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Come Out: A Transfiguration Sermon

From Jonathan Landis.

When I was a kid, I really idolized Eddie Winslow in the show Family Matters. Though there was a fine line between my idolizing him and crushing on him, I’ll admit. He was cute, he was athletic, he was cool. Sure, he got in trouble, but he generally had a good heart. Problem was, I was never going to be Eddie; in all reality I was a lot more like Steve Urkel. I was definitely on the bottom rung of the school social ladder. I was nerdy and corny and somewhat innocent. BUT then came the day when that comparison wasn’t all bad because all of a sudden, I’m watching this episode and Steve makes this concoction to amplify his cool genes several hundred times over and turns himself into the suave, studly Stefan Urquelle. THAT was what I needed: a quasi-magical substance to bring out my deeply buried cool self. Hallelujah! I’m saved! I too can be transformed from a nerd into a heartthrob! All I need is a questionably scientific fictional chemical that will erase all the inherent qualities that make me ME and become a completely different person! I’m serious! I fixated on this idea and spent a lot of time fantasizing about the possibility that I could transform into a completely different – and more socially acceptable – person.

Here’s the thing, in case you didn’t catch how twisted that was: I had so much self-hatred, so much self-rejection, that I fantasized about disappearing into someone else. We’re not talking a transformation to reveal my inner best qualities, we’re not talking finding the courage to be myself. I wanted to erase myself. Maybe that was why I liked acting so much and public speaking so little. Choosing to reveal the real self is hard. And frightening. Not everyone is going to get on board with the REAL you, your most deeply held beliefs, your most treasured parts of yourself, the causes closest to your heart. Depending on your environment, there can be real danger in “coming out.” Of course, any LGBT+ person knows that danger and yet also that desire to be known, to be seen and understood, but there are lots of ways in which the people of this congregation have to “come out” on various issues whether to friends and family, at the work place, or in the public eye. Any time we take a stand individually or corporately, there is a risk to be known and a choice whether to face the consequences of being known or not. Now, you all strike me as a very brave bunch. I consider myself a fairly-fearful person, but you all inspire me in so many different ways with how you stand up and allow yourselves to be counted, your voices to be heard on a host of social issues.

I think this “coming out” is exactly what the writer of Mark has Jesus doing here in the Transfiguration text for this week. As a little background to the Transfiguration story, up to this point in Mark, every time Jesus does something miraculous, he’s always ordering the recipient to secrecy. “Don’t tell, don’t tell anyone what you know.” What do we know? Up to this point, that Jesus is a Man of Power: powerful preaching, powerful healing. So right before going up the mountain, when he asks the disciples, “who do people say that I am?” and they say, “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other prophets,” and then he asks them straight up, who do YOU say that I am?” Peter replies, “You’re the Messiah,” they’re naming figures of power. And Jesus rebukes him for it! It’s the same word used three verses later when Jesus famously rebukes Peter with “get behind me, Satan.” There were a lot of ideas swirling around out there in first century Judaism about what the Messiah was supposed to do and be – overthrow the Romans, pat the Pharisees on the back, usher in the end of the world – but they all had to do with shows of power, and Jesus adamantly rejects those roles, that kind of power, associated with the label Peter has placed on him. Peter’s not entirely wrong, Jesus is the Messiah according to Mark, just not the one Peter expects. Jesus will be a Messiah who suffers.

It’s like Jesus here is defining himself. “I know who you want me to be, I know who you think I am. But I will not let you define me. I am not the savior of your expectations. I did not come to be politically expedient or to overwhelm the world. I came to work within it.” It’s not like Jesus LIKES suffering, it’s just that he’s aware that suffering sometimes happens when you stand up and challenge the status quo. When he tells the disciples to take up their cross, he’s warning them that in following him, they’ll be speaking up against the system, for petty thieves and heretics don’t get crucified for crimes against Rome, only political troublemakers do.

But then he takes Peter, James, and John on a hiking trip. That’s when it really gets weird. After six days, they go up a mountain, Jesus’ clothes start glowing an unearthly white, Moses and Elijah appear out of nowhere, a cloud descends, and from that cloud a voice echoes, “This is my beloved, my own; listen to this one.” If you need more proof of this moment as a “coming out” scene, look no further than Jesus’ flair for the dramatic! The writer of Mark is really going overboard to say, “THERE’S AN ENCOUNTER WITH GOD GOING ON HERE!!” You’ve got so many references not only to Jesus’ baptism where the Spirit descended as a dove to tell the crowd Jesus was his beloved child, but you have a mini Mount Sinai moment. We see a prophetic figure taking proteges up a mountain, the only way the 6 days makes sense is in the context of Mt. Sinai where Moses and Joshua are up there 6 days, the cloud descends just like the cloud of God’s presence covered Mt. Sinai, Jesus starts glowing with God’s presence like Moses’ face once did, Moses himself is there! I mean, the writer of Mark is really laying it on thick to say, “God came down!” And not just in the cloud. Jesus’ clothes are an unearthly, otherworldly shade of white, Jesus is like the Ancient of Days, Daniel’s vision of God with the glowing white clothes and hair. And Jesus is attended by Elijah and Moses, two figures who according to tradition never died and together they personify the Law and the Prophets and therefore represent the whole Hebrew scriptures, I mean, the disciples should have been saying, “Oh man, the signs were all there before he came out to us. Why didn’t we see he was God? He’s just too fabulous NOT to be!”

It’s not like Steve Urkel’s transformation juice. Jesus isn’t becoming a completely different person. Jesus is just revealing a more radically authentic self. He’s peeled back the curtain of reality to show the truth beneath. “This is who I am, you can’t bleach this, it is sooooo true.” And now his disciples as much as the people he meets – the crowds, the religious leaders, the Romans – are going to have to deal with his raw authenticity, and he is going to have to deal with them. And it’s not going to be pretty. Society around him is just going to get nastier towards him.

Jesus recognizes the danger of coming out as the Messiah, as God, but it’s a risk he’s willing to take. Jesus is showing us that “security” and “risk” are not two ends of a spectrum, but wrapped up together: anyone who wants to save their life will lose it, and anyone who loses their life for Jesus’ sake will save it. Jesus is living out his own words. He’s not trying to save his life. He’s exemplifying risking being a true self in order to live authentically.  

Peter, James, and John might not see that in the moment, in Mark they don’t get it yet that he’s going to die and that as his disciples he’s calling them to follow his example in risking dangerous self-revelation. He has to keep telling them, keep reminding them of the cost of self-revelation and the suffering to come. BUT I’d like to think that in telling them not to tell this story until after he’s been raised from the dead, Jesus is also calling them to remember his coming-out moment here, so that when their turn comes to stand up and be true, authentic selves, they too can find the courage that Jesus found to risk being known. That they too might believe it worthwhile enough to stand up and be counted that their integrity would be worth the risk. We might not see them do find that courage yet in Mark, but we know from Acts and the rest of the Greek Testament that they did. We see how Jesus’ light to them and in them inspired the early followers of Jesus to speak what they knew about him in the face of their fear and others’ opposition. We see them being different, setting up new communities across racial divides, setting up new forms of society that are radically communal and frankly kind of socialist. We see them standing up to religious and political authorities alike. Something got into them. I’d like to think in part it was Jesus’ example here of being known, coupled with the assurance that this world is not all there is, that when we keep running into walls as we try to stand up for just causes that our failures are no more than set-backs, no more ultimately real than the opposition to Jesus was. At the end of the day, Jesus is not just the grimy carpenter who suffers; he’s also the radiant, dazzling Christ. So even when our coming-out doesn’t go well, it’s still not the end of the story. Our story is wrapped up in the larger story of the dazzling Christ who is still working to bring about justice and restore a merciful society and a world of wholeness.

Marianne Williams has this great quote from her book Return to Love which speaks to this infectious quality of coming out, how authenticity breeds authenticity. She says, “It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

When I first heard that quote many years ago, I wasn’t too far from my days wanting Steve Urkel’s transformative potion, and I couldn’t fathom being scared of my own light. I was certain that I was scared of my darkness and inadequacy, and sometimes I still think I am, but what she’s talking about is fearing to reveal the self, and when I remember that, I remember, that yes, I have light inside me, and yes, I’m scared of showing it. And often my desire to show the self is not just to be known (though that is powerful) but to pave the way for others, to inspire others that it’s okay to embrace their sexuality, to show others that there is still a vital experience of the sacred or divine in Christianity. We see this principal in the Me Too movement. The whistle blowers on Harvey Weinstein and the general outrage over how women’s bodies have been talked about and devalued in the Trump campaign and administration have all led to this current atmosphere of self-revelation. One woman’s story inspires another woman to share her own. One person’s story of sexual assault gives another person the courage to know they are not alone and to share their own. I do not mean that the horrible things that have happened to these women are their “light” but rather their authenticity, their bravery, their self-worth communicated through their speaking up instead of remaining silent are their light. And one woman, or one person who experienced assault, choosing to shine her light provokes another and another until there is a cascading revelatory effect that will hopefully put faces to statistics and change our society.

If I as a fearful preacher have a word for this brave congregation, it is this: keep speaking up, keep stepping out. Keep following Christ’s example of transfiguring into your brave, honest selves. If there are any like me who fear being that honest, that authentic, let’s take heart from the examples we see around us, and trust in the dazzling Christ to have the last say over any suffering we experience in coming out. Come out, be known, be transformed!

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