I grew up in North Central Florida, near Gainesville. The terrain there is flat. Very flat. As a child and teenager, I grew up longing to live in the mountains. So, for college, I moved to Shawnee, Oklahoma…which also is flat. After college, I taught school in Lawton, Oklahoma. Flat. BUT…there’s a wildlife refuge near Lawton that includes one of the oldest mountain ranges in the country, the Wichitas. The tallest of those mountains is Mt. Scott. Every chance I got, I’d drive out to the Refuge and drive to the summit of Mt. Scott and take in the beauty of the view from the mountain top.
After seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I moved to Atlanta. The foothills of the Appalachians were just an hour or so north of us. Again, we took every chance we could to go to the mountains. There’s just a way you feel in the mountains that you don’t feel anywhere else, isn’t there?
So…you can imagine my joy when I was called to serve as your pastor four years ago. Finally! My childhood dream of living in the mountains was coming true! Not only was I being called to serve with a phenomenal congregation, that congregation was located in one of the most beautiful spots in all the world.
The last couple of weeks in worship, we’ve been wrestling with parts of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. “Blessed are the poor.” “Woe to you who are rich.” “Love your enemies.” A lot of the sermon also is included in Matthew’s Gospel. (The Gospel writers likely drew from the same source.) Matthew’s version is called the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience. People of Jewish faith would respond favorably to a teacher who goes up a mountain, sits down, and teaches.
Luke’s gospel was written for a Gentile, or non-Jewish audience. The Jesus they would respond to wouldn’t be apart from and above them on a mountain. The Jesus to whom Gentiles would respond would be down on the plain right in the middle of them. Not proclaiming from the top of Mt. Mitchell, but amongst them in Swannanoa Valley.
While most of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke happens on level places (including tables!), hills and mountains also play an important part in the narrative. Several times, Jesus goes up mountains to pray and rest. Just before the Sermon on the Plain, he asks the twelve disciples to join him up the mountain and commissions them.
Now, 8 days after delivering the sermon, Jesus takes 3 of those disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a mountain…for one of the most puzzling scenes in all of Scripture. They’ve gone up to pray, and perhaps to rest (Luke notes that Peter, James, and John are “weighed down with sleep.”).
While Jesus prays, “the appearance of his face changes; his clothes become dazzling white.” Then Moses and Elijah show up and start talking with Jesus about his “departure (aka, death), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
Peter, James, and John see Jesus with Moses and Elijah…and it’s clear the sight has made an impression on them. Peter blurts out that they should build three tabernacles to commemorate the experience.
Instead of building materials, God sends a dense cloud. Have you ever had a dense cloud descend on you while on top of a mountain? It’s disorienting…it erases everything you know except what is literally right in front of you. Jesus and the three enter the cloud. While in the cloud, they hear these words, the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: ‘This is my Chosen One; listen to him!’
This is my chosen one…the one whose life (and, soon, death) will fulfill the promise of the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah).
Though Peter, James, and John d0n’t understand it at the time–they don’t utter a word about it when they come down from the mountain–What happens on that mountain is key. Though clouded in mystery at the start, further reflection must have led to greater clarity. If they’d stayed silent, we wouldn’t have the story today, right? The fog must have lifted at some point. At some point their trip to the mountain top must have clarified things for them about their lives and ministry.
I have loved living in the mountains! I have loved serving with you all in ministry. But after four years of reflection, clarity has come: It’s time for me to leave the mountains. It’s time for me to return to the flatter terrain of Florida (though Tallahassee is one of the hilliest places in Florida!).
It’s also time for me to move closer to my extended family. When we lived in Atlanta, Allen’s family was an hour away. Having family that close grounded us. Except for Mom, who moved here three years ago, Allen and I have no family here. The pandemic helped us realize how much we long to be closer to family.
When a church in Tallahassee opened up–which is just an hour from my extended family and an hour and half from my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew Lachlan–I felt led to apply. Last Sunday, United Church in Tallahassee voted to call me as their pastor.
As I said in a letter to you this week, the Search and Call process in the UCC requires that the process be private. That privacy protects the pastor and all the congregations involved. The downside of the privacy of the process is that it can feel very abrupt when a pastor announces to her current congregation that she’s leaving. If it has felt that way to you, I am sorry. I wish I could take that hurt away.
As I make my way down from the mountains, here are some things I want you to know. First, I have loved serving as your pastor. We’ve accomplished a lot together, not the least of which is still being together two years into the pandemic! Since March 2020, we’ve had to re-think how we do church more times than I can count. But we’re doing it. It kind of feels like a miracle. We continue to welcome new people into the congregation…which also feels miraculous.
We’ve added some terrific new staff members, many of them in the last year–Eric, Kathleen, Chuck, Amanda, and Andrew. Oh, these people have and will serve you well!
Most of all, I will treasure the ways you have invited me into your lives and have allowed me to be your pastor. That is a profound gift that I will treasure.
Pastoral transitions, as many of you will know, take time and include many steps in the process. The Board and Personnel Committees already have begun planning to ensure a smooth transition with worship leadership, pastoral care, and supervision of staff. I have no worries at all that you all will do just fine in this transition period.
But what do we do in the pre-transition period? Things are kind of awkward right now, aren’t they? Perhaps like the awkwardness that led Peter to blurt out his idea about building tabernacles on the mountain. “Not knowing what to say,” we also might blurt out things we haven’t fully thought through.
Here’s what I will say…I think we need to blurt whatever we need to blurt…as long as we are kind to each other. There’s no script already written for how we should say goodbye to each other. We’re making this up as we go. The important thing for the next two weeks is to say what we need to say so that our leave-taking will help us do what it’s intended to do–say our goodbyes to each other so that I can move on to pastor another congregation and you can move on to welcome a new pastor.
Still, it’s awkward, isn’t it? So, maybe in the midst of our awkwardness, we can do what Jesus, Peter, James, and John did in the midst of their awkwardness after experiencing whatever that was on the mountain top–they came down the mountain and kept doing what they were called to do…being with people, helping them, healing them.
Lent will provide good opportunities to continue being with, helping, and healing people. The theme for Lent is “Hungry for Resurrection.” Thanks to the good work of our Benevolence Team and photographer Farhad Kanuga–whose work will be displayed in the art gallery in March–the invitation is to reflect on the relationship between physical hunger and spiritual hunger. Each Sunday during Lent, as an act of worship, we will be invited to bring food resources to the table to help various non-profits in town provide food to people who need it.
What happened on the mountain top when Jesus was transfigured–that was pretty amazing, awesome, glorious. But look what Luke writes after Jesus heals a man’s son after coming down from the mountaintop: “All were astounded at the greatness of God.” Whether in the mountains or on the plain…wherever we are, whatever we do…if we stay focused on the work to which we are called, the work of healing the world, all will continue to be astounded at the greatness of God.
May that be our goal in all our times–the happy times, the sad times, the awkward times–may everything we do at any time continue to astonish the world at the greatness of God’s love.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2022