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!”

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.