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Monday, April 12, 2021

Unexpected Encounters with Grief - Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday 2021, 2-14-21


2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration Sunday 2021

            Essential to every good story is a climax. This is the apex of the story; it is a threshold where all points come together in an array of excitement or revelation or the beginning of resolution to the main conflict of the story.

            In a movie or novel, or even in song or poetry, the climax is a point of high tension. There are resolutions of some kind, but there are also questions that are generated.

            In both our Old Testament reading today and the gospel, we see such a threshold. God is present in each one. God works through and reveals something important and wonderful, and yet there is a loss or a sense of dismay in each as well.

Earlier in the chronicle from Kings, we learn that Elisha was the son of Shaphat, a wealthy land-owner of Abel-meholah in northern Israel. While at cave on Mount Horeb, Elijah learns that Yahweh has selected this young man to serve as his successor in the prophetic office. Elijah sets out to find him and call him.

            In the ensuing years, Elisha is a faithful disciple of the prophet Elijah, following his master everywhere from the moment they meet, learning from him, loving him, and serving him.

Then, Elisha sees his master disappear in a fiery chariot, going up to heaven. So grieved is he, that he tears his clothes. Yet, ultimately, he picks up the mantle which Elijah cast off for him. Elisha knew that he was to carry on the great work of Elijah, to spread the knowledge of God.

            He would teach his people to be a blessing to others, to be kind and charitable. It would not always be easy. As a prophet, Elisha was a political activist and revolutionary, and we know how well that often goes over! The thing is that is the work of prophets; to speak the truth and name God’s judgment on the injustices and sin in the world, and then to offer hope that God is still present and will bring about a resolution in the future.

            The gospel tells us the story that gives Transfiguration Sunday its name. In the events on the top of the mountain, Jesus is accompanied by his closest and most trusted disciples. Jesus ascends the mountain and at its pinnacle his appearance takes on a decidedly heavenly appearance; the light that emanates from his clothing does not come from anything created by human hands. It is amazing, perhaps perplexing, and certainly dazzling to the three disciples.

Suddenly, the ancient prophets Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. We don’t know how the disciples know who Moses and Elijah are – but as they cross this threshold, the divinity of Jesus is established once again to the disciples who have accompanied him.

            Living in a troubled time, having just heard from Jesus the confusing predictive revelation of his coming passion and death, we can understand what happens next. Though terrified by the strangeness of what his eyes behold, Peter suggests that they erect three dwelling places right there.

The word for these dwelling places is the word used for a temporary dwelling place. So, Peter isn’t suggesting they build a temple on the spot, but something more like a tent, where they can all hang out for awhile and hang on to this heavenly experience. Perhaps Peter even thinks that if they hang out in the presence of these three they will better understand what God is telling them.

            Then, as a voice that comes from a cloud, long understood in Hebrew biblical literature to be the presence and voice of God, they are told, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” The grammatical tense used here connotes is a command to continually listen to Jesus. As we go through our days and the events that carry us into the world, to keep on listening to Jesus; to never stop listening to what Jesus has to say.

            A little over a year ago, here at Zion we engaged in a day of celebration. It certainly wasn’t as climactic as the events in these Scriptures are. But in the life of our church, it certainly could be seen as a high point, and a threshold, as we anticipated learning a path forward through the R3 process and other work.

We worshiped together as one, praising God and thanking him for his grace, mercy, and ongoing call to us through our music, and prayers. We shared in the Eucharist.

After worship, we opened our annual meeting which we began with photos of that year’s events and through recorded video montage in which members described how God was present, was speaking to them, or could be seen and heard through the worship and ministries of Zion. We got a glimpse of the work being accomplished by God through our efforts. People were asked why they come to Zion or what kept them here and their responses were a celebration of God’s presence and activity in and through Zion.

            Witness was given of the kind of assistance had gone out from Zion into our community and the world and the difference it was making in the lives of individuals.

            We completed the business of the church necessary at our annual meetings, and then shared a meal together over in the fellowship hall. It was, in many ways, a glorious day.  It served as a climax of the ministry and our life together as we crossed the bridge from 2019 to 2020.

            A little over a month later, the pandemic hit.

            Years ago, after surviving 5 moves in the first 5 years of our marriage my husband and I found ourselves in a place of finally being able to settle down for a relatively long period of time – 7 years. During this time, we added the last 2 children to our family – our 1st had been born during those first crazy years of moving around.  Having been active in churches wherever we were, we were finally able to establish ourselves more securely.

It was during this time, while raising three little ones, that I first heard the call to public ministry. The time wasn’t right for me with two under the age of 5 and an active 10 year old by that time. But I became a Stephen’s Minister and im

mersed myself in the ministries of the church, feeling a sense of belonging in that church for myself and for all our family.

            Then, we moved again. “No problem,” I thought. I have a direction – and we’ll just pick up where we left off, become established in a congregation where we will thrive once again, and figure the rest out.

            But that isn’t what happened. There were new challenges in our new home at the edge of southern Chester County. There were no “close” Lutheran churches and living in that rural area meant spending a lot more time on the roads getting from place to place.

            We spent the next 2 years church shopping, even looking outside the Lutheran Church, just looking for a church to which we could belong.

Ultimately, what I came to realize was that aside from the distance to the churches we found through the Yellow Pages – remember them? –the biggest obstacle wasn’t the strangeness of entering a new community and feeling a sense of belonging – though that was real; nor was it the distance to the churches – though that was real too, but not insurmountable.

            What made finding and transitioning to a new church so hard, what had inspired two years of church shopping and church hopping, was grief.

            When we are in the midst of grief, it is hard to move on.

When we are in the midst of grief, it is hard to imagine anything new taking the place of the old or filling the hole in our hearts.

We were grieving the loss of community, the loss of a sense in belonging, especially belonging to a church family that WAS our family, people we missed so much it hurt.

We grieved the loss of dependability and the ease of relationships formed over the years, and the comfort born of repetition and immersion in a community that was no longer available to us.

            There were times, I confess, when I wondered what God’s message to us/me was in all of this. Just when I thought I had discovered what God wanted from me and was actively pursuing it, it had been ripped away. Was this a test?

            I share this story because I think that it is a lot like our experience of the last year and where we find ourselves now. There is a lot of grief that we have endured in the past year. Even if you haven’t lost a family member or friend in the past year, in many ways you have been ripped away from them, and from all that is familiar, comfortable, and fulfilling.

            Even if you still have your health and your home and your job, your losses likely feel close to immeasurable and insurmountable. We don’t know for certain when things will return to normal, but we are aware that “normal” is relative, and what we return to will not feel like what we experienced before. All these feelings and fears are real.

            Our grief is real. After experiencing a climax in our story together as church, the grief you have experienced this year may feel like a cruel joke or a bad dream – truly a nightmare. Is God testing us? Again, the thing is, God meets us at the threshold and accompanies us over.

            Into this reality for all of us, come these Transfiguration Stories – the recordings of events that illustrated that God’s divine will is done in and through Jesus. While we view the Kingdom of God through dull, dust-covered glass, it is the place where God meets us, right where we are. It is the place into which God sends Jesus.

            There is no way to avoid the thresholds that God appoints.  The chariots come, the whirlwind descends, and Elijah leaves his bereft student behind.  The Lord is Transfigured on the mountaintop but the cross becomes from another hill not far away.

Spiritual maturity requires crossing from certainty to faith, from light to shadow, from power to vulnerability?  Elisha saw God’s glory.   But he also saw a point of no return.  He tore his clothes and grieved.

Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured and heard the voice of God. Yet they were sent back into the world with Jesus, without lingering for even a little while. They would accompany Jesus along his road to the cross. They would endure hard, heavy grief. But then, they would witness resurrection. And nothing would ever be the same.

God will see us through this pandemic to another threshold, where we will continue to listen to Jesus, continue to follow our Lord. We will be forever changed by our grief, but we will also be forever called by Jesus, whose visage will continue to shine as the light and love of God revealed in glory. Our path may sometimes be painful and difficult -but Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, will never abandon us or leave us at the threshold. Rather, he will call us, invite us and bless us to take the next step and follow him.

May it be so. Amen.







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