This week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Transfiguration of Our Lord are as follows:
Sunday February 23, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- Transfiguration of Our Lord (Year A), Last Sunday after Epiphany
First Lesson: Exodus 24:12-18
Second Lesson: 2 Peter 1:16-21
Gospel of Matthew 17:1-9
The last Sunday after Epiphany means that it is Transfiguration. A day full of stories of mountaintop experiences that transcend. A day of ah-ha’s that is central to the Epiphany story and season. A day where God again shows up and speaks, moving from the growth and ministry of the season to the way to Jerusalem during Lent. In terms of stewardship, this is a great day for preaching on the story. For thinking about how God calls us into great moments of transcendent beauty and majesty, but we can’t stay in those moments. We are also sent to a world in need. And that is a stewardship and discipleship sermon indeed.
The first lesson takes us to the familiar story of Moses going up the mountaintop to be with God and receive the commandments. “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’” (Exodus 24:12-14, NRSV).
This story has all sorts of stewardship potential. First, there’s the delegation of tasks and authority. Joshua, Aaron, Hur, and the elders are entrusted with responsibility. That’s a leadership, vocation, and stewardship move that could be timely to lift up as we think about our shared work together and how we all are important in being and doing part of the work of God in the world.
The story also culminates a theme that has been running throughout our readings this season, stories about the law and commandments. The commandments here are being entrusted to Moses. They are a gift, at least in as much as the law can be a gift, so that life might go well for the People of God.
The story also has its own sense of transcendence, part of the theme of Transfiguration. As the story goes, “Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:18, NRSV). Of course, Moses will show up on a few other mountaintops won’t he. (Including the one in the gospel story this week.) How does God show up in the big, beautiful, and unexplainable moments of life? How do we lean into these mountaintop experiences of joy, euphoria and transcendence? How do we steward these experiences throughout our whole lives and our selves? How do they shape us, call us, and send us? Questions to ponder.
The psalm fits the theme in the sense of pointing to who God is and what God does (and will do). The psalmist declares, “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:7-11, NRSV).
There’s a reminder to serve the Lord. That’s why we go down into the valley from the mountaintop experiences. We do so, knowing that God is with us, and thus we take refuge in God’s presence as we go and descend the mountaintop experiences of life and serve in the valleys and other places that our journeys might take us.
The second lesson from 2 Peter seems to rehash the gospel story in part. Our reading begins, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18, NRSV).
We are witnesses. That’s the claim here. The claim that was made in Jesus’ baptism, and the claim made too with the transfiguration, bookending this season after Epiphany. We are all witnesses to what God has done and is doing. We have all heard of God’s declaration that “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” But how do we respond to this? Perhaps that’s the question the epistle is asking of us today. And that’s an important stewardship question to be sure.
But there’s more here too. The reading continues, “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:19-21, NRSV). There’s a reminder here that this is God’s work. When we engage in this work, we do so not just as ourselves, but most importantly because we have been claimed, called, gathered, sent, and moved by and with the Holy Spirit. God is active and up to something in the world, and that often might come in, for, through, around, and with us.
Now turning to the Transfiguration story itself. It needs no introduction. But in Matthew’s version it comes in Chapter 17. That means we have just skipped 11-12 chapters of Jesus’ ministry and work. We have skipped from the first of three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, to another mountaintop experience. One where Peter, James, and John join him. And pure and simply, this experience of transcendence will be like nothing they’ve ever experienced (at least not yet anyway).
The story begins. “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” (Matthew 17:1-4, NRSV).
It is indeed good to be there. And no one can fault Peter for wanting to make dwellings, so that the experience might last. If you found the most awesome experience and beauty in the world and your life, would you want to leave? Perhaps its not so different from a perfect vacation, or the most awe-inspiring sight or sunrise or sunset you have ever seen? Though I imagine it’s even more than this, because the fore-fathers of the faith have shown up and are dazzling along with Jesus.
Perhaps a more logical response might be one of fear and terror. One of wondering, “what on earth is going on?” (Of course, the whole “on earth” might lose its meaning a bit here.) But at the same time, would this really be that crazy given all that these disciples have witnessed by now? Like hearing God’s voice speak from the heavens. Or seeing the dead be raised like Lazarus. Of feeding 5,000+ people with a few loaves and fishes. The extraordinary has been happening left and right with this Jesus, so at this point, is this really even unbelievable? It seems like it could actually be a rather normal day in the life of Jesus. (Well, besides the bright transcendence of it all I guess.)
Of course there is more to the story. It continues. “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” (Matthew 17:5-9, NRSV).
These disciples are kind of goofy. The presence of Moses and Elijah doesn’t scare the disciples. But God’s voice does, and perhaps even more so being told “listen to him!” does? God calls the disciples to listen to Jesus, and at that they fall to the ground. To this, Jesus says, “do not be afraid,” as he often does. Whether on a boat or in a storm. When showing up after having been away. And then he does the most Jesus thing, he says “tell no one.” Why do I feel like that’s the one commandment of Jesus’ that we take to heart as Christians and Lutherans? The caveat here is that Jesus says “until after the Son of man has been raised.” Well, that’s happened. It no longer applies. We should be telling everyone about this.
That brings us to stewardship and discipleship in the larger sense. Of course the group doesn’t stay on the mountain. They come down from this moment of transcendence, because there is work to be done. The passion is to come. The Son of Man will die and be raised. More sick will be healed. The Word of God shall be proclaimed. The poor and needy will be uplifted. The hard work of the cross, of discipleship and stewardship lies ahead. But we have the Son of Man with us. We have the Spirit’s presence which made such a mountaintop moment possible, with us, guiding us on and leading us. We go down to the valleys of life, because that is where God calls us to. To serve. To bear God’s love. And to be that which God has called and created us to be. Beloved Children of God who are stewards, disciples, and bearers of God’s love in the world.
The big moments of light and white and bright are wonderful. Just like the moments we have of receiving the elements of communion, of God’s presence with us and for us are wonderful. Just like a moving worship service is wonderful. All of these things and experiences fill us, and then go with us as we’re sent out into our vocations and lives. Sent out for the sake of our neighbors and a world so thirsting and hungry for the abundant life, hope, and healing that God provides.
Perhaps this Transfiguration is another chance to make this point. To close the Epiphany season and say Alleluia one more time, before we move with our eyes like Jesus to the cross and the Lenten and Passion journey which begins in earnest on Ash Wednesday. When we will remember who holds us fast and what lasts, and what doesn’t because moth, dust and rust consume.
Celebrate this Transfiguration. Tell the story. And join in the challenge and commissioning that happens with such a story. Share it widely, and ponder with your community this week about what’s next. What might God be up to now? And how might God be calling us and leading us out into and with the world that is hurting and broken, yet also one which God so dearly loves as God’s own.
Though Mark’s telling of the Transfiguration is distinct from that of Matthew’s, I encourage you to see the reflections above as they pertain to the Transfiguration story. For the same ideas, and questions hold for thinking about stewardship with both texts.
Now unique to the narrative, is the end of Mark 8 that is also included in this week’s story. One where Jesus invites responses to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” The story begins, “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:27-30, NRSV)
Again, Jesus tells the disciples not to share what they have learned. He does this in Matthew’s story this week too. We seem to take this to heart too much in my estimation. Perhaps we should lean more into the examples of Peter and Paul after the resurrection. Tell the story and point to the love of God for all, no matter what. That’s a story and promise we know. That’s one that has been entrusted to our care. We rest in it’s good news, but also can’t help but want to share it with the world so in need of hearing it and knowing it.
Jesus uses the questions and conversations about his identity as a teaching opportunity to describe the road ahead to the cross and his being handed over to come. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (Mark 8:31-33, NRSV).
The disciples can’t quite grasp what Jesus is saying yet. Hence, Peter is told to “Get behind me, Satan!” It’s not so different than what Jesus might say to us, when we lose our way. When we start to think Christianity is about power and privilege. When we start to think our lives as stewards are all about us, and not God. When we turn inward and need to instead be opened up and pushed outward toward and with our neighbors. Peter’s reaction in a stewardship sense might be an example of all of this and more.
From here, Jesus turns toward what a life as a disciple and steward really means. It means to take up one’s cross. It means to follow. It means to die to oneself. The story continues, as Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38, NRSV). This portion concludes with the beginning of chapter 9. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1, NRSV).
Now, just as in Matthew, Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story picks up after six days. Who knows what happened in those six days really, but I trust people ate, slept, and lived. Perhaps there was more ministry and healing that happened. But it’s not directly mentioned in these gospel stories.
The story continues, “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” (Mark 9:2-8, NRSV).
That’s where the story stops for this week. The narrative will pick up as Mark moves the story along toward the passion. It will have more examples of ministry and teaching. But for this week, that’s where we stop. A nuance difference from Matthew’s take in the RCL is that Peter’s fear comes out in his words to Jesus about “making three dwellings.” As we read, Peter “did not know what to say,” for they were terrified. In Matthew’s version, the fear comes after hearing God’s voice of declaration. But in Mark’s, it comes with the dazzling white and appearance of Elijah with Moses. It’s a nuance. But an interesting difference in the version of the story.
For stewardship again, I would think about what comes next? (As mentioned above about Matthew’s version of the story?) What comes in the way of a response by the disciples to God’s transcendence showing up like this? What comes in the way of our response as disciples and stewards knowing that such moments like this happen, but they are fleeting, and then we return to the rest of our lives? Changed perhaps, yes, but sent back into our daily lives. How do we live as changed stewards and disciples for the sake of our neighbors? How do we share the fulfillment of such transcendence, and how does it fill us and lead us into our various roles and vocations?
Perhaps the included psalm might help this week. The beginning of Psalm 27 reminds us that the Lord is our light and our salvation. That’s who God is. And that is who we are, this God of light and salvation’s people. That matters. That’s a gift. That’s a relationship of promises and covenants, of hope, love, and abundance.
The psalmist begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:1-4, NRSV).
We do not live in fear. We are freed by God who is with us, loves us, and is for us. That’s what is at heart of the Transfiguration story. That’s why we live and serve and grow as disciples and stewards. That’s why we bear the cross with Christ. And that’s why we confess and seek absolution for the times that we, like Peter, turn inward. We lose sight of all that God entrusts and does and calls us to. We sometimes take it for granted. But it’s moments like these, moments of transcendence and Transfiguration which shake us up and wake us up again. So that we might be awake with eyes wide open and arms open and outstretched for the world like the one who gave himself for us on the cross, for us.
Our lives as stewards and disciples are our joyful and grateful response to all of this and for all of this. May we live and serve in the light of the Transfiguration. May Christ’s glow reflect on us, and may it fill us and lead us to share God’s love with the world in all that we do and all that we say.