I hope you enjoy these reflections about this week’s appointed stories from the revised common and narrative lectionaries, with potential insights about discipleship, mission, innovation, and stewardship.
On the one hand I always love Transfiguration Sunday. The Epiphany joy it brings. The presence of God revealed. The moment on the mountain top, and the reality that we can’t stay in our mountaintop experiences forever but are called back to our daily lives and vocations with purpose… It’s all good stuff. But on the other hand, I always feel a sense of sadness with it because it is the last day we say “Hallelujah!” until Easter, as we bury or refrain from such praise during Lent. So on that hand, it marks the end of one of season of joy and discovery which flows out of Christmas, and the beginning of the most somber season of the year. Perhaps you have the same mixed feelings I have about it? Either way, there is good stuff in the lectionary’s stories this week. Let’s take them in order and note what we see and hear.
Our first lesson comes from Exodus 34 when Moses himself has been transfigured having spent time with God and received the commandments. We read that, “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (Exodus 34:29-35, NRSV).
Speaking with God makes your face shine. That could be one take away from this story anyway. In which case, I wonder if that still happens today? If so, I have to admit I haven’t been paying attention, perhaps I should make it a point to see what one’s face looks like after prayer for awhile? Either way, this story is familiar in that it brings us to the point where Moses has come down from the mountaintop with the commandments, and he is regularly talking with God. But these conversations leave a glowing mark, so as to not cause fear among the people he makes use of a veil. I wonder, do we feel at times that we have to guard ourselves from the fullness of the good news of the gospel and the changed life of being a disciple? Or perhaps this is an accompaniment move. Moses recognizes that the people long to learn and be in relationship with God, but they are also afraid because of the uniqueness of the glowing aspects Moses shows and the change and transformation that means. So in effect, Moses acting as an intermediary, is showing great love for the people entrusted to his care by sharing God’s Word and commandments with them, but also working to try and make them feel not as afraid in receiving that Word and presence. Obviously, this coming down from the mountaintop also connects well with the gospel story for this week too.
The psalm appointed for Transfiguration this year is Psalm 99. The psalmist proclaims, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he! Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he! Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the Lord, and he answered them. He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them. O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy” (Psalm 99, NRSV).
The psalmist provides words and a call for our response for all that God is and all that God has done. “Let them praise your great and awesome name.” Reminds me of the words of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy, “It is right, our duty and our joy to give our thanks and praise.” And we do this because we know all that God has done, will do, and promises to do. We know that God is a “mighty king, lover of justice,” who has established equity and justice and righteousness… as the psalmist reminds. The psalmist this week also connects to our first story recalling the work of Moses and Aaron as co-workers with God, and even recalls the way that God has spoken to God’s people through clouds with decrees and statutes like the commandments given. This is God’s story that we are all a part of, and the psalmist this week particularly calls us to remember and be present in it, as we “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain.” This is a stewardship reminder, and a broader discipleship one too, which is timely as we move towards the end of this time after Epiphany and towards the start of Lent. To be present and sit in God’s story, and to remember God’s saving work for God’s own beloved.
The second lesson for this week comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes, “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:12-18, NRSV).
Paul reminds us of the hope that we have and know in Christ Jesus and that through that hope we can act with great boldness. This is good news. Especially now for us as we wonder what God might be up to, amidst times of uncertainty and anxiety within the church and the world such as this. Paul then goes on to recall Moses and the veil from our first lesson this week. In Paul’s mind, Christ is through whom the veil that Moses puts on is set aside, as when we turn to the Lord the veil is removed. He then talks about the Trinitarian move of the Lord as the Spirit, and the famous line, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This freedom and Spirit transforms us all, building off an understanding that we are each created in the very Image of God and are Children of God. And this relationship and presence is a move of both transformation and boldness and hope that we hold and know because of God’s love and mercy in Jesus for us.
Paul continues into chapter 4. I really wish that the lesson went further this week to incorporate the “Treasure in Clay Jars,” but alas, we’ll hear about them elsewhere. For this week the lesson continues with the first two verses of chapter 4 where Paul writes, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2, NRSV).
This is a message we need to hear now as much as ever. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Amid pandemic and post-pandemic time, amid societal upheaval and polarization which divides communities and congregations, some estimate that up to 1/3 of all ministers of any denomination in the US are contemplating leaving the ministry altogether. It is a hard time to be in leadership. But what makes it possible is knowing that God in Christ walks with us, and it is not all about us. It pains me to see congregations deciding to turn away from their leaders in some communities, and in others, it pains me to see leaders who aren’t staying healthy (by participating in continuing education, observing sabbath and getting away, seeing a spiritual director and/or counselor regularly) putting themselves and their faith communities at risk. We do all of this, all that we do, because we know it’s not all about us but God in Christ. And it is that reason that we are in this ministry together as God’s people, remembering to “commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.”
The Transfiguration Gospel lesson for Year C comes from Luke 9. We hear the familiar story as follows. “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now 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. Just 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. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When 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” (Luke 9:28-36, NRSV).
Could you imagine if you were Peter, John, or James. What would your reaction have been at seeing Moses, Elijah, Jesus and dazzling white? Would you have been speechless? Perhaps thought like Peter that to be in such a transcendent experience, you would never want to leave? If so, you wouldn’t be alone. Mountaintop experiences (knowing that this mountaintop experience might be the most transformational and memorable) are experiences of life changing beauty, epiphanies, discoveries, conversations, and ideas. As such they aren’t always long lasting. But they are moments and experiences that make a life changing mark on the rest of one’s life. I would imagine that hikers who summit such majestic peaks like Mt. Rainier, Denali, Mt. Everest, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Fuji, or other great summits have experiences too of seeing the wonders of God’s creation and feeling closer to the divine too by the very fact that they have climbed so high. But as we dive back into this story this week, I can’t help but wonder if we would have been like Peter and looking for ways to make dwellings and stay in the transcendent moment for a long time. That obviously doesn’t happen, and Jesus wouldn’t let that happen anyway. There is work to be done back down in the valley. There is ministry that needs to happen. People are in need. God’s work is being done. And as Elijah and Moses alluded to with Jesus, they collectively seemed to know what lies ahead as they spoke of Jesus’ departure and what would come in Jerusalem. Jesus’ eyes are squarely on Jerusalem now, which makes for the perfect segue way into the season of Lent.
As a disciple though I wonder if we don’t pay enough attention in Luke’s version of the story to what happens next. Where the voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” I think we get that part pretty well. The disciples listen, but perhaps don’t always understand. Perhaps that’s us too. But the part I fear we take too seriously is the “And they kept silent.” In Luke’s version of the story that wasn’t a command, just an observation. Do we keep silent too after witnessing and experiencing the transcendent and transformational life-changing love of God in Christ? I hope not! We’re called to share the Good News through all that we say and do. But I do wonder, if perhaps what God’s people need to hear this week in particular is the permission to “Go and Do.” The permission to “Go and try.” To “Go and tell.” To “Go, see, listen, show up, speak up, and share God’s love.” For me, that perhaps is the most important part of the Transfiguration story. A handful of disciples have now witnessed up close and personally, the glory of God. What are they going to do about it now though? Sit in it and stay there? Or go back down the mountain and dive into their work and holy calling as part of God’s work and mission in the world? That’s a question for us this week too.
I’m glad the lectionary provides the optional inclusion too of verses 37-43. This helps start the conversation about what might be next. So if I were preaching this week, I would include this section. Hear these words too as the story in essence continues and helps God’s people remember what happened next after they had come down from the mountain. We read, “On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly 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. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.‘ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.‘ While 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. And all were astounded at the greatness of God. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples…” (Luke 9:37-43, NRSV).
I wonder, do you think Jesus was dismayed at all the people when saying “You faithless and perverse generation,” or the disciples in particular because they didn’t cast out the demon in the boy? No matter, but this does serve as a teaching moment for Jesus. He continues his healing work. The people and the crowds are still coming and showing up because they have heard about this Jesus and are wondering what God might be up to. And they were “astounded at the greatness of God,” and “amazed at all that he was doing…” Amazement and astonishment are good and honest human reactions to the whole Transfiguration story in particular. But Jesus doesn’t seem to get caught up in that. He’s focused on the work of healing and saving that needs to be done. If you notice too, the optional inclusion kind of ends before Jesus’ next statement to this disciples. Perhaps that can be treated as a “to be continued,” message of sorts. Or you can add that in too.
I think this optional inclusion also serves to highlight the immediacy of these actions. Jesus knows the clock has started on what lies ahead in Jerusalem, and he is understandably wondering how much work and time he has still to help the disciples figure out what God is calling them into. They haven’t figured it out yet, and like any good teacher, I suspect that realization is a hard and disappointing one to have. Nevertheless the work continues. The ministry continues. The reality of healing and helping, and doing God’s work in the here and now continues. And perhaps that is the biggest discipleship lesson of all out of the Transfiguration’s story? God’s glory is real. But God’s people still need to experience it, be healed, and know and feel God’s love. So let’s get to it.
Whatever elements of the story or stories grab your imagination this week, whatever comes to you as you prepare and share God’s love, may God’s love, promise, glory, and presence shine brightly for you this week and be made known fully through you too!
Sunday February 27, 2022: The Narrative Lectionary- Transfiguration of Our Lord (Narrative Year 4: Week 25)
Narrative Theme: The Man Born Blind
Focus Passage: John 9:1-41
Psalm Accompaniment: Psalm 27:1-4
The Narrative Lectionary continues its journey through the Gospel of John. This week we find ourselves in chapter 9, with the story about the man who was born blind. There’s the element of majesty and miracle that we might expect to hear on Transfiguration Sunday. Though it’s certainly not the traditional Transfiguration story by any means. So if trying to mark the liturgical day in your context, you might ponder how to link that mountaintop experience with this story. Now, on to the appointed text. We’ll take it in sections.
We read at the start of John 9, “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see” (John 9:1-7, NRSV).
There’s some unpacking that needs to be done with a story like this. First of all, there’s a lesson of neighbor love and accompaniment that comes through this story. Culturally, there was an assumption that if someone was born with a challenge (like blindness), people assumed that was the result of sin. Now today we know, if we believe in science anyway, that it’s not sin at all just plain genetics and the odd things that can happen in DNA/RNA sequencing and hereditary matters from parents and other ancestor generations, not to mention exterior societal factors (like poverty, famine, hardship, etc.). Jesus rebukes the sin argument immediately, and makes the point that this is an opportunity for God’s work to be done and revealed.
Jesus says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day…” He knows that he will only be with the people of God on earth for a certain amount of time. So he wants to maximize that to heal and save as much as possible. Within this he makes one of his famous “I am” statements too in underscoring this, proclaiming, “I am the light of the world.” That’s a Transfiguration message if there ever was one. But sometimes the moments of miracles and transformation don’t involve mountaintops, but rather God doing the extraordinary through the ordinary. Like Jesus turns water into wine earlier in the Gospel of John, here, he spits and makes mud with own hands, and then uses that to heal. Putting aside that this might sound and be gross (especially in our current pandemic/post-pandemic realities), Jesus is using the basic elements of life and nature to do God’s work. That’s wonderful. But it also might not be the most transcendent experience we all might expect to witness if God shows up in our midst.
The story continues. “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?‘ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, “I do not know’” (John 9:8-12, NRSV).
The man who was born blind could now see, though not everyone could believe he was the same person. This wasn’t the man’s fault, he just didn’t know where Jesus was. But he did say to those who asked, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on y eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” So the man born blind was acting as a disciple and evangelist. He was telling all who asked what God has done for him. That’s something we’re all called as disciples, stewards, and Children of God to share too. To tell the story and news of who God is, and what God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for us and all of God’s beloved.
But, as you might expect, that answer wasn’t good enough for some people. So they did what they knew, they brought the man to those in their community who they thought would have answers, the Pharisees. And the story continues.
“They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?‘ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’ The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.‘ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’ So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?‘ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.‘ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out” (John 9:13-34, NRSV).
It’s stories like these that give the Pharisees, understandably, a bad name. They don’t seem to understand that God can and does speak to God’s people, not just one time for all times through a burning bush to Moses, but throughout scriptures and all times for God’s people. The man who was born blind gets this, and he is beside himself that they keep asking the same question and not listening to him. He gets thrown out of the synagogue for speaking the truth and testifying to the truth. The Pharisees are so bent on the law, that of sabbath (and not understanding the whole point of sabbath is to give God praise and to give and preserve life) that when a life changing action happens in their midst, they deny it. They are also embodying the cultural norm that anything not deemed “normal,” is the result of sin. What a limited understanding of the way God works. But here we are some 2000 years later and people in our own congregations still do the same thing. If it doesn’t fit in our view or box of what we think God does or is, we ignore or discredit it. Instead of being bold to wonder, “what might God be up to here.” Surely the man born blind is doing God’s work, and is a disciple through deed and action. May we be so bold, courageous, and present as him in our daily lives.
But thankfully, the story isn’t quite done. For we know what comes next. Jesus reemerges in the story. We read, “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshiped him” (John 9:35-38, NRSV).
Jesus reveals himself to the man who had been born blind. At this point, I really wish that this man was given a name. Even if it meant a new name as a disciple who had witnessed Jesus. I kind of think he deserves that. Nevertheless no name to be found here. But Jesus comes near, and asks “Do you you believe in the Son of Man?” And the man, so willing and wanting to give thanks and praise says, “Lord, I believe.” If there was ever an individual in the gospels to highlight as the ideal response of joy and gratitude that embodies stewardship and discipleship, this man surely is the person. He had lived life with challenge of being blind in a society that didn’t take kindly or make adaptation for those needing some. He was given sight, only to be scoffed at and rejected by the faith community. But Jesus comes near (again), and the man believes and worships. Whatever becomes of the man after this, I have to believe that he will go on from this experience to be a great disciple who tells all who might listen about who Jesus is and what God has done for him. Again, may we all be so bold, hopeful, and faithful as disciples and stewards ourselves.
The story, at least for this week, concludes, “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:39-41, NRSV).
Jesus indeed is the light of the world as he claims at the beginning of this story. He brings light out darkness. Sight out of blindness. Light to the eyes of a man born blind. But those who fail to see, or more accurately, refuse to see God showing up in their midst, well… woe to them. Those in power in this context, the Pharisees, can’t fathom being wrong or that God would act in such a way. I wish I couldn’t imagine that being the case among faithful leaders. But it’s all too believable. We are all susceptible to the allures of power and the human sin of thinking we know what we know. This story, in addition to one of healing and Jesus showing up and doing what God does, is a reminder for us all to open our eyes, hearts, minds, ears, and hands. God shows up each day in our midst in ways we may not expect or know. But God is present and active and up to something. May we believe that, and be open enough to experience and witness to it. Not so stuck in our own understanding, beliefs, or ways of doing things that we miss God’s creative and redeeming work right around us.
The suggested accompaniment from the psalms comes from Psalm 27:1-4. The psalmist sings, “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).
The man born blind embodies the truth of this psalm. May we do likewise for the Lord is indeed our light and our salvation. Amen.
No matter what story or stories catch you, no matter what questions you wrestle with, and ideas you wonder about, may God’s life-giving love be made known to you and through you, and may the light of Christ guide your steps and your work this day and every other day of your life. -TS