Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-12 (Elijah ascends to heaven), Mark 9:2-9 (Jesus is transfigured)
Church school on Monday afternoons in Coronach continues to go well, I think. It is a challenge for me, though, not least because of questions the children ask. Some of those questions came last Monday after we read the story from Mark where Jesus heals a leper, the same one that we had read in church the day before.
One child asked what the leper's name was. I replied that we didn't know because Mark didn't tell us. But I agreed with her that telling us the leper's name might have improved the story. Then another child asked if this story of a miraculous healing was real. I also thought that this was a good question. Unfortunately, I didn't have the presence of mind to use his question as a chance to ask the children in what ways we consider a story to be real. Instead, I simply said that yes, I thought the story was real.
That child's question "is it real?" can lead to the bigger question of whether Mark's Gospel is history or not. Is Mark a factual biography of a poor preacher and teacher from Nazareth in Galilee nearly 2,000 years ago?
My own view is that biblical stories tell deeper truths than can be found in either history or biography. In this view, it doesn't matter whether or not Jesus healed a man's skin infection simply by using his voice and touch. Regardless, the passage reminds us that a relationship with God in Christ heals us of anxiety and brings us back into community, which allow us to endure the pain and illnesses of life with greater grace and courage. That truth is a key way in which the story of Jesus and the leper is a real one for me.
Today's Scripture readings -- the ascension of the ancient prophet Elijah to heaven on a chariot of fire, and the meeting of Jesus with Elijah and Moses on a mountaintop in Galilee 900 years later -- might also challenge those of us who wonder if biblical stories tell historical facts.
Moses and Jesus are separated in time by about 1400 years with Elijah lying between them. Yet the transfiguration scene has the three of them talking together. One might then wonder what language they used. Being from such distant eras, would they not all have different native tongues?
Or one might wonder how Peter, James and John knew that the figures speaking with Jesus were Moses and Elijah No one knows what Moses and Elijah looked like. Did they have name tags, then?
For me, the mysterious details of the transfiguration story do not matter. Instead, I focus on the truths in the story -- that when Jesus is seen as the Christ he becomes a dazzling image of the divine. Or that life in Christ is consistent with Israel's heritage of the Law and the Prophets -- the Law being represented here by Moses and the Prophets by Elijah. Or that our status as baptized followers of Jesus means that at any moment we can be transfigured into glorious unity with God like the glory experienced by Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
The transfiguration marks a turning point in Mark's Gospel. It is the point where Jesus turns from his ministry in Galilee to his journey to Jerusalem, a journey which we will follow during the next six Sundays in Lent. The transfiguration also confirms the divinity of Jesus as the Christ. And the transfiguration underlines that Jesus is unique among the company of disciples.
At the same time, the transfiguration also shows us the glory that is available to all who follow Jesus. As baptized Christians, we all participate in new life in Christ. Because of this truth, we are confident that we will all be "changed from glory into glory," to use a phrase from Charles Wesley's hymn, "Love Divine." The transfiguration story dazzles us with the unique glory of Jesus even as it anticipates how God's love can transform any of us at any moment . . .
Today's other Scripture reading -- the ascension of Elijah to heaven -- was the subject of a conversation I had last spring with Rev. David Shearman, the chairperson of the Transfer and Settlement Committee of the United Church's Toronto Conference. This was during the process that led to my transfer from Toronto Conference to Saskatchewan Conference and to my settlement here in Borderlands.
In one of our phone calls, David asked me how I was feeling about my upcoming ordination. I told him that I had never worn an alb -- the long white robe often worn by ministers -- or a stole before, but that on the day of the ordination service at the end of the annual meeting of the Toronto Conference on May 29th, I would wear an alb that I had inherited from my late father, and that one of his red stoles would be placed on my shoulders during the act of ordination. David was impressed by these details and said they reminded him of the story of the death of Elijah and his passing of the mantle of his prophetic ministry to his adopted son Elisha.
This passage from Second Kings is where the expression "passing the mantle" comes from. In the story, Elijah passes his mantle, or cloak, along with his prophetic and spiritual powers to Elisha. The mantle is a symbol of this power.
The fact that albs are usually white symbolizes the transformation represented by religious rituals like baptism or ordination. Of course, just putting on a white robe doesn't bring transformation. Behind the symbol are the real life experiences of grace, love and grief that are the real agents of transformation.
When Peter, James and John saw Jesus on the mountaintop, they saw him transformed. When Elisha saw Elijah ascend into heaven, he saw him transformed. All of us, I am sure, have experienced the same thing in daily life. When we look into the eyes of our beloved or our children we might see them both as ordinary people and also see in them a blinding vision of Love Incarnate. In the eyes of anyone we love or serve, we might see the face of Christ and so have a "mountaintop" experience that fuels our ministry for a moment or a lifetime.
This week, I watched an episode of American Idol. One of the songs performed was the jazz standard, "I Only Have Eyes for You," and it reminded me of transfiguration. The lyrics go like this: "My love must be a kind of blind love; I can't see anyone but you. Are the stars out tonight? I don't know if it's cloudy or bright. I only have eyes for you." It is a song about being blinded by the light of love.
But as we know, happy love songs are often followed by heartbroken songs of grief and love lost; and this tough fact is as true for Jesus as for any of us. After the transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus returns to the valley to begin his journey to Jerusalem, which is also a journey to the cross and to death. This arc of love and grief also characterizes the life of any individual or community. God's Love transforms us, but life in Christ also involves heartbreak, suffering and the painful death of old ways of life.
So as we end the Season After Epiphany with this service and prepare to begin Lent at an Ash Wednesday service in Rockglen, I will close by repeating remarks I made to the Toronto Conference annual meeting last May on the day before my ordination.
On Saturday May 28th, all us who were to be ordained the next day were asked to speak for 90 seconds to the meeting. The task was to choose a favourite hymn, one verse of which was sung by the gathering, and to use our hymn choice as a way to give a glimpse into our call to ministry. I chose the Good Friday hymn, O Sacred Head. The lyrics of its first verse are as follows:
O sacred head sore wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded with thorns thine only crown:
how art thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn;
how does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!
After we had sung this verse, I said this: "I chose the Good Friday hymn, 'O Sacred Head' because, just as any Sunday service can be a celebration of Easter, so can any moment be one in which we remember the suffering of the Way of the Cross. For me, today is a special kind of Holy Saturday -- a time of waiting between the humiliations of life's ups and downs and tomorrow's ritual of renewal.
Ordination is a ritual that, like confirmation, refers back to our baptism. But like all matters in the church, we don't all have the same understanding of baptism. One thing that struck me about baptism in the course "Confessing Our Faith" was that none of the three main United Church statements of faith connect baptism to death.
Not so with St. Paul. In Romans he writes, "all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life."
My call to ministry is on this difficult baptismal path into death where the hope is for rebirth into a life beyond ego.
When I was confirmed at age 14, I became a confirmed atheist. Despite that, I went through with the ritual because the person presiding was my father, the late Rev. James Clare Kellogg.
During my teenage years as my brothers and sisters and I drifted away from church, my father sometimes tried to reach us through music. We all loved choral music, and Bach was my favourite. So Dad took us to Toronto to hear St. Matthew's Passion and he led a Lenten discussion group that centred around the choruses from that work, especially 'O Sacred Head.'
My father's efforts did not bear fruit at that time, but my memories of them remained. And so tomorrow as I put on my father's alb, receive the laying on of hands from my younger brother and sister, and am ordained with one of my father's stoles, I will remember the promise of rebirth that is present in the glorious music of Bach and in the sacrament of baptism. I will also remember that it is a promise that only glimmers at us dimly through a veil of suffering and death."
Thanks be to God.