Text: Mark 9:1-9
Tonight is Oscar night. Will it be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, or Slumdog Millionaire that walks home with the coveted Best Picture award? I’m curious to find out. I’ve seen Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt and, of course, Heath Ledger in Batman: The Dark Knight – both men nominated for best supporting actor. I’ve seen Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis, all in Doubt, and up for awards tonight. So, basically, I’ve seen Doubt, and it’s not nominated for best picture. Of the Best Picture nominees, I’ve only seen Milk. I’ve seen the movie about the priest and the movie about the gay guy. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m going to try and avoid making it.
Milk begins with the title character, Harvey Milk, sitting in his kitchen recording a speech that is one half stump speech and one half memoir. He recounts the way his life went from relative obscurity to national renown in less than a decade, as he moved from a middling existence in New York City to San Francisco, where he became known as the “Mayor” of Castro Street for his outspoken defense of the gay community. As he speaks his story into the tape recorder he says, “this is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination.” He knows what is coming.
Harvey Milk goes from a life on anonymity, to one of national prominence as he fights for the civil rights of his community. His personal transformation begins when he comes out, when he begins to accept himself as a person, but it is completed as he finds his life’s meaning in organizing people to reclaim their human dignity. Together they defeat a ballot initiative that would have made it legal to fire school teachers for being gay, and make Milk the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. His victory comes with a price – and because this is a matter of history and not just a movie, I feel comfortable spoiling the ending – Milk is assassinated by his fellow city supervisor, Dan White.
You find eerie moments of self-awareness, like Milk recording his own eulogy, in other transformational leaders as well. Think back to Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, given the night before his own assassination. He says,
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
King, who began his career as a parish pastor, but was quickly recruited into the Civil Rights movement, found his life’s purpose and meaning in the struggle to restore dignity to his community. He gave his life in service of racial and economic equality, and he spoke out against warfare as a means to building a lasting peace. He saw the way the powers and principalities of this world respond to that kind of provocation, and he knew his days were numbered, but his belief in the righteousness of his cause led him to put his calling before his life and the world was transformed as a result.
These are transfiguration stories, stories about lives that take on new shape and meaning – the lives of people and the lives of nations – and they bear in common an understanding that the way to change passes through death. So, it’s not for nothing that many people got worried during the last presidential campaign that the man who is now our president ran on the mantra, “change you can believe in.” It’s not that we have trouble believing in change, it’s that we worry what happens to people who lead it.
Jesus enters into this morning’s scene fresh off a series of miracles. He has fed a multitude of hungry people, he has healed a blind man and then he asks his disciples what the people are saying about him, who they think he is.
They answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
The Messiah, literally meaning “the anointed one.” The one God has chosen to save them, but from what? They were an occupied people living on their own land but under foreign military rule. They were poor and working people, heavily taxed and struggling to make it while a very small wealthy elite lived off the sweat of their backs. They were people stripped of their dignity and worth, and Jesus came challenging the uneasily balance between the might of the Roman army and the accommodations of the religious establishment. He preached a gospel of liberation that told people that faith in God was about more than sacrifices made at the temple, but about relationships with blind and hungry and diseased and hurting people. When he entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized he emerged to hear the voice of God addressing him personally, saying “you are my child, my beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” He left those waters, commissioned by his baptism to make common cause with all God’s children.
Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop is the prototype for all the other transfigurations we have witnessed in our lives, the political ones played out in our national memory and memorialized in film, and the personal moments of calm assurance that we each may experience in our lives when we realize that in order for something new and good to come into the world the former, broken-down systems and relationships will have to die.
For me that moment came on a plane trip from Philadelphia to Iowa as I headed home from my fifth year of seminary for my final approval interview with the synod candidacy committee. I had gone into the process openly gay, and I’d been told that it was unlikely that I would make it through to approval, but there I was five years later with a Master’s degree, a completed internship and half of a thesis written under my belt, still hoping that I might make it through the system.
Then, as I sat on that plane reading, I came across a passage of scripture from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians,
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness…” Eph. 6:10,12
And in that moment it was very clear to me that I was not going to be approved by the church for ordained ministry. Not because of who I am, or even because of who the people on that committee were, but because of the power that these systems of prejudice and oppression have to dictate our place in the world and our relationships to each other through vastly impersonal systems that keep us from treating each other with dignity or respect. And, at the very same moment, I knew that the death of my hope for approval in their process would plant the seed for new life to emerge somewhere else down the line – for me, for them and for the world around us. I was transfigured, the shape of my hopes and dreams was transformed as they journeyed through death into something even greater on the other side.
When Peter confesses to Jesus in the scene that precedes the one we heard today that he believes him to be the messiah, God’s chosen one, Jesus responds by saying,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
The season of Epiphany ends
with the Transfiguration and, in some ways, the season of Lent begins with it. Though, in fact, Lent begin with Ash Wednesday this coming week, at the moment of the Transfiguration the church pivots from asking questions about who Jesus is to questions about what it means to follow him. Ever since Christmas we have listened on as Jesus taught and healed the people around him, healing and blessing people who would go out into the world to become a healing and blessing to others. Now we begin a cycle in which Jesus teaches us something more – that the healing and liberation that come from God are a challenge to the powers of this world. And more, that to challenge the powers of this world leads us, inevitably, to the cross – the place where God’s love changes patterns of death into new ways of life.
Peter and the disciples do not want to learn this lesson. They would rather stay on the mountaintop with Jesus and the memory of prophets from the past, but Jesus does not allow this. The change God is leading, the change you can trust, doesn’t happen in the past. It is always happening here and now. God is always lifting up people and communities here and now. If you are unsure who these people are or where they live, look for the people who are most despised, the ones who are the butt of the joke, the ones at the short end of the stick. Look at those who the world looks away from. See the underpaid hotel workers on strike at the Congress Hotel. Listen to the voices of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who are now living under tarps without clean water in the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza. Look inside yourself, to that place where your own human dignity has been diminished – whether by differences in income or education, skin color or sexuality, age or ability. That is where God in Christ Jesus is working now, here, today to transfigure the world. It is in you and me, it will require teaching and healing so public and so powerful that the world will have to change in order to make room for it. It will engage the powers and principalities of this world in a conversation about change that will, at some point, pass through a cross – a juncture – where something will die so that something new can be born. In you, in us, in the world around us.