Last Sunday after the Epiphany
“. . . Six days later” our Gospel reading begins. With a lead like that it’s worth taking a look at what happened six days prior. Here’s what Matthew’s gospel tells us:
“Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. . .
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
. . . Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. ”
This morning’s reading about the transfiguration – a revelation of who this Jesus of Nazareth truly is – this reading comes right on the heels of perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings of the disciples. Peter has gotten it all wrong. Peter is still holding on to his ideas of what the Messiah will be – one who comes with power and might to overthrow the Roman Empire – and is completely unable, with this image of Messiah deeply ingrained, to see or understand that Jesus is an entirely different kind of Messiah – one who will triumph but will do so by following a self-giving path that will ultimately bring all peoples of the world into God’s reign. And this self-giving path will lead Jesus directly into the waiting hands of the authorities. Hardly the military triumph Peter was expecting.
So Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him for this mountaintop revelation. Moses and Elijah appear and begin speaking with Jesus. Seeing this, Peter interrupts and says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” “Who do people say that I am,” asked Jesus six days earlier. Well, it is clear now that he cannot be Elijah (or Moses) because he is appearing alongside them. Peter recognizes the significance of this event and what it represents – affirmation of that Jesus is the Son of the living God – and he does what others before him have done when faced with heavenly visitors. He offers radical hospitality in offering to build dwellings for them. But the revelation hasn’t ended and if Peter stops it now, he will miss the point God has in mind. So God interrupts. Before Peter can even finish his thought, a voice from the bright cloud announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” Now wait! We’ve heard this before – it’s the same voice and the same message that was proclaimed at the time of Jesus’ baptism, marking the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Ostensibly, Peter, James and John, though likely not present at Jesus’ baptism, had heard tell of this heavenly proclamation. Perhaps Jesus himself shared it with them and, if not, word like that gets around!
But this time there is more. The voice continues saying, “Listen to him!”  I wonder is this God’s direct response to Peter’s continued lack of understanding. The disciples have experienced Jesus’ healing, Jesus’ social commentary, Jesus’ charismatic ways and yet they do not understand who Jesus is. Six days ago Jesus tells the disciples the precise nature of his calling and Peter says “No! Lord!” and God responds, “Listen to him!”
How often do you and I let our preconceived notions of who someone is or why someone has done the things they’ve done – get in our way of seeing them for who they really are? It’s an impossible question to answer of course because in the process of doing it, we are blinded to the reality. I was drawn to this question recently as I was reading a parenting book called The Explosive Child by Ross Greene (by the way, and in fairness to my children, I should add that in reading the book, I’ve quickly realized that it ought to be called The Explosive Parent not The Explosive Child).
Dr. Greene talks about our assumptions about children’s misbehavior – we attribute their behavior to their tendency to be “manipulative, attention-seeking, unmotivated, stubborn, willful, intransigent, bratty, spoiled, controlling, resistant, out of control, and defiant. . . [as] pushing buttons, coercing adults into giving in, and getting their way” (you may have your own list) – and, as result, we respond to our assumptions by punishing with things like timeouts or removal of privileges. The author contends that, in fact, most children want to do well. They want to do the right thing; but they are actually lacking the skills needed to do so. When a child is lacking math skills or reading skills, we teach them to do math or to read. But when a child is lacking the skills needed to make the right choice and, as a result, act out, we adults assume we already know their nature, the cause of the trouble and we get into conversations like this:
Adult: Go brush your teeth.
Adult: Go brush your teeth.
Kid: No, I’m not going to (slams door)
Adult: Fine. No more TV for a week!
Dr. Greene invites us to imagine the conversation going something like this instead:
Adult: I’ve noticed that it’s been difficult for you to brush your teeth. What’s up?
Kid: I don’t like the taste of the toothpaste.
This, of course, is a relatively easy problem to solve but, I have to admit, it would never in a million years have occurred to me that the taste of the toothpaste was the problem. Nope! My mind would have gone to willful, stubborn or pushing my buttons first. But not taste. And now, instead of a timeout, this child can go with their parent to the store to buy a flavor of toothpaste they’ll actually like.
Now, I don’t know if Dr. Greene’s strategy is the best parenting strategy – time will tell; but, what I like about the model is that Dr. Greene says, listen to your child – in much the same way God says, “Listen to Jesus!” Don’t assume you already know. In fact, cling to the notion that we don’t know what we don’t know and see what is revealed in listening.
Another example: on Thursday morning this week, I met with Fuschia Win-Ro. She is the founder of Anti-Racism Playdates and the organizer of this summer’s Anti-RacismArt Festival. She was at St. Mark’s to see if we might be a venue for some of the Art Festival workshops. And one of her questions to me was, “where is St. Mark’s on their anti-racism journey?” I was able to talk about how individuals in our congregation have participated in CROAR’s Dismantling Systemic Racism workshop and SEED conversations. I mentioned internal conversations we have had over the years – most recently within the vestry as we continue journeying towards being an anti-racist institution. I also was honest about St. Mark’s inability to stay the course in these conversations; about how our anti-racism conversations sometimes feel like blips on the radar of race relations. And I was honest about my own “I don’t know what I don’t know” moments where I have inadvertently stepped into racist stereotypes – through my words or actions - not realizing that I had done so and how I’ve learned that impact matters much more than intent. I need to listen to the voices of black people and other people of color. I need to assume that I don’t already know and see what is revealed in listening.
The voice from heaven tells Peter, James and John, “Listen to him!” and they fall to the ground in fear. “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” And in those words lie the promise, the Good News. Let go of what you think you know. Be open to learning something new. Listen. . . listen and be transfigured by what is revealed.