2 Kings 2:1-12 † Psalm 50† 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 † Mark 9:2-9
A video version of this sermon can be found here.
In her timeless book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard recalls that when she was six or so she would take a penny—a precious penny of her own” and she would hide it for someone else to find—always along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. If she had any regrets, about this, it was that the compulsion was short-lived.
“I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore” she writes,
or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.[i]
Dillard is thinking here about seeing, about being aware of what is around us. She is making the point that “free surprises” and “unwrapped gifts” lay all about us in the world.
Dillard’s memory is helpful, I think, as we take a look at this story of Jesus’ transfiguration—as we follow the arrows written in the dirt up the side of the mountain. SURPRISE AHEAD. A free gift from the universe. COME AND SEE. It makes me wonder if God in this story isn’t a bit like Dillard’s giddy six or seven-year-old self: Follow the path! Do you see what you’ve got here? My son! Listen to him!
Dillard is making the point Elizabeth Barrett Browning also makes with her familiar lines:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.[ii]
Dillard reminds us that beauty—holiness even—is everywhere around us: “The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.”
But she’s working to a finer point. We can tend to miss the importance of what is in front of us, especially if it is obscure and hard to get at or make sense of. That’s the challenge for these disciples up on this mountain as this vision unfolds. Will we make of this “prized penny” what we should?
I love how wonderfully imperfect the process is. Mark tells us that Peter and the others didn’t know what to say, but notice that’s only after Peter had already spoken. I take that as comfort for God’s grace amidst our muddling attempts!
The story of the transfiguration is a signpost for us on our way to Lent for a reason. It is an invitation to close our mouths and open our eyes, to lengthen our gaze, to look deeply and lovingly, to see what we so often miss. Dillard reminds us there’s an invitation here that is not unlike the invitation of Lent:
…if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.[iii]
What you see is what you get. Or put differently: how do we learn to see what we need to see, what gives us life, what truly is?
And there is a specificity to the seeing that Mark wants us to grasp. We often interpret this story as the unveiling of Jesus’ glory. How he is unique, special, powerful, sovereign above all sovereigns.
You see hints of this in Matthew and Luke’s version. But not here in Mark. When Mark uses the word “glory”--doxa in the Greek—it is elsewhere in the context of Jesus’ path of suffering and future vindication. Power in Mark is unveiled in the cross. What we know as powerlessness is what God calls power. Grace, mercy, forgiveness are the true expressions of power. Solidarity with those who suffer is what holiness looks like. This is what Jesus encounters in his consultation with Moses and Elijah—the embodiment of all the law and the prophets. And this deep wisdom is waiting there for us too, if we stop and take notice, if we remember and shape our lives around this word, if we look again with childlike eyes at what is shining like the sun before us.
Crucifixion and resurrection always seem to go together in Mark’s gospel. There is, it seems, no death without new life when it comes to Jesus. Of course, the inverse is also true. There is no new life without death. If we are to believe in resurrection, we will also believe in the power of death—how can we doubt this in these days we are living? And if we believe in these two—death and new life—we will also believe in the power of self-giving.
As the story of the transfiguration makes abundantly clear, Jesus understands himself to be the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for. And right along with it, he understands this: He is the Messiah who will be rejected and killed by the machine, by the powers that be. And Jesus identifies his disciples as the ones who take up their cross, as the ones who love Jesus more than our lives, as those who are not ashamed to confess Jesus publicly—not as know-it-all victors who have all the right answers, mind you, but with our broken bodies, as ones who follow this particular way of service and love, as ones who understand that death and life always seem to walk hand-in-hand, as ones who take evil and its power as seriously as we hold onto the transforming power of love.
If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, says the writer to the Corinthian church.[iv] The writer seems to be suggesting that Christianity, this way of ours, is not readily self-apparent; it just isn’t a proof as much as we’d like it to be so. It is a Way. You have to climb up on the mountain to see it. And you have to slog through the valleys too. You have to stick with it in the way Elisha does with Elijah to the very end. You have to take the pathways along which you will find that earth is crammed with heaven, that pennies are strewn everywhere—surprises ahead, gifts more valuable than you could ever imagine.
So faith comes through the doing of it, the practicing of it. And Lent comes to us as a gift, an invitation to Way, a long chalk arrow drawn by a giddy God who says SURPRISE AHEAD and COME AND SEE. Take a look for those priceless pennies, and don’t be afraid to stoop down.
[i] Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (pp. 16-17). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Aurora Leigh” from Nicholson & Lee, eds., The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917). Retrieved on February 12, 2021 from: https://www.bartleby.com/236/86.html.
[iii] Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (p. 17). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Corinthians 4:3.
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