021421 Transfiguration New Eyes and Ears:
2 Cor. 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
Last week, many of us were riveted to our TVs, revisiting the events of January 6 in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. We saw and heard more details than we could see or hear on the day itself. But it wasn’t just that new information was shared. We see and hear those events with new ears and new eyes. Insurrection, Impeachment, Inauguration: the three I’s of the Wednesdays of January to some extent transformed our seeing and hearing. I even added a personal fourth “I” on the final Wednesday: inoculation. I don’t know about you, but all of those events, including receiving the first dose of the vaccine change the way I look at January 6.
But that transformation may not last long. Political winds can change in a heartbeat. Events like January 6 may remain dormant until other events lift the clouds and show their meaning clearly. That’s what happened to the disciples who accompanied Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They knew they’d seen something important, but had no idea what it meant… until it was clarified by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. That’s why Jesus said to them, tell no one about what you have seen until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.
Many have framed the questions raised by the events of January 6, and by the last four years, as, how does democracy die? Just as the disciples understood what they lived through on the Mount of Transfiguration only after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we may only understand how close to death our democracy has come by seeing senators watch the same videos we watched, and vote to acquit the former president. Democracy doesn’t die in a moment. Death comes through a series of collateral damages: incitement to violence, forgetting one’s own voting record, denying published facts, failing to hold people accountable, and police brutality. Those too busy looking backwards, or in other wrong directions, and those trying to hang on to mountaintop experiences, can’t see that. They end up being disfigured rather than transfigured.
Arriving at Transfiguration Sunday feels different to me this year. Not only because of COVID and the increased clarity about systemic racism. But because we are figuring out a new relationship to place. The passage in Mark shows that Jesus expects transformation to happen both on the mountain and in the valley. The transfiguration begins on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and the three disciples. But it continues down in the valley where the disciples are unable to free a boy from a spirit that was rendering him mute. Peter didn’t get this. He wanted to build three tents on the mount of Transfiguration. Jesus had other ideas. They went down the mountain to engage a wounded world that still needed healing. Jesus wanted Peter and the other disciples to realize that they needed to be God’s tent! When it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on. Then we pitch ourselves somewhere else wearing our tent inside us. We are God’s glory, God’s tent, even the echo of God’s voice, still and small, or loud and clear.
Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon made this same point in Richard Rohr’s blog: During the nineteenth century, being on your way out of slavery usually meant leaving a place to go to another place, covering geographical territory. You actually had to put distance between where you were and where you were headed. During the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement, being on your way often meant staying where you were and wreaking havoc in your local community, insisting on its transformation so that a new construction could be possible. Black people were determined to rearrange space for themselves and their future.
It turns out that places have a double edge to them. Incarnation says that place matters a lot. It matters that Jesus came into a Jewish family in Palestine in the first century. It matters because it happened there. But its importance lies in the fact that any and every place matters equally. In the mountain and in the valley, in church and on the street. One mountain doesn’t matter more than another mountain. No longer will we say, “My God’s mountain is better than your God’s mountain.” We will say, “You and I seem to have some of the same longings. Maybe we can work together to create something beautiful.” No longer will we try to put up tents on the mountain. We will be the tents of God’s presence in the world.
And we’ll pay attention to what matters most about mountaintop experiences. The first and last Sundays after the Epiphany include the words, My beloved son. At Jesus’ baptism, the words were directed to him, and added, with you I am well pleased. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the words were directed to the disciples, and added, listen to him. The subsequent chapters of Mark’s Gospel showed that they hadn’t listened. In the previous chapter, Jesus had said Those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose it for my sake and the gospel will save it. The disciples made it clear time after time that they had not listened to those words. Not that anyone else has. But getting disciples to listen to those words may be more central for God than we thought.
As Jews, the disciples were trained to listen to Moses and Elijah – superstars in the gallery of Jewish heroes. This morning’s story about Elijah and Elisha is a backstory to the transfiguration. Elijah was the first full time prophet Israel had seen since Moses, and he came at a crucial stage of Israel’s decline. Moses and Elijah were the two great prophetic figures in Israel’s history, so they’re the ones that appear with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. Just as Elijah passed the prophetic mantle to Elisha, Moses and Elijah were passing it to Jesus. For the disciples who witnessed that gathering, the message was that Jesus was the new voice to listen to.
But it was challenging. Jesus was their contemporary. Sure, he said some good stuff, and did some amazing things. But some of his teachings simply didn’t make sense. The last one was a good example: who would want to lose their lives? What’s wrong with a little self-protection? Since when does trying to save my life guarantee that I will lose it? For them and for us, who live in a world full of false prophets, where it’s harder and harder to discern Good News from fake news, God wants to make sure that everyone knows who is speaking God’s Truth today.
Transfiguration moments happen to us all the time. And the glory we see in those moments is God’s reflection from inside, not outside. It doesn’t mainly happen to celebrities, and it’s not about what happens on stage. It’s what happens inside us when we’re prepared to live and suffer for right and love. Frederick Buechner describes God’s glory as the holiness of Jesus shining through his humanness; his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. That didn’t just happen on that mountain. It happened whenever Jesus smiled kindly at lepers, looked pained to see a sinner being shunned by the Temple establishment, or looked winsome after telling a hurting prostitute to go in peace because her sins were forgiven. In those moments, the disciples could see the face of the divine transfigured. Buechner goes on to suggest that this kind of transfiguration happens among humans all the time: The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing. (Frederick Buechner Whistling in the Dark, Harper San Francisco, 1988, p. 108).
Friends, we need more transforming moments to truly understand what happened on January 6. We must definitely be more conscious of transfiguration moments, when God’s glory shines through faces where we least expect it. And we must constantly be moving up and down the mountain being God’s glory as we wear our tent inside us and become agents of healing.