Epiphany 6: Woodcarving

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:2-9)

[Note: a version of this sermon was preached at First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco’s “Church After Dark” on Sunday, 2/15/2014.]

My friend Sam Miller is one of those people you might refer to as infuriatingly talented. Sharply intelligent, a national championship debater in high school, working on his second novel, upsettingly good-looking, and, best/worst of all, the lead singer-songwriter of Paradise Fears, one of the finest pop-rock outfits working today. (To be fair, I’m a little biased: the band and I come from the same tiny South Dakota town, and Sam is my pastor-mentor’s oldest son. But to be even fairer, they just finished up a headlining tour last fall and are opening at the Fillmore next week, so I’d say they’re doing alright without PR from me.)

Sam recently recounted on Facebook a conversation he had while riding a transcontinental train, a conversation I here paraphrase, since I can’t seem to locate the original post. The story begins with Sam walking into a compartment and sat down opposite the compartment’s only other occupant, a man in his late 40s. The guy introduces himself and struck up a conversation with that classic question: “So what do you do?”

Hometown heroes: Sam Miller and the boys from Paradise Fears.

“I’m the singer in an alternative rock band,” Sam says.

The man smiles. “Yes, but what do you do? I mean for a living.”

Sam returns the smile. “That is what I do for a living.”

His conversation partner seems somewhat taken aback. “And you’re able to pay your bills doing that?”

“I mean, we’re not living the ‘rock star’ lifestyle or anything,” Sam says, “but yeah, we’re able to make a living.”

The guy is interested. “And how do you manage that? A lot of bands never get off the ground.”

Sam explains: “Well, we love what we do, and we work really hard at it. Our families back home encouraged us and told us we could do anything we put our minds to, and we have a really great community of fans who’ve got our backs. It’s pretty cool, really.”

The guy nods for a moment in silence. Then he says, “You know, your band remind me of this friend of mine who lives in his mom’s basement and makes woodcarvings.”

Now it’s Sam’s turn to be taken aback. “Excuse me, sir, but we’re professional musicians. We work hard at this. I don’t think we sound anything like this friend of yours who lives in his mom’s basement!”

“Yes you do,” the guy says. “You both have people in your life who think that what you want to do is important and want to support you in being able to do that.”

I tell this story, because I think it’s important to remember, when thinking about the people we admire, people who are talented and successful (however we define “success”) and lead rich and meaningful lives, people who have a strong sense of identity and purpose, we forget that they didn’t get where they are all by themselves. There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” The story of the Transfiguration lends itself to that kind of thinking though: Jesus is transformed before the eyes of his disciples; the glory of his Self-hood is revealed to them, and they hear a voice from the heavens declare that this is God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. It’s easy, from this story, to assume that Jesus is unique in his Belovedness, unique in his radiant identity.

But you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t go up the mountain alone. He takes with him Peter and James and John, his friends and disciples, fishermen who, when Jesus came wandering into their lives and said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17), didn’t tell him that he was crazy. Instead they “immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:18). They effectively said, “Yes. What you’re doing is important, no matter how wild and unusual it might seem. We want to support you to do that.”

An Eastern Orthodox icon of Jesus’ Transfiguration.

Christians often look to Jesus as a paragon of self-realization, even perfection. But he needed a community behind him and around him, to affirm and support him in letting his true self shine forth, as much as any of us. We can all think of those people in our lives who have nurtured and encouraged us in letting our true selves shine – or at least, I would hope that we could all think of those people. But I’m very aware that we live in a world where affirmation and support are not universal norms. There are too many places in our families, our schools, our communities, our societies where we are told exactly the opposite of the words that Jesus heard on the mountaintop: that our band will never make it, that our ministry is pointless, that our aspirations are not valid, that we are not beloved.

Sam Miller and the boys in Paradise Fears heard that affirmation from their friends and family and fans, and that enabled them to chase their dream in the face of a world that says, “You’ll never make it as a musician.” Jesus heard that affirmation at his baptism and from his friends and followers, and that enabled him to carry out his ministry of healing, of reconciliation, of transfiguration in the face of a world that thought him crazy, even dangerous. So as we move into Lent, this season of reflection and introspection, I pray that we might remember those individuals and communities who have been our agents of transfiguration. And I pray that we might still strive, in the midst of reflection and introspection, to form and support communities of transfiguration ourselves, places where we give others the tools they need to carve from the wood of their experience and their passion an identity for themselves with which they and God alike are well-pleased.

Amen. –Tom

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