The Secret of Joy

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at First Church Simsbury. We celebrated this Sunday both as Transfiguration Sunday and Mardi Gras Sunday.

Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9

Some of you know that I attended Tulane University in New Orleans. After my freshmen year in the dorms, I rented an apartment, the first floor of an uptown home, with a couple friends. One Saturday morning, no doubt after a late night of dancing to the Neville Brothers at Tipitina’s, I was awakened by the sound of horns outside my window. Not car horns mind you, these were trumpets and trombones and tubas. None too pleased, and with my head pounding, I rolled out of bed to see a jazz funeral processing by my front door. We lived just half-a-block from an old, over-grown cemetery. The mourners walked slowly and somberly down the street, accompanying the casket as the brass band slowly played (I slowly sing), “Just a closer walk with thee; grant it Jesus is my plea…”

In spite of my headache I thought this was pretty cool. After the procession had passed and the music faded I went back in to make myself a cup of coffee. But not much time had passed before the sound of horns returned, this time playing a spirited rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In. I again sat on my stoop as the funeral party strutted and danced down the street, laughing, shouting, some waving handkerchiefs, others twirling colorful umbrellas.

At the time I didn’t conduct a theological analysis of what I had just witnessed, but tucked the experience away as one more great thing about New Orleans.

But I recalled that jazz funeral and its expression of joy in response to suffering and death when I read this morning’s story of the Transfiguration.

Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up to the top of a mountain with him where he is “transfigured.” Transfiguration means a complete change of appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. Indeed, we are told that Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white!

It is easy to get distracted by the supernatural nature of this story, wanting to know what exactly happened and how. But for our purposes, it will be more interesting and fruitful to explore what the story means.

This story is traditionally interpreted as a revelation of Jesus’ divinity, his embodiment of God’s glory, an incarnation of joy. This has translated into our popular culture into the idea of a “mountaintop experience,” an ecstatic spiritual experience of becoming one with God. Love, music and nature are sometimes said to facilitate such “mountaintop experiences.”

But there is more to this story than just an individual experience of joy. And to get at that we need to further explore the context of Jesus’ trip up the mountain with his disciples.

After Jesus was transfigured, Moses and Elijah appeared next to him. Both Moses and Elijah had also encountered God on a mountain top, this morning’s passage from Exodus chronicles one of these encounters. And both also responded to God’s call to confront evil and dangerous kings who were oppressing the Jews; Moses confronted Pharaoh and Elijah challenged Ahab.

Following Moses and Elijah’s appearance, God speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Now, before Jesus came along the term “son of God” was used to refer to Roman emperors, including Tiberius who ruled during Jesus’s lifetime. The title communicated the emperor’s divinity, putting them above any challenge to their rule. Having God himself claim Jesus as his son here represents a direct threat to the Roman Empire.

Within this context, Jesus’ transfiguration is understood to be much more than a parlor trick to reveal God’s glory. Rather, Jesus is transfigured to invoke and emphasize his connections to Moses and Elijah, thereby confronting Rome’s oppressive rule, revealing God’s will, and anticipating Jesus’ rejection and ultimate vindication by God. In fact, Jesus spells this out for the disciples.

Just before heading up the mountain with the three disciples, in Chapter 16 of Matthew we read, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And, shortly after the transfiguration, still in Chapter 17 of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.”

So yes, through the transfiguration Jesus reveals his divinity and shares an experience of divine joy with his disciples, but this is no individual, spiritualized, mountain top experience. This is a joy which emerges from and refuses to be conquered by suffering and death. This is a joy that challenges empire.

It can be tempting to think of mountaintop experiences as an escape from the world’s troubles. Indeed, we might hope that we could seal ourselves off from life’s ugliness, and that God will somehow carry us above and beyond all earthly suffering. This may well be what the disciples were hoping when they suggested building structures on the mountaintop to contain and preserve that moment for themselves.

But what does Jesus do? Fueled by a joy that resists suffering and death, Jesus leads the disciples back down the mountain to confront the violence and struggle that await in Jerusalem.

The quote that opens Alice Walker’s book, Possessing the Secret of Joy, is from the book African Saga by a white author, Mirella Ricciardi, and reads “Black people are natural, they possess the secret of joy.” Walker uses Ricciardi’s words with bitter irony, because the African protagonist of Walker’s book, Tashi, knows no such “natural” joy. After escaping a traditional female circumcision procedure as an infant thanks to the intervention of missionaries, Tashi voluntarily submits herself to the procedure as a teenager as way to identify with the struggles of her African kin. But the humiliation and brutality of “receiving the mark” almost destroys Tashi physically and emotionally. The novel catalogues her descent into madness, her long fight to salvage and reconstruct a self, her return to Africa, her final costly liberation, and her discovery that… “resistance is the secret of joy.”

Here again, we find the two contrasting perspectives on joy. The one communicated by Ricciardi’s quote, we could call this the “don’t worry, be happy” perspective, suggests a denial of or escape from suffering. The other, discovered by Tashi, confronts, challenges and overcomes suffering and death.

I think this latter understanding is the joy that I witnessed in the jazz funeral procession that I watched pass by my door on Lowerline Street in New Orleans. Those who strutted and twirled were not denying the reality of the death they still mourned; rather theirs was a fierce, even a defiant joy that laid claim to a light that can never be extinguished. Theirs was an act of resistance, and resistance is the secret of joy.

I read a review of Possessing the Secret of Joy in which the writer points out that Tashi is an archetype of Everywoman and Everyman who is violated and in crisis. Well, there are a lot of women and men who are violated and in crisis today, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and transgender teens, to name a few.  Violated and in crisis.

And it is so darn hard to see it, sit with it, and feel it all. I would love to escape to a mountaintop with Jesus, set up Camp Joy, and bask every day in the reflected light of God. But this is not the joy that God calls us to. God fuels us with a fierce and defiant joy that we might again turn to confront empire through the cross.

(Piano begins to softly play, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.)

Tuesday is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. In my years in New Orleans I knew this as a feast day before beginning the fasting season of Lent. And it is that. But having reflected anew on the transfiguration I have a deeper appreciation of Mardi Gras, I find here a fierce and defiant joy that will equip and sustain us as we set our face to Jerusalem to resist oppression, suffering and death in all its guises. Because as Jesus knew, and Tashi learned, resistance is the secret of joy.

Please stand and sing, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

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