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The Worry and the Wonder

February 16, 2015

“The Worry and the Wonder” Mark 9:2-13 © 2.15.15 Transfiguration B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I suspect every church has somewhere that out-of-date Sunday school curriculum is left to languish unread and unused. In my former pastorate in Alabama, that place was a lovely antique bookcase with etched glass doors from the estate of a matriarch. At least if the 1960s booklets and King James Bibles were expected to retire from service, they had a nice home to live in.

One day I was at the church, probably after rehearsing a sermon, and decided to look through the old materials. I ran across a book from the Covenant Life Curriculum designed for youth and young adults who were navigating the sometimes perilous waters of growing up. It was called The Worry and Wonder of Being Human.

I liked the title and made a note of it. And now all these years later, it puts into a nutshell the twin themes of the morning’s gospel reading. On the one hand, Mark assures us that the experience of transcendence, of wonder, is open to human beings. There are those moments when we sense God’s presence strongly and acutely. We long for something to give us hope in the midst of trouble, and we’re blessed with an unforgettable and surprising revelation. As someone has put it: “Pure bliss is nearly impossible to describe.  And, though we are urged to follow our bliss, it’s hard to imagine what bliss would be, except an answer to our inarticulate longings.  Perhaps that is why, in stories, transfiguring moments arrive as unexpected joy.  We cannot, after all, make them happen, but when they occur, we never, ever, forget them” (Nancy Rockwell, “Transfiguration,” http://biteintheapple.com/).

Our natural tendency is to want to capture and savor such experiences. Peter tries to pin down Jesus right there and then, along with the two other heroes of the faith. He wants certainty, things staying as they are, understandable, holding still for study.

There are definitely aspects of life in which we need and can have certainty, precise and clear answers, a step-by-step plan. We expect the surgeon to be sure which knee or hip is to be replaced. We would prefer that evidence lead to a verdict beyond reasonable doubt. We want to be clear up front about the cost of the repairs we’re about to make or the home we’re thinking of buying, the terms and conditions of the contract, the distance from point A to point B so we make sure we have time to get there for an appointment.

But certainty is not the goal of the growing and rich spiritual life. Creeds and confessions, even the Bible itself, are guides to such growth, means to an end. But they should not and cannot become tombs in which Truth is interred for all time, to be venerated by occasional visits. To know everything with certainty is the enemy of the human spirit, as someone has said. It should be clear that every form of religion that wants to build permanent booths for the holy in fact has no clue what the holy is about.

Mark puts it well: “Peter didn’t know what he was saying.” A commentator observes: “…here in the middle of the gospel, we find the tension between the vision that the movement stands for, and the tendency to reduce that vision and movement to an institution. Peter’s attempt to nail the movement down to a particular time and place voices our constant propensity to turn Jesus the person into Jesus the business model. Mark’s response to that impetus is clear, “Peter didn’t really know what he was talking about.” A living movement cannot be captured in one snapshot moment. A living movement lives from one moment to the next. The moment it gets nailed down is the moment it starts to die. Thus, it’s at the moment Peter proposes turning the movement into a building that the dark cloud appears. It’s the same darkness that covers the sky at the cross” (Caspar Green, “Peter’s Failed Business Plan,” http://scarletletterbible.com/transfiguration/).

Instead of a monument in a museum, a movement mortified, it’s Mystery, writ large and engaged daily, that enriches our spirits and teaches us about life in God’s world. Approaching life as a mystery keeps us vital, interested, and interesting.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said to a young protégé: “I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet).

More recently, the late scholar Marcus Borg was asked during a question-and-answer time after a seminar: “But how do you know that you’re right?” Borg responded: “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right” (The Christian Century, February 18, 2015: 15).

That teacher was wise, and we would do well to emulate him. As the classic song says: “If I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know.” So let’s not claim to know. Let us instead keep searching for answers, delighting in the journey. Maybe we could approach each day like my dog does my back yard. She’s seen it all before, but she walks the fence line and sniffs and explores because you never know, something new and intriguing might have disturbed a blade of grass or hidden under a bush.

But if Mark celebrates the wonder around us, the opportunities we have to transcend the tiresome and the hurtful and bask in the presence of the holy, he is also aware that human life is full of worry, anxiety, and confusion, like the teen trying to figure out those new feelings for someone who was previously just a friend or the young adult struggling to decide what career is the right one. All too fleeting are the moments of transcendence, of rising above the world and its cares, the experience of extraordinary insight and fresh vision. “Swiftly pass the clouds of glory,” as the hymn writer reminds us. Human beings are subject to suffering and sorrow, and none of us can escape death. The mystic and the intuitive give way to the ordinary and the messy, trying to make sense out of life and maybe just getting by.

If Mark had left Jesus on the mountain, we might despair. What help is a emotionless, silent, passive Jesus to us, no matter how brightly he shines or how amazed we are? What can an untouchable being transfigured in glory possibly have to do with us?

In the gospel stories before the mountaintop scene, Jesus has been marvelously human. He’s felt pity, anger, hunger, and weariness. He has helped his disciples as they rowed against an overpowering wind. But here, our Lord is pure deity.

There were some in Mark’s day who would not have been troubled in the least by an aloof Jesus shining beyond human comprehension. For them, the point of being a Christian was escaping this life and going to heaven. They longed to shed the burdens of the flesh and ascend the heights of glory where they would dwell forever free from troubles.

We well know that there are still plenty such believers. Christian witness is not about transforming society by doing justice or showing compassion. Rather, it’s about saving souls, getting decisions for Jesus so that sinners (always someone else) can have eternal life. The hungry or battered body matters little, the education of the mind pales in importance next to the obedience of the spirit. A faith consumed with getting people to heaven will not be worried about the environment or equality or housing. It won’t care much about enriching the lives of people through the arts, literature or music if those media don’t explicitly proclaim Jesus as Savior. As Walter Brueggemann put it in one of his earliest books, believers in this mold are “religious despisers of culture” (In Man We Trust).

Yet Mark doesn’t leave Jesus on the mountain. Our Lord comes down. Yes, heaven and eternal life are important, and we rejoice in the promise of them. But the gospel writer wants us to know that we don’t need to wait until we die for our lives to be transfigured, for the presence of the holy to shine forth in our midst. In our worry, our Lord is known as well.

Yes, the pure Jesus, the shining, perfect Jesus comes down from the mount. He accepts the limits of humanity. In fact, the glory of Christ can only be understood in hindsight, in light of his suffering, death, and resurrection. That’s why Jesus didn’t want his disciples to tell anyone about their experience until after he had risen from the dead. The glory of God’s Messiah is not so much in his removed aloofness as two great saints talk with him as in his humble death on a cross where he’s treated with contempt and speaks with two thieves.

Mark urges his readers in every age to find the signs of God’s glory in this world. There is new life here. Wherever people find enrichment and not threat in difference, there is the transcendent Christ. When new insight on an old question is found and accepted, there is the Spirit bathing us in light. When suffering is turned into blessing, there is our experience transfigured.

The late Shirley Guthrie was one of the last century’s foremost Presbyterian thinkers. He once wrote that “the transcendent God…is hidden in the world, in unpleasant as well as pleasant human encounters, among the weak and suffering, where humanizing change is taking place” (source unknown). And Ben Johnson, one of my professors at Columbia Seminary back in the day, said much the same: “Once we meet Jesus, we must move beyond that initial encounter to discover him at work in the world. If we refuse, the original meeting place—the church—becomes empty and desolate, and the only way that this place can remain his sanctuary for us, is to meet him elsewhere” (Experiencing Commitment).

Reflecting on the disciples’ experience on the mountain, Tom Troeger gives us a prayer for the upcoming season of Lent and indeed every day as we long to know how we may meet the transfigured and transfiguring Christ: “Glimpsed and gone the revelation, they shall gain and keep his truth, not by building on the mountain any shrine or sacred booth, but by following the Savior through the valley to the cross and by testing faith’s resilience through betrayal, pain, and loss. Lord, transfigure our perception with the purest light that shines, and recast our life’s intentions to the shape of your designs, till we seek no other glory than what lies past Calvary’s hill and our living and our dying and our rising by your will” (“Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory,” 1985).

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