Mark 9: 2-13, NRSV
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
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. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Then they asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He said to them, ‘Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.’
Preached Sunday, February 11, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
Sermon: We’ve Only Just Begun
Date: February 11, 2018
Scripture: Mark 9:2-13
When I was first figuring out that I was gay—spoiler alert—the internet was in its infancy. That’s to say that all I knew about being gay was what I learned while trolling the the half a shelf of books in the local borders while my parents were in Sears. It was my first burgeoning sense of community—that there were others out there like me. I devoured anything that had to with the history of my community. I learned about the Stonewall Riots and the courage of some drag queens who’d had enough of being raided and having their safe place, their sanctuary, violated. I learned the AIDS epidemic—when we lost an entire generation of gay men.
And I learned about art, about Keith Haring, who’s bold lines and colors embodied the fear of that AIDS generation, and I listened to the heartbreak in Judy Garland’s voice—not the early years, but the late ones—and began to understand why so many in the gay community identified with her. And, as cliche as it is, I was introduced to the Carpenters, specifically Karen, and what is arguably the single greatest voice ever recorded.
Now, I’ll confess that the only reason I began to learn about those artists or that history was because a book told me to. I was so desperate to be part of something bigger, to not be alone, that I dove head first into it all. So, I convinced my parents to buy The Carpenters Gold. How it was a surprise to them, I’ll never know. The Carpenters Gold had 40 of their greatest hits, starting when Karen was in her teens and leading up to her untimely death. This is how talented she is: when she 17 she recorded California Dreamin’ and, at one point, an entire octave in a way that can only be described as “like buttah.” It’s hard enough for experienced performers to do, much less at 17 year old just beginning. Listen.
PLAY CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ FROM 0-52 SECONDS
Man, She’s good. Anyway, all of this to say that I LOVE the Carpenters—like my adoration for them cannot be understated. So I’m sure you’ll understand, then, how excited I was when I heard them while riding in the back of a minibus up Mt. Tabor in Israel last week.
Now, when we’re traveling in the Holy Land, we go from historic site to holy site in a coach that is just our group. Usually, we’re able to get pretty close to whatever place we’re going to see next, but this year, on the day we headed to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, we added an extra stop. This year we Greg and I decided that we wanted to see Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
The mountain—and it’s a mountain—rises abruptly from the Jezreel Valley below. You can’t miss it. Early pilgrims, would climb more than 4,000 steps to get to the top—to the place tradition holds that Jesus was transfigured. But today, instead of that nightmare climb, tourists and pilgrims like us pile into minibuses and head up a series of terrifying switchbacks until you finally reach the peak.
So that’s what we did, ten of us in this van, sitting nearly on top of each other, pulled out from the bus stop about halfway up the mountain in the the village of Shibli and headed up the mountain. And I don’t just mean gently tootled up the quaint hillside. I mean flew up that mountainside like a bat outta hell. I swear we took some of those turns on two wheels. On the bright side, I prayed a lot—which I guess is the point of a pilgrimage.
Right as we made one of the early turns, right during one of my “dear God” prayers, who came on the radio? The Carpenters. But not just any song by the Carpenters. But the one that might just be their most known, if not my favorite: We’ve Only Just Begun.
Now, let me tell you something. I know that song was sung or played at countless weddings. Probably many of yours. And I’m certain that in that context, it was incredibly meaningful—a beautiful start to a lifelong journey.
But let me tell you when it stops being a beautiful, meaningful, weepy love song—when you’re tearing up the side of Mount Tabor praying you make it to the top in one piece. THAT is when you don’t want to be reminded that you’ve only just begun.
To calm our nerves we all, as a group, sang along—both tickled by the song’s random appearance in that little van and desperate for a distraction. And when we finally made it to the top and stepped out of the bus what we were greeted with was stillness—a holy stillness.
I wonder if it might’ve been the same for Jesus and his disciples at his transfiguration. We jumped ahead of this moment a few weeks back during our Year of Mark. I was trying to align some of Mark’s passages with the days in the church year that commemorate those passages—so we plowed ahead into Mark 10 and now we’re back to Mark 9 for a Sunday and back to a story that we know must be significant but rarely can figure out why.
The Transfiguration of Jesus has long baffled preachers because, really, the gospels don’t give us much to go on. The share with us some basic details of the account—which disciples were there, which patriarchs of our faith those disciples saw, and how Jesus was lifted up and made shining white.
On past Transfiguration Sundays, I’ve talked to you about Mountaintop experiences—about how, when we’ve witnessed something remarkable or beautiful, our temptation is to want to hold on to it, to stay with it much like Peter tries to when he offers to make dwellings or tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah so that the moment wouldn’t end.
Other years, we’ve focused why Moses and Elijah were there in the first place—a detail that is best understood is Jesus’ statement that he didn’t come to replace the law or the prophets, but that his teachings all hang on the law, represented by Moses here, and the prophets, who we see represented by Elijah.
But another we could understand this complex story is through our own transfiguration. But in order to do that, we need to figure out what transfiguration is, what it means to be transfigured. And while that’s a complicated definition to write, I think it’s easiest to say it this way: Being transfigured is being transformed into something better.
If we take Jesus’ insight that his teachings hang on the law and the prophets as true, his transfiguration is a turning point. For Jesus, it’s a moment when his purpose and his journey to the cross begins, a place where his purpose and his ministry intersect. And in the gospel of Mark, the transfiguration is a literary turning point. For eight chapters, we follow Jesus and learn from him. And, starting with chapter nine, everything Jesus does and everything we learn from him is in the shadow of Calvary and the cross. One could say, that despite being eight chapters into this story, we’ve only just begun—the story of Jesus has only just begun.
In the church, we talk about the dual natures of Christ—that Christ is both fully divine and fully human which is mind-boggling when you really think about it, but there it is. And the transfiguration is when Jesus more fully becomes Christ. Now, before you burn me at the stake for heresy, let me say I believe Jesus always was Christ. But I know the human side of him had to reckon with that Divine reality. And this story of Jesus on a mountaintop is that reckoning.
The Mount of Transfiguration makes more sense when you compare it to the hill of Calvary. Here, Jesus is lifted up by Divine power, clothed in bright white, holiness radiating from him. There, he’s lifted up by humanity on a cross, naked, bleeding and broken. For the story of our faith to work, we must encounter and reckon with both—not one, as entrancing as it is, or the other, as excruciating as it is.
But here’s the thing: transfiguration isn’t just for Jesus. And neither is the cross—but we’ll get into that more during the upcoming season of Lent. But for now, let’s stay on top of the Mount of Transfiguration. Our humanity is a journey in uncovering and discovering who we are. And that while few of us have mountaintop moments of clarity in that journey, we each, as we live, can transfigure—that is, become better versions of ourselves.
For me, coming out as gay when I was 15 was a transfiguration moment—a moment when I became more fully myself by telling the truth about who I am. In a way, it was a moment when my life began.
Sometimes our transfiguration begins with scouring the shelves at the bookstore, sometimes it’s telling the truth about who we are. Sometimes it’s dreaming big or starting your morning with poetry or making more time for your kids. Rarely is it as obvious as bright white clothes and floating saviors, but that doesn’t negate its impact. You might not levitate like Jesus or the Beast at the end of the animated Disney classic Beauty and the Beast, which truthfully is how I’ve always thought of this story—with rays of light coming out of Jesus’ fingertips and glitter.
There’s always time for mountaintop, transfiguration moments—moments when you realize that despite what you’e been through or what has hurt you or what you haven’t understood or can’t understand—that there’s still time to strive harder, to open yourself to God’s work in your life, and make room for God’s grace. Whether you’re 20 or 30 or 50 or 70—anytime is the right time and any place—mountaintop or valley, bookstores or the Holy Land or Killingly—is the right place to give yourself the grace to start again, to realize we’re in this life together, and to thank God that we’ve only just begun.