Date: February 11, 2018
Bible Text: Mark 9:2–10 | Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. —Mark 9:4
Apa Sherpa is his name; the world record holder for number of times climbing Mt. Everest. But then, Apa Sherpa beat his own world record again in 2013, summiting Mt. Everest for the 21st time. Maybe it’s been done before, in some distant past, but no one in recorded history has ever ascended 21 times to the top of this Sanskrit “Peak of Heaven.” Mt. Everest is the highest mountain peak in the world and life near the peak is an impressive picture of mother nature’s strength, where the air grows thin and the shifting, changing ice has the potential to send ice boulders avalanching down. Just like any football team trying to play mile-high Denver, Apa Sherpa does have some biological advantages, having grown up in the high altitudes with low oxygen, but his whole life, he lived close to the edge. At the age of three months, he and his mother were caught in an avalanche and he was thrown from the basket on his mother’s back and came to rest under an ice bridge, safe in a cleft of the mountain.
Jesus’ Transfiguration happens, too, in the cleft of a high mountain, set apart from the rest of the world. The highest mountain in Jesus’ topography was Mt. Hermon whose highest peak is 10,000 feet, while Mt. Everest is three times that, at almost 30,000 feet. There is snow on Mt. Hermon in Israel, enough for skiing, but nothing like Apa Sherpa’s home town. Nevertheless, nothing can prepare your body for the thin mountain air, other than actually being there. Even at 10,000 feet, the oxygen content is markedly different: the sunshine, wind, and extreme temperatures can each cause burns on your skin.
At the same elevation as Aspen, hiking Mt. Hermon in Israel would require high calorie foods and plenty of water, and your average American would have to go through months of extreme strength training to make it to the top. A first century Palestinian might be more accustomed to the daily rigors of travel—with no motor vehicles, most people walked from town to town without any trouble—but getting to this place of Jesus’ Transfiguration was likely no walk in the park. So, it is here, out of breath, and a bit dusty from the climb, that his disciples gathered with Jesus on a high mountain, set apart. There, Jesus transfigured before his disciple’s eyes.
Listen with holy attention, for God’s presence in this reading from scripture.
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 anymore, 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.
A kid once prayed, “Dear God, please add another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There’s nothing good happening here. Amen.” Yes, there’s Valentine’s Day, a useless holiday for a kid beyond the candy, but besides that, she’s right—we need another holiday. There’s Ash Wednesday, too, another less sparkly holiday to a kid, one that probably passed her by without notice. But what about Mardi Gras? Maybe God answers prayers!
Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Paczki Day: believe me, it has many names, but the message is the same: eat, drink, and be merry, and do it while you can, for tomorrow, everything changes. Today, we party. Tomorrow, we tune our hearts to a different song. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is already underway—as of last night, there were already 50,000+ posts tagged #MardiGras2018. And, I can only imagine that here in Chicago, the Polish bakers have their pantries full of flour, butter, and sugar in anticipation of the hundreds of thousands of paczkis that will be sold in Chicago alone on Tuesday, filling up office break rooms across the city.
The juxtaposition of Mardi Gras alongside Ash Wednesday is purposefully unsettling—meant to agitate and alarm, open up your senses to the spiritual possibilities of excess and absence. Eat all the sweets you want today, but tomorrow, give them up and live in longing for 40 days.
Today’s text puts a finer point on it. The transfiguration stresses luminescence, brightness, sparkly glittery radiant light, while Ash Wednesday dwells in the dust, the ash, the smudged forehead and the preciousness of this fleshly existence: the thin air of the transfiguration seems all the more solitary against the thick earthy rich commonness of Ash Wednesday. Today, one attends to the possibilities of sacred light beyond sacred light, Wednesday, one attends to the possibilities of mortal life near as your beating heart. Maybe this child’s prayer is an Ash Wednesday prayer: “Dear God, I wish you would make it less easy for people to come apart. Today I had three stitches. Amen.”
In some traditions, this Last Sunday Before Lent is the Sunday of Holy Laughter. It is a Sunday set apart for the celebration of silliness, because the season of Lent brings in something not quite somber, but certainly more sober and restrained. Some churches even retire the word Alleluia during the season of Lent—one year, we wrote the word Alleluia on a huge piece of paper and with the kids, we folded it up and kept it in a box until Easter—so that on Easter Sunday our Alleluias would be that much more precious, more beloved, and tender. We’re supposed to feel the turning of the season, the new spirit of Lent falling upon us, and so we mark the occasion with laughter and sweet treats.
But, to be honest, there’s also something earthy about today’s text, as if it is calling out toward Ash Wednesday saying, “bring me along.” The mountain climbing with Jesus is both divine and dusty, despite its one note legacy of brilliant light.
Admittedly, it reads like a Tide commercial—his clothes became dazzlingly bright, such that no launderer on earth could bleach them. Tide would take credit for Jesus’ clean clothes if they could.
But, the disciple’s muddy boots and dusty clothes don’t sparkle. In fact, as soon as Peter opens his mouth to speak—some foolishness about wanting to stay up there—a cloud overshadowed them. Jesus is transfigured into dazzling brightness, but the disciples are covered in the dark luminescence of the cloud.
This word “overshadowed” is only used one other time in the gospel—when the Angel Gabriel meets Mary to tell her she is with child. The cloud is holy. Divine. The Holy Spirit is present, there on that mountain, in an incarnational way, in a way powerful enough to bring something from nothing, to make holy the lowly, to foster life in unexpected places.
Peter thinks he’s seen the thing he’s been ushered up the mountain top to see—he thinks that Moses and Elijah are the end of the show. Out of fear and trembling, he opens his mouth to suggest—let’s stay here, I’ll build you a beautiful dwelling place, your holy presence is important and should be preserved, maybe, or honored, maybe, or boxed in, maybe. Is he hoping to box in the divine? He doesn't know what he’s saying. He’s afraid. But then—a cloud overshadowed them. And God’s presence brought heaven down to earth, or maybe earth was elevated into heaven.
And, as has happened other times in scripture, a voice spoke from the cloud. And, as had happened other times in Jesus’ journey, the voice said, “This is my Son, my beloved.” And, this time, the voice added, “listen to him.” Have you ever seen a photo taken from a mountain top, where the clouds are actually below, not above? Or, have you ever taken such a photo? A cloud like that enveloped them.
And, as suddenly as it happened, it was over. The moment past. There was no going back.
The disciples looked around, and it was only Jesus. Jesus who told them, “keep this to yourselves,” as if to suggest that no one would believe them, or no one would understand, or no one would benefit from this second-hand account. “Keep this to yourselves,” Jesus seems to say to them, “Until later. Later, you can tell people about this holy encounter. For now, hold it in your hearts. Ponder it. Let it work on you. Let it settle into you, so that you are changed.”
From then on, Peter, James, and John were the only ones who knew what really happened that day. They were the only ones who really knew what it was like. They were the only ones whose eyes had seen the mystery of Jesus’ clothes, who could see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, who could feel the fear of not knowing, who could remember the shadow passing over the mountain top, could remember the suddenness with which it was all over.
Okay, that’s enough about the scripture passage. Here’s where I connect to this story on a personal level—Peter, James, and John become a community of commonality. By that, I mean, they understand each other. They know what it’s like. They get it.
I need my communities of commonality. Jerry Seinfeld, on his show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee says when he’s in a crowded room in Hollywood, he can’t help but gravitate toward the other comedians. He seeks them out. He looks across the crowd until he finds them. He needs them. He doesn’t know how to be without them. They are his community of commonality.
Clergy are my community of commonality. Or, this year, I was welcomed into motherhood, into this new unexpectedly accessible community of commonality. This summer, if you watched the total eclipse, seeing the sun disappear in the middle of the day, you and I are part of a community of commonality. If you have ever put on a beekeeping suit and stood among the buzzing bees as they go in and out of the hive, you and I are part of a community of commonality.
Kate Bowler, a theologian, became part of an unexpected community of commonality this year when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She spent her career studying the prosperity gospel, the “quintessentially American” belief that God rewards the right kind of faith—and that if you are suffering, you must have done something wrong. She wrote a book in response that was just published called “Everything happens for a reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read it: just the excerpt I read was devastatingly emotional, beautifully written, evocative, drawing you in, but with tears in your eyes. Maybe you are brave enough to shoulder the beauty and grief of the book—if so, let me know, fill me in. But, what she said when she first found out she had terminal cancer was, “God, that’s ironic.” She wrote the book because she noticed the second she got sick that she was flooded with the same kinds of questions and hopes that she had been watching other prosperity believers have for the last ten years. She thought, “Wow, what a basic human quality, to want a guarantee, to want God to reach down and make a little exception just for you.” “Maybe I’ve had my own prosperity gospel all along,” she said. She entered into a community of commonality that she never expected to join.
From an interview with Kate Bowler, her terminal diagnosis taught her that “the basic thing is not all pain has to be explained. I wish, she says, people would just, like, take a breath, notice the person in front of them, and realize that it’s probably a hard day and maybe they just want to talk about “The Bachelor.” It’s a good season.”
Maybe you are part of this community of commonality, of terminal diagnosis or hard days that end with a good TV show. Or long days that you just don’t have the energy to talk about. Or the community of commonality that knows divorce or chronic illness or chronic pain or the hardship of watching your child suffer or the wild ride of homelessness or the death of a parent. Maybe you haven’t yet found your community of commonality, and you are searching, watching, looking, to find that spark, that knowing look, that piece of understanding, where someone understands what you are going through and what it’s like to see the world through these new eyes, to be hurt by small things that no one else notices, or to understand something so deeply that no one else understands.
That is what I learned this week from the story of the Transfiguration today. That Peter, James, and John, up there on that mountain top, join this small community of commonality, these people who understand the vastness of God’s love, the one who calls Jesus beloved, and who take that with them down the mountain side, and, without words, spread that love to those who, too, are seeking their own connections to God and to one another, to those who are seeking a community of commonality. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.
 Apa Sherpa Foundation, https://apasherpafoundation.org/apa-bio accessed February 10, 2017.
 Excerpt, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Kate Bowler. https://www.faithandleadership.com/excerpt-everything-happens-reason-and-other-lies-ive-loved Accessed February 6, 2017.
 Faith and Leadership. Kate Bowler. Not all pain needs to be explained. https://www.faithandleadership.com/kate-bowler-not-all-pain-has-be-explained Accessed February 6, 2017.