Clouds of Belovedness

Transfiguration of Our Lord
Sunday, February 11, 2018

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon:

2Six 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As 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. – Mark 9:2-9

A few weeks ago I watched a squirrel playing outside the church. I mean really, really watched it. Normally I am not one to notice things like that – for better or worse I’ve never been one to “stop and smell the flowers,” so to speak. But my then 15-month-old daughter noticed the squirrel. And as I was bustling about getting ready for church that morning she was uncharacteristically still and quiet, staring out the window. So I paused and stared out the window with her. I watched the squirrel disappear behind a snow bank and then reappear. We watched as another squirrel joined the first and went chasing one another up and around a tree. I hadn’t just stopped to take in something like that in a while. Of course, I began to ponder in my mind what the squirrel was doing, why it was moving this way and not that. As an utterly amateur observer of wildlife I tried to discern what this squirrel was up to in its movements. I was trying to make sense of it, but C—seemed to be simply taking it in. Now, I’m sure she was making her own connections and meaning out of the experience, but with a wide-eyed and silent wonder I lacked. But for at least for a moment I just watched and took it all in with awe and wonder.

I am someone, and maybe many of you are, too, who has lots of questions. Why is this happening? What is going on here? Where are we? Who are we? When will these things happen? How can we learn more? And maybe you can sense that I’m already talking about more than the incident with the squirrel. And I want to say that those are important questions. Just to navigate the world on a daily basis but even more to lead and respond to important issues, we must begin to dig in to those questions. There is a time and place for that. There is a time for creeds and study, for analysis and action planning. But the transfiguration is not one of those times.

I’ve heard and preached sermons about Moses and Elijah representing the law and prophets which Jesus comes to fulfill. I’ve heard analysis of the voice from heaven and the way in which it connects us to Jesus’ baptism and to words spoken by the centurion at Jesus’ death and how all that points us to the revelation of God’s central message. There’s the analysis of just what it is Peter is trying to accomplish by suggesting the building of structures to hold on to this moment on the mountaintop. And there is a tradition that suggests this is actually a story from after Jesus’ resurrection that the authors reframed in terms of trying to best tell the truth of Jesus’ overall work. All well and good. And perhaps even deeply meaningful.

But ultimately I’m not sure that’s what we’re supposed to do with this story. I think the invitation is just to be with it, to be in it. When the voice from the cloud speaks, it says, “This is my son the beloved. Listen to him!” So I began pondering this week what it is we are supposed to listen to. This story is framed by predictions about all that is yet to come for Jesus in terms of suffering and the cross, so perhaps it is about listening to understand the trajectory of Jesus’ saving work. Or it could be listening to his teaching about transforming our relationship to the marginalized or about seeing the continuity of God’s love and grace in the scriptures. Or simply to be obedient to Jesus’ words. All that, again, is well and good.

But I think the cloud and this voice are actually inviting silent awe and wonder. Peter, and we love him for this, speaks into this unfolding mystery with a heart-felt desire to understand, explain, or hold onto what is happening. It’s the first-century equivalent of trying to film an experience on your iPhone instead of actually experiencing it. And with words of belovedness and the intensification of the mystery, God enfolds him – all of them – and invites them to deeper awareness of the transformational glory of God.

And so perhaps this account could invite us, too, into the same deeper awareness. Often it is the case that this assembly holds at the same time among its members the incredible, holy, awe-inspiring transformations that happen at birth and those that happen at death. These moments raise deep questions about meaning and life and God. They invite us to ponder and discover, learn and grow. But they also invite us into moments in which God’s transformation shines beyond our human understanding. How might all of us enter the wonder and mystery of those moments when they happen in our own lives and in the lives of our community members? How might we pause simply to be in those moments?

How might we be present to the ongoing transformations within our own lives: the small daily changes that carry us from who we have been into what we will be and the big moments that propel us into new phases of life? We rightly worry and analyze and second-guess decisions, but in doing so we sometimes miss the profound ways in which God is wrapping us in a cloud of belovedness and calling our attention to Christ lighting our path.

And so, too, the world around us changing with the seasons; cultures that grow and change; communities that are shaped and re-shaped. Our own congregation experiences these moments of transformation as we make room to welcome new voices and make new pathways together as a community and when we gather together as we did yesterday to vision and plan as a church council. When we begin to discern where God is leading us, we have an opportunity to be on the mountaintop with Jesus, to experience God transfiguring us.

So instead of approaching this story and our own profound moments of transformation with our typical questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how, maybe sometimes we might try tasting and touching, watching and listening, even smelling what the glory of God looks like. To really see and hear the other people of God around us for who they are as God’s beloved children before we ask what they have to offer us. To really pause to see and listen to the world moving around us and the communities of which we are a part. Not just to hear but to feel the music of worship and the music of the falling rain moving in our bodies. To really taste and smell the bread and wine of communion as they come to our lips or feel the wet and wonderful waters of baptism which transform us into glory.

And if we’re looking for something to sustain us through the coming wilderness of Lent, through the pain and suffering that lies ahead, something to hold us to Easter, it may very well be the ways in which we take in the fullness of God’s glory in ways that we simply cannot explain, even if we tried, once we have come down out of the cloud and off the mountain. Things we cannot fully comprehend in the ways we usually seek out understanding. At least not until we, too, see the fullness of God’s glory transforming us into new life. But until then we have the opportunity to be with one another, to listen deeply to each other, to take in the glory of God’s transforming us, and to rest if only for a moment from the busyness of our hearts and minds, to be aware of that cloud of God’s belovedness enfolding us forever.

-Pastor Steven Wilco