Today we have 2 Gospel readings as part of our gathering because we have an exceptional Sunday. Both the Episcopal Church and the ELCA church use what is called the Revised Common Lectionary—an agreed upon selection of readings for each Sunday. This way Christians across denominations and in different places are hearing the same readings throughout the Church year. And every last Sunday of the Epiphany season, the Sunday before Lent begins, we hear the Transfiguration story. But in the Episcopal church calendar, there is also a set date to celebrate the Transfiguration as a holy day; that date is today, August 6th. And according to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, if August 6th falls on a Sunday, then the Transfiguration trumps the regular Sunday readings. But not so in the ELCA world. So today, we honor both. We have the Transfiguration Gospel from Luke for the Episcopal calendar and the 10th Sunday after Pentecost Gospel reading from Matthew for the ELCA calendar. And, Beloved, they are beautifully linked.
In fact, these two readings from Matthew and Luke happen at about the same time in the trajectory of Jesus’s story. In the background of both of these stories is the beheading of John the Baptist and just before the Transfiguration story in Luke is the feeding of the 5,000 that we heard in the reading from Matthew. But these two Gospels are linked in even more beautiful and powerful ways.
In Luke’s story of the Transfiguration, Jesus is about to turn his face toward Jerusalem; he is about to give his life for all of humanity. And before Jesus can make that turn, before Jesus will have his life taken, blessed, broken open in order for it be shared and given and received—Jesus experiences transfiguration. He draws near to God’s presence, and in that experience, he is changed, made new. Even Jesus, this One who is completely human while also being completely divine, even Jesus needs to deliberately and intentionally bring himself into the presence of God, even Jesus needs to be changed, broken open and blessed, before taking the path of surrendering his life to the sacrificial love that is his calling. That is our calling.
Today’s Gospel story from Matthew tells us that when Jesus learns of the murder of his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus withdraws and leaves the area. Jesus removes himself from the realm of Empire, this way of living where power, money and self-centered purposes sit on the throne of human hearts. Jesus withdraws and enters a new landscape. And here’s the detail that just may be the true miracle: the crowd followed. They followed. Because the Gospel truth here is that Jesus offers us a different landscape than the Empire. Jesus offers us an alternate way to live, an alternate world to inhabit. A life removed from the Empire. A life where power, greed, and self-centeredness can be dethroned from our hearts and, instead, compassion, mercy, love and serving others takes up residence. Sacrificial love wears the crown in this country. God’s Kingdom come.
And here’s the thing Beloved—Matthew’s Gospel story is a Transfiguration story too. Here are all these people—5000 men, besides women and children— who have come in hopes of being healed. They have followed Jesus’ footsteps away from the Empire and into this wilderness to find a different way. It’s late. The disciples think it’s time to wrap it up. It was a nice gig, but time for folks to head back to their homes and get themselves some food. Imagine the disciples’ faces when Jesus says to them: They don’t need to go away; you give them something to eat.
What? We don’t have anything! 5 loaves. 2 fish. And there’s 12 of us!
I suspect it’s grudgingly that they hand over those loaves and fishes.
Jesus has the people sit down. Interesting detail. Is it so everyone can see what Jesus does? He takes what has been offered—--asks God to bless it—--breaks it open—-and shares.
When I was younger, I thought the next bit was magic. I thought what must have happened was like the never-ending bowl at Olive Garden. As one piece of bread was given to someone, another one magically appeared in the basket going around. Kind of like feasts at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. But, Beloved, I don’t think that’s what happened. Why? Why not? Because it is not how it happens now. And sure, with God nothing is impossible, but if that’s how God works, then why doesn’t bread just magically appear in all the houses where people are starving?
How God works, how Love works, is that we give what we have, blessed by God’s Creation….we give, allowing our lives to be broken open instead of remaining self-centered enclosures, and then we share. Those thousands of people, besides women and children—they weren’t stupid. Just like the disciples, many of them probably brought some snacks. And I think, instead of a never-ending bowl from Olive Garden, what happened was they watched Jesus take what has been given, ask for God’s blessing, and then break what he has so that it can be shared widely. And then (again, here’s the miracle) the crowd followed! They followed Jesus—asking God to bless what they have, breaking it open, and sharing it—and there was enough for everyone….and then some. 12 baskets of some more.
Why 12? Well, there were 12 tribes of Israel. God’s people. And as we see in the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel, part of Jesus’ transfiguration—part of how he is changed—is that he comes to realize God wants salvation for more than just the Israelites, God wants this for all people. Because all people are God’s people. 12 baskets of food means there is enough for all God’s people. But only when we leave the ways of empire behind and follow Jesus into this alternative way of living. YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO EAT.
Talk about Transfiguration.
And Beloved, this transfiguration is ours for the having. For as we linger and converse with the Law and the Prophets, as we enter the cloud of witness and mystery, as we intentionally climb mountains to draw nearer to God, we are altered. Transfigured. Through experience, through failing and learning, by reflection and contemplation, as we listen and are embraced. We are changed. A small, but important detail of this story is the truth that we must BE before we can DO. As Contemplative writer James Finley puts it: we become a community of awakened hearts.
Take. Bless. Break. Share. It’s who we are. It’s how we are to be. It’s the Way of Love. In those four words is a revolution. In those four words is Creation’s Transfiguration. Creation’s Salvation. Take. Bless. Break. Share. Take. Bless. Break. Share.
Lay down the life of Empire. Take up the Life of Love.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.