Unveiled

Lectionary Passage:  Luke 9: 28-36 (37-43)
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.  37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.  43And all were astounded at the greatness of God. 

This passage requires that we open our mind and widen our souls; it requires that we strip away the things that we think we have figured out; it asks us to focus our attention on what is to be seen rather than on what we see.  In other words, it ask us to go further, to view our world in the light of God’s Presence—not the way we imagine God to be but the way God invites us to experience the holiness and the sacred that is all around us.  It calls us to see things differently, to remove the veil that we have created in our lives that shield us from things that are uncomfortable or do not make sense.  Seeing things differently is not a new theme for us. 

I mean, think about it.  Here we have the story of a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants.  He grows up, becomes a teacher, probably a rabbi, a healer, and sort of a community organizer.  He asks a handful of people to become his followers, to help him in his mission.  They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this  person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing. And then one day, Jesus takes them mountain climbing, away from the interruptions of the world, away from what was brewing below.  Don’t you think they were sort of wondering where they were going?

This story is told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.  The mountain that Jesus and the disciples climb sounds a lot like Mount Sinai that Moses had ascended centuries before.  (The truth is, there is actually no historical mention of what mountain this might have been, or if there was a mountain at all.) Now remember that for this likely Jewish audience, mountains were typically not only a source of grandeur, but also divine revelation.  And also remember again that in their understanding, God was never seen.  God was the great I AM, one whose name could not be said, one whose power could not be beheld.  And so this cloud, a sort of veiled presence of the holiness of God, was something that they would have understood much better than we do. And there on the mountain, they see Jesus change, his clothes taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding white, whiter than anything they had ever seen before.  And on the mountain appear Moses (this time with no veil) and Elijah, standing there with Jesus—the law, the prophets, all of those things that came before, no longer separate, but suddenly swept into everything that Christ is, swept into the whole presence of God right there on that mountain.

So Peter offers to build three dwellings to house them.  I used to think that he had somehow missed the point, that he was in some way trying to manipulate or control or make sense of this wild and uncontrollable mystery that is God.  I probably thought that because that’s what I may tend to do.  But, again, Peter was speaking out of his Jewish understanding.  He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle—for the holy.  For him, it was a way not of controlling the sacred but rather of honoring the awe and wonder that he sensed. And then the voice…”This is my Son, my Chosen:  listen to him!” OK…what would you have done?  First the mountain, then the cloud, then these spirits from the past, and now this voice…”We are going to die.  We are surely going to die,” they must have thought.  

And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight and Jesus was standing there alone, completely unveiled.  In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle was the place where God was.  Here, this changes.  Jesus stays with them and the cloud dissipates.  Jesus IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world.  And all that was and all that is has become part of that, swept into this Holy Presence of God.  And, more importantly, we are invited into it.  No longer are we shielded from God’s Presence.  We become part of it, a mirror for all to experience and encounter the living God. And so the disciples start down the mountain.  Jesus remains with them but they kept silent.  The truth was that Jesus knew that this account would only make sense in light of what was to come.  The disciples would know when to tell the story.  They saw more than Jesus on the mountain.  They also saw who and what he was.  And long after Jesus is gone from this earth, they will continue to tell this strange story of what they saw.  For now, he would just walk with them.  God’s presence remains.

The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live.  You know, I think they were right.  No one can see God and remain unchanged.  We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud, unveiled before this God that so desires us to know the sacred and the holy that has always been before us.   The truth is, when we are really honest with ourselves, we probably are a little like the disciples.  We’d rather not really have “all” of God.  We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives.  We’d rather be a little more in control of any metamorphosis that happens in our lives.  We’d rather be able to pick and choose the way that our lives change.  We’d rather God’s Presence come blowing in at just the right moment as a cool, gentle, springtime breeze.  In fact, we’re downright uncomfortable with this devouring fire, bright lights, almost tornado-like God that really is God.

This account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to us that it should be the climax of the Jesus story—the quintessential mountain-top experience.  After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him.  But there’s a reason that we read this on the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey.  In some ways, it is perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey.  Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now.  And then the lights dim.  Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking.    

Have you ever been mountain climbing?  The way up is hard.  You have to go slowly, methodically even.  You have to be very careful and very intentional.  You have to be in control.  But coming down is oh, so much harder.  Sometimes you can’t control it; sometimes the road is slick and seems to move faster than your feet.  And sometimes, through no fault or talent of your own, you get to the bottom a little bit sooner than you had planned. Yes, it’s really harder to come down.

Jesus walked with the disciple in the silence.  The air became thicker and heavier as they approached the bottom.  As they descended the mountain, they knew they were walking toward Jerusalem.  The veil that had been there all those centuries upon centuries was beginning to lift.  One week from today, Lent begins.  The Transfiguration is only understood in light of what comes next.  Yes, the way down is a whole lot harder.  We have to go back down, to the real world, to Jerusalem.  (I think that’s why the verses following this account are there.  Life goes on…) We have to walk through what will come. Jesus has started the journey to the cross.  We must do the same.    

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

And They Took Joseph to Egypt

Lectionary Text:  Genesis 37: (1-4, 12-22) 23-28:
So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore;and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

And they took Joseph to Egypt…so matter-of-fact, so simple, so explanatory.  But far from being merely historical data, this six word sentence represents a turning point in the story.  With these words the Genesis story turns the corner, moving from a story of a somewhat dysfunctional family as their lives are intricately woven with the breath of God to the story of a people growing into God’s people.  We begin to prepare for the Exodus story.  Nothing will ever be the same again.  We know what is to come–slavery, plagues, wilderness, and, finally, deliverance, redemption.  This is the stuff of transformation.

When this Scripture (sorry, I cut off the first part!) was read this morning, I was struck by these words.  I know that I’ve passed them over time and time again. After all, this is an important story and there’s a lot to grasp–favorite sons, dreams, beautiful coats, family squabbles, murder, intrigue, conspiracy, enemies, slavery, lies.  (And just for the record, I would like it to be noted that no matter what I did to my brother Donnie growing up, I NEVER sold him into slavery!)  And then you take a breath and, oh yeah, “and they took Joseph to Egypt.”  What struck me is how similar those words are to some others:

Text:  Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  When I realized that earlier this week, I thought it was just odd.  I mean, really, don’t we celebrate that right before Lent begins?  But the abrupt ending to today’s Old Testament Scripture made me think a little bit more about it.  In this Matthean account of the Transfiguration, the writer has Jesus and the disciples headed down the mountain.  They were talking.  Jesus warned them to be quiet about what they had just seen.  And in the same breath, he gave them a foretaste of what would come.  So, we have Jesus walking down the mountain.  Where is he going?  He’s going to Jerusalem.  And we know what happens there.  This is the turning point.  There is no going back.  A new way of being has begun.

And they took Joseph to Egypt…And they took Jesus to Jerusalem.

We all have Egypts.  We all have Jerusalems.  They are those watershed moments in our lives that are bumpy and rough and uncomfortable.  They are that way because it means that we have changed.  We have been through a transition; we have been transformed; we have been transfigured into something else.

We don’t know what Monday morning will hold for our economy.  There are those who will say that our “best years” are behind us, those who yearn for the 40’s and the 50’s when the United States was “on top of the mountain.”  Really?  I’m pretty clear that our African-American brothers and sisters will disagree with you.  Are our “best years” the ones in which only some of us are on top?  That’s sad.  I don’t think so.  Perhaps we’re being sold to Egypt.  I don’t know.  Maybe we’ve got a long wilderness ahead.  Maybe we are walking down that mountain headed for who knows what.  Maybe we will find ourselves in Egypt.  Maybe we will find ourselves in Jerusalem.  Maybe we will find ourselves enslaved by something we never saw coming or crucified by those who want to maintain things the way they are.  Maybe there is a rough road ahead.  Maybe not.  Maybe our stocks will pop back up tomorrow and everything will be hunky dory.  Maybe not.  Whatever happens, we are in the midst of change. The road to change is not always an easy one.  But somewhere on that road, we will find transformation.  We will find deliverance.  We will find redemption.  But right now we’ve got to come down from the mountain…After all, I think it’s WAY too cloudy to see what’s going on up here.  (Hmmm!  Maybe that’s our whole problem.)

And they took Joseph to Egypt…and you know what?  No one was ever the same again.  We’ve been to the mountaintop…now is the time to move on.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

WALK TO JERUSALEM: Metamorphosis

Scripture Text:  Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

So here we have the story of a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants.  He grows up, becomes a teacher, probably a rabbi, a healer, and sort of a community organizer.  He asks a handful of people to become his followers, to help him in his mission.  They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this  person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing. And then one day, Jesus takes them mountain climbing, away from the interruptions of the world, away from what was brewing below.  Don’t you think they were sort of wondering where they were going?  Oh, if they only knew what would come!  And there on the mountain, they see Jesus change, his clothes taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding white, whiter than anything they had ever seen before.  And on the mountain appear Moses and Elijah, standing there with Jesus—the law, the prophets, all of those things that came before, no longer separate, (and certainly not replacements one for the other) but suddenly swept into everything that Christ is, swept into the whole presence of God right there on that mountain. 

So Peter offers to build three dwellings to house them. I used to think that he had somehow missed the point, that he was in some way trying to manipulate or control or make sense of this wild and uncontrollable mystery that is God. I probably thought that because that’s what I may tend to do. But, again, Peter was speaking out of his Jewish understanding. He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle—for the holy. For him, it was a way not of controlling the sacred but rather of honoring the awe and wonder that he sensed.  And then the voice…”This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” OK…what would you have done? First the mountain, then the cloud, then these spirits from the past, and now this voice…”We are going to die. We are surely going to die,” they must have thought. And then Jesus touches them and in that calm, collected manner, he says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight. In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle was the place where God was. Here, this changes. Jesus stays with them alone. Jesus IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world. And all that was and all that is has become part of that, swept into this Holy Presence of God.

And so the disciples start down the mountain. Jesus remains with them but he tells them not to say anything. The truth was that Jesus knew that this account would only make sense in light of what was to come. The disciples would know when to tell the story. They saw more than Jesus on the mountain. They also saw who and what he was. And long after Jesus is gone from this earth, they will continue to tell this strange story of what they saw. For now, he would just walk with them. God’s presence remains.

The Greek term for “transfiguration” is “metamorphosis”, deriving from the root meaning “transformation”. It is, literally, to change into something else. There is no going back. The truth is that the disciples probably got a little bit more of God’s presence than they wanted. Because there was more than just Jesus changed on that mountain. The disciples would never be the same again. We will never be the same again. The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live. You know, I think they were right. No one can see God and remain unchanged. We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud. The truth is, when we are really honest with ourselves, we probably are a little like the disciples. We’d rather not really have “all” of God. We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives. We’d rather be a little more in control of any metamorphosis that happens in our lives. We’d rather be able to pick and choose the way that our lives change. We’d rather God’s Presence come blowing in at just the right moment as a cool, gentle, springtime breeze. In fact, we’re downright uncomfortable with this devouring fire, bright lights, almost tornado-like God that really is God.

Remember the words of the Isaac Watts hymn: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” God’s power is God’s power. It does not just come to us; we enter it—taking with it all that we are. It is not a warm and fuzzy relationship; it is wild and risky, full of awe and wander. It is mystery. It is more than anything that we can possibly imagine. It is a complete and total metamorphosis. There is no going back.

This account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to us that it should be the climax of the Jesus story—the quintessential mountain-top experience. After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him. But there’s a reason that the lectionary places this reading immediately before we begin the journey to Jerusalem.  In some ways, it is perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey. Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now. And then the lights dim. Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking.

Have you ever been mountain climbing? The way up is hard. You have to go slowly, methodically even. You have to be very careful and very intentional. You have to be in control. But coming down is oh, so much harder. Sometimes you can’t control it; sometimes the road is slick and seems to move faster than your feet. And sometimes, through no fault or talent of your own, you get to the bottom a little bit sooner than you had planned. Yes, it’s really harder to come down.  Jesus walked with the disciple in the silence. The air became thicker and heavier as they approached the bottom. As they descended the mountain, they knew they were walking toward Jerusalem.

The Transfiguration is only understood in light of what comes next. Yes, the way down is a whole lot harder. We have to go back down, to the real world, to Jerusalem. We have to walk through what will come. Jesus has started the journey to the cross. We must do the same.

Jerusalem, Israel
February, 2010
Just outside Jerusalem we came to a gate called Truth.  We called to the gatekeeper to let us in.  “The latch is not on,” he replied.  “Anyone who will can enter.”  We went closer, but seeing how great and how heavy was the gate, we looked for a way around.  There must be a way around…The pilgrims trudge toward the death of God.  Only with bowed heads and closed eyes will they be able to see the way to Jerusalem.  (from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, 63-64)
Our Lenten journey is rounding the bend and we see the city up ahead.  The path has changed us.  So, go cut a palm branch and I will see you in Jerusalem!
Grace and Peace,
Shelli

Transfigured

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday when we read of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and the Gospel passage that depicts the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top. Both of these sometimes seem to be sort of fantastical, hard-to-believe images. I mean, after all, the whirlwind, the chariot, bright lights, descending clouds, and, of course, Old Testament heroes and prophets reappearing. But, you know, anything can happen on that mountain. After all, it is on the mountain that we can see beyond ourselves; it is on the mountain that everything is illumined in all directions; and it is on the mountain that God appears to us.
We don’t really know if there was a real “mountain” or not. (In all truth, the literal topography just doesn’t seem to work!) For me, a metaphorical one works just as nicely. It is that place where God appears to me. Some people claim to have had one stand-out, quintessential experience that turned their whole life toward God. For me, I have had a series of mountain-top and near-mountain-top experiences throughout my life. None stand out as “the one”, but each one in its own way has redirected me toward God, toward the cross, and has indeed changed my life.
I think that is the reason that we read of this Transfiguration right before Lent. It is our redirecting, our refocusing, if you will, from our ordinary everyday lives toward the Lenten journey–the journey to the cross. In many ways, the Transfiguration is the climax of the human experience of Jesus–the mountain-top experience. And then Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now. And then the lights dim. There are no chariots, Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God seems to be silent. And it is in that silence that Jesus walks down the mountain toward Jerusalem. And he asks us to follow. And we can–because now we see the way to go. Because we have truly been changed!
So go forth from the mountain and begin your journey to the cross!
Grace and Peace,
Shelli