February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21
In today’s gospel text, we enter the story of Jesus’ public ministry in the middle of things. John has baptized Jesus, the devil has tempted him, crowds and crowds of people have listened to his words, and he’s healed people who thought they might never be well. Jesus has also called twelve particular people to follow him as he teaches and preaches, healing people in God’s name. The disciples answered his call, following him, listening as he tells multilayered stories, parables that teach lessons but also begin to reveal his true nature. Over and over throughout the gospels they just don’t quite seem to get it, though. This interests me, because responding to a call like Jesus’ call when you don’t really know who this guy is yet is more mind boggling to me than, say, reading these texts centuries later and thinking, okay, yes, this guy triumphs over death, seems worth dropping everything to follow him, to be part of what he’s doing in the world.
But the disciples don’t really have that kind of knowledge yet. He is their rabbi, their teacher, and certainly they know he’s something special. How could they not? They’ve witnessed the healing, they’ve heard him speak. They left their old lives behind to join him. Here in Matthew 17 things become more clear. This chapter sheds some light – literally – on what is to come.
Jesus has already told the disciples what’s ahead, though Peter refused to believe it. And now Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up a mountain side, retreating from the crowds, echoing Moses’ mountain top sojourn in Exodus 24. And lo, Moses himself, along with Elijah, joins them there. At first Peter wants to stay, to build some shelters and set up camp and spend some time here with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Things have been chaotic for Jesus and his disciples, traveling around, followed by crowds. And things will become even more intense in the days to come. The disciples are following Jesus, but they’re still learning who he is, and I think they’re unsettled by what he tells them is on the horizon. This mountain top transfiguration reveals something new to his followers. Some call it the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
“He was transfigured before them,” the text says, “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” This interruption, this revelation, is scary, what with the voice booming from the clouds: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Jesus is glowing, resplendent. His terrified disciples fall to the ground, overcome by their fear. The text continues, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”
Jesus tells the disciples to keep what they’ve seen to themselves until after he’s been raised from the dead, which no doubt confuses them, though they seem to comply. Later, in 2 Peter, this story is retold, an eye-witness account for posterity. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter says, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
This idea of accounts of the transfiguration as a lamp in a dark place resonates with some of what I see going on around us, as do Jesus words of comfort and instruction, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This week the Washington Post unveiled a new motto, “Democracy dies in the dark.” And while theologically I think we’re concerned with something other than mere democracy, I think there’s a resonance here that I hope I can make clear.
I read a novel this weekend, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani author who spent many years living in both New York and London before returning to his home in Lahore. In the novel, a young Pakistani man named Chengez has recently graduated from Princeton and been hired for a highly competitive position in finance. He is living an American dream of sorts at 22, brilliant and successful and dominating his new job. And then the planes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11 and everything changed. Not only how others perceived him, not only his fear for his family back home in Lahore, but also in how he saw himself, the path he was on, what it meant to be working twelve hour days to build a capitalist empire intent on destroying people like him, and his home.
Suffice it to say that this felt like a timely read for many reasons, especially following the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Pakistan last week, which drew little media attention. While our president continues to fight nonexistent boogie men, people are dying. Who has reason to fear whom, when Muslims and people of color in the U.S. who “look” Muslim to some are told to “go home” – or worse, violently attacked, sometimes killed, as happened this week in Kansas. We cannot claim to be a country that values religious freedom. And increasingly it’s clear that for many, faith in God is not stronger than faith in America.
Hamid has this to say about the challenges of moving home to Lahore after his time living abroad:
My faith in this place has, I will admit, been shaken. But my faith in New York was once shaken, when I lived there. My faith in London was once shaken, when I lived there.
I suppose I have learned to live with intermittent faith in a place. I leap from moments when I think, yes, my home will flourish, to others when I think, no, all that awaits is decline. Maybe this ebb and flow is common. Maybe it has more to do with me. Maybe it is the nature of a fiction writer, some fiction writers, to exist suspended between what is and what we desire there to be, unable, in the end, to pick one over the other, to commit to the life, to reality, or otherwise to the dream.
Hamid’s words about his home connected with a lot of what I hear in people’s fears in the U.S. lately. Some of us probably gave up our faith this place we call home a long time ago, if we had any faith in it to begin with. Many more of our friends and neighbors are for the first time struggling to hang on to their beliefs in this thing called America, this empire, this crumbling democracy. Others double down on that dream, claiming alternately that this seeming crisis is making us great again, a return to a past viewed through rose tinted lenses. And still others respond by noting all the ways a nation built on slavery and genocide has never been great, but dreaming that we could be, someday. In Hamid’s novel, after 9/11 Chengez says, “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.”
I wonder now if the dream that is dying needs to die – much as the disciples’ visions for who Jesus is and what he would accomplish died in the time following this mountain top transfiguration. This is not to say we shouldn't resist the current sad excuse for national leadership, but rather that our Christian and particularly Mennonite resistance is to dream, and to live, for something different. To get up, and not be afraid, to resist the current regime not in order to maintain the status quo of the U.S. government and so-called “American” ideals, but to shine light on all the dark places created by human lust for power.
2 Peter says, “no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Would that we might also be so moved by that Spirit. We'll enter Lent later this week, the journey toward Good Friday followed by Easter morning alleluias. The world will turn. But it does not turn on the transfer of human power – peaceful or not – in the US, or anywhere else. In revealing himself on the mountaintop, Jesus' otherness is obvious. He is not the leader we expect or even want, at times. What sort of world does that usher in?
Hamid wrote of existing “suspended between what is and what we desire there to be,” and that is precisely the story that narrates our lives together, as followers of Christ – an imperfect past, an uncertain present, a future we have yet to grasp.