Who Are You Listening To?

The Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-13

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018.

Lent, which begins this week on Ash Wednesday, invites us to journey to the cross with Jesus. Though not easy or fun, this is one of the most profound and meaningful seasons of the church year. By submitting to suffering and death on the cross, God through Jesus, enters into and shares in all our human experiences of hardship and distress. The Passion of Jesus on the cross is where God delivers on the promise of Jesus’ birth, to be Emmanuel, God with us.

But before Lent begins we retell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus, with the disciples Peter, James and John, climb a high mountain together and there, we are told, Jesus is “transfigured” before their eyes. His clothes become dazzling white. Other gospel accounts of this story say that Jesus’ face shines like the sun.

I often suggest, in response to the miraculous stories of Jesus, that we not dwell upon what exactly happened or how, that is, that we avoid the “how is that scientifically possible,” questions, instead asking what this story meant to those who first heard it, and what it means to us today? Instead of what and how, we might ask why. Why did Mark tell this story?

In the previous chapter Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples all have different answers, but each compares him to one of the beloved and powerful Jewish prophets. Some say that Jesus is Elijah, others John the Baptist, and some name other prophets.

Though the other disciples believe Jesus to be a prophet, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah,” meaning that Jesus is the long anticipated one, anointed by God to free Israel from Roman rule, and restore it to glory among all nations. But when Jesus begins to tell the disciples what lies ahead, that he must submit himself to persecution, suffering and death at the hands of political and religious authorities, Peter protests.

All the disciples, Peter included, assume that Jesus, whether prophet or Messiah, has come for their own benefit. Going back hundreds of years, this is how God has functioned for Israel, taking their side against their enemies. Leading Israel to victory and others to defeat.

This is when Jesus utters the well-known rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus is saying, I am more than just another earthly leader here to reward you and punish those you judge.

So this is the background, preceding Jesus’ trip up the mountain with the disciples, the disciples still misunderstanding who Jesus is, presuming he is another prophet meant to restore the fortunes of Israel, and more specifically of the disciples themselves.

We read, that while on that mountain top, the disciples see two powerful prophets from Israel’s past, Elijah and Moses, alongside Jesus. This seems to confirm the disciples’ understanding that Jesus is simply another great man. In response they suggest making a structure for each. The translation I read uses the word, shelter, but the Common English Bible uses the word shrine. I like this better. Here are three great men, think the disciples, let’s demonstrate our loyalty to each of them by building a monument.

At this point a cloud descends upon all of them, and God’s voice comes from the cloud in much the same way it did when Jesus was baptized, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love, listen to him!” At this the visions of Moses and Elijah disappear, and only Jesus remains.

I suggested that we not get sidetracked trying to figure out what happened and how, instead focusing on the meaning of this story. The meaning is this. Jesus is different. He is not just another prophet, an earthly leader meant to “Make Israel Great Again.” He isn’t even a Messiah in the sense Peter means.

Jesus represents a unique connection to the divine, and we are invited to listen to, follow, and enter into relationship with God through him in a way that is unparalleled in human history.

So where do we find ourselves in this story today?

A recent study out of Stanford revealed that Americans’ strongest sense of attachment, the characteristic most essential to our identity, greater than race, culture or religion, is our affiliation to a political party. Politicians are our modern day prophets. Much like the disciples, we identify most strongly with those earthly leaders who promise to take our side, and we line up against those who take the other side.

Like the disciples, we too put earthly leaders ahead of our identity as followers of Jesus.

Imagine being on the mountain top with Jesus, who would appear next to our Jesus? Donald Trump and Paul Ryan? Or Barrack Obama and Nancy Pelosi? And what would it say if we were to build a monument to all three, Donald, Paul and Jesus? Or Barrack, Nancy, and Jesus? What would this say about our loyalty, our identity, our attachment? And more importantly, what would it say about our understanding of Jesus?

Like the disciples’ suggestion that they erect monuments for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, this would make Jesus small. The Transfiguration defies the disciples earthly understanding of Jesus, and, by the way, challenges the notion of many contemporary Christians, of Jesus simply as an example of how to live.

Do you know the contemporary term, the acronym, GOAT? It stands for Greatest Of All Time, and is used to describe sports stars like Tom Brady. Brady is said by some to be the greatest quarterback of all time, the GOAT. Still, Tom Brady is evaluated as a quarterback compared to other quarterbacks, and many would argue about who deserves this GOAT title.

This is what the Transfiguration is about.

In the Transfiguration we learn that Jesus is not just another earthly leader, not even the GOAT. Jesus provides a unique connection to the divine. Through the Transfiguration of Jesus, God is telling us, your identity is in Jesus, not Trump, not Obama, but in Jesus the Christ.

What would it mean, if when asked if we are a Democrat or Republican, we responded, “I am a Christian.”

My guess is that some of you felt a wave of discomfort wash over you at the thought of saying that. I can relate. For many, our faith is private. We are cautious about “imposing” our faith on others. We might worry about sounding like one of “those” Christians that is always thanking “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” Did you see the Philadelphia Eagles’ coach and players after the Super Bowl? Many of them said exactly this.

But we feel no such compunction about letting people know we are a Republican or Democrat, do we? Interesting, isn’t it?

This morning we baptized two beautiful babies, Joey and Campbell, and this is exactly what they will be baptized into, not into a party, but into a unique and essential relationship with the divine through Jesus.

The Transfiguration challenges us not to make Jesus small, but to leave behind our earthly loyalty to Democrat and Republican prophets and follow Jesus, just as Jesus accompanies us, through the world’s hardship and suffering, all the way to the cross and beyond.



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.”

Of Drag Queens and Jesus

I have been fascinated by drag queens for almost twenty years, since I went with some friends to see RuPaul in concert in the early 90’s.  Lourdes and I went to a couple drag shows when we were courting and first married, extravagant affairs in Waikiki ballrooms that were fundraisers for AIDS service organizations or the LGBT Community Center.  There are some very funny pictures somewhere of petite Lourdes posing between two 6’4″ (6’8″ with heals) Samoan Drag Queens.  She fits right in.  Lourdes and I have gay friends that will dress in drag occasionally (Halloween), and I have a friend who is mahu, a Hawaiian word for a third gender (men who live as women) in the native Hawaiian culture.  I love many things about the drag culture.  It is grand, exaggerated, dramatic, in-your-face, fun and funny.  But I especially love how drag crosses boundaries, transgresses cultural and even biological norms.  I have heard some use drag in a more generic sense to mean dressing in a symbolic way or putting on an identity.  I sometimes think of the robe and stole I wear in worship as my clergy drag.  In this sense, drag can be used as a strategy for crossing various boundaries.  Jesus was all about crossing boundaries.

I wonder if drag provides a way to talk about the transfiguration of Christ.  Jesus took Peter, John and James up to the top of a high mountain to pray.  “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matt 9:29).  I imagine Jesus dressed for Vegas in a white sequined tuxedo with a glittering top hat (or was it a gown and tiara?).  In the transfiguration Jesus appears in his God drag.  Or maybe Jesus was God in human drag, and the transfiguration is his big reveal (like a drag queen whipping off her wig).  Drag queens transgress the boundary between male and female.  In my limited understanding, the transgender community is very diverse including straight men who cross dress, gay men who wear drag as campy fun, and men who live as women.  Jesus crosses the boundary between human and divine.  This relationship is also very complex, much more than God in human clothing or a human wearing God drag, Jesus disturbs our understanding of the relationship between people and God.  We can no longer speak of God as being “up there.”

The reason that drag queens unsettle us is not so much that the distinction between genders is blurred or confused in them, we are disturbed because their existence suggests that all our gender identities aren’t as fixed as we would like to think.  This is why the disciples freak out (“a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified”), and why we should also be unsettled by Jesus’ drag show.  The transfiguration means the distinction between the human and divine isn’t fixed.  Who do we pray to if God is all mixed up in us somehow?  What are the implications for our faith?

Published in: on February 8, 2010 at 5:45 am  Comments (3)  
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