by Ellen Sims
texts: 2 Kings 1-12; Mark 9: 2-9
In Christian tradition, Jesus’s ethereal mountaintop transformation is called “the Transfiguration,” a mystical experience unlike anything you and I have ever witnessed. Such an otherworldly tale may not seem very relevant to our lives. But stories I’ve heard from my transgender friends help me now see Jesus’s physical transformation as not so remote to our experiences. I’ve even started imagining Jesus’s “dazzling white” transfiguration clothes resembling the glittery garb of a drag queen elevated high on a stage.
As a spiritual exercise in imitating our Lord, we followers of Jesus can put ourselves in his place in this Gospel account. We can reflect on personal change we may have experienced. How have we been transfigured? Are our hearts bigger this year than they were last year? Have we grown in patience, gentleness, kindness, generosity, self-control? This story can challenge all of us (gay or straight, trans or cis) to make daring changes that align us more truly with our God-given identity and allow us to shine Christ’s dazzling light into the word.
Today’s Gospel text warns us, however, that sometimes the changes we undergo through spiritual growth can be disconcerting, even frightening to some people. The disciples who accompanied Jesus up the mountain were “terrified” to see his transformation. Like Jesus, you, too, may have noticed that friends and family are sometimes afraid of the changes we undergo physically, intellectually, spiritually. I hear that from transgender friends.
I may have experienced some minor form of that reaction this week when a friend became uncomfortable and disappointed with changes she observed in me. After I shared approvingly on Facebook this week an announcement that a diocese in the Episcopal Church voted to stop using solely masculine pronouns for God, two childhood friends ridiculed the use of inclusive language. One persisted in her arguments on my Facebook page, saying she was trying to “protect [my] hearers” from my dangerous belief. She signed off with “I fear for your soul” and quoted a verse in Matthew meant to communicate that I was, indeed, bound for hellfire. I mention this because I think my friend was not upset by someone whose version of Christianity differs from hers. After all, this friend surely knows many, many people whose religious beliefs differ from hers. I think she was upset that a different version of Christianity was espoused by a friend she’d known from childhood, who’d been raised in the same Southern Baptist church, and who’d once believed just as she did but no longer shared those beliefs.
Change is hard for us to undergo. It’s also hard on others who witness changes in us. It must have been hard for Peter, James, and John to witness such dramatic change in Jesus.
But all who journey Godward undergo significant and continual change. Not only our physical selves but also our intellectual and emotional and spirituals selves change and grow. Certainly not all change is good. But change and growth are a necessary part of life. No sooner had the initial fear in Peter, James, and John subsided than they immediately wanted to hunker down with Jesus to avoid any further change–and to remain there with Elijah and Moses, those bastions of their religious tradition. Peter was ready to build a retreat center up there where they could all stay just as they were. But the mountaintop experience was meant to be momentary.
And although Peter, James, and John initially reacted to Jesus’s radical change with fear — and then with an instinctive resistance to additional change — God’s response to Jesus’s transfiguration was quite different. A voice from above declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Does this declaration ring a bell? They are the very words spoken to Jesus at his baptism, traditional words spoken at our baptisms. We, too, have been named as beloved children of God. Thank God many transgender women and men are able to hear God’s affirmation of their belovedness over the cultural din of disapproval. Thank God that after changes of names, wardrobes, and physicality, these beloved children of God can recall this most basic declaration of their identity: beloved ones. These beloved sons and daughters of God appear more radiant as they live into their truest selves — as each of us attempts to do. The God of transformation and renewal surely blesses all who climb the difficult mountain of transfiguration to make changes and reclaim a baptismal promise of God’s delight in them.
Immediately after the voice reaffirms Jesus as “the Beloved,” God gave this command: “Listen to him!” Don’t listen to prejudice, you who follow Jesus. Don’t listen to fear. Listen to Jesus’s admonition to love God, love neighbor, and love yourself, too. Listen to Jesus.
Those of you who have left a closet to climb a mountain of transformation or who have crossed or are crossing a gender barrier to live authentically, radiantly, please make sure as we head into the Lenten season that you hear God name you again as the Beloved Son or Daughter. Lent will call us to a time of self-examination. It’s a period when we will take a close look at ourselves. Some Christians treat Lent as a period of self-denial and privation. But Open Table focuses on enlarging our experiences and opening ourselves to healthy change. Rather than emphasizing what we might give up to attain a deeper spirituality, let’s consider the people and experiences we might embrace more fully. Maybe you will commit to trying a new spiritual practice. But don’t use these upcoming 40 days to beat yourself up. Let’s fast, but let’s fast from self-disapproval as well as pride. Let’s fast from self-criticism as well as complacency. Let’s fast from insecurity as well as egoism.
We’ll gather this Wednesday evening at 6:00 to receive the traditional ashes that symbolize our mortality. It’s a good time for each of us to make a commitment to go a bit deeper in our faith life, to commit more fully to the Jesus Way, to recognize general patterns of attitudes and actions that harm us and others. We will take time before God not to beat ourselves up but to move forward in an ever evolving faith. We have the courage to face mistakes because God’s love is the one thing that does not change. No matter what we’ve done or will do, God names us always, “the beloved.” Secure in that love, we can face into the changes we need to make. Confident in God’s grace, we can honestly observe the patterns in our lives without self-loathing.
This has been a sermon about the necessity and value of change. Yet our Gospel text as well as today’s Hebrew Bible story also honor tradition. Mark’s intention for telling the story of Jesus’s transfiguration is to carefully place him in line with Moses and Elijah, to establish him as part of the Jewish tradition. The Gospel writers value their religious tradition — even as they critique and expand the tradition.
We, too, are rooted in our tradition’s scriptures and stories, prayers and spiritual practices. But Christianity itself continues to evolve. Ironically, we are right in line with tradition — when we stretch and adopt and critique and abandon religious tradition.
Of course, flying in the face of tradition has serious consequences — far worse than being told by a childhood friend that you’re going to hell. Richard Rohr this past week reminded those of us who read his daily devotional that Jesus was eventually killed by “conventional wisdom” (tradition) because his deviations from traditional wisdom upset the social order. Like other “prophets and wisdom teachers,” Jesus “passed through a major death to [his] ego,” which “is the core meaning of transformation.” Unfortunately, “most of Christian history tried to understand Jesus” as upholding religious tradition.
Rohr then quoted Marcus Borg, who addressed both tradition and transformation this way:
“The gospel of Jesus — the good news of Jesus’ own message — is that there is a way of being that moves BEYOND both secular and religious conventional wisdom (tradition). The path of transformation of which Jesus spoke leads from a life of requirements and measuring up (whether to culture or to God) to a life of relationship with God. It leads from a life of anxiety to a life of peace and trust. It leads from the bondage of self-preoccupation to the freedom of self-forgetfulness. It leads from life centered in culture to life centered in God.”
PRAYER: Transform us, Evolving God, whose Love remains ever constant.