Today was the Feast of the Transfiguration and our Deacon Susan Bonsteel preached this beautiful and deeply meaningful sermon for the life of our community. She got some big AMENS afterwards.
You can find the readings for today by clicking here.
Six years ago on my birthday, I climbed into a 1958 DeHavilland 7 – passenger plane and had a thrill of my life. On a beautiful and clear sunny September day, our Vietnam War-era fighter pilot flew us over the mountains of Denali National Park in Alaska and within 4 miles of the summit of Mt. McKinley. He mentioned that we were quite fortunate to have such great weather since there are few days each year that the summit could be seen so clearly. We wore headsets in order to communicate with one another and with the pilot, but I don’t recall a great deal of conversation other than an occasional “WOW!” We were enthralled by the majesty of what was below us and around us, as far as we could see. Huge and broad and snow-white covered peaks extended in every direction for miles. Looking down and outward from my window seat, I wondered if there was another soul out there or if were truly alone. And the thought was not at all frightening; indeed I wondered if heaven could compare to what was before my eyes. How could anything be more beautiful, more serene, more perfect? It was an intensely spiritual experience.
Seeing things in a different way can change us. How I viewed the world and my place in it was altered in those 2½ hours. I had been on commercial planes many times before but always surrounded by strangers, noise and the stresses that inevitably come with air travel. Flying had stopped being fun a long time ago. So I didn’t expect my flight that day in Denali to be transformative. At the very least, I had hoped it would be worth the hundreds of dollars we had paid. But looking back, I can say that my sense of self was greatly impacted – for I came to fully understand that I was just a tiny speck on an expansive and glorious planet. Seeing the world from such a place – that so few others get to experience – was humbling. And I could feel the warmth and the glow that emanated from me as we started to head back to the airport.
For me, this was a “mountaintop” experience – a spiritual high where things seemed to fall into place and I understood and experienced God in a way I hadn’t before. I had seen beautiful shorelines and canyons and mountains and forests but nothing quite as spectacular as Denali. Everything seemed to be good and right and meaningful. It was a time that I didn’t want to end. I felt this great desire to stay in that place and prolong those feelings of completeness and peace.
Perhaps my feelings were similar to those felt by the disciples in today’s gospel reading. On this day we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus – that moment that Jesus’ true nature – his divinity and godliness – was revealed to Peter, John and James while Jesus still walked on earth. Mountaintops in the scriptures are often places where people meet God in some way. Luke describes how Jesus takes three of his dearest disciples up a mountain with him and is transfigured right before their eyes. As if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets. Yet the disciples don’t know what to do or say, it so far beyond their comprehension. Peter is compelled to offer to construct three dwellings – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Perhaps at some level he senses the holiness of it all and wonders if this is where all might dwell. But the Transfiguration story doesn’t end there. For a cloud appears and overshadows them all and from it God’s voice is heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then, just like that, it’s all over and the disciples find themselves alone again with Jesus, heading down the mountain, with clear instructions not to speak yet of what they’ve just experienced. So we are left to wonder what James, John and Peter were thinking and feeling as they returned to their life on the ground. Were they overwhelmed and frightened by the experience? That would certainly be understandable. They had just had an intense and holy encounter – experiencing God in their friend and teacher Jesus in a way they had never before. Were they at all reluctant to return to the crowds who were waiting below for Jesus? Or did they yearn to remain longer on the mountaintop?
Anyone who has had a religious experience of any degree knows well the power it can have over us. We don’t want the connection to God to end or our feelings of connectedness to the world around us to dissipate. We want to find a way to keep these feelings alive in us. We have been transformed and perhaps we want others to feel the way we do. We want to stay just where we are. But life isn’t like that.
Like many of you, I have been struggling with the sadness that is in our parish since several members have chosen to leave. Each of us here this morning arrived at St. John’s in a way unlike the person seated next to us. Perhaps we were baptized or received here; or our parents brought us here as children; maybe we were invited by a parishioner; perhaps we were going through a difficult time and were searching for a safe place to rest. Perhaps we simply were seeking God in the midst of community. Each one of us has our own story – and together – our stories form the Body of Christ here at St. John’s. No one’s story is more important than anyone else’s. Each one of us here possesses a gift that enriches us all; and we are called to use our gifts to build up and strengthen the body of Christ.
Healthy churches are made up of people who are eager to welcome others with diverse backgrounds and perhaps different but no less authentic ways of worshipping. So it’s is unrealistic to think that one church can meet everyone’s needs, but all churches can strive to be welcoming places. Part of our mission is to seek and serve Christ in all persons. The church that goes off-track is the one that loses sight of its mission and becomes more like a club where only people just like themselves are invited in. Looking inward and finding those places where change is needed may be difficult for many; for we become quite comfortable in our routine and start to assume all feel the same way. It’s important for us to remember, however, that a church that serves only itself will never grow.
As we’ve discovered, change is more challenging for some of us than it is for others. A new hymn, a new prayer, shouldn’t throw us into a tizzy, as my grandmother liked to say. The hymn that is new to me may not be new to the person next to me. The prayer that I find rich and meaningful may not resonate with someone else. The beauty of any new experience is that it can transform us if we are open and willing.
I have no doubt all will be well. Churches all over are going through challenges like ours. Certainly the political atmosphere around us is charged with negativity and we can’t help but be affected by it. It doesn’t mean, however, that we Christians need to accept it as the norm in our dealings with one another. And so, my wish is that we would see this as an opportunity to look ahead in hope. Our faith isn’t static. Why then should our church be?
One our greatest strengths as a parish family has been our generosity. Our focus on community outreach and social justice issues over many decades has been a shining light to the community around us. The suggestion that we are focusing too much on social justice bewilders me. I’ve been in many churches where there is little connection to the issues of poverty, homelessness, literacy, and food security and wonder how Christian communities can isolate themselves from the needs around them. Our own ECW has had a long history of supporting programs that ministered to women and children, Native American and indigenous communities, literacy, and for the mentally ill. For years, the women of the ECW were leaders who guided us to new and important social programs.
All of these issues encouraged us to look beyond ourselves and into a broken and imperfect world we helped create. As Christians, we profess that we have a deep yearning for the perfect community – the communion of all humankind with God. And I believe that is why we continue to confront peace and justice issues on a daily basis. St. John’s may be a small group of people in the grand scheme of things – but we have the ability to continue to do big things. So how would we ever measure how much of a commitment to social justice is enough?
If you were around in 1992 to see Angel Food East open its doors to our neighbors living with AIDS, you might remember the resistance we felt from some in our own church. There were concerns about bringing AIDS to the midst of own community. Some local area pastors claimed our ministry was not in keeping with their understanding of Scripture. Hateful phone messages and threatening letters were all too common. Yet St. John’s persisted.
If you were around when we began For Whom The Bells Toll, then you remember that there were some in our parish who would not pray for the men and women on death row. There were others who would not participate in the tolling of the bells on the day of an execution; who could not accept that the executed named in our Prayers of the People were also children of God. Yet St. John’s persisted.
Even the widely successful Carpenter’s Kids program had its resistors, folks who wondered aloud why we were engaged in efforts beyond our borders when there was great need within. Like Angel Food East and For Whom the Bell Tolls, patience, compassion and education were the keys to alleviating misinformation and anxiety. Our involvement with Carpenter’s Kids eventually connected us in a profound way to global mission.
And it will be the same for any mission effort to which we agree to commit ourselves in the future. Wherever God leads us, it is apparent that we are not a church that wants to stand still, simply admiring all that has gone on in the past. We are people who believe that the God we worship is a living God, an active God, a God always doing a new thing in our lives. It’s why Jesus calls us to be disciples that follow, that don’t simply stand still. Jesus’ own life teaches us that by engaging with others, by living our faith in communion with the world, we can heal and transform the world. May our prayer be – that in the process of living our faith – we will also be healed and transformed. Amen.