Transfiguration Sunday | Strange Things on the Mountain


Transfiguration  |  Strange Things on the Mountain  |  Matthew 17:1-9

Strange things happen on mountains. Moses meeting with God to chisel out a new way of living comes to mind.

Matthew’s story of the mountaintop experience raises questions that have few answers. Why a mountaintop? Why just Peter, James and John—what’s so special about them? What is transfiguration anyway?Mountain Range Over Ledge 005

Where did Moses and Elijah come from when they appeared up there on the mountain, and where had they been in the meantime?

Is the cloud a cloud or an actual manifestation of God, and do we really know the difference? What about the voice—is this God speaking? Is God talking about God as someone else, someone who is also God? Can we make sense of God in one place or form making a reference to God in another place or form—God talking about God? Are the aspects of God, whom we call Father and Son and Spirit, always manifested separately, or do we simply perceive God differently from beings who are not God? Was all of this real or some kind of hallucination?

Why are they all afraid?

Where did everybody go afterward—Elijah, Moses, the cloud? Why did Jesus touch each of the men? Was there something in his touch that worked differently than his words?

Why was it all a secret?

For whatever reason, physical reaction or mental shock, the men fall to the ground in fear. Jesus tells them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We have this statement plain and simple from Matthew’s story. Is there anything we can make of it? Could Jesus be demonstrating what God would have us do? Could it be that God does not wish or need us to fall on the ground in fear, but that God wants us standing, unafraid, even in the very presence of God? Is it human to react with such poise?

We can speculate on entities made of energy, on parallel worlds separated only by a breath from our own. We can wonder whether it is our reality that is limited or our ability to perceive it. All of these things are fascinating. All of them are simply speculation.

Whatever happened on the mountain, most of us have never been there. We are like the other disciples, wondering about the amazing experiences that these special ones shared, wondering why we were not invited to join them.

We live in the lower places.

We might feel ordinary, and maybe we are. We might think the mountain climbers to be special, and maybe they are. It might be that Peter, James and John were special, but only in their need. Maybe the other folk, left down in the valley, did not need to see Moses or hear voices.

It may have bothered John, all those years. Much later, long after Matthew had put out his gospel, John wrote another one. John’s perspective was different, his themes and emphasis different. It was John, who had been up on the mountain that day, who gave us another saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Faith is easy on the mountaintop, but there is little use for it. Down in the lower places, the valleys, the flat lands, faith is not so easy, but it is much more needful.

Sister Fox and the Dark Closet

A new e-book version of Sister Fox and the Dark Closet should be available within a day or two. Lauren, who illustrated it, has added more of her delightful artwork.

Sister Fox and the Dark Closet
Sister Fox and the Dark Closet

If you already have a copy of the e-book, you might want to delete it and download a new one in the next few days.

Meanwhile, an honest-to-goodness hold-in-your-hand and read-to-a-wee-child (or to a not-so-wee-person) version will coming soon as well.

Though, really, having a whole library on a device you can hold in your hands is still amazing, don’t you think?


Limits of Grace

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:38-48

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that was the law. Simple enough, you might say.

Candle In DarknessWhen we hear it, we hear a legal prescription—if they harm you, you harm them the same way. Do unto them as they did unto you. The ancient world heard a prohibition, a limit, changing revenge to justice—this far you may go, and no farther. If they steal your goat, you may not kill their families, burn their tents, and take their herds. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a goat for a goat. The law was a limit to vengeance and, strangely, a provision of grace. It took modern people, with all our advances, to listen to that law and hear words inciting violence.

Jesus goes beyond the limits—give them another eye for an eye, give them another tooth for a tooth. Another cheek, another garment, a second mile. Undermine violence with peace. Love your enemies.

Be perfect.

Then there is the way we hear that last word: τέλειός. Teleios. Perfect is the word used in most translations, and most of us hear a word meaning to be without imperfections, without error. To be fair, the word could have meant that, twenty centuries ago. More importantly, and with more use for us, it also meant mature, complete, fulfilled, or pertaining to the end.

Try the whole last verse again: Be mature, complete, fulfilled, therefore, as your father in heaven is mature, complete and fulfilled.

Does that sound different? We’re not aiming at modern perfection anymore, with all of those impossible expectations. We’re walking toward maturity, completeness, fulfillment, our end goal as a human being, something as ancient as life itself.

When the ones who are incomplete, immature, or unfulfilled come to beg, to demand, to inflict harm in the vain attempt to allay their own needs, Jesus is saying find the means to bring them along the path. Show them the way.

Go beyond the limits. Go to the very good end.

A Word to the Ancient Ones

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:21-37

They stood on that mountain, sat there, lay there, a great crowd, and all of them so quiet that you could have closed your eyes and thought yourself alone. The only sound beyond the wind on the rocks was the voice of the man speaking.

Mountains with Blowing RockHe reminded them of what they knew, what had been told to the ancient ones, a people gathered centuries earlier at the base of another mountain covered in smoke and clouds. Moses had brought them words from God the Almighty, words to drag them out of their dark bondage and to lift them slowly to become a new people.

Thou shalt not. That was what Moses had told the ancient ones. Thou shalt not.

They forgot, of course. They forgot the rules, forgot the telling of them, sometimes one rule or two, and sometimes they forgot them all in a rush to satiate their needs, their lusts, their anger, their rights. And that had been when the rules were new and simple and fresh upon their minds.

The rules weren’t new to the crowd on the mountain with Jesus. They had heard the rules all of their lives, knew all the ramifications, all the ways one could fail. The law had become a ponderous thing since the days of the ancients, as though it were alive, growing, full of snares and loopholes. Surely, they must have thought, this man can give us some relief, some easier way to live.

No. He seems to want to make their path more narrow. It is no longer their choices that are wrong, it is their thoughts.

Pluck out your eyes, he says. Cut off your hands, if it will save you. And keep your bothersome wives. Surely he goes too far, says crazy things? “But I say to you,” he says. He thinks he has more authority than Moses. Who is he to tell us these things?

But they are quiet on the mountain, and they are still listening.

Later, they know by the silence that he has finished. They gather themselves and walk back down the mountain. Some of them whisper to one another, others mumble like the ancient ones themselves did so long ago. All of them look back to get one more glimpse of Jesus, but he is already walking away, hard to see through the band of followers.

A boy climbs onto a rock for a look, and his father waits for him.

“Does he mean it?” he asks. “Is it better to cut off our hands?” He looks down at his own hands, rubs one with the fingers of the other.

“No,” his father says. “He only told us that to make us think.”

Kingdom of the Least

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:13-20

There is no privacy around God.

God is in our houses and in our Salt Fireyards, on the sidewalk, at our offices and workplaces. Worst of all, God is in our minds, the little corners and dark boxes of our hearts where we thought we had hidden the things that would make other people think less of us. Or point at us. Or at the very least pretend that they are better than us and would never do, never think, never feel the terrible and the petty things that we have done and thought and felt.

God has known them all, and that may be the most terrifying aspect of God.

If Jesus is to be believed, God knows these things and loves us, without reservation. Knowing all of it, God loves us.

For some, that is great and well received news, the gospel itself. For the rest of us, not so sure about receiving unabashed love from an unseen God, it takes some getting used to.

Salt. Light. Cities on hills. These are tasted, seen, entered into, or they are of no purpose. Jesus says that if we are not seen,  if our lives cannot be touched and tasted, if we are not open to other people, then we are of little use.

There is so little privacy around people anyway, we say. Our lives are open, we are seen, and more than we care to know is known about us. Most of us may be read as plainly as these words may be read, if a person has learned the skill of reading.

The law was clear. Leviticus and Deuteronomy. (That should be an exclamation—“Leviticus and Deuteronomy! — along the lines of “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!”)

We read all of those rules the ancient people lived by — what to eat, what to wear, most of all how to act toward other people, toward God — and we hear Jesus saying that if we have broken the least rule, then we are the least soul in God’s kingdom, at the bottom of the great heap of souls.

We are all on the bottom of the heap. This heap has no top, not even a middle, just flat bottom all the way.

Yet the law itself was not meant as a burden. The law was a way of life, the way of life, the way to live in this life. It was not a means to an end, not a key that fits the gate of the next life.

How then could this man Jesus be the fulfillment of the way to live? What does it mean to fulfill the way of life?

Life was never about the rules. It is always about the love.

Do not murder, since it is against the rules, we say? Love one another, and we will not cause harm.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. — Isaiah 11:9