This summer I’ve talked about the ways that people of faith, in every generation, have resisted the death-dealing powers of the world, the forces that dehumanize and dominate. In resisting these forces, people of faith have also re-imagined what the world could look like, from the Hebrew exiles recasting their Babylonian captors’ creation narrative in a way that dignifies every human being as God’s representative, up to Mr. Rogers’ television-based nonconformity. So I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about a major contemporary source of resistance, re-imagination, and sheer joy in serving God and loving God’s creation: the gift of queer Christians to the church.
First, a note about terminology: You’re probably heard the phrase LGBT or LGBTQ, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. But a lot of folks still know “queer” as a term of hatred and judgment against people who are not straight. There are certainly people in the LGBTQ community who have a hard time with the word “queer” because of how it was used against them as a slur. But I’m going to use it today for several reasons. First and most importantly, it is the most inclusive term we have for people whose sexuality and/or gender identity differs from the majority. Second, queer is easier to say than referring to “the LGBTQ community” over and over. Third, use of the word queer, by gay men, at least, dates back over a century, to the first decade of 20th century. And finally, the word “queer” has been so successfully reclaimed from the haters that it has given a name to an entire academic discipline: Queer Studies.
There are some obvious parallels between Jesus’ transfiguration and queer people’s coming-out experiences. First of all, the term “transfiguration” hides the fact that Jesus’ shining with glory is in some sense a revelation of who and what he is. That makes it less a transformation than an unveiling of his true self. Like many coming out stories, it involves only a few close friends chosen to be the first witnesses of Jesus’ true self. It may sound odd that Jesus tells his friends not to tell anyone about what they witnessed on the mountaintop, but remember this is the same Jesus who said, “do not cast your pearls before swine.” In other words, use discernment about the people you choose to reveal yourself to; do not waste what is most precious by sharing it with those you know will not appreciate it. So his choosing to share the truest part of himself with only a chosen few—for now at least—and his asking those few to keep it to themselves for now are part and parcel of the holiness of the experience. Jesus, like any of us, is free to choose to whom he will reveal his most vulnerable self. Earlier this summer I talked about how, in the midst of his ministry, Jesus needed to withdraw to quiet places for prayer, or to make time for himself and his disciples to eat a meal, or take a nap. We can read Jesus’ circumspection in this story as a similar setting of holy boundaries, boundaries that are necessary for any of us to preserve our energy and selfhood for our work and ministry.
Peter wants to build other boundaries, though. Listen to what he says: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Can you hear the quaver in his voice? How he’s grasping for some way of making sense out of what he sees? How often do we cope with ground-breaking news by trying to find ways to compartmentalize it? Because if we don’t compartmentalize it, it might just merge into the very essence of our reality and change everything. It’s not that we’re opposed to change, per se, just that it’s scary and demands so much. Maybe Peter felt he was losing his friend in that moment. Maybe he wanted to do something that would preserve this moment. Maybe he just wanted to do something with his hands so he wouldn’t have to consider how this revelation about his friend would change everything.
We can’t be sure what Peter was feeling in this moment, aside from some deep, holy awe, but one thing I find interesting about the three shining figures—Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—is that these are major Jewish figures associated with the wilderness, and specifically with the way that wilderness leads to transformation. Moses, of course, leads the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt by way of the wilderness, to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and eventually to the very edge of the land of promise. That is the crucible of Israel’s foundation, and a revelation of both who God is—the liberator, the founder of a nation of justice and neighborliness—and a revelation of who Israel is—a people struggling to respond to that liberation, struggling to live out their covenant with God. Elijah was a prophet at a time when most of Israel had rejected the God of liberation and justice, and was worshiping gods who encouraged the king and his family to consume people and their resources rapaciously, with no respect for the Torah or consideration of the vulnerable: the widow, orphan, stranger, or poor. When he was persecuted and suffered attempted murder by the royal family, he went into the desert to await some sign from God that Israel—and he himself—could survive. And in the desert he received a word of hope: that there was a remnant of Israel that “had not bent the knee to Baal,” that is, had not forsaken the God of the poor or the call to build a just and neighborly nation. This was the northern Kingdom of Israel’s most transformative moment, in the way that the exile would be the most transformative moment for the southern Kingdom of Judah.
And Jesus, of course, had many wilderness moments, from becoming a refugee with his parents when he was only a child and escaping through the wilderness to Egypt, to his 40 days’ sojourn in the wilderness between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry, to his teaching and praying in the wilderness. Sometimes it seems like Jesus spends more time in the wilderness than in towns or cities!
Biblical scholars like to talk about the “liminal” quality of the wilderness. Liminal comes from a Latin word meaning “threshold,” and it refers to the quality of being neither wholly in one realm or another. For the Israelites’ 40-year wilderness wanderings, their existence is liminal meaning that they are in transition, on the way between one thing and another. For Elijah, we can talk about his liminal existence on the edges of his larger society. So wilderness can symbolize the transitional or it can indicate someone’s marginalization. For Jesus, it’s both. He takes his ministry into the wilderness both because of the religious authorities who are threatening him, but also because something transformative happens there. His 40-day wilderness experience, which follows his baptism, is where he confronts his own darkness and temptations by being tested by Satan. It is out of this transformative experience that his ministry is born.
Here, on this mountain with a few of his friends, he exists in another liminal moment. He is both unmistakably human and yet somehow divine; he is mortal and yet he shines with glory. He is a beloved son of God, and yet he will soon face humiliation and death. He deeply loves his people, and yet some of them will reject him. Even some of his closest friends will deny knowing him or even offer him up to those who want him dead.
Being part of the Christian church has, for the vast majority of queer folks, been a liminal experience, and often in ways that look similar to Jesus’ story. Queer people of faith know the liminal experience well, both in terms of being marginalized and because it prompts a transformative, soul- and faith-searching struggle with received tradition. We have had to confront both hatred and judgment—both from outside and within ourselves—not least from the church itself!
A lot of preachers and writers explain Jesus’ shining on the mountaintop as a preview of God’s victory over the cross and death, or a vision of glory to sustain the disciples through Jesus’ upcoming arrest and crucifixion. I guess. I mean, maybe that could be the case. But I think it was something even more exciting: the glory of a human being at one with himself and with God. I think those three saviors of Israel—Moses, Elijah, and Jesus—who had been in and through the wilderness, in and through the darkness in themselves and in the people they led and loved—I think they shone in the glory of being fully alive.
I called this week’s theme the gift of queer Christians because we bring something fresh and beautiful and vital to the church at a time it is so dearly needed: having faced the parts of our tradition that kill the spirit of freedom and fullness, we are often more alive and more sensitive to the core of the Christian tradition, the parts that liberate rather than imprison. And in facing the deadness in our tradition, we have had to confront the deadness in ourselves, the ways in which we have internalized homophobia, judgmentalism, sex-shaming, the fear of the body. The queer Christians I know are, without exception, the most vibrantly alive and joyful people I know.
Because when you come through the fire and are not consumed, it can only be because you have met God. And you shine because of it. You shine, and your faith shines, and that is a gift to the church: the prophetic, sometimes angry but always joyful voice calling in the wilderness. Here on the edges, we have found life. We have seen God. We have been transformed. We are fully alive. And we invite you into that same transformation, that same shining, that same wholeness. We have heard God call us a beloved child, and we’re here to tell you that you are one, too. If you are ready to join in this transfiguration—of ourselves and of the church itself—you can be transformed. You can shine.
Posted with permission. Original found here.