February 11, 2024
Text: Mark 9:2-9
Today we are celebrating Transfiguration Sunday, the hinge between Epiphany and Lent, between birth and death. As we just heard, Jesus is glorified (or transfigured) and the vision is shared by his closest disciples. Not only is Jesus filled with divine power before the eyes of his disciples, but the disciples are also changed by their experience. Perhaps we can say that Transfiguration marks the baptism of communal consciousness for the body of the Risen Christ, even though Jesus has not yet been crucified.
We know the basic elements of the story. Jesus takes his key disciples, Peter, James and John, on a mountain retreat for extended prayer. Suddenly they see Jesus in a dazzling cloud along with Moses and Elijah, prophets from their ancient Hebrew tradition. Terrified by this encounter with the Holy One, Peter blurts out his wish to build a booth – to box their experience and keep it holy, shielded from the needy crowds below.
Then the cloud expands to include all three disciples, giving them a direct encounter with the Living God. Including Moses and Elijah brings their past into the present in a powerfully mysterious way.
When the vision fades, they hear a voice of blessing for Jesus as “My son, the Beloved” along with the admonition: “Listen to him.” We have heard these words before, at the time of Jesus’ baptism by John. This time however, the baptism includes those who will carry Jesus’ charism into the future.
What Jesus says next sounds puzzling: “Tell nobody what you have seen.” To me, that means they must SHOW people how they have been changed, not just talk about it.
All three synoptic gospels include this transfiguration encounter. The dazzling cloud recalls the story of Moses on Mt Sinai in Exodus 24, when he spent forty days and nights enclosed in a cloud as he received the ten commandments, their guidelines for a divinely-ordained community. Seeing Moses there with Jesus bridges time and space, anointing Jesus as one who can lead his followers from slavery to freedom.
And in our Hebrew Testament reading, we just heard the story of Elijah’s miraculous death in which he is whisked away in a fiery chariot, leaving a double-portion of his power with Elisha. Seeing Moses and Elijah with Jesus is a numinous vision of divine presence. It’s a spiritual baptism shared in community.
As Matthew tells this story, the disciples are terrified and fall to the ground. Then Jesus tells them “Get up, and do not be afraid.” The version that we heard today, from the gospel of Mark, does not include those words – but it’s something I think we all need to hear in moments of shared revelation: “Get up, and do not be afraid.” Their experience is meant to be shared as action.
During the season of Epiphany, we opened worship with this quotation from retired Episcopal Bishop, Rev. Steven Charleston, who is also a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma:
I stand in the midst of these dark times to make a profession of faith. I am a witness to the truth that no darkness, no illness, no death can overcome the light of life and love that exists within each one of us. No darkness will contain that power. Trust what is within you, and then wait quietly for the stars to begin to sing.
Intrigued by Bishop Charleston’s words, I listened to a podcast by him and was struck by his humility and his theology, which seemed very close to the creation-centered theology that we share here at Seekers. Curious to know more, I ordered his book, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus. As you might guess, the first of those four vision quests is Jesus’ time in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. But the second vision quest was something of a surprise. It is the transfiguration story.
As a Native American, Charleston contrasts the Hopi story of creation and their particular charism of cosmic balance and renewal with the Christian doctrine of sin and salvation which was preached by Christian missionaries as they tried to convert the Hopis (without much success I must add).
I cannot do justice to Bishop Charleston’s elegant prose, but I will try to summarize his interpretation of the Hopi cosmology as an expression of the transfiguration story.
You probably know that the Hopis are pueblo-dwellers who occupy a small mountainous area surrounded by Navajo land in the Southwest. Long before Spanish friars arrived in the 1600s, the Hopi people were given a dazzling vision of creation as an intricate web of relationships that includes everything: rocks, trees, water, animals, stars and human beings. They held a creation-centered vision of the universe that scientists are only now beginning to describe as a web of quantum energies in a field of gravitational forces.
Charleston writes that the Hopis “envisioned the earth as a sphere and in their symbolism placed twin brothers at the “top” and “bottom,” mythic figures who helped to hold the planet in equilibrium,” just as the North and South poles maintain the earth’s spin and seasonal tipping.
Hopis believe that vision came from the very mind of God and they understand their rituals and prayers as a life-giving force in the cosmos, not simply religious practices for personal or tribal well-being. The Hopis therefore rejected Christian beliefs about sin, salvation and eternal punishment because their cosmology was bigger and more complex than pleasing a punitive god. For them, punishment for aberrant behavior by humans would be exile from the community, not condemnation to hell, and their work would always focus on restoration because they believe one could not be a full human being apart from the community. To this day, the Hopis are known as peacemakers based on their cosmic vision.
Charleston also notes Peter’s impulsive wish to contain the transfiguration experience as the stance of colonial rulers. He says, “From a Native American reading of the second vision quest, the mistake of Peter is the mistake of the Spanish friars. They believed they could build a box to contain the power of God and use it for their own ends.” The Hopis quietly resisted, even to their death.
As I read Bishop Charleston’s account of the transfiguration, I kept thinking of Seekers and the transformative vision that gave birth to this community.
Like the Hopis, part of our spiritual DNA is direct experience of God through silence and meditation. We value organic community based on call and commitment, with shared leadership and no single authority figure. Like the Hopis, we have a version of the twin polarities to hold our life together in balance. From the beginning, Seekers honored male and female leadership in our worship to symbolize the whole image of God. And while we do not worship in an underground circular kiva, I frequently have the sense of our wholeness as a community when we stand in a circle for communion.
The big difference between our worldview and that of the Hopis is that we come out of a culture of extreme individualism. We hardly know how to be one body of Christ, how to BE community. Instead, Seekers emphasize individual call to collective action. In our dominant culture of strident individualism, Seekers aim to live the transfiguration vision of a conscious community, not some boxed and isolated vision of holiness tucked away for special occasions. We do seek to embrace a way of living with the trials and temptations of daily life that will include respect for all parts of creation, knowing that this inclusive commitment is the work of a lifetime and beyond.
Nourished by the radical notion that every one of us is called to the inward/outward journey as a member of Christ’s body, ministry in daily life became our mantra and we try to support that purpose in worship, with classes in the school, and in the different ways that we encourage personal connections – to become a healthy body of Christ here and now.
Now I wonder how WE could experience a collective spiritual baptism, perhaps at the mission group level? Would it happen by making an intentional vision quest together? Or simply by going on retreat together? Too often we get busy with our tasks and forget how to listen for the Spirit together. I’d like to see us continue to develop our capacity for inner work, and to see that impact our common life together as well as our actions in the consumer world that we live in.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, let me close with these words from Bishop Steven Charleston:
“Jesus appears in his second vision quest as the pure power of the divine come to Earth. He personifies transfiguration because he embodies the full force of God’s creative energy in one place at one time. Like the Hopi spiritual understanding, he shows us that we are dealing with forces far beyond our control. The power of Jesus, the energy of God in the world, can work wonders, transforming life, but if we misunderstand it, if we seek to misuse it, it can bring disaster on us.”
I’m eager to be part of our journey together, particularly during this eventful transition year in our public life. I hope we can remind each other of what Jesus said to his disciples, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
May it be so. Amen.