I learned all sorts of acronyms in the Army, most not appropriate for primetime. I had an MOS, a Military Occupation Specialty that placed me in a TAB, a Target Acquisition Battery, a position I held until my ETS, Estimated Time of Separation. I learned more acronyms in the technology industry. Many you will know, like RAM. There are other less well-known insider codes like PEBCAK, Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard, and I-D-Ten-T error. Write it down. Trust me. There were even a few acronyms in Divinity School, like TULIP, a code that would take too long to explain for the central tenets of hardcore Calvinism. Social media and text messaging have created a whole new series of acronyms, LOL and GTG and quite a few that are also not pulpit appropriate.
Another acronym that has come into popular use in recent years is STEM, which stands for a cluster of academic disciplines, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. We talk a lot about STEM for two reasons. The first is that sexism, both blatant and systemic, has worked to keep women out of these disciplines for decades. We lose a significant number of potential workers in STEM disciplines while they are still in the mandated years of education, K through 12, simply because of their gender. Making matters worse, our failing schools, under-funded but turning a profit for the educational corporations that develop standardized tests, are simply not producing high graduates with the skills needed for undergraduate and graduate study in STEM fields. The result is that our nation is increasingly dependent on other countries to educate STEM specialists. Without immigrants, most graduate schools, research labs and medical facilities would close. This is why universities and technology businesses oppose the xenophobia and isolationism that have become dominant in our nation, for if we can no longer attract STEM workers from other countries, we lose our ability to compete in the world economy.
So it was that Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, engineers working for Garmin Technology, were sitting on the patio of a bar in Olathe, Kansas on Wednesday night, where they were gunned down by a white nationalist who wanted to know if they were illegal immigrants. Mr. Kuchibotla died. Madasani and a bystander who tried to intervene are still in the hospital.
Today, Asians are over-represented in the sciences. Centuries ago, it was monks. Most know the Augustinian Gregor Mendel’s famous work on genetics. Few, however, will know the work of Giordano Bruno, which is a shame, as he was well ahead of his time.
One of Bruno’s many fields was cosmology, the study of the ordering of the heavens. For centuries, humankind had believed that the earth was the center of everything… so typically human to think the universe spins around us. The Hebrews and Babylonians believed there was a dome separating the earth from the heavens. A generation before Bruno, Nicholaus Copernicus had suggested that the sun, not the earth, was the center of it all. Then along came Bruno, who said that neither the earth nor the sun was the center of the universe, that stars were simply other suns and might even have other planets with life on them. Which would probably have been enough to get him tried for heresy, even if he hadn’t also denied the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, and Transubstantiation. Dominican friar was probably not a great career choice for such a free thinker. One can only hope that he was right that there is no such thing as eternal damnation, for he was burned at the stake four hundred and seventeen years ago this month.
One of the problems with new cosmologies was that they defied old theologies. Imagine there’s no heaven, no hell below us, above us only sky. Well, sky and then other suns and galaxies, below us, the molten core of the planet, coming out just southwest of Australia, then more sky and space. A lot of biblical notions sort of fall apart in the whole expanding universe model.
We have long ago had to abandon the literal when it come to holiness and damnation. Cleveland Cavaliers Point Guard Kyrie Irving may live on a flat earth, but most of us live on a round planet, and the path to God does not require that we climb a mountain. But there was still mountain climbing to be done in the age of Moses, in the age of Jesus, for what was holy was up. Worship at Mount Sinai, at Bethel, on the Temple Mount.
Moses first encounters Yahweh, the burning bush, on the mountain. Before today’s passage, he takes the leaders up the mountain to seal their covenant with God. Today he is called back to receive the commandments, fifteen in number according to Mel Brooks, ten in other traditions.
In our second reading, Jesus takes his inner circle up the mountain. There, something happens. He shines, is joined by Moses and by Elijah, the voice of God speaks.
Do the disciples believe what they claim to have seen? Is it a collective delusion? Is the whole episode a fabrication? Who knows? Who cares? For there is truth beyond historicity, a truth to be found in this story even if it is a fiction. Christians have believed that there was an experience of the holy on the mountain, just as there had been an experience of the holy on the mountain for Moses, just as there had been for Elijah. Both men were bringers of divine violence, Moses plagues and passover, Elijah defeating the prophets of Baal and ordering their mass murder in the valley at Kidron.
Jesus is transfigured on the mountain. Some try to read this as a theophany, a revelation of his divine nature, but it is not that. He is exactly what the root word trans implied. He is not revealed. He is changed. Changed into what is a good question, and we can struggle with how this image coheres with the earlier events at baptism. We can wrestle with the term Son of Man, today better rendered as the Human One, for there is reason to believe that Jesus is creating a new way of being human in the world, allowing us to opt-in to a different kingdom, one driven not be retribution but by love. He is the new human, the messiah, not a warrior-king bringing more divine violence, but instead becoming the victim and so emptying violence of its power. This is not the way humans think. We are inclined to believe that might makes right. Jesus has turned human thinking upside down.
This is the Messianic secret, this seeing past the physical to the true nature of Jesus as Christ. They must not tell anyone yet, for this story comes immediately after the first Passion prediction, when he says “if anyone wishes to become my follower, they must take up their cross and follow me.”
Peter would stop the whole thing right here. He’s found the part he likes, the shiny and holy part where he is on the VIP list, so let’s build three booths, which is to say three small chapels. But Jesus won’t hear it. Holiness is not on the mountaintop. It is not in a building, whether a booth on a mountain or that monstrosity in Jerusalem, a truth that would be symbolized on Good Friday by the tearing of the veil that walled off the High Priest and the Inner Sanctum from the people. Holiness is not to be found in those places, in showiness, is not up. Holiness must come down. It must go into the streets, it must be with the poor, it must walk with the oppressed. Holiness is not the bringer of violence, it is the victim of violence. It must go down as far as the grave. It is on the floor of the Pulse nightclub, on the floor of a bar in Olathe, Kansas, is sitting in a classroom terrified of going to the bathroom.
We know how the story ends. We know that love wins, that violence serves no divine purpose, that execution is just murder by another name. But they did not, those followers who had abandoned everything to follow a man that was so charismatic, that had so much love that it seemed to spill out of him and makes other whole and clean, this man who promised them that they could live in the Kingdom of God, instead of the wretched place they found themselves, a defeated people, the most vile and evil people in charge, violence and hatred triumphant. Where could they turn? And here, up on this mountain, a glimpse of something otherworldly. Let us build three booths!
But no. Love must come down. Into the muck and mire of living.
Holiness is not apart from us. It is not up there if we can just get to it. It is here, even more in the worst of places. It is with the addicted, the undocumented, the differently gendered. It is not on a mountain or on Capitol Hill, does not wield earthly power. Holiness is with the poor, the scared. The God we would invent for ourselves would celebrate the victor, the powerful, allowing us to strive guilt-free for every scrap of security we might find. The God we got celebrates the victim, is with us in our pain and sorrow, turns ashes and mud into artists and mammas.
Come down from the mountain. Find the holy.