I’ve lived close to the Mississippi River most of my life. The river is an anchor, a solace, a companion, a teacher. The river provides my drinking, bathing, cooking and gardening water. She is, literally, my life. I grew up in La Crosse, WI, another river town. I have a vivid memory of how, at the beginning of family road trips, we would often cross the river into Minnesota. For me, as a child, this crossing was an event. The bridge soars high above the wide main channel. The blue-green vista of water and islands, farmland, bluffs and sky that spreads out in all directions is truly stunning. With great excitement, I anticipated those minutes of inspiration. I think, for this flatlander, this river bridge was a mountaintop. It was a view that showed me life in a different light.
There’s no getting around it; the story of the transfiguration of Jesus is weird and wild. I appreciate the framing New Testament professor Matt Skinner offers. He urges we preachers not to spend too much energy trying to explain this event. He says: “When has the idea of a brilliantly glowing holy figure ever ‘made sense,’ anyway? The transfigured Jesus isn’t supposed to be figured out. He’s supposed to be appreciated. We should be drawn to him, as if we were moths. On this day, help your congregation bask in the warm wonder of his glow.” A thought, then, about what we might appreciate, bask in, be drawn to and wonder at in this mountaintop Jesus.
Transfiguration was not a transformation of Jesus’ essence. It was a change in his appearance. His shining face and dazzling clothes revealed outwardly something that had always been true, but had remained hidden. The voice of God proclaimed Jesus “beloved child” from the very beginning, in his baptism. However, the way Mark tells the story, it seems these words were heard by Jesus alone. So here, in this mountaintop moment, the circle of revelation expanded to include Jesus’ closest followers. Later, in the resurrection, the community of those with insight and awareness continued to grow.
I would argue that the point isn’t for us to worship this glowing, shining Jesus. The point is that, when we bask in this warm wonder he radiates, then we can see our lives in a new light. You see, Jesus and the River are different manifestations of the same holy presence. They both reveal how we, as members of creation, are kin, intertwined in one luminous body, how, together, we glow with holy light and shine with the warmth of God’s love. The transfiguration is a story that gives us fresh perspective. It allows us to see the glory that has been hidden, to hear truths that dull ears and closed hearts have missed, to know in our bones things that, until now, we’ve only known in our minds.
I’ve been pondering, as I’m sure you have, the events of January 6 and this week’s impeachment trial. For a long time, I thought it was absurd that some refused to accept the results of the election. Why can’t people see through these lies? I wondered. Now I realize it makes perfect sense, because democracy is not the objective of those pushing this narrative of a stolen vote. They have decided that they cannot allow a government of, by and for the people, if the people are of diverse racial, cultural and religious backgrounds. Their goal is to preserve a country founded on white Christian supremacy, to maintain the cultural, economic, and political dominance of whiteness.
In an editorial for The New York Times (which I thank the Hobbies for bringing to my attention), Thomas Edsall declared: “It’s impossible to understand the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol without addressing the movement that has come to be known as Christian Nationalism.” In this piece Edsall quotes scholars of this movement extensively. Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers says this:
[Christian nationalism] does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy, but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity, answering to what some adherents call a “biblical worldview” that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders. . . . This is not a “culture war.” It is a political war over the future of democracy.
And Samuel Perry, co-author of Taking America Back for God, describes Christian nationalism as
a mind-set that clearly merges national power and divine authority, believing God demands American leadership be wrested from godless usurpers and entrusted to true patriots who must be willing to shed blood (their own and others’) for God and country. Christian nationalism favors authoritarian control and what I call “good-guy violence” for the sake of maintaining a certain social order.
Seeking clarity about what followers of Jesus should do and say in this moment is crucial, urgent work. It’s time to reclaim a genuine Christian faith, a faith liberated from nationalism and white supremacy. And the transfiguration is one narrative that can help us do that. It’s true, the mountaintop moment with Jesus is wonderfully affirming. In kinship with all creation, we are loved; we are radiant; we shine with God’s presence. And if we take this divine glory and beauty that inhabits creation seriously, then it also asks something of us, something quite strenuous. I think that’s why Peter, James and John were terrified, even as they were also inspired and grateful. Following Jesus on the path of belovedness is a struggle, a struggle to resist all that harms us and to move toward health and to grow into wholeness. To use Mark’s language, we are engaged in the hard and healing work of casting out the demons that grip our souls and our world.
In the chapter before today’s story, Chapter 8 of Mark, Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Peter declared, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus then offered Peter and the others his understanding of what being Messiah would mean. He would soon endure great suffering, he said. He would face execution. And not only that, those who wished to be his followers must also “take up their crosses,” must be willing to lose their lives in order to save them. So the mountaintop vision of glory served as a beacon of reassurance for Jesus’ shocked, confused, and frightened followers. Despite all appearances, the way of the cross that lay before Jesus, and his community, was a life-giving way for them and for creation as a whole. God’s liberating brilliance shines through us when we are willing to suffer with those who suffer. As we let go of living by fear, as we stop letting our needs for comfort and security rule our every choice God’s justice can illuminate the world. And the warmth, humility and vulnerability of love is, surprisingly enough, the greatest power there is.
White supremacy has maintained its tyranny over the soul of our nation through physical and spiritual violence. It makes perfect sense that the clear loss of white dominance that has been unfolding over these last years has culminated in more violence. It’s tempting to think, especially as the one who incited this murderous riot is acquitted, that the only way forward is to meet force with force and fear with fear. However, the transfiguration offers us a diverging perspective. It provides a soaring view of what is most real—the radiant river of kinship with all creation that flows through our veins. This event shows us life in a different light. It comforts us, strengthens us and teaches us. Hang on, it coaches us. See violence of these times for what it is: a futile, feeble attempt to stop an inevitable change. Amid all this death, the promise of resurrection is at hand. Amen.