First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
March 6, 2011: Transfiguration – Year A
March 6, 2011: Transfiguration – Year A
2 Peter 1:16-21
What an exciting time we are having in the life of this community! What pageantry! What fun! What excess and wastefulness! In fact, I dare say that seven years of good parenting and teaching my kids to say "please" and "thank you" have been undone by watching their parents scream, "Throw me somethin', Mister!" while we step on toys and strings of beads to claim them for our children who climb from our backs to put their spoils in over stuffed bags.
One thing we do well here, though, is build up a sense of expectation. We've been waiting for Mardi Gras all year. The barricades were set out a week ago, and now time seems to be moving slower as the parades come and go and we savor each moment. Even in the midst of a parade there is anticipation for the beginning and celebration as they come. There is a sense of wonder and awe from the children with even the simplest of things – a string of beads, a plastic toy. As a float approaches we martial our energy and poise for action as if some animal instinct is moderating from the inside saying, "Wait for it… wait for it… now go!"
Oddly enough the idea of anticipation reminds me of the scene from the movie Braveheart where Mel Gibson's character says, "Hold… hold…" while Englishmen on horses gallop unsuspectingly toward Scotsmen with spears they have yet to pick up. It may sound strange to you, but some would see Christianity this way. There are those who believe we need to hook as many as we can for Jesus, like fish on a stringer. Yet Jesus is the one who told his disciples to cast a net, and to throw it on to the other side of the boat from where they were expecting to catch fish.
I've been thinking a lot about our net. I've been thinking about our public witness to Jesus Christ in the community. We have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to share. We have a lot to care for in the membership and facilities of this congregation. We have a lot of people that walk across our property during Mardi Gras. What is our public witness to them about the grace of God made known to us through Jesus Christ?
That is the question I have been asking myself as I get to know the patterns of this congregation and community. I mentioned last Sunday the need to be aware of our grounds, and I was encouraged by the number of you who jumped in and helped to pick up trash around the property. I got the impression that you would have done that no matter what I said. Either way, I was inspired by you and put up a sign out front to make our orange barricade a little more hospitable. Fortunately it weathered the storm on Saturday morning!
What a storm that was! It reminded me of the storm I flew through on my way to Indiana last week. You may recall that I went to a conference focused on discerning what is next for the church. What will the church be like in five years, or even ten?
I wish I could tell you what it will look like, but one thing that was clear is that a church based on my design or yours is not a church based on the design of the Holy Spirit. So, rather than tangible programs to generate specific results, we focused on priorities and hopes. The whole conference was recorded and is available on line, and I may tell you more about it on another day. For now I want to tell you about the characters from today's readings whom I met along the way.
In that bumpy air plane ride into Indianapolis I rode with a young couple who are spiritual seekers. He was a professed agnostic. She was a former Methodist who felt abused by the doctrine of Christianity. Both of them were more inclined to an individual sense of morality, and opposed to the church deciding what was right and wrong. They are typical for their generation. They are "spiritual but not religious." I listened as they talked about the hypocrisy of the church. I offered an open dialogue about the inconsistency of scripture and the blindness of church doctrine.
They asked me where I was going, and when I told them the young woman said, "Is that at Second Presbyterian? Because they are doing some cool things." Then she told me about a member who decided to buy a house in the inner city. He started a community garden in his back yard, and now he is encouraging those in his neighborhood to reclaim their lives and become more self-sufficient. "That's the kind of thing I'm talking about," she said, "no doctrine, just love."
"The beautiful thing is," I replied, "that what he is doing is one of the best expressions of our doctrine that you can find." We talked a little more about what that means while we waited on the tarmac for the lightning to subside. I gave them my card and told them I'd be available if they ever needed anything related to faith or wanted to continue the conversation in any way.
As I look back, I believe they are the people of Israel. I believe they were looking at the power and majesty of that cloud, knowing something even more terrifying and wonderful was on the other side. I wonder if we are all like that in some way? Of course we are. Even the august gathering of 200 or so ministers plus a handful of seminary students and elders could not deny that they were there for the same reason. We were there because we all have the distinct feeling and sure knowledge that our decent and orderly processes might make a lot of sense, but they will not save the church from decline or destruction. Only Jesus Christ can save the church. Only Jesus Christ can sustain the church, and only through Jesus Christ can we accomplish the true purpose of the church, and that is to be the Body of Christ – broken for the world!
Now, one must be careful about being too casual about claiming that one's experiences are corollary to Biblical narrative. I have had many "mountain top" experiences in my life, but can I claim to have experienced God face to face? Certainly not in the literal sense our texts offer today. Peter's caution is wise to remind us that it is not our ideas of God's word that hold truth, but only through experiencing God in a way that can be confirmed by others do we find true meaning and value. Some people experience God through community, others on retreat, and still others in works of art.
Herb Simon is one such person, and he has a life size replica on one wall of the portion of the Sistine Chapel where God imparts life to Adam through a touch of his finger. Herb is the owner of the Indiana Pacers and a member of Second Presbyterian. He has already lived several successful lives, and he fell in love with Michelangelo's work when living in Italy. He was there because he realized that he wanted more out of life than a business career could afford. He was there because it served as a home base for his work as the head of food distribution for the United Nations.
As I heard his testimony my heart softened and I was silenced to the core, because I had ridiculed this man in my heart when he greeted me at the door to his house by saying, "Lafayette? I almost bought a TV station there once!" As his story unfolded, suddenly he became somewhat of a prophet – speaking truth to power. He told us of his meetings with Popes and Imams alike, and the room was as quiet as if God had said, "This is my beloved son. Listen to him!" As he spoke of leading Pope John Paul in prayer for the least of these and asking the Grand Imam of Cairo if he cared for hungry children the same, whether they were Muslim or not, I realized that this was a man motivated by God's active presence in his life.
That same night, while at dinner, I sat with other disciples with whom I had faithfully followed Christ to this hilltop in Indiana. Robert Yahara sat next to me. He was one of the heavenly host from this 3,000 member church that tended to our needs. I noticed his name tag right away. It read, "Children's Ministry Volunteer." Robert has white hair, including his beard. He is 86 years old and is in good health. As we shared our stories the most amazing thing happened. Out of 3,000 church members, who should I realize was sitting next to me but the very man I heard about on the plane – Robert Yahara!
My, my… how far a little salt can go in the stew! My, my… how far a little light can go into the darkness! My, my… how important is our public witness? Just ask Peter, for he is reminding us that our stories, our testimonies, our experiences of God's grace are too good to be made up. They are too good to be kept to ourselves, and they carry too much truth to be manipulated.
But here's the kicker. Jesus told the disciples not to say anything about what they had seen until after his resurrection. We live after the resurrection. Even as we anticipate celebrating the resurrection on Easter, we live in the knowledge that it has already happened. We live with the ritual celebration of Christ's power over sin and death, and we even expect to share a common union with God through the sacraments we share with one another.
So, as we feast on the knowledge of the presence of God, let us remember there is no intermediary. There is only God. There is nothing to stop us from being transformed in the likeness of Christ, nothing except our own desires to build booths in an attempt to define and contain what we cannot define or contain. Let us not wait for the chance that best suites us to respond to God's grace. Let us simply move from worship into action, from being loved into loving. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.