Jaw-dropping action and eye-popping special effects will be on full display Sunday. We’ll be surrounded by titan-sized heroes who will emerge from clouds of mystery. Dazzling pyrotechnics will fill the air, and time will seem to stop as heaven intersects earth. And that’s only the topline from the Gospel reading!
Sunday kicks-off with the Transfiguration in worship and closes with the Super Bowl that evening. Thankfully, we’ll be home from church in plenty of time to see the Chiefs dominate San Francisco. (Yes, I went there.) No who you’re rooting for – Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Mahomes – Sunday will mix the spectacular of the sacred with the spectacle of the secular. It’s a grand mashup of the feast of God and the bacchanal of sport. Pass the wings and praise the Lord.
It’s a little late, but maybe the General Assembly should set up a task force to see if we can monetize Transfiguration Sunday the way the NFL benefits from the Super Bowl. We may never reach Super Bowl sized profits, but we might be able to reduce per capita.
Imagine negotiating savvy media deals to light up stadiums with our red and blue PCUSA emblem. Maybe – and hear me out on this – we could find a way of electing Taylor Swift as the next Stated Clerk of the GA. She could even write a song about “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” It could unleash busloads of Swifties, many of whom are that elusive demographic we’ve been struggling to reach for decades. That would be transformational indeed.
We could start by rewriting that famous tagline of the Reformation to something like, “the church reformed, SWIFTLY reforming.” It’s something like “ecclesia celeriter reformans.”
Thankfully, this is not at all what God expects. This is a fever-dream fantasy of church success, fueled by years of denominational decline. It’s a way of coping with realities like cultural shifts, racism, climate change, and bunches of churches with leaking roofs and sinking bottom lines.
Those realities are often what push us up the mountains of secularism in search of the golden ticket of cultural relevance. We think that quick fixes will turn things around or that spectacular events will yield an abundant harvest of the “three B’s” of church life: bodies, budgets, and buildings.
When Jesus beckons Peter, James, and John to join him on the mountain, he invites them to a summit of revelation, not cultural relevance. Peter, ever the perfect Presbyterian, is overwhelmed by the moment. He firmly believes in the old church mantra of “don’t just stand there, do something.” He springs into action and immediately proposes a building campaign. Peter would make a great elder.
But the Transfiguration is more than special effects. The mystery deepens as God’s voice thunders over the mountain: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
I imagine God with a deep Brooklyn accent: “Shadupp already! Listen to Jesus.” Pay close attention to how Mark locates this event at the midpoint of the Gospel. On either side of this theophany are events that showcase the disciples’ inability to understand. In chapter 8 they forget about the miracle of Jesus’ feeding the thousands and instead overfocus on the bread someone forgot to buy for dinner. After the Transfiguration, they compound Jesus’ frustration by fumbling an exorcism. In this light, God’s response to Peter may sound a bit like the exasperated Andy Dufresne in the classic movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” “How can you be so obtuse?”
That continues to be the way of the church.
Years ago, a ruddy-faced freshman cornered me at a youth retreat. Gathered at the base of a majestic 13,000-foot peak, the young man was earnest in asking me, “Chris, when are you going to make us cry? That’s my favorite part of youth retreats.” I was a wet-behind-the-ears and eager-to-please youth minister and had filled the retreat with games, skits, Bible study, discussions, and worship. It was exhausting, but as I reminded the advisors, “It’s not sleep deprivation, it’s discipleship formation.”
But I’d stopped listening. I was not listening to the spiritual hungers of the youth and instead had led them to a trough full of gimmicks that produce predictable responses. Indeed, much of the church had stopped listening. We’d stopped listening for the silent tears of LGTBQ youth yearning for acceptance, or the unspoken cries of abuse victims, or the nonchalance of young women marginalized by misogyny. They were crying out for far more than relevance.
Bless my friend’s Gen X heart. Without a tinge of irony, he made the most honest confession ever offered at a youth retreat. He was crying for healing. “Make them cry” was not written on the agenda, yet the retreat was packed with all sorts of gimmicks, ranging from a gorilla suit to a Guns N Roses song that nearly got us kicked out of the retreat center. I had papered the event with relevance. (Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you the story.)
Up on the mountain, God calls us beyond relevance. God invites us to listen to the voice of Christ that brings liberation, hope, and healing. Listening to that voice takes us beyond relevance into transforming relationships.
It is not the fireworks and special effects that make the difference. Paying attention to Jesus is what matters. Peter also wanted to capture the emotions of the moment. God’s voice challenged him in a different direction.
There’s nothing wrong with a well-planned event, of course, and there is everything wrong with lackluster, dull, and predictable church offerings. The key is how those events turn our eyes away from the special effects and our ears toward Christ.
Of course, if anyone has a number for Taylor, it might be worth the call.
Rev. Dr. Chris Keating
Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian