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2 Kings 2:1-2, 9-12 & Mark 9:2-12
It is so easy to start slamming on Peter when you hear this passage. It is one of the more comical examples of Peter not really “getting it” while he stands on a mountain bathed in a glow from Jesus and suggesting that they just throw up some tents and stay there forever. It’s a silly notion, but Peter is really just trying to honor his teacher after all. Peter surely has visions of the scene with Elijah and Elisha in his head and he’s trying to read the room and he’s such a spectacular failure that it’s almost endearing. If Jesus were a southerner, he’d just turn and say, “Oh, Peter, bless your heart.”
For Peter honoring is something that involves edifices and monuments, some pomp and circumstance and that’s why he wants the dazzling white light show to keep going. He is terrified after all, that’s what the text tells us, and he just doesn’t know what to do or say and Peter is one of those people who when he’s nervous he just starts talking. You know people like that, right? Maybe you are people like that? But the whole scene gets cut short by another visitor from the Hebrew stories…straight outta’ Exodus comes the overshadowing cloud and the disembodied voice that must be God, thought the text never says that, and that voice says – “This is my beloved, listen to him.” Actually, in Greek is says “hear him”, as in “let those who have ears, hear.”
The story continues in Mark, with Jesus explaining to them what was really going on and how they must be quiet about it, as if a plan is in play that won’t work if people know what’s going to happen…perhaps because people will react the same way they disciples do. They don’t understand, questioning, the text says, what this rising from the dead could mean. Then Jesus drops this little bit of knowledge on them – Elijah has already come and they did to him whatever they pleased, and the same is in store for me…the guy you all keep saying is the messiah. I keep having visions of Luke Skywalker making his grand reappearance in the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, and saying to the camera, as much to lifelong Star Wars fans as to anyone else, “This is not going to go the way you think!”
It seems that when Peter wishes to honor Jesus on a mountaintop, he doesn’t really even know what he’s honoring. In fact, he may not even know how to honor, at least not in the way that his teacher, or the apparent voice of God, wish to impart to him. Honoring is a tricky thing, sometimes. For the voice of God seems to suggest in this story that it’s not dwellings or edifices that do it, but hearing and, by implication, doing.
We may all know the name Rosa Parks here, but how many of you know the name Claudette Colvin? Claudette Colvin was 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person — nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing. She was one of many African-American women who participated in the bus boycott without all of the coverage that others got. And why did Claudette do this – especially at the age of 15? At her segregated school they had been studying black leaders like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and she remembers that, “My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. [And when they asked me to move on that bus…] I couldn’t get up.”
I suppose that Claudette could have been inspired by the stories of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to advocate for a statue in the town square, or maybe in a more modern era to print some cool t-shirts or start a trending hashtag. Instead she picked up the mantle laid down by those two women honoring them by carrying on their tradition, and applying it to her own life and circumstances. While literal chains were no longer attached to her wrists and ankles, she was all too aware of the shackles of inequality and racism that still kept her bound and her obligation to resist it. What better way to honor than imitation?
In the classic book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in a Time of Cholera, the main characters, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, fall in love in their youth and spend the rest of their lives trying to be together before finally finding partnership in their old age. But in the meantime, Fermina marries an older man in an almost arranged marriage and Florentino pledges his love and respect but then fades in the living out of that pledge. As the novel winds through decades and the history of Columbia, it becomes a lesson on the nature of love, and how love can have many facets, some more helpful and healthy than others and how we have to choose what love we employ…trivial love that is only interested in pleasure, or deep, dedicated love that has resilience and hope.
Is it enough for Peter to honor Jesus with tents on the side of a mountain or, by the time that Mark has told the whole story, do we instead see a Peter who understands honor in a deeper way, so he stops thinking about monuments are starts thinking about how he lives, what he does and how he is going to follow Jesus? For while we lift up honoring in our society – honor of leadership, of the military, even of Jesus – what we mean by honoring is as important as what the characters in Marquez’s novel learn about love. And when we trivialize it, honor becomes only another superficial nod, losing any transformative property it might have, while we forge ahead in the direction we were already going.
This little lesson about honor sits beside me right now as I participate with Tulsa Public Schools in a process about school names and what the connection is between what we recognize as historically significant and what we honor, which seems to be a different thing than mere recognition. Do we simply react to a growing media-driven focus on schools names and statues, or do we use that as a chance to think more deeply about our own history, often tainted and difficult…or an opportunity to imagine the differences between the acknowledgement of historic figures and what it means to honor them? Can we understand that honor is something that can be placed on someone by a particular set of people and then removed by a different set of people, depending on who is making the decisions? This work on honoring challenges me as I think about a suggestion that we “honor” the military with a giant parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in our nation’s capitol. Does the ticker-tape honor or does that come about more effectively by making sure that our VA hospital system is viable and effective, ensuring the best care possible for those we ask to fight and die for us? The lesson sits with me as I think about what it means to follow Jesus today, not just worship him, and whether or not he really would advocate for Medicare funding for the most vulnerable, even if there was a slim margin who took advantage of that care? I wonder if I honor Jesus best with the loudest praise song I can manage, or with time spent accompanying an undocumented person to her hearing in front of an immigration judge? Do we honor Jesus best with a national prayer breakfast or by feeding the poor and caring for the sick?
It sits with me as we work our way through “Black History Month”, which really should be known just as ‘history month”, but this warped sense of honoring leaves us setting aside a day for Dr. King, but whitewashing his message so boldly that the holiday dedicated to him becomes as inert as Groundhog Day. It leaves us with a #MeToo movement seeking respect and real honor for women standing alongside the weak dismissal of clear and present domestic abuse and campaigns for “women-friendly” snack foods. Seriously? Doritos are too loud for the delicate nature of femininity? I know that PBS likes every show to be set in the Victorian Era, doesn’t mean we all want to go back there!
Honoring someone means, in the most profound sense of the word, that we seek to emulate them, just as honoring an ideal means that we try and live that out with our own actions, in our own day and time. That ought to have an impact when we think about the values espoused by those whose names adorn our schools, or when we consider honoring with a parade that looks like it belongs on the streets of Moscow or Pyongyang. And it ought to be an alarm to us when the word “honor” gets thrown around, like a political football, cheapening both it’s value and it’s cost…for cheap honor is as worthless as cheap grace, which Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who resisted the Nazis once described as forgiveness without repentance, communion without confession, and grace without discipleship.
Following Jesus can be dangerous work…just ask the disciples, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Dr. King. For those of us sitting here, following him is unlikely to get us killed. More likely it will mean uncomfortable conversations, hard decisions about where and how we use our money or spend our time, or discernment in how we resist – even when it’s resistance to something we’re told is a matter of “honor”. There’s a reason, after all, that Jesus doesn’t listen to Peter’s tent plans, a reason he comes back down from the mountain, and a reason he tells them to keep all that dazzling white fireworks show to themselves. There’s a reason that the only time in the New Testament that we hear the voice of God is at the Jordan, for Jesus’ baptism, and here on this mountaintop. And both times the voice says – listen to him. Listen to this boundary-busting healer who spreads grace and seeks justice, practices forgiveness and loves wastefully, welcoming the stranger, caring for the burdened and asking us to consider love for a change.
Maybe we ought to consider that good advice.