Reading Scripture After a Faith Transition: The Transfiguration
I gave this sermon at the Las Vegas Community of Christ congregation on February 11, 2018.
I have spent a good share of my life immersed in scripture. For most of my teenage and adult years, it was my main devotional practice. Reading scripture was comforting and I felt God with me as I read. I felt like reading scripture gave me so much insight into my life and problems, whether it was from the text itself, or from the openness to God that I tried to cultivate during that devotional time, or just with a bit of distance from whatever was bothering me. Growing through different stages of life, I felt that my understanding of the texts changed and that felt good too. But I was about 32 when it all came crashing down on me. I was at the beginning of a big faith transition that would last for several years and end with me leaving the LDS Church and starting a new Community of Christ congregation with several other people and eventually becoming confirmed in my new spiritual home.
I had been used to reading scripture very quickly and reading for about an hour a day. After several years of reading the whole LDS canon each year, I decided to change my approach and read slowly and deliberately and blog my way through the Book of Mormon, chapter by chapter. It was a text I was very familiar with, as I estimated that I was on my 23rd read of it. I wasn’t very far in before I had to stop entirely. I was used to quickly reading through the bits that made me feel uncomfortable. Reading and blogging each chapter slowly forced me to encounter the text in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. Ultimately, I had to stop, as reading this way was destroying my faith. Next month, it will have been five years since I stopped reading scripture regularly, though I keep hoping that someday I will be able to pick it back up again as a daily practice.
For now, though, reading most scripture starts with all of my inner alarm bells and red flags going off and I go into a little panic each time, though reading scripture with my congregation is helping with this. I want to explain about this a bit more, but first I want to read the passage of scripture that is our focus today.
Our text today is from Mark 9:2-9. Bible scholar Elizabeth Struthers Malbon noted that Mark was the earliest of the gospels and that it would likely have been performed by a dramatic reader all in one sitting to a group of listeners. In the first century, only about 10% of people were literate, so these dramatic retellings were a key part of telling the gospel story. I’m just reading Mark 9:2-9 from the NRSV, but I like to imagine the intensity and drama of those first century readings.
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one[a] on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,[b] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[c] listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
To help us understand today’s reading, I would like to offer up a method of reading scripture that I’ve been working out since my faith transition. I have to credit the hosts of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, my pastor Emily, and my friends Jeremy, Chelsea, and Melody with teaching me how to learn to read scripture again. They have helped me get unstuck where I have been so very stuck.
The frame that I want to use to understand the Transfiguration text addresses the ways in which experiencing a faith transition can impact our ability to read and interpret scripture. I don’t want to claim that my experiences are universal, but I have learned a few good things about getting unstuck. So I’m asking you to consider two different ways to read: one that I will describe as “constraint” and one of “liberation.”
When I read scripture, it is hard to forget the ways in which scripture has been interpreted in my life. I absorbed a lot of literalistic interpretation of scripture. I would get a lesson at church, then a few years later I was likely to get the same lesson, and eventually there was just a lot of repeating the same kind of interpretation over and over again. When I read scripture now, my mind immediately defaults to that scriptural baggage that I carry with me, even though I wish that I could get rid of it. That baggage is big part of the constrained reading.
Constrained readings often focus on dogma and use scripture to reinforce a particular set of beliefs instead of using scripture to explore the message of Jesus and connection to God. Constrained readings use heaven and hell to motivate the reader to be obedient. A constrained approach to scripture often means that a passage has one important meaning, instead of many possible meanings. One of the biggest problems with constrained reading is that we can be trained to default to the interpretations we have inherited, instead of being able to hear God’s words anew and what God would have us hear in that moment.
So when I read the scripture that Darren had assigned, all of my constrained reading alarms went off. I imagined a mystical transfiguration of Jesus into a glowing divine manly God and I just don’t know what to do with that imagery any more. For me it feels like heavy baggage instead of good news. Peter, James, and John beheld the miraculous sight, were terrified and heard God the Father declare Jesus as beloved. My previous encounters with constrained readings is pulling me toward thinking that I should see this miraculous event as evidence of Jesus’ divine status, glowing proof of godhood. After my faith transition, this doesn’t sit well. This reading was reinforced in series of Sunday school lessons and it got to where I couldn’t read this passage in any other way. Reading the text triggered a particular interpretation, and it has been difficult to break out of those old readings. I felt that I am in tension with those constrained readings, which weren’t serving a good purpose in my life, but I didn’t know how to break out of that pattern of reading. And that is a place I’ve been stuck for about five years.
For me, the solution has been to frame new readings as liberation. Liberation readings break out of those ingrained patterns and free the reader to find new interpretations of the text that align with faith after transition. Liberation readings get away from ideas of heaven, hell, and obedience to find out what scripture has to say about the message of Jesus and connection to God. Liberation reading pushes us to break those old patterns and find new interpretations of the text. Liberation readings are about exploring meaning and its many layers. This kind of reading is grounded in the idea that the message of Jesus is ultimately a message of liberation, of freedom, and that Jesus’ inclination to upend tradition creates a new space for freedom of thought and practice and to explore connection.
And now, after acknowledging the constrained reading, I want to return to the text and ask “What does the text say about liberation?” Or even “where is this message of liberation being communicated?” As I was reading this passage and thinking about these questions, I wasn’t much interested in the transfigured Jesus anymore, but in the words that God says afterwards: “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!” In the past, these words meant that God was introducing Jesus as God’s one and only Beloved, God’s much loved son. It seemed as though God has this special love for Jesus, but only a limited amount of that special love. The rest of us just get a more generic form of God’s love.
These days, I’m less inclined to read this as further evidence of Jesus’ divinity and more likely to see that God was showing Peter, James, and John that God was claiming Jesus. And this Jesus was a homeless activist with radical compassion, who didn’t bother to follow social norms, and whose mother got pregnant before she was married, and no one knew who the father was, and who came from a forsaken place. Jesus was all of these things and God claimed him and this was surprising and even terrifying for the men who witnessed it. It broke all of their ideas about who God claims and why God claims them. God saw this outcast and rebel and spoke aloud and pronounced him Beloved.
The new reading feels liberating to me because I have been able to work my way out of the rut, to find a new meaning in the text, and to explore. The idea that God’s claiming of Jesus isn’t specific to Jesus, but is reflective of the way in which God claims all of us, regardless of social status. It’s not just Jesus who is the Beloved, but you are and I am too. That feels powerful. It seems like the text isn’t just claiming that God loves each of us in a generic way, but that there is something precious and sacred in that relationship. And it isn’t just precious and sacred to me or to you, but it is also precious and sacred to God.
And so I have acknowledged the constrained reading and found a new liberation reading that works for my present stage of faith. I think for this to all work out, though, I want to add another step to this process. I have learned from the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast that one meaningful step of the sacred reading process is to ask ourselves “What is the text inviting me to do?”
Our theme for today’s service is “Listen to the Voice of God” and that is what this passage of scripture calls me to do. When God tells me that someone is beloved, I should listen to that and listen to what the beloved person is saying. I feel like God has helped me see the belovedness of others. I’ve learned that God is really interested in revealing the belovedness of those who sit outside of the mainstream, of confirming their worth.
There is Fatima, a Muslim women who converted to Mormonism turned Baptist minister who I heard preach about race in the Book of Mormon a few years ago and it was like nothing I had ever heard before: powerful and asking the audience to consider new questions on an old text. And God whispered to me “She is my beloved, listen to her.”
And when I was listening to Augustus, a young trans man going through a faith transition and experiencing rejection from his family because of his identity, God said “He is my beloved, listen to him.”
And when I was listening to Kelly, a deaf woman and a single mom to teenagers, tell me that her goal was to make more than minimum wage to improve the quality of life for her family, God said “She is my beloved, listen to her” and I told God that I already knew that one.
But there are others in my life that are harder for me to see as God’s beloveds, where the belovedness takes longer for me to see. On the first day of class, Nathan glared at me from the back of the classroom and often made obnoxious comments. He was a veteran whose words were always harsh. He didn’t want to be there and he wasn’t going to make this easy on anyone. But when we did group work, he was always a real help to another student who lacked confidence in herself. I could see that to her, Nathan was a valued classmate and another person on the journey of finishing a college degree after rough life experiences. And God said to me “Nathan is my beloved, listen to him.” He is still in my class and his comments are often offensive and argumentative, but I know that he is beloved.
Scripture tells us that God speaks through those at the edges of society and in our scripture today, God tells us that those people are beloved and that our job is to listen to them. The powerful get a lot of airtime, but the words of God come from the mouths of those who we may see as dubious. I would like to close with a prayer.
We seek to know you
And feel your presence with us.
In our choices and actions,
May we be drawn toward the work of justice and peace
For as long as we sojourn in this life.
Bless us with moral courage,
And lead us into integrity and authenticity.
Help us to hold ourselves and our communities
Accountable for our words and actions,
And consider the policies, procedures, and laws we support.
Guide us to grace for ourselves and each other
That we may always use the privileges we hold
To the benefit of those without.
Move us to build communities founded on
Mutual respect, inclusion, and equity.
Help us to grow into better ways
Of knowing and doing and moving through this life.
Help us to hear the words of your beloved in our lives.
Be with us, O God
And help us to live out your peace.