At a loss for words

Today is not only the feast of the Transfiguration. It is also Theological Education Sunday, the day set aside by our diocese every year to consider the importance of theological education. I, for one, welcome the opportunity. I am a big fan of theological education – both the rather informal kind of study we do here in the parish and the more elaborate version that happens in programs like Education for Ministry (talk to Vivian for more on that) or in seminaries such as our own Diocesan Theological College.

Theological education helps us think through our faith – both in terms of understanding its roots and its internal logic more fully and in terms of using our faith for thinking about other things. It helps us build a vocabulary for talking about the world from the perspective of faith, providing words to explain the ways in which God is revealed in the world, the ways in which our choices are shaped by our experience of God. We need these words to grow in our faith.

Now, it may surprise some of you to hear but, from time to time, I find myself at a loss for words – times when I am overwhelmed by the story I am hearing or the event I am witnessing or the experience I am having and words simply fail. For as much as I love words, they are smaller than our emotions and our experiences – which is why there are so many of them, arranged in such careful and elaborate patterns as sonnets and haikus and novels and essays and prayers and manifestos and creeds…and, indeed, sermons. Each an attempt to convey something of the width and breadth and depth of the world and our responses to it.

But sometimes, in the moment of sadness or surprise or joy or fear, words simply fall short. And so we grasp for something to say, often landing on not-very-satisfying platitudes or not-quite-appropriate but deeply engrained automatic responses. Even before the words are all the way out, we know they aren’t adequate but it’s too late – once words are out, they can’t be taken back.

Consider Peter on that mountain top in today’s reading from the Gospel. Already, things have happened that defy explanation – a storm has been stilled, the blind can see, a few loaves feed a multitude. But even so, confronted by the sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah and by Jesus’ suddenly radiant form, Peter babbles: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”

I say, babbles, because there doesn’t seem to be any sure meaning to Peter’s suggestion. It vaguely references a number of Jewish traditions but none are clearly sensible responses to this particular event. It seems quite plausible that Peter, terrified – or “freaked out”, as one translator proposes – is grasping for something from his world that he can use to respond to something that is most definitely not from his world. But Peter’s attempt is cut off – the epiphany is not finished yet – God has something to say.

“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

Just a few short weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism. There weren’t any disciples, as of yet, although John the Baptist knew Jesus was special. God spoke that day, too – a voice coming out of the heavens: “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.”

That time, it was a message meant for Jesus – You are my beloved Son – whether an affirmation or a revelation we don’t know. This time, however, it’s meant for the disciples – This is my beloved Son – and it changes everything.

By the time Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain, they have already witnessed plenty that defies simple explanation: a storm is stilled, the blind see, the multitude are fed with just a few loaves. But Peter has an explanation: Jesus is the Messiah. Which is true but Peter hasn’t yet understood what that means – he still thinks the Messiah is a conquering hero.

The passage we read today begins, “Six days later” – which is to say, “Six days after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah and Jesus tells them, for the first time, that the Messiah will be rejected, killed, and raised again. Peter had a hard time with this news. In fact, he reacted so strongly that Jesus called him Satan: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”

These conversations are, according to Mark, the context for this journey up the mountain – a journey that will reveal the inadequacy of Peter’s understanding.

For Peter’s response was not only inadequate because he was terrified but also because he was responding to the wrong information. He thought the important news was the presence of Moses and Elijah and the transfigured Jesus, a revelation of power and authority in keeping with a mighty liberator sent from God. He thought that something from his world could explain what he was seeing.

But God interrupts Peter to tell him that his explanations are insufficient. The only one who can explain who and what Jesus is, is Jesus. There can be no containing of Jesus inside Peter’s religious or political world. He must simply listen to Jesus – who has warned them that his victory will only come through his death – and that any who would follow him must be prepared for the same to be true of them as well.

And so, when all is back to normal on the mountain top – or at least, the appearance of normal – James, John, and Peter return down the mountain with Jesus, prepared to listen but, as we heard in the extra verse I had added on to our reading, not finished with their own words: “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean”.  I can just imagine them, whispering and wondering and hypothesizing together – on the way down the mountain and late into many nights in the future.

Because not even God can keep them from trying to put words to what they are experiencing, what they are learning.

Nor does God want to.

This urge to say something – to attach words to an experience – is part of meaning-making. It helps us put the experience in context, turns the inexplicable explicable – or at least describable. It is, I think, a mark of the image of God within humanity – for it was with words that God created all that is and it is with the Word that God restores all that is. We need words – but we need to keep them in their place.

So what does that say about theological education and its love of words? Notice the difference between Peter’s words on the mountaintop – lacking reflection, declarative, definitive – and the description of the disciples’ conversation afterwards: having listened to Jesus they questioned among themselves what it meant.

Theological education should look like the latter not the former. Peter reacted by trying to shoehorn Jesus into his already formed understandings of God and the world, a natural but not very useful response. He needed to wait on God before speaking, to really attend to the new gospel that Jesus was teaching, to talk it all over with his fellow disciples.

Theological education should expand our understanding – and our vocabulary – not simple reinforce what we already think we know. And that can only happen if we listen more than we talk – to one another, to the world around us, to the Word of God in the Bible, to the whisper of the Spirit in our hearts – to God’s beloved Son.

If only God interrupted us every time we forgot that.


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