Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Six 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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Then 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.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As 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.
Double Share of the Spirit: Mark 9: 2-9
Last year, on a very foggy Ash Wednesday, Mike Mayette shared a great story with me. On a Sunday when our readings deal with mysterious and confusing sights, it seemed like a good day to share it with you. One night, a call came in about a structure fire in Readfield. The volunteer departments of six local towns, about a hundred people, all rushed to the scene. Or tried to rush to the scene. They knew it was on route 17 near the Jesse Lee Church, but a thick fog had come up and was blanketing the whole area. The fog was so dense that they couldn't even see the fire. Now, I don't know the last time you've seen a structure fire, but I remember what it looked like when the post office was on fire just down the road. I could see the smoke from a long way off. Did any of you see it? Now, imagine a fog so thick you couldn't see that fire. That's the kind of fog we had last Ash Wednesday and that's the kind of fog the firefighters were dealing with that night.
As the firefighters grew closer to the hilltop where they thought the fire was, something strange came over their radios. Now, these radios are supposed to only be used for business. There's not a lot of idle chatter coming over the line. You can imagine everyone's surprise when they heard the voice of the fire chief in Readfield come over the line, yelling, "Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus." It turns out that as he rounded the hill in front of the church, he lost control of his truck, and he began swerving all over the place. He ended up being okay. He regained control of his truck and didn't end up in the cornfield next the road like he might have. Plenty of other people have not been so lucky on that stretch of highway. But, he still ended up swearing/praying out loud across the whole fire department's main method of communication. This incidence happened several years ago, but few people have forgotten it. To this day, his department calls particularly dense fog a "Jesus fog."
It sounds to me like Peter, James, and John know a little something about being in a Jesus fog. Well, maybe it's more of a God fog. Maybe it's kind of the same thing. They have followed Jesus up a mountain. I don't know what they were expecting to see on the mountain but I bet it wasn't Jesus glowing and hanging out with two, long dead heroes of the faith. Now, I almost walked into a famous actress in a bathroom once, and I was pretty flabbergasted. I can't imagine what it would be like if I saw Moses and Elijah or Jesus for that matter. It's no wonder that Peter wanted to build a structure to commemorate the event. I learned from a scholar named Ched Myers this week that that's what these dwellings he offered to build were, tabernacles, places to mark the presence of the Divine. Peter was so in awe and, frankly, so terrified of what he saw that his first impulse was to build something holy to mark the place's importance. He couldn't figure out any other way to respond to what was happening. It's like he was swerving all over the place, trying to get his bearings, and he landed on a tabernacle.
Then, this cloud overshadowed them... it sure sounds like the Jesus fog in the story. They could see nothing in the divine darkness. Remember, in Exodus, God appeared in the dense cloud up on the mountain when talking to Moses. This story is supposed to remind us of that. In that moment, upon the mountain, in the cloud with Jesus, in the midst of the fog, God says two things to help these three disciples figure out how to respond to what they have witnessed. First, they hear the voice of God say, "This is my Son" and call Jesus Beloved. The next thing God does is tell the disciples to listen to Jesus. This is supposed to remind us of prophet stories in Hebrew Scripture. God will make sure that the people God's sends are listened to. Just as quickly as this fog shows up, it clears, leaving the three a little stunned and still confused, but clearer, at least, that they should be listening to Jesus.
After the fog clears, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone what they saw. This seems like such a hard ask to me, maybe not as hard as the times he will ask people he's healed not to talk about what he did for them, but still hard. I mean, I saw a famous person in a bathroom and I tell people about it all the time. I've mentioned it twice in this sermon. I imagine, at least for some people, it would be a challenge not to tell everyone, or at least the other disciples, about the Transfiguration. It would have been such an incredible sight, how could you not? But, Jesus said, now is not the time to share this story. So, they do what God said. They listen to Jesus. They tell no one... at least until after the Resurrection.
I read a sermon by Fred Craddock, a scholar and teacher I've often talked about. He said that he wondered if Jesus asked them to wait because there was no way they understood the miraculous thing they just saw mere moments after they saw it. To go around telling everyone was to risk missing the point of the event. To truly understand what they saw, maybe they needed some more experiences, some more stories, some more mysterious fogs. So, for now, they would hold this piece of information close. Pray about. Listen to Jesus some more, and do what he says. Take some time to tell this story right. It's ok to stick around in the fog for a while. You will soon see a way forward. Just know, you might swerve around a bit on the way.
A colleague of mine, the Rev. Tamara Torres-McGovern, told me another story about finding a way through a fog that seems appropriate to tell with this piece of the Gospel. There was a man traveling along a road. Maybe he was a fire chief, maybe he was a disciple. We don't really know. What we do know is that he had a long way to go but felt confident in his direction because he could see where he was going. He knew what to expect in the road ahead. But, then a fog rolled in... heavy one... a Jesus fog. Every single landmark and mile marker he needed was completely obscured. But, he couldn't just stop. He still had to get where he was going. So, he kept walking. Finally, after stumbling around in the foggy dark, he ended up at a home. Desperate for help, he knocked on the door. A hermit answered. The man said to the hermit, "I am so lost. I know where I'm supposed to go, but I cannot find my way. Can you help me?" The hermit was kind and said, "Of course." He turned around and went back into his home.
After a few moments, the hermit returned. He was holding a lantern in his hand. The hermit handed the lost man the lantern and said, "Here you go. This should help." Do you remember how thick the Jesus fog is? Do you think a little lantern would be much help? Well, the lost man sure didn't think it would. He said the hermit, "Thank you. But, I don't think this is enough. I need directions. I need someone to show me the way. This is only one small light." The hermit looked at the poor man with great grace. He took the lantern back and showed him: "Hold the lantern out in front of you. Look. You can see at least a couple feet, right? Well, walk to the edge of what you can see. Hold the lantern out again. Look, you can see a couple feet further. Walk, again, to the edge of what you can see. That's how you will go forward. You will travel this road 10 feet at a time."
I think the transfiguration is but one flash of light that helped his disciples figure out the next ten feet of their journey with Jesus. But, this story is so miraculous that people might have gotten stuck in those ten feet, not realizing it was but one step towards God's vision of love and justice, if this miracle was all they talked about. The disciples', the world's, transformation would not come in one burst of light, but in a long journey with Jesus, a journey that will be amazing but often confusing and very hard. We will not find our way by lingering too long in one spot. We will always need to hold our hand out and see where the next ten feet of Christ's light leads us. This story reminds us that we may have to journey together for a while to truly understand how we got where we needed to go. This story also assures us that we will one day understand it enough to pass it along.
There is one last part to the story about the fog and the fire chief. I told you that he eventually was able to regain control of his truck. He was finally able to safely stop. Then, he looked out of his window. Remember that fire they couldn't find? Well, he stopped right in front of it. He was able to tell the rest of the firefighters where it was. I pray that we all can find our fires, even as we travel through dense fogs and winding roads, even if it takes us a while to understand how.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Thanks to church member Mike Mayette for telling me about the Jesus Fog and to Rev. Tamara Torres-McGovern for telling me about the hermit and the lantern.
C. Clifton Black: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3561
Ched Myers, "Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday after Epiphany), Preaching God's Transforming Justice
Fred Craddock, "Tell No One Before Easter: Mark 9:2-9," The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.