1st Reading: Exodus 24:12-18
2nd Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
We went camping last summer on Orcas Island for 5 nights. It seemed like the tent was always in disarray. I don't need things to be absolutely tidy when we're camping, but if I've made the bed and sorted the laundry, you'd think it might stay that way. It was raining quite a bit and Sterling was going in the tent and jumping on the bed and throwing blankets and pillows all over. He just has so much energy. One of the families we met had a boy about Sterling's age. His parents had this brilliant idea. They brought an extra tent just for their kid to jump around in. That preserved the sleeping tent for actual sleeping and kept the mess and chaos contained to the other one for the most part.
Maybe poor Peter is just trying to keep the chaos contained when he offers to make three tents. However, this doesn't seem to be the direction God is going, so back down the mountain they go to heal the sick on their way to Jerusalem and the cross.
Our family goes camping for several reasons. We go camping to get away from home. We go camping because it is a fun, inexpensive vacation. We go camping to experience nature. We go camping to break up our routine. We go camping to be healed by nature. I was just watching Big Bang Theory, so it must be true. Leonard and Penny and Sheldon and Amy were heading out to spend time at a cabin in the forest. They were talking about the power of nature—that people who walk through campus to their college classes retain more of what they learn than if they drive there. Some of our favorite memories are our camping trips.
One thing Sterling loves best about camping and hiking are the waterfalls. There are several waterfalls on Orcas Island, and on out hike Sterling didn't want to leave the waterfall. It was so loud and powerful and awe-inspiring!
Peter and James and John are having a similar experience. They are having this incredible experience of awe and wonder. They have summited the mountain and they could stay all day. They are basking in God's presence. Their enthusiasm and excitement actually cloud their vision, though. They are so excited about the first part of their experience, seeing Moses and Elijah, that they don't realize that there is more, that God's not done yet. Peter tries to capture the experience. He's got his Instamatic Camera there and he wants everyone to squeeze in for the shot. He wants to preserve this moment for always. But he doesn't realize that the snapshot he is trying to take will not at all resemble the experience he is having. This experience is part of a bigger picture, the whole history of experience of God's presence with us from the beginning of time, through Moses and Elijah, in and out of exile, leading to Jesus and his ministry and this moment. But God has more. God interrupts Peter. God speaks about Jesus and who he is and scares the daylights out of the disciples. Then, Jesus reaches out to them and makes contact. They see Jesus alone. They go down the mountain. They heal people and fail to heal people. They misunderstand and they get it. They are welcomed in Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. They share the Passover. They deny their Rabbi and Savior. He is betrayed and arrested. He goes to trial. He is killed in a brutal way. He is in the tomb three days. He appears to them on the road. And on an on.
They don't want that moment on the mountaintop to end, but this moment is revealing that God has always been with them, in slavery in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the exile, on the sabbath, at each meal, in every relationship, in every moment. When that vision and that voice go, who do they see, but Jesus himself alone, the voice still echoing, “Listen to him!” Once in a great while we stand in the midst of a vision, so convinced and overwhelmed to be in God's presence. But normally we stand next to an ordinary-looking guy and we're still standing in God's presence. Or we're at the foot of the cross weeping, or at the deathbed of a friend, weeping, and we're standing in God's presence. Or we're driving past a family doing homework under the lights of 7-11 because they are homeless and we are standing in God's presence.
We do take a hint from our son and stand and enjoy waterfalls. Why rush off? But waterfalls are rare, and God's presence and power is not. Moments of awe upon the mountaintop are rare, but God's presence and power is not. Once we wrenched Sterling away from this captivating moment, we found other signs of God's presence with us. Up the trail a ways, we crossed several streams that eventually feed into the waterfall. There is something so beautiful and holy about a the trickling of a little stream. It's music is unmatched. God is present.
We stood among some amazingly tall trees covered with moss or some overturned trees with the roots shooting up into the sky, and we felt the dramatic presence of God. In that moment time is collapsed. We can picture the tree seed on the ground. We can picture it taking root. A tiny tree, then growing larger, birds nesting, insects crawling, and God there through it all. Then in a moment, the tree falls, and we can look into the future. All the people who walk past this dramatic reminder of how small we are, the slow decay of the downed tree, all the creatures that live in it and chew it up, until it becomes the soil that grows another tree. Is God only there in the dramatic moment where it takes our breath away? It is more breathtaking to picture God's presence through the whole journey.
Wednesday night begins our Lenten journey. These 40 days in the wilderness correspond with Jesus' 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, cementing in him and convincing us of what kind of savior he would be and who his ministry would serve. These 40 days correspond with the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering around in the wilderness, when they were discovering what it meant that God was their God and they were God's people and when they were learning to trust God.
That's what Lent is for us. It is a time to get back to basics. We're not going to be carrying heavy loads on this wilderness camping trip. We pack light. That's part of trusting. We're learning who we are. That is partly about what we can live without. The Israelites wandering 40 years in the wilderness had become so accustomed to being slaves that they kept begging God to take them back to Egypt. It takes some time to break habits. We get to consider in what ways we are enslaved. Who are the masters that we let rule over us? In what ways have we been bound to addictions, and partisanism, and the almighty dollar, and other's expectations? We learn in these 40 days that God is leading us to freedom, even if it is uncomfortable and new. We learn who we really are without all that extra stuff, comforts we had in Egypt or distractions that keep us from freedom. We learn what we're made of, what we're capable of. And we learn who and what we are not, namely in charge, or entitled. We learn in 40 days how much we really need God and really need each other. We learn to pray. We learn to be generous. We learn to love. And we learn to receive love—not the kind of approval of everything we do, but the kind of love that challenges us and makes us think for ourselves and makes us work together, and makes us love our enemies.
Lent is a time to practice noticing that God has always been with us, to train ourselves to see God's presence with us in this moment and this one and this one, whether it is a roaring waterfall of a moment or a little musical trickle, whether it is a dramatic tree root, or a little sliver under our finger, whether it is a moment of joy or a moment of grief. It is a time to let go of the thought that God is only with us in the dramatic moments. It is a time to feel Jesus reach out to us and see Jesus himself alone.
Moses stood on the mountain and he was surrounded by a cloud. I can't imagine how disorienting that must have been. Peter stood beholding this image of Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus and he was completely disoriented. He knew he stood in the presence of God, but he didn't know what to do with that. He thought he would enshrine it, put a leash on it, capture it so he'd know where he could always find it. We stand disoriented in God's presence. As soon as we try to explain it and define it and capture it, it gets away from us, because God's presence isn't in one place or time, but it is always and forever and everywhere. We get to look for that presence in the moment and the next moment and in each other and in the stranger and in the enemy.
God can't be contained either in a tent or any of our explanations or ideas of who God is. So God invites us, not to contain the chaos and disorientation, like the family with the extra tent, or Peter trying to build three tents, but to walk in that disorientation and chaos with God by our side, and to walk with our brothers and sisters who are in it and let them know they aren't alone. We're invited to walk down that mountainside into the thick of it, to eventually pack up the campsite and get back to work, healing, loving, walking, looking, and listening, until we are aware of God's presence constantly and powerfully with us and our neighbor.