The following sermon was offered by David Wantland, seminarian, at The Advocate, on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2015.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Amen
Maybe there’s no easy week to preach on the Transfiguration of our Lord, but this Sunday feels particularly hard. We gather together this morning only a few miles away from where Deah, Yusor, and Razan were murdered. I won’t speak for you, but after a week of wide-ranging emotion, I come into this place looking to God with a lot of questions. And today of all days, when our liturgy, our prayers, and today’s gospel lesson are intended to give us hope and strength as we prepare to make a holy lent, hope seems in short supply. I keep thinking: what hope does glimpsing the transfiguration give us in light of these deaths?
To be sure, there is a word of hope for us today. But to get to it, I’ll need to criticize one of my loves.
If, like me, you love J.R.R. Tolkien, you’ve been deceived about the Transfiguration. An even if you don’t love Tolkien, anyone who’s seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy will know what I am talking about. The middle of the Two Towers, Gandalf the White, newly minted upgrade from Gandalf the Grey, enters the mountain town Edoras to confront a possessed king and his toxic advisor. Ascending the mountain with three other companions, Gandalf is cloaked, not in the white robes of his current order but in the old color of his prior rank– a coarse grey wool veil. Atop the mountain, Gandalf enters the throne room of Theoden king, using that wizard staff-turned walking stick to deceive the king’s court. See, this weak old man needs to pass as safe so that he can get near the king. Theoden, possessed by another wizard, mocks the weakness of this old man. Gandalf is having none of it. In a moment of surprise, Gandalf casts off his grey cloak, transfiguring before the eyes of all into Gandalf the White, strong enough to overcome the king’s possession and the trickery of the king’s advisor. Order in the kingdom is restored and the viewer/ reader is left pleased with Gandalf’s game.
I love Tolkien, but he has led us astray. To be fair, he isn’t the only one who has led us astray. Many have imagined the Transfiguration as the revelation of what Jesus had been veiling. But imagining Jesus in this way means that he was pretending all along. Wearing an untransfigured body like a coarse cloak, Jesus was just performing humanity for the sake of deception–even a virtuous one. If Jesus were performing humanity, then the Transfiguration is nothing more than a big reveal of the ruse he’s had to put up with for our sake.
Jesus in this understanding, has had to condescend to the world. His “true self” becomes the one on the mountain, glorious and eternal, not the one down in the crowd, with the diseased, and the Gentiles, and the Romans. You can imagine how this understanding of the Transfiguration, and of Jesus’ life in general, suggests that the Incarnation of Jesus was an act of obedience before it was an act of love, that Jesus’s ministry was one of patient endurance before he could get back to his heavenly throne. And it was only worth it so far as some people caught on. Jesus’ love for the world gets turned into love exclusively for the believer– Jesus loves those who love and obey him back. The rest of the world… well…
But that is not the Transfiguration of our Lord. And I praise God for that, because were this little deception game representative of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, I don’t think there’d be anything hopeful to say as Christians who grieve the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.
So praise God that Tolkien’s account is not the gospel account.
No, brothers and sisters, we are given the account of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God transformed for a moment on the mountain to reveal who he was– the Son of God– the very one who would suffer and rise again. Most importantly, we are given a picture of Jesus of Nazareth who does not tarry on the mountain to savor in his glorified state. No, we encounter Jesus of Nazareth who goes back down the mountain. You see the Son of God is not hiding behind Jesus. The Son of God is the one who loves the crowd, who hurried back down the mountain, , knowing full well that the crowd may reject him. Just before the reading we heard today, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Great suffering, rejection, murder, and resurrection. He names it all. He anticipates it all and journeys that way.
Yes, the one who is revealed to be the Son of God descends the mountain to be caught up with the masses and to risk rejection.
Risking rejection, I think that’s what the transfiguration points us to today. I don’t think its about the future– its not about enduring suffering to gain our future state. It is that seeing Jesus revealed as God, we can trust to go where he goes. In the transfiguration and the subsequent descent down the mountain, we see Jesus’ willingness to bear the rejection and hatred of others just so that he could be close to those whom he loves, the very ones who hate and reject him.
And I think today, to go where he goes is to risk rejection. TO go where he goes is to show up in solidarity with the suffering and the marginalized, recognizing that most of us are privileged and empowered. And even if we would not claim those words for ourselves, our being here today, as Christians, and Episcopalians, means that we bear traditions that have oppressed. In our name, many have killed the queer, the person of color, the Muslim. So to show up in solidarity is to risk rejection, because histories of suffering may make even the well-intentioned indistinguishable from the enemy.
The transfiguration teaches us to say that we are here, we have put our bodies in places of solidarity BECAUSE we have glimpsed the transfigured body of Jesus. We have learned that this man was not simply some avant garde kook who liked to befriend the stranger so as to shock the friend. We have learned that this man who put his body alongside the forgotten, the insignificant, and the negligible (better terms), is God incarnate. To go his way is to do likewise and to do likewise in his name.
It’s a subtle thing, but I am saying that to hide our faith to be welcomed as supporters is to mislearn from Gandalf. It is to deny who we are so that we may be let in. It is an attempt to control our acceptance. The Transfiguration says, because I am who I am, this is what I do. Because I am one claimed by the story of Jesus of Nazareth, this is what I do. I show up in love and support of those who are unloved and unsupported even if I am rejected. How many times did Peter reject Jesus?
We as the People of the Advocate are self-consciously aware of the evil that has been done by and in the name of Christianity. And its no wonder that, with such knowledge, we may find it difficult to associate with the name. And I’m not saying we show up with banner. But I am saying that perhaps the most difficult task for us is to put our well-informed bodies in places where, regardless of our awareness, we may be rejected, suspected, and made to feel unable. But we keep showing up.
I was at a panel discussion following the recent events at Duke University where the administration decided, for a variety of reasons, to reverse their decision to permit the projection of the adhan from the Duke Chapel belltower. The panel was comprised of Muslim, Christian, and self-described pagan university scholars. Over the course of the discussion, panelists did not avoid naming the ways in which Christianity has contributed to violence and exclusion the world over. In that moment, it struck me as vitally important that Christian bodies be at that table, that Christian bodies be there to hear the cries of a crowd who may want to reject Christian voices, and that Christian bodies nevertheless remain, in love. To me, that was a moment of life seen through the transfiguration. Precisely because we have glimpsed the one whose name has been misused in histories of violence, we put our bodies in places that defy that violence by receiving the anger of those who’ve been hurt by it.
The virtue this Transfiguration life requires is perseverance. Therefore, it requires a community of support, strengthening us in this life vulnerable to rejection in the very moment we are trying to love. But that is where we find hope in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus himself goes down the mountain. Jesus goes down into the crowd and says, I love you enough not to believe your rejection. I love you enough not to believe your rejection. Amen.