Today’s gospel lesson, the Transfiguration as recorded in Matthew, is a troubling text. For most of us, it doesn’t feel right at all. While Jesus performs miracles, this sort of appearance of figures from Israel’s distant past… well, it’s just not on, is bizarre and unique. It may make you feel a little better to know that many scripture scholars find this text odd as well. In many technical ways the Transfiguration is not like other divine interventions in the synoptic gospels.
I believe, however, that we can decipher this text. Let us first turn our attention to Elijah, and the mystery of why Ahab is recorded as being the worst of all kings. This has also been a troubling text. Ahab was a pretty bad king, but others were pretty bad too. It turns out that just after Elijah oversees the mass murder of the priests of Baal, he takes Ahab up the mountain to renew the covenant with Yahweh. This overlooked text is carefully modeled on the incident in Exodus where Moses takes the leaders of the Exodus people up the mountain to eat and seal the covenant. Ahab is the worst of all kings because he is given an opportunity to renew covenant and then falls back into disobedience and sin. Elijah is not just a great prophet, he is a covenant-maker. Now we know why Elijah shows up in this threesome, what connects these three figures.
You see, the authors of Matthew are working very hard to position Jesus in the tradition of individuals who make covenant with Yahweh. All three ascend, whether mountain or upper room, taking with them leaders of the new covenant community, and share a meal that acts to seal the covenant.
The authors of Matthew are trying to prove that Jesus is a legitimate covenant-maker in the tradition of Moses, and to a lesser extent, Elijah. They are in competition with a number of sects of the Judean religion, are trying to prove that following Jesus is the one true path to obeying God. Matthew in particular is written in opposition to a group it calls “Jews,” a problematic label in our time and in theirs. But strategic writing is not unique to the Gospel we attribute to Matthew. In fact, it is very common in the gospels. We see it in relationship to the followers of John the Baptizer, to the Sadducees and particularly in relationship to the Pharisees. For the Pharisees, the founders of what we know today as Rabbinic Judaism, were the group that came out of the Jewish revolt of 70 C.E. in the best shape, and in many communities this sect, the group Matthew refers to as “Jews,” evicted and persecuted members of other sects, including the followers of Jesus. Much of the inter-group hostility we find in the gospels has more to do with the situation forty years after Jesus’ execution than the situation during the Savior’s own time.
So the authors of Matthew are busy trying to show us that Jesus is the new Moses. This is why the birth narrative in Matthew is so different. We’ve gotten so used to conflating the two birth narratives that we often fail to recognize the differences. The slaughter of the innocents and flight to Egypt are unique to Matthew, and are insertions meant to tie these two great figures together. Matthew has even re-arranged all of Jesus’ teachings into five great sermons to match the five books of Torah.
For the community of Matthew, Jesus is to be a new touchstone for the followers of the Way, just as Moses is the touchstone even today for followers of the Rabbinic trajectory. We are to connect these figures to one another, and we are to ground ourselves in this spiritual trajectory.
The Transfiguration, then, is strategic writing meant to connect the followers of Jesus to the followers of the true covenant with Yahweh, connecting Moses and Elijah and Jesus as covenant makers. An odd story that reveals an important truth. But what are we to do with it? When we walk out of those doors, what can we take with us from this story?
In many ways just as the figures on the mountain are transfigured, we are to be transfigured, or transformed, shaping ourselves, becoming sanctified, as we become more like Jesus, that is as we live into God’s dream for us. We are to model ourselves on Jesus and the disciples, the people of God connecting and modeling, Jesus to Elijah to Moses, Paul to Zwingli to Bonhoefer to King.
This past week, as I was thinking about the way these figures are related, I came to reflect on the figures in our own culture. If Moses was the dominating figure for the various Judean sects, if Moses and the prophets were the central personalities in the story of that community’s life, who are the figures in our own?
It wasn’t hard to figure out who our popular culture wants us to focus on. How many hours of coverage have there been this week about mentally-ill drug-addled anti-Semitic dysfunctional actors, actresses, fashion designers? Corporate media washes over us, we watch celebrities self-destruct like a car crash from which we cannot turn our gaze.
And then there is that part of us that is drawn to bad-boys. This is nothing new. In the late 19th century the media turned Jesse James into a folk-hero, a modern day embodiment of Robin Hood. That pulp-fiction manufactured image was nowhere near the truth. James and his brother were terrorists during the Civil War in a deeply divided Kansas. After the war they remained terrorists. Many of their victims had a connection to the Kansas anti-slavery struggle. The James gang brutally tortured and murdered. And for the record, there is no indication that they ever gave to the poor. What they stole, they kept.
Increasingly our popular culture explores the psyches of complex and sympathetic bad guys. Poor unhappy Tony Soprano… if only those anti-depressants and the therapy would work! Never mind that he is a brutal thug, a career criminal, that he takes lives. And those folks down on the Jersey Shore, sure they are shallow, alcoholic, promiscuous… and on every talk show. Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi is raking in the dough from everyone who has gone out to buy her book.
Last summer I went to a minor league baseball game where, on entry to the stadium, you were asked to choose Team Edward or Team Jacob. For those not in the know, those are characters from the Twilight series of novels and movies that is so popular with our teens. Of course, when asked to choose between Edward and Jacob, you’re being asked to choose between werewolves, but Native American werewolves who are actually good, and vampires, but not bad vampires really… they don’t eat people. We are asked to choose between bad guys, albeit sexy complex bad guys who aren’t really all that bad.
If we are honest, we even teach our children all about a bad guy story in our Sunday Schools. Have you ever re-read the story of Samson as an adult? He was a jerk. Given the opportunity, I would gladly drop a temple on his head!
Samson is, however, an exception in scripture. Instead of sympathetic bad guys, our faith story tells us about imperfect good guys. Matthew wants us to look at Jesus, Elijah and Moses, stuttering Moses. We place ourselves in the tradition of Paul, of hard-headed Peter, of lustful David. We are to be sanctified and transformed, to model ourselves and to see ourselves in the context of a long line of saints, just as the authors of Matthew want us to see Jesus in the context of the covenant-making tradition.
So here is my invitation to you: between now and Easter I invite you to turn away from Lindsey Lohan, Charlie Sheen, and the numerous other anti-heroes our media puts before us. We’re busy, and maybe you won’t have time, but wouldn’t it be fun during Lent to learn about and relate to a saint, someone who fits into our own faith trajectory?
I’m sure you can find your own heroes, and your pastors will certainly have suggestions, but let me throw a couple of names out there. Mother Jones, once called the “most dangerous woman in America,” was a labor organizer at the end of the last century. Among her campaigns was a Children’s March against the exploitation of child workers. She is known to have said “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
Then there is Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a brilliant geek, one of the most promising theologians of the early 20th century, and a committed pacifist. He became an outspoken critic and outsider when the German church capitulated to the Nazis. Wrestling with his own beliefs, he became willing to sacrifice his own salvation for the sake of others, joining a conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler. He was executed by the Nazis during the last days of the war.
We might turn our attention to Archbishop Oscar Romero. Also a geek and a privileged insider, Romero found himself thrust into the spotlight when he was named Archbishop of San Salvador during El Salvador’s brutal civil war. He came to stand with the oppressed, to stand against the brutality of the ruling regime and its army. On March 24th, 1980, while celebrating mass, Romero was assassinated by government agents just as he elevated the consecrated host.
Of course, these are dramatic examples. There are countless saints in our history, saints right here in this congregation. We are part of a long line of imperfect amazing covenant-making world-changing sinful obedient daring saints. God dreams for you more than you can ever dare dream for yourself, gives us covenant community and the communion of saints, gives us scripture and tradition and imagination. During Lent, let us ground ourselves firmly in that trajectory, let us embrace new challenges, let us be transformed. Amen.