Today is a mountain top day for our congregation with the ordination of our beloved pastor, Michelle. And how amazing that we get this biblical mountain top story to accompany us.
This is the second time that I get to preach about this transfiguration story on a big day for Michelle. Six years ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, Michelle and Becky celebrated their (too long delayed) legal wedding with the congregation during morning worship. Today, we celebrate the (somewhat delayed) ordination of Michelle to ministry in the Mennonite church. Alleluia!
The writers of Mark, Matthew and Luke each tell this story of Jesus and his closest disciples hiking to the top of an unnamed mountain to pray. Whatever mountain it is, it is far enough away that, for once, the crowds that swarm around Jesus do not follow. Maybe Jesus has been training for this because when they get to the top of the mountain Jesus gets right to it, he starts praying. On the other hand, Peter, James and John are tired from the climb. They sit down to catch their breath, (gasping) “just for a moment, really” and soon they are asleep.
Jesus brings them to his favorite place for inspiration and prayer and they fall asleep. I wonder if Jesus has any idea that these same disciples will fall asleep at another crucial time of prayer, in a garden, in Jerusalem?
While the disciples “rest,” Jesus prays and prays. The disciples don’t wake until the light shifts so much that they are bathed in its brightness. There, before their sleepy eyes, they see not only Jesus but two other revered spiritual leaders, Moses and Elijah. They see these men of God, prophets who knew God intimately, Moses and Elijah, right alongside their very own Jesus. They all seem so human and yet more than human. They are practically glowing, their clothes are dazzling white, almost blinding. Moses and Elijah and Jesus, they are talking with each other as if it is the most natural thing on earth – or heaven. Just three spiritual leaders in consultation.
The scene is so glorious that the ever enthusiastic Peter, decides they should find a way to preserve this tableau. He suggests building three little tents, maybe something like they do each year for the festival of Sukkoth, just temporary shelters, as a sign that they are dependent on God. And then if Peter can keep these three men of God in the liturgical structures for just a little while, maybe there is a chance he can build something more permanent, to keep them here always. It makes perfect sense to Peter – and we can see that it is the reasoning of someone still half asleep.
Before Peter can get very far with his building plans, the dazzling light is overshadowed by a cloud, a cloud that Moses and Elijah are quite familiar with, a cloud that is interchangeable with fire as a guide through the wilderness, a cloud that at once indicates the presence of the Almighty and hides that same presence. As the cloud begins to spread over all of them, Peter’s blueprints blur and he is afraid.
Then, out of the fearsome cloud, comes a voice, terrifying and reassuring. “This is my own, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” And there it is, this Chosen One right alongside God’s Chosen leaders of God’s Chosen people.
Before Peter can make any more plans to hold onto Elijah and Moses, the cloud is gone, Moses and Elijah are gone, the blinding brightness is gone and it is just Peter, James, John and Jesus alone on the top of the mountain. And they are silent. They don’t say anything to anyone about this experience.
Except that they do, because we are hearing all about it 2000 years later. But right then, it is all too much. Maybe it is so personal they want to treasure it in their hearts, like Mary does after Jesus’ birth. Or maybe it is all so weird that they have to process it for a while. Or maybe Jesus tells them not to talk about it – that’s how Mark and Matthew tell the story. “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until after the Chosen One is risen.” But here in Luke, they are silent, they don’t tell anyone about this transfiguration, this transformative experience.
Isn’t that the way it is? Sometimes we have weird “God” experiences, experiences that make almost perfect sense in the moment and yet later make no sense at all and we aren’t sure what they were or how to understand them. And so we just don’t talk about it. Not even to those we love.
Except that if we have someone like Michelle in our lives, we can talk about it. Michelle knows about strange “God moments,” Michelle has strange “God moments” – and sometimes even speaks of them – so we know Michelle is a trusted person to talk with about these things. Michelle knows about the cloud that seems to hide and yet illuminates, the cloud that is both unnerving and comforting. One of the many gifts Michelle brings to ministry, is sensitivity to the every day and the other worldly, and the courage to speak of it. And Michelle invites the rest of us to pay attention to those times when the cloud hovers near.
We often think of clouds as an obstruction to the sun. Clouds bring rain and snow. Clouds are foggy, they make things less clear, and hard to see. Clouds are a problem to wait out, we hope they will blow away. But the cloud of transfiguration is different. The cloud of transfiguration is beyond what we understand, and yet it is thoroughly itself. This cloud that guides the people in the desert, this cloud of power that sweeps up Elijah in a chariot of fire, this cloud that calls out to affirm Jesus, this cloud that represents God’s presence – is trans; it is beyond and through. It is transformative and transfiguring. Beyond our understanding and yet right here among us.
Peter and the disciples think they know Jesus. In fact, in the scene right before the mountain top, Jesus is praying and asks “Who do the crowds say that I am?” The disciples report the many different answers that the crowds put forth. But Peter famously says “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” Does Peter believe it, know it, in his bones?
Jesus takes them to the mountain to pray and they have this trans experience, where Jesus, in the company of Elijah and Moses, is transfigured. Jesus is beyond and yet present. And God shows up in the same “cloudy” way, present and yet beyond. Does Peter believe Jesus is the Christ now, now that he has experienced the cloud?
This is another one of the reasons we love Michelle as our pastor. Michelle points us toward this beyondness of God, as well as the right hereness of God. Michelle points to the mystery as well as the concrete ways that we express the love of God, in the ways we treat each other, in the beauty we create, in the justice we imagine and strive toward. We learn from Michelle, and I hope we believe it, that the cloud not only leads us and covers us, it reminds us we are each loved and called by God.
Today is a mountain top day – and we know we can’t stay here, no matter how many tents we build or pictures we take or hymns we sing or favorite casseroles we make.
But we can risk talking about it. We can tell others about the grace and goodness we experience together – as well as the ways we walk with each other when the cloud feels more like an impediment than a guide. In a week when we know many United Methodists and Catholics feel let down by their larger church bodies, we can continue to tell the story of the cloud of presence that is trans – beyond and through and over all of us and calls to us in love.
We are grateful to celebrate this milestone with you today Michelle. We are grateful that you are among us with your many gifts. And we are grateful for the ways you point us and lead us toward the ineffable cloud, the trans-ness of God.