Two local stories have resonated far beyond our region this week. It began with the death last Saturday night of Dean Smith. Basketball fans of all stripes, or those who don’t give a lick about sports, can all see something extraordinary in this man. He was a brilliant tactician – his four-corners offense changed the game, forcing the advent of the shot clock. He was a leader on civil rights, a stance that flowed out of his deep faith. But the thing I have heard over and over is how he shaped a team. He was so loyal, tending carefully to everyone from the managers to Michael Jordan. Smith started the tradition of recognizing seniors at their last home game, something everyone does now. Every senior started on that day, and if there happened to be six seniors, they would all take the court, and the game would begin with the other team shooting technical foul free throws.1 At practice at water breaks the seniors got in line first, then juniors, and so on. Pointing to the teammate who passed you the ball – that was Dean. There was something about the intentionality with which he ran his team that shaped these players, as athletes, as people.
Today’s text is a critical juncture in the way Jesus shapes and forms his disciples. We have felt the last five Sundays how Mark moves from John the Baptist to Jesus’ baptism, from calling disciples to casting out demons. Mark moves quickly, but with a purpose, as we feel the kingdom of God breaking in over creation. This pace continues – more disciples, more healing, a couple of dramatic casting out of demons, feeding five thousand, feeding four thousand. But Jesus also takes time to teach them. He is telling parables, but takes a moment to pull the disciples aside and explain what he is doing in chapter 4; he commissions them in chapter 6.
Here – at the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 9 -Mark takes a critical turn. "Six days later," today’s text begins. Six days, and just a few verses earlier, Peter had begun to understand. He looked Jesus in the eye and said, "You are the Messiah."2 The spirits had seen him, known him, but no person had said this before.
This confession changes things in Mark. Then, he writes, in 8:31, Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. They argue back, and Jesus rebukes Peter, in front of everyone. He calls them together: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." It is then, I think, that the disciples began to put the pieces together. This was going to be difficult. You can feel them wondering if they can do it.
In today’s text, in an effort to develop these leaders further, he takes 3 of them up a mountain, apart. The second they get there ‘He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.’ Regardless of what transfigured means – something akin to a metamorphosis, which is the strongest relationship in the Greek – Jesus was deeply affected by God, the same, but different, dazzling white. God was making clear to these disciples who Jesus was. Peter’s confession from six days before was shone true, as the Messiah was placed in line with Elijah, Moses.
The text takes a detour for a moment when Peter interrupts. At the height of the glory, in this magnificent moment, Peter gets anxious. He’s afraid, and wants to help. Regardless, as he is working on construction plans for this tent the clouds roll in, blotting out the sun. And the voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" The last time we heard something like this was his baptism,3 where Jesus’ identity was stamped so completely with God’s purpose. And then, after the voice, everyone is gone. No clouds, no whiteness, no guests. They start back down the mountain, but Jesus keeps teaching. Maybe a bit out of breath as they hiked, he turned and told them they couldn’t tell anyone about this, not yet. All the flashing lights, the drama was just for them right now. He had shown these key leaders who he was. But, it was not about this experience. It was the larger purpose to which he pointed as they walked, towards the cross…
This moment, and how Jesus used it to shape his key leaders for the journey ahead, got me thinking about the way God shapes us. David Lapp, one of our boy scouts, pointed to it last week. He was recalling a memory from scouting, from a camping trip when they were preparing s’mores, and the graham crackers were stale to the point of inedible. A small thing, but a memory. Something that those gathered could look back on later, something that contributed to the making of community. This is what happens when people invest in time together. Mission trips, I think, are about the absolute best place this happens. I have heard amazing stories from you all in eastern North Carolina when hurricanes came through, or doing disaster relief work on the Gulf Coast. Many of you made great friends constructing showers in the back parking lot, sleeping on rough cots in tents. These kinds of experiences happen when engaged in service, FOR OTHERS, but also when you go away – to the beach, to Montreat, on retreats of all stripes. I was so grateful for the chance to go to Scotland with our youth, and want to get an adult trip going there next year. God shapes us into community when we work, side by side, on an important project, in a bible study, shoveling lasagna in a shelter meal, sewing dresses together.
But community is also shaped in profound ways in the hard times. Our congregation has experienced four deaths in the span of three weeks and a day – we had five deaths in the 14 months before that. All four of these deaths were folks who share a long history with this place – three were part of charter families, folks who glimpsed a vision and helped start this place back over a half century ago. This kind of loss takes a toll on a community, especially with those of you who have worked side by side with them for decades, those of you who quite literally built the foundation on which we stand here at Westminster. But God molds us in our grief. God provides opportunities for the stories to be told again, so that we might celebrate and remember and give thanks.
Difficult seasons also give us a chance to decide who we will be. The other news story that has resonated around the world this week is of the seemingly senseless shooting deaths of 3 folks not far from here who happened to be Muslim, and how, even though we are not certain exactly what happened and why, something about parking, it has renewed a conversation about how we are to be community – how we need to be reminded, again and again, that folks who are different from us are not a threat, that God calls us to love both God and neighbor, to tend to those around us with grace. One of the victims, Yusor Abu-Salha, brought her elementary school teacher, from the El-Amin school in Raleigh, to the NPR Storycorps booth when it visited Durham last year. Storycorps is an oral history project in which people can bring friends or loved ones in to share a moment, so they can remember something important about their lives and the American experience. Yusor and her teacher had a really special conversation, even more poignant after her death. They spoke about their shared time together, about growing up in America, loving living here, and having very little problem even though everyone knew she was different because she wore the hijab, covering her head. Then Yusor Abu-Salha said to her teacher: "If you had a podium and could stand up and speak to the world, and you could tell them one thing, what would it be?"
The teacher – her name is Mussarat Jabeen – said, and it sounds so beautiful and prophetic and sad in light of this past week: "’Live in peace.’ That’s what I would say. ‘I wish that we all would learn to live in peace and harmony. The world would become such a beautiful place when we respect each other and make this world a place where everybody has the right to live and we don’t fight over our differences, we learn to accept our differences and learn how we can make this world a better place to live for all…"4
From the top of the mountain Jesus gave his leaders a glimpse of His glory, even as He pointed to the cross. This experience was a crucial step in the way he was shaping them into the kind of disciples he needed them to be. As we glimpse the edge of Lent with Ash Wednesday this week, I wonder how God might be shaping you? Some of this is about the stuff you do and the decisions you make. But even below that, it’s also about who we are, as we ground ourselves in hope, in response to God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. So that this love might drive us out to care for everyone we encounter, doing what we can – in this world of violence and anger and resentment – to bear witness to the Christ who came for all. As Jesus was shaping those disciples on the top of the mountain, God is still working on us. And we have work to do.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "An appreciation of Dean Smith’s life," 2-8-15, The Washington Post.
2. Mark 8:29
3. Mark 1:11
4. "’We’re All One,’ Chapel Hill Shooting Victim Said In StoryCorps Talk," 2-12-15, NPR.