This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [A] (Exodus 24.12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1.16-21, Matthew 17.1-9). Drew is a United Methodist Pastor serving Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a face like the sun, locating the Transfiguration, apocalyptic language, refining fires, upending expectations, witnesses, the power of a pinhole, the strange new world of the Bible, and Sufjan Stevens. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Pay Attention
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.
2 Kings 2.1-12
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed the dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could not longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
In 1940 John Lewis was born into a poor sharecropping family in Alabama. He was raised in such a way that he was forced to skip school and help on the farm, to which he decided to rebuff his parents and run out to the School Bus when they weren’t paying attention, knowing full and well that punishment would come when he arrived home in the afternoon.
He eventually left Alabama to attend school in Nashville, Tennessee, and it was there that he became involved in the Civil Rights movement, helping to lead sit-ins at local businesses. Some of us can remember what it was like, and of course some of us are young enough to have no idea what it was like, but there was as a time in this country, in fact for the fast majority of it, where people of different races were not allowed to share anything; not a water fountain, not a bus, and not even a table.
Lewis became well versed in the work of non-violent resistance, and his involvement (and beating and arrests) eventually introduced him to a young man named Martin Luther King Jr. At the time Lewis was 18 and ready to give his life to something, and the young Dr. King was the kind of mentor and visionary who provided it to him.
During the sit-in protests Dr. King offered him ways out of the demonstrations if necessary, but John Lewis remained committed, though he almost spent more time in jail than he did protesting.
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.
After the Nashville sit-in movement resulted in the desegregation of the lunch counters in downtown Nashville, John Lewis continued to be arrested and beaten as he sought to desegregate other parts of the community. In 1960, Lewis became one of 13 original Freedom Riders, who sought to ride in public buses in an integrated fashion. At the time, even though segregation was outlawed, many southern states refused to let people of different races sit next to one another on public transportation.
So Lewis and his companions began riding all over the south. When they arrived at bus stations in places like Birmingham and Montgomery, angry mobs were waiting with KKK members and local police officers to inflict violent retribution before hauling them off to jail. Again, because of the sheer amount of violence, leaders in the Civil Rights movement proposed an end to the Freedom Rides, but Lewis was determined to not let any act of violence keep him and his fellow workers from the goal of freedom and equality.
When the Civil Rights movement marched on Washington D.C. in 1963 John Lewis was the youngest individual invited to speak, and today he is the only one left alive.
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.
In 1964, Lewis began leading what would later be called the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in which he non-violently combatted the inability for some black individuals to register to vote. He organized education classed which helped people to pass the voter registration tests, and he invited college students from all over the country to witness the perils of the black experience of the south.
The responses from the local communities were harsh and violent, and again, leaders from the movement offered a way out for Lewis, encouraging him to go to other parts of the country for work, but he stayed.
And on March 7, 1965, Lewis began leading a march from Selma to Montgomery, and as they crossed a bridge just on the outskirts of Selma, Alabama State Troopers charged the demonstrators while beating them with nightsticks. Lewis’ skull was fractured during the attack, but before he was taken to the hospital he appeared before television cameras calling on President Johnson to bring an end to the injustice in Alabama.
To this day, Lewis still has visible scars from the incident.
Three years after the bloody events of Selma, Dr. King was assassinated, but Lewis has worked tirelessly over the decades to keep his dream alive.
The month of February ties together a handful of narratives. At one moment we are focused on Black History, the individuals and communities that have been long overlooked in the education of young people. At the same time, in the church, we prepare for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. We do so in the church with what we call Transfiguration Sunday, a day in which we remember that holy moment when Elijah and Moses appeared on the mountain while Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. It is in the reading of the story that we are also called to remember the prophet Elijah who was sucked up on the whirlwind of the Lord, and his disciple Elisha who took up his mantle and continued his prophetic work.
All of us have experienced moments of transfiguration, times and events that dramatically reshape the way we experienced the world. If any of us made a map of our lives, there would be those big locations, those massive landmarks of metamorphosis. Those places are obvious in retrospect; they are as big and bold as Gilgal, where the Israelites camped after crossing the Jordan river. Or like Bethel, the sacred temple site. Or like Jericho, where the Israelites famously defeated the city.
Those moments of transfiguration could be big and bold as Birmingham, Montgomery, or Selma.
These locations are important because they reveal a lens about where we were, but they also play a role in the future as well.
When Elisha followed his friend and mentor to the big bold places, he was experiencing the past of the people of God, while also preparing to be handed the mantle of the future.
When the disciples witnessed their friend and Lord transfigured before them, when they took in the vision of Moses and Elijah on either side, they were at once seeing the entire history of their people while also experiencing a foretaste of the future.
When John Lewis marched and protested in those now infamous moments, he was carrying the history of an oppressed people, while believing in a dream that was handed to him by his friend and mentor Martin Luther King Jr.
We are who we are because of the people who paved the ways for us, and the transfigured moments that show up on the map of our histories. However, the most transformative moments tend to happen outside of the big landmarks, in the days of everyday living. It is there in the ordinary moments that life is disrupted in ways both strange and superb.
Transfiguration takes place in the conversations between a prophet and his student on the way to the next town. Transfiguration takes place at a table when a teacher shares bread and a cup with his disciples. Transfiguration takes place in the linked arms of a protest line outside of a no name diner.
And that is why we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. It is why we remember the journey of Elijah and Elisha from one place to the next. It is why we take the time to learn about the struggles of a people in this country, who are still suffering under the weight of prejudice and racism even today.
Elisha, the disciples, and even John Lewis were given plenty of opportunities to leave. There were moments when the path before them was clear, and knowing what was at stake did not deter their vision. The work of the Lord, of going to the margins for the sake of people on the margins is no easy task. For many, it results in punishment, isolation, and even death. Yet staying the course resulted not only in their transfigured lives, but also in the transfiguration of all things.
Elisha and Elijah were standing by the Jordan river when Elijah rolled up his mantle and struck the water. And, just like in the days of Moses, the waters were divided to let them pass to the other side. In their final conversation, Elisha asked the prophet for a double share of the spirit, and Elijah was quickly lifted up on the whirlwind of the Lord as Elisha looked on with terror. And when Elijah was finally gone from sight, Elisha tore his clothes into two pieces.
The disciples who were on the mountain with Jesus during the Transfiguration stayed with him almost until the end, when he was hung on a cross for all to see. And in the wake of his suffering and death, they wailed and lamented in grief.
John Lewis continued the hard and challenging work of the Civil Rights movement knowing that his life could’ve ended many times, and that it could’ve ended with a gun shot just like his friend who dared to dream.
That is why we remember. That is why we take the time to read the stories, and sing the songs and offer the prayers. Because these stories are who we are. We are there with Elisha crying out into the void, we are there with the disciples shielding our eyes from the brightness of the Transfiguration. We are there with John Lewis marching across the bridge toward certain doom.
We do this because it is in the looking back, that the light of Christ shines before us propelling us back down the mountain, across the river, or even over the bridge. We are propelled back to the future seeing how far we’ve come while also knowing how far we still have to go. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tommie Marshell about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [Year B] (2 Kings 2.1-12, Psalm 50.1-6, 2 Corinthians 4.3-6, Mark 9.2-9). Tommie recently started the Backsliding Podcast which seeks to produce lay drive conversations about theology and faith (it’s really good and you should subscribe here: Backsliding). Our conversation covers a range of topics including womanist theology, mentorship, covenant separation, naked prophets, giving voice to the voiceless, the positivity of fire, Moana, the blindness of unbelievers, lightning bugs, and the Messianic Secret. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Shiny
In an attempt to live into my fear, I stepped up to the pulpit without a pre-written sermon and offered this about The Transfiguration…
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.
I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.
When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.
When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.
When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.
I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.
Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.
When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.
Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.
Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.
When I was in seminary we had all sorts of assignments that were designed to get us engaged with scripture. When I took a class on the gospel according to Mark, I was required to read all 16 chapters out loud, in my spare time, at least once a week. When I was learning about biblical Greek, I was tasked with memorizing the Lord’s Prayer in Greek and I would mutter it under my breath everywhere I walked on Duke’s campus. And when I was enrolled in a class on the art of preaching, I had to work with a group to come up with a strange and exciting way to bring a scriptural text to life.
My group broke up parts of the worship service; one person would do the call to worship, one person would lead the rest of the class in singing a few hymns, one person was responsible for all of the prayers, and I was assigned the “sermon” section. Rather than waxing lyrical about the particular text (Jesus’ Transfiguration) we agreed that I should just retell the story in an exciting and dynamic way.
I prayed over the text during the days leading up to the worship service and decided that I would tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration from Peter’s perspective, from the future looking back on the incredible event. Like a lot of group of assignments, it felt like everything was just thrown together, but we were confident that God could make something out of our worship.
When the day of the assignment arrived, everyone in the group nailed their respective parts and I eventually had to stand before the gathered class and give my rendition of the Transfiguration. As I went on and on as an older Peter remembering the past, I could tell that the class was starting to lose interest, so I started elevating my volume and delivery. I began building the story up through a crescendo until that pivotal moment when Jesus was clothed in white and everyone in the room went wide eyed. I, at first, thought that my command over the scripture had blown the class away, but I soon realized what had happened: While I was talking, one of my peers had slowly started to dim the lights in the room until it was rather dark (I was so focused on what I was saying that I didn’t even notice it). But then at the exact moment I described the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ garment, she turned on the projector and I started to glow.
Transfiguration Sunday is an important event in the liturgical calendar as we bask in the glory of Christ right before we enter the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Important for us is a willingness to be knocked back by the dazzling power of Jesus’ life and work. We take the time to be blown away, just like Peter was, by how God’s love really knows no bounds.
This week, as we prepare to celebrate the Transfiguration, let us look for moments where God’s glory shines in our midst. We might see it in a perfect sunset, the laughter of a child, or in the still small silence of prayer. And whenever it happens, let us give thanks for the glory of the Lord.