Transfiguration

It was thirty years ago or so when I experienced something I could call a transfiguration story. It was thirty years or so ago when I could relate deeply and truly for the first time to what Peter is going through and saying in the gospel for today.  Peter’s experience was on a mountaintop face to face with God and recorded for all time in the Holy Scriptures.  My experience was by the side of a lake, face to face with Bible camp counselors and imprinted only on my heart. But it was no less a time when God became very real to me and I, just like Peter, wanted to stay in that moment and that feeling forever.

I tell this story so often because it is so fundamentally a part of the story of me. I was fourteen years old and at my church, like here, a requirement before confirmation was to attend a week of Bible camp.  I did not want to go, I had no desire to go, and I went kicking and screaming in my own quiet and passive-aggressive way.  I was painfully nervous and shy at that age, I had no idea what to expect.  A week full of strangers? What would be fun about that? A week full of church? What did I need with that?

But out of respect for my pastor and the requirements of my church and the demands of my parents, I went. And it is no exaggeration to say that I saw God that week.  Through the words and actions of counselors who daily took time with us and shared the word of God with us. Through the songs that sang of simple wonder and joy and peace. Through that place and time set apart for growing in spiritual community. Through a sudden and growing sense that God had a purpose for me, for all of us, and the conviction that even in my own middle-school worries and wonderings, God cared about me and always would. That week changed everything for me – I heard the gospel I had heard my whole life in a new way, in a way I could understand and feel to my bones. I could see the glory of God shining through everything.

So, whenever I read the story of the transfiguration and how Peter and James and John are up on the mountain to pray with Jesus and Jesus is transfigured before them and his face is glowing and his clothes are dazzling white such as nothing on earth could bleach them and then Moses and Elijah appear with him and they are talking – Peter says to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three dwelling places: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” My first reaction is to think that Peter wants this moment to last, to stay there forever, and that makes sense to me – because isn’t that human nature to want to stay in those moments that touch us and move us deeply? Whether it is a deeply spiritual time, or the summer you first fell in love, or when your kids are little and so adorable, or when all feels good and well and right with the world.

But, wait a minute, the dwelling places aren’t for Peter and James and John along with Jesus and Moses and Elijah – he proposes to build dwelling places for just Jesus and Moses and Elijah up on the mountain top.  What? He wants to keep them there? While the regular people go back to regular life?  He wants to keep them Set apart?

It seems to me we might understand this as well.  Or do we never reserve parts of our Christian life for only Sunday morning? Do we pray daily or keep it largely at church? Do we read the Bible at home or is it mostly something we do when we read the scripture lessons at church?

I can’t tell you how many times over my years as a pastor that I’ve run into people around town and they’ll say something to the effect of, “Oh, pastor – I didn’t recognize you without your pastor robe on.” I think to myself, do they think I just hang out here in my robe all the time? That I don’t leave and go do other stuff? But I remember I used to think the same thing when I would see my hometown pastor out and about – “Oh look, Pastor Vetter is out of the church! He’s in the bank! He’s walking to the post office! He leaves the church?”  Well, of course he did. But in my mind it made sense that Pastor Vetter went with the church – we all like to compartmentalize things. Chips and Dip go with Superbowl Sunday, roses and candy go with Valentines day, Pastors, prayer, Bibles go with churches.  I think that is why Beer and Hymns gets people’s attention – because it is a pairing of things that we don’t think of together.  It makes some very uneasy – but for others, it just makes it interesting.

To Peter, Jesus hanging out forever on a mountain top – shining and talking with Moses and Elijah in their designated dwelling places high and far away – that made sense.  Keep the holy stuff and holy moments together.

But of course, Jesus won’t be compartmentalized. Never for a moment would he stay set apart. He comes down off the mountain and into the messiness of life down below because a shepherd needs to be with his sheep.  Surely life would have been easier for him if he had stayed up on the mountain, but he would only have fulfilled a fraction of his purpose. What good is it to be shiny and glowing on a mountain all the time? Shiny and glowing Jesus high on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to the man who came to Jesus in the village down below needing desperately for him to heal his son. Shiny and glowing Jesus set apart high and far away on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to any who needed to hear his teachings or experience his grace.

While Peter is still talking a light-radiant cloud envelopes them and they became very aware of God’s presence – and a voice emanated around them saying, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

Obviously, if you are going to listen to someone, you need to be around them.  You can’t keep them perched far away on a mountain and be actively listening to him. Peter and the others knew that no matter how extraordinary that moment had been, and no matter what reasoning Peter might have had for wanting to build those dwelling places, the moment drifted away with the cloud and Moses and Elijah as well.  All they were left with was the command from the voice of God’s own self, “Listen.”

It seems to me that word is much at the heart of the church season we will soon be entering.  Lent begins in just a few days when we gather here on Ash Wednesday to hear the Word, to confess our sins, to receive the ashes on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and to share in Holy Communion. On Ash Wednesday and each week during Lent we gather for church on Sunday and also have the opportunity for worship on Wednesdays to set this time apart, to give ourselves space to listen for God’s voice and to reflect on the discipline of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love. These become the specific occasions and opportunities for spiritual renewal during this season of renewal.

Repentance is turning from sin. It is turning 180 degrees away from sin to walk toward God. We participate in repentance when we join together in the confession on Sunday mornings and Lenten services – particularly Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.

Fasting comes to us from Judaism and was recommended by Jesus. It is a practice that is designed to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening one’s attractions to pleasures of the senses. Thus fasting is always coupled with prayer and spiritual preparation.

Fasting does not necessarily mean giving up all food for a day. More frequently it is the giving up or limiting of a particular food or food group (sweets, desserts, chocolate, butter, fat, eggs, etc.) Abstinence from some activity (such as television, internet, movies, entertainment, etc.) on certain days, at certain hours or throughout the season is another way to observe the Lenten fast. This is designed to give more time for prayer and spiritual work.

Prayer is when we are drawn closer to God in contemplation and communication. Prayer is our half of a conversation with God. That means that prayer is not only speaking, but listening as well.

Finally, works of Love – this can be anything we do for someone else – generally someone outside our family.  Examples of works of love are as varied as your imagination: shoveling the sidewalk for someone else, visiting homebound people, bringing a meal for someone who is going through a difficult time, writing a letter of encouragement. When doing your work of love, meditate upon Christ’s words, “As you do it for the least of these, you do it for me.”

After making your choices and beginning your discipline, it is not necessary to share your choices or your acts of love with anyone else. In fact, anonymity is regarded as better (Matt.6:1-7, 16-18).

Don’t be too hard on yourself, too rigorous, or too legalistic. The idea is to have a discipline that moves you spiritually closer to God, not one that focuses you solely on your discipline.

There’s nothing about the discipline of Lent that is a shiny and glowing mountaintop experience of God. The grand alleluias get put away and we tend to the work of Lent for us here in the valley below – practicing at being God’s people. Working at it. Letting the turning of the season and the giving of ourselves over to it transform us. Giving something more each week of our time, and our attention, and our selves.  Trusting that as we journey through this season quietly and listening, and staying awake with Jesus, we might arrive at Easter morning with renewed spirits.

Evangelism (a sermon from 1/19/14)

I wonder what comes to mind for you when you hear the word “evangelism”?  Do you think about street corner preachers calling out phrases such as “repent and be saved”?  Do you get a picture in your mind of the television evangelist in an expensive suit on the stage of a stadium-size church?

Do you think of yourself?  After all, we are a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  In truth, each of us are called to evangelism, to be evangelists – and yet there are many who would steer far from calling ourselves such a thing.  Perhaps that is because we have witnessed many times evangelism done so poorly. 

I think of a clear and cold winter day back in the mid-nineties.  My car had broken down on a freeway in North Dakota and a man and his wife had stopped to pick me up and bring me to the nearest phone.  I was thankful for their kindness and we chatted as we shared in that short time together.  Inevitably, they asked me where I was from and what I did and at the time I was a student in seminary studying to be a pastor and I told them so.  Their response was one that by then I had gotten used to as they then began to evangelize to me about how I was being misled, that it was sinful for a woman to presume she could be a pastor, that they would be praying for me that God would point me back on His path.  I sighed and politely thanked them for the ride.  I knew by then that they were just two of many, many people who interpreted scripture in such a way.  There was nothing I was going to be able to say in such a short amount of time that would change their mind.  Yet I wondered why they thought they could change my mind.  Did they imagine that what they were saying (these entire strangers) was going to be entirely new information and by the end of the car ride I would abandon religious studies after years and years of pursuit and the calling placed on my heart since the age of fourteen, a calling that had been affirmed and nurtured within me by my home pastor and my home church and my family who loved me and brought me up in the faith and taught me not only a love of scripture but to understand  and live in the life-giving faith and grace found in Jesus Christ – did they imagine their few words were going to strip away all of that?

What that couple tried to do that day, while I’m sure it was well-meaning, was hollow and only alienating.  It took into account nothing about me or my journey or my understanding of who God was and is.  They were trying to take their experience and their journey and impress it upon me, squish me into their idea of what a Christian really should be like in the time it took to travel over a few windswept Dakota miles.  I resented it. 

And that sort of thing, unfortunately, is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the word evangelism.  I don’t like that because I know the heart of evangelism is much deeper and richer and far more meaningful than that – but I know well what our knee jerk reaction to that term “evangelical” can be – because I have felt it myself.

So what is being evangelical at its best really about?  We can take some lessons from our gospel today as we think about that.  First, there is John the Baptist who when he sees Jesus he can’t help but tell others about his experience, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about, ‘the One who comes after me but is really ahead of me.’ “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky, making himself at home in him. That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God.”  So John can’t help but share this amazing thing that has happened and what he has witnessed to be true.  And he’s doing just that one day, and John’s witness must have been very compelling because two of his disciples who hear him then follow after Jesus – they want to experience some of the wonder that John is feeling in knowing Jesus. 

I think John the Baptist was a great evangelist because a synonym of the word evangelize is “Proclaim” – and he couldn’t help but proclaim who Jesus was and by doing so, he drew others to Jesus.  Some are able to do that.  Have you known people like that?  Their love for the Lord is infectious, their thirst and hunger to know God and live for God and study God’s word is so beautiful and humbling and passionate that it makes you want to have a closer walk with God?  That can be a beautiful form of evangelism, to be so in love with God and so devoted to learning as much as we can and serving as much as we can that we are consumed by love and we can’t help but share that joy we have found. 

However, while there are some who can do this, and perhaps all of us can at certain times – the difficulty of trying to be this kind of evangelist is that very few of us are always spilling over with our passion for faith.  It’s not because we don’t want that, I think all of us would want that, but the truth is that life is complex and there are dishes to be done and the cat needs to be taken to the vet and there are  appointments to keep and the constant buzz and hum of things to do and think about can so easily overpower our inclination toward always having our thoughts turned toward God.

So for those of us who might fall into this second category, we can take comfort in knowing there is another, even more powerful way of being an evangelist.  A way that draws us gently together and creates a space for the spirit of God to enter.

And it is all about relationships.  Yet not in the ways we might initially think about relationships and evangelism.  Oftentimes when we talk about relationships and evangelism in the church we think of them as a means to an end.  You know what I’m talking about – we worry about our attendance and so we say “invite your friends to church” and we think that will help fill in some of the empty spaces;  and we worry about our finances and so we say, “we need more people to come so then we will have more people giving.”  Or perhaps that couple I met back on the road in North Dakota was worried because the ways God had called me to serve him challenged everything they had been taught about what was right and so they needed to try to point out my error of thinking and set me on the right path.  Too often in the church when we think about evangelism and relationships we think of doing so as a means toward something else in the end.    As it says in the book, “Relational Pastor” by Andrew Root, “We have deeply wanted our ministry to be relational, but not for the sake of persons, for the sake of ministry, for the sake of initiatives.  In other words, we have wanted people to be relationally connected so that they might come to what we are offering or believe what we are preaching or teaching.”  I think it is human nature and we all fall into this way of thinking sometimes – sort of a selfish evangelism – one that focuses on a goal somewhere off in the distance, not simply on that person and that relationship right here and right now. 

Yet how would it be to think of the relationship as our only goal? Not so that we can have them come to church someday and not so that we can get them to think about Jesus like we do someday and not so that their kids might come to youth group – no, just so that we can know another person and they can know us.   What if that was our only goal?  Could that possibly evangelism at its finest?

May I give you an example?  I think of the first Bible camp counselor I ever had.  Her name was Beth.  I was a terribly shy kid, uncomfortable in my own skin, awkward, deeply uncool.  She liked to tell us stories – sometimes about Jesus but sometimes just about life and every night she would hug each of us goodnight and as she did she would whisper to us that Jesus loved us.  It was powerful and welcome – I would lie there in the dark and think about it.  Jesus loves me – I’m so strange and unpopular, but yet Jesus loves me.  Beth said so.  And mom and dad say so.  Grandma says so.  And if these people who take time for me and care enough to journey along with me in life wanted me to know about this precious love of Jesus, then it must be really something.  And so over time, the background noise that people kept telling me about Jesus’ love for me became a song, the dearest thing I had ever heard.  It was not a sudden thing, it was not because of just a moment or a single person, and it was never because of anyone trying to win me over for a particular cause or goal other than they wanted to know me and for me to know them.  And to know them was to know they loved Jesus.  And because of them and their care and the witness of their very lives – I fell in love with him, too.

Being evangelical will only start to sound like a welcome thing when we realize what it really is.  It is sharing faith, yet only sometimes with words. Sometimes it is sharing faith through a powerful and positive verbal witness to Jesus Christ but it is also sharing faith no less when you took time to bring over that food after he had the surgery, or to pause, even though you had so much to do, pause long enough to sit down and listen to the story when she was heartbroken.  That’s sacred, folks – Someone who wants time with you, whether going on a walk down the road, or hearing someone say “come on over sometime” or sharing a cup of coffee. There’s a reason these things feel like they matter, because they do.  It’s time shared, it’s life shared, it’s why when those disciples caught up to Jesus and they asked him where he was going, he didn’t just tell them, he said, “Come along and see for yourself.”  Jesus was modeling evangelism for us right there.

In the church we might do well to focus less on what the fruit of building relationships might be and more on just being present with one another.  At work, at home, at the grocery store, at the post office – being a gentle presence, being interested in others, listening without judgment, wanting to know the stories others bear and share ours with them and trust that in ways we don’t know and may never see, God will work through us to bring others to Christ.

So go on and be evangelical, church.  Proclaim Jesus through your words and through your lives this week.  Love and live in Jesus’ name.  Amen.