In seminary preaching class, we had an assignment towards the end of term. Thirty minutes before class, we were given a sealed envelope with a text in it, and a 3×5 card.
The assignment was to take the thirty minutes and come up with a 3-5 minute sermon based on the text given, and preach it in class. (I’d like to see you try this, Top Chef people.) The idea was that at some point in our lives, we would show up at church, all calm and happy, and be called upon to preach a sermon at the last minute. Best to start practicing now.
My text was from Ezekiel, where the prophet addresses the people of Israel in the voice of God and says “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people. And you shall be my people…” and something else happens in the verse, but all I could think of was Finding Nemo, and Dory speaking to the jellyfish: “I shall call you Squishy, and you shall be my Squishy!”
Free association in the postmodern age can be tricky. And not without a sense of humor.
But, since the relationship between God and God’s people is, in fact, not unlike that between Dory and the jellyfish, it worked out.
This week, I read the texts (Elijah/Elisha and Transfiguration!) and all I could think of was that scene from Rent with the angry homeless lady yelling at Mark.
Now, this could have been because some friends of mine had been discussing it on Twitter earlier in the month. Or it could be because God was messing with me.
Either way, each time I read Peter’s comment, and God’s comeback “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” I heard the Angry Woman singing in my head.
If you know Rent, you understand the tension here. Almost nothing in her scene is sermon-appropriate language. But I couldn’t find another illustration. Despite the fact that I was still really unclear why/how the Angry Homeless Woman was related to the Transfiguration, I decided to take a stab at it.
Here’s what happened.
February 19, 2012
7 Epiphany (Transfiguration), Year B
Mark 9: 2-9
In the musical RENT, a sort of modern read on La Boheme set in New York’s East Village, early in the narrative, the main starving-artist characters are hanging around a vacant lot late at night, observing a homeless woman being harassed by some cops. She hasn’t done anything wrong–they just want her to pull up her tent-city dwelling and head somewhere else for the night, when one of the ‘artists’ comes over with his handy-dandy video camera (This is all set in the late 1990s, so forgive the absence of cellphones).
Realizing he’s being caught on tape, the officer heads off, and Mark, with the camera, turns to the lady he’s just ‘rescued,’ clearly expecting to be gratefully thanked, when she instead starts cursing at him.
What, exactly, she screams at him is not church-appropriate language, so I shall heavily paraphrase.
Basically, she asks him who in the world he thinks he is, she didn’t need to be rescued in the first place, and she doesn’t exist just so he can make a new movie, or feel better about himself.
She stomps away.
See, this woman, She wanted to be engaged with.
She wanted to be listened to, not just seen, not just treated like a problem, or even a heroine. She wanted to be listened to.
Peter’s comment in the gospel today up on the mountain is a very human one. Very understandable response. He’s all confused, clearly, one minute he was out for a nice lesuirely stroll with his friends– the next, there’s a cloud, there’s a light, there’s visions of long dead prophets appearing. He’s having a bit of a day.
So he’s overcome. He’s blown out of the water by what he’s experiencing. And he seizes on the first thing that pops into his head which possibly has bypassed the filter between brain and mouth– I know none of you have ever done this.
He says– “lord! It is good we are here! Let us build three dwellings for you! One for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!”
He doesn’t want to build mansions here– what he wants to build is more like tiny houses– or tabernacles. It’s a word in Greek that gets kicked around in the OT anytime the people of Israel are out wandering in the desert, and want to build a resting place for the Presence of God. It denotes something like a dwelling place , or a tent.
So Peter wants to build homes for Jesus , Moses and Elijah. He wants to keep them there. He wants to freeze the moment. The moment is so overwhelming, so wonderful and inspiring and awe-producing that he wants to freeze it and stay with it forever.
Leave Jesus and Moses and Elijah living up there on the mountain top forever like living museum pieces. Frozen. Waiting. Perfect and beautiful and lovely.
But Peter doesn’t get to do that because this voice comes from the heavens, and God says, “This is my Son. The Beloved. LISTEN TO HIM.”
I’d imagine it must be a pretty awesome experience for God to tell you to shut it, essentially, and that’s what happens to Peter.
Peter gets told, not to honor the stillness and perfection of what he saw, but to listen. To engage. To risk shattering the perfection of the image, and head back down the mountain.
Peter, really, I’m guessing, and most of us too, would have loved to stay up on the untainted mountaintop with those booths and Jesus, just hanging out, and staring. It would have been great. The Christ, with Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the chief of the prophets, and you, to sit and absorb their wisdom, forever and ever, and just relish their nearness and their transcendence and the bliss of it all.
Because there’s not much better than a mountaintop experience. Those moments when we feel God’s presence so close, and everything sort of sharpens into clear focus, and we get it. Those are great; those get us out of bed on the bad days, those keep us going, those little glimmers of light in the darkness.
But those are also few and far between. Life is not a mountaintop. We don’t get to live up there in a booth with Elijah. We come back down the mountain. We live in the valley, for the most part, where things are murkier and dimmer. After this scene on the top, Jesus and the disciples head down the mountain, and they head straight for Jerusalem.
These glimpses of God, this transfiguration wasn’t so much so Peter and the others could feel good about their life choices in following Jesus, really, and it wasn’t to cement their faith for the trials ahead. They’re still going to wimp out in a few weeks.
These flashes of God we experience give further shape to our relationship with God. They illuminate our wrestling in the dark. Like flashes of lightening in a dark room, they cast light over what we’re already doing. Visions alone don’t make a relationship– engagement does. Listening does. Visions only help explain what you’re listening to.
What keeps you going down in the valleys, between those mountaintop flashes of clarity, is engagement with God. Listening. Peter, James, John, they believed in Jesus before they saw him transfigured. They had a relationship with him, following him, listening to him, before Moses and Elijah appeared. They absorbed his words his wisdom, they watched how he lived in the world, how he treated people. They will continue to do that in the days to come, as the church forms.
What forms the church is not so much the blissful surety of the Transfiguration– it’s the plodding engagement of the valley. It’s the listening. The listening that is sometimes hard, sometimes easy. The listening we are called to do every day of our lives as we embody Christ in the world around us.
As we begin to walk the valley toward another Lent, may we hear the words of God speaking to each of us, and calling us onward.