Welcome to the Girardian Virtual Bible Study! Each week we explore the lectionary passage with the help of René Girard’s insights into human relationships. We hope you enjoy this installment of the GVBS. Join us next week at 10 am Central on the Raven Foundation Facebook page for the live show. The show notes and video recording are below. This week’s episode explores Epiphany 8, Year C, Exodus 34: 29-35 and Luke 9:28-36. You can subscribe to the GVBS on Podbean!
Shaming Our Queer Siblings Is Failing To Live By God’s Light
How do we connect the transfiguration to full LGBTQIA inclusion in the church? Easily. Inclusion is what the transfiguration is all about. In the transfiguration, we see God in a whole new light.
The shunning and shaming of our queer siblings is a failure to see by the light of Christ and a failure to recognize the truth that Christ illuminates. To some degree, we all fail, for we still see through a mirror dimly. God’s reflection in each of us is blurred by our own judgments, jealousies and prejudices. But God’s love shines upon us perpetually, and sometimes we catch glimpses of this love, when the clouds of our own insecurities and misunderstandings are parted by radiant beams of light when a loved one or stranger shows where we have been wrong. Emerging from the fog of misjudgment may sting our eyes for a second, but ultimately new worlds in which we may more deeply explore love and find increasingly stunning revelations of truth are illuminated.
Throughout human history, we have found false transcendence in our own proclivity toward exclusion and violence. God breaks through our fears and judgments to self-reveal as all-encompassing Love. Scripture leads us through a journey of our own understanding of God, gradually brightening the light as our eyes adjust. So let us dive into that light that has shone so brilliantly on Moses and Jesus and continues to guide us to full recognition of the beauty of one-another.
God Shines On Moses: Exodus 34: 29-35
The first lectionary reading shows Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, face shining with God’s glory, carrying the stone tablets upon which the commandments of God had been written. This is not the first time in scripture that he comes down the mountain. Just a couple chapters ago, Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain to find the people worshiping a golden calf. Moses had all of the idol worshipers killed for their faithlessness.
So this second decent from the mountain is another story, another interpretation of how Moses brought God’s commandments to the people. An interpretation of a violent Moses – and by extension, a violent God – gives way to a more peaceful and far more beautiful story. God’s glory shines upon Moses and illuminates him, and he comes down. The people are afraid when they see how Moses’s face shines, but they approach when he calls to them. After this, whenever he goes to the mountain, he exposes his face to the radiance of God but then veils it from the people.
Why are the people afraid? Why does Moses veil his face?
The association of God with fear is still very strong. Scripture tells two stories of Moses’ trip down the mountain because the first better conforms to the image of a frightening God, a fierce God whom you might want on your side, but would never want to cross! A God who slays because of idolatry is an idol, an idol many of us still worship. The problem with worshipping false gods is that they are gods of violence and exclusion, gods of us-versus-them. We worship these false gods, or we falsely worship the true God of Love, when we declare ourselves saved but others damned, when we recognize our goodness only in contrast to the evil we see in others.
But in this story, the radiant light of God shines upon and through Moses. This is the God of Love that illuminates all people, the God to whom we belong as children, the God whose image we are made to reflect. Moses reflects God’s glory. This is an inclusive, all-embracing love.
It’s a love the people may not yet dare to believe. It’s a love they might not be ready to receive or emulate. And when I say “they,” I mean “us.” Because it’s not just the people of Moses’ time who were not ready to see and bask in God’s light. That light illuminates God’s love for all. To live by that light is to live in full relationship with everyone, working out conflicts by taking responsibility and acknowledging our own roles in collective problems that can only be solved by collective cooperation. It’s to do away with the protection of outcasts, scapegoats, and enemies. I say “protection” because to have an outcast, scapegoat, or enemy is to have something to unite over and against, bringing peace to a community through exclusion and allowing people to avoid the self-examination that might lead to real progress.
I’d like to think the light shone through the veil, dimmed but still there. I’d like to think the people couldn’t help but drink some of it in. Because our whole lives are a process of letting ourselves be illuminated little by little.
But Moses may also have veiled his face for his own sake. Maybe it’s not God he fears, but the people. The scripture actually says that the light protruded from his face like rays or horns. In sacrificial mythology, horns are often attributed to scapegoats. Some arbitrary deformity makes them stand out and become a target for the anger and violence of a community. Could Moses fear the jealousy of the community? Does he not want to shine for fear that to shine too brightly is to become too vulnerable?
We see in the Gospels what happens when Love shines through Jesus so brightly that it exposes the rotten, sacrificial foundations of human culture. We see how the Powers that Be turned against him because he refused to continue in the lie upon which empires are built, the lie that some lives are expendable. Perhaps Moses shielded the light so as to escape the fate that ultimately befell Jesus, the fate that falls to those who love so deeply that they dismantle systems built on fear and hate until those systems silence them.
Jesus Shines New Light On The Law And The Prophets: Luke 9: 28-36
We move on to the Gospel and have another shining revelation on a mountain. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the mountain to pray, and while they are there Jesus’s face changes, his clothes becomes dazzling white, and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear with him and they discuss his departure from Jerusalem. Awestruck, Peter declares, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But in that instant, a cloud overshadows them, a voice booms, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!,” and when the cloud passes Jesus alone remains.
The disciples see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets. We have already seen how the story of Moses can be told and interpreted violently or more peacefully. There is violence in the story of Moses but also liberation – the captives are set free, brought together into a new home and given an identity not as slaves but as God’s own people. The story of Elijah is also a mixture of violence and healing, at once trapped in the old understanding of a violent God and pointing the way to a loving God.
The mixture of love and violence is the tension in which human understanding has always held God – at once loving and condemning, at once exclusive and inclusive. Scripture attests to the human understanding of God, but guides us from our violent projections to God’s all-inclusive love. Jesus’s presence with Moses and Elijah uplifts the love of God and exposes all perceptions of God’s violence as false, human projections. Jesus is not with them to affirm the violence along with the love in their stories, but to connect the best within them to himself.
We know this for two reasons. First, Moses and Elijah aren’t just having a friendly chat with Jesus; they are discussing his “departure.” They are talking about his crucifixion, in which Jesus will suffer the violence of humanity and pray for forgiveness for his executioners – all of humanity – from the cross. Jesus’s utter rejection of violence, his exposure of and dismantling of systems of violence, will lead to his death. And he goes to this death to show the world that God is ever among the executed and never among the executioners. Second, when the cloud passes, Moses and Elijah disappear. Has Jesus done away with the law and the prophets? No, he fulfills them – the best of the law and the prophets shines through and within him. The purpose of the law and the prophets is to learn to love. It is to live in peace with one another and to know the true God, who is Love, at the heart of every human relationship. Lest there be any confusion, God declares, “Listen to him!” To listen to Jesus is to listen to the message that God has declared from the beginning of time, a message that has been confused and distorted by fear, prejudice, and exclusion, but has always been love.
Peter wants to remain on the mountain and build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. It’s not just that he wants to escape the world. Temples on mountains – dwellings for the gods – were built for sacrifice, for murder of those deemed expendable, for execution of scapegoats and enemies so as to experience the cathartic purge of violent energy and relief of unity and peace that was confused for God. I don’t think Peter was actively thinking of sacrifice; he didn’t even know what he was saying in his mesmerized state. But his words allude to the sacrificial understanding of God that has clouded the human understanding of the divine with our own violence.
Jesus will not entertain this thought. They will not remain on the mountain. They must go back into the midst of humanity.
For God is not only found on mountaintops, but deep in the mess of humanity. The places filled with dirt and germs, tears and blood, are where God can be found, comforting those who suffer. Just after the transfiguration, a man comes to Jesus asks him to remove a demon from his son, a demon Jesus’s disciples have been powerless to exorcise. Exacerbated by the lack of faith from his disciples, Jesus heals the boy.
What was the lack of faith the disciples displayed? It was failure to recognize God in human suffering. It was an image of God that was set apart from the shrieks and convulsions of a child made in God’s image. How often do we pass by the suffering of others when a kind word or a smile could be all that is needed to uplift a hurting spirit? Yes, we will find God’s glory shining upon a mountain, but no less will we find it in grocery stores, parking lots, and all the other mundane places where we may have an opportunity to reflect a sliver of God’s love to one-another.
Transfiguring The Church From Exclusion To Embrace
So do we stay on the mountain, where only a few can fit, far from the cries and pains of the world, or do we immerse ourselves into the midst of humanity to love and be loved? Do we live by exclusion or inclusion, sacrifice or mercy?
The church has yet to fully learn what it means that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. In the name of God, the church has sacrificed lives on the altars of war and bigotry. The LGBTQIA community has been sacrificed on these altars – targeted with violence, shamed into misery, shoved into closets, driven to suicide – all by an image of a God only loves some and will reject and torture others. The primitive practice of human sacrifice has never been abandoned, it has only changed forms.
The light of the transfiguration is meant to guide us out of sacrifice. It is meant to illumine our understanding of God. At the same time, it exposes our violence for what it is: an idol that, in the full relief of God’s light, is revealed in its ugliness and uselessness.
Right now, a spotlight is shining on the pain and heartache within the United Methodist Church, but make no mistake: that same light exposes the exclusion that queer people have felt throughout every branch of the Church. All of our denominations are divided, wounded, and hurting. The Church, the body of Christ, is broken and will remain broken until the day we all live by the full light of God’s love for every person. God, who is Love, embraces, welcomes, and celebrates our LGBTQIA family members. The sin that fills our churches and our world is not found in any true expression of love, but in the failure to love. The God who forms us loves us as we are and calls us to recognize God’s reflection in one another and embrace one-another even as God embraces us.
We need to see God and our mission in a whole new light, and we need to shine a whole new light out to the world. The church needs a transfiguration. And even as some cling to sacrificial interpretations, we can have faith that it is undergoing one. The LGBTQIA members of Christ’s Body cannot be expelled without us all falling apart, and more and more of us are coming to realize that. So, as the light of the transfiguration leads us into Lent, may we be guided to repentance from our violence and exclusion, especially toward our LGBTQIA siblings, that we may all arise together in the full light of the resurrection.