Transfiguration and Sacred Geography

Being an American Christian can mess with your sense of sacred geography. Today’s story from the Hebrew Bible narrates Moses’ first hike up Mount Sinai, where he will spend 40 days and 40 nights speaking with God, receiving the commandments. Yet if you put “Mount Sinai” into a search engine in the states you are as likely to get a link for a famous New York Hospital as for an obscure hillside in the desert between Egypt and Palestine.

One of my theology professors in seminary was a retired bishop from Pennsylvania. He was often involved in official Orthodox and Anglican dialogues, and he got a lot of mileage out of the name of his diocese, Bethlehem. He liked to introduce himself to patriarchs from the East as the Bishop of “Bethlehem.”

The site of Jesus’ transfiguration is traditionally Mt Tabor, and did you know there is a Mount Tabor in Missouri? It is down by Cape Girardeau. Being an American Christian can mess with your sense of sacred geography. These place names sound mythic, and when the stories told are like the ones we hear today, that mythologizing makes some sense.

When you encounter the story of the Transfiguration, images should flash into your mind. This is the stuff of legend, of sacred symbol. This is a story of the wildness of God. And at the same time, it’s important not to get too focused on the symbols, the glowing faces, the clouds. It’s important to ask what the stories are telling us about God.

I’ve admitted to this congregation before, for a long time the Transfiguration was not one of my favorites. This transfiguration story is a bit spooky, not to mention problematic. Given our the history and persistent reality of racism and colorism in our society, do we really need Jesus’ face to be momentarily glowing white? Don’t we have enough white Jesus? This story of Jesus’ glowing face doesn’t advance the narrative. Why include it?

I can be very rational, very much a product of my culture. I want a reason for the story. I want it to advance the plot. There is no way the revelation on the mountain, the wild power of God in Jesus that is demonstrated, can have any affect on the story. As they walk down the mountain, Jesus swears Peter, James and John to secrecy.

Neither Mt Tabor nor Mt. Sinai are destinations. These mountains are waypoints I’m an ongoing journey, turning points. In this story of Jesus, and in the story of Moses, it’s the journey that matters.

Let’s start with Moses.

When they reach Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel have just escaped slavery. After the frogs, and the boils, and the plagues, and the locusts. After traveling through the Red Sea, they reach Mount Sinai, and there Moses encounters God. On Sinai God gives the people laws. That may sound harsh. Didn’t the people just get free? Why is God awarding them a set of rules?

The late theologian and educator Verna Dozier would argue this story makes absolute sense. People are not simply free FROM something, but FOR something. God has a vision of life in community, a vision Jesus would later call the “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God.” Dr. King would translate that vision as the “beloved community.”

There is a reason that God introduces so many of divine the commandments this way, “remember you were slaves in Egypt..or remember you were strangers in Egypt…or remember you were mistreated.” Then God tells them to act with justice. The law demands mercy. The people are free to enact God’s vision of a just society, a society which makes room for the immigrant, that treats the stranger as a neighbor. The people are made free because their God has a plan of liberation that reaches beyond just the original folks God chose. God’s people are to be set free from persecution, free from the hoarding of wealth. God’s people are to be free so that others also might be free, might know justice.

There at Mount Sinai, God reveals the vision, granted it’s a detailed vision, traditionally 613 commandments, but those laws detail a vision for freedom, a vision for justice, a vision of a people free to worship God and to love their neighbor. Sinai is the place where Moses and the people encounter God’s dream for a just community.

Sinai is a turning point for the people to whom God has entrusted freedom. Mt. Tabor is a turning point in the story of Jesus.

Mt. Tabor is on the road from Galilee to Mt. Zion, to Jerusalem. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus and these select three disciples climb the mountain just after he has told the crowd that anyone who wants to follow him must deny themselves, and take up their cross. This story comes as Jesus’ pronouncements about his own impending death have just begun. As they walk toward Jerusalem, toward the holy city, Jesus will say it again and again. He knows where his movement is headed.

Poor Peter’s words make more sense when you realize just a few verses before, he told Jesus not to go forward. Peter didn’t take the news of Jesus’ impending death well. “This must not be,” Peter cried. Jesus responded “get behind me satan.” And here is Peter, trying to set up camp, trying to stop while the view is good. God knows, the journey must go on.

The late Jesuit priest and activist Daniel Berrigan used to tell folks, “if you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” The news for the disciples isn’t good.

Jesus is sure that his preaching of love, his teaching of justice, his announcement of God’s in-breaking reign, the Beloved Community, Jesus is sure this is going to get him killed.

Jesus knows his circumstances. The world had never seen a power more mighty or more oppressive than the Roman Empire. Never had people been so categorized, so divided. Never had categories been more enforced than in Rome’s empire: Slaves and free, women and men, citizens and non-citizens, permitted religions and un-permitted. Rome invented all sort of ways to classify and codify. And critically, Rome assigned and negated rights based on their categories.

In such a world, Jesus knew God’s unconditional love was radical. Cornell West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Jesus knew this vision of God’s was going to make all sorts of trouble, for him and his followers. Gods justice was breaking into a world of human injustice.

And so Jesus hits pause. For just a few verses, he doesn’t advance the story. Jesus climbs a mountain, and takes some of his closest followers with him. Maybe he picks the guys he knows most need reassurance. I bed Jesus’ women disciples knew what’s coming. After all, it’s the women who will be with Jesus through his suffering. It’s the women who will find the empty tomb. But there, on the mountaintop, Peter, James, and John are given blessed assurance, because they need that assurance.

Foretaste

As I’ve wrestled with this story, there’s a single word in Christian theology that for me gives meaning to the mythic significance, and it’s a strange word: “foretaste.” We use this word to describe the Eucharist, which we say is a “foretaste of the heavenly banquet,” in one of our post-communion prayers. The word basically means, “catching a momentary glimpse.” There on the mountain Jesus’ followers catch a glimpse of God’s promise.

The connection to the Eucharist works for me. Each week, when we come to this table, we are seeking to catch a glimpse, to have a foretaste of the meal God plans for us, the heavenly banquet, the promised reign of love.

Here at this table, where all are welcome, we gather with folks who are wildly different from us. We gather with folks from different races, different genders, different immigration statuses, different abilities, different languages. At Jesus’ table no one has special privileges. Even the fancy clothes worn by the clergy are meant to represent aprons and serving garments.

Here, week in and week out, we squint and breathe, and remember that this meal Jesus gave to us is meant to sustain is in difficult times. It is meant to point us beyond the frustrations of today and toward the hope of the coming justice of God.

When God reminds the disciples, “this is my beloved Son. Listen to him,” God is also giving them reassurance. The road ahead is going to be hard. There are more mountains to climb. There will be suffering. There will be awful political consequences. The road won’t be easy.

Christianity is a faith for those who need reminders, week in and week out, that God is still working even when the world seems bleak. The Eucharist is bread for the journey for those who keep walking toward justice, who keep working for love, even when it seems that injustice and hate are on the rise, especially when it seems they are on the rise.

Because God is with us for the whole journey, Matthew intimates. Notice, the words God speaks out of that cloud have been spoken before. At the beginning of the season of the Epiphany, at the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, 14 chapters back in Matthew’s Gospel, just after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, God says these words the first time, “This is my Son
whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him.”

Don’t miss the geography.

The Jordan River valley isn’t just the lowest point in Palestine. It’s the lowest point on earth. There at the bottom Jesus and his followers hear these words, “this is my beloved child.” Chapters later, Jesus climbs to the top of a high mountain, and there are the words from God again, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him.” The story of God’s love is the same at the depths and in the heights.

The varied geography of Matthew tell us: across space, across time, God still chooses to make a people God’s own. God still asks us to walk humbly, to love mercy, to do justice. God asks us to listen. God is still with us, in the most difficult moments, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. God will be with us on the steps ahead.

As you begin your Lenten journey this week, know that our God has always been the God of journeys. There is a reason that Christians named so many places after places in the Bible. There’s a reason the Jewish People named a hospital “Sinai.” These places are a reminder that God is not done with us. There may be more mountains to climb ahead. God will be with us.

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