Camping When It’s Cloudy – a sermon on Matt 16:24-17:8
It was my last spring break in college. I was meeting a friend in Caesar’s Head State Park in upstate South Carolina to go hiking and do some camping.
My friend and I met in the parking lot at the trailhead on Friday afternoon. It was a little foggy – nothing either of has hadn’t seen before – but maybe that was the first sign of what was to come. We got our packs loaded up with some food from a local store, and headed out. The first bit of the trail was rather dry over a bit of rolling hills, but as we headed down towards the river that ran alongside the trail the weather took a turn for the worst.
I’m not sure where the wheels fell off – if I had left it in the car, or back in my apartment – but when the clouds opened and it started pouring down on us, my rain jacket was no where to be found. We were totally drenched in a matter of minutes.
Let’s just say that things got worse from there as it turned out that I was way less prepared for this camping trip than I had thought.
The disciples should have been prepared… They have been journeying with Jesus for a while now, had seen him teach, and transform lives, had heard him tell story after story that angered those in power, so they shouldn’t have been too surprised by his reminder about what following him involves.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
What a tall order that is… Denying oneself and taking up our own cross…
And as we head into the season of Lent there will be plenty of time for us to talk about giving things up, and taking on spiritual practices to follow Jesus as he journeys before us.
Back to the disciples though, at least Peter, James, and John – for they had heard Jesus speak of discipleship, and their following led them up a mountain.
When they’re up on the mountain and the clouds of glory come in, with Moses and Elijah making a grand appearance, Peter can’t get camp set up fast enough. For this is a most holy place. But it’s not just any holy place, it’s one of those most holy places where you can really hear God’s voice yourself. But this time, God’s voice isn’t saying “listen to me” but rather “listen to him”.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
If anything even remotely that strange has ever happened to you, then you know why Peter, James and John were relieved when Jesus told them to keep what had happened to themselves. Supernatural light. Famous people come back from the dead. God talking to you from inside a cloud. Things like that may happen in the Bible, but try talking about them now and someone’s going to give you the name of a good psychiatrist.
Most of us are allowed at least one direct experience of God (within bounds)–something that knocks us for a loop, blows our circuits, calls all our old certainties into question. Some churches even require you to produce one as proof of your conversion. But even in congregations that welcome signs and wonders on a regular basis, there seems to be a general consensus that life in Christ means trading in your old certainties for new ones.
Once you emerge from the cloud, you are supposed to be surer than ever what you believe. You are supposed to know who’s who, what’s what, where you are going in your life and why. You are supposed to have answers to all the important questions, and when you read the Bible you are supposed to know what it means. You have your Christian decoder ring, now use it!
But what if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it? What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life–and are never the same again? I mean, what don’t people run into in the Bible? Not just terrifying clouds and hair-raising voices but also crazy relatives, persistent infertility, armed enemies, and deep depression, along with life-saving strangers, miraculous children, food in the wilderness, and knee-wobbling love.
Thankfully people still run into God and are telling stories about it. Maybe lately you’ve run into God helping someone at the food bank, or in the eyes of a grandchild. Maybe you’ve run into God at the dinner table talking to a loved one, or in the office having a conversation with a co-worker. And in these most ordinary of moments you have glimpsed into the cloud of God’s mystery love and grace.
Transfiguration happens here in these more ordinary moments, just as it happened on that mountain long ago. On that holy mountain, with camp almost set up, Peter, James, and John get another affirmation of Jesus’ beloved-ness.
The voice, like the one at the baptism way back in the river Jordan, declaring it so. And not only do we again get this reminder of beloved-ness here on the mountain, but now we’re told explicitly, “Listen to Him.”
Sounds easy enough, they had heard him preach the all those gathered on the hillside, seen him feed thousands, and witnessed other miracles and healings. The problem is, here in this holiest of holy moments Jesus isn’t saying a whole lot. All that he’s doing is glowing. You know the look…
Like the brightest kind of glow you could imagine. The sunlight reflecting off of some newly fallen snow; or someone’s teeth fresh from a shining at the dentist. Jesus is just glowing.
But Jesus when he does finally speak reassured the three disciples like we all need reassuring every now and then – “Do not be afraid.”
The words of comfort echo in the cloud of holy mystery that the disciples had just been witness to. And shortly after his words of comfort Jesus, Peter, James, and John head down the mountain towards Jerusalem.
Maybe you’ve had that experience of God’s love and peace, of God’s holy mystery, that has so overwhelmed you that, like Peter, you want to set up camp. You want to stay in that place of embrace with the divine.
But more often than not we cannot stay in those holy places, for we are needed by God to take the holiness within each of us, that divine spark that shines within us all, into places where God’s love still needs to be shone to the world.
Frederick Buechner talks about how sometimes we are the one’s transfigured…he writes,
Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.
Because when you’re going camping and it starts to get cloudy sometimes you can’t set up camp for as much as you want.
You have to follow the Spirit to whatever place it leads, wherever that might be. And once you’re there, maybe you start glowing too. Because in that place having been transformed by God’s love, you can’t help but share with others.
Alleluia and Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Bright Cloud of Unknowing – Sermon on Transfiguration Year A, http://day1.org/5560-the_bright_cloud_of_unknowing
 Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words p.393