The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, CO
Little Boxes: Transfiguration According to Mark, Chapter 9,
February 11, 2018
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Have you ever been driving down the road when something you see sparks your imagination? I mean something that does more than catch your attention in passing, but it opens-up entire insights into how you see the world. I would call it a mini or micro “transfiguration.” It is a moment of transformation (which is another and more relatable way to translate the Greek word used for transfiguration), and I am all for the church using more understandable language like lobby instead of narthex, but I digress. I recently read a story about someone for whom this happened: A sudden moment of vision or inspiration, a clear view on the reality of things, changed her life and has inspired others to see clearly as well.
Her daughter tells the story from 1962 of driving with her parents from San Francisco through Daly City in the Bay Area on their way to a political organizing gathering organized by local Quakers. Her mother suddenly, upon looking at the hillside where development was happening, threw the steering wheel to her husband who had been in the passenger seat. “Take the wheel honey, I have a song to write,” we can imagine her saying.
There and then somewhere in the suburbs, south of San Francisco maybe using the dashboard as a desk, a song was written. An activist, one of the founders of the Women’s Institute for the Freedom of the Press, musician, dedicated Unitarian, Malvina Reynolds, wrote a song that has come to epitomize the rebellion against conformity and being boxed-in.1 Her song was later made famous by singer Pete Seeger:
“Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.
And the people in the houses All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers, And [ministers]2 and executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all [think] just the same…”3
And they all play on the golf course And drink their martinis dry.
And they all have pretty children And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp And then to the university
Where they are put in boxes And they come out all the same.
And the boys go into business And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky And they all look just the same,
There's a pink one and a green one And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.” - Malvina Reynolds
2 Wording changes made in brackets for context and effect.
Protest song perhaps, anthem of nonconformity, yes… but this is also my favorite (and this might surprise you) Transfiguration Sunday hymn. Every year on this Sunday in the lectionary, every single time I read Mark, Chapter 9, I always find myself humming [hum the song] this great song. "Why?" you might ask.
Jesus takes his closest friends to hike up a hillside with him, and when they reach the summit the disciples, as the story goes, witness a glimpse of reality: love embodied. They see Jesus, for the first time in the Gospels, reveal himself to be a sign and symbol of God’s wildly untamed love. This is a glimpse, not a whole picture, but it is a glimpse into the power, freedom, and the burning love beyond appearances. God’s voice echoes from the clouds: “This is my son, the Beloved, the One Whom I love—in whom love is invested! Listen to him.” Not only is Jesus there, but the representatives of tradition Elijah and Moses also appear for a glimpse of a different dimension. And we thought Colorado was the only place with people having special visions!
Our Christian tradition is filled with rich and far out stories, but there is none as strange and fabulous as this one.
In response to seeing something new, seeing the Transfiguration of Christ, the disciples don’t celebrate something new happening, but they revert to something old. They attempt to put Jesus in a box. There in the glowing radiant white, their shocked instinct is to take him and say, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and for Elijah…” There is a pink one and a green one and a blue one…
The dwelling places or booths or boxes (also translations) the disciples want to build for Jesus and his companions are highly symbolic here. They symbolize a tradition found in Ancient Near Eastern religions of that time that gods and demigods (Greek, Eastern, and others) would have portable tent-like alters and shrines (literally little boxes) built so that the people, a specific tribe, could own and claim and keep that god with them. And by doing this the people, especially nomadic people, believed they would have favor with that god and control its love in a way. Another symbolic part of this story is the mountaintop. Jesus appearing on the mountaintop in his true form is another way that the author of Mark borrows from Greek literature of the “coming out” of new gods to their human followers borrow a trope. With this the author is putting Jesus in the company of familiar stories, but then Mark inverts it entirely. The disciples’ response, however, is deeply rooted in the Ancient Near Eastern tradition in which they are embedded.
The disciples’ first instinct here, upon learning that their mountain climbing buddy, Jesus, is actually a manifestation of the Divine is to do what? When we read this passage, we often laugh (Ha Ha Ha) and think the disciples are dumb, while in fact they are just ancient opportunists. [See, see that is what happens when you read the Bible literally instead of narratively as it was intended… you miss really cool stuff.] What the disciples are suggesting they want to build in this dwelling is really a god-trap! They want to build a trap, a box, and capture this new god in it before he can get away! Not so stupid after all in context…
What they don’t know though is that the religion they are unconsciously part of founding, this Christianity business, is something new…or should be something new when not confined inappropriately and incorrectly by boxes of dogma and doctrine and pews and other traps like that!
Jesus rejects the disciples’ offer of building a box for him. We in the United Church of Christ as in other progressive Christian traditions understand Jesus as the bearer of something new—liberation for the oppressed, the opening-up of boxes, and the embodiment of a Love that cannot be held by anyone’s box or church or dogma or confine or definition.
Instead of accepting the traditional god-in-a-box role, in this story God is doing something different for the first time. This story is supposed to signal to both the Greek and the Jewish communities that this new tradition is something new, weird, far out, and different—Jesus refuses the traditional boxes. “This is my son, the Beloved, the One Whom I love! Listen to him.” Rather, this whole Jesus business is supposed to be about a LOVE that is free and out there in the world. It is radical, it is wild, it is new, and it won’t get in a box.
Our faith tradition, at its best, is one that was intended to breakout of the little boxes on a hillside, no two loves are the same, and to set God and people free. So, what happened to Christianity? What went wrong?
By 1962, when Malvina Reynolds wrote Little Boxes, this religion that was supposed to be all about getting out of the boxes was the one that had become more about little boxes than any other. We became the box factory. It is the subtext of her songs. We have denominational boxes. We have belief boxes. We have good and bad check boxes. Many in our religion have boxes for love they will accept and love like mine that they will not accept. We have boxes for the saints and boxes for the sinners. We have boxes for the high pledgers and boxes for those who don’t pledge. We have endless boxes—believe me—I just helped design our new database. We have so many boxes now in Christianity that even UPS is jealous! FedEx called and they want their boxes back, friends. We are called, by a loving God in this passage, to be those who reject boxes and traditional boundaries like Christ does. What reason does God give for us to listen to Jesus in Mark Chapter 9? We are only told that that he is the one whom God’s LOVE is channeled through. “Hey, I love this guy, listen up.” That is our job now in 2018 as the Body of Christ in the world—a channel of love and liberation.
Valentine’s Day is this week when we get a very normative view of what love looks like, and I have to say that it looks awfully straight to me from my vantage point. We all know that love is hard work, we know that it comes in many forms, we know that for some it includes having kids, and for others of us having children isn’t in the picture, for some it means being single and for others married, for some local and others have to be long distance for a time, for some in an RV and others in a house, for some communications comes easily and for others quiet is key, for some dogs for other couples cats (don’t ask me why). Valentine’s Day would tell us that everyone’s love and relationship should fit in an identical red, heart-shaped box made by Russell Stover.
Our Scripture today from Mark 9, however, says otherwise. Transfiguration or Transformation Sunday says otherwise. It is the time when we see a colorful world, where God rejects traditional boxes for deities, and when we are invited by God’s love to find new ways to define our belief, our relationships, and our own identities before a God who calls us, calls you beloved.
Malvina Reynolds saw something that day on the hills outside of San Francisco. She saw a physical manifestation of the attempts of society to cubical our lives, our loves, and even God. That moment of clarity, her own Transfiguration vision, led to the creation of a simple song, one that many of us know, that stands as a prophesy of counter-culture to anyone who might want to box God, you, or me in.
“Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.”
Little Boxes is a song about the uniformity, the compartmentalizing, the cubicalization of our lives and our society, but it can also be about what has happened to the church, to religion, and what we still today, just like Peter, James, and John, attempt to do to God. We try to put God into a box—a box that only serves only our tribe, our viewpoint, our people, our style of love, those like us already. Today’s story from Mark deconstructs that box.
May none of you ever find yourselves boxed in, and know that Jesus…that guy we talk about once a month at Plymouth… ya… he refused “the box” in the name of love on Transfiguration Sunday so many years ago… and so can you! Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
For Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins, CO
I watched the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics the other night. It was a wonderful mix -- of tradition and technology, of cultures, and even political intrigue. They pulled out all the stops with the light show and fireworks. What struck me was how, during the parade of nations, so many of the athletes were filming -– taking selfies, running video as they walked in, trying to catch a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Someday, when they are showing the pictures to their grandchildren, loading those ancient jpeg pictures on a screen will seem as exotic as the carousel projector slides our grandparents show us now. But the stories they’ll tell!
I bet that Peter, James and John wish they’d had a nifty iPhone when they went that day up Mt Tabor with Jesus. Mountains are one of those places through the Bible and through history that stokes our spiritual imagination, that are the sites of significant spiritual events. As Coloradoans we totally get that. Though I am told on good authority that the deserts, the oceans, ice-fields, and prairie badlands all are prime sites as well.
So when Jesus asks them to go up the mountain with him, they are tapping into deep traditions: Abraham almost sacrificing his son on Mt Moriah, Moses receiving the law at Mt Sinai, him later seeing the Promised Land from Mt Nebo. Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel. Later Jesus prayed on the Mt of Olives, and ascended to heaven from an unnamed mountain in Galilee. To go up a mountain is to intentionally set out, looking in some way for the ultimate, for God.
Any mountain climb takes preparation. The text tells us that this happened “six days later,” after the events of the prior chapter. It is hard to know exactly what is being referenced, but most likely it is the story of Peter’s confession. You remember how that goes: Jesus asks the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” And they say, Elijah, or John the Baptizer or one of the other prophets. “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus presses. “You are the Messiah, the son of God” Peter says. Jesus commends him, “Flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven showed you this!” Of course, Peter doesn’t really understand that that means. So when Jesus then starts telling them that he will be betrayed to the rulers, suffer and die, and then rise on the third day, Peter says “No! That’s not the right story! You’re going to be the King, drive out the Romans, and we’ll be the world superpower!” Jesus has heard this siren song before, from the tempter in his own wilderness, so rebukes Peter: “Go away, Satan! You’re thinking in human terms, not God’s.”
I wonder what Peter and the other disciples thought about this over the following week. How might it have set them up to really see what happened on the mountain top?
Oh, the mountain top! Even an ordinary mountain top is exhilarating. You trudge through the forest, and often can’t see your goal. That’s how it would have been for Jesus and his friends, Mt Tabor is cloaked in thick oak chaparral. On other mountains, maybe you come out above the timberline, and the way is rocky and loose. There may be dangers from cliffs and exposure. And when, huffing and panting, you climb the last boulder -- Wow! I did it! And look! You can see the whole world! And indeed, from the top of Tabor, you can see the from the Sea of Galilee to the north, east to the Jordan River and the mountains beyond, west to Mt Carmel, and spreading out at your feet are the rich agricultural fields of the Jezreel plain. What a view!
And then came the sound and light show. Better than lasers, fireworks and virtual reality, suddenly reality looked completely different. Jesus was transfigured –- his everyday look faded to the background, and suddenly the brilliant light of God shone though him. It was like looking at the sun at the moment the eclipse ended, the light that was always there suddenly sparking through. And then appeared Elijah and Moses, two of the towering figures from Israel’s story, representing the Prophets and the Law. Now, how the disciples knew who each of them was, I’m not sure – but in these kind of non-rational spiritual experiences, sometimes you just know things to the core of your being.
These kind of experiences don’t happen to most people very often, maybe only once in a life. But when they do happen, the thing to do is just go with it. Surf the wave, keep listening to the song, bask in the light. There will be time for analysis and pondering and meaning-making later. Give free rein to ….. to whatever. When I was on pilgrimage in Israel last summer, when I was at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I went into the small shrine built around the slap where Jesus was laid after his death. The monks only let you have maybe 2 minutes there before they moved you out, because there’s only room for 3 people, that’s how small it is. So I looked around inside the shrine, read the placard, “He is not here, he is risen!” and quickly kissed the slab. And started to cry. I stepped out of the shrine, tears running down my cheeks, and knew that God was doing something with me. As I cried harder, I went around behind a pillar in a corner – and cried and cried and cried. For 20 minutes. Yeah, I was the weird guy crying his eyes out. And I still can’t tell you why or wherefore. That I was sad, or joyful, or what. Or even that I felt better when I was done. All I could figure afterwards was that something cracked loose, broke free, came undammed, deep in my soul.
When something like that happens, you can’t catch and bottle it. Unlike the athletes taking pictures as they entered the stadium, it would have been absurd to try to take a selfie then, to capture it for later. But that’s pretty much what Peter suggests, though the narrator notes that “He didn’t know what he was talking about.” “Look, Lord, it’s good that John, James and I are here, because we can build some quick shelters, for you, Elijah and Moses, where we can just stay.” I mean, this is amazing, don’t let it stop!
Then it got more intense: a cloud covered the mountaintop, echoing the cloud on Sinai, the dazzling darkness where God is, and a voice: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” And then, the vision ended. Silence.
You can imagine the quiet disciples as they climbed back down the mountain. Jesus tells them not to tell anyone, “Until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” They are totally confused --- confused by Jesus predicting a death they cannot accept and a resurrection they cannot understand. Was this vision something like what Jesus means about his resurrection?
We always have to go back down the mountain. The vision ends. The retreat is over, it’s time to go home. It is getting late, a thunderstorm is coming up, better get off the mountain! That happened to me once, when I’d climbed a 14er, Conundrum Peak. I had started up late, and kept going even as the weather moved in. I got to the summit, quickly took a picture and started down. I was barely 100’ from the top when the rain and hail opened up, and the lightening started. I sat down on my butt and slid down a rock scree chute, because I didn’t want to be higher than anything around me! Descending can be as challenging as climbing. I got drenched, and wasn’t dressed for a storm. By the time I got back to Conundrum Hot Springs and camp, I was so hypothermic I could hardly get out of my clothes to get into the hot spring. Used up a couple of my 9 lives that day! But nobody at the camp seemed interested in my adventure.
So I wonder about the other 8 disciples, who hadn’t gone along that day, who didn’t have the amazing experience. Instead, they had the frustrating experience of trying to heal someone but not being able to! And while Jesus had told the 3 not to say anything, I bet they spilled the beans somewhere along the lines. When you hear God speak, it’s tough to stay quiet! So what did the others feel about it? Were they jealous? Did they not believe the story? Did they need to minimize it, that it was no big deal?
One of the great challenges of the Christian life is finding ways to talk about what God has done for us in ways that don’t put others off. It is so easy to have a blessed experience, and in our enthusiasm imply, “Because God did this for me, God should do this for you!” Or worse, to get proud and imply, “See how spiritual I am!” Sometimes it is perfectly well meaning, we want others to experience God too, and forget that people’s psychology of religion is different.
Centering prayer is a rich well of devotion for one person, and a frustrating bore to another. A Bach requiem lifts one person to the gates of heaven, while another is thrilled at Hillsong Worship or Casting Crowns. I remember feeling so insufficient at times in my life because I didn’t speak in tongues -– forgetting all the other beautiful gifts that God had given me.
We do well to train our eyes to see God in the everyday wonders we encounter --- I’m reminded of the story of the monk Brother Lawrence who was the monastery cook, who in his little book The Practice of the Presence of God wrote, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
But even seeing God in every flower, meeting Christ in every homeless person, learning to hear God in the sound of sheer silence isn’t the final test. As wonderful as spiritual experiences are, as rare as they are, as unique to each person they are, they are not the bottom line of our Christian walk. But:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end….
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.
Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City. Read more.
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