Tell No One?

February 11, 2018
Reverend Sarah Brouwer

Mark 9:1-10a

God of the invisible, open our ears and our eyes, shine your light, let us hear your voice through the cries of those long-silenced, and be with us now, as we listen for your Word proclaimed. Amen.

It’s possible that every sermon on the Transfiguration begins with a disclaimer. Scholars of course love this story, because they take some kind of pleasure in exceedingly strange texts. They don’t have to preach them. The thing about the Transfiguration, though, is it’s hard to ignore. Even after you get past a bleached out sparkly Jesus, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story, in almost identical ways. While we can keep in mind this might not be a factual account of an historical moment, the story remains. And, we are the interpreters- those who keep our eyes and ears open, maintaining a posture of possibility that God still has something to say to us through these ancient texts.

It’s no coincidence the story comes about just before we enter a season of listening. We are just a few days from Ash Wednesday and Lent, the period of the church year where we consider our humanity, our brokenness, our need for God. It’s a season of reflection. We receive ashes that remind us of our mortality, and we spend time in contemplative worship. In doing so, we hope to learn something about ourselves and the world- what must ultimately die, and what new life can be resurrected. That’s why we are brought up on the mountaintop this week- something is about to shift- and God tells the disciples, and us, to start listening.

Earlier in chapter 9, after Peter claims that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus foretells his own death, and Peter rebukes him. Rebuking isn’t a word you hear every day, but it is more than just denial- Peter condemns Jesus, criticizes him. And so, to diffuse the situation, Jesus takes him on a hike. It reminds me of summer camp days. At the end of the week when we would all start to get cranky and sick of each other, our counselors would make us go out for hours on some trail, to bond. Maybe that’s the reason James and John tag along- for peer support. Or, more practically, maybe Jesus needed James and John to help carry stuff. Whatever the reason, they all head up a mountain, away from the rest of the disciples, and, seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus is transfigured before them.

Now, at this point in the story I cringe. Jesus becoming a dazzling, whitened figure is problematic for a few reasons, but particularly with, what could be interpreted as, an allusion to white power. And, while I know I’m stating the obvious here, there are only men in this story- Peter, James, and John, plus Jesus talking about who knows what with long-gone prophets, Elijah and Moses, who suddenly appear. This scene doesn’t pass the Bechtel test, but usually we can assume there’s at least one female disciple with them. And, really, these concerns only scratch the surface.

Jesus is transfigured- not transformed, but he’s also not the same anymore. His figure, his identity changes before them, and he becomes holy and other-worldly in a way the disciples had not yet glimpsed. It’s a vision they can’t look away from, it’s confusing, and it strikes so much awe and wonder in Peter that he wants to try and bottle it up. It’s a very human impulse, on his part, to try and contain what is good, keeping it for himself. But this is also where the disciples reflect our own instinct to withdraw from the world in the face of its seemingly unquenchable need…Those of us with privilege, like Peter, can also draw back into our familiar and safe enclaves, making it even more difficult to understand the plight of others.

The genius thing about Jesus taking them up on a mountaintop, though, is that when you reach the top, as much as you want to stay and enjoy the beauty and miraculousness of it all, you really have to come down. And, in my mind, you only have two choices: you can go down and process it, choosing to be changed by it, or you can go down, business as usual, and pretend that God is not challenging you, not opening your eyes, not revealing something about history and power, not telling all of us to close our mouths and open our ears to what is happening in the world.

Author Mary Gordon writes about the transfiguration that “Jesus insists upon being seen,” which means the story “can be read as a celebration of the visible.. but, then the moment ceases being purely visible, the silence, the white silence, [is broken] by the voice in the cloud… And when God enters the picture it becomes a seeing accompanied by another insistence- that Jesus also be listened to.”

Jesus wanting to be seen and heard is not necessarily a change of course in Mark’s Gospel. Mark is the writer who constantly has Jesus doing and teaching, and then telling people to hush up until after the resurrection, presumably so he can do his work, and so they can learn in full what must happen. The danger in interpreting this text, beyond the issues I’ve already named, is the idea that God silences. There is already so much that is invisible in this world, so much silencing of voices desperate to be heard, it’s difficult to read the story and not feel as though we must keep our thoughts, our experiences, our struggles to ourselves. But listening and being silenced are different, right?

After Jesus, Peter, James and John had come down the mountain they walked into a rowdy crowd. It appears there was some trouble the other disciples had faced in healing a young boy- a boy seized by a spirit that made him unable to speak. They couldn’t figure out what they were doing wrong, and they certainly didn’t know how to settle the anxious mob of people that had gathered. In the end, Jesus asked questions, listened to the father’s story, and healed the boy, so he could speak.

This story is a lot to take in. The bright, dazzling light of the transfiguration causes the dark shadows of the world to come into focus. What was once invisible has become jarringly close, what was before unseen and unheard is brought to the forefront, history itself appears in the form of two prophets, and with their very presence they proclaim that something must change. Nothing can stay safely concealed on the mountaintop, it must come down, and the light must spread. And, in the end, the boy is healed, with a voice to speak, which echoes on behalf of all those who have long been silenced.

It’s not hard to think of those in our world who have long been silenced. Our dreamer kids- immigrant children brought to this country by their parents, who are trying to make a life for themselves, but must keep quiet for fear of their DACA status, who live in fear of being deported and separated from loved ones and friends. Black people, whose experiences are always denied, twisted by bias, and whose lives are disempowered by those of us who benefit from systems of privilege. And women, who have known forever what it feels like to not be heard, who, for fear of losing a job or not being taken seriously or damaging their reputation, bury that feeling they get in the pit of their stomach when they know they are subtly condescended to, or brushed aside, or brushed up against.

We know these things exist, but it’s easier to talk over them, to not listen even when they are in our face, in our newsfeeds day after day so that we become numb to them. It’s simpler and safer to not be changed by them- to default to our self-protective inclinations. To listen is to engage suffering, to be vulnerable and grow our wells of empathy. We don’t want to experience pain, even if it ultimately means better life for all. But, isn’t that the heart of the Christian life? No wonder God tells the disciples to listen.

In the last year or so, we have seen a seismic shift in our nation’s discussion of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault. Revelation after painful revelation has been sweeping across the business world, the arts, higher education, journalism and politics. This is an issue that, it’s now clear, affects our collective wellbeing. It’s an issue that reaches across the political aisle, affects the rich and poor, those in positions of power and those who work minimum wage jobs, and it is perpetuated by men and women, alike. From the women’s march, to the #metoo movement, from the accusations against Harvey Weinstein to the conviction of Larry Nassar… women long silenced are speaking up, but are we listening?

Of course, none of this is new. And while I think we are beginning to get more comfortable listening, when it comes to sexual harassment and misconduct there’s the underlying, or maybe obvious reality that what we are really talking about is sex and bodies, sexuality and desire, which are ultimately gifts from God for us to enjoy. But, add in the dynamics of power, questions of what is right and wrong and throw in the oddly complex reasons it’s hard to talk about this in church, and what you’ve got is multiple difficult and sensitive issues.

One of the things that Barbara Brown Taylor points out about the story is what the appearance of Moses might mean. You see, Jesus, like Moses before him, was about to set God’s people free, only it was not bondage to pharaoh they needed freeing from this time, it was bondage to their own fear of sin.

I think, like Peter, we are afraid to go down that mountain and do the hard work of listening- listening for who needs healing, listening for those who have been rendered silent. We’re in bondage to the sin of keeping things invisible. But, the transfiguration tells us we can’t do that anymore. It’s all coming out into the light. And we must be ready to listen, because some, despite all the odds stacked against them, are bravely ready to speak.

That’s also the good news here, though, because this is the walk of the Christian life. This is the blessing and the burden. This is what we die to in order for all to be raised to abundant life. The transfiguration helps us celebrate that Jesus is real, visible, a beacon of light, and that light shines on all the things we would rather shut out, and shut up. But, in the end, we are all made better for it. We are renewed by the truth and reconciliation that can come. We are blessed to hear the beauty of voices long silenced, and stories that might never have been told. We are strengthened as a nation, and as the body of Christ, when all are treated with respect, fairness, and welcome.

This Wednesday, as many of us will come forward and receive ashes on our forehead- this visible reminder of our brokenness and our collective hope- let us come away from it and go down the mountain into Lent, listening.

Thanks be to God.

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