Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Year B - Transfiguration of the Lord (February 15, 2015)


Today is Transfiguration Sunday and it is all about the gospel story.  All the other texts relate to it.  So, let’s start with Mark’s account of the Transfiguration.

Mark 9:2-9

*  The word transfiguration is long, strange and used only on this day for this story.  Given that, it may be simplest not to use it with children (or even adults) at all.  If you do use it print it on a large poster to use in sounding out the word.  Point out the two key parts “Trans” (change) and “figure” (shape or form) to define what happened in this story. 

*  Willliam Willimon suggests that this story is meant to be savored as presented rather than to be explained.  He insists that there are moments when we experience God’s presence in amazing ways.  These do not happen often, but are very special and often shape lives.  So let the children hear the story literally and encourage them to expect to have such moments a couple of times in their whole lives.  If you have stories of experiencing God’s presence in amazing ways to tell, tell them. 

*  Before reading the story tell worshipers that it is about that something that was absolutely amazing to see.  Instruct them to close their eyes while you read and try to see with their imaginations what the story describes.  In an informal setting, ask after the reading, “what did you see?”  In a more formal setting go to the next activity encouraging children (or all worshipers) to get what they saw on paper.

*  Artists have portrayed the transfiguration repeatedly.  Go to Vanderbilt Divinity Library:Art in the Christian Tradition - Tranfiguration Sunday and search for transfiguration to find 15 very different great art depictions of this story.  (These pictures are free for use in worship with attribution!)  Select one or two to show worshipers after reading the story.  Point out some of the differences in them.  Give children paper and crayons with which to draw their own pictures of the transfiguration.  Invite them to post their pictures at a set place after the service for all to see.  (Art can be taped to the altar rail, to any fencing at the front of the sanctuary, or on a door.)

*  In many ways this story is a shot of God’s glory and a hint of the resurrection for Jesus, his disciples, and Mark’s readers before settling in for the long hard trip to Jerusalem.  For children it is a chance to hear Jesus’ whole story - especially its glorious ending - before settling in to hear the frightening parts that are coming.  There are several ways to do this:

Ø Be honest.  Tell the children that Jesus’ story is not always happy.  There are sad and scary times in it.  During Lent we will be reading and thinking about some of those times.  Knowing how the story ends helps us get through the sad scary parts.  Then tell or read a brief summary of the gospel.  My summary story is

Jesus was born in a stable
Jesus taught people how to live good lives
Jesus told stories that made people think about what is important.
Jesus healed people
Jesus also made some people very angry
So angry they decided to kill him on a cross
That was the very worst day.
But it wasn’t the end of the story. 
Three days later he was alive again and is still alive today.

Ø The Easter Story, by Patricia Pingry, is the best readily available short book telling this story.  My copy is a board book.  If I read it I would omit her theological interpretations of the story on the first and last pages and simply read the parts that tell the story.

Ø If you have a teaching picture file in the church school area, select pictures that tell the major events in Jesus’ life.  Display them in order as you tell the story in your own words.  If you do not have good pictures go to Vanderbilt Divinity Library - Art in the Christian Tradition and search for MAFA to get to a grand collection of paintings of events in the life of Jesus.

Ø Before the congregation sings the story with “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem,” point out the locations at the beginning of each verse and challenge worshipers to think their way through Jesus’ life as they sing.

Ø Since this is the halfway point between Christmas and Easter, display the crèche and a free standing golden cross.  Remind people of the baby Jesus, then point out that during the coming weeks you will be thinking about the man that baby grew into.  Summarize Jesus ministry.  Then, pointing to the cross note that Jesus was killed on a cross that was not golden and beautiful, but splintery wood covered with his blood.  Because Jesus did not stay dead but was alive on Easter morning, we now make gold crosses.  These crosses remind us how much God loves us.  If you are going to feature a cross each week of Lent, this is a good introduction.

*  The hymns based directly on this story are not very easy for children to sing.  Instead sing hymns about Jesus’ power and glory.

“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” is filled with impossibly complex words that describe all the ways God is more than we can understand.  Introduce it walking through the words in the first verse then inviting everyone to sing it enjoying all the words we can hardly know and the bigger-than-anyone-can-understand God they describe.

Immortal (God is forever, God never dies), Invisible (we can’t see God), God only wise.

In light inaccessible (God is so brightly amazing that we can’t see God) hid from our eyes….

“Fairest Lord, Jesus,” on the other hand, is filled with concrete images and simple words to praise Jesus who is still more than we can fully understand.  The final line links to the transfiguration saying “Jesus shines brighter; Jesus shines purer than all the angels heaven can boast.”  Point to it before the singing.

*  If you are going to bury the Alleluia next Sunday, sing “Come Christians Join to Sing” praising Jesus with repeated Alleluias.  Even non-reading children can join in on the Alleluias.  Present the Alleluia poster, explain what you will do with it next week, and display the poster throughout the service.  Include lots of Alleluias in the rest of today’s liturgy.  See Burying the Alleluia for Lent.

*  Create a responsive confession of faith with a worship leader saying each phrase of the Apostle’s Creed about Jesus.  After each phrase the congregation responds, “God said, ‘This is my beloved Son.’  We will listen to Jesus.”

*  There are three familiar transfiguration connections in currently familiar children’s literature:

Recall the mild mannered Clark Kent who changed into Superman.  No one ever saw him make the change or knew that Clark Kent was Superman.  In this story three disciples actually see Jesus changed into who he really is.  Jesus of Nazareth is God’s son.  He knows important long dead people like Elijah and Moses.  And, he shines! 

In the Harry potter books transfiguration is a required class at Hogwarts.  There it is a matter of changing one thing into another using your wand, charms, and spells.  Go to Harry Potter Wiki for detailed information about the course including a video clip of a raven being turned into a goblet before the amazed young Harry and Ron.  Unlike the bird, Jesus was not changed into something else (say a goblet).  Jesus became more who he really was.  He shone with the glory of God.

In the first Shrek movie Princess Fiona is transfigured.  In a whirl of light and special effects the beautiful princess becomes a large, loving ogre.  Similarly, in a flash of light, Jesus who has been revealed to be the son of God “sets his face toward Jerusalem” claiming his task of suffering love.

Just in case you need the details:  Fiona was under a spell in which she was a princess by day and an ogre by night.  Love’s first kiss was to allow her to take “loves true form”.  She very much expected to end up a beautiful princess married to her prince charming.  But the prince who came for her (Lord Farquar) was far from charming and the ogre Shrek, who actually rescued her mainly to force Lord Farquar to give him back his swamp home, was loving and kind.  At her forced wedding to Lord Farquar just before the kiss, Shrek appears to claim her for himself.  The sun sets during the confrontation turning her into an ogre who Lord Farquar finds hideous.  After a tussle in which a dragon ate Lord Farquar, Shrek proclaims his love for Fiona.  With their kiss she rises into the air with all sorts of lighting effects.  When she comes back, she is an ogre.  At first she is dismayed, but Shrek assures her that she is beautiful to him and is indeed in “love’s true form.”  They head off to happy a life in the swamp. 

* WARNING: It is tempting to compare transforming heroes such as Superman and Spiderwoman to Jesus.  Each of these characters have super powers that are not obvious in their “everyday” persona.  They use these unique powers to do what normal humans cannot do.  In his transfiguration it is obvious that Jesus could call on some very spectacular powers, but he does not.  Instead, he offers himself in self-sacrificing love.  Unless you are steeped in the details of the lives and powers of the superheroes, I’d not attempt this comparison.  Defending their heroes/ines child fans will talk you into inescapable corners and mire you there in complex details.

*  If you are going to follow a Jesus figure around the sanctuary during Lent, introduce it today.  Put the figure in a high up, distant place that is in full view and drape it with shimmery, translucent fabric.  (Save the fabric for Easter.)  Note that the disciples got just a glimpse of who Jesus really was at the Transfiguration.  In the weeks of Lent we will follow Jesus and the disciples toward Jerusalem and learn a great deal more about Jesus.  Encourage worshipers to look for Jesus somewhere in the sanctuary each week.  Go to Following Jesus Through Lent for details of this plan.

*  The voice from heaven says, ”This my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him.”  Listening could be a key Lenten discipline for all worshipers, but especially for children and their families.  They can be urged to

1.    listen to stories of Jesus.  The gospel readings, particularly in Year B, are not stories about sweet, gentle Jesus, but about strong, brave Jesus who calls us to be like him.  When we talk simply but truthfully to children about these stories we call them to fuller discipleship and we often speak to adults who are listening too.

Encourage the congregation to listen to Mark tell us about Jesus by giving everyone a bookmark with readings for each day (or for each week, if that is more realistic) to read at home during Lent.  Households can read together.  Or, older children (5th and 6th graders) can be encouraged to read on their own.  Check in during worship frequently during Lent to see how many are practicing this reading of listening.

2.    listen to God, i.e. pray.

Challenge each household to pray the Lord’s Prayer together each day during Lent.  Explore different times when it might be done – before or after meals, bedtime, even in the car (if that is when you have quality time together).  Check in during Lent to see who is trying the challenge.  Tell stories about prayer and praying.

3.    Listen to other people around you and around the world.  Jesus listened and responded to the people around him and calls us to listen to the people around us and those all around the world who need us to hear them.

Select at least one sharing-serving project in which worshipers of all ages can participate during Lent.  Many denominations take up a Lenten offering for disaster relief and third world hunger and health assistance.  These come with educational materials and coin boxes for the children.  This year talk about the offering each week as a way of listening with Jesus to the needs of the world and responding.

The Other Texts for the Day

2 Kings 2:1-12

Loutherbourg, Philippe-Jacques de, 1740-1812 ;
Byrne, William, 1743-1805.
The Macklin Bible -- The Ascent of Elijah,
from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
[retrieved January 14, 2015]. Original source:
A gift to Vanderbilt University from John J. and Anne Czura

*  To enjoy all the details of this story, present at least two great artist’s renderings of Elijah heading off in his fiery chariot.  These two come from the Vanderbilt collection.  I chose one for its literal portrayal and the second for its inclusion of all the parts of the story all jumbled up together.  Compare and contrast them with worshipers. 

He, Qi. Elijah is taken up to Heaven, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
 a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
[retrieved January 14, 2015]. Original source:
*  Give out crayons being sure to include lots of fire colors and black and challenge worshipers of all ages to create their own pictures of this story.  Help them get started by asking "What are the most important items in the story?"  and "Who is in the picture?"  Either inspect artists’ work as they leave the sanctuary or invite them to add their work to a gallery by taping it to the altar rail or other designated spot. 

*  With some help, children also appreciate Elisha’s taking up Elijah’s mantle.  First, they need to hear that a mantle is a jacket or coat.  Elijah had been Elisha’s hero and the person he most wanted to be like.  So, as Elijah dies he leaves Elijah his jacket to wear as he becomes a prophet.  It is like a younger player being left an older player’s team number or team shirt or like a musician leaving her student her instrument.  If you have some similar gift from a mentor, show it and talk about what it means to you.  Encourage children to think about their heroes and heroines and what they are learning from them.

*  Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, offers a parallel story about several children.  Twelve year old Jesse introduces his little sister May Belle to the secret kingdom he had shared with his best friend Leslie, who had died.  In so doing he finds the courage to move forward.  This is a novel, so could not be read in worship, but the story could be told.  (This award winner is available in most public libraries.)

*  “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is a song all children used to learn in school.  That is no longer true.  So, introduce it explaining the connection to this story before it is sung by a choir or the congregation.

*  WARNING:  For some children this story raises a question for which it is hard to find satisfactory answers.  Elijah doesn’t die like the rest of us, he is taken to heaven in fiery chariot.  So, “Why did Elijah get this showy treatment while nobody I know does?”  When the story is read beside Mark’s transfiguration story the question gets even more complicated, “Why did the disciples see Jesus all lit up and Elisha got to see Elijah go to heaven in a flaming chariot and I never see anything like that at all?  Am I too bad?”  Saying that these were special people who deserved special treatment doesn’t address the issue of why I am not.  So, if the story is mainly a companion to the gospel story, there may be good reason to save it for another day.

Psalm 50:1-6

*  This is the beginning of a psalm in which God summons the people for a trial in which God will judge them.  For children to follow it they need to understand the trial image and be told these verses are about the power of the Judge.  On the Sunday before Lent, it might be used to call worshipers to Lenten repentance. I suspect, however, that by the time you got the trial scene and the glory vocabulary explained, no one of any age would care much.  So, simply read this encouraging children to listen for words about God’s power and glory.

*  The RCL creators suggest that we read only verses 1-6 of this long psalm about God’s judgment.  I suspect they chose them to go with the Transfiguration story and to turn us toward Lent.  To make this even plainer I would cut it further to verses 1-4a.  Below is the GNB version which is easiest for children to follow.  Read it in worship after introducing the Jesus figure or other ways you will follow the story of Jesus during Lent.  Note that though we start with Jesus shimmery and bright, some of the stories are going to be very hard and dark.  We will have to be brave.  Then invite all worshipers to read the verses together or have the verses read dramatically by a reader.  

+ + + + + + + + + ++ + + + ++ + + + ++ + + + ++ + + + ++ + + +  
1          The Almighty God, the Lord, speaks;
he calls to the whole earth from east to west.
2          God shines from Zion,
the city perfect in its beauty.
3          Our God is coming, but not in silence;
a raging fire is in front of him,
a furious storm is round him.
4          He calls heaven and earth as witnesses

                                       From the Good News Bible
+ + + + + + + + + ++ + + + ++ + + + ++ + + + ++ + + + ++ + + + 

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

*  This is another text children will not understand as it is read.  In it are two ideas that might be of interest to them.

First, it is possible to not see God’s glory when it is right in front of you.  We can pay so much attention to toys, video games, our friends, our sports that we miss God.  There were people who lived at the same time in the same place Jesus lived and ignored him completely.  They really missed out!  God is at work in our world today.  We don’t want to miss out on that the way they missed out on Jesus.

Second, verse 6 summarizes the whole Epiphany season.  We do see God’s glory in Jesus, not just at the Transfiguration but in everything he says and does.

*  Go to Year C - Transfiguration of the Lord to see an explanation of 2 Corinthians 3:12-4-2 (the Year C epistle for this day) which has a similar message to today’s text and a plan for an eyes open-eyes shut prayer of confession.

1 comment:

  1. LATE ADDITION: Nana in the City, by Lauren Castillo, is a wonderful match to the story of Elijah leaving Elisha his mantle (a kind of cape). It is a little long to read in worship, but would be easy to tell as you flip through some of the pictures. Basically a boy visiting his Nana in the city is frightened by its bigness, busyness, etc. Nana makes him a red cape to wear. That cape gives him the courage to find the city really quite wonderful. (Thank you Storypath blog.)


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