Oh goody, the Transfiguration story [aka T-Fig]. For years I have found ways to avoid preaching on T-Fig. But this year here it is staring me in the face (I would also note that the RCL folks are also working with T-Fig this week, albeit from a different gospel) What do we do with this series of stories that start with a confession of faith and end with true awesomeness.

You can read the passage here, the Working Preacher Podcast is here, and the Text This Week resources are here.

The commentary over at Working Preacher presents us with a “today’s sermon is brought to you by the letter C” structure for this week — Confession, Confrontation, Confusion. As a child of the first Sesame Street generation I appreciate such things (and have in fact opened a sermon with such a line more than once). But more than that I like the flow. All three of the Synoptics place the story of the Transfiguration immediately following Peter’s Confession and Jesus’ prediction of the Passion. But For all those years I preached the RCL the story was told as a separate unit, divorced from that context.

Caesarea Philippi
Caesarea Philippi

 

Context matters. Without that context the story becomes a story of the Glorious One, but loses the reminder that glory comes through struggle and suffering — which appears to be the lesson that Peter (and the rest, and us) needs to learn in conjunction with his confession.

One of the pieces I like about the Gospels, especially the Synoptics, is that the disciples often don’t quite understand. It is honest. You would expect that a careful editor would have been tempted to edit out those passages in the name of “avoiding confusion” but we still have the stories of the disciples not getting it. Which means we get to journey with them as they (and we) start to understand.

It would make a great story if Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah and then, maybe as a reward(?), gets invited into the experience of the holy. But that is not what we have. Instead we see that Peter is still unclear on what kind of Messiah Jesus is. In what way does the combination of the Passion prediction, the injunction to lose life to save it, and the awe of Transfiguration clarify who Jesus is? OR does it actually provide confusion instead of clarity?

Some writers suggest that the Transfiguration story is a resurrection experience backdated into the life of Jesus. In a way I tend to agree. At the very least I suspect that understanding of the experience falls into place after Easter. I suspect that Easter is one of those things that radically change how you see everything that came before, the scales fall off the eyes and the disciples say “Now I get it!”. Did Peter and James and John carry this story with them for all that time, remembering it but not really knowing what had happened?

One of the questions I ask myself in sermon preparation is “why do we still read this story today?”. Is it just because it is part of the larger story? Or do we think that there is still something for us to hear and learn in these old words? Often I find that in wrestling with that question I hit on the thread that week’s sermon will pull at. So why do we read these stories?

I posit that we read these stories, in the way that the Synoptic writers ordered them, because we are with Peter. We confess Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah but we would rather that there was less struggles and suffering involved in that. We want to live faithfully but we chafe at the idea of losing to gain. And so in the midst of those struggles we need to be invited into the presence of God, into the presence of the Law and the Prophets (one of the classic interpretations of why Moses and Elijah show up in this story). We need the shock and awe of God being revealed to help us live out the rest of the faith– even (or perhaps especially) when the faith, when God’s revelation, confuses us. We need to sit in God’s presence and listen for the voice-sometimes strong and mighty, sometimes still and small. Through the struggles and the Passion and the confusion we find the way to glory.

"ISRAEL, Mount Tabor - Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration (interior 3)" by Britchi Mirela - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ISRAEL,_Mount_Tabor_-_Greek_Orthodox_Monastery_of_the_Transfiguration_(interior_3).JPG#/media/File:ISRAEL,_Mount_Tabor_-_Greek_Orthodox_Monastery_of_the_Transfiguration_(interior_3).JPG
“ISRAEL, Mount Tabor – Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration (interior 3)” by Britchi Mirela – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

And maybe somewhere there we will find understanding. If not, we can take comfort in the fact that even Peter had trouble understanding.

 

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3 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary Leanings: Which Way to Glory? Edition (Mark 8:27-9:8)

  1. Oddly enough, I have the opposite feeling about Transfiguration. I love it! I suspect this is conditioned by my early years in ministry, when I served a very small Hawaiian church that loved me into being a pastor. The mainstay of their fundraising was an annual luau which was ALWAYS held the Saturday before Ash Wednesday (Mardi-Gras-like) and thus the day before the Transfiguration.

    This event always astounded me. We had perhaps two dozen regular church-goers, but miraculously for this occasion they would call out their respective ohana (extended family) and enlarge the workforce by a factor of 4x . One family would be in charge of the pig; another would be in charge of the poi and opi’i; yet another would organize the venue, a big tent, and the entertainment. Usually we sold over 500 tickets. Until you’ve been at an authentic Hawaiian luau, it will be difficult for you to imagine it what a big deal this is.

    The next morning in worship, as you might imagine, was always a bit thin in attendance – kind of like the air on top of the mountain. Exhausted but fulfilled. The worship service itself begat a kind of transformation in them. Another detail is important to understand this: although we had no building of our own, we shared a building with the local ELCA church that had a beautiful, modern stone edifice. Two of the interior walls of the smallish sanctuary were plate glass, and behind the (moveable) pulpit rose abruptly a dry and craggy mountain of the Waianae range, more than a thousand feet above sea level and only about a half-mile away. Telling the story of Jesus and his close friends climbing the mountain had a most appropriate visual aid. And unbelievably one year, at the hour of preaching, there actually were some mountain climbers within easy view.

    Perhaps this is not a theologically profound insight, but for this church the luau WAS the mountain-top experience, in which they experienced something almost supernatural in their ability to feed and to please a huge crowd. The next morning was when they were able to reflect on how they had been able to pull off this miracle yet again, with God’s help and strength. AND, by the end of the worship service, they were all ready to climb back down the mountain and resume their day to day ministry among the marginalized people of the Waianae coast, welcoming and feeding and clothing the needy.

    Still for me, up to this day, the Transfiguration is a story that reminds me how we are called to take those divine moments of mystery and use the strength that derives from them in our everyday ministries. It is a holy day I cherish.

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