In the Meantime
This morning I would like to experientially introduce you to midrash. Midrash is a type of biblical interpretation that has been used for centuries in the Jewish tradition. There are thousands of volumes of midrash written on Hebrew texts by Jewish teachers over many years. Some midrash has the tone of scholarly interpretation. But there is also midrash that is more like legends, embellishments, even outlandish exaggerations of the story in a text.
Jews have been creating midrash for thousands of years; it’s a neat way to “story-tell” around a text, to use your imagination to color in the details that perhaps the writer left out. And midrash continues today, even in popular literature. For example, Anita Diamant’s bestselling novel The Red Tent is a midrash of the biblical story found in Genesis chapters 33 and 34—I wonder if all those people who bought the book because they saw it on the NY Times Bestseller List knew they were reading biblical midrash?
Of course Jews are not the only folks who practice midrash in an attempt to reframe a faith story, to see it in a new light, to look at the text from another angle. We all practice the creation of midrashim, and, in fact, I am about to do it right now.
Today in our text, Jesus goes hiking (midrash!).
The days of Jesus earthly ministry were reaching a critical point when the story we read about in the Gospel of Matthew today comes to be. Idyllic days of wandering the countryside, not a care in the world (midrash!) were about to end because the political situation was getting tense, and Jesus was soon going to have the spotlight of legal scrutiny fixed upon him and his followers with an intensity the disciples had not experienced up until that point and, frankly, for which they were totally unprepared.
Jesus tried to tell them that things were about to get really dicey, but either they couldn’t hear or they weren’t listening. For them, following Jesus continued with the same adventure and possibility with which it had been laced since they first laid down their fishing nets and left everything to follow him (midrash!).
But today, after long shared conversations about the uncertain future they faced, Jesus decides to go take a hike (midrash!). Though this is admittedly midrash, I feel pretty confident in my biblical interpretation here, because if you look at verse one of Matthew 17, you can see very clearly that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a very high mountain.
And I guess Peter, James, and John were the only ones who went with Jesus because this was no jaunty little stroll through the hillside. The text says that this was a trek up a high mountain, and my midrashic interpretation of the story is that Jesus, who had twelve disciples, ended up taking only three up the mountain because the other nine were not crazy enough to get stuck climbing that high for that long! (midrash!) Given my extensive experience interpreting the text, and also avoiding very strenuous hikes, I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch—imagine Jesus: “Hey! Anybody want to take a brisk, refreshing hike up a really high mountain with me??!?” And then, of course, only Peter, James, and John say yes (ooo! Me! Me! Pick me!) because, as we know, they are the three who are always vying for top slot as teacher’s pet. (midrash!)
In truth, we don’t know why Jesus decided to take a hike that day or why only Peter, James, and John went with him. But we do know that, in Jesus’ day, mountains were very holy places, places where one would often go to be nearer to God, to encounter the divine. It seems appropriate that our text would place Jesus up on a high mountain at this point in the story, because this theophany—encounter with God—is the second bookend of the first half of Jesus’ earthly story. It seems somehow strangely appropriate that the Transfiguration, as this story is called, a life-changing day in the human experience of Jesus, Peter, James, and John, is also the day that we as a community of faith gather to offer this worship to God in memory of and celebration for the life of Sallie Tupitza, to mark as a community the end of her human life, an event that has changed everything for Sallie, and life for us, too.
Remember that Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism, another theophany, when he heard God’s voice and, in one account at least, saw a dove come down from heaven. We began the season of Epiphany when that text appeared in our lectionary cycle right after Christmas. Today, Transfiguration Day, we mark a second important day in Jesus’ earthly life, the day all the supernatural embellishments of his identity fall away and Jesus has to set his human face toward Jerusalem where he will suffer and die because of the message he preached.
Maybe asking the disciples to go on a strenuous hike was not so out of line…perhaps it was instead symbolic of this life-cycle event for Jesus, during which he needed to assess who among his disciples had the stamina and courage it would take to stick with him in times like this one, at the very top of that mountain surrounded by all kinds of tangible evidence of God’s presence and plan…all the way down the mountain, to the dusty streets of Jerusalem, up a winding path to the place of the skull, and down then to the lowest place any human being can go—the place where we look death straight in the eye and where God seems utterly, totally absent.
The disciples, true to form, had no real idea that they were living through a life-defining moment in which they would have to decide once and for all if they were willing to stay true to their calling, even when everything they had ever known about their lives was about to totally, utterly change.
You can see it in Peter’s reaction to their experience. You’ll recall that once they’d hoofed it all the way to the top of the mountain, they had something of a vision. Jesus suddenly began to glow, to shine like the sun (and not just because he was sweaty), and his clothes were dazzlingly white. Moses and Elijah—two of the greatest Hebrew prophets—appeared in person and began talking with Jesus.
Well, Peter was not about to let this miraculous event pass by without proper acknowledgement, so he suggested what any good Jew would suggest: that they build three shelters—tents, monuments, something permanent to mark the place where this great appearance had occurred. That way they would never, ever forget it.
And then they could go back to life as they knew it.
But the next thing they knew a bright cloud enveloped them and they heard God’s voice, of all things. It was utterly, completely terrifying, and in that moment if they had not realized it before, they knew that their lives had changed…that nothing would ever be the same again. There they were, cowering on the ground, couldn’t even think straight (midrash!). In the silence that followed God’s voice they remained there, quaking (midrash!), until Jesus reached down and touched them. He told them to get up. And he told them not to be afraid.
When they finally managed to stand up, brush the dirt off their robes, rub their eyes, and look around…well, they saw the top of the mountain as it had been when they’d arrived after their long hike. And, the text says, they saw Jesus, alone. Only Jesus…nobody else…only Jesus and the decision before them: would they return, would they hike back down the mountain, would they face the changes that were coming with courage and conviction?
While they do not universally include the appearance of famous Biblical heroes, all human life presents us with moments like this, moments where we are offered an opportunity to embrace the change ahead of us or to turn away, to try has hard as we can to claw our way back to the familiar, to cling to the past, to hang on tight to what we know, or to embrace the new.
Why? Because change is hard. Facing future, acknowledging the next phase of our human living, can be intensely difficult. We prefer that things remain the same, thank you very much. We’d like, instead of life getting turned upside down and inside out, to keep things just as calm and as status quo as we possibly can. We want to do that because we don’t have to encounter growth pains or uncertainty or saying goodbye or grief or any of the hard things that come with human living.
There in no one who knows the risk of this better than the artist, the one who stands in front of a blank canvas or an empty set or an idle sewing machine…and tries to gather the courage to make the first mark, to begin the journey toward something beautiful on the other end.
Today we are gathered here, worshipping God, and thanking God for the life of Sallie Tupitza, who touched the world with her tremendous creativity, among other things. Sallie was one of those disciples who would have hiked to the top of the mountain behind Jesus with no motive other than the knowledge that he’d asked her to. And Sallie was a woman who used her considerable artistic talent to create in so many different mediums; she inspired others to see the world with an artist’s eye and to live in it with a courage that allowed us all to more fully experience its beauty. In all the ups and downs of her life…in the challenges of raising of family and supporting a life of ministry…in the joys and pain of investing in a community of faith—this church, among others—Sallie faced each new challenge with an artist’s eye—opening herself to the possibilities of everything God could and would do in and around and through even her. She embraced the next.
I am quite sure that, despite her tremendous courage and full confidence in the love and presence of God, there were times when Sallie felt the same trepidation that Peter and James and John felt up on the mountain that day…and that you and I feel every single time we prepare to take a step in life that requires courage and conviction. Yet, Sallie couldn’t seem to let go of the God who was her creative muse, whom she believed was in the ongoing process of healing this world and who had gifted her and so many others, she would say, with gifts of expression that require courage and faith to use.
The disciples felt it for sure. When they got up off the ground, after hearing the voices of Moses and Elijah and God himself, and almost being blinded by the light that engulfed them, they did so because they’d heard Jesus’ voice. He gently and quietly (midrash!) told them to get up and not to be afraid. And when they finally did, they looked around. They scoured the skyline and as far as their eyes could squint. And they saw only one thing. They saw just Jesus. Jesus alone. Only Jesus, their teacher and friend, the one they had known so long and so well, standing at the edge of the path back down the mountain—toward an uncertain and fear-filled future—and beckoning them to get up and follow.
We gather today to offer this worship, full of the beauty of so many creative voices in this community, with the reminder that living our lives as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ requires courage and conviction, faith and fortitude. With all of these qualities we can, like Sallie did, look each change of life full in the face, square our shoulders, and press on, confident that God’s grace is ever and always creating beauty in and around and through and in spite of us all.
In the face of what big change do you cower and struggle, fearful of an unknown future and desperate to hang onto what you know? It’s time to get up and head back down the mountain, back to face that which you fear, through which God intends to do tremendously creative and beautiful things in your life. Get up, brush yourself off, and see that when all the fear and pain of life surrounds you, it is Jesus alone who beckons you to move forward.
This Transfiguration Sunday we give thanks for the life of Sallie Tupitza, a beautiful woman to modeled for us a life of courage and creativity. And we resolve once again to face the changes of life as she did: by following, closely and carefully, behind Jesus.
May it be so.