Last week I attended #salic or the Six Agency Leadership Consultation in Baltimore which is a fancy way of saying that the PC(USA) sent representatives from the six agencies that make up the denominational institution to consult and dream about the future and about the 21st Century leadership in the church with 30 -40 pastors from around the country. For much more in-depth description of the conversation you should read Nanette Sawyer, Dawn Hyde, Adam Walker-Cleaveland and Jeff Foels reflections… or you could check out Adam’s storify event which is a wonderful compilations of reflections, tweets and images of our time together.
Instead of adding to the reflection pool which has been wonderfully representative of our time together I am posting here, my sermon from Transfiguration Sunday in which I attempt to integrate some of what I encountered in our conversation as well as speak to the call of leaders in my own context at Friendship Presbyterian Church. We ordained three new officers and installed four, two ruling elders and two deacons. Due to the conversation at SALIC I reformatted our constitutional questions so that they were read responsively If you would like a copy of the questions send me a note, I’m happy to share! My sermon is below and the images came from my time listening and dreaming at SALIC2013.
“Let Your Faces Shine”
We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.
Scripture: Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
Sermon: “Let Your Faces Shine”
Most of the time repetitiveness and redundancy doesn’t make for a good story… we usually experience them as a sign of literary laziness or boring content… but our biblical texts are an exception. In the bible when we notice a pattern, a repeated theme, something happening again and again… and again, it is usually a good sign for us to pay attention. You would think even the disciples would have figured this out by now – I mean we share a common ancestry, a common story – for Peter, John and James the mountaintop was a familiar place, in their own lives and in the stories of their Jewish ancestors. I’m not sure I’d go anywhere near a mountain with Jesus, especially if I had an inkling of what who he really was, which according to Luke (chapter 9), they should have – Jesus the messiah (which he has just confirmed for Peter in their last conversation those eight days before they find themselves climbing this mountain).
I mean think about it… every time Moses, or Elisha or Jesus climbs a mountain something crazy happens… the sky breaks open, God speaks or reveals something… like the laws of Moses or the promise land, there is always some insane weather wind, earthquake, fire, deep silence (like an eye of a storm) or enormous thick clouds or bright shining lights… When Luke tells his listeners that Jesus and his favorite three disciples are heading up the mountain it’s a clue that something brilliant, something revealing, something revolutionary is about it happen. It’s Luke’s way of beating God to the punch line, “Pay Attention!” “Listen Up!” he says – what happens here… and what will happen next is IMPORTANT…
Ruth Everhart, a writer and pastor in DC traveled the Holy Lands in Israel and Palestine and wrote a book about her experience. She tells this story about visiting Mount Tabor… even though our biblical text (Luke or any of the other gospel writers) does not give a name to the mountain Jesus climbs in today’s story the early church (348 CE) chose to commemorate it or celebrate it on this mountain because it is central to the area and communities in which Jesus ministered.
When I was on a pilgrimage in Israel, we visited the Mount of Transfiguration. Our itinerary allotted thirty minutes for this taste of mountaintop glory. As the bus rumbled toward the base of the mountain, I thought: It’s a ridiculous timeframe, of course, but maybe it will be enough.
In the story, Jesus manages to “get in and get out” of glory rather quickly. It’s Peter who tries to hang onto the moment.
At the foot of the mountain we pilgrims had to switch to taxis. The only road up is a series of hairpin turns that a bus can’t manage. We ascend, sloshing back and forth across the seats, the vista switching abruptly at each turn like looking through a viewfinder held by a child.
When we emerge at the top, we are breathless and rumpled and disoriented enough for glory. [Imagine…] That this was the very spot, this mountain tiptop, where Jesus shone like the sun, the veil between heaven and earth pierced for a moment.
They’ve built a church up there by now, of course. Peter’s way won out. After all, we humans are like that. We like our hammers. We all know what it’s like to be the onlooker, the disciple in ordinary clothes, gawking at the dazzlers. We want to hang onto our brush with a moment of glory.
Like plain-clothed Peter, we humans are well-meaning and awkward, helpfully offering to do unhelpful things. “Let us make three dwellings . . .” And don’t we all feel for Peter? He was being so goodhearted, so helpful. So entirely human. “Hey, I know how to use a hammer. Let me use it. Let me build a booth. Let me nail this moment down.”[i]
This is a Sunday I really appreciate the lectionary… in both our Exodus and Luke accounts both Moses and Jesus demonstrate the two essential pieces of what it means to be people of faith… to be responders to God’s call.
There is the work of the mountaintop and the work of the valley.
There is the listening, seeking God, seeking peace, seeking illumination and there is the response… the reporting back, the testimonial, healing, doing work of God in the world.
These two pieces are like two halves: not so much in tension or competition with one another but two halves that make for a holistic and meaningful life of faithfulness, two halves in which we are called to move in and out of and back and forth and in-between in the pattern of our own lives.
And both… both halves result in transfiguration and transformation.
The first half is this – We are called to climb the mountain – that is to find the places where we can see, taste and know the presence of God. For some folks this looks like a church or a synagogue… a house of worship, a gathered community. For others it’s the quiet moment at the start of the day, before the world wakes up, a moment of connection with God.
We are called to seek God out. Luke makes a point of telling us multiple times that Jesus was setting aside this time for prayer. This wasn’t a moment of care-giving or activity. It was a moment of worship – a time of centering, a time of infusion.
Luke tells us that Jesus’ face changed, that he was infused with the light of God, so much so that his face and clothes shone brilliantly.
Where or when are you infused with God’s light?
Luke also tells us that when Peter suggested they build three dwelling places… God engulfs Peter in a cloud and seems to be speaking directly to Peter and the other disciples:
“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Instead of speaking to Jesus, like God did at Jesus’ baptism – God urges the disciples to listen, to listen to Jesus and to pay attention. When I think about Luke’s community… early Jesus followers – waiting and wondering what they should do next… how to be and become the church – folks who would also very much like to build some dwelling places… find a place of safety, a place where God seems to live. A place to live and worship and build community… and yet they are urged to listen to Jesus… to follow Jesus’ lead – to do as Jesus does.
Which brings us to the second half… the other part of the story. Some scholars believe that God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus because God wants them to understand who Jesus was – the messiah, and this might be the case. Understanding and believing in who Jesus is was incredibly important to the early fledgling community of Christ followers that Luke writes to.
But I think God was getting Peter (and the Luke’s community… and ours for that matter) ready – God is getting us ready for what comes next. God says: “This is it friends, this is my Son, I have chosen him and you will listen to him… now watch what he does next.”
He goes down the mountainside and into the valley. He doesn’t stay long in this holy place, this thin place where God’s radiance pierced through the atmosphere and recharges him. He returns to the work of ministry, he returns to the place where there is deep need. Where a man waits, frightened by his son’s illness, distressed that no one can help him –and Jesus uses his power immediately to help another, to rescue the boy.
It’s two parts – two halves… personal and public. Mountaintop moments of transfiguration and valley work of transformation… Light infused and light reflected… both moments holy…
I’m interested in this idea of trans… transfiguration… transformation, transfusion – the prefix trans or tran means to cross over, go beyond, to change thoroughly…
Transformation has become a bit of buzz word in the church – not just ours, I mean the whole denomination, even the whole Church Universal. And I think sometimes we do that with words that both inspire and scare us… we domesticate them, write them into our mission statements and goals, we long for new life and growth and yet we also long to contain such things…. Or to control them… incremental change sounds a lot more manageable than transformation… or transfiguration.
It’s scary to imagine utter and complete change. What if don’t recognize ourselves or one another? What if we lose track of who we are? Of where we’re going?
Earlier this week I participated in a conversation about the Church… where we’re headed and what it means to be leaders at a time of such rapid change. We kept talking about all the changes… social change, technology, pluralism, transient communities, increase diversity…
We kept talking about it as if we had some choice in the matter… should we or shouldn’t we as the Church change too? And after a bit I thought wow, it’s sort of hilarious that we’re having this conversation (myself included). We’re like Peter and the disciples on the mountaintop, sleepily rubbing our eyes and looking around asking ourselves – in the midst of utter change and upheaval, in the midst of transfiguration – we’re asking if we should change when, in reality, it’s already happened – when really the question in front of us is not if… but how?
How will we respond to the change in us and around us? Will we claim God’s power to transfigure us? To refigure, refine and transform us? Will we claim God’s brilliant light like Jesus does and move back into the world to be a beacon of healing and hope?
Often times, once we’ve experienced transformation we’d rather nail it down (like Peter) than risk losing it… and like Ruth Everhart says, “we humans are well-meaning” – there are even times that building something facilitates God’s work. But on this day, in this story, the mountaintop wasn’t meant to be a permanent residence. It was meant to be a flash point for transformation… for experiencing God so fully, so overwhelmingly that Jesus and the disciples are empowered – are imbued with the holy light of God that will enable them to return to their valley work.
In a memoir (Breathing Space) about ministry at a church named after the transfiguration—Heidi Neumark writes:
“Living high up in the rarefied air isn’t the point of transfiguration … [It was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level.”
Charge to newly ordained/installed officers and to the congregation:
In just a few minutes we’re going to ordain and install our new elders and deacons. When teaching elders are ordained and installed there is often a series of “charges” – that is words of direction or advice for them and the community. In preparation for this ordination and installation today I offer these words of charge to all of you:
God speaks of Jesus in today’s text saying, “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him!” and yesterday when session and deacons met together we read portions of the Book of Order – in a section about our call to openness and to change we read that we are called to a “more radical obedience to Christ”[ii]
Radical and obedience are not two words we normally see together… and I imagine many of us are attracted to one of these words much more than the other… but here it is again these two halves. In our obedience we seek Christ out, we seek to worship and pray and to love God – we commit to ways of practice and service, of becoming more like Christ… and yet what we discover in doing so, like Christ we become a radical people – radical in our openness, radical in our love, radical in our forgiveness, radical in our ministry of generosity and hospitality…
To those of you entering into or serving in leadership positions – for the time you are in this role – called to be leaders of our community, remember to visit the high mountaintop but do not linger there. Seek ways of renewal and restoration, seek God out and be imbued with God’s holy light but stay on the move… carry the brilliance of God’s love with you down the mountain and into the world… As leaders urge and prod and entice us to follow your lead, your movement, help us in our transitions, cast a vision for our transformation, and together we will be transfigured.
And to the gathered community — the congregation – we must stay awake, there are times we long to build a dwelling place, to plant ourselves and refuse to be moved. But we have learned, in this community, that movement, transition and flexibility can also be life giving. We are called to follow the lead of these ordained and installed elders and deacons, to go with them to the high mountain places and to the low valleys, allowing our faces to reflect God’s light to the world, to shine God’s light into into the dark and shadowy places of own lives and into the lives of those we seek to serve.
[i] Everhart, Ruth. Hammering it Home at http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/transfigutationcgospel/
[ii] PC(USA) Book of Order F‐1.0404