Pitching Tents and Broken Unicorns--Following Jesus Up the Mountain and into the Valley
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark.
Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B:
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-62; Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
The Feast of the Transfiguration is a mid-point between the beginning of the Jesus’ earthly ministry and his crucifixion. For the last six weeks we’ve been basking in the light of the Epiphany—the coming of the light of God into the world in the form of a tiny, vulnerable human child. Love blazing forth from the muck and straw of a stable outside an inn where a “No Vacancy” sign creaks in the dusty, Palestinian breeze. But the life of Jesus, and the arc of Mark’s narrative doesn’t let us dwell in the light forever. The Transfiguration is a liturgical hinge and marks the passage, the exodus, from light to darkness, from the revelation of God as a human being, to the darkness and death that result from the disclosure of unconditional love in a world driven by self-absorption, blindness to the plight of the needy, fear, anger, and most of all, violence. The crucifixion towards which the gospel of Mark rushes at a headlong pace reveals something to us about the nature of God in the person of Jesus (forgiveness, self-offering, nonviolence), but it also shows us something rather terrifying about human beings, about ourselves. Love scares us. It evokes terror. And when love comes into the world, we are apt to kill it.
The Transfiguration is often talked about as a kind of mountaintop experience—those moments when the grace of God’s love are almost tangibly real, and we are filled with a quiet sense that no matter the outward circumstances of our lives, “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” as Dame Julian of Norwich writes. There can be no denying the reality of such experiences, or their importance for the life of individual Christians. They provide us with food for the journey and serve as powerful reminders of the transfiguring reality of the one we haltingly follow and, equally haltingly, profess as Lord. But moments of grace are never to be clung to and treated as private possessions, little spiritual baubles to turn over and admire in the soft glow of nostalgia. Treated thus, they become prisons of sorts, and we end up more like Laura in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie polishing her glass figurines as an escape into fantasy rather than being changed into Christ’s likeness here and now.
That, of course, is the whole lesson of dear, impetuous Peter’s blurting out his desire to erect three tents—the light, the mountaintop, the theophany of God is real, but not something to be possessed, preserved, or curated. Following Jesus leads the three up the mountain, but continuing follow Jesus leads them right back down the other side—into the valley, into the darkness of demon-possessed children and terrified fathers and rushing headlong towards a violent confrontation with the powers of this world that will result in Jesus’ execution. In a way, Jesus is showing the disciples the exact same thing he showed them when they were first called—this is the way of non-possessive love, the empty-handed way, the way of losing one’s so-called life in order that it might be found and grounded in God. It’s a natural human desire to want to possess and hold on to those moments of light, and to dwell in the memory of the cloudless view from the heights, but Jesus is showing the disciples that to only dwell there, is actually a form of death—a death and stultifying contraction born of fear, and need to own and possess our lives which properly speaking aren’t even ours, but come to us as sheer gift. Like moths to a flame, we flap and flutter in a circumscribed little circle, while Jesus has long since left the building scratching his head and wondering about our candle fetish.
You’ll sometimes hear Episcopalians refer to themselves as “Easter people”—as a way of talking about living from the power of the resurrection, abundance versus scarcity, love versus lack. I get that. But the risk is that we become mountaintop Christians and ignore the full scope of what following Jesus actually entails. Certainly, we are Easter people, but we are also Maundy Thursday people who wash feet and feed. Yes, we are Easter people, but we are also Good Friday people who know only too well the predictably mechanical reaction human beings have when love comes into the world and starts to loosen the smug stranglehold of those powers and dominions. Of course, we are Easter people, but we are also Holy Saturday people who know that God has gone to the furthest reaches from God—into alienation, isolation, torment, and despair—and reached out his hand there as well. Those icons of the Harrowing of Hell depict it so well— Jesus descending to the dead hoists Adam and Eve out of the pit in the fireman’s grip of God’s love (no dainty handholds here). There’s nowhere love doesn’t reach. It fills all in all.
The pastoral application of the transfiguration for our lives and the life of this community are clear. It all boils down to be willing to be uncomfortable. Something else, other than our devotion to our guttering candles, wants to be heard, and is speaking to us—“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” To hear Him properly we need to set aside the impulse to preserve, curate, and dust off the menagerie for the umpteenth time. Jesus’ appearance as “dazzling white such that no one on earth could bleach them” isn’t just an advertisement for Chlorox. It’s visual reminder that the one to whom we are to listen to, the one who calls us off the mountaintop and into the valleys as bread to feed, oil to heal, and water to wash, isn’t about business as usual. We have to listen to that voice, and not the clamor of our panic-filled, curatorial impulses if we want to be worthy of the name by which the first Christians were known—people of the way. God in Christ has assumed it all and God in Christ has redeemed it all. Nothing has ultimate dominion over us—not powers, not principalities, not fear. Even death itself has lost its sting. Realizing this is what makes possible that first tentative step down the other side of the mountain. That’s what happens with Laura in The Glass Menagerie if you remember. Her glass figurine unicorn shatters, but along with it so does her cramped image of herself as an unlovable, limping, nothing whose prospects for marriage are bleak. She’s broken the nostalgic spell and encountered something of the truth about herself—that she’s loved and lovable, dignified, and, perhaps for the first time, a real person.
This holding together of resurrection light and the reality of the cross, is not just hard for us. It was hard for the disciples too. They can’t understand Jesus’ prediction of his own death within their pre-existing frameworks. They want to listen to Jesus, but they simply can’t hear what he is saying. And the disciples want to turn Jesus into the vehicle for their worldly ambitions and argue amongst themselves about who will be the greatest. “Yeah, yeah you are the Beloved. I get it. But I want to know more about my pension and benefit package.” The journey down the mountain is also a journey away from the tape-loops in our heads that so fill our minds with the same old story that nothing new gets in. They mesmerize and entrance with their fantasy while the one who is Really Real, the one who calls and calls us onward, fades away.
Our collect for the day explicitly pairs the revelation of the glory of the Lord with the cross, bearing our cross, and unless we are careful about how we understand this, it can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings (as centuries of misguided Christian theology and piety testify). Let’s talk about what we don’t mean by “bearing one’s cross.” It doesn’t mean that we should seek suffering as a spiritual good in itself or as inherently saving and redemptive. There’s nothing inherently redemptive about hungry children without a place to live, the horrors of addiction, or getting paid eighty cents to the dollar for the same work as your male counterparts. And Jesus’ death upon the cross didn’t magically purge the world of all evil, suffering and sin (in case you haven’t watched the news in the last twenty-four hours). Jesus died because the power of evil sought to destroy his witness to nonviolent love, justice, and truth. Jesus’ passion reveals the “evilness of evil”—its intrinsic deadly violence—but also the transforming power of divine love. A love that doesn’t dominate and defeat evil so much as challenge, expose, and transfigure it. That love that even death cannot squelch is what is redemptive and saving.
So bearing our cross isn’t a call to passivity, or a private bearing of suffering and personal woes for the sake of Jesus. Rather, it is vigorously and passionately putting on the mind of Christ—getting so close to Jesus that his life becomes ours. The transfiguration puts before us not just who Jesus is, but the reality of who we are called to be as well. The light of God in Christ shines in our hearts. Mt. Tabor is a place in Lower Galilee, Israel, but it’s also in the center of your chest. That whiteness which no bleach on earth could rival, is who we really are. When we learn to open ourselves to the light of Tabor and live from that reality it becomes stunningly clear that the world’s power game of domination, exploitation, greed, and deception is utterly bankrupt. We can complain about it. We can wring our hands about. Or we can realize that the Transfiguration shows us who we really are and vow to work, by grace, to be changed into God’s likeness, to become ever more transparent bearers of the light. Love wins, so the best strategy is always to become love. Curiously, when we learn to dwell in the light, we think nothing of hanging out on mountaintops for ever. Valleys, mountaintops, apple orchards, and side-alleys are all the same. Follow him up the mountain. Let him show you the truth about yourself. And then follow him back down again—into the valley, and into loving confrontation with everything that destroys and distorts the creatures of God. Be that dazzlingly white spot in a dark world.