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Thursday, February 16, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, II Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

Sorry the most recent blog entry showed the wrong day. It had the correct scriptures and content for Feb. 12, but was mislabeled (Feb. 5).

This week we come to the end of Epiphany, the season of light. It ends with all kinds of pyrotechnics: a whirlwind, a chariot and horses of fire, a miraculous parting of the water (II Kings 2:1, 8, 11-12), a devouring fire and a mighty tempest (Psalm 50:3), a mountaintop experience where Jesus' clothes become “dazzling white,” heroes of the past appear, and a voice speaking from an overshadowing cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”“ (Mark 9:2-4, 7) The epistle reading reminds us that “the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ is the same God “who has shone in our hearts to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (II Corinthians 4:6)

We could struggle with and wonder over what’s happening here. It’s rarely fruitful to ask, “I wonder what really happened here,” if one is looking for a physical, material, scientific answer. All of these readings are simply expressions of those mysterious moments when the human spirit is overcome with the wonder and power of the forces of life that are at work around us. We talk about being “enlightened.” Near-death experiences often include a sense of seeing or walking into the light. Quakers talk about the inner light, the divine light that burns in our very being, giving us life and empowering us. Such moments are often referred to as mountaintop experiences.

It would make sense, then, to reflect on our own enlightening moments, our mountaintop experiences. When have we been almost overwhelmed with the beauty and power of the divine spirit? Manifestations of nature (ocean waves, sunsets, snowy peaks, colorful meadows, waterfalls) have affected me that way. I’ve had powerful moments of God’s presence in the quiet of the night, during concerts, when observing great human achievement or effort, around the Communion Table. It can come in the presence of death or human suffering, sometimes more a moaning whisper than an ecstatic leap of joy. It comes in many ways, in many places, differing from individual to individual. What have been your mountaintop experiences?

A word of caution. Some have made such experiences the be-all and end-all of religious/spiritual expression. I don’t live on a mountaintop, spiritually or otherwise. I suspect most human beings do not, although I occasionally read some self-appointed “gurus” who make it sound as if they do. I need some such experiences as reminders and encouragement, but most of us live down off the mountain. Peter seemed to want to stay there on the mountain, but they had to come down again. When they did, the continuing story tells us that they had difficulties with the realities they faced.

The transfiguration story is, of course, about Jesus and who he is. Mark begins his Gospel with a simple statement of the overall message he is trying to convey: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” On the mountaintop, a voice (presumed to be the voice of God) speaks from an overshadowing cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)

This week, though, I’m more interested in a long line of those from whom we’ve drawn power and inspiration. Jesus and Peter and James and John are not on that mountain alone. Whatever the nature of their presence, Elijah and Moses are part of the experience. Are they just part of a hallucination? In Mark 9:8, it says, “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” The nature of their presence really makes no difference. Those on the mountaintop felt a powerful connection with their spiritual ancestors.

While it would be interesting, and perhaps enlightening, to consider why these particular two, this week’s readings have called me to think about who I would like to talk to on the mountaintop. Maybe it’s partly because I’m making a renewed foray into my family ancestry, particularly into the historical eras in which they lived, the forces by which they were shaped. One of them, legend has it, is buried in the cemetery of the Iona Abbey off the coast of Scotland, where St. Columba, a Christian missionary, established a monastery in the 6th century. There are Huguenots, a wagonmaster coming west across the prairies and mountains, kings and carpenters, and many about whom little is known or remembered. I’d like to have a family reunion with some of them.

I invite you to think about who you would like to connect with, famous figures, family ancestors, etc. There are some who might think the “right” answer for “Christians” is Jesus. Let’s just assume Jesus is there, as he was with Peter and James and John. Let’s focus on who else might be there. It’s about more than just sharing space on a mountaintop or even having a reunion with significant figures. It’s about energy being passed from generation to generation.

From the story of Elijah and Elisha in our reading from II Kings, we have inherited the notion of the “mantle” being the symbol of that passing on of energy. The mantle is literally a cloak, but is also defined as “an important role or responsibility that passes from one person to another.” We talk about picking up the “mantle” of someone.

The story of Elijah and Elisha is about a change in leadership. Elijah is about to be taken into the heavens, leaving Elisha to carry on. (II Kings 2:1-2) Elijah grants Elisha, so to speak, a last wish. Elisha’s wish? “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (vs. 9) There’s so much in this story. It reminds us of how we try to hang on to those we love, how we want to live up to their example, etc. One might critique it, wishing there were more emphasis on Elisha simply becoming his own person.

Learning from, sharing in the spirit of, those who have gone before is not to be underestimated. The same Spirit continues to empower people from generation to generation. We can celebrate being part of that stream. Continuing the question about who we would meet on the mountaintop, we might ask whose mantle we would wish to inherit, or maybe have inherited. Who are, or have been, our mentors in this journey of faith?

In the story of Elijah and Elisha, the mantle is a symbol of God’s presence and power. Elijah uses it to part the waters, using it like Moses used a rod to part the Red Sea. (vs. 8) Elijah tells Elisha that if he sees him being taken into the heavens, he will indeed be granted his wish. (vs. 10) Elisha watches as the chariot and horses of fire come. Elijah ascends in a whirlwind, and Elisha cries out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (vs. 11-12) If we were to continue beyond this week’s reading, we would find that, after Elisha tore his clothes in sorrow, (vs. 12), “he picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.” (vs. 13)

Mountaintops and mantles—symbols of turning points, times in life, and the people associated with them, from which we draw strength. They shed light on us and illumine life because God is in them. May we all pay attention to mountaintops and mantles and give thanks!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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