February 23, 2020

Denting the Darkness

Passage: Luke 9:28–36

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Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; —Luke 9:33


I have long felt disconnected from this mountain top story: Jesus’ transfiguration is unfamiliar, often skipped over and full of mystical, science-fiction tinged plot points. Jo Forrest noticed this week that many churches around the country were skipping the story of the Transfiguration in favor of hosting Youth Sunday, or special music, or just about anything to avoid this odd story. Bill Evertsberg and I have a years-long theological debate about what to do with this curious story. For text’s like today’s, we cannot resist the “alien nature” of the experience: there is an inherent otherness, a disconnect from the world we know to be possible.

But today I think this passage has the capacity to be, for us, one of our top three scripture passages—letting Christmas and Easter be our top two. When we come to this text with “inquisitive awe” opening ourselves to the surprise and unexpected possibilities it holds, we come close to the “great unknown” within ourselves and at the core of our most impactful God moments. We do not need to tame this text, as if we are a biblical zoo keeper, capturing and locking up the meaning of the text. Instead we can be biblical gardeners, watering our spiritual lives with spiritual practices of worship and song, and letting the stories grow within us. So here is what I believe might be dwelling within the “dynamic ecosystem” of today’s odd but delightful story.[1]

First: Peter offers to build dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Like Peter we are all tempted to make permanent that which is devastatingly impermanent. As one person points out, Peter’s offer to construct dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is “achingly hospitable,” a bold act of greeting the unknown with trembling hospitality.[2] If only we were all so kindhearted in the face of such uncharted territory.[3]

But what Peter forgets—and we forget too—is that “nothing gold can stay,” that the moment will pass, that this mountain top moment will come to an end.[4] So much of life is fleeting. This moment. This day. The particular configuration of these people in this place. Next week one of you will be elsewhere. Someone new will join us. Even just here in this room, we all impact each other in profound, often unspoken, unrealized ways. Yet so often we live as if the way things are right now is the way things will always be.

One day this particular season of our church’s life will be for us in the past. Same too for your family. Same too for our country. Same too for the ebb and flow of life on this planet. This moment will disappear into yesterday. We will be grateful some aspects of this moment have passed, but one day we will deeply long for this moment as well.

Like Peter we want to make permanent what is impermanent. Not surprisingly, “instability unsettles us: fallen monuments, crumbling homes, leveled forests are sites of pathos. Places that suggest permanents or durability—the thousand year old stone temple or the ancient redwood tree—lift our spirits”[5] Even our own planet seems more and more fragile, less dependable, more perishable than ever before. What we thought was imperishable disappears.

We build monuments to our grief filling cemeteries with marble and metal to remember, how can we not? It’s what we do as humans when our worlds fall apart. We fill parks with memorial shrines and statues to commemorate and honor the past. We build monuments to our joy, too: filling photo albums and Instagram feeds with photographs of the fleeting laughter, sunshine, pleasure, achievement, the ephemeral momentary experience of connection.

Some days we want only to crawl into those little shelters of grief or joy—those monuments to all that is fleeting, vanishing, and momentary. We want to crawl into this moment and remain there. Like Peter, we say, “It is good for us to be here.” And it is. It is. But Jesus offers us an invitation to persist within the rough waters of impermanence.

Jesus doesn’t quite say, “no,” when Peter offers to build them little dwellings up on the mountain top. Instead, Jesus just walks with them back down the mountain. He invites them back into the crowds, back into the everyday, routine, ordinary, unremarkable, tedious work set before them. Jesus holds onto the moment, but allows it to pass, despite what is hard about the tiresome, repetitive, daily routine in the crush of the crowds. I love the way this text invites us to stand in the tension between permanence and impermanence, giving us a chance to walk with Jesus down the mountain living fully in the gift of this moment.

Second: I love that Jesus has this mountain top meet-up with wise leaders from ancient days long past.[6] This mountain top meet-up hints at the idea that—no matter who we are—we have the opportunity to take time to remember those wise women and men who have gone before us. We need to get up close to those who have influenced us. We need to say, “yes,” to the intentional invitation up to the mountain top in order to commune with our ancestors.

Jesus’ invitation to Peter, James, and John was intentional. He could have gone alone. Jesus offers them an intentional invitation to go up to the mountain top with him to encounter the wisdom of days long past. The mountain top is as you know, that ancient sacred retreat away from the crowds, away from the demands of our regular, uneventful, stale, exhausting routine. It is a chance to withdraw from the constant need to heal, to help, to care, to love, away from the politics of injustice Jesus dealt with daily, the politics of despair, anger, violence, and power. Away from the impossible beauty of community and the heartache of public life too.

This story of transfiguration urges us to take intentionality, invitation, and time away, in order to truly come to a place of gratitude concerning those who have gone before us: mentors, people who influenced you when you were young, when you were at a fork in the road, when you were needing advice, when you got your big break. What would it be like if you took time on the mountain top—in a secluded place away—to write them a letter of gratitude or read the old letters they wrote you, or to dig deeper into their story?

I love how these influences don’t always come from the most expected places.

For example, I learned this week that Mae Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut, was inspired to become an astronaut when she saw Nichelle Nicholas playing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Seeing another woman of color in the public eye week after week gave her the confidence and courage to say “yes” to seeking out such a public achievement as becoming an astronaut for NASA. And I didn’t know this, Nichelle Nichols made history in 1968 when she and one of her white cast mates shared the first-ever on-screen interracial kiss. It was obviously a time of heightened racial tensions during the Civil Rights Movement, a time when people in interracial relationships were openly persecuted and harassed.

Nichelle’s producers gave into the racist ethos of the time and cut her lines, made her scenes shorter, and relegated her to the background. She wanted to quit. But a chance meeting with Martin Luther King—a self-proclaimed Trekkie—urged her to stay on the show because of how much representation mattered. Mae Jemison was inspired to become an astronaut because Trekkie Martin Luther King convinced Nichelle Nicholas that her struggle to be present in the public eye mattered—despite the world’s racist paradigm.[7]

Same too for the ways in which your mentors were mentored. Someone in their past inspired them to realize: their gifts matter, their calling matters, their tenderness is needed here, their courage is essential here. Because of their mentors they could then show you: your gifts matter, your calling matters, your tenderness is needed here, your courage is essential here.

What I love about this scripture passage is that it has the capacity to challenge us to remember and be in conversation with those who have influenced us, even if they are people who no longer walk the way with us. This story invites us to our own metaphorical mountain tops, for our own time of reflection and prayer, remembering those who have come before us, in order to be strengthened for what is ahead.

And finally, third: I love this passage because of its entanglement with our Christmas story, the way it picks up that perpetual theme of fear and gives it a new dimension. This story is cut from the same cloth as our beloved Christmas story.

If you turn to the version of this story that comes from the book of Matthew in chapter 17 of the gospel of Matthew, you will find verses six, seven, and eight Peter, James, and John are splayed out on the ground: knocked over by the power, beauty, light, voice, and cloudy brilliance of the presence of God there on that mountain top.

I can picture it happening to any of us, at any age: laying there on the rocky dusty ground on that mountain top, a little bumped and bruised, but no worse for wear. Dusty for sure. Needing a hand up, yes. You’ve been there. Knocked down, surprised by the awkwardness of your own body falling at a moment you didn’t expect.

They are (quote) “overcome by fear” in the same exact way the Christmas Eve shepherds are “sore afraid” when “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.” It’s the same experience of fear in that shepherd’s field on Christmas Eve that the disciples experience on the mountain top decades later. And this time, Jesus can reply instead of the angels there as proxy for wordless baby Jesus. To those trembling disciples, Jesus says “do not be afraid.” And he speaks those words of peace even before they stand up, even before they dust themselves off, even before they ask for help up from the ground.

In this life, we need those words from Jesus, “do not be afraid.” Even without mountain top experiences, it is easy for us to be overcome by fear. Even without the booming voice of God from within a bright overshadowing cloud, it is easy for fear to prevail, for anxiety to engulf and defeat us, for worry to crush us and knock us over. You’ve not been able to go to school because of anxiety. You’ve had to take time away from family and work because of postpartum depression. You’ve had to go on medical leave for residential or partial hospitalization mental health treatment programs. You know what it’s like to be knocked over by fear, and if you don’t, you’ve seen it happen to family and friends here in this community. We’ve been knocked over.

This story reminds us that, even before we’re up off the floor, even before the tears are wiped away, even before our heartbeat slows to a regular rhythm, even before our mind stops racing, Jesus says, “do not be afraid.” It’s not a finger wagging, shaming kind of statement. It’s not a command. It’s not a suggestion to bury fear or hide it under the rug. It’s an invitation. A welcome summons. “Do not be afraid.” Let go of your fear. There is a way toward new life. We do not have to stay here in this place of fear. Let us find a way down the mountain. “Do not be afraid.”

I don’t know why God is calling you up to the mountaintop but I can hear God’s voice. The mountain top transforms Jesus and it can transform you too. The mountain top holds sacred power. Up on the mountain top God dents the darkness and lets in the light that was there all along, beneath, and within, and behind the clouds.

Maybe God is calling you to the mountaintop in order to hold onto the impermanence of this season of your life. Maybe God is calling you to the mountaintop to connect with your ancestors and mentors and those who have gone before you. Maybe God is calling you to the mountain top in this moment when you’ve fallen to the ground, and all you need to hear is “do not fear,” “do not fear,” “do not fear.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] These ideas of “alien nature” of scripture, “inquisitive awe” and being biblical “zoo keepers,” and stories from scripture being theologically “dynamic ecosystems” come from Joshua Mauldin's October 19, 2015 interview of William P. Brown—professor of the Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary—on behalf of the Center of Theological Inquiry. https://www.ctinquiry.org/blog/2015/10/19/william-brown-interview

[2] Keller, Catherine. Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. 2014. Columbia University Press (p. 303).

[3] After worship Sunday, someone noted that after years of making pilgrimage to their own mountain top lodge and deep woods cabin, they understand the appeal of Peter’s hope for mountain top dwelling places—maybe like us, Peter also wanted to retreat year after year to the same tender, potent, sacred ground.

[4] The phrase “nothing gold can stay” is Johnny’s pivotal line to Ponyboy from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

[5] Haskell, David George. The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors. 2017. Penguin Publishing Group.

[6] It makes me wonder: was it Moses and Elijah visiting Jesus on the mountain top to confer wisdom on him? Or was it Moses and Elijah seeking out Jesus there on that mountain top, themselves trying to draw near to that divine presence-embodied which holds the cloudy mystical wisdom of Jesus Christ? Jesus has long been associated with wisdom. As Marcus Borg calls him, “wisdom incarnate.” Who is seeking inspiration from whom?

[7] Is it cheesy that this story comes from a children’s book? It is a beautifully illustrated book everyone should have on their shelves called “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” by Vashti Harrison. She just published a follow up with the subtitle “Bold Men in Black History” that I look forward to reading.