"The Rhythms of Ministry" (Mark 1:29-39)Mark Longhurst, February 11, 2018
Part of the Advent series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page
Sermon: The Rhythms of Ministry
Rev. Mark Longhurst
Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018
Scripture: Mark 1: 29-39
Sometimes all it takes is a dazzling shirt to brighten the mood. Or, to my late teenage self, a vintage 70s polyester disco shirt. Granted, at that time, I had for several years been in the throes of a severe depression, and purple paisleys did not exactly mirror the truth of my inner life. And yet maybe it was precisely because my emotional self struggled so much that I reached for loud clothing to shock my system, at least a few centimeters further, towards joy.
Sometimes all it takes is a vintage 70s polyester disco shirt. Or, in the case of Jesus, dazzling white clothes. The Greek verb Mark uses here for dazzling, stilbo, means to shine, to flash intensely, to glisten. It’s easy to downplay this passage’s bling, especially given Mark’s terseness, and our studious New Revised Standard translators do the best they can: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Perhaps Mark’s original hearers understood the blinding brilliance of heaven’s light, but the translation effect today feels slightly sterile.
This line reveals more than commentary on God the Father’s impressive, gender-role bending laundering practices. Jesus is transfigured, which means to be transformed, and the story is a moment when heaven and earth touch and the holy is unveiled and seen. It’s a theophany, as the theologians put it, but a sparkling one. As one Greek dictionary tells, this verb “shine” or stilbo, is “almost always used of the radiance of stars or the luster of metals.” Jesus’s clothes flashed like the glitter ball on a dance floor or, if you asked my three year old son Oliver, like the giant crab’s diamond backed shell in Moana, with which I am becoming overly familiar.
It’s an odd time in the narrative, however, to throw a party, let alone to attempt to keep the party going for three days, as Peter wrongheadedly suggests. The lectionary throws us, on the cusp of Lent, to this high mountain, whereas preceding chapters in Mark, at least in spirit, have already journeyed in Lenten themes. Jesus’s mortality and the movement’s vulnerability have been front and center to the attentive reader. Pharisees are conspiring with Herod’s representatives to destroy Jesus. Brutal Herod himself fears that Jesus is John the Baptist, who he commanded to be put to death, now raised to life again, head attached to body despite executioner’s sword. Jesus has rather painstakingly explained to his disciples that his path, that this movement’s path, is not to be found on a triumphant march on Jerusalem, but rather through a seemingly failed revolution that will meet first meet betrayal, and then rejection, and a then harrowing death, before a third-day vindication.
This is no time to throw a party; it’s a time, instead, to call a mountaintop emergency summit of ancestors Moses and Elijah and leaders Peter, James, and John. It’s not time for polyester, or well-laundered linen, which begs the question: what are these transfiguration clothes all about? Why do they radiate so piercingly? Why do they shine so fiercely? What is Mark trying to communicate to us?
Perhaps Mark is warning the reader that this Jesus is about to go up against the Roman Imperial propaganda and torture machine. The dazzle of transfiguration is surrounded by portents of death. The gleam of Jesus’s clothes arethe gleam of one like a son of man. As the prophet Daniel envisions generations before Jesus, this son of man is a mythical figure clothed in linen, who tells of empires rising and crumbling. His face is like lighting. His eyes are like flaming torches; his arms and legs are like burnished bronze. To be a son of man, however, is simply a way of saying to be a human being, and all sons in that culture are sons of men. And yet somehow Daniel’s figure and Mark’s Jesus hover in the realm of the universal, and their critique cuts through the ascent and descent of empires to name something from the collective reality of the archetypally true.
Perhaps Jesus’s white clothes represent his willingness to stand before Rome at the cost of his body, and thereby reveal Rome’s twisted injustice through brute force. Perhaps these dazzling clothes are the white robes of Revelation’s martyrs. The robes of those whose courage, ferocious pursuit of justice, and wellspring of love for God allowed them to keep faith through the end. These are early Christians who stared down imperial troops and died or Iraqi Christians today who flee their home at a gun’s barrel, or the black lives matter activist shot and killed in New Orleans this week, or Martin Luther King Jr., who said he, too, had been to the mountaintop and the very next day was struck down.
Or, on a lighter note, maybe Jesus’s glimmering clothes are simply the disconcerting effect that divine presence has on unwitting witnesses. We’re well familiar with Peter’s awkward attempt at post-transfigured conversation (“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here”) but the ancient Israelites are just as discombobulated when Moses shines, too. Moses talks with God face to face on Mount Sinai, descends the mountain carrying two Torah tablets, and his face radiates. He himself is not aware of it, Exodus tells, and the people are afraid to come near him. They are afraid because his face dazzled. Gleamed.
These strange clothes are, perhaps, nothing less than reality’s radiance itself. Our worlds, and especially the worlds of Jesus and the marginalized, are often full of anxiety, injustice, abuse, the threat of war, and the scourge of poverty. The gospel writer Mark knows all about this. Jesus knows all about this, and still, he dazzles. As John’s gospel so memorably put it, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. I confess to you, though, that I often have a sense of unease when this verse from John’s gospel is read. It’s too easy to claim that light is shining when darkness is so very dark sometimes, and sometimes light itself is used not to shine in dark, but to deny darkness’s truth. The piercing white light and clothes of transfiguration, for example, should not equated with whitewashing in a way that denies the suffering of black and brown bodies.
Rather, this white shine is a dark dazzle. A black beam. It is, after all, likely dark on the mountaintop. A cloud covers them, disorients them, obscures their vision. This cloud is the glory of God’s presence, from which the heavenly voice speaks. This cloud creates conditions for that paradoxical embrace of knowing and unknowing, darkness and light, not as polar opposites, but as realities that exist alongside and within each other. Polyester and depression; a country in crisis embedded in a cosmos evolving towards love; a rock solid faith that carries many doubts. A 14th century classic mystical text calls this cloudy state the cloud of unknowing. Fourth century mystical theologian Gregory of Nyssa wrote of divine darkness. And the Psalmist of Psalm 139 sang, “Night shines as day, darkness and the light are both alike to you.” The shine of heaven’s light is also the shine of heaven’s darkness, and this shine, too, is the dazzling light of Christ, the inner radiance of all reality.
Christ, after all, is not Jesus’s last name. What happens to Christ happens to all of us. Here on an unnamed mountain, Jesus identity is being legitimated. “My Son, the Beloved,” the voice says, which seems to suggest that there’s something unique about this man, this teacher, this healer, this nonviolent revolutionary, which, of course, there is. It’s not every day that a Christ, or a Buddha, or a Muhammad, walk the earth. But the mistake that we make frequently is to hold Jesus up on a pedestal and attribute divine, beloved status to him often to the exclusion of divine presence and beloved nature everywhere and in everyone else.
Mark’s favorite title for Jesus hearkens back to Daniel, and it’s not the title of King, or Lord, or Ruler, or Judge, but simply the Son of Man, the human being. “He himself is before all things, and all things hold together in him,” the author of Colossians puts it. Or, Christ is another word for everything, Richard Rohr says, which is a way of naming that what happens to Jesus, even on the mountain, happens to all reality. In spite of an Empire’s cruelty or the deadening weight of depression or the too-abrupt cancer diagnoses, reality shimmers. And so do we.
You see, we have every right to wear flashy clothes, too. Why not pull out the polyester? The newly baptized, the apostle Paul says, are to clothe themselves with Christ. These early church men and women descended into water, having disrobed from their former garments, and when they rose up from the baptismal pool, they put on new clothes, white clothes, which said to the world that “my true identity is Christ!” And this new identity in Christ, as Christ, shines.
It shines like an immortal diamond, as Gerard Manley Hopkins playfully and profoundly writes. “In a flash, at a trumpet crash, I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond.”