"Whose Mantle, Whose Spirit?"
The Transfiguration of Our Lord
26 February 2006
First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto
First Lesson 2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalter - Psalm 50:1-6
Second Lesson 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Holy Gospel St. Mark 9:2-9
Clothed in the prophet's mantel
I remember my first pair of bell-bottoms. They were white with powder-blue stripes, and were purchased at the end of that era of coolness and rebellion rather than earlier on. So like any true son of the church I was late in the game, slow to be a rebel. What I did enjoy, in spite of all those other detractors, was the way in which I was transfigured by that pair of pants. They separated me from my low self-esteem and my general geeky nature. In them I felt cool, and thought that everyone could see that.
I was reminded of all that emotion in a scene from Napoleon Dynamite, when Napoleon and Pedro examine a suit in what must have been a WalMart or worse. There it is in all of its splendor a suit that look as though it had been made of Kraft French Salad Dressing or at least that color. It is cheesy beyond belief, but in the next shots, when Napoleon has changed into this polyester creation the background music, his gate and demeanor all indicate a changed person. He is confident. He's going on a date. He's got the wrist corsage and the world on a string.
Elisha wants it too, but super-sized. He is totally aware of the situation. His father, mentor, guru, advisor, and confidant is leaving, and he wants what Elijah has. What Elijah has is a mantel, but it's more than that symbol of authority. Like the eldest son, Elisha wants a double measure of the spirit that has undoubtedly blessed Elijah's ministry and teaching. All of that desire, spirit, authority, and call is bound up in and symbolized by that mantel. "Put it on my shoulders!" Other prophets had and would call to mind their unworthiness, or worse, their unwillingness to obey God's call to service, but not Elisha. He begs for it.
What is this prophetic life for which he so earnestly yearns? It is not that of a Merlin-like authority, conjuring up the future, and mystifying those concerned about "what-will-be". No, this is the kind of prophet who is concerned with the "now" of things. What does God want, now? What is God's will for now? What is God's word for now? What does God want me to say now? Like Nathan, whom God calls to confront an adulterous David, Elisha is ready to be anointed to speak God's judgment or grace whatever God wills.
This cycle of stories were told at a time when God seemed to have failed. His authority and power had not been enough to hold the Babylonian enemy at bay, or to preserve Jerusalem, or to keep the Temple standing, or to stand by the people. That had not happened. And now that these same people were returning from Babylon after a sojourn of some 50 years, they wanted some answers. The answers came in the lives, works, and words of Elijah and Elisha. They pointed back to a pattern of unfaithfulness and treachery on the part of Israel and Judah, a pattern of infidelity that lead the judgments of defeat and exile. It was a hard sermon to preach and an even more difficult one to hear. It was a message, however, that was not without its promises promises of grace.
Clothed in white garments
In 1512, Matthias Grunewald painted a wonderful altarpiece for the parish church in Isenheim, Germany. The central panel, which shows a brutally beaten and wounded Christ on the cross, is opened up at Easter to show a transforned Christ, bright as ever light could be, blond, radiant, risen, and something beyond all things.
I've never been to a theophany an event in which God shows us glory, power, and might. I've seen glimpses in nature. When we were kids, and the setting sun cast out in orangey-golden beams from behind a grey cloud, one of my sisters would say "Oh look, it's glory!"
Or perhaps it was when all the school children at St. Luke's Church in Chicago would sing at the top of their young soprano voices the words from Luther's German Sanctus at the school's weekly eucharist "holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth". The hair on my neck did stand on end.
Or perhaps it's any sunny day when you have the priviledge to walk into the gothic, transparent splendor of Sainte Chapelle in Paris.
But Grunewald had a vision beyond these things. It was a beauty and splendor born of the cross, hidden in the wounds, streaming from the blood. He rooted the transfigured Christ in the sacrifice that was made on Calvary, the offering that Jesus gives as the clue in the Gospel today, as to when the messianic secret could be shared. And "he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead." The wounded one becomes the transfigured one the prophetic and glorified one. And the word he speaks is the judgment of grace! Bright, beautiful, grace!
But today? Who would notice.
Clothed in righteousness
There is a custom in the Church, I don't know if you do it here, that clothes the newly baptized in a white robe. The person is transfigured, and like the messiah written about in the book of Enoch:
And there I saw One who had a head of days,
And His head was white like wool,
And with Him was another being whose countenance had the appearance of a man,
And his face was full of graciousness, like one of the holy angels.
This is a hard suit of clothes to wear. Like Napoleon Dynamite's suit, it will change us. Cleansed, washed, anointed in baptism, only we know what was done to us, and sometime only lately do we come to realize the changes that were created within us. This is not enough, however. Was it the disciples faith that caused Jesus to stand on that new Sinai, consulting with Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophet, or was it's the disciples lack of understanding that forced a frustrated Jesus to say "Oh, you dull-witted and blind! Get a load of this!"
In 1973 there was a marvelous play entitled "Steam Bath" in which Bill Bixby and Valerie Perrine find themselves in a steam bath, and through a series of conversations and encounters slowly realize that they are dead, and that this "bath house" is a way station to somewhere else. There is one steady character in the plot the attendent, a Puerto Rican handyman, who can be found performing various acts of God (floods, accidents, minor mercies, and so on) at a computer. Bixby and Perrine put the pressure on him, and finally he relents at the end of the second act, in a major theophany that shows he is indeed the almighty.
Were we that man. Or rather, we are that man! What ever random acts of God that are seen in our world, what ever examples of grace and mercy, what ever instances of forgiveness and healing, these are seen in our deeds and actions. That is the clothing of righteousness that embraces our earthly clay. Unlike the disciples who only witness the transfiguration, we are the disciples who need to bear witness to the transfiguration through our own changed lives. The lives changed in the waters of baptism. Just as likely as a Puerto Rican steambath attendent! So we are ordained in our baptisms to be prophets, ministers, bearers of the Gospel.
Striking the water
Elijah takes up his mantle, before giving it to the desirous Elisha, and strikes the waters of the Jordan, just as Joshua had done before him, and just as Moses had done on the shores of the Red Sea. He strikes the waters and they part. The way is made for something different to happen. For Elijah it is a crossing over, like Enoch, to God's presence. For Joshua it was the entrance to the promised land, and for Moses the chance to leave tyranny, oppression, and slavery.
What waters separate you from God, from paradise, from freedom? What great river do you need strike with your mantle of authority and righteousness so that you can cross over? What waters of want, desire, and "keeping up" keep you from love of neighbor and God?
For the past several weeks I have been meeting with the Adult Form as we endeavored to learn the lessons that Christ would teach us during this Epiphany Season this season of being made manifest and real. We talked about baptism and being called; about evangelism and the business of being prophetic. We talked about Healing, and bending the rules, forgiveness. I asked them this morning what they thought that I should preach on at this end of a great season of learning the ministry of Christ.
* Be awake to see the glory - don't be afraid of transcendance!
* Follow the lamp (Christ), see and don't be afraid.
* We, like the disciples, don't always understand - and that's ok. Doubt can be a creative and prayerful process.
* The Gospel is often veiled to us, nevertheless, God does communicate with us. In spite of the difficulty and the veil - Listen!
* How do you discern the real Spirit who beacons us to follow?
Jesus once said to a crippled man, "Take up your bed and walk." That was that one man's transfiguration, a life-changing change. To all of us this morning, I say, "Take up your mantle of authority and prophecy, and strike the waters." Strike the waters of indifference to suffering in our world. Strike the waters that keep us from others in our own community. Strike the waters that divide Christians, that divide Christians from Jews, from Muslims, from Buddhists. Strike that waters that keep you from loving your self, and that keep you from loving others.
One of the great stories in the Elijah cycle is about the widow in Zarephath,
who is cajoled by the prophet to give up the last of her meal and oil to
make a cake for him. She makes the sacrifice, and then realizes that she
has more than enough for herself and for her son. Each of us must hear the
prophets command, not to make the meal from meager resources, but to eat
the meal. It is a simple offering of bread and wine. You, however, you will