A sermon by Alex Patchin McNeill to Not So Churchy
Executive Director, More Light Presbyterians
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, "Rabbi, it's good that we're here. Let's make three shrines--one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."He said this because he didn't know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, "This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!"Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead.
I used to think I that understood the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It is one of my absolute favorite moments in the story of Jesus’ life, full of mystery and wonder. If you would have asked me to recite it from memory before this week, I would have said: Jesus and some of his disciples take a hike up a mountain, and suddenly Jesus is illuminated, as if a great spotlight was shining on him, his whole body bathed in a golden light. The disciples panic, of course. Peter wants to build three shrines to capture the moment, and then God’s voice speaks. Then just as suddenly the spotlight moves off of Jesus and things go back to ‘normal.’ In my mind the story of transfiguration was like a well crafted Instagram or Facebook story on social media, beautifully illuminated but it will disappear after 24 hours and then exist only as a memory for the disciples to ponder and wonder about.
However, it wasn’t until I was preparing to preach this weekend at Rutgers Presbyterian Church, when a minister there shared with me that Rutgers celebrates Evolution Sunday around the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday that I suddenly read and understood the text in a whole new way. Perhaps the transfiguration isn’t just a memory, but rather a metamorphosis. In other words, an evolution.
In the Greek language of Mark’s Gospel the word to describe the transformation is in fact the word metamorphosis. The ancient Greeks use the word metamorphosis as a technical term, not a metaphor, to describe a physical change of form. Jesus’ transfiguration was a holy illumination from within, not a flood of glory from without. Indeed, the term to describe the radiance Jesus exuded in that moment is the word “kabod” which literally means God’s essence. This experience wasn’t as if God’s holy spotlight shone upon Jesus’ face or clothing, instead Jesus was physically changed from within to reveal his inherent divinity to his disciples Peter, James, and John.
Furthermore the use of the word metamorphosis to describe what happened signals to me that this event wasn’t just a temporary highlighting of Jesus divinity, like a sacred X-Ray, but rather an actual transformation at the physical level; a transformation that implies permanent change — an evolution. Most importantly, this evolution was not just for Jesus, but for the disciples as well. Peter, James and John cannot unsee this miracle and it becomes for them a moment to hold onto when the horror of the events in Jerusalem unfold. Situated in the center of Mark’s Gospel, the transfiguration evolution marks the point of no return. Jesus and his disciples cannot and will not go back to being who they were in the six days before they climbed this mountain.
But what is this new thing God is bringing into the world and how does evolution happen in this story? In his groundbreaking book, Origin of the Species, Darwin proposed that evolution doesn’t happen in one sweeping moment, but rather slowly over time as mutations in DNA help a particular species to be more suited to survival and reproduction. Without any knowledge of genetics, Darwin theorized “All life is connected and related to each other, and the diversity of life is the product of natural selection.” Essentially he said that the basic building blocks of life transform over time to produce the incredible diversity of creation we know today. Evolution is a process of taking something that exists, building and adapting that basic structure to make something new.
I believe something similar is happening in Mark’s story of the transfiguration. The Gospel writer shares a narrative that would have been both familiar to the early Christian community because it echoes ancient near eastern tales they knew, and yet transforms it into something entirely different. The episode of the transfiguration evokes old testament stories, through the presence of Moses and Elijah, dazzling white clothing, God in the form of a cloud, a mountain top experience …though none of those stories are quoted directly because this is a new thing, not just a fulfillment of the law or prophecy. Mark used language and story they knew to show something new.
The transfiguration story falls within the literary genre of epiphany— a sudden manifestation of the divine. In stories of epiphanies, the motif of fear is common. When the divine appears, be afraid. However for the disciples, when Jesus is transformed they are definitely a little afraid, but their fear isn’t about the presence of the divine. They are afraid because they don’t know what to make of this moment. It can’t be explained logically. Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to mind as a way to explain what is happening. Essentially he is saying, “Oh! I recognize what is going on, with Moses and Elijah present, this must be the site of something holy!” Building a holy site to commemorate a holy moment is a familiar pattern from the Torah stories he would have grown up with, of course it’s the first suggestion he can think to make. Confronted with a moment of absolute transcendence, Peter grasps for old narratives to help translate the scene into this mind.
I love that Mark’s Gospel shows Peter attempting to find words to interpret the meaning of this event. Language is such an important part of human evolution and transformation. The most difficult task is to use language that exists to describe something that is becoming. Every evolution of human potential has to have language to describe it. For example, the genius of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (yes I know this North Carolinian is here in New York referencing Hamilton 2 years later, just here me out) is its mix of familiar broadway references and deeply infused rap and R&B soul. Miranda used two existing genres to develop something completely original and utterly transformative. I know this is true in my own evolution.
Some of you may know that I am a transgender man. I was born a girl and raised as a girl for the first 26 years of my life. I wasn’t someone who knew deeply and clearly from an early age that I was a boy as some transgender people do. Instead my childhood was a shadowy discomfort in my own skin, a feeling without language to give it a name. I thought everybody felt too big for their bodies, like their limbs and ligaments extended outside the lines of their skin. I walked and moved in the world as if i were a hologram, depending on how you tilted your head you might see me as a girl in the way society expects, but look from the other side maybe, just maybe, you’d see the real me. I did not have words to understand my feelings of disconnect from my body. I didn’t meet a transgender person until my junior year of college, but when I did, and heard his story, something clicked into place in my mind and body like a dazzling epiphany of “oh.” Suddenly language existed where there was none before. This was my first moment of metamorphosis, and it felt divine.
In my role as executive director of More Light, I have the opportunity to lead workshops in congregations and community groups all across the US around gender identity and sexual orientation. In particular I lead these conversations to help people get comfortable and familiar with language around transgender, gender non-binary, and queer identities. My job is to help people see the divinity in the clouded mountain, to sit with the haze of unknowing and listen to the experiences of those who are transforming our understandings of a fixed gender and sexuality. I invite people to listen to the testimonies of LGBTQ youth who in their own genius are far beyond any prior generation’s understandings of the possibilities of how we can know ourselves as gendered beings. In a recent study of almost 81,000 teenagers in Minnesota, nearly 3% answered yes to the question, “Do you consider yourself transgender, genderqueer, gender-fluid or unsure of your gender identification?” Just one year prior, a study from UCLA estimated that .07% of teens identified as transgender by using statistics from government data on adults. For researchers, the jump in the estimate from .07 to an actual 3% is a SIGNIFICANT order of magnitude. UCLA didn’t just get it wrong, they got it really really wrong. However, I actually think the number would be much higher if the question posed to teens was “do you identify outside the gender binary?”
In my experience, faced with the reality of the evolution of gender and sexuality categories and identities, too many of us have a Peter moment where we blurt out something about how nice it would be if we could just fix this moment in time so we don’t have to learn anything new. Peter’s intentions may have been to hold on to something beautiful, but the impact of his plan would have been to stay comfortably rooted in the familiarity of the past.
Thankfully, God interrupts Peter and commands the disciples to LISTEN to Jesus, because this one who will later be executed as a criminal is God’s beloved child. This one who tells you stories you are struggling to understand is actually an embodiment of the divine and to follow him is to evolve to something totally new. This one who heals the sick, who binds up the brokenhearted, who dines with the sinner and outcast, this one is the actual vision of the kindom of heaven on earth.
Scientifically, Evolution is made possible by the outlier, the so called random genetic mutation that suddenly allows for a new form of movement, a new way of operating in the world. Evolution of our human potential happens in a similar way. It is so often the outlier, the outcast, the marginalized who transforms probability into possibility of new outcomes and new realities.
Of the millions of examples I could cite, no two are more important to the evolution and innovation of this country than immigrants and people of African descent.
In a 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal author Eric Wiener attempts to capture the scope of the transformative contributions of people who are immigrants worldwide. He says, “Scan the roster of history’s intellectual and artistic giants, and you quickly notice something remarkable: Many were immigrants or refugees, from Victor Hugo, W.H. Auden, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud.” In the US in 2016, foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the U.S. population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.” Is this a coincidence? Do brilliant people immigrate from their native countries?
Recent research points to an intriguing explanation. Several studies have shed light on the role of “schema violations” in intellectual development. A schema violation occurs when our world is turned upside-down, when temporal and spatial cues are off-kilter.” An example is to make breakfast backwards. It allows for more “cognative flexibility,” a prerequisite for creative thinking. In yoga terms this is the same as the instruction to stand on your head. Many immigrants possess what the psychologist Nigel Barber calls “oblique perspective.” Uprooted from the familiar, they see the world at an angle, and this fresh perspective enables them to surpass the merely talented. To paraphrase the philosopher Schopenhauer: Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see. Some people start to see the arbitrary nature of many of their own cultural habits and open their minds to new possibilities. Once you recognize that there is another way of doing X or thinking about Y, all sorts of new channels open to you, he says. “The awareness of cultural variety helps set the mind free,” he concludes. Indeed it seems as if an outsider’s perspective is an important element in evolution and innovation.
100 years to the day after Charles Darwin’s birth, February 12, 1909, the NAACP was founded “to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of United States and eliminate race prejudice.” The work for racial justice and civil rights, of course, has had a profound impact on the evolution of who we are as humans. While the contributions of African Americans to this country are innumerable, the Atlanta Black Star compiled a list of the innovations and contributions from enslaved Africans that formed the building blocks of American culture. Enslaved Africans from Madagascar brought their knowledge of rice cultivation, North Africans were experts in cattle raising, grazing and animal husbandry, Africans understood how to preserve food by frying to last longer without spoiling, Egyptians introduced an ancient form of the game of chess, polyrhythmic music: using more than one rhythm at the same time is a foundational principle in African music and now is a foundational principle in almost every contemporary musical genre.
The examples of Black innovation go far beyond any one era of time, it’s not just a moment it’s the movement over time that is so remarkable. Remember when a simple hashtag confronting the horrors of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies cried out in the wilderness to declare #Blacklivesmatter? Using the platforms of social media an international movement was birthed in an instant to innovate organizing and justice work such that we will never be the same again, thank God. We who have seen the dazzling and divine transfiguration of Black brilliance cannot unsee it.
Furthermore, We who have followed God’s commandment to listen to those on the margins are transformed in the hearing of it. Hearing and watching is as important as the act of doing. In a 2014 study published in the Creativity Research Journal, Dr. Ritter and her colleagues found that people did not need to participate directly in the all important schema violation in order to boost their own creative thinking. Merely watching an actor perform an “upside-down” task did the trick, provided that the participants identified with the actor. On the mountaintop The disciples watched Jesus inner divinity made manifest. I wonder, did it inspire in them their own divinity? Did they rely on their own belovedness by God to begin to tell the story of all they had witnessed with Jesus after he had died and risen again?
Tonight we will also celebrate communion. We witness another sacred moment clouded in uncertainty for the disciples, for Jesus, and for us. As we sit with the mystery of how God could love us so much that God would allow a beloved one to be executed to transform the world, we are invited to consider our own divinity and the possibilities for transformation we are called to enact. We do this in remembrance of Christ and in awareness of the ways in which we too are all part of Christ’s body. Amen.