Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not know what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
I think honesty is a pretty good thing to strive for in the church.
While we are steeped in a world of deception, when we never quite know who or what to trust, surely in the church we could do for some transparency.
So I’ll start with this: It’s been a long and difficult week.
I traveled to St. Louis with two of my closest friends, who happen to be clergy in the UMC, and with whom I host and produce a number of podcasts.
We weren’t really sure what to expect. We sat high above the arena in the press section and were witnesses to every moment of the conference. We tried to write about what we saw and what we felt, and we also reached out to people of all sides of LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion debate so that we could share, as well as we could, what was going on and what was at stake.
We put out a conversation we had with a pastor who was fired without trial for presiding over a same-sex union. We talked with a man who leads a conservative lobbying group who was strongly advocating for the Traditional Plan. We interviewed a retired bishop about his experiences throughout his career and how they led to a moment like this one. We spoke with a gay pastor and his partner. And we reached out to a lot of people who simply said they didn’t want to talk.
And all the while we waited. We watched the legislative angling in which people from every side of the spectrum argued for their vision to become reality. We watched as protestors stood up to sing hymns in order to drown out people from an opposing view-point. We watched as bishops struggled to keep the room in order as different proposals were brought to the floor.
And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all the fighting and debating, THE vote came before the delegates of the general conference. They were simply running out of time and needed to get everything settled.
Incidentally, we were on a time crunch to leave the arena promptly because they needed to dumps tons of dirt on the floor in preparation for the Monster Truck Rally that was scheduled for the evening.
It took exactly 60 seconds for all of the delegates to cast their votes through their electronic devices. And for 60 seconds most of the people in the room were wondering the same things:
Would the global United Methodist Church adopt the Traditional Plan that continues to ban LGBTQIA persons from ordained ministry? Would the church double down on punishments for clergy who preside over same sex weddings? Would the language of incompatibility be reinforced and therefore resonate strongly across the globe?
God does a lot of ungodly things in the Bible, and in particular through the person of Jesus.
We could expect that God in the flesh would sit tight in a particular region, waiting for the people to gather, but Jesus goes walking all over the place.
We might expect that God would share a clear and cogent vision for what it means to live a faithful life, but Jesus tells these strange and bizarre parables that leave people scratching their heads.
We might imagine that God would command people to tell everyone about the Messiah being in their midst, but Jesus usually order people to keep their mouths shut.
So it comes to pass that Jesus calls Peter, John, and James to go up onto the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, his face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly two men were standing next to him, Moses and Elijah.
Peter and the others don’t know what to make of it. Scripture doesn’t even tell us how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. But ever eager Peter makes the bold claim that they should stay up on the mountain even though the two figures were talking with Jesus about his departure in Jerusalem. In many ways, Peter wanted everything to stay the way it was, he wanted to build houses on top of the mountain, perhaps to avoid the reality of what might happen down in the valley.
And in that precise moment of Peter’s rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.
I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It stands as a high point, both literally and figuratively, in the gospel stories. Whatever the disciples think they know about Jesus takes on a whole new meaning of power and majesty and might, when two of the greatest figures from Israel’s history are flanking him on his left and right.
Moreover, in these two particular persons, it’s as if the whole of the Old Testament is conferring with Jesus.
Moses is the Law.
Elijah is the Prophets.
It’s a great moment for preaching and teaching because everything changes after this divine declaration – all eyes are now aimed toward Jerusalem. The team has huddled together on the mountaintop and there’s no turning back from the cross.
And then the cloud overshadows all of them, and the disciples were terrified.
I imagine that the waiting in that moment was akin to the breathless waiting in the convention center at General Conference. So much would hang one whatever happened next, and yet in that moment of darkness the mind wanders all over the places and through every possibility.
Throughout the arena there were a number of screens that would display the occasional votes, and after the requisite 60 seconds, the results were made available to everyone with eyes to see.
The Traditional Plan passed.
438 to 384
53% to 47%
What happened next was a strange thing to behold.
At first the room was truly silent, completely unlike it had been in the previous days. And suddenly a group of delegates began to gather in the very center of the room, they embraced one another as the tears began flowing down their faces, and they started to sing.
This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior all the day long…
In their singing and in their weeping, the dreams of a different future for the UMC were brought to a halt.
And then something else began to take place. Other delegates rose from their seats, and they made their own circle off to the side, and they started dancing, and clapping, and celebrating the results.
Never in my life have I been witness to such tremendous suffering and such exalted joy only an arm’s length away from each other.
And we call ourselves the church.
When the disciples cowered in fear as the cloud overshadowed them, they waited for whatever would come next.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And the disciples kept silent in those days and told no one about what they had seen,.
There were a lot of people at the Special General Conference last week. There was plenty of talking and fighting and arguing. There were quite a few moments where the Bible was weaponized to knock down someone else for trying to make a theological argument.
And though we started the whole thing in prayer, and though we had a cross up at the front of the room, there was one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings: Jesus.
Sure, I heard a lot about what it says in Leviticus. I heard a lot about Paul. I heard people quote precisely from John Wesley. But Jesus?
I honestly don’t know where Jesus was while we were trying to figure out the future of his church.
In fairness to our Lord, it felt like he had better things to do than witness the devolution of an institution whose motto is “Do No Harm.”
It seems like we’ve spent so much time listening to ourselves, that we’ve forgotten what the voice cried out from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration.
I don’t know what the future holds for the UMC. I’m not even sure what it means to be a United Methodist right now. Open hearts, open minds, open doors right?
But from the time that Peter quaked in fear on top of the mountain, Christians have always known that what we’ve always been taught and what God is saying today aren’t always exactly the same thing.
Christians have known since that horrific moment where the crowds chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus that voting and democratic decision making have plenty of flaws.
Christians have known since that first Easter morning, that resurrection is only possible on the path that includes the cross.
In a few minutes we will gather at the table, as countless Christians have done so before us. We do so as a United Methodist Church, whatever that means, but more importantly we do so as disciples of Jesus. Despite what a Book of Discipline might say, there are no terms and conditions on this moment. Nothing can preclude us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.
So when we come to the table, when we cling to the cross, listen for the voice crying out from the overshadowing cloud.
“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.