Transfiguration Sunday: “According to Mark”

So as I mentioned last week,
as Trinity Place plans for a new priest
I have been planning for what’s next for me.

Though it is not really appropriate
for a sermon, I would like to tell you
two of the things
that are next for my ministry.

The second one is a lead-in
to today’s comments on the Transfiguration story.

First and most immediate, is that
my publisher has released the publication date
of my next book: December 10th.
It is a memoir in poetry and prose —
actually more prose by volume than poetry.
It isn’t a juicy tell-all though.

It is a personal perspective on 40 plus years
as a priest — what I saw,
felt, learned, and was amazed by.

I’m not sure it will gain a very big audience
but the marketing and business end of it
has already begun.

So that is now.

The other thing that relates a little to this sermon
is that I plan to offer podcasts
through my website, as well as iTunes and YouTube.
The cool thing about that, for me,
is that I no longer have to follow the lectionary!
I may never have to preach
on the Transfiguration story ever again.
I have struggled for forty-four years with this story,
actually longer
if you consider three years of seminary.
Now I can ignore it
or just use it for illustration.

In other words, I will become unmoored,
reckless, and
who knows what?
Stay tuned to see how that turns out.
But as for the Transfiguration story,
one more time.

I am not sure I have a whole lot new to say
that I haven’t mentioned before about this story,
but that doesn’t mean
there is nothing new here to think about.

If we think of Mark’s story
as the projected image
of The Great and Terrible OZ
before Toto unveiled the professor,
then we can go behind
the curtain of the supernatural
and see what is there.

This is interesting to think about.
Oppressive rulers and empires – even our own –
do all they can to ensure
that the memory of their enemies
either disappears into nothingness
or lives on only in infamy.

For example, our own leaders
had Osama Bin Laden’s body
tossed into the ocean
so there would be no shrine
for the deposition of reverences.
You see, it isn’t just in long ago history.

But even so,
some outsiders
and revenants
live on in the myths and legends
that elevate their lives
above the ruling historians
and the natural dust of history.

There is official history
told by the victors,
and there is the people’s history
kept alive in folk memory.

Now the only way
that folk memory survives
official memory,
is if it has something seeded in it
that resonates
as truer than the official truth.

For example, the histories of
the Roman Emperors remain,
and even those of many Pharaohs,
but I dare say, the stories of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus
have been shared more broadly
and have perhaps been more influential
on subsequent human history
than any emperor or pharaoh.

What Mark wants us to know,
or wanted his peers to know — because
I don’t believe he imagined his papyrus
would be read 2300 years later —
what he wants us to know
is that Jesus was as great as Moses and Elijah.
That is one way to unpack a biblical story
by the way.

We do not have to believe it is a factual rendering
of an actual moment in history
to learn something from it.
Whether it is factual or not, either way
it still holds meaning.

In other words,
the meaning of this story, it’s truth,
has nothing to do
with whether it actually happened or not.

The meaning of this story,
as told by Mark,
is that Mark believed Jesus
was one of the greatest prophets of all time.

Moses and Elijah
are like a digital link that you can you click on
to get to another website.
They link Jesus
to the ultimate authority: God.

The way Mark tells it,
at his baptism
no one hears God tell Jesus
he is “beloved.”
It is a voice Jesus hears
and no one else.

In other words, Jesus’ baptism
is a private spiritual awakening.
In Mark’s Gospel anyway —
Luke and Matthew each modify it a bit.

But zoom ahead to chapter 9 in Mark
and something new happens —
the Transfiguration
which is a different kind of baptism.

Another thing we need to notice
about the Transfiguration
is where it is located in Mark’s larger story.
It falls just before
the last week —
Holy Week we call it.

You see, in Mark,
half of his gospel tells the story
of the last three years of Jesus’ life.
The second half of the gospel
tells the last week.
8 chapters for three years
and 8 chapters for one week.
The Transfiguration is part of the hinge
between those two sagas.

So as we get ready to hear
about the last week of Jesus’ life,
Mark tells us about this event on the mountain
and verifies it with witnesses
so that everybody now knows
Jesus is God’s “Beloved.”

The transfiguration
is Jesus’ coming out party.

But here is something
I have mentioned in the past
when we have had Mark in front of us.
Mark tells us that Jesus is God’s son –
but NOT God’s only son.

In Mark, Jesus is not elevated
at the expense of Moses and Elijah.
When reading Mark
never mind what orthodoxy says about it.
Our earliest gospel
does not say Jesus is God’s only son.
In fact, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel it reads:
”This is the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”

But some of the earliest Greek texts we have
of Mark, omit the whole phrase, “Son of God.”
Those texts begin simply:
”This is the beginning of the Good News
about Jesus Christ.”

You see, in Judaism
a prophet need not be “the only prophet”
in order to be an important presence
or to speak for God.

A prophet,
by nature of being a prophet, voices God.
The emphasis in the Jewish text, I think,
is in discerning true prophets
from false prophets
rather than which is the only prophet.

For a variety of historical reasons
Christianity could not live with this idea
and painted itself into a theological corner
by declaring that Jesus is “the only.”

If he is not “the ONLY son of God”
then he is nothing at all,
the orthodox Church Fathers would declare.

(By the way, this is some of the stuff
the Wednesday Noon Book Zoom
has been laboring through).

But if we unpeel the layers
of Christian interpretation
shellacking this story from Mark,
we can see that Mark’s claim for Jesus
is something less complex:
he is a prophet as great
as Moses and Elijah.
Being Messiah, or Christ,
does not negate that he is a prophet.

And the real intent of this story
from the story-teller’s point of view,
is simply to say, “Hey, listen up –
this guy speaks with authority.
This guy is the real thing.”

That is truth Mark’s Transfiguration story holds —
not whether it really happened or not.
It is a story to tell us
that we need to listen to this guy
because there has never been
anyone greater. He is the real thing.

So I am not plumbing some deep,
profound spiritual wisdom here —
we’re limited to the Lectionary after all.
But it is an important truth
we need to keep front and center
all the time in contemporary
spiritual communities.
We need to be very roomy,
holding orthodox believers
and evangelical believers
and progressively Christian believers
and marginal believers —
and even non-believers.
Who we are and what we are,
from the very beginning of this movement,
has been roomy
and wide-open for all kinds
of believers and non-believers.

In Mark’s story of the Last Supper,
Jesus doesn’t kick Judas out —
he leaves of his own accord.
Jesus doesn’t kick Peter out
for saving his own rear-end.

Jesus doesn’t kick Thomas out
for not believing what his eyes
never saw.

We should be able
to look one another in the eyes —
everyone here, you and me —
and embrace each other
with all the differences in our beliefs
and with all that we do no believe.
Because in the end,
community — spiritual community —
is not about beliefs.
Spiritual community,
Episcopal spiritual community,
is about sharing the gospel
as agents of God’s love,
with whatever capacities we have
and with whatever gifts or limitations
we have to do it.

The depth
and breadth
and size
of our community
is measured by how we love
not what we believe or don’t believe.
How great is our love?
How fierce is our love?
How courageous is our love?
How unbounded is our love?

Those are questions about our hearts
and questions about our spiritual practice.
Beliefs pale in comparison.

That’s the truth of Mark’s story.