“A Transfiguration and a Tesla in Space”
Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden
>>Put a hand on our shoulder and point us in the right direction. Put our hand on someone’s shoulder and let it matter. Amen.<<
A red Tesla roadster was blasted into outer space on Tuesday. Attached to the most powerful rocket ever to leave earth – called the “Falcon Heavy” – the shiny red Tesla is headed for Mars, or to the asteroid belt beyond Mars, or, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, it may just end up orbiting the sun near Mars. It’s hard to know for sure where it will end up. Earth’s orbit, and the Tesla’s projected orbit won’t align until around the year 2073, when scientists will be able to pinpoint its location. But by then, says Jonathan MacDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, “humans [may] have already colonized other planets in the solar system,” and the Tesla roadster will just be hauled out of space and “‘drag[ged] back to a museum.’”
Riding in the driver’s seat of the cherry red car is a mannequin dressed as an astronaut with his arm resting leisurely on the door listening to David Bowie’s song Life on Mars on a loop. On his dashboard is a sign with the words “Don’t Panic,” a line lifted from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy . The mannequin’s name is “Starman,” which itself the name of a David Bowie song. On Wednesday, USA Today wrote that the image of a convertible sports car with a mannequin dressed as an astronaut in the driver’s seat could become more iconic for us than the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. The comments on Twitter about this “space oddity,” to borrow a line from Bowie, were priceless. “You can’t get a speeding ticket if you’re not on earth,” said one Tweet. “I do believe Tesla has now built the fastest car ever,” said another, as the rocket’s speed exceeded 10,000 km/hr. Another Tweet said, “Wonder if [someone] slightly misunderstood the ‘how do we launch the new Tesla Roadster’ email?” And still another said, “[I] left my red Tesla in the parking lot. Now it’s missing. Anyone have any idea where it could be?”
Back in November, Elon Musk – founder of Tesla, PayPal, and SpaceX , the company that sent the Tesla into space – gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine. In that interview, Musk reveals that SpaceX’ s goal is to give human beings options if climate change or artificial intelligence should threaten our existence; he wants Earthlings to become Martians. “[I]f we were a multiplanetary species,” said Musk, “that would reduce the possibility of some single event, man-made or natural, taking out civilization as we know it, as it did the dinosaurs. …” But it was Musk’s second comment about SpaceX that caught my eye. He said, the thought of us “out there among the stars,” moving planet to planet, “makes the future far more inspiring.”
…The Tesla in space gave me a new insight into the Transfiguration of Jesus this week – that story we heard a moment ago from Mark’s gospel about Jesus ascending a mountain and being transformed before his disciples. For Elon Musk, the image of a mannequin dressed as an astronaut, listening to David Bowie, cruising among the stars in a cherry red Tesla, is intended to lift our gaze, inspire us to continue searching and seeking. Inspire us to wonder. It reminds me of that famous comment by Ithaca’s own Carl Sagan, which I’ve mentioned before in sermons. Sagan once said he felt the “religious sensibility, the sense of awe” when “look[ing] up on a clear night,” overwhelmed by what Protestant Reformer John Calvin once called the “dazzling theater” in the sky. I think the Transfiguration might be lifting our gaze in the same way. It’s a story about peeling back layers, unveiling, unmasking, pulling back the curtain, and discovering behind it that our images of Jesus are never quite adequate – our gaze perhaps isn’t high enough. There’s always more to discover in what G. K. Chesterton once called Christ’s “shattering personality.”
…Like many of you, I’ve read the Transfiguration story in the gospels, or heard it read on Sundays, for years, but I’ve never thought of it as a source of inspiration – a story intended to lift our gaze. For decades, New Testament scholars have read the Transfiguration of Jesus critically – not as a source of awe and wonder. Some have argued that the Transfiguration was originally a post-Easter-appearance story of a resurrected Jesus that Mark, the gospel writer, didn’t know what to do with – a scrap of a story on the cutting room floor that Mark re-wrote as an intense spiritual moment when Jesus was transformed before the eyes of three, scared disciples. Scholars may be right about this, but we’ll probably never know for sure. We do know, however, that the Transfiguration is pivotal in Mark’s gospel. It’s a hinge moment in the story when a shift in Jesus occurs. Prior to this story, Mark portrays Jesus as a wonder-worker, a healer, an exorcist, a storyteller, a profound teacher who astounds the crowds. After this story in Mark’s gospel, Mark leads us on a downward spiral to the cross, almost as if to say that all the wonderful stuff about Jesus in the first eight chapters of the gospel is not what’s most compelling about him. Yes, he’s a wonder-worker, but there’s more. Yes, he’s a healer, but there’s more. Yes, he’s an exorcist; yes, he’s a storyteller; yes, he’s a profound teacher. But there’s still more. Some scholars have called Mark’s gospel a Passion Narrative – a story about the crucifixion of Jesus – with a long prologue. Mark uses the Transfiguration scene to pivot from Jesus as wonder-worker and crowd favorite, to one who was “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” – to borrow words from the prophet Isaiah.
…To make this pivot, Mark, like an artist, paints the scene in layers. The story begins with Jesus leading three disciples, Peter, James, and John – his “inner circle” as some commentators call them – up a “high mountain” where he is “transfigured” before them. The Greek word translated as “transfigured” is where we get our word “metamorphosis” from. Jesus is transformed like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. It’s an “apocalyptic” moment – apocalypsis , in Greek means “unveiling.” Layered upon, and woven into, this scene are images from across the Old Testament. Jesus ascends a mountain like Moses did in the book of Exodus. Atop the mountain, he’s met by Moses and Elijah, representatives of the Old Testament law and prophets, respectively. A cloud then envelops them all, like the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness. And there’s an intense spiritual moment when Jesus shines – shines like Moses’ face glowed in the book of Exodus after he communed with God on the summit of Sinai. Out of the cloud, Mark says, there was a voice; but he doesn’t say what it sounded like; God’s voice in scripture is mysterious. Perhaps it was like the voice Elijah heard when he was atop a mountain in the book of First Kings: God’s voice wasn’t in the blowing wind of the hurricane, nor in the ear-splitting tumbling of rocks from the earthquake, nor in the rushing sound of the wildfire; the voice Elijah heard was a “still, small voice” – like that of whispering child. Whispering from the cloud, God says of the transfigured Jesus, “this is my son.”
Each stage of this story lifts our gaze, like a Tesla in space. Jesus ascends the mountain and shines like Moses, but there’s more. He chats with Moses and Elijah – the lawgiver and the prophet. But there’s more. Peter calls him “rabbi” – great teacher – but there’s still more to Jesus. Peter tries to memorialize him – tries to make him like a saint, fixed for all time – by building three shrines atop the mountain, one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. But Jesus can’t be pinned down like that. “We cannot nail [Jesus] down,” writes Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor. “We tried once, but he got loose.” For more than two centuries, scholars who specialize in trying to uncover the historical Jesus, have tried to drill down through the gospels – tried to peel away the layers of tradition around him. Some say he was an apocalyptic prophet; others that he was a revolutionary peasant; others that he was an ethical sage; still others that he was a Jewish magician – a wonder-worker. There are as many reconstructions of Jesus as there are scholars working in the field. But, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “We cannot sum [Jesus] up any easier than we can sum up the one who sent him.” We might sharpen our scholarly methods; we might try to settle on a Jesus that works for us – a teacher, a prophet, a revolutionary. We could spend a lifetime just focusing on his great words, or on his great deeds – but the Transfiguration story says, I think, that there will always be more. Another angle we hadn’t considered. Another side to him that was once shrouded. Jesus is a mystery – a mystery that pulls our gaze still further upward, not letting us pause at any one stage as we ascend the mountain. We cannot nail him down.
And, indeed, the story won’t let us. The voice from cloud doesn’t say, “focus on Jesus or worship Jesus or pray to Jesus” – though Christians through the ages have certainly done all of these things. No, the voice from the cloud whispers, “ listen to him.” Actually, that translation is not quite right. It literally reads in Greek, “listen for him.” Listen for his spirit. Don’t try to pin him down; let his spirit lift you further upward. Listen for the spirit of what he was about in those great beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the peacemakers. Listen for him when he says, “you are well, be at peace.” Listen for him when he says, “do not be afraid. I am with you.” Or, when he speaks of God as a prodigal father, lavishly welcoming home his prodigal son. Or, when he speaks of a Good Samaritan as an example of God’s love in the world. Or, when he rails against the false prophets of his day, who set up barriers, trying to define who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Or, when he talks about loving enemies, and giving them compassionate cups of cold water. Listen for him. And when we listen for him, we’re listening for the still-speaking voice of God in the world.
…In an article for Spirituality Health , UCC minister Rev. Mary Lee-Clark writes about seeking after this spirit of Jesus in the church today. The title of the piece is “If You Came to My Church…,” and her words remind me of our church. She writes: “If you came to my church, you’d see the banner out front with the silhouette of the Holy Family escaping to Egypt, with the words over it, ‘Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.’ You’d come in … beneath the rainbow-colored flag out front … . If you use a wheelchair or walker, [the space] would be accessible to you. If you came to my church, you’d be welcomed … , and that welcome would be reinforced by the statement printed at the bottom of the service program: ‘We are an Open and Affirming, Green Justice Congregation of the United Church of Christ. We welcome to our work and worship all people of faith, or in search of faith, without regard to age, race, economic condition, disability, or sexual orientation, and we seek to care and advocate for the earth and its creatures.’ If you came to my church, you might not know the first song or hymn we sing, but you could join in with the three-year-old who loves to stay in worship with one of her two moms and sing, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ at the top of her lungs, while the rest of us are singing whatever we’re singing. Our children are taught and encouraged to ask questions, to wonder why or how, and to accept that sometimes ‘I don’t know – I wonder that too’ will be the answer. If you came to my church, you’d have an opportunity to think back over your week (or longer), to see how or whether you’ve wandered from your True Self, whether you’ve contributed to the world’s sorrow, or just your neighbor’s, or just your own. Some churches call this a ‘confession of sin,’ but we think of it as telling the truth about how we’ve been separated or alienated from God and our true selves, knowing that we are all ‘made in the image of God,’ as the story in Genesis says, and that we can be better. … If you came to my church, you’d hear a couple of passages read from the Bible, and then you’d hear a sermon that would draw on the latest in Biblical scholarship and commentaries, as well as contemporary writers like Brene Brown or Anne Lamott. The pastor might talk about something she’d read in a Facebook post or the New York Times . You’d hear her questions about the text and be invited to bring your own questions. You wouldn’t have to simply believe or accept literally what the Bible passages say, but you’d be given ways to understand their context and setting, and you’d explore how our understandings may have evolved and be given new images and metaphors for the Divine Reality. … If you came to my church, you wouldn’t have to say the Creed, because, although we affirm the creeds of the church as snapshots of understanding and belief through the centuries, we believe that God is still speaking – in words, in events, through people, in nature. ‘Never put a period where God has placed a comma,’ as Gracie Allen said. If you came to my church, you’d hear these words every week: ‘Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.’ … If you came to my church, you just might have to rethink your impression of who you thought Christians were and what ‘going to church’ is all about. And you’d be welcome.”
6 Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 2.
7 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , 2 vols.; ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles (The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), I.v.8, p. 61.
8 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Snowball Classics, 2015 ), 106.
9 E.g., John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 389.
10 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (New York: Cowley, 1993), 112.