Blogging Towards Sunday, March 4th
This past week our neighbors were robbed. An occurrence that’s all too common in our city of Oakland. I was most likely home, being dropped off by the car repair shop shuttle. Odds are that I scared off the robbers, who left without the TV that they’d unplugged from the wall, while I chummed it up with the driver. It’s not all that uncommon, as I’ve said; but I’d just spent the 20 minutes in the shuttle ride talking with another passenger, who lives in a less “edgy” and that’s not urbanite for “cool”, area of town than I do. Her concerns were all about burglaries, violent crimes, with the fear of living in the city. She saw true – but only part of what is.
Oaklanders seem to take pride in the grit. Isn’t that why Oaklandish is so successful? If you live in a dirty, tough town, it’s better to take pride in surviving it than to be paralyzed by shame for staying there. For many of us, the city, and maybe Oakland in particular, is one of the last places to come to mind (if it comes to mind at all) when we think about where we encounter God in our lives or find spiritual renewal. Instead, our minds wander to more peaceful and serene settings outside the hurried and complex life of the city: the mountains, the desert, parks, the ocean beach-side, silent retreat houses in the redwood forests of the North Bay.
There is a reason that most of our retreat centers are in Marin, Sonoma and the Santa Cruz mountains. How can we expect to encounter God in the midst of the crime, graffiti, incessant noise, hustle and bustle, and light. To survive in the city you have to be aggressive, not depending upon anyone else, taking what you can, rather than waiting for what you get. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what we all would call the Divine? This week’s passage is about encountering the Divine on a mountain top, and yet that divine presence doesn’t reside there, but goes with the characters in the story (and us by extension) into all the places that we work, live and rest.
Our gospel text for the week wrestles with what we call experiencing God – or having a God-moment. The scriptures talk inter-textually [as in conversations between different biblical texts] about the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top, echoing back to the experience of Moses encountering God on the top of Mount Sinai as he received the 10 commandments [Exodus 24]. There is a repetition of the presence of a cloud, a voice, the mountain top as holy and sacred as opposed to the mundane place of the people. Theologians talk of epiphanies [revelation] and theophanies [God revealing himself] in this encounter of Jesus who is transformed before the eyes of his best friends: Peter, James and John. They suddenly see him as a divine being, powerful, with spiritual authority, radiant in wisdom and power.
In Biblical (or inter-textual) language this story of the mountain top is saying that Jesus is greater than either Moses or Elijah (whom were considered the great prophets and leaders of Israel). In theological talk, the words based from the Greek epiph- and theo- are lifting up the nature that this is more than just a story, that Jesus is more than just a man, in Jesus we experience God, in the stories about Jesus and his teachings we encounter the Divine presence. Jesus himself is the God moment par excellence. It’s while they’re in the midst of that mountain-top experience of God that Peter wants to erect shelters, dwellings or tents (depending upon the translation). He’s harkening back (inter-textuality) to the stories of the Tabernacle and the presence of God surrounding and leading the Israelites in the desert on their path to the Promised Land (as a cloud in the day and a pillar of fire in the night). Peter realizes that they’re in a God moment and wants to do everything to stretch it out. He doesn’t want to come down from the mountaintop, to return to the mundaneness of every day life. So he proposes to build some sort of a sacred space they can stay and linger in, that they might stay in this experience of the Divine for as long as possible.
Coming down from the mountain, the disciples and Jesus talk. They evoke Elijah, understood in the Old Testament [Malachi 4:1-6] to be the one to return (as he never died, but went straight to heaven), before the coming of the Messiah – God’s Anointed One who would come to heal all wounds, redeem the lost, and bring justice for the oppressed: make all things new. Jesus corrects their interpretation of the scriptures. They’re using the texts to justify the thought that since Jesus is the Messiah, John the Baptizer, who came before him, was necessarily Elijah returned. But Jesus goes beyond the prophetic texts. He says that what makes Elijah (and hence John) and the Messiah, is not that they have power, but that they suffer: their power is in weakness. The disciples are taken with the hierarchy of religious authority. Jesus is focusing upon teaching them when and how to encounter God. It’s not just on the mountaintop. It’s not just in triumph. Somehow we most encounter God in the suffering, the broken, the despised – all the things and spaces we least associate with God, and which God transfigures, or transforms, into redeemed, healed, saved – theological words for beautiful, whole, authentic and real. Experiencing God is an encounter that transforms how we see the world, like removing scales from our eyes or turning on a light. Think of what a sunset, baby’s laugh or smells of our childhood do to the way that we see others, ourselves and our day.
· How are where do you most often encounter the divine presence or God?
· We live in a world which is hungry to experience the divine. How are we called to foster such moments, to point to the experience of God, to encourage and empower others to be transformed that they might name that God is not just on the mountaintop, but also in the middle of the city?
· How do you need your vision of life in the city to be made more true by God?