It is good for us to be here.
We’re a meaning-making people, I believe, ready to put to work the intellects that God has given us. Maybe this is amplified by the fact that I’m a preacher, that seemingly everything is potential material, but I am constantly walking around and trying to interpret what is happening – in the world, in my own life – to fit those pieces to an arc that will hang together, one that will in some way make sense, offer something to share, something to learn.
I left in January for an almost-two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land with no idea of what to expect. In the company of almost 40 meaning-making colleagues, most of them priests, four bishops, one deacon…all of us accustomed to leading, in our own way, all of us used to being responsible, all of us prepared to interpret.
From the time even before our plane left Newark for Tel Aviv, two things became clear to me on this pilgrimage: 1) I was not in charge. And 2) I had no idea what all this would mean.
Our flight was delayed in leaving the States, and the group flying from the West Coast was affected by the storms there, so the reshuffling really began before the pilgrimage did. But, a little punchy with a lack of sleep, and with the customary good-natured awkwardness of people who don’t yet know each other well, we found our way.
Each site we visited had a kind of order to it. We would go to the place, hear for a few minutes from our guide Ghassan about what it was, about the historical significance, and his confidence of its authenticity (or not). And then we would celebrate a simple liturgy: someone would read a passage from the Bible that related to that place, we would sing a hymn, and conclude with a prayer. And then we would have about 10 minutes to look around and take pictures, before getting back on the bus and going on to the next site. We did that five or six times a day, with a break for lunch and dinner, some time for fellowship in the evening, and then enough sleep to wake up and do it all again the next day.
We went to Mount Tabor at the end of our first full day in Israel, believed by the western church to be the place of the Transfiguration in today’s gospel.
It’s an actual mountain, such that we weren’t able to stay in our regular tour bus and get to the top of it. Instead, we got out of our big bus and into little mini-buses, driven by guys who drive those little busses up and down that mountain all day every day…which gives them an ease of speed and a confidence at taking those hairpin switchback curves leading to the top and to the base…it was a kind of ease and confidence that I, as a passenger, did not experience.
But we arrived. And it was good for us to be there. This was one of the places that had been reshuffled – we were supposed to have gone the day before, but it had all been moved and sandwiched into the next day after our delay. It was the end of the day, so we had to hustle a bit through the liturgy before the church was closed for the evening, had to jockey with other groups for space. And then it was dark, and we were all going in separate buses when it was time to leave. I found out later that my friend Kate had waited for the last bus, watching for me because she was worried I’d be left behind (I had gotten on the first bus, because I was worried about being left behind…both of us shared concerns about my questionable navigation skills without benefit of the group and our guide).
I can tell you we drank fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice at a stand in the parking lot while we waited for the buses. I can tell you that the voices of 37 fellow pilgrims who would become my friends over those next 11 days, singing harmony under the dome of that church, took my breath away.
I can tell you two things: 1) I was not in charge, and 2) I still don’t know what it all means.
And it was good for us to be there.
Jesus leads Peter and James and John up that same high mountain in today’s gospel. His face shines. His clothes are the brightest white. He talks with Moses and Elijah, who are there with him.
“It is good for us to be here…” Peter begins, and he keeps going.
And then they’re all enfolded in a bright cloud. (When has a cloud ever been bright, in your experience?)
Within the cloud, a voice: “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him!”
Peter and James and John fall down, terrified. Jesus tells them to get up, says that thing that Jesus says: “Do not be afraid.” It’s just him with them now. Moses and Elijah are gone.
As they come down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about this, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.
What was that like for Peter and James and John, can you imagine? Just the walking up that high mountain is no small thing, and then all that they see in the vision, the bright cloud and the voice inside of it, the falling-down terror and then Jesus’ call: Do not be afraid…the command not to talk about it until some mysterious date in the future, which also defies explanation and understanding. What would they even say?
And yet. It was good for them to be there.
What I can tell you is that there was blessing to be found in not being in charge for those two weeks. There was blessing to be found in not being responsible to interpret, to make meaning.
Because instead, we pilgrims had the chance to encounter: places that I had only ever known by chapter and verse. I can tell you about the frescoes inside the dome of the Church of the Transfiguration. I can tell you about one of the first women bishops of the Church leading our celebration of Eucharist on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, at the place where we believe Jesus told his disciples: “You give them something to eat”. I can tell you that there’s a divider through the middle of the muddy Jordan River which serves as a border between the countries of Jordan and Israel, one that soldiers patrolled the baptismal site on both sides with machine guns, and that doves flew over our heads as we renewed our promises: “I will, with God’s help”. I can tell you about the 2,000-year-old olive tree I saw in the Garden of Gethsemane. I can tell you that on January 20, I laid my forehead against the Western Wall and prayed, and wept.
And we had the chance to encounter people: five of us staked out the very back seats of our bus by the third or fourth day; we would sit and talk together for the rest of the trip. I could tell you about Ghassan, our guide, an Israeli Christian who grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem. Christians are a minority of only 2% there now, and Ghassan’s family has lived in Jerusalem for more generations than I know. But he said that the times are so hard for his family there, that he would leave with them tomorrow if he could. I could tell you about the teenage Muslim girls we met at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron. Someone in the group asked permission to take their photo. They agreed, asked that we send it to them. The girls smiled to each other as we left, and said, “We’re going to be on Facebook.”
There hasn’t been too much time to think, in the weeks since I’ve been home, but once in a while I have wondered if the need to make meaning, the need to be responsible, might keep us from entering the bright cloud of encounter. I wonder what blessing might come of our willingness to suspend that need for a time. I wonder how we might be changed, because of it.
Those disciples saw something dazzling and profound, there with each other and with Jesus. They saw something they did not understand and could not explain. They were terrified. Whatever came next, their lives would be changed forever by what happened on that mountain.
And yes: it was good for them to be there.