Matthew 17: 1-9
When I was younger, I had a can of fog. Really! Right there on the label, it said “genuine San Francisco Fog”.
Many of you may know that I was born near San Francisco. I lived there until I was in 5th grade, before we moved east, to Illinois. I spent a lot of that time in my new town missing the old one, and on a visit back is when I think I acquired that can.
Sure, I knew that it was probably just an empty can, and I thought it was funny. It did help me remember, in a fun way, all the things that I missed about my first home. But I did have a little hope, way down deep in that place you don’t often show people, that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that there really was a bit of air vapor in that can. Maybe, just maybe, that can would have inside that feeling of coolness on my face. Maybe that coolness would bring back the sound of the bells of the cable cars, maybe it would bring back the smell of the crabs steaming on Fisherman’s wharf, maybe it would bring back that taste of a hot dog joint that I loved that has been gone so long.
When I say that I spent a lot of time in my new home missing the old, I think I probably got a little crazy about it. I am not sure what I was trying to do, but I am pretty sure that I missed out on some of the neat stuff about the new place where I lived, because I spent so much time in my head with the old.
You see, I had had a strong experience, and I tried to construct ways to commemorate it.
Peter does the same thing here, though his strong experience is seeing Jesus lifted up and made equal to Moses and Elijah, up on the mountain. Peter knew it was important. A week earlier than this story, back in Chapter 16, Peter knows who Jesus is. “You are the Messiah, the son of God”. Jesus tells them that the role of the messiah is to go to Jerusalem and be killed, and Peter tells him “don’t be talking like that, Jesus. You are the Messiah, and the Messiah isn’t supposed to die.” Jesus responds to that with “get thee behind me, Satan”, which means “don’t tempt me with this common understanding of what the Messiah is; I know what I have to do.”
Then, Peter is one the three who goes up on the mountain, and sees Jesus transfigured before them. He still wants to put some kind of fence around Jesus, though—“Hey, Jesus, let’s build us some sheds here, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah,”
God has other ideas. In Matthew, the words are barely out of his mouth when something even bigger happens—a true, inarguably true theophany occurs. That cloud that descended from heaven every time God showed up to Moses on the mountain returns, and there is a voice, the same voice that was at Jesus’ baptism, saying the same thing. This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” With an added kicker at the end: “Listen to Him!”
Listen to him. A week ago Peter was told what kind of Messiah Jesus would be. He hasn’t gotten it yet. He’ll have other failures, Peter will, we’ll be hearing about them in about 6 weeks toward the end of Lent. But here, he, James and John receive the first theophany, experience of God, in a long time. And the purpose of this theophany is to show them that they have one right in front of them, every day, in Jesus himself. Peter is still one of the three entrusted to this knowledge that Jesus tells them they can’t share until he is raised from the dead. Raised from the dead. An idea that even shuts up Peter.
These events are too big to try to fit into a booth on the side of a mountain. His wanting to build “dwellings” is his cultures’ way of putting up shrines, or those blue signs that mark the locations of historical events, like the battle of Wyoming or the tavern where coal was first burned in Wilkes Barre.
Remembering is nice. Remembering is good. It’s a way not to forget an event. But sometimes people go too far, and then they focus so much on what was that they forget to look at what will be. Peter’s in the middle of the event, and you get the feeling he’s blurting out and interrupting Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah with his suggestion about the dwellings. Never mind that the thing he wants to commemorate is still happening. He’s trying to can fog.
All of us have had experiences of the divine. Summer camp, the birth of a baby, surviving a car crash, weddings, baptism, it can happen in public and private ways. They really happened, they are real. They are also good to remember, but God does not mean for us to stay in that place in our lives. When I was baptized, I joined a more charismatic church than the United Methodist church is. They said to me that the Christian faith is meant to be simple, and the understand of it that I had them is the one I needed to struggle to keep. If I was feeling like faith was more complex than that, then I was being tested and tempted by Satan.
Faith is indeed simple. Jesus Christ loved the world, so much that he died for us, and God resurrected him in order to save us. The world will test that in an infinite number of ways. Holding fast to what is essentially scientifically impossible takes a great deal of faith sometimes. But holding fast to that doesn’t mean being afraid of the world. We know that it was true. We can’t explain it, but we know it happened. And the fact of that happening, for us, should motivate our being in the world, sharing that love, not being afraid of the world. People may mock, but it doesn’t matter. We know. We know. And our knowing sends us out to collect canned goods and donations in football jerseys. Our knowing sends our children to volunteer in Appalachia.
The thing about boxes is that they hold stuff. Scrapbooks, memory boxes, they all have their purpose. But living a life of faith inside them is difficult, and isn’t the purpose of the faith that we have been given. It’s not meant to be held, to be canned, to be boxed. Yes, I am from California. That fact affects my faith and practice in unique and special ways. But it would not do for me to stay there in my soul, because God is calling me to places I can’t imagine. Like Texas, like Guatemala, like here.
The thing about boxes is that they hold stuff. And God is not to be held. Not held in dwellings on a mountain, not held in Peter’s understanding of what a Messiah is, not held by death itself.