A Sermon preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 11, 2018
University Baptist Church
This Sunday is the last one before Lent. Can you believe it? Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day and Easter is on April 1st (no foolin’). Traditionally, this Sunday is known as Transfiguration Sunday. Each year, liturgical churches tell the familiar and let’s just say it, odd story of the transfiguration. The disciples are with Jesus on Mount Tabor and they have an experience that makes them reconsider who they are. That’s what this Sunday is about. Now, one could argue that every Sunday is a time to consider and reconsider your life. Jesus’ story constantly reverses the narrative of our lives as we take seriously the way he reverses everything we know about what is proper and true in this world.
Transfiguration is closely related to transformation, transference, transcendence, transactions, and transnationalism. “Trans” means “across”. What boundaries do we need to cross?
Mount Tabor is a small hill, really near a fertile plain far north of Jerusalem. Elijah went up a similar hill and did battle with the prophets of Baal in the time of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Guess who won?
The plain below is called Megiddo. If that word sounds familiar, it is. The book of Revelation says there will be a decisive battle on those very farm fields. They call it the battle of Megiddo or Armageddon.
Now here they were 600 years after Elijah, climbing up the ancient and holy high place, peering over the fertile valley that holds both fruit and futility. I imagine them thinking of Elijah and all of the other prophets who came before. I imagine them wondering what the heck they were doing with their lives. Hanging around Jesus was getting dangerous.
All at once they see a bright light and then Jesus’ form shifts. The disciples recognize other figures with Jesus: Moses and Elijah. Peter, James and John don’t know what to do. And rather than do nothing, they decided to do something that seems right to them. Sometimes standing in awe is the right thing to do. “I know, let’s build some booths here for each of you. You can tell us what’s real and what’s not. We can invite everyone to hear from you. It’ll be great. We can get some confirmation.” After all, they had the gold, silver and bronze medalists of the faith right there.
It was wonderful to see the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. It was full of pomp and circumstance, sure. But it’s on a much smaller scale than the summer games. We get to see countries with one athlete. And all of that light. It makes us imagine a world at peace and we want to preserve it. Countries that don’t have snow, but are coming together for this one opportunity to compete in a way that transcends the borders, climate, and the fighting that we use to keep each other apart.
It’s a chance for the host country to celebrate their heritage, which Korea did with great artistry, care and power. Technology was a part of the ceremony in a way I had never seen it before, giving a nod to the ancient traditions while proclaiming that it’s a new day with things never seen before. From lights at every seat to drones creating the great illuminated snowboarder in the sky to fire that rose from the base to the top of the Olympic stadium as if by magic. Even North and South Korea historically stood united at least in sport. It almost gives you transnational hope.
I can understand why James, John and Peter, three nobodies wanted to make the booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Dazzled by the light of hope, they wanted to preserve the moment, glean some wisdom, garner some strength for the journey ahead.
Peter wanted Jesus to stay up on the mountain. “It’s easier for me to praise you up there Jesus. Up on your holy hill. Up on your medal platform. Where you transcend all of the world. Where the only relationship we need with you is vertical.”
Building an altar freezes an event, a moment in time. And if we are not careful altars, even buildings can become a hindrance to our ministry. That’s one of the reasons we move our pews from time to time and have added some chairs for increased versatility.
God’s voice from the cloud said to Peter: “This is my beloved son”—the same words that came at his baptism. But added are the following words, “listen to him.” A few verses before, Jesus had rebuked Peter because he couldn’t deal with the fact that Jesus was going to be persecuted for being, doing and spreading the Good News. Peter didn’t like the fact that Jesus told him he was going to be thrown in prison, tortured, executed and on the third day rise again. Peter didn’t sign up for that part. He signed up for the mountaintop. But God said, “listen to him.” The life of faith is more than the medal stand or the mountaintop.
I can relate to Peter a lot. I’m kind of impulsive, like he was. My faith doesn’t always stay on the same path. I want to fix things when I see something wrong. I want people to see what I have seen. I want to preserve the mountaintop experiences.
I might just have gone and offered to build a whole temple around this experience. In fact, there is such a thing on Mount Tabor in the Holy Land. It’s called, you guessed it, the Church of the Transfiguration. Peter, under the guise of praising God was really trying to preserve the moment. But Jesus was not interested in praise. Jesus was interested in justice, mercy and transformation. Jesus was and is interested in our becoming disciples.
Like the figures that rise when the Harry Potter resurrection stone is turned thrice in hand, the figures do not belong to this world. When they finally disappear, the disciples know they have seen something that will transform them.
What changes for us when we encounter the Gospel messages? How does the figure of Christ shift in our imaginations? How do we transform our understandings or transmit our actions?
For my transgender friends this Sunday is an important one, because it shows how the perception of one can change, sometimes whether or not their bodies follow suit. How does one live in an out of body-experience?
When Jesus is transfigured, could it be that God is saying, our categories are too small? We anthopormorphize God—we create God in human likeness and perhaps not the other way around. We attribute to God human emotions. We say that God is angry, and short-tempered and jealous and vengeful and loving and faithful and kind.
The Bible is not a rulebook as much as it is a record of human beings searching for God and trying to make sense of this idea that there is something greater than ourselves that longs to restore us to sanity. Imagine if God did not look like us. Imagine if God was transgender—meaning beyond the gender binaries that we live in. Imagine if God transcends all of those categories and embraces us when we imagine the same.
Ann Lamott famously said that you can tell if you have made God in your own image if God hates all the same people you do.
I for one am glad to reclaim transfiguration Sunday as a day when we celebrate the transgender nature of the godhead. Genesis 1:27 has God say, “let us make humankind in our image”. The plural nature of God at the very beginning of the Bible is a warning flag to all of us that our perceptions of God might be too small.
Because it’s not really about who God is. It’s not about the booths and the definition of who Jesus is. It’s about how we are changed on the way down the mountain.
On the way down from the mountain, Peter, James and John wonder what the resurrection means. They argue about whether Elijah has come or not. Their ears were not ready to listen to the voice of the child of God. The rest of Mark’s gospel recounts the steady distancing of the disciples from Jesus, culminating in their falling asleep, betraying, denying and doubting of Jesus. It’s so much easier on the medal platform. On the mountaintop, you can see for miles and miles. You can’t make out the people, but the view is glorious. Life is good on the mountain. There is no gray area. We want to capture that moment, when all is right with the world. It taps a deep need for hope and a desire for success.
But most of life is lived downhill. That’s where long-lasting transformation occurs. It’s so easy to praise God on the mountaintop. But praise takes on a different meaning in the valleys. Ask brother Job from the ash heap. Ask Jonah from the belly of the whale. Ask Jesus from the cross. Ask Paul and Silas in the prison. Ask anyone mourning the loss of a loved one or struggling with depression. Ask people persecuted because of their country of origin or simply because of who they are or whom they love. Ask our misunderstood transgender sisters and brothers.
I can only imagine what it is like for our transgender sisters and brothers. I admit that I don’t understand it all. But I am committed to being open to my own transformation.
Manyvoices.org gives us a way to encounter this story from a transgender perspective.
They wonder how we recognize different people in this story. Who are the people who are with us, who witness our transfiguration, our transformation?
those who have known us for a long time or known us well and yet are still befuddled by our transforming selves? How do family and friends know folks on the other side of the transformation? It can be hard to unlearn the ways that have become comfortable.
who had experienced their own wilderness and mountain top experiences? I think of the pioneer role models. Long before Phillipe Cunningham won a seat of the Minneapolis City Council, we had Barbara Satin and Caitlyn Jenner.
the trans people who have been there before us – who know the wilderness times of aloneness and also know the mountaintops? Many of you know that we had some people who came to church as they were transitioning. I remember one man who came here with a high voice and male-clothing. Eventually, as he started his testosterone treatments, his voice got lower and sported a scraggly beard. He invited some of his friends to church and we got to know them well. We supported his through his transition and he taught us very openly about what it all means. I performed their weddings and we celebrated them. And like so many who have gone through the transition, they moved on to a new community that know them as only male. They don’t have to be the person who transitioned. They can be fully themselves without having to explain themselves again.
when we wake up from surgery and see our new bodies for the first time?
who always want to say or do the right thing but don’t quite get things right with us? When we go to the Baptist Peace Fellowship summer conferences, our nametags say our names, but also include our preferred gender pronouns. I admit to having trouble with the plural pronoun for an individual. But that’s more about me than it is about them.
who sometimes want to “set up tents,” wanting to idealize, tokenize, or display trans-people saying, “Look at our trans members. Look how inclusive we are”? We are works in process. And We are trying to get better. One of the ways we do so is to try to see things from another perspective and I am grateful for those wiser than me who point me in the right direction.
Sisters and brothers, may we pause to see God not only on the mountaintops of predictability, but also in the valleys where God is as close as a still small voice; as close as ice on a lake in a Minnesota winter; as close as the flowers waiting to burst through their tundra slumber: as close as a sister or brother in need. It’s what we call the incarnation. It is God with us. And that experience of knowing that God is with us in the peaks and the valleys may transform and even transfigure our entire lives.
May our faith be sustained and may we seek God out even more in the hills and in the valleys of this life. For the real rewards are found in the relationship with God and with another person: the transfigured life of faith.
God said from the great medal stand “This is my beloved child. Listen to him.” Come off the mountain and embrace a life of discipleship. Change yourself and you might even be able to change the world. For it is not about how Jesus is transfigured. It’s about how we are transformed, reversed, transfiguring the way we look at ourselves and therefore the world. That’s where the true hope lies.