NRSV MATTHEW 17:1-9
17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
This is a Transition Sunday; a movement from one season to another. It’s Transfiguration Sunday, a title that not many of us grew up with. I know I didn’t. It was just Christmas and then Easter in those days. The nuances of the liturgical calendar had yet to be discovered.
But this time around the transition is more than one Christian season following another. This is a transition, a movement, from what seems to be so bright and crystal clear to that murky place where most of us live.
In this case, we leave the season of Epiphany, with its Wise Men and teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, most particularly the one about being salt and light. We leave the light of the star, the light of the way, the light that leads us. We may know what eventually beckons us – this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, with its 40 days and 40 nights of repentance, reflection and remembrance that our dustiness is not without hope.
But that is for later, much later. For now, we leave Epiphany’s light on this the last Sunday of that season for something even murkier than dust. We leave the light for a cloud.
It seems like such an odd detail; it just comes and goes. The cloud covers them and the Voice of the Lord comes out of the cloud, and what the voice says is so important, so deep, so critical to their – and our – faith journeys that those words rivet our attention. But the cloud is important, because it is the cloud that contains the Presence, as well as the Word, of God. And that is not something to be taken lightly.
Clouds are funny things. They look so nice and bucolic up in the sky. As kids – and maybe even as adults – we got some enjoyment from seeing what shape some of them looked like. They look so nice and serene against a blue sky, maybe because they are at a distance.
Of course, those of us who have flown know better. We know that when a plane flies through clouds there is a good chance it is going to be a bumpy ride. And when the clouds come down to earth, they can also create some havoc. Like fog, making it hard to see. We may wonder why the clouds don’t just stay up in the sky where they belong.
But the thing about clouds – and a lot of things in life – is that they don’t stay where they belong. And when they don’t they bring all kinds of disorientation with them.
I have told this story many times – maybe too many, so please forgive me for bringing it up again, on yet another Transfiguration Sunday. But it made such an impression on me, and about how we look at this text that marks a transition, and the response of Peter. Usually we mock him out; ‘oh, how silly can you be, Peter, how totally clueless! You want to build dwellings up there on the mountain for Jesus and those spectral visitors? You want to box in your spiritual experience? What’s the matter, Possessor of the Keys of the Kingdom, haven’t you figured it out yet?’
But an experience on another mountaintop – or almost to the top – taught me a lesson about Peter, myself and how easy it is to be critical of someone’s attitude on a mountaintop than to actually be there yourself. It was almost 20 years ago when I was out in Colorado attending this big conference on ways to navigate the sometimes cloudy field of pastoral ministry. The leader was a Lutheran pastor named Roy Oswald, who was known both for his acumen in church administration, and the trips he took to the Himalayas for pilgrimages. He wanted to get ready for one of those by climbing Mount Meeker, the 13,900 foot mountain that loomed over the conference center where we were staying. Colorado has 54 mountains over 14-thosuand feet, so climbing this mountain was not that big a deal for the adventurous. But Roy wanted to climb it and he invited a bunch of us to go along.
I had never been on this mountain before, but I had done my share of hiking in the Rockies before. And I knew that if you didn’t get up to the top by 1 o’clock in the afternoon you stood a pretty good chance of dealing with nasty weather. That’s because all of that energy around the mountains goes up to the top, and it can produce thunderstorms. It can happen in a hurry, and it can happen with deadly results. We had heard stories of people not making it off the mountains because they stayed too long.
So when we just dawdled getting started I was getting nervous. The other climbers dropped off and Roy and I trudged on, climbing over one rock field after another. Finally I gave out and sent him on his way. I sat there among the rocks, eating my sandwich, planning my escape route. But one thing was building up along with the weather: Fear. I knew what these mountains could do to the unprepared, and the clouds were building up in a hurry.
But the thing that really psyched me out was seeing these wisps of clouds coming up at me. I was used to seeing clouds coming down; seeing clouds coming up and knowing what that meant – that the energy for a storm was really building – just paralyzed me.
Somehow in the midst of all of that I remembered this story of Peter wanting to make dwellings up there. After all, he came from a faith tradition where people did that to remember the wanderings in the wilderness. And like they say, when you don’t know what to do, you will do what you have always done. Plus, there was that fear thing. Matthew doesn’t mention it, but the other gospels do. He was so full of fear he didn’t know what to do, so he went back to what was familiar.
All of a sudden, Peter didn’t look so silly to me. I really got the being afraid on a mountaintop thing. But after a while, just like Peter with the touch of Jesus, I got up enough courage to get off that rock face and follow a stream that I knew would take me back to the Conference Center.
These days we may not be climbing mountains in a thunderstorm, but we know about fear. We know about not knowing what to do when the clouds roll in. They may not be clouds that produce lightning and rain. But we know about the clouds of a very volatile political situation. We know about the clouds of wondering where the church is going, both this one and the Church of Christ Universal. We know about the clouds in our own lives, when things are uncertain, out of control, and the path not always so clear. It can cause us to be fearful; and sometimes out of that fear comes anger.
A former colleague, the Rev. Mark Ramsey, wrote an article recently in which he talked about “Anger, the Church and the Gospel.” He said that he has traveled all over the country and what he keeps hearing from ministers and church leaders is that there is an incredible amount of anger, building up like a thunderstorm. People are angry; sometimes they know what they are angry about, and sometimes they don’t. Not too many things more destructive than unfocused anger. Or people who won’t admit they are angry but then they spew venom out at anybody who challenges or tries to help them. As Mark put it, “Every pastor is familiar with navigating strong passions and opinions in the congregation. What is being reported now is different. People who come into church are coming from a society fraught with conflict, division, stress and a language that is often weaponized by our political environment. One pastor said to me, ‘Folks can’t take that to work – their jobs are already tenuous. They can’t take it home with them – their home life, likewise, is stressed to the max. Where can they take their pent-up frustration, anxiety, and yes, anger? They take it to church.’” Lest we get too wrapped in a woe is us kind of attitude, he added that he hears the same thing from school principals about how parents and community members act out in destructive ways.
Point is, there are a lot of things contributing to a sense of anger in our world, a lot of things building up into a storm that pits us against each other. But what does the Transfiguration with all of its otherworldly images have to say about living in a time like this?
Actually, quite a lot. It says first of all, with all of our huffing and puffing as we make our ways up the mountains of our lives, that Jesus is present. He is present with Moses and Elijah, the two giants of the Hebrew tradition. Jesus is part of their story, and that makes their story our story. A story of fear and anger, but a story of deliverance. A story of a God who hears, comes down and saves. A story that tells us that there is no place, no mountain, no struggle that the Universal Christ is absent from.
This story – and the story we are about to descend into the valley to hear again, starting on Wednesday – is all about Jesus. He is revealed for who he is – the Son of God, God taking on flesh and living among us. They will need that reminder because when they start descending it won’t be the ascending clouds that terrify them; it will be all of those religious authorities, and the forces of the Empire that back them up. Those are the forces that will take Jesus to the cross, and think they will keep him there. The forces of those who are so convinced they are right, the forces that demand that they stay in power.
But Jesus remains. The Voice from the cloud tells them, “This is my son, the Beloved.” Just like we heard at Jesus’ baptism. But with one important addition: “Listen to him!”
Listen to him; listen to Jesus. Listen as he teaches and heals and blesses. But also listen as he challenges and disturbs. The cloud here can be disrupting our status quo and comfort zones; or it can be reassuring in all of our times of fear and anger that there is a deeper voice to listen to than Fox News or CNN.
But whether we listen to him or not, he comes to us, as he came to those fearful disciples, cowering on the mountaintop. He touches them and says, powerfully: Get up, and don’t be afraid.
Get up, you weren’t made for cowering. Get up, you have been called to do something. Get up, there are people who need the gifts God gave you. Get up, you have been called to be a blessing to the nations.
And then there is the other part: don’t be afraid. Maybe it’s okay to be angry. But don’t let it drive you to that place where fear overtakes you. Where you forget the most basic lesson Jesus, the One we are to listen to, taught us: To love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
There’s a valley of human need below, and God is calling us there. In this season of Lent, with its reflections of who we are and how we have often been too fearful and angry, we need this voice from the cloud to remind us of what we have been created to do: to listen, to get up and to follow Jesus. Amen.