Listen With Eyes Wide Open
The ninth chapter of Mark is a visual feast. As the camera zooms in, we see Jesus, Peter, James, and John climbing a mountain. When they reach the top, Jesus does not change clothes but the clothes he is wearing change, dramatically. Before their stunned eyes, the disciples see what the Greek says is a “metamorphosis” of Jesus. And before they can adjust their eyes, there is yet another stunning sight. Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet join Jesus atop the mountain.
While the Transfiguration Story in Mark is visually spectacular, it is a story as much about hearing as it is seeing. It is about listening to what God has to say about Jesus and listening to Jesus above the din of every competing voice.
I come to this story with a heightened sensitivity about listening. Some of you may not know that I wear a hearing aid in each ear. Without them, much of what I hear is indistinct. Like most technology, hearing aids are helpful but are hardly perfect. When in a crowd, it is still hard to distinguish one voice amid the many competing voices.
Listening was also a significant challenge for the disciples atop the mountain, but not because they had physical hearing disabilities. After the visual spectacle clears, God tells the disciples the same thing said at the baptism of Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The logical question for the three disciples in this story to ask is: “Listen to what? Jesus has not said one word since we climbed the mountain.” It is tough enough for those hard of hearing to distinguish one voice in a noisy crowd; it is seemingly impossible to listen for one voice when that one voice is not speaking.
Perhaps a better way to translate “listen” in this story is “pay attention to.” “Pay attention to Jesus” is the word from God to the disciples. Pay attention to what Jesus says and where he says it. Pay attention to the company he keeps, to what brings him joy, and what makes him go crazy. To “pay attention” to Jesus is to “listen” with our ears and our eyes. Pay attention not just to the transfigured Jesus on the mountaintop, but to the Jesus before the climb and the Jesus who will soon be malformed on a cross.
No wonder Peter would rather pay attention to the dazzling Jesus on the mountain. Who wants to listen to a dreary Jesus keep talking about being betrayed, arrested, beaten, and killed? Atop the mountain, Peter says, “What a great location for a spiritual retreat. Hey Jesus, what a great place to sit at the feet of the greatest spiritual masters, curl up and pray for hours uninterrupted by all the distractions and miseries of life! I am so glad I signed up for this retreat, Jesus!”
Now, hear me clearly. I am not just criticizing Peter. Given even half a choice, I keep company with Peter regularly. Who, in their right mind, wants to leave the mountain of bliss and enlightenment? Who wants to go down the mountain into the valley of chaos, where Independents, Republicans, and Democrats cannot agree on the time of day while Dreamers have nightmares that they will be deported in just days? Who wants to go down the mountain to far too many state capitals where public executions are routine evening events that are done in the name of the One who was himself wrongfully executed? Who wants to go down the mountain to our world today in which superpowers argue about the size of their buttons and terrorists cell groups are convinced that the only way to peace is through more violence?
No, I will keep company with Peter and the boys atop the mountain, thank you. I will stay with the metamorphosized Jesus, the glorified Jesus, the whiter than white Jesus, who wears no blood stains yet to remind us of what might well be involved in following him. I already have reservations booked at Mt. Transfiguration.
I just love this story. I love it not just for its drama but because it is just so bizarre. As hard as scholars and saints have tried to tame it over the years, it still runs wild, refusing to be tamed. Over the years we have managed to tame Easter. It has become a feel good story of American optimism, a story celebrating that in Jesus “you can’t keep a good man down.” We have found ways to make a buck on Easter, between bunnies and baskets and a religious reason to buy a whole new wardrobe. Transfiguration Sunday, though, still runs wild, untamed, and tough to market. Yet, it is this story that directs us down the mountain and through the ashes.
The season of Lent, then, is ushered in on the cloudy cry of “Now Hear This” and is sustained by the divine call to “pay attention.” Look around this coming Wednesday. Pay attention to how few folks mark the day or are marked on that day. Pay attention to how few folks pay one minute’s attention to the season that Ash Wednesday ushers in. Pay attention to how Lent is trivialized by well-meaning believers who follow up their New Year’s resolutions with Lenten ones – to give up chocolate or wine or to stop watching TV for the season, as a sign of our undying devotion to Jesus. And we thought Peter, James, and John were slow to listen!
Pay attention to Jesus throughout the season of Lent and you soon will see and hear that Jesus cares little if we eat chocolate or watch TV or drink a glass of Merlot. Jesus cares everything about how you and I change the circumstances of God’s broken children living at the foot of the mountain. Jesus cares everything about making sure that those who live at the margin of life are no longer marginalized but are fed and healed, housed and loved. Jesus cares everything about justice not being a private privilege of the rich but a public right for all. And, Jesus cares that we care.
On this last Sunday before Lent 2018, I am tempted more than ever before to stay atop the mountain, for I am often worried sick about the crazy chaos in the valley below and if I can do anything about it – even if I pay the very best attention. I am not ready for Lent or Holy Week or a day Christians dare call “good,” and yet still this season, this week, this day comes.
Debating if I would come down the mountain this year, I stumbled upon words that got me moving down the mountain and even with a bit of a step in my walk. I can think of few poems that help me pay better attention to the life God has given me than Mary Oliver’s poem, “I Worried.” May it be a suitable companion for you as well, as together we head into the valley of Lent and approach the shadow of death. Mary writes:
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out in to the morning,
May this be the Lent when we realize that all our worrying “comes to nothing,” the Lent when we take our old bodies and young bodies, are in shape and not so much bodies, our often tentative and keep to ourselves bodies, and climb down the mountain and walk into each new day and sing.