A Tipi for Christ

For Sunday, 14 February 2021: Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Most of the Indigenous people of the Great Plains were nomadic and lodged in tipis, conical-shaped tents made of buffalo skins stretched over long wooden poles. These dwellings were practical in that they were durable and portable, enabling the people to move as the seasons and hunting opportunities changed. In Old Testament times, the tribes of Israel would construct temporary dwelling structures covered with palms or other plant materials during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. These shelters reminded God’s people of the time their ancestors were nomadic during their sojourn between existence as slaves in Egypt and life as free people in the land promised by God to their forebears. In today’s Gospel reading, Peter oddly volunteers to build three dwellings or tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

Jesus regularly withdrew from the hectic pace of his public ministry to refresh and renew himself in solitude and in communion with God. Sometimes he went by himself and at other times he invited his friends to accompany him. Peter, James, and John must have thought that Jesus was taking them up the mountain for some retreat time. Little did they know that their lives were about to be changed by an encounter with the Holy One and their vision broadened by a glimpse into the kingdom of God.

The story tells us that Jesus was “transfigured before them and his clothes become dazzling white.” A preview of the glory that was to belong to Jesus after his resurrection from the dead perhaps? But in this vision Jesus is also accompanied by two heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah representing the Law and Prophets. In one magnificent moment, the Old and the New Testaments are in plain view for three of the twelve apostles to witness. And what is their response? In my paraphrase, Peter confusingly asks Jesus: “Shall I set up three tipis for you and your guests?” Peter’s being out of touch with the moment can be excused, given that the text tells us that “he did not know what to say for they were terrified,” a clearly understandable response.

It makes me wonder, however, about the ways God might be revealing something of his kingdom and plans for us and how fear can prevent us from seeing clearly, causing us to miss the point. For example, has the pandemic we have been living through been something merely to endure until we can come out to play again, or is it a divine time-out, an opportunity to think about our lives and the changes we might need to make to become more fully the kind of people God desires us to become for the sake of the world he loves?

One of the desert fathers, Abba Moses, is said to have told one of the brothers to “go sit in your [monastic] cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” We still have a little time left to learn in our pandemic cells of confinement. It strikes me as interesting that the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine coincides with the season of Lent we are about to enter. As we head back down the mountain with Jesus, Peter, Andrew, and John, back to our ordinary lives; and as we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we take with us the memory of the voice from the cloud: Jesus “is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

From Sickness to Service

For Sunday, 7 February 2021: Mark 1:29-39

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In several traditional Native communities, it was common for a young newlywed couple to live in a dwelling separate from the bride’s parents. Not only that but contact between the bride’s mother and her son-in-law was forbidden.  No one knows for sure why this so called “mother-in-law taboo” was observed but it does not take much imagination to figure it out, especially with the abundance of mother-in-law jokes in the comedic repertoire. Most likely this culturally sanctioned separation of mother-in-law from son-in-law was intended to keep peace and reduce strife in families’ lives. (I hasten to add that, contrary to stereotypes, I was blessed with a wonderful mother-in-law!)

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law figures prominently in today’s Gospel reading. She lived in his house, suggesting that she was a widow. In a scene reminiscent of attending Sunday dinner after church at Grandma’s house, Jesus and his friends head over to Simon Peter’s house following synagogue on the Sabbath where they find the cook to be indisposed due to a fever. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up whereupon the fever leaves her. According to the narrative, Jesus has just publicly cast out a demon from a possessed man and now privately cures a woman of her physical malady, marking the beginning of his ministry of exorcism and healing, freeing people from everything that keeps them bound and holds them back, as signs of authority undergirding Jesus’ message that “the kingdom of God is close at hand, so repent, and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:15).

There are three things that stand out for me in this short, three-verse story of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. First, the woman is unnamed, but I wager Jesus knew her by name as he had compassion on her suffering. There is no person who is beyond God’s care. As the hymn sings: “There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven” (1982 Hymnal, No. 469). Second, after she is healed and rises from her sickbed, she begins to wait on them. There is no better way of showing gratitude for a gift of healing than by serving in return. Third, she is an Elder, signifying that Jesus has work for us to accomplish on behalf of the kingdom of God no matter what our age.

Today, we may recall the times God has healed, delivered, saved, rescued, or seen us through the darkest of times. We can consider showing our gratitude by engaging in deeds of service as acts of thanksgiving. We remember that God desires freedom for us from everything that keeps us bound or holds us back, and that we are called to be co-laborers with Jesus as he works in ushering in God’s reign. We all have a part to play, no matter how old, as we move from sickness to service.

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The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.