“Epiphany light on the Way of the Cross” Stewardship Sunday Reflection
Mark 9:2-9 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ February 14, 2020
Someone once said that the topics of sex, politics and money do not belong in the pulpit. And, if you subscribe to that belief, then you will be pleased to know that we will only be talking about one out of the three. And, as we further consider that statement, we are reminded that Jesus commentated on each of them…particularly the later two. Stewardship Sunday can be as problematic as it can be proven. Many of us are old enough to remember the days when well-meaning elders of the church visited church members to discuss their financial pledge for the upcoming year. This annual conversation, on the one hand was helpful for the church in budgeting their upcoming ministry expenditures. On the other hand, however, it may have been a conversation that left people feeling that the church was only after their money ~ which of course was never the intention. And over the last generation or so, churches have applied a variety of approaches to stewardship. Visitation campaigns in some cases, mailouts in others, stewardship segments regularly as part of worship, and a Stewardship Sunday focus in an annual service. At Northwood, over the past several years, we have utilized the last two: regular stewardship conversations occurring during Sunday worship offered by adults, children and by myself. And an annual service where we can dive in, a little more deeply, as we consider developing our personal beliefs of stewardship. And as we will find…stewardship is about far more than just money. Stewardship takes us all the way to the cross and beyond as it informs how we live, how we love and how we serve.
This Sunday brings us to the conclusion of the Epiphany season and, as we always do, it brings us to one of the gospel versions of Jesus’ Transfiguration. In this lectionary year, we focus on Mark’s version that Angus so beautifully read for us. While stewardship Sunday can, sometimes, take an opportunity to look at various gratitude texts on scripture: the story of the grateful leper in Luke’s gospel, the teaching to share the first fruits of the harvest in Deuteronomy, and so on. (indeed there are many biblical teachings that speak overtly to stewardship). The challenge that I found myself confronted with was…should we forgo Transfiguration Sunday and chose a traditional stewardship text? Or…does Jesus’ Transfiguration have something deeply profound to teach us about this morning’s focus? As you can see, I have chosen the later. And, I think, we will discover together that Jesus’ Transfiguration has some deep truths that should inform our stewardship practices.
Growing our Spiritual Vision
For Mark, this event that we are examining is all about helping us more deeply ‘see’ who Jesus is; it is all about gaining a deeper understanding; it is all about gaining the eyes of faith. Mark is the shortest of all the gospels and he is very careful in succinctly laying out his presentation of the stories of Jesus’ life. This passage is located right in the middle of numerous stories that focus on sight and blindness (see 8:22 – 10:52). This, of course, is not about visual acuity. Rather we are speaking about our spiritual vision. Mark begins this section with Jesus’ healing of the blind man at Bethsaida, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, teachings about the meaning of his upcoming suffering and rejection and a call to all his followers to deny themselves. When they argue about the nature of true greatness, Jesus places a child among them. He calls them to be “salt and light” to others; he challenges the rich for the ways that their belongings hold them down; and challenges those wishing to be first by instructing them that they must put themselves last and be a servant to others. And in the midst of these 3 chapters….teachings designed to help them spiritually see…Mark proceeds to tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration.
So what vision is clarified with Jesus’ Transfiguration? This passage touches the core of Jesus’ identity for his followers. People had been speculating on who this healer, teacher, challenger of the religious establishment was. Some said he was in the line of John the Baptist, others referred to Elijah and some of the earlier prophets. Mark sets out to clarify exactly who Jesus is in this text. In case we missed it in the opening of Mark’s gospel “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. In case Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah to the question ‘who do you say that I am?’ was not striking enough, we have a pyrotechnical show the likes of which the early Christians had never seen before. At the mountain top…a holy place where God’s people find the divine, the divinity of Jesus is revealed with a full-effect light show! His clothes become dazzling white and the ones who people considered him to be like ~ Elijah and Moses ~ were to be found at his left and right hands. And as we come to the end of the season of Epiphany, this passage enlightens the place of Jesus for all who would follow.
What does Transfiguration have to do with stewardship?
What follows this pyrotechnical display is the innate human response and, as we examine it in the light of stewardship Sunday, some words that will further inform our practice in this area. Jesus is transfigured…revealed on the mountain top, dazzling white, flanked on either side by Moses and Elijah. And what do his followers want to do? They want to fashion buildings, they want tuck them each away, they want to place a monopoly on his glory for themselves! One theologian put it quite harshly “like Peter, we want to build tabernacles; like the quarrelling disciples, we want our little egos to bask alone in Jesus’ power and glory”. And as a counter to this temple-building offer, reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism, the heavens cry out “this is my son, the Beloved; listen to him”. This is my son…don’t build temples, listen to him. This is my son…listen to him…share him…follow him. “This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
Epiphany light on the Way of the Cross
Earlier I was explaining how these three chapters contain various teachings on heightening one’s spiritual vision. And sprinkled carefully through this section are three passion predictions where Jesus teaches of his coming suffering, death and resurrection. We learn that Jesus did not die merely because his suffering could purge the world of sin and evil. He dies because the powers of evil sought to destroy his witness to nonviolent love, to justice and to truth. Jesus’ passion reveals the “evilness of evil”…and…the transforming power of divine love. A love that is even more powerful; an assertive love that does not dominate; a love that embraces evil, exposes it, and transforms it. This love, and this love alone ultimately reveals God’s triumph as the first Easter sunrise breaks the dawn. When the voice from heaven calls out to (not to build temples but to) “listen to him”, this is the love that we are challenged to offer as stewards of the cross. You see, if this Sunday was merely about money, it would be an easy day to talk about. Stewardship is about the stewarding of our lives! We are not called to exhibit a passive love that simply tries to be good and avoid evil. The way of the cross has never been a private bearing of personal woes for the sake of Jesus. The transfiguration reveals a love that refuses to play the world’s power games of domination and exploitation, of greed and deception. The transfiguration reveals who Jesus is unto you…and calls you to respond, as we begin to listen to him! And that is a personal matter of revelation that comes in God’s time and in God’s way.
Gratitude or Revenge?
Shifting perspectives for a moment. Some of you participate in our Tuesday night SPA gatherings where Mindfulness Meditation is among the practices. Long before Jon Kabbat-Zinn and others introduced the concept of stress reduction through meditation, Hans Selye introduced the concept of how stress damages our human tissues. In his book “Stress of Life” he proposed that life is lived somewhere between the poles of gratitude or revenge. Revenge, being the awakening in another person of the wish that I should not prosper because of what I have done to them. Gratitude, on the other hand, being the awakening in another of the wish that I should prosper because of what I have done for him. And where we find ourselves between these poles of gratitude and revenge has huge determining factors upon our health, the overall capacity of humanity, and even our mortality. He argues that where there is no gratitude, we lost our connections. Where there is no gratitude, people perish. Where there is no gratitude, we are cut off from all others and we die. I think stewardship is the most natural expression of our full humanity. It acknowledges our interconnection among others and calls us to nourish it. It celebrates the light we have received, refusing to allow us to hide it away for our exclusive use and calls us to throw a party and share it with all!
A call to philanthropy
I suspect that you have also been following some of the story of the changes that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has been making with his life. Developing the Amazon empire has made Bezos one of the richest men in the world. What do you do when you have more money than you can possibly spend in many lifetimes? In Bezos’ case, he recently resigned from his post as CEO and is shifting towards full-time philanthropic work. Over the past three years, he revealed a $2 billion fund targeting homelessness and early childhood education. A $10 billion fund focused on green initiatives. And now that he has left his CEO post, the world wonders what will be next! While he hasn’t yet signed the Giving Pledge initiated by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates encouraging billionaires to promise to give away the majority of their wealth, he is most-certainly focusing on living a life of gratitude and making the world a better place!
They’ll know we are Christians by…
I don’t know that there are any billionaires in our congregation who face these kind of challenging responsibilities of stewarding our wealth. But I do know that we are all wealthy in ways far beyond which we realize. And we all have this challenging task of discerning how we shall share these blessings in the world. The divine light shining upon Jesus, revealed who he is to all. And the light that shines from the ways we live, love and serve will reveal who we are…and whose we are as well. As that timeless 1960’s Christian hymn proclaims: “They will know we are Christians by our love…We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. And we pray that our unity will be one day restored. And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yeah they'll know we are Christians by our love.