Weekly Seeds: The Rising
Sunday, February 11, 2024
Transfiguration Sunday| Year B
In the reading of the scripture, may your word be heard.
In the reflections of our hearts, may your word be known.
In the faithfulness of our lives, may your work be shown.
Psalm 50:1-6 in conversation with 2 Kings 2:1-12
1 The mighty one, God the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6 The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge.
All readings for this Sunday:
2 Kings 2:1-12 • Psalm 50:1-6 • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 • Mark 9:2-9
1. What do you make of the quote from Father James Alison? Do you agree that we tend to have biases about hearing stories of spiritual experiences?
2. What do you make of Rev. McKay’s research summarized here? Do you think that people are reluctant to speak about spiritual experiences in your church? Why might that be the case?
3. What do you make of the ancient tradition of ‘spiritual senses?’ Does it give you helpful language for trying to describe what may be hard to describe?
4. The scriptures this week indicate that God speaks to us. How have you heard God speaking? What has God said? How did you have the assurance it was God?
5. On the mountain top, the disciples have a vision. Have you had a vision of God, or another mountain-top experience? What was it like?
As you discuss, think about using a Circles of Trust model taught by the Quaker educator Parker Palmer. Attempt to allow each person to speak, uninterrupted, without cross talk or questioning, or without a person sharing their own associated story (each person will get their turn to speak). This process teaches us patient listening. Once the person has spoken, there can be a time when others ask clarifying questions, i.e. ‘what was that like for you,’ ‘can you explain the chronology?’ The intent is to listen to the other person’s story without judgement, or without needing to analyze but simply to hear and to hold it.
By Stephanie Perdew
Scripture tells us that God is a God who speaks. God speaks even before there are humans (Genesis 1:3). God’s speech calls humans into being: “God said: ‘Let us make humankind…’ (Genesis 1: 26). Then God speaks directly to the humans: “Be fruitful and multiply…” (Genesis 1:28). As Scripture unfolds, God continues to speak. Psalm 50: 1-6 proclaims that God speaks and summons the earth.
As we say in the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking,” not only in Scripture or to our ancestors but to us, today. But while God speaks, humans struggle to hear. God must repeat Godself several times in certain situations: “Moses, Moses!” God calls (Exodus 3:4). Sometimes God’s voice is heard loudly and clearly, such as at the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 1:17), other times it is a ‘still small voice’ speaking to Elijah (I Kings 19: 12).
God speaks, but we humans are frequently portrayed as unwilling to listen. As Jesus said:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23: 37)
God continues to speak and sends prophets to speak as well. God’s instructions to Ezekiel assume human resistance:
“God said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the lord God.’ Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” (Ezekiel 2: 2-5)
Scripture connects the voice of God with visions of God. When people hear God’s voice, they see things. Doves, angels, clouds, fire, thrones and chariots. Bushes burn but are not consumed. A whirlwind ensues, the heavens open, as in today’s reading from 2 Kings.
Even still, there is a curious note in I Samuel 3: 1 that: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (I Samuel 3:1). Can it be that when we stop listening, God truly stops speaking? Scripture leaves this unresolved. The whole arc of scripture suggests the God still speaks. As Psalm 50 declares today: Our God “does not keep silence” (Ps 50: 3).
Despite our repeated rejections, God wants a conversation with us so much that God’s very eternal word becomes flesh and lives among us, in Greek, literally “tabernacled” or “camped” among us, evoking images of the Exodus and the tabernacle in the desert (John 1: 14).
Scripture and Christian history are replete with stories of people hearing Godly voices and seeing Godly visions. The Egyptian theologian Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254) was the first to speak of the spiritual senses. The tradition of the spiritual senses teaches that while Scripture uses the vocabulary of sight, touch, apprehension and hearing to describe encounters with God, these encounters are not always corporeal—or confined only to those who have those senses intact. Perception of God is not only for those who have sight or hearing. Rather, humans know and sense God spiritually, not just cognitively but intuitively and mystically. This ancient teaching challenges our often ableist readings of Scripture.
The tradition of the spiritual senses advances into Protestantism, despite Protestantism’s sometimes extreme emphasis on plain reading of scripture, and on the word preached, to the exclusion of the word visualized. The American Puritan preacher, our Congregationalist ancestor Jonathan Edwards also spoke about cultivating the spiritual senses.
The Christian spiritual tradition, beginning with these second century theologians, insists God is still speaking—and that our spiritual senses can be cultivated in prayer, silence, community, charity. But the words of I Samuel often seem true. The word of God seems rare in our days, and visions are not widespread.
In the Gospel reading, God speaks from a cloud concerning Jesus: “this is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” (Mark 9: 7). There is a voice in the story, and there is a vision. Peter, James and John see the prophets Elijah and Moses appear to them. They see Jesus transfigured before them, his clothes no longer the normal, likely linen, and definitely dusty clothes of Galilee, but dazzling white, such as no one could possibly clean or whiten them.
On Transfiguration Sunday, many preachers address people without the particularly developed spiritual senses that will allow them to hear and appreciate this story, and this is no fault of our congregants. It is the legacy of modernity and an Enlightenment that pared away our confidence in mystical and non-cognitive ways of knowing, aroused our suspicions about dreams and visions, and left us in a “disenchanted” world, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor painstakingly depicts. While this may be less so depending on one’s social location within the UCC, Taylor would insist that the legacies of secular capitalism leave all of us at least somewhat disenchanted.
Will those who hear this Gospel reading really be able to imagine a voice speaking from a cloud, or long-dead prophets appearing, or Jesus glowing in glorified clothing? If our imaginations and spiritual experiences are that impoverished, how do we lead people into this story and into their own spiritual growth?
Many of our people may not be able to relate to the voice or the vision, but they have been to a mountain. Invite them to imagine those mountains: the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Sierra Nevada, the Adirondacks, the Smokies, the Cascades. Maybe they have been in the mountains of Mexico or South America, of Europe, Asia, or North Africa. Start by trying to help them orient themselves to the story geographically.
One of the ways our imaginations are spiritually impoverished is that many of us are not particularly scripturally literate. We no longer have what my UCC colleague Rev. Dr. Fritz West once called a “typological imagination,” or the ability to hear one scriptural story echoing another as lectionaries assume. Some can hear the story of the Transfiguration and think of Sinai, Mount Carmel, the Mount of Olives, even Golgotha. But many cannot, and if they cannot place the mountains, they also likely cannot connect story to story or what literary theory would call “inter-textuality.” Jesus on Mt. Tabor is like Moses on Mt. Sinai or Elijah on Mt. Carmel, both of whom appear in the Transfiguration. Jesus on Mt. Tabor is in glory now but he will be in agony in a little while on the Mount of Olives, and in suffering on Golgotha. But then he will be resurrected, and then ascend from the Mount of Olives.
If our congregants cannot make these connections, it is our job as preachers to make them for them. Go mountain by mountain. Layer story upon story. And by all means, take our ancestors’ spiritual experiences seriously.
One of the most severe prejudices that many of us living on this side of modernity have is a superiority and skepticism about other people’s spiritual experiences. The British Dominican Father James Alison, who is best known in many circles for his writing as an out gay man and Roman Catholic priest, puts our prejudices this way, noting that modern people often start with one of two viewpoints about Scriptural stories, in this case, the resurrection. The first is that Scriptural depictions of voices and visions are untrustworthy—which, as Alison notes, is an intellectually coherent and consistent position. And he says:
“The second starting point is that the disciples thought that the resurrection was something objective that really happened to Jesus, and so describe it in the way they did. However, from the vantage point of ‘modernity’ or some such position of supposed superiority, we know better than they, and in the light of our more sophisticated philosophical techniques we are able to reread the texts and see that in fact what is being described is a subjective experience. Now this does not seem to be an intellectually coherent position. This is saying ‘we accept the apostolic witness, but we do not accept this bit of it, because we understand this bit better than the apostolic group.’ It is quite clear that whatever the apostolic witnesses are describing, it was something which broke the categories of easily available speech, something entirely new and unexpected, and furthermore something which they saw as definitive and unsurpassable. For us to claim that we understand it better than they is effectively to claim that it was not definitive and unsurpassable, because we, in our understanding, have surpassed it and are able to understand it. That is to say, the approach I am describing is somewhat contradictory. It is a way of not accepting the apostolic witness while pretending to. Considered as an intellectual approach to a text from a different culture it also shows an incapacity for alterity, for being able to imagine that something might be being described in the text which in fact blows open all approaches to reality, including our own. It is as though that can only be accepted which can be digested within our frame of reference; that whose acceptance alters our frame of reference cannot be accepted. But then human though is inescapably either tentatively open to alterity or else totalitarian, but never detached or neutral.”
Substitute ‘transfiguration’ for ‘resurrection’ and most of what Alison is saying pertains some of our congregations today: they want to take the Gospel witness seriously, but secular, post-modern biases get in the way. And these biases get in the way of taking our own spiritual experiences seriously. Peter, James, and John are not the only ones who have had a spiritual experience of Jesus. Many of our people have too, but they don’t know how to talk about it.
Rev. Bobbie McKay is a licensed psychologist and ordained UCC minister who has conducted a research study on spiritual life in the United Church of Christ. Her data revealed and confirmed what she had already seen as a parish pastor and a psychologist: that post-modern people do have spiritual experiences, but lack the vocabulary to describe them, or are too self-conscious to admit them. As a recent interview says:
“The data revealed what she already knew: that people never talked about the stories of when God became real to them because they didn’t want to seem weird…or too religious. This study opened the door for those with God experiences. For the first time, people were able to share an amazing experience with Rev. Bobbie McKay. They were willing to say: ‘This was God in my life. This wasn’t some kind of fantasy I had…This is God. But I don’t talk about it in the church.’”
At 92 years old, McKay is still the Pastoral Associate for Spiritual Life at Glenview Community Church, UCC, and is still teaching others how to form small spiritual life groups in their congregations. She encourages a process for lay people that is deceptively simple: Meet one hour a month. Ask people to talk about their spiritual experiences without interruption, questioning, or judgement; assure them that these experiences are real; and teach them to pray aloud. As McKay said in the recent interview: all of us need to pray, when we pray aloud, we connect with each other at a different level. “We are all trying to learn how to talk to God and to hear God,” she said.
So take your people to the mountain on Sunday. Let various scriptural associations wash over them. Remind them that God is still speaking and ask gently whether we are still listening. Suggest what might help in their listening. Ask them if they have ever had a mountain-top experience of God, even if they are afraid to talk about it. It wouldn’t be surprising: Peter, James, and John were afraid too. Invite them beyond that fear, and consider ways to encourage them to talk about those experiences in the future.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
In my family of origin both my parents were negative about the old ways. They wanted a modern life, a life structured around the principles of liberal individualism, a life where the fulfillment of material desires mattered most. They refused to acknowledge the value of oppositional ways of thinking and being black folk had created in the segregated sub-cultures of Kentucky, especially the backwoods culture. More than anything our parents wanted their children to conform. I was intrigued by the culture of non-conformity, by the outlaw culture of my maternal grandparents. They believed that being a person of integrity was the most important aspect of anyone’s life. Second, they believed that it was essential to be self-determining and self-reliant. Since they lived life guided by the principles of organic environmental sustainability planting flowers and growing their food, raising their animals, digging fishing worms, making soap, wine, quilts, they were never wasteful. The focus of their life was meeting basic needs, keeping the wisdom of living off the land. They believed in the value of land ownership because owning one’s land was all that made self-determination possible. Although their lives were fraught with difficulties, especially as they daily encountered a world where their values had little meaning, the essence of all they were teaching and being holds true.
All the elders in my life growing up, whether they were family or chosen kin, believed it was essential for us to have a spiritual foundation. While Christianity was given pride of place in the quest for religious allegiance, my paternal grandmother Sister Ray believed in the power of voodoo, often ridiculed as hoodoo. No matter their choice for spiritual direction, our spiritually aware elders accepted that one could have mystical experiences based on communion with divine spirit. Both in slavery and beyond, individuals would often go on solitary retreats in their quest for divine guidance and intervention. In African-American history Sojourner Truth is one of the most well-known anti-slavery freedom fighters who gave testimony to her spiritual visions and mystical experience. During their communion with nature, country black folks who were not consciously seeking for inner mystical experience found themselves undergoing a shift in consciousness. That shift enabled them to feel oneness with all of creation giving them a sense of well-being, bliss, and a wise understanding of the reality of impermanence. This expanded sense of spiritual awareness moved far beyond the constraints of Christian thought and doctrine. It called on believers to acknowledge both psychic power, intuition, and the power of the unconscious.
When I was growing up we would hear grown-ups talk about the individual women who could predict the future and who could make things happen for you, individuals who were seers and healers. They could tell you the meaning of your dreams. Believing in the importance of dream and dream interpretation, many of our elders, like Sister Ray, acknowledged the power of mind, the subconscious. They believed that by listening to the messages given us in dreams one could be guided in daily life. They also believed in the importance of intuition. Guided by intuitions one could foresee a future reality and be proactive in relationship to it. All of these beliefs, acceptance of the oneness of life, the necessity of spiritual awareness, and the willingness to follow divine guidance, all helped sustain the belief in transcendence, in a cosmic consciousness more powerful than humankind. It kept black folks living in the midst of racial apartheid from being overwhelmed by despair. It kept them from seeing themselves as always and only victims. To believe in transcendence gave one a concrete basis for hope, for remembering that change is always possible. These empowering aspects of African-American southern life that were commonplace in segregated black communities began to lose their appeal as folks sought to integrate mainstream society and become part of dominator culture.
― bell hooks
For Further Reflection
“New names cost. They’d sacrificed things in their transfigurations. Tyrell Meeks. Imani Greene. Razz. Deirdre. They’d carved open their histories and offered up their guts.” ― S.R. Hughes
“The new heavens and the new earth are not replacements for the old ones; they are transfigurations of them. The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken; it is the created order – all of it – raised and glorified.” ― Robert Farrar Capon
“True spiritual love is not a feeble imitation and anticipation of death, but a triumph over death, not a separation of the immortal form from the mortal, of the eternal from the temporal, but a transfiguration of the mortal into the immortal, the acceptance of the temporal into the eternal. False spirituality is a denial of the flesh; true spirituality is the regeneration of the flesh, its salvation, its resurrection from the dead.” ― Vladimir Solovyov
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.
Rev. Stephanie Perdew, PhD is a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ, baptized, confirmed, and ordained within the Nebraska Conference UCC. She has served in parish ministry and as an Associate Conference Minister in the Illinois Conference UCC and now serves as the Director of the Damascus Project theological education ministry of the Minnesota and Wisconsin Conferences, UCC. She is an affiliate professor of Christian history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a frequent speaker and educator regarding Native American history and theology. She is a tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation and resides in northern Illinois. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
About Weekly Seeds
Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.
You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.
Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.