Sermon Seeds: Thin Places/Compassionate Community
Last Sunday after Epiphany Year B
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Thin Places/Compassionate Community
Additional reflection for Racial Justice Sunday by Elizabeth Leung
Additional reflection on One Great Hour of Sharing by Mary Schaller Blaufuss
by Kathryn Matthews 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. 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 as “cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute” (New Proclamation Year B 2009). There’s a disconcerting thought for beginning our reflection!
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. 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).
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 on 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.
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 may be on the 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. 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, in Chapter 1, 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. These stories “bracket” the season of Epiphany: we read that baptismal story 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 word “glory” is often used in sports and military settings. The movie, Glory Road, tells us that championships lie at the end of a long sports journey, bringing “glory” that lasts just a little while, until a new season begins. (For some of us, the sports journey toward a championship is so long that we may not find this comparison helpful.) 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).
It’s easy to understand why the disciples, 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. Beverly Gaventa suggests that the disciples are just like us when they “want to have the glory that they can see without the message that they must hear”; however, this is a theme in Mark’s Gospel as he “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). 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, Deborah Krause writes, and for the church, “in spite of its hard-heartedness and faithlessness,” because God calls us to ministry so that we can “be with Jesus in his glory” (New Proclamation Year B 2006). Engaged in seeking the healing of the world rather than our own glory, we’ll come to understand, at least a little better, 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, Vol. 1). 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?
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 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? 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 are we 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 understand, and to follow?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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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.”
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.”
What could the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountaintop mean for those who follow him today? “The transfigured Jesus isn’t supposed to be figured out; [but] is supposed to be appreciated,” writes commentator Matt Skinner. One way to appreciate Jesus’ transfiguration on this Racial Justice Sunday is through an understanding of racism as disfiguration, of reconciliation as life-long reconfiguration, and of creation of the Beloved Community as transfiguration of the body of Christ.
Human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27); therefore racism is a disfiguration of the divine image. It is more than an individual sin, and it involves more than a private injury. It is a violation in which all parties are disfigured, whether the perpetrators or the oppressed, whether one is intentional or clueless of the impact. Slavery is not “past stuff,” because it is among the realities that shape our present (1). We cannot ignore the lasting impact of the historical realities of racism on the establishment of social structures, present attitudes and behaviors regarding race (2).
The racism we face today is not the racism Americans of all races faced decades ago. In Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society, Professor john a. powell summarizes two emerging understandings for 21st-century U.S. racism. One is the structural racism in how processes and practices of inter-institutional arrangements continue to distribute racialized outcomes. The other is implicit bias – the ambivalence that unconsciously affects our racial meanings and practice, which may help us to understand the depth and effect of racism as disfiguration.
Research suggests that implicit bias can affect our behavior of perception, interpretation and understanding in powerful ways at the unconscious level. They can “influence choices and decisions, individual and institutional discrimination can and does occur even in the absence of blatant prejudice, ill will, or animus” (3). These biases are formed by our social systems and structures, which lead us to create mental associations embedded in our unconscious and which affect how we process the world. Racism is not only structured into our social habitats, it is also neurolinguistic – wired into our brains (4).
Now, if humans are created in the image of God, then racism is not our human destiny. Although none is immune from this evolving virus that affects our social body, we don’t have to despair, because Jesus’ transfiguration inspires the power of our re-wiring. In Christian tradition, transfiguration is important because it anticipates resurrection. As followers of the resurrected Jesus, we claim not only the hope of our resurrection; for as the body of the crucified Christ, we claim also Jesus’ transfiguration for the reconfiguration of the divine image in the here and now.
Reconciliation is the ongoing reconfiguration of the divine image. Ongoing reconfiguration consists of moments of transformation of our social body wherein we behold the glory of the Jesus’ transfiguration (2 Cor. 3:18). While the Church has been implicated among the social structures in our U.S. history that form implicit bias regarding race (5), the current time is the kairos moment to respond to a 21st-century call to address racism in a sustaining way – not as a project or an elective, but as a way of life.
Reconfiguration of the divine image needs to occur in our hearts, our minds and our social body; it has to happen to our attitudes, our perceptions and our policies as an ongoing commitment across generations. For this reason, it is an essential part of a life-long faith formation for all ages and can be collectively practiced in justice advocacy toward the creation of the Beloved Community.
Racial justice educator and hip-hop radio show host Jay Smooth has a TEDx talk titled, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race.” He talks about how racism has been around for centuries and the notion of “race” is designed to circumvent our humanity. Our prejudices can pop up when we talk about “race,” with good intentions, because of how they can be implicit, unconscious, and formed by our psychological and social environment. Dealing with the prejudices within us is not like having our tonsils taken out, as if once removed then the work is done. Rather, unlearning prejudices is like brushing your teeth daily. Having plaque [prejudices] does not mean you are a bad person; the response is to brush [unlearn] daily in order to maintain good health.
Although Peter, James, and John had this mountaintop experience, it still took them a lifetime of practice to get what Jesus was about and what was expected of them as disciples. Similarly, we can understand intellectually that racism is bad, but it may take us a lifetime of practice to eradicate racism. The Pastoral Letter on Racism: A New Awakening encourages us “to take actions to produce conditions that will allow for the fullness of life for those who have suffered [racism’s] destructive impact, as we work to reorient institutions that perpetuate racist practices, and as we dismantle systems that coalesce to produce racial injustices” (6).
The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Leung serves as Minister for Racial Justice with the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries in Cleveland, Ohio.
1. “One reason that the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized…” – Judith Butler in an interview by George Yancey, “What’s Wrong with ‘All Lives Matter’?” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/whats-wrong-with-all-lives-matter/.
2. Naomi Zack thought that the idea of “post-racial” may have begun with “the media hype that makes minorities feel more secure so that they will be more predictable consumers – if they can forget about the fact that blacks are about four times as likely as whites to be in the criminal justice system.” See http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/05/what-white-privilege-really-means/.
3. Racing to Justice, 22. Consider the disturbing differences in perception among us about how law enforcement functions in our various communities.
4. In 2000, the Human Genome Project revealed that 99.9% of our human DNA sequence is genetically alike. It confirms that human genetic variation occurs in a continuum, rather than in discrete groups. In other words, social groupings like race have no biological origin. However, many scientists since then still zoomed in on the 0.1% difference. And increasingly, it has come to include “race.” It is indeed revealing that the 21st-century resurgence of efforts to “discover race” in our DNA, seems to indicate that, while race has no genetic reality; science continues to have a racial reality.
5. Refer to Michael Emerson & Christian Smith, Divided by Faith.
6. The Pastoral Letter on Racism: A New Awakening invites our churches to “engage in initiating local church partnerships that bring churches of different racial, ethnic, class, linguistic and cultural backgrounds together to engage in relationship building, racism awareness learning, advocacy, and mission.” See http://www.ucc.org/pastoral_letter_new_awakening_0116201.
Transfiguration Sunday – Mark 9 is one of my favorite texts to preach. In a nutshell, most of my previous sermons on this text have taken the theme coming at the end of the passage “Don’t just stand there. Get busy.” It’s not surprising that this is my take-away from the Transfiguration text as one of the pictures that hangs in my office – a gift from one of our UCC German Evangelical heritage churches – reminds me daily of the advice to the church from James 1:22: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”
Indeed, ministry as part of the national UCC staff with responsibility for relationships and resources that enable the church to engage integrally in disaster response and preparedness, sustainable development, and refugee ministries around the world, keeps me on the active side of faith. These are the ministries made possible by the One Great Hour of Sharing special mission offering, special appeals and designated funding. These are active ministries that – as the UCC national website categorizes them – change the world.
This very action-orientation, however, challenges us to take seriously the first part of that Transfiguration text from Mark 9–that of seeing the vision of Jesus in his awesome fullness. The whole context of the Transfiguration story is that Jesus is teaching his disciples what it means to follow him. As part of that experience, Jesus takes those disciples, Peter and James and John, to a high mountain apart, and chooses to give them a glimpse of his fullness. The writer of Mark describes it poetically as “his clothes became dazzling white such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Jesus appears, talking with Elijah and Moses. To know the fullness of Jesus is to experience his role as one of the prophets who spoke into being what no one could imagine and as integral to life in all generations.
To me, this dazzling white image on the mountaintop symbolizes the big picture vision of God’s work in the world. God’s vision is glory, of liberation, of abundance and well-being for all. God’s big picture vision is glorious beyond our imagining. And then the vision is brought down to reality in a baptism-reminiscent scenario, “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!'” The disciples need that vision to know what it is to follow Jesus – to see what shape that action will create.
This is a complicated world. People in the most chaotic experiences of their lives – disrupted by disaster, excluded by poverty, or displaced by violence – can well testify to that complicated reality. It’s also complicated to know the best way to engage and accompany them. We need a glimpse of the vision of the big picture to know what it is we’re working toward. I have to think it’s something like Jesus announces in Nazareth as he begins his earthly ministry and recorded in Luke 4: “to bring good news to the poor… proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I believe the juxtaposition of that awe-some vision of God’s big picture of glory and of the down-to-earth, go do it, told in the Transfiguration text gives us a clue. We do this work as Christians not for our own sake, but for the sake of the most vulnerable and excluded, so that the fullness and abundance of God’s world is realized. We do this work in a manner that builds up communities and makes connections among communities for long-term vitality. And we define ‘positive’ contribution and look for the end goal as everyone and all parts of creation living together in interdependent well-being. We need a glimpse of the vision in order to know who and how we will get to work. And, as Paul says to the Corinthians, we do this for the sake of fulfilling God’s vision. “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”
This is the juxtaposition that influences decisions of United Church of Christ involvement in world crises through One Great Hour of Sharing ministries. For example, the summer of 2014 saw the escalation of gang violence and drought that drove many families in Honduras and Guatemala to send their children across multiple nations to reach the U.S. southern border. They hoped for security and re-connecting with family members. The juxtaposition of the big vision of glory when all God’s people experience abundance and the ‘go do it’ motivation that keeps us active in the everyday realities of the most vulnerable and excluded, led to multiple layers of UCC involvement. That involvement is holistic by addressing immediate needs, working for long-term sustainability and acting to change root causes. In the midst of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America, UCC congregations fed and clothed children on their doorsteps and catalyzed diverse parts of their local communities to provide sustained assistance. Community organizations, influenced by the on-going leadership of UCC individuals and the involvement of UCC churches, increased their capacity to respond to long-term solutions for getting families connected. Church World Service, of which the UCC is a member, used their already-developed skills and systems for legal assistance for new-comers in the United States, to gain access to the U.S. legal system for new children and mothers.
Advocacy networks, such as the national UCC immigration task force, worked for funding protection to enable the care for these new immigrants without taking away from the resettlement resources for other refugees. Sanctuary churches provided refuge for families while advocates work for a change in U.S. immigration laws. Long-term relationships with partner churches and organizations in Honduras and Guatemala became even more critical as they worked with local families and communities to support food production in the midst of climate-stressed conditions and structures of safety so people could stay in their homes with their families and not need to endure the risks of fleeing violence or hopelessness. All of this continues today.
I am grateful for this vision of Jesus in the midst of the prophets so dazzling we can only see its fullness with eyes of faith. And I give thanks that, like Peter and James and John, I have the opportunity to listen to that vision and make it my own – to ‘go, get busy.’
The Rev. Dr. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Global Sharing of Resources Team Leader and Executive for Volunteer Ministries in Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
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.
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.
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 anymore, 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.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons. The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.) Green is the color for the rest of Epiphany season, until Transfiguration Sunday, when white is used again.