Sojourn Fort Collins Sermon – Mark 9:2-9 – February 11th, 2017
Today is one of those days when I’m both thankful for the lectionary and frustrated by the lectionary. I’m thankful for the lectionary because I wouldn’t choose to preach on this passage on my own. It’s weird. It’s confusing. And, although this is probably the last thing you want to hear at the beginning of a sermon, I don’t understand it. But the lectionary ensures that we wrestle with texts we’d rather ignore. This text is important enough that it appears, not only in Mark, but in Matthew and Luke also. So it seems it’s important enough for us to deal with it.
I’m frustrated by the lectionary because, if it were up to me, I probably wouldn’t ever choose to preach from it.
This story is a strange one, and most scholars who seek to interpret it speak only in possibilities and probabilities. Perhaps the only definitive statement we can make about it is that it seems to be important. Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree in all the important details. Jesus is clothed in light. Elijah and Moses appear with him. A voice is heard from heaven displaying an intimate parent/child relationship between God and Jesus.
The Transfiguration is also a part of a larger narrative. In the synoptic tradition, that is the tradition reflected in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Transfiguration is the last of three important events. The first is that Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. The second is that Jesus predicts his rejection, suffering, and death at the hands of the political and religious elite in Jerusalem. Following these events, the synoptics tell us, Jesus takes a select group of disciples up to a mountain where they see Jesus transfigured.
In Mark’s story, the Transfiguration takes place right about in the middle of the entire narrative. Mark is only 16 chapters long. From a narrative stand point, this event ties together elements from the beginning and the end.
Just like we saw in the Baptism of Jesus, there is an illustration of Christ’s close relation to God expressed in a parent child relationship. “This is my beloved son,” we hear a voice from heaven say.
At the end of the story, the women at the tomb encounter a man in a white robe who tells them that Jesus has been raised, and just like the disciples on the mountain top, they are afraid.
So in many ways this story is Christ’s ministry in miniature. It reaffirms his callings, his relationship to God, and foreshadows his future resurrection.
So it is an interesting story, in addition to being a weird and confusing story, but what does it mean? What it all about? We could argue about whether or not Matthew, Mark, and Luke are making a reference to Moses on the mountain top in Exodus, some scholars think they are, others don’t. Matthew and Mark’s mention of six days might lead us to thinking that since Moses was on the mountain for six days. Although, Luke mentions eight days, and there a number of difference between the Exodus event and the one we have here. We could discuss the fact that Moses and Elijah appear, and talk about what they add to the story. Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the prophets. Perhaps the suggestion is that Jesus is greater than either of the these.
And this would all be interesting and fun, but this story seems so supernatural and mystical that I am not sure we do it justice when we seek to understand it in terms of its textual features. In truth, the transfiguration of Jesus is a mysterious occurrence. And perhaps that is part of the point.
Peter, I think, often represents our best intentions in their worst light. His character is kind of the lovable fool. He wants to get out of the boat and walk on water like Jesus does. He is so convinced of his own valor that he promises to die with Jesus, only chicken out and deny Jesus three times. And here I’m inclined to see him as representing our tendency to try and figure everything out. When he sees this incredible sight, these two heroes of the faith, alive and speaking with his master, he decides it would be a good idea to build three houses and live there. It’s comical, and it makes us ask, what could have possessed him to say that.
I actually think Peter’s response is pretty typical of our response to the divine. Let’s build something. Let’s put up walls around this, and we can live here, and it will only be for us. We are so quick to want to build a house for God and to contain God. The word that’s translated here as “dwelling” is the Greek word σηνκη, and its literal translation is “tent,” or “tabernacle.” That word “tabernacle” should ring a bell. It is a reference to the tent in which the Arc of the Covenant was house, and it would eventually come to be the temple in Jerusalem.
Effectively what Peter says here, is, “Let’s build a temple.” Peter is seeking to reframe this scene in a way that makes sense according his past religious experience. He’s seeking what we might refer to as something like psychological understanding. Something he can wrap his mind around.
Humanity has this tendency to believe we know how things ought to be ordered. It’s fascinating to me that this band of misfits we call the disciples has, over the course of 2000 years, morphed into this into this huge bureaucratic entity with committees, and boards, and millions of dollars in property, and investment companies. And we have theologies, and systems of thought, and rituals. And all of this grew out of some experience of the divine and our tendency to react like Peter did.
Now, none of that is necessarily bad unless it begins to eclipse our view of the divine mystery. When our faith becomes all about the programs, I think we lose a significant piece of God’s self-revelation.
I think the west is particularly at fault for this, and even more so among protestants, and the worst offenders tend to be progressives. I was hanging out with a pastor friend of mine on Friday, he is a UCC pastor in Greeley, and we were talking about this. He laughed and said, “Progressive Christians don’t like to admit God exists.” And this is true to some extent that progressive Christians put so much emphasis on what we are doing in the world that it can sometimes be at the expense of discussing what God is doing in world or what God is doing in us.
Feminist theologian, Elizabeth Stuart, protests this vision, saying, “Such a vision reflects the middle-class western self that has the means of taking care of themselves and of others, it is a self which has confidence in its own ability to organize and change the world.”
Despite Peter’s suggestion, no tents are erected on the mountain, no dwellings are built. The experience is fleeting, and ends with almost no instruction, only that Peter, James, and John should tell no one until after Jesus is raised from the dead.
God does not acquiesce to Peter’s hope to understand because when we build structures for God or try to contain God, we flatten God. We make God into projections of ourselves, of what we hope to be or what we want to be. There are elements of our faith that remind us that God is Other than us. We are often uncomfortable with that notion, but perhaps it’s good to be uncomfortable.
See the thing is we need God to be other than us. I don’t think we have it within us to save ourselves. I used to think that. I used to think that through the hard fought struggle for peace and justice, one day we would finally arrive. Then November 2016 happened. Then I thought, that we were bigger than this, that the human spirit would rise above and that we would stand in face of violence and oppression and we would be triumphant. Then 2017 happened. Charlottesville happened, people I love and respect supported policies that would tear apart families, and defended thinly veiled attempts to reestablished racial and social hierarchy.
Now I think we need a savior. We a who is Other than us, who defies structures and policies and invites us into a life of mutual self-giving. We need a God who invites us into God’s vary self.
I need a savior. I don’t feel like have it within myself to love some people anymore. I’m embarrassed to say now that did the Facebook purge. I blocked family members. I even refused to uphold long standing family tradition, and I didn’t go our large family reunion because of the things my extended family posted. My own anger and frustration, and at times rage, is too much for me to handle on my own.
Much like Peter, my experience of the divine has been met with my desire to make sense of it all. To build a temple, and a system. To make an in group and an out group, because I think I know how the world ought to be structure. Rather be embraced by a holy mystery who’s ever expanding love is enough to incorporate the whole of creation, even those people who, in my system, would be considered unredeemable.
There an important word in the Book of Joshua, and scholars and theologians are really troubled by it. The word is harem, and means something like “utterly destroy” or “separate.” It is basically a kind of purge. But the reason people are so troubled by it is because it is used in reference to the people who inhabit the Land of Israel before Joshua and the people arrive. In Joshua, the people of Israel are told to make harem on those inhabitants. This is a dark chapter in the story of God’s people, there are a lot of them, unfortunately.
I was thinking about this story when I read about Jesus’ clothes turning whiter than anyone could bleach them. And I was thinking to myself, there’s no blood on God’s hand. God’s hand are clean. Humanity’s response to God’s self-revelation has often been to build systems violently exclude. This is true of everyone and every world religion. Buddhist in Myanmar are killing and oppressing Rohinga Muslims. Buddhists, the people we in the west think of as the exemplars of peace. That’s an orientalists’ gaze, though.
I have blood on my hands too. It might not be actual, physical blood, but as Jesus said, when your harbor such extreme anger in your heart, what’s the difference?
This is the other important side of divine otherness as it is expressed in the Transfiguration. God does not remain wholly other. God takes on flesh dwells among us. God becomes like us in order that we might become like God. As much as the transfigure displays this divine otherness, it, at the same time, displays hope for human future. Stuart, the feminist theologian I quoted earlier, continues and argues that Christianity hope lies in holding these two things in tension: “the otherness of the divine and the incorporation of humanity into that divine life.”