Tag Archives: Elijah

Sunday August 7-13 in Year A (Thompson)

All-Encompassing, Hopeful, and Embodied Faith

This week Lutheran’s Restoring Creation is excited to offer a guest commentary from Andrew Thompson, a young adult seminarian.  In his commentary, Andrew reflects on God reaching us through our surroundings and how God’s active presence, within and beyond us, forms us for sustained action for the sake of the world.

LRC is always looking for new voices and diverse perspectives on the lectionary. Send an email to our commentary coordinator (contact@katrinamartich.com) to reserve a Sunday for your voice to be heard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 7-13, Year A (2020, 2023)

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Introduction

It’s no secret that the United States’ narrative of individualism and self-sufficiency has and is devastating our environment and many communities who are underrepresented in systems of power. Lutheran ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda encourages an alternative way of understanding oneself and one’s spirituality which runs counter to these individualistic narratives that oppress our neighbors and God’s creation. Moe-Lobeda names this lens “Critical Mystical Vision,” which includes seeing “what is going on,” “what could be,” and “seeing ever more fully the sacred Spirit of life coursing throughout creation and leading it—despite all evidence to the contrary—into abundant life for all” (Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 113-114, Kindle). Moe-Lobeda planting her ethic in this ground of critically acknowledging one’s experience, seeing new pathways to take for the journey ahead, and God’s continued guidance towards that longed-for state of affairs of dynamic relationality offers hope for the journey and energy towards making it a reality (Resisting Structural Evil, 114, 120 Kindle). By continuing to develop the portrait of God actively abiding within us through creation, we are provided perspectives and practices which cultivate inspiring hope. This hope grounded in faith acknowledges despair and pain and seeks to do something about it, moving the parishes we serve and beyond towards a more communal worldview and brighter tomorrows.

1 Kings 19:9-19: Embodied Faith in the Sheer Silence

The Kings reading for August 9th begins this week’s expansion of this Western-influenced perspective of God. This exploration of Elijah’s story follows Elijah’s lone prophetic witness against four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, which resulted in the LORD being revealed boldly to the community as the giver of water and fire, primary elements of sustenance and life (1 Kings 18:17-46). While this demonstrated God’s sovereignty as greater than the perceived power of Baal affirmed by members of the Israelite community and leadership at the time, Elijah also unsettled the status quo in the process, leading him to flee after Jezebel threatened his life (1 Kings 19:1-8). We enter into the 9th verse of chapter 19 with Elijah spending the night in seclusion within a cave in Mount Horeb, the site where God had cared for the Israelites with water from a stone and provided guidance in the form of a new covenant from a fire (Exodus 17:6; Deuteronomy 4:9-15).

God reaches out to Elijah, asking him why he is there. Elijah responds, explaining that he has continued to answer his call, and even so the present oppressive system continues to exploit the agrarian culture at the time for their own gain and idolatrous practices, thus breaking the covenant with God for the Israelite people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Gale A. Yee, “1 Kings 17:1-22:53: The Ministries of the Prophets Elijah and Micaiah” in Fortress Press Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set, Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., Matthew J. M. Coomber, Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, David A. Sánchez, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014, Kindle). By breaking this covenant and exploiting the agrarian culture at the time, they also “[deprive] the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice,” as these vulnerable populations especially relied upon gleaning practices in the fields, as outlined in Deuteronomy as well (Deuteronomy 26:12-13, 27:19; Yee, “1 Kings 17:1-22:53,” Kindle). Elijah’s response to God feels drenched in the question of “Why?”—Why does this pain and suffering continue to happen, and why do my neighbors and your people continue to suffer as the covenant continues to remain unacknowledged and they seek to take my life? Elijah shares his story and experience with hopes that the status quo may be changed and seeks guidance about how to make that happen. How often do we find ourselves asking these questions too, especially when like it feels as though justice is nowhere to be found and God does not seem close by?

In their first exchange, God commands Elijah to go outside the cave and listen, “for the LORD is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11). We recall here that when Moses experienced God passing him by, he too was encouraged to stay by himself inside the cleft of a rock or a cavern (Exodus 33:20-23). At that moment, the very same signs that accompanied God’s presence listed in Isaiah 29:5-6 occur outside the cave, including a whirlwind so strong that it split the mountains, an earthquake, and then a fire (1 Kings 19:11-12). However, the writer(s) of 1 Kings reports that the LORD was not present in those spaces, and that after the fire there was “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:13 NRSV). Elijah seems to have discerned that God’s presence was not communicated via the classic mediums for the divine to be revealed. Upon hearing the silence, however, Elijah responds to God’s invitation to leave the cave and experience the LORD passing by. Upon arriving at the entrance of the cave, God asks again what Elijah is doing at Mount Horeb. Elijah repeats his response, and this time the writer(s) reports that Elijah discerns how God will restore justice to the land, namely in the means they understood at the time, which was by putting righteous leaders back into leadership positions.

So, what changed between these two sets of questions and responses? God reveals Godself and the will of God in a vehicle that is atypical to how God has been most clearly revealed in the past to God’s people. The prophet Elijah thus receives a broader lens that God’s movement is not limited only to the more easily perceptible movements of nature or in bold displays of divine intervention. Instead, even in the absolute stillness of the air, God is still moving and is still present with God’s people—hearing the cry of the oppressed, stirring people’s hearts towards ensuring justice for the sake of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, and unsettling oppressive systems which seek to silence the voices of prophets who are speaking truth to power. God’s presence is not limited only to the mediums themselves, but it is communicated into us through such means. Whether it be within the cave, within the clouds, within the fire, within the water, within the stillness—God also stirs within us, towards our very innermost selves, to remind us of God’s abiding presence. God’s presence does not just linger there either. God’s presence communicated through these creative means revealed to Elijah the means for how justice would be offered in his time. God’s revelation to Elijah appears to have encouraged him to continue the work he has been called to do, as in the very next verse he goes forth to anoint Elisha, thus continuing the process of unsettling and dismantling the oppressive political system at the time.

The 1 Kings passage invites readers to reflect over two questions: How do you see God moving in this world and within you, and how are you going to respond? On the road of activism, silence can sometimes be viewed as a scary wall, indicating that one’s actions they once believed were in line with their vocation are actually running off track or are not making a difference. The question people in this position may encounter next is “What comes next?” This seems to be a root of the response Elijah offered to God’s question: “What are you doing here?” Through Elijah’s encounter with God in and through nature, he seems to have found an expanded perspective that is grounded in his continued faith and results in new directions to explore. While we treasure the narratives where God is moving in big and bold ways because they are exciting and often deliver the justice we long for on a daily basis, we are invited to expand our lens like Elijah so we may remember that milestone moments are not the only places where God is active. God is also present and moving in those moments which seem like anything other than momentous; we see here that God can use the stillness, the space we inhabit, the things we perceive and experience each as leaping off points to move us, and in the process reveals God’s will of compassion and justice. So, once the LORD passes by you in this way, what will you do next?

Psalm 85:8-13 and Romans 10:5-15 – God Revealed and Moving, Within and Beyond Ourselves

The readings for this week from Psalm 85 and Romans 10 offer more rich imagery which help us better engage Moe-Lobeda’s third aspect of Critical Mystical Vision: “seeing ever more fully the sacred Spirit of life coursing throughout creation and leading it—despite all evidence to the contrary—into abundant life for all” (Resisting Structural Evil, 114, Kindle). The psalm reading this week carries on the theme found in 1 Kings 19:9-18 of listening for God, who “…will speak peace to [God’s] people, to [God’s] faithful, to those who turn to [God] in their hearts” (Psalm 85:8 NRSV). This conception of God includes the idea that God’s glory (another term often associated with God’s abiding presence) dwells in our land, which the writer perceives as causing love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace to also be gifted to the world by extension. What hopeful imagery associated with the fruits of listening and discerning God’s active presence amongst us! The writer perceives the world as being infused with the Spirit of life, and by extension finds hope in God’s presence.

In Psalm 85:11, we are treated to another set of rich imagery: “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” It first casts an expansive view of the extent of God’s presence, as God’s presence is associated with both parts of the binary of up and down. This sentiment in Psalm 85:11 resonates with the ideas shared in the opening verses of the Romans reading, which encourages readers to not pin Christ’s presence to one place by assuming the righteousness associated with faith is found in one precise direction or space. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). The English translation offered by the NRSV here makes sense but misses out on just how connected the word is to God’s people, as the “on your lips and in your heart” literally translated from the Greek is “in your mouth (stoma) and in your heart.” The Greek presents God’s presence here as being very much internalized here. This internalized focus presents yet another dynamic portrait of God’s abiding presence within us while also including how God offers faith to us right where we are and that the righteousness of God saturates the very air we breathe. These images resonate with the comforting sentiment that our justifying, reconciling, and renewing faith itself is “sparked” by God, which orients the life we live in response (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4.73-74, 110-116 in Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 132, 138-139). Yet again we see how God oftentimes reveals God’s movement within us through these external means and empowers us to live in an awe-inspired and hope-filled manner if we remain tuned into God’s embracing movements.

We can see through these verses images which reflect the ongoing nature of God’s life-giving presence, whether it be within the rhythmic beats of our heart internally or a seed’s continued growth through the dirt. Both of these images are similar in the fact that they represent internal, life-giving processes which make action possible in the future. So too does the faith which springs up from the ground of our very being make possible the work we are called by God to do in this world. Such work is often hard and exhausting, and sometimes can feel as though we are stuck in the dirt; however, when we look out at the large trees and the many blades of grass tenaciously growing up and out in the air, we can see little reminders of God’s creative work in this world continuing every moment, with every breath we breathe, with whatever growth is sustained, and with every heartbeat, as the Word abides in each and every one of those spaces. We can go forth, knowing God has deeply rooted and nourished each of us in the ground from which faithfulness springs through the waters of our baptism and the Word. To use the words from the close of the Romans reading for this week, we are rooted yet are also sent as those beautiful messengers proclaiming God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, justice, and peace for the sake of the broader web of life, of which we too are a part and have been called to tend. The question remains, “How is God stirring you to live out the rooted-in-faith-life you have been freely given by God?”

Matthew 14:22-33 – An Invitation to Trust and Walk Upon the Mysterious Waves

The Gospel reading for this week continues our exploration of how cultivating Moe-Lobeda’s “Critical Mystical Vision” allows us to see the world through a hopeful, spiritually rich lens which informs bold action. This passage takes place in a chapter where Jesus finds out about John the Baptist’s execution at the hands of the corrupt political system run by King Herod, and seeks rest in solitude while in a boat upon the waters. He later returns to the crowds, and in his time with them communicated his compassion by curing the sick and showcasing the abundance of God by multiplying the small amount of food they had for the nourishment of all in attendance. Yet again, we see how God chooses to move through physical means to provide insights about God’s character and movement towards life for all.

After these acts of care and time spent with the community, the Gospel of Matthew reports that Jesus sent the disciples on a boat to go to the other side to Gennesaret, where Jesus and the disciples yet again engaged deeply with the community and Jesus provided care for them (Matthew 14:34-36). The journey in-between the two shores is our focus for this week, as the disciple’s boat is buffeted by what Bible scholar Douglas R. A. Hare refers to as waves which “tortured” the disciples. Hare minces no words about the dire predicament set before them, and that it is crucial to the narrative that this is when Jesus appears to the disciples, revealing that care and guidance are key aspects of Jesus’ activity as the Messiah (Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew. Interpretation: Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. James Luther Mays, Patrick D. Miller Jr., and Paul J. Achtemeier, eds. Louisville: John Knox Press, 169). We see revealed through Jesus that God is caring and present with those amidst the storms of life, encouraging us to look out upon our respective communities for those we may accompany on the journey as well.

As we continue surveying the disciples experience upon the sea, we find the disciples looking out upon the roaring waters after a full night of wrestling with these waves to see a figure moving towards them. The disciples together “cried out in fear,” and immediately Jesus offers words of comfort (Matthew 14:26-27). At this point, Peter alone responds, asking Jesus to invite him on the waters too if his Lord is in fact there. Jesus offers the requested invitation. Peter then steps out upon the waves, begins to walk towards Jesus, and as he recognizes a strong gust of wind, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. As he sinks, he cries out to Jesus for deliverance, and Jesus immediately reaches out to catch him. Jesus encourages him to hold onto the faith he had which encouraged him to step out onto the water in the first place and then guides him back onto the boat, at which point the storm ceases and the disciples worship Jesus.

Hare’s analysis of this passage uplifts that Peter’s stepping upon the waves is unique to Matthew’s telling of the disciples’ storm experience, suggesting that Peter represents a key representation of “…what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt” (Matthew, 169). Put another way, Peter represents to the reader the life of someone engaging in Critical Mystical Vision. The group on the waves originally saw Jesus as a ghost. Upon hearing the figure on the waves, Peter chose to see things differently, trusting in Jesus’ presence and asking to step out onto the risky waves with him. Now, this does not mean that Peter was ignorant of the surroundings he was in. The fact that he requested that Jesus himself command him upon the tempestuous waters suggests that he was critically aware of the space he was in, yet hoped through his faith that God’s power would be sufficient to carry him on the way (Hare, Matthew, 170). Even when the situation shifted and his faith was shaken by the wind, Peter again cried out in hope that Jesus would hold him up when Peter alone could not. Jesus immediately responded, and upon returning with Peter to the boat, the disciples cried out in worship, claiming Jesus as the Son of God.

And why these immediate turns to praising Jesus? My guess is this is not only because the storm had subsided. Instead, Jesus communicated clearly to these disciples that he is there to continue providing care for them, even when he had perhaps appeared distanced from them when he went away to the mountain to pray (Matthew 14:23). Moreover, Peter stepped out in hope, and although the journey took a different path than he perhaps had expected, he encountered Christ. Peter chose to see with hope, and his life and the disciples lives were changed by the experience that followed. Even though he fell into the waters, had he not trusted in his faith and seen the figure only as a specter or something to tempt him, then he likely would not have had the experience which revealed a whole new relational dimension between him and Christ. Their awareness of Christ’s presence and care for them deepened immensely through his accompanying them in the storm and upon the very waters that threatened their boat. This is not to say that Peter saw everything as safe or rosy. It is clear that Peter was abundantly aware of the stormy waves; however, he fixated upon Christ for the first steps into new understanding (Hare, Matthew, 170). Through Peter’s hope and through the storm God revealed new depths to Peter’s faith. Yet again, God moves amidst nature and the discerning heart towards communicating new truths about who God is and who we are called to be in response.

The waves can represent the mysterious, presently-uncharted places for us. As we continue wrestling with how we are to answer our call to love our neighbor amidst this complex world, we find hope in the truth revealed in this passage that Jesus is already ahead of us in those currently mysterious spaces. We experience the tug to move just as Peter was called by Jesus upon the waters. We trust that Christ is with us upon those waves, ready to catch us if we begin to sink. We believe Christ still invites us to live into the faith sparked within us for the sake of those experiencing the pain and fear associated with the tumultuous waves of this life. So, where is Jesus ahead of you, providing hope for the journey ahead and calling you to join him amidst the storms which visit us in this life for the sake of those whose are being engulfed by the waves?

Questions to Ponder and Embody in Hope

Elijah, the Psalmist, Paul, and Peter each saw the world with hope and faith that God was moving and was encouraging them to move as well. They each experienced hardship and saw that the road towards living out their call was one that had obstacles and risks along the way. However, they also saw the dynamic presence of God moving on the road, both within their very bodies and alongside them in God’s creation. Out of this deeper perception and God’s reminder of God’s compassionate presence, they continued to move forward in hope that God’s will might be done through them, not for their own sake, but because they were obligated to do so by our Creator and Sustainer, and because they saw the world needed it. The questions raised by these readings before us then as called and claimed children of God are: What do we perceive? In what ways is God moving within us and within our surroundings? Where are the stormy waves God invites us to walk upon? What will we do in response as we live rooted and fixed upon the faith offered to us by God? We live out of our embodied faith and experience. We reflect on what could be with hope inspired by God’s will of justice, compassion, and dynamic relationality. We continue to step out upon the waters to which we are called, listening for God’s continued presence and guidance, whether it be found on the waves, in the fires, in the wind, in the silence, in our words, or within our very hearts. May we view the world through the “Critical Mystical Vision” Moe-Lobeda describes, trusting that God is renewing us as faith springs up from the ground to which we have been rooted, that God sends us with hope, and that God invites us to embody the insights gained from God’s movement in nature towards our very internal selves for the sake of the world.

Andrew Thompson
athompson5@capital.edu

Andrew Thompson is a second year Master of Divinity, Word and Sacrament Track, student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. Andrew graduated from Capital University in 2019 with a BA in Religion and Philosophy, and much of his work embraced an eco-theological framework. Andrew presented eco-theological work at several undergraduate conferences, created an eco-theologically-centered campus ministry outline and program content for his senior thesis, and also served as a camp counselor at a Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio camp. Andrew hopes to serve the world and the church as a campus pastor, and as a continued advocate and ally for environmental justice.

Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 20, 2020) in Year A

All Creation Looks Forward to God’s Glory Dennis Ormseth reflects on the mountain experiences of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Mountains matter.  Beginning with the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, in which the mountains were called on by the prophet Micah to witness God’s controversy with God’s people, we have sought and found in the sayings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount material grounding for an Earth-honoring faith. Now with the readings for the Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the mountains nearly speak for themselves, demanding our attention as part of some of the most important, defining narratives of the biblical tradition.

The texts constitute a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, extended over the ages.  God, as it were, summons to the high mountain of the Transfiguration “those two great ancient worthies,”  Moses and Elijah, the founding liberator and lawgiver from the exodus from Egypt, and the great prophet from the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel, respectively (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, p. 171). Amplifying this look backwards, the first reading recalls Moses’ own encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. A comparison of these stories produces several elements held in common, which serves to tie them intimately together: each happens on a mountain, “six days later”, with a special select group; the shining face and skin, the bright cloud and voice from the cloud result in great fear on the part of the bystanders (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 348.)  Elijah brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai, as well. In the context of his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel and their priests of Baal, he ascends Sinai alone.  There he is caught up in a great wind, an earthquake and fire, and then hears out of the sheer silence the voice of God (1 Kings 19).  Belden Lane explores the connections here:

“The mountain narratives of Moses and Elijah had situated each of them within a context of loneliness and rejection.  In going to meet God on the mountain, the one had been scorned by his people, who demanded a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32:1).  The other had been threatened by Jezebel, who’d sworn herself to vengeance (I Kings 19:2).  In both cases, their ‘seeing of God’ on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real” (Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  Oxford:  Oxford Univeersity Press, 1998, p. 135).

Thus the pairing of Moses and Elijah on Sinai with Jesus on Tabor lends political significance to the narrative of the Transfiguration. Tabor is thereby associated with a challenge to entrenched political power:

“Lying far from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), the mountains defy the authority of the state, ‘clashing with every royal religion enamored of image, vision, appearance, structure.’  Coming to Sinai, Moses had witnessed the overthrow of oppression in Egypt.  Elijah came to the mountain fleeing the corrupt regime of Ahab, having just undermined the hegemony of Baal on Mount Carmel. The mountain of God necessarily brings into question all claims to political power.  Its iconographic imagery challenges every human structure. Similarly, at Tabor, the transfiguration reaches beyond the present failure of political justice in Jerusalem to affirm an unrealized future where Christ is king” (Lane, p. 135).

Jesus brings to the mountain assembly his disciples Peter, James and his brother John, the fishermen to whom we were introduced on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, as he called them away from their life by the sea and the hardships of fishing under the oppressive control of Roman imperial rule. Jesus has been traversing Galilee with them, teaching, healing, and feeding people as they went, a journey interspersed by repeated visits to remote areas, including both mountains and the Sea of Galilee.  Their journey culminates just prior to their ascent of the mountain in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed almost immediately, however, by a bitter exchange between Jesus and Peter over Jesus’ future path to Jerusalem and the cross. It is the opposition of his disciples to his disclosure that he will face crucifixion and death before being raised up (Matthew 16:21-28) that leads to the divine instruction from out of the cloud,  “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

The second reading for this Sunday recalls the event of the Transfiguration in the voice of Peter from some time near the end of his life, apparently also in response to the religious challenge from an opponent, suggesting the continued immediate relevance of this instruction in the life of the young church:  “You will do well to be attentive to this [account] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” As indeed do we, also.  The older and wiser Peter sees what these narratives share:  each of these men has been in a dark place, but they are being drawn into the light.  Moses, Elijah and Jesus each went to the remote mountain after experiencing difficulty in the communities for which they are leaders. Away from the political and religious centers of society, each time the manifestation of God lends legitimacy to their leadership in a time of conflict, and empowers their future course of action.  All three emerge, as it were, from the darkness of those conflicts into the holy light on the mountain, before descending the mountain to resume their leadership according to the will of God.

Thus the presence of Moses and Elijah confirms for Jesus’ disciples his “high rank and holy task,” encouraging them “to follow him in his unrelenting journey to the cross” (Robert H. Smith, p. 171). But Jesus’ traverse of this passage from dark to light is in one key respect different.  Readers of our comment on the text for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany might recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address from Mt. Nebo, in which he exhorted the people “to choose life” as they prepared to enter the promised land without him. Elijah’s adventure on Sinai followed on an opposite choice by the people and their leaders, once they lived in the land, of the way of death that is manifested in a pervasive drought in the land.  In contrast to both Moses’ prior exclusion from the land and Elijah’s conflict with royal idolatry there, Jesus has gone deeply into the land to engage its people, and has manifested there a benign and restorative presence among them.  He has been about the healing of the creation.

The conflict between Jesus and his disciples is particularly telling in this perspective.  As Robert H. Smith points out, in spite of their experience on the mountain, the disciples do not really hear what Jesus is saying. Matthew brings this section of his gospel to a close with an account of their dispute amongst themselves, as to who will be seated in positions of power and authority when Jesus ascends the throne of the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-27), an account that, as Smith notes, reverberates with damning significance for our own times:

“They all wanted to be in charge, to sit on seats of privilege and power.  It is not only pharaohs who build pyramids.  All the nations do it. Corporations do it.  Churches and schools organize hierarchies, and families and clans do it.  It all seems so natural.  It happens so regularly, so easily, so universally, that we find ourselves thinking, ‘of course the few were born to give orders, and the many were made to obey!’

But is it natural?  Where does it all come from?  From God?  Did God order the universe in such a way that humankind should exercise a ruthless dominion over the trees and rivers, over birds and beasts?  Did God’s voice really call out that men should rule over women?  The people of the Northern Hemisphere should dominate the poorer nations to the south?  Did the finger of God write that we should have social systems that are rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal?” (Smith, pp. 172-73).

No, this pattern of domination does not come from God, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has made clear.  It is those who are poor in spirit, those who lament the absence of righteousness in the land and desire above all its full restoration, the meek who give place to others in the full community of life and who seek peace, even to the point of refusing violence in return for persecution by their and Jesus’ enemies, who will be comforted and inherit the kingdom (see our comment in this series on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany). Indeed, Jesus’ passage through the countryside constitutes a foretaste of the healing of creation to come with his entry into the full reign of God as servant of all creation.  Followers of his way have been warned against “affairs of the heart” which contribute to the patterns of dominations that disrupt the good creation (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday). They will be salt and light for a sustained and illuminating demonstration of the kingdom, characterized by obedience to God’s creation-serving law and genuine and full-hearted love of the other, including non-human creatures (see our comment on the Fifth Sunday). But for all that to take place he needs first to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities that hold the land in destructive bondage to the pursuit of power, privilege and wealth that will result in its ecological devastation and abandonment (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday).

As we prepare to leave the mountain with him and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, however, it is important that we take note of both the specific location and the actual event of Jesus’ transfiguration. Again we would urge, the mountain itself matters. It has been observed that Mount Tabor, the presumed locus of the transfiguration, is a very different place than Mount Sinai.  Sinai is high and forbidding, “a place of dark and difficult beauty,” as Belden Lane experienced it on a climb to the peak.  For him, “it symbolized the wandering of the children of Israel, the experience of loss and the bread of hardness.  The Sinai wilderness is a place far from home, a ‘no man’s land’ of fire and smoke.” Mt. Tabor, on the other hand, is “a cone-shaped peak in Galilee,” appropriately captured in the words of Elisaeus, a seventh-century Armenian pilgrim, who described it as surrounded by “springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink.”  “If Sinai wins the soul by threat and leanness,” Lane comments, “Tabor compels by charm.” “In Jewish history,” he notes, “Tabor is associated with Deborah, the woman of faith and daring who led her people in defeating the captain of the Canaanites and his fearful iron chariots (Judg. 4-5).  This mountain is one possessed of an ancient, feminine energy.  It is Mother and Sister, one whose strength is bent toward nurture and wholeness.”  As he walked alone in cold rain on Tabor’s lower slopes, Lane found the mountain, “especially in the rain …a place of nourishment, a place to rest and be still” As he comments, in contrast to the landscape of Sinai, Tabor ‘offers a landscape of accessible and gentle beauty.  Like a wet, green breast rising out of the Plains of Jezreel, it is bathed in light, covered with woodland trees and wildflowers.” (Lane, pp. 124-25, 130-31.)

Belden’s contrast matches our expectation that Jesus would go to such a mountain as Tabor to help bring his disciples to a sense of the beauty of creation as it would be in a world freed from the pursuit of wealth and the associated all-encompassing pattern of domination.  “The sacred mountain, from Sinai to Tabor to Zion,” comments Lane rightly, “is a place where political priorities are realigned.  To flee to the mountain is to identify with the marginalized, with those denied access to the empowerment of the state and thus subject to its wrath.  Jesus and his disciples may well have contemplated such things as they walked down Tabor on their way back toward Jerusalem.”  But where the desert-mountain tradition “stringently insists that ‘moments of splendor’ serve the purposes of justice and responsibility in the ordinary life” (Lane, p. 135), the more ecologically harmonious experience of Tabor, we want to suggest, encourages the hope that somewhere ahead lies another mountain that instead invites us to ascend it more with the beauty of the infinite than the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread.

We in fact take that to be the deepest meaning of what happened to Jesus there on Tabor: that “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the sign of things to come for the whole creation.  A recent visit by this writer to the sanctuary of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, outside of Ravenna, Italy, where the scene of the Transfiguration fills the apse, confirms this possibility.  Moses and Elijah rest on clouds to the left and right of the star-studded cosmic field which surrounds a cross that bears the face of Jesus at its center.  Below them, trees, flowers, birds and animals of the forest delight the eye, while sheep of the parish fold and their bishop walk amongst the lilies. Again Lane comments significantly:

“Tabor is the mountain of light, taking joy in the greening power of God’s spirit, as Hildegard, the twelfth-century Benedictine nun, described its impulse toward growth.  This is a mountain that thrives on abundance and redundancy.  It supports a plant life of variegated wonder.  The apocryphal Gospel of Hebrews connects its summit with the height of mystical insight; ‘The Holy Spirit, my Mother, came and took me by the hair and carried me to the great Mount Tabor.’  Here is effulgence, an excess of glory” (Lane, p. 140).

The Transfiguration, and the Eastern iconographic tradition that builds upon it, draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world. Because of God having been made flesh in Jesus Christ, humans are able to glimpse the very face of God in matter itself” (Lane, p. 126).  God’s love of the creation, so amply exhibited in the readings of the Season of Epiphany, knows no final limit; all creation can look forward in joy to the culmination in God’s future of the reconciliation and incorporation of all things in the glory of God.  This is, indeed, an Earth-honoring faith.