Thin Places/Compassionate Community
Sunday, February 15
Last Sunday after Epiphany
Holy God, you have revealed the glory of your love in Jesus Christ, and have given us a share in your Spirit. May we who listen to Christ follow faithfully, and, in the dark places where you send us, reveal the light of your gospel. Amen.
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.
All Readings For This Sunday
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
1. How would you define “glory”?
2. Does “the sacred” surprise us, or do we have to seek it?
3. What are the things we do today when we experience “the sacred”? How do we humans respond to such an encounter?
4. What were those disciples hoping for, and in what ways do our hopes match theirs?
5. Why do you think the Epiphany season ends with the Transfiguration of Jesus, just before Lent begins?
Reflection by Kate 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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.
Getting our minds wrapped around what Jesus is saying
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.
Glory on the field and glory in heaven
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.” 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.
How do we stay with Jesus?
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.” 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.” 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 have you come to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and then, a deeper understanding of who you are, as a person 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?
Ending the Epiphany season with a question or two
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 a preacher’s version of this reflection, go to www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
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.”
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