Sunday, February 14, 2021

Transfiguration Sunday

 2 Kings 2

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

3 The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so be quiet.”

4 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”

And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

5 The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” he replied, “so be quiet.”

You know about TLC and PDA, but do you know about BPR?

In case you’re not up on acronyms vaguely related to Valentine’s Day, the first two are “tender loving care” and “public displays of affection.” We all need a little of the first, and we can probably live without the second. But what’s BPR, and how did it get on our list?

BPR stands for “benign positive regard,” a phrase first coined by researchers looking at religious attitudes among teens. Conventional wisdom suggests that when young people drift away from religious practice, it’s likely a case of teenage rebellion, doing the opposite of whatever their parents are doing. What they found instead is that teenager’s attitudes toward religion actually mirrors what the parents are doing—in this case, benign positive regard.

So what is BPR? Let’s just say that if your sweetheart sends you a card professing benign positive regard, he’s just not that into you. Benign positive regard is how most people feel about—say—post-it notes: helpful, even clever, but few people write poems about post-it notes. Maybe a haiku.

Post-it in my book

Marks the page I am reading

So helpful I guess

The puzzle with benign positive regard among religious people of all ages is the extent to which it’s at odds with the faith itself. The story of God is a story of passionate love, creating us out of dust and placing us among the wonders of creation. Liberating us in times of peril, saving us from ourselves, entering the world to walk beside us, even dying to free us from the power of death.

Kendra Dean, the researcher who popularized benign positive regard, wants us to think instead about passion. She argues that our faith should act as an external authority in our lives, it should make compelling claims on our time and attention, it should challenge us to grow in ways we might not want to grow. Listen as Dr. Dean makes her case:

Passion is the truest love there is, a love worthy of sacrifice, a love so rare, so life-changing that it is the stuff of legends. It is Jack and Rose in Titanic. It is Mufasa and Simba in The Lion King. It is Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Passion is “to die for.”

If she was writing on Transfiguration Sunday, I expect she would add Elijah and Elisha. And then maybe Ruth and Naomi, because their love is the same:

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

Oddly, we learn very little about Elisha before this episode. God appoints him as Elijah’s successor, Elijah retrieves the lad and “adopts” him, and then Elijah’s larger-than-life ministry continues with Elisha in the background. But today’s passage, recounting Elijah’s last moments on this earth, we learn everything we need to know about their relationship.

Like Ruth’s famous “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” Elisha pledges that he will not leave Elijah’s side. Each time he is confronted with the inevitable, we get the same reaction: “Yes, I know, so be quiet.” Can you hear the translator’s dilemma, trying to find a polite way to say “shut-up”? Poor Elisha, set to lose the one he loves.

No doubt seeing the toll that this is taking on Elisha, Elijah asks, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” At this moment Elisha asks the seemingly impossible—a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit. You wonder if asking the seemingly impossible is a way to delay his departure, or create a rift that may make it easier to part, but Elijah says “we’ll see…if you see me depart, it will be yours.”

Elisha does see him depart, in a chariot of fire no less, and gains that double-portion that will be important for Elisha going forward. The chariot ascends, Elisha cries out, and tears his cloak in grief.

We share this passage on Transfiguration Sunday because it gives some of the background for the event itself. Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up the mountain, where he is transformed, transfigured in a blaze of light, flanked to the left and to the right by Moses and Elijah. God speaks, blessing Jesus as he approaches his passion, and the scene ends.

Generally, we read the Elijah story today because he is mentioned in the passage. And that might be reason enough, except that is a parallel here to the mantle being passed, with three of the twelve witnesses to the glory that Jesus will soon experience. The light, the blessing, the company— all point to Jesus’ return to God.

There is, however, one more element to the transfiguration worth noting: the symbolism of the figures, one on the right and one on the left. Moses is the liberator, the first and most powerful prophet, who used God’s might to free his people. Elijah is also a prophet, but even more, since he represents the passionate activity of God in the world: raising the dead, calling down fire to defeat the priests of Baal, riding a chariot of fire to eternity.

Jesus, then, is both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, he is our liberator, freeing us from sin and sorrow, and defeating death itself so that we might be free. And like Elijah, Jesus is God’s passionate presence in the world, raising the dead, defeating the forces of despair, and returning to God in glory. Today is dedicated to freedom and passion, and a world transformed.

You may have noticed that there are very few Transfiguration Sunday hymns, an enduring mystery, except perhaps that it’s hard to describe in verse something so unusual. Likewise, there are few hymns to describe Elijah and his chariot of fire, with one notable exception: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Written by Wallis Willis around the time of the American Civil War, it describes the hope of being carried home, with a band of angels and a sweet chariot sent for the task. And as with many African-American spirituals of this era, there is often a hidden message, encouraging those enslaved to escape, even giving coded directions.

In the case of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, some have suggested that we’ve received a “public” version of the song, when the private (coded) version may have been sung “swing low, sweet Harriet,” for Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, but then returned to the south to lead others to freedom. During at least 13 missions she led over 70 people to freedom, earning the nickname Moses. Soon, she will claim her rightful place on the US $20 bill.

Passionate love, and a desire for freedom, these are the hallmarks of Transfiguration. This is the opposite of BPR. Allowing our faith to direct us in ways larger than ourselves, giving time and attention to our passion, and growing in love—for God and each other—these are the marks of new life in Christ. May God bless us and surround us with enduring love, Amen.


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