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Be Transfigured, The Feast of the Transfiguration – August 6, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

We should be observing the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost today, but this year, there is a break in the pattern. Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which always falls on August 6th, and this Feast outranks Pentecost 9. In fact, there are only a handful of feast days so important that they take precedence over a Sunday, and all of them are feasts related to Jesus himself. Today we commemorate how Jesus was transfigured before his closest disciples, Peter, John, and James— how his glory was revealed in dazzling white light, and how God’s voice proclaimed, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him!”

“Transfigure” is not a word often used in conversation nowadays. We might use “transform” or “alter” instead, or even “change.” There is an interesting question with the Feast of the Transfiguration: who is it that’s really being changed in this story? Jesus appears to be changed. Luke writes “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” But the truth is, Jesus only looks different to his disciples. It is Peter, John, and James who are really transfigured, their eyes now open to see Jesus as he really is, clothed in light and revealed as the Son of God. And the disciples’ lives are changed too, after this experience of God’s presence: before, they thought they were following a remarkable teacher; after, they know their lives are being woven into God’s plan for the transfiguration of the world.

What experiences in your life frame the way you see and understand the world? Much of the way we experience the world is fixed by circumstances beyond our control: who our parents are, where we are from, the language we speak. But sometimes we have moments of clarity which allow us to see the world in a new light, from a bird’s-eye view. These are moments when it seems we can see beyond ourselves and our limitations, into the heart of reality. When you have this kind of experience, you can be fairly certain it’s because you have been in the presence of God. Transfiguration is a natural consequence of being in God’s presence.

Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain hoping to find God there. They were on a quest, actively seeking God’s presence. Like Peter and John and James, God is calling all of us to climb the mountain with Jesus. Jesus leads his disciples up there because he knows that’s where God lives. The same is true for Moses in the reading from Exodus — God is found on the mountaintop, where your vision is clear and all the noise of everyday life subsides.

But even though it is easier to find God on the mountaintop, that is not the only place God can be found. All of us came to church this morning, hoping to find something of God here. And God feels especially close in the beauty of the natural world: stars shining in the sky, waves falling on the ocean shore. Poets and visionaries can attest that these are places you can find God. When you’re lost or lonely or wondering what’s next, find a church to pray in, or a mountain to climb, or a forest to walk in — remember those places you have felt God’s presence before and go seek God there again.

Of course, there’s always a temptation to stay put on top of the mountain — to use that sacred space as a place to hide from the problems of the world. Peter — bumbling Peter, as usual —gives into this temptation when he asks Jesus if they can build dwellings on top of the mountain and just bask in God’s glorious presence forever, content, but removed from all the trouble brewing down on the ground below. The answer is no. God needs us to go down from the mountain and out into the world, and take some of God’s transformative love with us to share.

Truthfully, it isn’t only in those beautiful and set-apart places that we can find God. The whole world is filled with the glory of God, if we only have eyes to see. John Neafsey, in his book A Sacred Voice is Calling, writes that the most important place we can hear God’s voice is in the cry of the poor. Neafsey means that eventually, we have to go where we know God is. And we know that God is always alive in the struggle for justice. We know that God lives among the marginalized, that God fights for the poor and upholds the weak. This is another place to seek God’s presence, and to hear God’s voice in the story they tell. And from listening, to learn how best we can share God’s love with one another, and see unity where we thought there was division.

There is no place on earth that God’s love does not go. If we open our hearts to God’s Spirit and go looking for God, we will begin to see God’s presence all around us. Our transfiguration comes as our eyes are opened and our hearts changed. And the people who seemed so different from us before — the poor and the marginalized — we will see them as they really are: made in God’s image, just as we are; we will see how Jesus’ life was spent for them, just as it was for us.

Open your eyes and see the world as it is— beloved by God. Let your heart be transfigured by God’s love. Take that love down from this mountain and use it to bring more love into the world.

Amen.

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adult, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration (A).

Bible Study, The Transfiguration (A) – August 6, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Exodus 34:29-35

Moses returns to the people with the gift of the tablets of the covenant in his arms. He has been speaking with God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex 33:7-11). The Israelites stand in awe of the startling effect of Moses’ shining face. And the people are frightened by the change in him.

Moses calls the people close to hear God’s most holy words to them and to share in the renewed covenant. Eventually, despite their fear of the change in him, they come—the radiance of his face evidence of God working within him.

Don’t we long to be in the presence of our Creator? We pray for that very thing, to see the face of God, to be there with the Presence, to know what it is like. And indeed, it is a scary thing, knowing we will certainly be changed by the experience. Might others turn away, afraid of our shining faces and the truth we speak?

  • Moses veils his face unless he is with God or speaking God’s word to the people. Why do you think that is?
  • How is your faith visible to others?
  • What has been your experience of speaking God’s word to others? Do you think they see you differently afterward?

Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is the last of the “enthronement psalms” where we have a vision of God seated above all in the highest of holy places: in this case, upon the very Ark of the Covenant. In her translation of Psalm 99, Nan Merrill writes, “Awaken you people! Entrust your hearts to Love.” [1] In the face of very Love, the leaders of the world bow down and proclaim the mighty King, the lover of justice, who brings equity.

The psalmist, keenly aware of the failings of human kings and of the effect of their failings on the people, recalls for them their ancestral relationship with the Lord God. God is a king who can be relied upon to bring justice and mercy, while also holding us accountable. There are safety and assurance in boundaries and covenant. We know where God stands: God stands with us.

“Awaken you people, entrust your hearts to Love.”

  • Where do you find boundaries and structure help you in your relationship with God and others?
  • Are there “lesser gods” in your life that compete for your time with the Beloved?

2 Peter 1:13-21

The author of 2 Peter is obviously concerned about authority, credibility, and trust. We aren’t sure to whom he is referring when he contrasts “cleverly devised myths” with the eyewitness account of the Transfiguration. His are not words of boasting, but of concern that the readers or listeners know the truth of Jesus Christ, the Beloved Son of the Majestic Glory.

The writer also makes it clear that the Bible is a powerful and dangerous text, not to be interpreted without careful discernment and reliance upon the Spirit as mediator. In the Early Church, it was important (as it is for us today) to have confidence in those that interpreted Scripture. Prophecy never begins and ends with human beings, but from and with the Holy Spirit who enlightens our efforts, that the Word may serve as a lamp to illumine our hearts.

  • With the many interpretations of truth that swirl around us, where do you look for guidance and counsel?
  • This letter, purportedly written by Peter, apostle of Jesus, was most likely written by a later prophetic author. How does that change, if at all, how we might unlock our own interpretation of the “eyewitness” testimony?

Luke 9:28-36

The telling of the Transfiguration is found in all three synoptic gospels. All have similar elements – Jesus’ changing appearance, his shining face and dazzling white garments, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and the cloud from which God affirms Jesus’ authority, giving a foretaste of his glory as the Son of the Most High. The differences in Luke’s gospel lie in some specifics related to the conversation Jesus has with Elijah and Moses.

“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Here Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, bear witness to Jesus’ departure, his exodus, as still another saving act of God. Jesus and his companions will now begin the journey, traveling from the mountaintop to the valley, and from there the glory of God in Christ Jesus will be made known to all the nations.

We can’t blame Peter for wanting to hold onto the three shining figures transfigured by their proximity to the Holy One. How many times have we experienced the shining of Christ in our lives in a moment of inspired worship and prayer, only to find the image fading days or perhaps hours later? Unfortunately, we can’t stop time. Perhaps what we might seek to transfigure is how we see the world in the light of Christ, and then to reflect that out to the world.

  • What are some ways we can listen to Jesus’ voice that might transfigure our lives?
  • How do you shine the light of Christ in small and not-so-small ways?

[1] Merrill, Nan C. Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Sandi Albom is a recent May 2017 graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School with a Master of Divinity. She is serving as curate at All Saints’ Parish, Peterborough, N.H. and will be ordained to the transitional diaconate in September 2017. Sandi is active in the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire Recovery Ministries. Sandi, her husband Bob, a professor at Southern New Hampshire University, and their two feline companions, Mandy and Quinn, live in Hooksett, N.H.

 

 

Download the Bible Study for the Feast of the Transfiguration (A).

Bible Study, 4th Sunday after Pentecost – July 2, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

Genesis 22:1-14

The Binding of Isaac may present one of the most well-known and most challenging stories of the entire Bible. Biblical scholars have wide-ranging methods of either discounting or explaining away the horrific image of God asking a father to sacrifice his son—a notion that is almost unthinkable to us. Rather than trying to justify or condemn this action, let me provide a bit of background and share a few ideas, and then, as people of faith, we will do what we have always done: We will prayerfully consider the story together and call upon the Holy Spirit to guide us to some deeper understanding of God through it.

First of all, we must remember that the first fruits have always belonged to God. This was true of the harvest, the cattle, and human offspring. In the Ancient Near East, human sacrifice was fairly common, and although it was slowly fading by the time Genesis was written, it was not unknown. The rationale was that everything we have is because of God’s gifting it to us, and we are to return the first and best to God as a sign of thanksgiving. Given Sarah and Abraham’s infertility, Isaac was not only the first-born but the miraculous and valuable first-born. God sets out to test Abraham’s faith, and, through that testing, God provides Abraham with all he needs. Out of bareness, God provides a son. God tests Abraham’s faith, and God provides the means to maintain blessing in the face of sacrificial testing.

  • What does it mean to offer the first fruits of our lives to God?
  • Without going so far as to glorify suffering, where has God provided for you in times of suffering?
  • Does God test us? What is helpful or problematic about this strong Biblical theme? (See Job, or The Lord’s Prayer—“lead us not into temptation.”)

Psalm 13

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How many times in my life have I prayed this prayer? From the comparatively trivial times when the cop pulls me over for speeding, to the horrors of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, or the wildfires in Tennessee, there are times in life when it feels like God is far from us. Note that the psalmist believes that God has forgotten her “forever.” For the psalmist, this is not a temporary blip on the weather radar, but a permanent state wherein she feels as if God’s presence is so far removed that it will never return.

The psalms give us the incredible gift of raw, unvarnished human emotion. They remind us that God’s love for us does not mean that we live in a world of perfection without pain and suffering. This idea of human suffering in the presence of a loving god—theodicy—has perplexed followers of God for thousands of years. Yet we, like the psalmist, are called to recognize that pain and still ring out our song to “praise the name of the Lord Most High.” There is no shame in lament, for God laments with us; therefore, the Lord’s name be praised.

  • When is a time in your life where you felt God was absent?
  • How were you able, or were you able, to continue to praise God?
  • How might lament bring healing in times of suffering?

Romans 6:12-23

This passage from Paul’s most theologically dense letter always recalls images of the Exodus for me, and, in particular, Moses’ farewell address in Deuteronomy 30. Having led the people out of bondage in Egypt, God offers the people a choice between “life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut 30:15). In summary, if the people love God and follow God’s commandments, they will have life. If they do not, they will have death.

Likewise, Paul uses the imagery of slave either to sin or to righteousness. To our post-American slavery ears, this can sound harsh or even inhumane. We must never excuse or explain away the horrific sin of American slavery, but Paul means something different here. Just as God told the Hebrew people going into the Promised Land, God has given us teachings through the Law and through Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Law, which will lead us into a place of life and abundance. In particular, this “free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). Jesus’ whole life, culminating in his death and resurrection, was a testament to the Law which he summarized as “You shall love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:37–39).

  • Where in your life are you a slave to sin?
  • How might obedience to God deliver you from that position into life?
  • Where is our church/town/state/nation a slave to sin, and how might obedience to God deliver us into life?

Matthew 10:40-42

These two verses at the end of Chapter 10 of Matthew conclude a treatise from Jesus to his disciples on the role of mission. Jesus gathers the twelve, gives them the powers of healing and exorcism, and sends them into the world to cast out demons and heal (Mt 10:1). Jesus then warns his disciples that in performing these acts of love, they will meet persecution and disdain.

Jesus still commands us, his 21st-century followers, to share the Good News of Jesus, which brings healing and life to the world. This may not make us popular, and neither will the work be easy. In these two verses appointed for today, however, Jesus reveals the rewards for those who are faithful. Notice that these rewards do not include wealth, fame, or worldly goods. Our reward is “the reward of the righteous” (Mt 10:41). God calls each of us to spread the Gospel in different ways—some are wandering prophets, some are teachers, some are even little children. All of us, however, carry the light of Christ and can take that light into the dark places of this world.

  • What are your gifts, and how might you use them to spread the light of Christ?
  • What brings you great joy? How might God use that joy to spread the Gospel?
  • Where are the dark areas in your community that need the light of Christ?

Reflections written by Charles Lane Cowen, Postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Rhode Island and  M.Div. Candidate at the Seminary of the Southwest.

Download the Bible Study for Pentecost 4, Proper 8.

Bible Study, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (A) – June 25, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21

Outside of the book of Genesis, the word “Abraham” appears in the Bible 142 times. Compare that with Sarah, which appears 24 times, and Hagar who only appears 3 times—once in Baruch and twice in Galatians. Given that father Abraham is remembered for the covenant God makes with him to provide descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:5), it seems strange on the part of the biblical authors to ignore Sarah and Hagar, without whom Abraham would have no descendants.

The author paints a picture in today’s story of a jealous Sarah who casts out a helpless Hagar into the wilderness with her young son. Hagar, a servant girl, was forced against her will to have sexual relations with her master, bear him a son, only to be cast by her master’s jealous wife into the wilderness — where she and her son will surely die of thirst. Human jealousy, pride, and ambition pit these women against one another. God, however, remains faithful to both Sarah and Hagar. Hagar calls out to God, and God provides water and makes of Ishmael a great nation. Through Sarah and Isaac, God makes another great nation. In today’s world, we see over and over nation pitted against nation as we fall trap to the sins of jealousy, pride, and selfish ambition. Perhaps through remembering that God loves and cares for us even when we fall into sin, we can seek to create a world where we love all nations as family.

  • Look at Gustave Doré’s famous engraving of Hagar in the Wilderness. Does this image change the story for you in any way? How might you depict the story of Hagar and Ishmael?
  • Where in your life have you been jealous of the accomplishments of others? How might God transform that jealousy?
  • What does this story teach us about modern political diplomacy?

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

In Psalm 86, the psalmist calls out to God for help against enemies (this becomes far more apparent when we include verses 11–15 which the lectionary leaves out). The psalmist follows a familiar pattern of petitions for God’s help, followed by words praising God before asking for deliverance from enemies and moving into thanksgiving even before God provides help (Ps 86:12–13, BCP). The psalmist believes so surely in God’s goodness that he thanks God even before the prayer has been answered.

The most important verse of this psalm has been removed from today’s reading: “But you, O LORD, are gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger, and full of kindness and truth” (Ps. 86:15). This is a direct quote taken from Exodus 34:6 where God, speaking to Moses, reveals that I AM is a God who loves mercy over anger. The hope of favor the psalmist holds is not a blind hope like I hold when I say, “I hope I win the lottery.” This hope comes from God’s own mouth. The psalmist teaches us that when we pray and call upon God for help, we should reach deeply into our scriptural tradition to see how God has worked and is working in the world. Then we can call out with faith and hope to the God who has “helped me and comforted me” (Ps. 86:17).

  • What “enemies” persecute you or your community?
  • What insights do you gain from the scriptural witness?

Romans 6:1b-11

This poetic passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans beautifully summarizes for us the mystery of Holy Baptism. Baptism, especially as it has been made part of public Sunday worship in the 1979 Prayer Book, is a time for the whole church to rejoice in the addition of new members into our community, which is the Body of Christ. Given that in our tradition we practice infant baptism, most of our baptisms carry the double joy of also celebrating new life and growing families.

I certainly do not mean to suggest that the church should not celebrate the births of babies within our churches, but Holy Baptism has nothing to do with earthly birth, and everything to do with death to self and birth into a new way of being. Just as Paul reminds us so beautifully in this biblical song or canticle, through our baptism we, like Jesus, die. In the practice of full-immersion baptism, a person literally goes under water where they are incapable of breathing—death. Rising up out of the water under the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the person takes a new breath as they emerge from Jesus’ death into Jesus’ resurrection.

This is good news! We are no more slaves to sin, but we have a new life in Jesus. We are no longer slaves to death, but we have eternal life in Jesus. Alleluia!

  • What aspects of death are in our baptismal liturgy?
  • What aspects of birth are in our baptismal liturgy?
  • What does full participation in the Body of Christ look like? How might we order our lives if we remain conscious of the fact that we are part of the Body of Christ?

Matthew 10:24-39

One common complaint against Christianity brought up by atheists is the problem of theodicy—why does an all-powerful, loving God allow terrible things to happen in the world? This criticism only holds up, however, if one buys into the common misunderstanding, professed by many Christians, that Christianity is a religion of sunshine, rainbows, unicorns, and puppy dogs, completely devoid of suffering and pain. Readers of Matthew’s gospel know that the in-breaking of God’s kingdom comes with much pain and suffering.

Today’s reading begins with Jesus reminding us not to fear the oppressors of this world, but to fear God. Written against the backdrop of the oppressive Roman Empire, Matthew offers words of comfort to worshippers of God that the reign of God is being uncovered. Jesus empowers us to stand in opposition to our oppressors, proclaiming the peace and love of God, yet Jesus is not naïve enough to think that our oppressors will simply give up. Proclaiming the Good News will always make those in power uncomfortable, and sometimes that even means people in our own families.

  • When have you disagreed with someone in your family about politics or religion? Were you able to resolve it? If so, how?
  • What issues in your local community might be informed by your being a follower of Jesus? How might you proclaim God’s justice in places of oppression? 

Charles Lane Cowen is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Rhode Island and an M.Div. Candidate at the Seminary of the Southwest.

Download the Bible Study for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost.

Seeing through Doubt, Easter 3(A) – April 30, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

The walk to Emmaus is a lovely story, filled with nostalgia and pathos, and graced with details. It has attracted great artists because only art can do it some justice. The evangelist Luke was an artist with words, and the painters who were inspired by him have only added to the beauty of the description. Instead of sermonizing on it, it’s better to relive the story.

It is early morning, on the first day of the week, after the dawn that was to change the world. Startling revelations have been shaking the disciples who are hiding in a certain home in Jerusalem. Women have been coming and going, some exclaiming that they have seen the Lord, others recounting the words of angels. Their eyes are so filled with light that those who see them almost shun them. John and Peter run to the tomb only to find it empty. All this was witnessed by the two people who start out on the walk to Emmaus and home.

It makes sense to think of them as husband and wife. One of them is named as Cleopas. The other is unnamed, but there is a reference to a woman disciple whose name was Maria Klopas, (in the Greek). Easy to miss a vowel in transcription. Several prominent writers/theologians—among them Bishop George Bell and Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote in the nineteen-forties—believed that the second person was a woman: Mary Cleopas.

So let’s try to imagine the scene. The disciples, disheartened and depressed, had hidden in a home in Jerusalem, after the arrest and murder of their beloved teacher. Because the Zebedee family (James and John) were of a priestly lineage, it is possible that they had a family house in the city, in addition to their place in Galilee. So, we will assume that the women are looking after the mother of Jesus in that particular Jerusalem house, since Jesus, as he was dying on the cross, had entrusted her to his dear friend John. “This is now your mother,” he had told his friend.

Several younger women have gone in the dark to the tomb, to wash and anoint the body of the Beloved, only to find the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene stays there but the rest run to tell the disciples and his mother. Confusion comes in and out of the house during the morning hours. Is it possible? Can we believe what these emotional women are telling us? If it is not true, can our hearts endure another hammer blow? A perfectly human reaction to extraordinary news from ordinary human folk.

Cleopas must have arrived at the house to escort his wife back home to Emmaus now that her task of mercy is done. Confused and heavy-hearted, they start on the trip downhill. Luke tells us that Emmaus was about sixty stadia (10-12 kilometers) from Jerusalem, and though the exact place has not been determined, we will take the writer at his word. It is a cool spring morning with birds singing and sheep moving nearby, but they are feeling sad with only occasional twinges of hope. Mary is telling her husband about the report of the other women, the wild hope that stirred in them, but also of the confusion that followed. Cleopas had talked to some of the men but they had not seen the Lord, so their depression had fallen upon him also. “None of them has seen him,” he repeats.

The sun is rising and they pause, put their bundles down, to drink a bit of water and rest. Afterward, as they bend down to pick up their belongings to continue the walk, someone else appears next to them, and they wonder why they had not heard or seen him before. He says to them, and there is amusement in his voice, “What have you been discussing? I saw you walking and talking earnestly.”

It’s their turn to be astounded. The greatest and saddest event of their lives had occurred in the last three days. How was it possible that there were people left in their world who didn’t know that they had lost the one they loved, the one who had made life worth living? When a beloved person dies, it is difficult to understand how the earth still spins and the sun still rises and life goes on. Their reaction is perfectly natural after such enormous grief. Cleopas asks the stranger: “Where have you been? Are you the only one who hasn’t heard what happened in the past three days? The best of men, a great prophet, one who did nothing but good, was killed. We had hoped he was our liberator.” The stranger is quiet, listening. The wife jumps in. “But something else happened earlier this morning. Friends of ours went to his tomb and found it empty.” She hesitates, both excited and doubtful. “The women saw a vision of angels. And the angels told them—he’s alive.” Her voice moves from excitement to bewilderment.

The stranger doesn’t pause but keeps walking and they follow, mystified. And then they hear his sigh and his words: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow your hearts are to believe all that the prophets have told you!” Husband and wife look at each other in amazement, but they don’t respond. And now they listen as the stranger tells them stories from their long history and tradition, from the Exodus to the prophets to their own time. They hear the references to God’s anointed and, little by little, they understand that he is talking about their beloved friend and teacher, and now everything falls into place: Jesus’ words about himself as he taught them and as he healed so many illnesses; Jesus’ continued references to his Father; Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. They understand that all this, even Jesus’ death, had been God’s plan from the beginning, and now hope fills them that not all is lost. In fact, everything is gained.

But look, time passes so quickly as they are listening to his words! They are almost at their village. They can see the walls of their home. The stranger offers his farewell and makes as if to continue but panic grips the couple. They don’t want him to go. The wife, practical and hospitable, says, “Look, sir, it will soon be night. Please, come and stay with us.” And the stranger does not refuse. In the manner of Middle Eastern people through the ages, they invite him to eat with them, and he agrees. There is a lamp burning on the table and a loaf of bread next to the water and wine. He reaches for the bread and, confronted by holiness, they watch as he prays, breaks the bread in two pieces and offers it to them. “Ah,” they cry out, “it is the Lord!” Recognition now fills them because of the familiar gesture of the Beloved, but now he is gone from their presence. His work is done but they are bereft. How is it that they had not recognized him all those hours he walked with them? They are ashamed. But that doesn’t last long. They have seen the Lord. They must share it with the others. Despite their tired legs, they return to Jerusalem.

They go to the same house where earlier they had left their fear-filled friends. But now they are all awake, rejoicing and sharing the good news with one another. “We have seen the Lord!” It becomes the most joyful refrain, whispered in amazement and then proclaimed in loud conviction. “We have seen the Lord!” Cleopas and his wife add to the chorus: “Yes, he was known to us in the breaking of the bread.”

May he be known to us also in the breaking of the bread.

 

Katerina Whitley, a writer, biblical storyteller and retreat leader lives in Boone, NC. www.katerinawhitley.net

Download the sermon for Easter 3(A).

How well did you receive? Maundy Thursday (A) – April 13, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35 

“I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Tonight we enter the holiest time of the holiest week of the Christian year: the Triduum. The Triduum, meaning “Three Days” of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection is the central focus of the Christian faith. The Triduum is one extended liturgy in three distinct parts beginning with Maundy Thursday and ending at the Easter Vigil.

The Orthodox describe tonight’s portion of this great liturgy as consisting of four parts: the sacred Washing, the Mystical Supper, the transcendent Prayer, and the Betrayal itself. It begins with intimacy and ends with the betrayal of that same intimacy. Through this liturgy we embody the great beauty, vulnerability and tragedy of Christ’s great act and commandment of love.

As Jesus faces his final hours, knowing what was coming, he begins by taking the place of a servant in an act of intimacy. Isn’t it interesting how Jesus has no trouble at all with washing the disciples’ feet? He quite naturally takes the role of the servant and just begins to wash the feet of each disciple. There is no self-consciousness about him, no discomfort.

The disquietude comes from Peter who, steeped in the honor/shame social systems of first century Palestine, cannot fathom a teacher doing the work of a slave. This just isn’t right!

But Jesus is clear: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” In Peter’s inimitable and impetuous style, he leaps beyond just feet and asks for his hands and head to be washed too. At this point, at least, he’s all in!

As you consider this scene, let’s ponder a question. Which role would you be most comfortable playing: Jesus, the one who is active and giving, or Peter, the one who is receiving? We live in a culture which values doing over being and is deeply rooted in both a utilitarian ethic and a mythology of independence.

Our American culture is prone to measuring personal worth based upon what we can do or contribute to society. Take our ability to “contribute” away, and our culture’s message is that you have no worth, no value.

This culture forms and shapes us into people who spend the bulk of our lives wanting to be the active agents, the ones who do, while we often either ignore or shun receptivity both in ourselves and in others. Being a “receiver” is often negatively viewed as being a “taker,” a “slacker,” a “leech” or “burden on society.” Our mythology of independence only reinforces this utilitarianism. We often see the need to receive graciously as an affront to our God-given independence. Being dependent on others is the dread of many, especially as we age or face a terminal diagnosis.

The two cultural forces of utilitarianism and independence become most deeply problematic as we face the end of life. One of the deep spiritual distresses faced by the dying is their inability to “do” for others and how worthless it makes them feel.

Clergy and hospice chaplains often hear this expressed in comments such as, “I hate being a burden to my family” or “All I do is sit here and rot.” Sometimes this anguish manifests in angry words and lashing out at the very caregivers who work so hard to make sure their loved one have their needs met.

This passage from John’s Gospel has much to say in the face of our culture’s idolatry of utilitarianism and independence; for our worth is not measured in what we do, it is measured by who we are … and whose we are. The world’s great lie is that doing is the be all and end all – and this is a lie! We are beloved of God because we are God’s very own.

As God’s beloved child, you are enough just because you are. As such, the ability to be a gracious receiver is as important as being a generous giver. There is a season for both and both are necessary to have a share in Christ. For if you cannot receive the ministrations of the people who love you the most on this earth, how will you ever know how to receive the glory of God in this life or the next?

An antidote to the corrosive effects of utilitarianism and independence are found in cultivating gratitude in receiving. Giving thanks to both God and expressing it to others who have given of themselves to you imparts love and blessing to the world. This can be done by all of us, no matter the conditions of our lives: from childhood to the deathbed, all of us can express gratitude and love to those who give of themselves to us.

Gracious receptivity is the other side of the coin of being a generous giver: we are called in baptism to be both. Unless we learn to receive the ministrations of others, we have no share in Christ. This mutuality of love, both in giving and receiving, is at the heart of Eucharistic spirituality. The Eucharist is the incarnation of Christ’s self-giving and receiving Christ in the sacrament prepares us to go out and share that love with others.

The new commandment to love one another requires both giving and receiving. We cannot attend to just one part of this and rightly call it love. If one only gives, it places the receiver of our giving at a safe distance and denies both intimacy and vulnerability. If one only receives, it reduces us to spiritual infants and fosters emotional dependency.

Attending to merely one aspect of expressing love is a distortion. To love well is to be able to give and receive.

As St. John of the Cross once noted, when we die God will only ask one question of us: “How well did you love?” How well did you give? How well did you receive?

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Anjel Scarborough, who serves as the rector of Grace Church, Brunswick MD and is wife, mother, iconographer, writer and retreat leader.

Download the sermon for Maundy Thursday.

 

Sermons for the remainder of Holy Week can be found here:

 

Good Friday

Great Vigil of Easter

Bible Study, Lent 3(A) – March 19, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Exodus 17:1-7

The Israelites are weary and thirsty in the wilderness, and in their desperation, they demand divine providence in the form of water. Moses is, perhaps, a bit frustrated by their rancorousness, but God rushes forth to nourish the people with a stream from the rock at Horeb. What do we make of these cranky Israelites and their successful demand? Should they have kept their heads down and trusted their leaders, or were they right to cry out for God’s quenching mercy?

Our faith has a long tradition of humans quarreling with God: Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord; the Syrophoenician woman challenged Jesus to honor her plea for healing. Ours is a God of great mystery, but also one of relationality. “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb,” God promises, and so it was. Where else might streams of mercy flow forth, if we but have the audacity to demand it?

  • Recall a time when God responded to your petitions. Was the result what you anticipated?
  • As people of God, how do we balance patient, trusting faith with the urgency of human need?

Psalm 95

Psalm 95 is a play in two acts, first celebratory and then admonishing. God is honored as the creator of the caverns, the seas, and the hills; it is a power of inconceivable majesty. All are invited to “kneel before the Lord our Maker,” offering up a grateful submission to divine authority. 

But hold on! We are then reminded of those naughty “forebears…at Meribah, and…Massah”—those same Israelites who demanded water from the rock at Horeb. God seems offended that they were unwilling to trust in His ways, and their generation was “detested.” So much for pleading your case to the Almighty. We can take away a simple moral lesson from this, if we choose: putting God to the test is not going to win any celestial bonus points. But don’t forget: God still showed up at Horeb, the water flowed, and the Israelites continued their journey. We may fight with God, we may ask too much of God, but the covenant remains. We are still on the road home.

  • Where do you see God in the created order and in nature?
  • Was there a time when you were offended by a request from someone you loved? How did you maintain the relationship?

Romans 5:1-11

Paul’s reflections on suffering, endurance, and hope are a timely reflection during the Lenten season, when many of us take a hard look at the brokenness of ourselves and our world. In this passage he makes a bold statement: we are able to boast of a hope in “sharing in the glory of God.” When we consider our flaws and foibles, both large and small, such hope seems almost ludicrous. How could we ever approach God’s glory in our human weakness and fallibility?

The key, of course, is in Christ. His love unites us to the glory of God, and just as Christ’s suffering justified us on the cross, so too does our own suffering draw us ever deeper into Christ’s reconciliation. This is not a call to gratuitous penitence or a suggestion that we can save ourselves by loudly proclaiming our sins. God already knew what we needed, and it has been done, through Christ. We acknowledge our sin as the precondition of acknowledging grace, wherein “we will be saved by his life.”

  • What is your relationship with the concept of sin?
  • How has God called you to reconciliation in your own life?

John 4:5-42

You never know who you might encounter while going about your daily business. When the woman at the well encountered a man asking for a drink, she could have ignored him, or even complied silently, but something compelled her to engage. In doing so, she took part in a conversation that would alter her life and the lives of those in her community. How many times do we unwittingly pass by the face of God in the street because we are preoccupied with our own trivial concerns? What might we learn if we would be so bold as to ask “where do you get that living water?”

Again, we are drawn back to the Israelites in the wilderness. They asked for water, too, and were sated, at least for the needs of the moment. In Christ, we are asking for something far more enduring—a new fount, that of life itself, which will never run dry. But ask we must.

  • What thirst would you ask God to quench right now?
  • Where might you find Christ in the ordinary routines of your life?

Written by Phil Hooper, a first year M.Div student at CDSP and a postulant from the Diocese of Nevada. A lifelong spiritual seeker who found the Episcopal Church as an adult, he is drawn to ministries of hospitality, public witness, and contemplative spirituality. A nonprofit fundraiser and administrator in his former career, Hooper is dedicated to building faith communities of radical love, engaged discourse, and deep solidarity.

Download the Bible Study for Lent 3(A).

Trust in God’s Love, Lent 3(A) – March 19, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

What follows is largely based on the teachings of esteemed New Testament scholar John Knox, who wrote extensively about the context of today’s Epistle.

Before examining the Romans passage, however, let us focus on the very familiar story in today’s Gospel – the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well. How did we come to know this story since no newspaper, video recordings, or the like existed in the first century? A clue comes at the end of the passage: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”

Like these Samaritans, we know all we can know about the earthly Jesus because people like the disciples and the woman at the well told others about their face to face involvement with the one we call Christ. Those whom they told also told others who told others, and so on down the centuries until the story came to us. The passing of the Good News from one generation to another links us to the Jesus of history.

We can also understand this reality in reverse time – in the sacramental connection we all have with the early church through the laying on of hands by bishops who confirmed or received us. Those bishops became bishops when their predecessor bishops laid hands upon their heads as did every bishop’s predecessor, all the way back to the time of the earliest Christian community.

So, we are linked to Jesus and the early church through word and sacrament carried across 2,000 years of actions. But there is more to this connection with Christ – more of a fundamentally personal nature, as St. Paul illustrates. We cannot know Jesus the way the disciples and woman at the well did. We can, however, know and experience the risen Christ as Paul experienced him. He never met Jesus in the flesh, yet he is the primary teacher of the fact that we can know Christ just as certainly as the disciples, but in a non-physical way. Knowing the risen Christ through the passed-down story of Jesus is most effective if we, too, come to know Christ as alive within us and among us.

Today’s portion of the Epistle helps us understand this – as Paul begins by stating, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peace in this context means a lack of enmity or an absence of conflict – that is, peace is unity with God that we gain through “our Lord Jesus Christ.” The peace/unity with God that we experience in and from Christ is found in following Christ as Paul did and as must all who could not know the human Jesus.

This involves a restoring of the oneness that we, by virtue of our God-created nature, can have. It is a unity of God with us and us with all people, a unity of person and person, community and community – rightful relationships in God’s over-arching presence.

Of course, nothing is clearer than the fact that human beings consistently live out of peace, in conflict with God and one another. Though we turn from God again and again and sin against one another, still we have access to ultimate unity with God. Paul explained how this unity/peace comes about. Most importantly, he makes it clear that the process cannot be initiated by us – it begins only with God, with God loving us despite our unworthiness, despite our failure to love as God loves us, despite discord and conflict with other people. Despite all this, God forgives us and loves us unconditionally. Paul said it simply: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Enmity with God is cast aside by God’s forgiving action, which allows Christians to accept what God offers and live into what our Catechism defines as the “Mission of the Church” – which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

For Paul and the early church, the key to understanding God’s love and forgiveness was revealed by Jesus’ death on the cross. The proof of God’s love is Christ’s complete obedience to God despite the sinful acts that led to his death. Dying on the cross, Jesus forgives his enemies. This self-less death overpowers us and leads us to accept God’s love and forgiveness. Believers see pure love in his death and cannot resist its compelling power to follow in his way. We realize that Jesus makes us the most precious of creatures, even worth dying for.

God initiates the peace and unity and asks only our trust in his love and repentance from rebelling against his love – asks only that we accept the love, turn from our sin, and reform our lives, as a result. We don’t deserve the love and forgiveness, we cannot earn God’s love and forgiveness, but accepting it, we are freed by such faith. God provides the love; we provide repentance and renewal, becoming unified with God and others.

Dr. Knox observes that Paul and other theologians have throughout the centuries struggled to explain how Christ’s death accomplished this peace and reconciliation. All attempts to do so, in fact, have proved unsuccessful or, at best, are incomplete. However, he asserts, what is much more important is that Paul and the early church knew, above all, that God’s decisive action in history lay in Jesus’ death on the cross – that this action was absolutely essential to understanding the reality of God, God’s forgiveness, and the possibility of new life through accepting God’s love.

For Christians, Jesus’ death forms the singular focus on what God was doing through his life, death, resurrection, and the birth of the church. From the earliest days, the cross came to stand for everything distinctively Christian. It symbolizes both human sin and God’s all-giving love. It symbolizes both human sinfulness and human freedom from spiritual death, reconciling us to God, reuniting us with God and one another.

We are inheritors of the primitive church’s experience of the new reality of Christ-still-alive and of new life in the Spirit that was viewed through the lens of the cross. And now in our day, we, too, can experience in the life of the church the new community of love, no less than did Paul and the first Christians.

What we call the body of Christ, a living, flesh-and-blood reality, enables us to know Christ as a personal experience and not just a handed-down story. We are the continuation of the early community of believers within which everything about Christ happened. In this “dynamic community created around a living and present Lord . . . love is revealed, the Spirit is given, and faith and hope are found.”

While it is in and through the church that the risen Christ is known, no body of Christian believers acts in the full image of the loving God, divided and conflicted as we are. And yet the church is our only link with the historic community that emerged from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the only expression of Christ that we have, and even in its incompleteness, we, in our time, carry forward the new life of the Spirit of God.

We carry forward, too, the earliest expression of love based on Christ’s death in the communal meal that we call the Eucharist. From the earliest days of the church, the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, have marked our central act of worship and given substance as a way to keep Christ alive in the midst of the worshipping community. We continue to gather at a common rail, drink from a shared cup, and commune in the deepest relationship of love with Christ and one another. This has always been for Christians THE occasion of re-calling Jesus to our presence and empowering us to unite with him and one another. Through the church and through this sacrament, we continue to express the reality that Christ was and is alive and will continue to be alive among his followers.

Dr. Knox summarizes it well. “We remember him whom we know. We know him whom we remember.” And so, we can join St. Paul in saying, “We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Amen.

—————————

The following books by John Knox (1900-1990) are especially significant in dealing with the themes approached in this sermon: Life in Christ Jesus: reflections on Romans 5-8; Chapters in a Life of Paul; Jesus: Lord and Christ; and The Church and the Reality of Christ.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus. Kesselus is a retired priest living with his wife Toni in his native home of Bastrop, Texas, where he serves as the mayor and writes history book and a column in the local newspaper. He is a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and author John E. Hines:Granite on Fire.

Download the sermon for Lent 3(A).

Transformation, Last Sunday after Epiphany (A) – February 26, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

It had been a long, multi-year mission with not much to show for it except threats from the rulers of occupied Israel and the religious authorities. Despite countless healings of the sick, large crowds coming out to hear him, miracles of feeding the hungry, they were still a small band of disciples. They surely wondered if the only reason people came out to hear him was for a diversion, and entertainment, a distraction from everyday drudgery. And maybe a good debate between the synagogue gurus and Jesus, just for fun.

And all that time they had wondered, seldom daring to ask, ‘Who are you?’

Now it seems like the threats and hatred are building to a crescendo, and Jesus wants to go up to Jerusalem. Surely he understands the danger to himself and to his small band of loyal followers?

But they keep following him, nevertheless. Pondering, bickering amongst themselves about who should be the greatest among them, and who should sit next to him in this kingdom he keeps talking about.

When Jesus invites three of his closest friends to come with him up on a mountain to pray, they willingly go, unprepared for what is to happen next.

Seeing Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus in a visionary experience, and then hearing a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” is astonishing, in fact overwhelming. They fall to the ground in fear.

The experience of the Transfiguration is not possible to overstate. It comes to us full of meaning, as assurance of God’s affirmation of Jesus and our humanity. There is no need to explain it further. It is a singular experience given to all who seek to know who Jesus is, and what lies ahead for people of faith. Jesus radically recalls our humanity and affirms our nature with his divinity. The Kingdom of God has entered the world in human form, and we are called to witness to that Good News.

The reading from Second Peter describes the situation well: “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” (2 Peter 16).

The Transfiguration and empowering Resurrection give the disciples the will to persevere, something bestowed on all of us in our Baptism (see page 308 in The Book of Common Prayer). The same God who presides at the Transfiguration of Jesus and promises us that one day we will be transformed into his likeness, baptizes us into the faith that promises the transformation of people.

While that is glorious and reassuring, it does not give us permission to close the doors of our hearts and minds while we sit around and wait for the return of Christ. Rather, it empowers us to live like people of conviction and redemption in a world badly in need of both.

If we are to participate in Lent as an exercise of self-examination and repentance, let that be acted out with kindness and grace. If we are to mark the coming period with fasting and prayer, let it also be a time when we set aside personal pleasures and work for the relief of suffering of others. If Lent is to be a journey to the Cross, let it be a journey where we allow ourselves to be taken to places and people as God needs us, for that will pattern our lives after Peter, James and John and the other disciples.

A woman from a small southern town recently visited her daughter in a major U.S. city. While there she participated in one of the women’s marches that took place across the world that weekend in January. She said she participated because she thought it would help her express her concerns about her own political beliefs. After the march she said she realized the experience transformed her. She now no longer feels anger and frustration, but hope and opportunity, knowing there are millions of people who share her hopes and dreams and are concerned about the welfare of others and the future of God’s world.

Will there be days of frustration and doubt? Yes. But the mission to proclaim God’s kingdom and to witness it however we are called to do so remains unchanged.

The Transfiguration is our mountain top experience. While we might like to remain there, we return to the world to assist in God’s project, which is nothing less than the redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

May this Lent be a time of renewal and grace for us all, and may it be filled with finding new ways and opportunities to witness to God who found in Jesus, his Son, all that is pleasing in the lives of men and women. That same God gives us the Transfiguration that becomes our sign of being changed into his likeness. Amen

Written by Ben Helmer. Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest who served small congregations in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Arkansas. He was officer for rural and small community ministries for the Episcopal Church from 1999-2005.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany.

Bible Study, Last Sunday after Epiphany (A) – February 26, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Exodus 24:12-18

Exodus 24:12-18 provides an account of Moses’s ascent of Mt. Sinai for purposes of receiving the law and commandments. The reading begins with God’s two-part instruction to Moses to “come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.” Moses complies with these instructions, and sets out with Joshua toward the mountain. (Before leaving, however, Moses gives a similar instruction to Israel’s elders, directing them to “wait here for us until we come to you again.” The significance of this directive will be keenly observed later in Chapter 32.) Then, alone, Moses continues up toward the mountain. Critically, Moses stops short of reaching its summit. Meanwhile, the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain, covering it in a cloud. Moses waits on the mountain—but outside of the cloud—for six days. On the seventh day, God beckons Moses from within the cloud to enter in it—God’s glory then visibly appearing “like a devouring fire” at the summit. (v. 17). Moses obeys, entering the cloud and climbing to the top of the mountain. Moses remained on the mountaintop and within the cloud of God’s glory for forty days and forty nights.

The sequence of events leading up to Moses’s climactic ascent into the glory of God on the mountaintop is marked by an important pause between Moses’s initial ascent onto the mountain and then his ultimate ascent onto the mountain’s top into the glory of God. In both periods, Moses patently demonstrates obedience to God’s instruction and invitation: God first beckons Moses to come to the mountain, and Moses does. Then, God calls to Moses from within the cloud to enter and Moses does.

Equally important to these incremental sequences of ascending movement, however, is Moses’s obedience to God’s intervening directive to wait. For six days, Moses waits—on the side of the mountain and maybe only halfway up it—until such time that God asks him to continue onward and into God’s immediate and outwardly visible presence. During those six, exposed days, Moses waits in a liminal space between Israel camped below and the cloud of God’s glory above. It is perhaps in this space that Moses, while standing with a full and up-close view of the devouring fire of God’s glory, is prepared to enter into God’s presence. Perhaps for Moses, the coming and the waiting are equally important in experiencing God’s presence and glory.

  • In what ways does God call you into closer proximity with God’s self?
  • In what ways has God called you to simply wait?
  • Do you ever feel as though you are waiting in a liminal space between that which you have always known and something else that is greater than what you can imagine?

Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is a hymn of praise centered on God’s hegemonic attributes. The hymn commences with statements concerning God’s exaltation over and differentiation from the peoples over which God reigns. Included among these statements celebrating God’s governorship over the peoples, stands an attribution of God as a lover and executor of justice. The kingly exaltations that mark the first five verses of the Psalm are interposed by the reinforcing refrain, “Holy is he.” (vv. 3,5).

The latter half of the Psalm (vv. 6-9) demonstrates a shift in focus away from the distinction between God and God’s kingdom and toward a recollection of the historical incidences of obedience, faithfulness and covenant-keeping between them. These verses recount in varying specificities incidences of God as both lawgiver and forgiver and God’s people as wrongdoing but penitent. These incidences are freighted with allusions to the Saini-based, law-giving narratives and include referents to Moses, to God speaking from the cloud, and to God speaking from the holy mountain. The Psalm concludes with a statement that God is holy.

  • In what ways may a law-giver demonstrate an inclination toward justice?
  • What does it mean to say that God is holy?
  • What attributes does God exhibit that demonstrate holiness?

2 Peter 1:16-21

2 Peter 1:16-21 consists of two principal statements—both, three verses in length—purposed to bolster the credibility of the author’s other teachings set out in the letter. In the first section (vv. 16-18), the author establishes their credentials as one personally acquainted with the person and majesty of Jesus Christ. To do this, the author first disclaims “cleverly devised myths” as the sources of inspiration or instructional content. (v. 16). Instead, the author acts as an eyewitness to Jesus Christ’s majesty and as one who was personally present at Jesus’s transfiguration. Given this intimate proximity to God and to Jesus (indeed, the author claims that he heard God’s voice that identified Jesus as God’s son with whom God was well-pleased), the author’s teaching inferentially reliable and authoritative.

In the second section (vv. 19-21), the author describes prophesy as originating from the Holy Spirit rather than from human imagination or from the human will. Implicitly, the author holds out his teachings as confirmed prophetic messages. Using metaphors of darkness and sources of light, the author admonishes the reader to closely attend to these confirmed prophetic messages.

  • What is your understanding of prophecy?
  • Are prophetic messages still heard today?
  • How do we discern the implications of today’s prophetic messages?

Matthew 17:1-9

Matthew 17:1-9 presents a narrative account of Jesus’s transfiguration. The passage begins as Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. Once there, Jesus is “transfigured” in front of them; his face shines “like the sun” and his clothing became “dazzling white.” (v. 2). As this occurs, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear also. This gospel narrative is silent in describing their appearance (cf. Lk. 9:31).

What follows are multiple incidences of audible speech—some preserved as direct quotations—that occurred on the mountain. First, Moses and Elijah talk with the transfigured Jesus. The narrative does not share the merits of their conversation. The narrative does, however, recount Peter’s exclamation that occurs next: “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.” (v. 4). Although Mathew’s gospel does not share the impetus driving Peter’s exclamation (cf. Mk..9:6; Lk. 9:33), its awkwardness is immediately evident to the reader. What’s more, as Peter is speaking, his outburst is interrupted both by a bright cloud overshadows them, and also a voice that emanates from within the cloud.

The voice pronounces: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” (v. 5); compare (Mt. 3:17). Upon hearing this voice, the disciples fall to the ground, altogether rapt in fear. The final narrative quotations contained the reading come from Jesus. First, Jesus urges his disciples to rise and to fear not; second Jesus directs his disciples to not disclose that which they observed until “after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (v. 9).

The spoken passages recounted in this pericope supply a measure of authenticity to its narrative arc. Peter’s interposition of an inappropriate offer to construct makeshift tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is the most useful for this purpose. In hearing Peter’s offer, readers are able to not only share in the palpable discomfort that Peter experienced at the time, but also appreciate the patent incompatibility of Peter’s proposal with that which transpired before him. This incompatibility is, by extension, demonstrative of the differentiation between the human (Peter) and the divine (Jesus transfigured).

The consequence of this differentiation reaches its climax when God announces Jesus’s son-ship: the disciples are reduced to abject fear and Jesus is (ostensibly at least) elevated beyond even his transfigured state. It is at this point of ultimate differentiation that Jesus comes down to his disciples, and touching them, implores them to get up and to fear not. Thus, we observe in microcosm the incarnation of Christ as God with us.

  • When do you feel the farthest from, or the most differentiated from, God?
  • At those points when you perceive the greatest distance between yourself and God, what erases that distance such that you may again participate in communion with God?

Written by Jeremy Carlson. He is a second-year student at the School of Theology at the University of the South and a postulant from the Diocese of Alabama.

Download the Bible Study for Last Sunday after Epiphany (A).