we have not developed enough sensitivity to perceive God’s presence at work in our lives, in the everyday, physical, even mundane lives we lead. Most importantly, we have not learned well to encounter the image of God in one another, even though we have read the Genesis story over and over again. Mystics know how to do this better: Thomas Merton describes “a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time,” and, most importantly, he sees that radiance, because of the Incarnation, shining through each and every one of us. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” he writes, and he recognizes “the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts…” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander). But Merton is not alone in this understanding: as women’s voices are being raised and heard more and more, we read not only Annie Dillard but Annie Lamott describing the “radiance” that dwells within each of us and gives us, perhaps, a taste of God’s own presence, the God that we all search for (Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair). If the early church believed that the Transfiguration gave us a foretaste of heaven, then opening our eyes and our hearts to that light, that radiance, within each one of us, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey – that is a hint of what lies underneath all reality, what lies ahead of us someday.

Do women have a “special” sensitivity to God’s presence, or God’s power at work in the world? We haven’t progressed very far if we simply continue to stereotype women and men – for better or worse – but I have wondered at times if the doctrine of original sin, for example, would have been articulated in quite the same way by women, who in every age have looked upon their newborn babies and recognized the radiance, the inexpressible goodness of that gift from God. If the voice of women had been included (and perhaps the mystics would have helped with this as well), perhaps our teachings would have been shaped with a more gentle and merciful grace.

When a woman steps into the pulpit to preach the good news, before she even speaks a word, the message goes out that God speaks through both women and men, perhaps not in exactly the same way every time, but with a richness and fullness that has been missing whenever and wherever women’s voices have been silenced. When a woman shares her gifts, her insights, her story, then God’s presence, God’s radiance is glimpsed, tasted even for a moment, by those who have the eyes to see and the heart to understand. In every area of life – the home, church, the workplace, the public sphere, in nursing homes and hospitals, social service agencies, in the kitchen and the boardroom and the office, in sports and even entertainment venues, there are myriad ways that God’s love shines through the lives of women. Who are the women in your church, your family, your community, who have “shown” you God’s radiant love? Who are the women in your church, your family, your community and around the world whose voices have been silenced even today? How will you pause this week, each day, and notice the radiance of God shining in the most unexpected people and places? What will change because of our reflections during this Women’s Week 2014?

Additional reflection on Matthew 17:1-9:
by Karen Georgia Thompson

This final Sunday in Epiphany brings us once again to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus as we look toward Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season. The text is very familiar, perhaps because it appears at the same time each year. The familiarity of the text does not diminish its significance. The text brings with it imagery of change in the metamorphosis of Jesus before the disciples on the mountain; and the promise of change for us as we intentionally seek to encounter the Divine in meaningful ways. As we ponder this change in Jesus and the disciples’ response, what does this mean for our own opportunities for change in the presence of the Divine as we look forward to Ash Wednesday and Lent?

The narrative in Matthew 17:1-9 follows Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah (16:13-20); Jesus’ prediction of his death in 16:21-23; and Jesus telling the disciples that those who wanted to follow him would need to deny themselves. Following this, the text says Jesus took Peter, John, and James up to the mountain where Divine encounter and Divine revelation ensue. The text does not say why Jesus decided to go to the mountain on that occasion, nor does it speak to why those three disciples were asked to accompany him. There are no stated expectations for the trip to what was considered a holy place where God was encountered. Instead, we learn that Jesus took the disciples up to the mountain.

The mountaintop as the location for the events to come sets the stage for the possibilities of the moment. The mountain or high places were understood by the ancients as places where Divine encounter took place. Sister Joan Chittister notes that “Mountains…in Greek, Hebrew, Roman and Asian religious literature, were always places where the human could touch the divine” (“The Role of Religion in Today’s Society,”“The Role of Religion in Today’s Society” ). The mountaintop experience was known to first century followers of Jesus and the significance of this mountaintop experience would be evident to all who heard the story. The Synoptic Gospels connect with this ancient understanding of the importance of the mountaintop as a place where the Divine could be seen and encountered in tangible life-changing ways. As soon as Jesus and the three disciples arrive on the high unnamed mountain, Jesus is transformed before them. 

The transformation of Jesus is evidenced obviously in the changes in his face and clothing. His face shines, his clothing is suddenly dazzling white. Both descriptors point to the Hebrew Bible and Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 33:29-35. After being in the presence of God, Moses came down from the mountain unaware his face was shining. When the people saw his face the people were afraid, because his shining face was an indication that he was talking with God. The similarities in the text are noticeable with the writer of the Gospel drawing parallels between Jesus and the prophet Moses, one who held great significance in the history of the Hebrew people. The connection of location and resulting evidence of Divine encounter is made. Dale C. Allison emphasizes the connection between Moses and Jesus that is made by Matthew: “As so often in Matthew, then, Jesus is like Moses and his history is something like a new exodus” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Their presence on the mountaintop and Jesus’ transformation are only the beginning. The appearance of Moses and Elijah, two Major Prophets of importance in the Hebrew Bible narrative, is also significant. The two prophets appear talking with Jesus, further grounding the significance and magnitude of the moment on the mountain. Mountain, transformation, and now the prophets communicating with Jesus highlight the experience on the mountain as an important one in Jesus’ ministry and in the lives of the disciples who are witnesses. The encounter is between Jesus and the Divine. The disciples are also impacted as they see and hear life-changing sights and sounds through their presence with Jesus. 

In our contemporary context, mountaintops do not have the same significance, but there are other places and times where we encounter the Divine. Where and how do we intentionally seek to encounter the divine in our lives? In the absence of shining faces and dazzling clothing, how do we know with certainty that we have indeed encountered the presence of the Divine in those places? What if anything is required of us when we have visited those places and met the presence of God there? What are the signs of change in our lives and the lives of those around us?

When the disciples witness Jesus and the prophets in dialogue, Peter offers an idea. He attempts to create permanence around the experience on the mountaintop. He offers to create three dwellings, one for each. He wants to keep them where they are. “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (v.4). The moment is good for Peter and the disciples. They are witness to a profound event. They are in the presence of greatness. The best that Peter can offer is to keep what he encounters for himself. Things are good here in this place, let us keep them as they are. The mountaintop is affording revelation and mystery; let us stay where we are. The possibilities beyond the mountaintop are not evident to Peter. 

The voice from the clouds interrupts Peter’s offer for new buildings and permanence in the midst of pending change. The voice further affirms who Jesus is in the presence of Moses and Elijah. Jesus is declared the Son of God. The disciples are challenged to “Listen to him!” (v.5). It is this moment of revelation that engenders fear in the men as all three fall to the ground. They saw the metamorphosis of Jesus – glowing face and clothing. They saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah – two prophets long dead. Yet, in hearing the voice telling them to listen to Jesus, they are suddenly overcome with fear. What is there about this imperative message to listen and the voice that sparks fear? The voice is another form of divine manifestation on the mountain, the disciples seen unable to embrace change, in this case a different way of encountering God.

The disciples fell to the ground after hearing the voice. They are afraid. Jesus touches them and tells them to get up. They look around and there is no one there but Jesus. They descend from the mountain together. Jesus invited their secrecy about what transpired on the mountain. At the end of chapter 17, Jesus is once again engaged in ministry with the community.

Writing in “The Role of Religion in Today’s Society,” Sr. Joan Chittester poses the question, “What is demanded of us now?” She looks to the Matthew record of the transfiguration of Jesus for an answer. The question is one that takes us to the mountaintop and begs a similar question of the disciples and even of Jesus. Peter’s proposal is one that is self-centered and spontaneous rather than being well thought out. The divinity of Jesus is revealed. Jesus is the Son of God. What does that mean going down the mountain? What are the implications for the disciples as they follow Jesus whom they witnessed in conversation with Elijah and Moses? How do we understand the presence of the divine revealed as we seek to do ministry in communities around us? Do we see the possibilities afforded us from being in the company of the Divine or would we prefer to stay where we are in the moment, fashion booths that are unrelated to the mission and vision for ministry, and stay where we are?

In their time on the mountaintop Jesus is revealed to the disciples in a new way. The mountaintop experience connects Jesus to Moses and to Elijah, shedding new light on the person and ministry of Jesus. Jesus is revealed to the disciples in new ways, they see Jesus in new ways. Peter’s response to the revelation is that of one who does not know what to do with this moment in his life and in the life of Jesus. Fred Craddock states, “There is value in referring to this story as one about Jesus’ mountaintop experience, which is followed by his return to the valley where he ministered to human need. To such a presentation we can add recitations of mountaintop experiences we have known, followed by exhortations to return to the valley ready to serve. The connections can not only be clear but also encouraging and challenging” (The Christian Century, February 21, 1990).

The challenges are many as we too witness once again the transformation of Jesus and the response of the disciples. The dazzling reign of Jesus is one we can not afford to leave in residence on the mountaintop or be placed in a booth on display. The moment of transformation is one that invites us to new and meaningful encounters with God. How can Jesus be revealed in our time? When we have been to the mountaintop, how do we come down to ministry in the valleys as Jesus did, healing and teaching beyond the moment of change?

Epiphany is the season of revelation. We have seen Jesus revealed, now what? What is there for us to do with what we have seen and heard? Jesus is not new to us; neither is the nature and presence of the Divine. Can we make room for change in our lives and for divine revelation to impact the world through us?   

The Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson serves on the national staff of the United Church of Christ as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.

Reflection on Exodus 24:12-18
by Kathryn Matthews Huey

God calls an important meeting, up on the mountain, with Moses. God speaks to Moses, and Moses listens. Of course, Moses has to make arrangements, too; he has to take care of his responsibilities, so he instructs the elders of the people and clarifies the lines of authority during his absence. And he takes his assistant, Joshua, with him, at least part of the way. After these somewhat mundane details are tended to, extraordinary events unfold: the glory of God experienced through a great cloud, devouring fire, and the voice of God, a voice that calls Moses into a time apart, a time of “touching” transcendence.

How is the life of your church an experience of both the daily-ness of faith (the mundane) and also the inexpressible (the transcendent) presence of God? What are those times when the glory of God has touched you and your church, even in that indirect, reflected way that makes the unbearable something we might bear, at least for a moment? What are the mountaintop experiences in the story of your church? How was God speaking to you in those moments, and how does God still speak to you in the daily, even mundane, activities of church life? 

When and how do you hear the still-speaking God calling you and your congregation to a time apart, a time of reflection and intensity in your spiritual life – a time up on the mountain? What things might distract us from hearing God speaking to us, calling us to this time apart?   

The early church, and the church today, has heard Psalm 2 in light of the coming of Christ, who is the definitive revelation, the bearer, of God’s glory. How do you experience Christ as the ruler who can overcome all the forces that separate us from God and from true holiness and peace? Do we know Jesus Christ as the power that overcomes every addiction – both personal and communal – every barrier, every distortion, every violence? How does Jesus Christ take apart our notions of imperial authority and replace them with a rule of peace, justice, and healing?  Can we even imagine such a thing?

The words of Psalm 2, “You are my child; today I have begotten you,” are read with the passage from Matthew on this last Sunday in the season of Epiphany (and remembering the first Sunday of Epiphany, with the Baptism of Jesus). Here we are, at the end of a season of amazing experiences of God’s manifestation, of God’s showing of God’s own Self, not just to a few but to the Magi (“the nations” – the Gentiles, others, not just us and our own!), and to the crowds at the baptism and following Jesus, including on the mountain where he preached the Beatitudes. Again, there have been the mountaintop experiences, and now the journey through Lent, through the wilderness, without the glory or the shining light or the reassuring, affirming voice. And yet, here, on the edge of Lent, we still hear the words of that voice, “Listen to him.” What is God still speaking to you and your church today, here, on the edge of Lent? What is the Lenten journey to which you are being summoned? How have you witnessed the glory of God, or experienced it quietly, deep in your hearts, or, perhaps just as importantly, how have you missed that glory, as it quietly slipped by? In the weeks ahead, are we prepared to experience the glory, even on the way to the cross?

For further reflection:

Jean de la Fontaine, 17th century
“There is no road of flowers leading to glory.”

William Shakespeare, 17th century
“Glory is like a circle in the water, Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.”

Thomas Merton, 20th century
“By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”

Origen, 3rd century
“But the Wisdom of God, which is His only-begotten Son, being in all respects incapable of change or alteration, and every good quality in Him being essential, and such as cannot be changed and converted, His glory is therefore declared to be pure and sincere.”

Franz Kafka, 20th century
“Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”

Lectionary texts

Exodus 24:12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sig