We know this isn’t just any hike with Jesus and the disciples in the Gospel of Mark. It’s not a restful retreat they find themselves on either.
Elizabeth Rawlings offers an honest take on what the disciples experienced up on the mountain top. She sums up their response as something like the following:
We are told the disciples are terrified on the mountaintop. Who can blame them? They’ve seen Jesus transfigured and they’re not sure what to do. They’ve seen a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity they hadn’t seen before. His humanness recedes for a moment and the disciples witness an unspeakable, divine vision. Even though they are afraid they try to linger awhile, suggesting building dwelling places.
We’re not always comfortable talking about fear in relation to the divine, in part because fear has been used in bad theology to manipulate others. We associate fear and religion with rigid ways of thinking, pieties that do more harm than good.
However, fear also has a productive side to it. Fear can compel us to take lifesaving action. It can also lead us to freeze up, leaving us unable to act. The pandemic has at times made us afraid. Especially in the early days the fear of just passing people on the street was high. Still we are wary especially if someone isn’t wearing a mask or comes too close.
There is another kind of fear as well that comes from living through a pandemic over time. That is a kind of tiredness and weariness of it all. It leaves afraid for the future, whether the pandemic will every fully end, afraid of variants, and a slow vaccine rollout, questions about at what point travel will again be safe. This kind of wearying fear just wears us down over time, a reality we need to deal with. We just wish it would all go away.
Returning to the productive kind of fear the disciples experience, Jesus’ transfiguration renews the disciples with a sense of wonder. The Transfiguration proclaimed as our gospel reading today is a fear that disrupts the status quo and opens us to new futures and possibilities. Fear during the pandemic has been productive insofar as we wake up to organizing society in better ways to keep everyone safer. The Transfiguration is productive in that seeing Jesus’ divinity we cannot return to normal. With the disciples we’ve seen a vision that Jesus is an embodiment of divine love and grace.
The disciples walk down the mountain different people. We too post-transfiguration and mid-pandemic cannot return to our lives as they were before. We’ve learned that everything in our society can be changed. Just as government took swift action so people could still pay rent, mortgages, receive relief, we realize we can structure our society differently.
Today together with Transfiguration we also honour Stolen Sisters. It is an opportunity to pause and think about the precariousness of life that has always been the case for Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people. They never had the privilege of assuming life was stable and secure.
Part of honouring Stolen Sisters is remembering names of people who often were not valued by society to begin with, which is what made them easy victims. With the Indigenous studies offered through the University of Alberta some of us are taking, we are learning there was never a time white colonists treated Indigenous people as fully human. There may have been individual exceptions but as a whole Indigenous people were never regarded as equals under British, French, and later Canadian law. More recently we think of the patterns of violence along the Highway of Tears in BC for example. Peter Vronksy in the article “How the Great Depression and WWII Gave Birth to the Modern Serial Killer.” To quote from Vronsky:
“In explaining the surges of serial murder, criminologist Steven Egger argues, it was not that there were more serial killers [in the post-war era] but that there were more available victims whose worth was discounted and devalued by society. Egger maintains that society perceives certain categories of murder victims as “less-dead” than others, such as sex workers, homeless transients, drug addicts, the mentally ill, runaway youths, senior citizens, minorities, Indigenous women and the inner-city poor; these victims are all perceived as less-dead than, say, a white college girl from a middle-class suburb or an innocent fair-haired child. Sometimes the disappearance of these victims is not even reported. Criminologists label them the missing missing.”
The “missing missing” is a good way to describe it because for a long time few people apart from Indigenous families and communities really noticed these women, girls, and femmes were missing. Vronsky’s argument is that serial killers, including those who repeatedly killed Indigenous women along the Highway of Tears, are not society’s outcasts or under-socialized. But instead they are over-socialized. They act as society’s pathalogical id, carrying out in deed, what society has already sanctioned culturally. There doesn’t need to be overt collective agreement, but rather a collective silence which allows the killings to continue.
One take-away, is when we recoil in fear hearing these stories, is not to look away. But instead to lean in. To accept this horrific reality and resolve to be better collectively as a church and society. To reflect upon concrete actions we can take to remember these women, girls, and femme’s names.
I also think about recent stories including Chantel Moore, a 26 year old Indigenous woman, shot by New Brunswick police last June when conducting a wellness check for her safety. She had family on the island or nearby and they held a vigil in front of the BC Legislature downtown in June 2020. It is important to humanize the victims and think about the relations we have with family members including here on the island and other parts of Canada.
Turn to Grace
Where do we go from here? What if this Transifguration, this Stolen Sisters, we don’t simply experience fear? Instead of being frozen in inaction, we take time to recognize we are surrounded by God’s grace. Shame or guilt rarely compel people to act and sometimes produce the opposite effect, leading to resentment and becoming closed off to future possibilities.
However we know that God’s grace surrounds the families of Indigenous women, girls, femmes, and all of us with unceasing grace. Let us pause for a moment to take note of that grace. Feel that grace. Because it’s only grace and love that will move us forward.
Florentien said something the other day that someone had shared with her. What matters is that we are relation with each other and with others, including Indigenous women, girls, femmes, and their families. Being in relation begins to bridge divides. It is a way to connect our ministry among one another with our ministry in the community. We care for one another and we care for refugees, people experiencing food insecurity through the Kitchen, clothing drives for people experiencing homelessness, and so on.
The reason we keep talking about these issues is because the work is not over. We continue learning new things. There are new perspectives and learning. We both value the work we are already doing as a congregation and rising to the challenge of new possibilities and new futures.
Both Pr. Lyle and I have talked with so many of you were are at a low ebb. Because none of us have lived through a pandemic that is stretching onto a year and beyond. We have no point of reference for something like this. Many of you are caring for family members either nearby or afar and that is straining. Or you’re missing family, including grandchildren and friends. For others cultural centres like cafes, cinemas, theatres, and concert halls are all but shuttered apart from online offerings. Right now it’s the arts that open us to new possibilities and awake us our imagination. I hope you have access to novels, poetry, music, and other arts on-line or otherwise that can lift you up. We give thanks for the inclusion of live music every Sunday and what a gift that is to offer this through a livestream, to be connected with creating art live in this way.
In a moment I will read a poem by Mary Oliver that was first shared by a friend, that’s about grace. I share this not to pivot away from the fear and anxiety but to embrace that we hold together the things we find hard with God’s grace. We honour Stolen Sisters, trusting that God is with us especially on the cross, in the midst of suffering. We know Jesus of the Transfiguration draws near especially during a pandemic when we feel like we’ve got nothing left to give emotionally.
“Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
Thinking of the grace of which Oliver speaks, there is room for the despair you feel, the despair that is voiced within the congregation, and the despair experienced by Indigenous families longing for the same grace and love we extend one another. Rather than a zero sum game, God is inviting us to extend that circle of grace a little wider to be in relation with other neighbours. That checking on one another in the congregation and checking on Indigenous neighbours are part of the same ministry, the same love that struck the disciples with awe on the mountaintop.
Wrapping up, this Stolen Sisters and Transfiguration Sunday, I invite you to take away a disruptive experience that leads to experiencing grace and love in your life. Amen.