“The Beloved One(s)”
Transfiguration Sunday, Year B, February 19, 2012 York Center Church of the Brethren, Lombard, IL
My partner Jamie and I used to live in Seattle. And you may or may not know Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is one of the most secular regions of the United States. A book that came out a few years ago labeled it the “none zone” because when asked about their religious affiliation, more residents of this region answered “none” than in any other part of the country.
One Saturday evening, Jamie and I walked over to the grocery store to pick up a few things. As we checked out, we were chatting with the cashier, a nice young man. He asked if we had any exciting plans for our Saturday night. Jamie and I looked at each other with a glance that silently said, “Should we tell him?” There was an awkward pause. We didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, but finally I decided we should just tell the truth even if he didn’t understand. “No, no plans for tonight,” I said. “We have to get up early for church in the morning.”
Our cashier cocked his head and looked at us a little funny. Bless his heart, he understood perfectly well that we were a lesbian couple buying groceries together but going to church? Thankfully he covered his own discomfort gracefully. He wished us a good evening and didn’t give us any trouble about our coming out as Christian in the none zone.
Identity is a tricky thing.
One of the stories within Mark’s Gospel story is the story of Jesus’ identity. There’s so much we don’t know about this mystery man. Mark leaves out the birth narratives and any mention of Jesus’ childhood. The disciples in particular are left wondering: who was this person? Who is this person who goes about the countryside healing people, touching people, announcing the reign of God come near?
All the way back in 1901, one biblical scholar called this feature of Mark’s story the Messianic Secret, Jesus hiding from the crowds, telling people to keep silent, covering up his true identity. Since then several theories have floated around about the secret identity – one group saying the historical Jesus did not actually call himself the Messiah so the early church had to write it in later. Another group saying Jesus was afraid there would be a military revolt if people knew who he was. And yet others saying the writer of Mark wanted to redefine the term Messiah in light of the resurrection, so Jesus true identity couldn’t be fully known until the end of the story.
As readers of the Mark’s Gospel 2000 years later, we know Jesus is the Son of God, but if we were the disciples, we wouldn’t even know that. Imagine their perspective: One minute he asks us to follow him on a great fishing adventure and the next minute he’ s the center of attention at the synagogue. One minute he’ s caring for the sick and the next minute he’s touching people with leprosy! Who is this person? Is he a teacher? A great healer? Has he come to lead a revolution? Has he come to save us? Why is he so secretive? Why won’t he just come out already and say who he really is?
It’s not so unlike how we think of one another. Starting with our younger years, the labels come out. He’s a troublemaker. She’s shy. That’s the smart one in the bunch. Boxes and categories help us make sense of the world and we come to be known for what we look like or what we do, our job, or for our last name or our religious affiliation or sexual identity or political persuasion. That’s the progressive church. That’s the peace church. Those are the evangelicals.
Identity is a tricky thing.
Which brings us to the mountaintop. Today’s story from Mark’s story is told from a high mountaintop. Up above the fray of identity politics, up where the air is pure and the commotion of persistent questions transfigures into a rare kind of clarity. You know those moments when time slows and you begin to notice the details. You hear the birds that have been there all along. You feel the earth underneath your feet. You see glory made manifest, maybe in a dazzling white Jesus, maybe in something else. In exceedingly rare and lucky moments you hear (though not necessarily with your ears) the voice of the divine.
In this case the voice came from a cloud and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Jesus, standing there with the great Moses, founder and deliverer of Israel, draped in white with Elijah the great prophet and restorer of Israel... Jesus is named a Beloved Child of God. Jesus, standing there in shining clothes is endowed with authority. Here in this moment his identity is no longer in question. Here is the one we are to listen to. Here is the one we are to follow.
We have those moments too, by ourselves and together. You know those moments, those moments when we are our best selves. We feel confident and bold. We feel secure. We are doing what we are supposed to be doing, or better said, we are who we are supposed to be up there on the mountaintop.
Fully loved. Fully accepted. Identity no longer in question but named and claimed as a beloved children of God. A beloved church. A beloved community. Finally there is justice. Finally there is peace. Finally there is inclusion up on the mountaintop. And just like beloved Jesus, we the beloved, we the beloved need those moments to sustain us.
Because before too long, we all end up back down on the ground.
Our story continues and Jesus and Peter and James and John walk down from the mountain and we remember why mountaintop experiences are so very rare.
It is exceptional in this life to feel that kind of clarity and confidence. To hear the divine speak in words or whispers or silence. To know in the struggle that you are on the right track even in the midst of opposition. Even in the midst of uncertainty. It’s hard for us and it’s hard for Jesus, for the first thing he says there on the ground is don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen.
Imagine Jesus’ perspective. Imagine the steps he’s taken from Mark chapter one up until now. The journey has been difficult Thirty some odd years. It’ s so hard to transgress boundaries, to welcome the outcast, to challenge the systems and powers of the day. And the people, they just don’t understand the reign of God that is bursting into their midst. Me the beloved Son of God? Sure on the mountaintop – but don’t tell anyone down here. Disclose my identity? Come out? No – they won’t understand. It’s easier to keep the secret.
Anyone who’s ever come out as Christian or anything else knows that self- disclosure is hard stuff.
When I was in college I started coming out to my friends one by one. It was a nerve-wracking process. I didn’t like to make people uncomfortable. But it had been long enough, and I’d finally decided I should tell the truth even if they didn’t understand. Most responded gracefully, but one day on the football field, I was running with a former roommate and teammate. We stopped in the end zone and I said, “Wait, there’s something I have to tell you.” I didn’t look at her as I said, “I think I’m gay.” Those are long moments between disclosure and response. She playfully punched my arm and said, “Sarah, no you’re not!” It could have been worse, but it could have been better.
Any person who’s ever come out knows this is hard stuff, any parent who for the first time has stood up during joys and concerns and shared about their son and his partner knows it’s scary, and any church that’s ever come out as supportive knows it can be just as difficult on an institutional level. Conflict and misunderstanding and sometimes overt hate float around out there. Sometimes it’s easier to either keep the secret or leave the conversation.
It can be hard living down here on the ground as our true selves, even if we are beloved.
But we do it anyway. Jesus continues his ministry through Lent and Easter and Ordinary Time, from Galilee to Jerusalem and back. In the face of opposition he goes about, sometimes boldly and sometimes filled with doubts, transgressing boundaries, welcoming the outcast, challenging unjust systems, living into his identity as God’s beloved.
And we, in our best moments, we do it too. We gather for BMC Potlucks and make booths for annual conference and put rainbow flags on our church signs and “open and affirming” on our web sites. We create mountaintop spaces in places like this one, resisting the urge to secrecy and living as beloved children touched by the divine breath of the one who is our source and life.
And slowly, slowly people begin to understand and follow. The tide is changing in our society and in our churches when it comes to inclusion and acceptance of many sexual and gender identities. We’ve come a long way in the last 30 some odd years, creating more and more mountaintop spaces, transgressing boundaries, welcoming unconditionally, sharing the secret with those who will listen and even with some who won’t.
And as we tell our stories, the story of our identity enough, it will be a secret no longer. This is who we are. We are the beloved children of God. It is our very struggle that makes us so, that sets us apart on the same struggle as Jesus. We belong here on this mountaintop. Listen close enough and you’ll hear the voice of the divine: these are my children, my beloved ones. Thanks be to God.