Transfiguration: Growing Past Traditions Rev Dr Durrell Watkins How many people grew up with kneeling rails at the front of the worship space? When I was young I assumed there was a theological reason for those rails. Imagine my shock and surprise when I learned that those rails originally served as fences to keep livestock […]
Transfiguration: Growing Past Traditions
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
How many people grew up with kneeling rails at the front of the worship space? When I was young I assumed there was a theological reason for those rails. Imagine my shock and surprise when I learned that those rails originally served as fences to keep livestock away from the altar!
There’s an old story about a devout rabbi who spent three hours every day studying the Torah, the Talmud and saying prayers. His cat, being a cat, was not impressed with his discipline and piety and would walk across his books and papers, throw its tail in his face, bump its head against him and rub against his legs. So that the rabbi could study and pray, he would put the cat outside the house for those three hours.
The rabbi’s son noticed his father’s ritual of study and prayer and the exile of the cat to make it possible. But the rabbi’s son didn’t have three hours a day to devote to study and prayer, so his devotions only took an hour, but to have an hour of uninterrupted time, he, too, would put the cat out for that hour.
The rabbi’s granddaughter, following family tradition, every day, put the cat out. No prayer or study, just put the cat out. The point of the tradition got lost in the observance of the tradition, and the tradition then stopped being useful as a spiritual discipline.
Do you remember that hateful cotton in aspirin bottles? How many times have you fought with that demonic, shapeless bit of cotton, sometimes using tweezers to get it out so you could have access to the painkilling, fever reducing, sometimes lifesaving medication? What sadists devised the nefarious plan to stuff an impenetrable wall of cotton between medication and one in desperate need of it?
Actually, in the beginning, the cotton served a purpose. Aspirin was dry and crumbly and when the tablets rattled around in the bottle during shipping they would break into pieces; so, the cotton was meant to hold the tablets steady so one could take aspirin pills rather than aspirin bits.
Eventually, manufacturers learned to coat the aspirin so that the tablets would break when they were jostled about. But even though the cotton was no longer needed to keep the aspirin from being pulverized, the companies kept stuffing the bottles with cotton. Not only was the cotton useless, it was an added expense; so why continue doing it? An executive at one company was asked that very question, and he said, “No real reason; just tradition I guess.” Today in a world of coated tablets and medicinal gummies, cotton wrestling is less and less part of the medicine taking experience.
You see, the traditions that tend to idolize almost always began as practical events. What at one time was a practical and maybe even ingenious response to a practical need might have been repeated over and over until it became a stylized ritual, but the ritual without the context often becomes empty, superstitious, cumbersome, or even silly, like needless cotton in an aspirin bottle.
The story of the Transfiguration, which always pops up the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, reminds me of the need to let traditions evolve rather than cling mindlessly to them as if they were meaningful in themselves instead of being useful tools that were used at one time to respond to current needs, and that can be adapted and transformed to continue to meet new needs.
In fact, that is exactly what the story of Transfiguration is.
Some scholars believe the strange story was meant to be a resurrection narrative, a post-Easter story and it somehow mistakenly wound up in the middle of Mark’s gospel, and then when Matthew was writing his gospel with Mark’s account in front of him, he simply left the story in the middle rather toward the end. So, that’s an example of how holding to tradition for tradition’s sake can radically alter the point and purpose of the tradition.
But beyond the possible editorial snafu of the Transfiguration story, it is clearly a reworking of a much older narrative, a retelling of an old story in a new way for a new audience to meet a new need.
Queer scholars sometimes apply the Transfiguration story to Transgender realities. Jesus is transfigured, bathed in light so that his friends see more of him, see him as he truly is. He seems different but in reality he is just more himself and is understood a little better by some of his loved ones. Isn’t that the transgender experience? We learn that a transgender friend is more than the gender binaries we try to force on people. We see them in a new light. They may change their name or how they dress or they may even have surgery to alter their appearance but what they are really doing is becoming more obviously who they’ve always been. We are simply seeing more of them than we allowed ourselves to see before.
The same analogy can be made to coming out. When someone we thought was straight tells us they are lesbian or gay, they aren’t becoming something different, they are sharing more of the light of their truth, they are showing us more of who they really are, and they are embracing the message that they are God’s children with whom God is well pleased.
Matthew is shedding a new light, or more light on Jesus, helping his community to think of Jesus, and therefore themselves, in new and larger ways.
You see, Matthew has been subtly suggesting that Jesus is building on Moses’ foundation while making the vision broader and more inclusive, more relevant to a new age.
In chapter 7, Matthew’s Jesus boils down the commandments of Moses, in fact the whole of scripture, to just the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would wish to be treated. He even adds, “THIS is the law and the prophets”…the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets, in other words, this is what the bible is all about. Just don’t be a jerk.
Religious zealots with their fiery passion and faux righteous indignation calling for oppressive and discriminatory laws in Africa and Asia and the Caribbean and the Southern and Southwestern United States never seem to have the Golden Rule as their primary, guiding sacred text. If you wouldn’t want your love demonized, your humanity minimized, and your rights trivialized, then don’t try to do that to others!
When Moses goes up the mountain, he takes three friends: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (Ex 24.1-2).
When Jesus goes up the mountain in today’s story, he takes three friends: Peter, James, & John (Mt 17). Did Jesus really take three friends with him, did he really have a mystical experience on a mountain? Did Moses? Who knows? The point isn’t to prove what happened in the past. The point is that the story of God at work in, through, and as us in an on-going story and so we do well to always retell it and always place ourselves in the story.
When Moses encounters God on the mountain, he enters into a cloud like a devouring fire. And an overwhelming bright cloud shows up in the Transfiguration story.
Moses and his companions see God on the mountaintop. Jesus’ friends hear God on the mountain.
Again, the parallels are probably too close to be anything other than literary invention, but we are looking for truth, not for facts. As the native American storytellers will sometimes say, “I’m not sure that it happened exactly this way, but I am sure that it is absolutely true.” And the truth is that when we go to the mountain, that is, when we spend time in communion with the source of life, and especially when we journey in community, that is, with friends and neighbors, we find new insights, new courage, new hope, new understandings, and we are therefore transformed and we can help transform our world.
Now, Matthew has been having Jesus build on Moses’ legacy all the while. And today, he brings Moses into the story for a cameo appearance, and not just Moses but Elijah, too.
Now remember, Elijah didn’t die (according to legend). He was taken to God in a whirlwind and his spirit rested on his disciple, Elisha to carry on his work. And so tradition said that Elijah, having never died, could return one day to help lead the people to liberation. Matthew transforms the returning prophet myth by saying we don’t need to wait for Elijah to come back, he just did. In a mystical, imaginative way, he returned at the Mount of Transfiguration. He and Moses returned as if to validate Jesus’ mission, and Jesus validates ours, so let’s keep working for hope and healing and justice in the world.
Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, the liberator and the justice worker, have passed the torch in Matthew’s imagination, to Jesus, and we being followers of Jesus continue to carry that torch. We are the children of God with whom God is well pleased. That’s transfiguration, and it leads quite naturally into the Lenten journey.
Tonight we’ll gather for our annual gospel drag revival. If you were planning to go the gospel drag revival at Calvary Chapel or First Baptist I will ask that you come to ours instead. It’s a fun way to gather community, fund ministry, and let people experience a kind of music that they may not hear much anymore but which brings back fond memories for them. It’s also a safe way to get some people into a worship space for the first time in a very long time. So, do come out tonight.
And then Wednesday we’ll gather again for our Ash Wednesday service. On Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our mortality and of our faith that death is not the end of our significance, purpose, or even existence. We won’t focus on sin and sorrow, on guilt and grief, on shame or blame; we won’t call you to give up chocolate or movies or sodas. We will ask you to make Lent a time of growth and renewal; a time of transformation and healing, a time not of denial, but of commitment.
And then we’ll move through our Lenten journey toward Easter. We’ll take the old stories, and we may put a new spin on some of them. We will probably apply them in what are new ways for some people. But that is what a living faith does. That is the path to transformation. That’s the point of transfiguration. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
I am learning to see life in new and exciting ways.
I am learning to let my own light shine more brightly.
I am learning to trust my own goodness.
And I am learning that the past is past and the future has infinite possibilities.
And so it is!