Monday, August 28, 2017

Be Transformed

'I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.'
--Romans 12: 1-2

'When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.'
--Matthew 16: 13-20

It’s no secret that I am huge fan of the Transformers.  They started out as a cartoon and toyline in the 80s, but they’ve never actually gone away.  I got into them when I was five, captivated by these robots that could change their bodies into cars, planes, guns, or even dinosaurs.  I followed the exploits of the heroic Autobots led by Optimus Prime, waging their battle to destroy the evil forces of Megatron and his Decepticons, and roughly 400 figures later my collection is still going strong.  The characters are complex, their war anything but ordinary, and their adventures timeless.  In spite of the fact that they have churned out five terrible movies, the Transformers franchise isn't going anywhere, and I am mighty pleased about that!

 Cover for Marvel Comics Transformers # 1 (September, 1984)

When I was a youth minister my kids found out that I was a Transformers fan and one of them asked me, “Isn’t there something in the bible about being transformed?”  Why yes there is!  That passage is Romans 12: 2,  and when they found that out we made sure to put that passage on our youth group shirts, which I still wear from time to time.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  That passage became our mantra.  As these middle and high schoolers were going through all kinds of changes in their lives, being transformed on a day-to-day basis, they hung on to those words as a reminder of God's pressence.  To be honest, the passage became my mantra too, as I experienced a great deal of transformation--both good and bad--over the course of the next several years.  Do no be conformed, I would tell myself, but be transformed.  

Our t-shirts from my time as a youth minister.

When Saint Paul wrote those words to the church in Rome he did so to encourage them to always be open to adapting and changing in whatever way that God was calling them; after all, there was a lot of uncertainty and plenty of unrest among those early communities of believers.  Paul's words, therefore, were meant to be a source of strength and encouragement.  Naturally, Paul knew a thing or two about transformations.  Shoot, he probably knew better than anyone else in the whole biblical narrative!  He had begun life as Saul, a man who had at least one murder (Stephen) on his hands and likely had more, given his contempt for Christians.  Somehow, by the grace of God, he gets transformed into Paul, a champion of the faith, whom many credit as our first theologian and the reason Gentiles were allowed into the faith.  The Romans, like every other congregation to which he wrote, knew of Paul’s journey and the power of God to transform lives in ways that are deep and meaningful, ways that not only change individuals but the entire world. 

Before Saul became Paul, though, there was a fisherman from Galilee named Simon, brother of Andrew and son of Peter.  All four Gospels tell the story of Simon being given a nickname by Jesus.  That nickname is The Rock, which in Aramaic is Kephas and in Greek is Peter. But this is no mere nickname.  The Rock becomes Simon’s real name, the name he is still remembered by today.  When Jesus confers upon Simon this new name his life is transformed into the person Jesus already knew him to be, into:  

Modern-day picture of Simon the Galileean.

It was a meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus that transformed Saul into Paul; in fact, it was a question that Jesus issued, which initiated that transformation.  The question was:  Why are you persecuting me?  In the same manner, it was a meeting with Jesus in Caesaria-Phillipi, and a question, that transformed Simon into Peter.  That question:  Who do you say that I am?  The question stirred in Simon until he stood up and said, "You are the Messiah!  The Son of the Living God!"  So big was this moment that the Church commemorates it to this day with the Feast of the Confession of Peter on January 18!  With that question Simon transforms into The Rock, and soon The Rock and a small group of men and women will transform the whole world.   

Truly, that is what happens when we have a genuine encounter with the Living God in the person of Jesus Christ.  Such encounters, such holy and sacred moments, transform us into a new person.  Whether it is on the road to Damascus in Syria, in the Roman region of Caesarea-Philippi, on a North Carolina beach, or on a Virginia mountain, when we have a true encounter with Jesus we are transformed.  This is what Charles Wesley experienced when he said his “heart was strangely warmed.”  His life was never the same after that holy moment, and neither are ours. 

I had such a moment and was transformed by Jesus on Thanksgiving, 2006.  I was enjoying the annual dinner with my family in the shadow of Sharp Top Mountain in Bedford County, Virginia.  During the pre-dinner prayer I heard Jesus ask me a question:  Will you be a priest in my Church?  I was a baseball coach at the time.  I struggled with that question, that call to a new life that Jesus was putting before me, but that day I was transformed, and seven years later I became a priest.  It was a moment of transformation that began with a question.

There is a little known fact about Transformers.  They don't just transform into cars or planes to look cool, but rather they transform to survive.  They have to constantly adapt and change, otherwise they will die.  I never knew that when I was a kid, but as I've grown older I've noticed how these robots in disguise convey a very real message about God, namely that God is constantly calling us into lives of transformation.  Like Paul or Peter, the Transformers also get new names when they accept such a change.  Take, for example, the Autobot Hot Rod.  He as a cavalier, a free spirit, until the Transformers' equivalent of God (Primus) called him to a new existence, to the awesome responsibility of becoming the new Autobot leader in the wake of Optimus Prime's death.  Hot Rod didn't want it initially, but after accepting the call from his god, he became Rodimus Prime!

Hot Rod is transformed into Rodimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie (aka The Greatest Moment in Cinema).

I've learned a lot from the Transformers over the years, namely that God calls us to be transformed in ways that we never really expect.  In what ways have you been transformed?  Did you get a new name out of it?  In the spirit of Peter, Paul, and Rodimus, may we embrace those unexpected moments of transformation.  Are you being called to something new, to a new state of being or new way of thinking?  In what ways will your own transformation help transform the world?  May God give you the grace to never be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the power and love of God in Jesus Christ!  

The original Hot Rod (foreground) and Rodimus Prime, who made appearances in my sermon last Sunday.

Monday, August 21, 2017

If Jesus Can Change His Mind...

'Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.'
--Matthew 15:  21-28

It’s been a hard couple of weeks in our country, the state of North Carolina, and even our little city of Asheboro.  This past Sunday I preached from the pulpit, something that I normally reserve for major feast days or some other special occasion.  I prefer to preach on the floor, making a few jokes or telling some stories and, in general, being more personal with my sermons.  But that was not the case on this Sunday, not after all that we have been through.  And so I preached from the pulpit, which is the liturgical symbol of the authority given to a minister to proclaim the Gospel, even when it's hard.  As you can see, this is one hard Gospel!  There is, though, a miracle that occurs in this Gospel but I bet it isn’t the one you’re thinking of. The miracle that I’m talking about is one that, in the midst of a fortnight of fear and anger and confusion about what to do, can offer a sense of hope for all of us.

Like you and me, Jesus was a product of his time.  We must never forget that; after all, it's part of the whole "fully human" thing.  Just as we place labels on one another based around our gender or race, so did folks in the time of Jesus.  As history has shown, when labels are placed on people the inevitable result is an ‘us v. them’ mentality, and there is almost always a dynamic of oppression.  The Jews, for example, were oppressed by the Romans, who had derogatory labels for them, but the Jews themselves oppressed Gentiles, whom they equated with dogs—unclean scavengers—among other things.  To top it off, all of those groups oppressed women, who were seen as ontologically inferior to men because their very matter was incomplete.  No one could escape the labels.  Everyone was caught in this web of oppression.

While he and his disciples were in the region of Tyre & Sidon, which is outside of Jewish territory, Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite woman—she’s called a Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark’s version of the story, but the point is the same:  she’s a Gentile, and thus is one of ‘them.’ So Gentile+woman=doubly oppressed in this society, and sure enough, when she first approaches Jesus he says nothing at all to her. She’s then ridiculed by the disciples, who ask Jesus to turn her away.  When she comes to Jesus and throws herself at his feet his response is a harsh one:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”

Jesus rebukes (insults?) the Canaanite woman.

Let that sink in for just a moment.  Jesus implies that this woman is a dog—her and her entire race, for that matter—which was a supreme insult in the ancient world, and because of the way Jews viewed Gentiles—especially Gentile women—making such a statement would’ve seemed harmless, even normal.  Maybe he did it because he knew what would happen next, and it was just to prove a point to his disciples about how faith can and should be strong, but even if that were the case, his words must have still hurt.  In this moment even Jesus himself is caught in his society’s web of systematic labeling and oppression. 

Then something totally unexpected happens.  For the first time, for the only time, in the Gospel narrative Jesus gets corrected.  She says to him, “Yes, Lord, but even dogs eat the crumbs under the master’s table.”  In other words, society may give her the label of a dog, and she may be mistreated, but she still has the right to be heard.  She still has the right to exist. 

Next comes the miracle.  Jesus listens.  He does not correct her, or explain his actions, he simply listens, and by listening, he changes his mind.  He could have continued to walk on, or stuck to his vow to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, or stayed true to the ‘us v. them’ mentality that his people knew so well, but he doesn't do these things.  He lets this woman have her experience, lets her express her emotions, and he listens to her.  By listening to her he allows her to teach him, and her words change him. He then commends the woman’s faith, her courage in standing up to him, and her bravery in giving voice to her experience.  It’s then that her daughter is made well. 

Sure, the healing of a demonic child is certainly a miracle, but I'll argue that there is another miracle that occurs first, and it is the miracle of Jesus being able to escape the web of systemic oppression that held everyone, even himself.  He does so by listening to this woman, who is the first Gentile to receive Jesus’ grace, but she will not be the last.  The Gospels of Luke and John, which follow Matthew, will have even more stories about Jesus ministering with and empowering 'them,' including Romans, Gentiles, and women, and St. Paul will make it his mission to preach almost exclusively to Gentiles.  But it all starts here.  It starts with the miracle of Jesus listening to this woman and changing his mind about the scope of his ministry. 

In this miracle, this moment of listening, we have an example that we can follow, which can give us hope that positive change can actually happen.  When he listened to this marginalized person, who through her courage and faith managed to share her experience and stand up even after feeling insulted, something shifted in Jesus.  The same thing happens when we listen to those who have been—and still are—marginalized, those who still carry the label of ‘them.’  Last week, while having a conversation with a group of people over the ongoing conversation of removing Confederate monuments--notably the one here in Asheboro-- I made some comments that seemed at the time to be harmless.  And they were; that is, to the white folks who were standing there, but not to the black folks.  One African American woman had the courage, bravery, and love to call me out for what I said, to share with me how my words hurt.  I was caught in the web of oppression. My intentions were good, so I thought. Yet listening to that person share their experience helped me realize how hurtful and ignorant my words had been, how irrelevant my intentions really were.  Something definitely shifted in me, but it only happened when I listened and opened myself up to the possibility that I had been insensitive, that I had made a mistake.  I’d like to think that was a miracle, a moment where something changed.  As part of that change I plan to contact the NAACP and other faith and community leaders to create space for dialogues around racism in our city, where folks can share their experiences without fear, just as that person did with me.

If Jesus can change his mind by listening to someone else’s experience, so can we.  But it has to be real listening, listening with openness and the vulnerability to change if necessary.  Friday night a prayer vigil was held in our city to remember those who were killed and injured in Charlottesville a week ago.  Many of my parishioners attended that vigil.  Shortly after folks assembled, however, white supremacists showed up, convinced through social media that the peaceful assembly had come to either protest or tear down the Confederate monument in front of the old court house (they had not!).  I arrived shortly after the vigil ended, but many of those demonstrators were still there, gathered around the monument with the intent to protect it.  My fiancee and I joined a small group of people composed of young folks, both black and white, to talk about what was going on. It didn’t take very long for the shouting to start.  The people I was standing with tried to dialogue, to just share their feelings, and even one young woman asked the folks by the monument to share their experiences and tell us why they were there, but they wanted none of it.  Curses and slurs were hurled, even while one black woman stood there in tears.  A gentleman aggressively pushed up against me, came nose-to-nose with me, and yelled with such incredible fear and rage in his voice when I corrected him after he said "The Civil War had nothing to do with slavery!"  For what it's worth, I was in my collar this whole time, but it made no difference.   There were no punches thrown, but it was frightening, and when I told the police (who showed up after the confrontation had ended) that some of those in the aggressive group were armed, they said not a single word to me.  There had been no intent at all on the part of the aggressors to listen, and certainly not to change their aggressive behavior or admit for a second that their rhetoric was hateful and may wound others.  If Jesus can change his mind, so can we, but we have to be willing to listen, and we have to be willing to change.  Now THAT would be a miracle!

But miracles do happen.  They happen every time we come here to the table on a Sunday morning,  the place where we meet Jesus in a crumb.  We reach out our hands like the Gentile woman, and when we do our labels disappear and we are made one.  As a priest I once worked with used to say, “Sunday’s Eucharist is the dress rehearsal for the rest of our lives.”  At the Table of Our lord we are united in Christ so that we may go forth from this place to unite the world in Christ.  If you don’t know how to listen to someone, don’t know how to escape the web of oppression, let that table be your blueprint.  Sit down to dinner or a drink.  Have a conversation.  Pray together.  And above all, listen to their experience.

It may be hard for us to find hope these days.  What's more, it's hard to hear Jesus make such a hurtful statement, referring to a woman and her people as dogs, but even this moment led to a miracle, to a change in Jesus and the whole landscape of what would be the Church; after all, none of us would be in our churches on Sunday mornings were it not for this Gentile woman first standing up and Jesus offering his grace and mercy to her!  If this Gospel makes any of us more self-aware, or a bit more eager to listen, or more willing to own up to the mistakes we’ve made and the oppression that we have inadvertently been a part of, then that too is miraculous.  The web of oppression is huge, so big that it even enveloped Jesus and his disciples; it envelops every society.  But there is hope.  There is hope for every place torn by systemic oppression.  The hope lies in the example Jesus gives us.  We CAN escape the web if we listen to those who share their experiences with us, own up to sins such as racism and sexism, admit that even when our intentions seem harmless they may still be hurtful, and express a willingness to change. If we want to end oppression badly enough and see that all are truly free, if we are serious about making this world look more like the kingdom of God that we get to glimpse when we share bread and wine together, we CAN make it happen. It will take hard work, tough conversations, sometimes painful listening, and letting our pride die at the foot of the cross, but it can be done. We CAN be the miracle!  That's the hope this moment in the Gospel narrative gives us. 

We can’t change our past, but we can own up to it, and that can change our future.  It starts at that table, where ‘us v. them’ comes to die.  It starts with all of us, each individual who says no the web of systemic oppression, who is willing to listen without judgment, and who commits himself or herself to transforming this world by first transforming themselves.  Thanks be to God for the Gentile woman and her courage that moved even the heart of Jesus.  Thanks be to God for all of our brothers and sisters courageous enough to stand and share their experiences, so that our hearts may be moved.  If we are vulnerable enough to let that our hearts be moved, then can we escape the web.  Then, and only then, can all of us truly be free.

My fiancee Kristen (far right) and I, together with our new friends Amanda and Buffy, at the Confederate monument in Asheboro.  

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Still, Small Voice

'At Horeb, the mount of God, Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

God said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but theLord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus."'
--I Kings 19: 9-15a

Where do you find God?  One of the earliest places I can remember finding God was at the National Cathedral in DC for the acolyte convention when I was nine.  I still remember that massive sanctuary, the sun shining through the stained glass windows like God was saying hi, and the thunderous sound of all of us singing Lift High the Cross as we exited.  God was there!  I knew it.  So where have you found God?  In a knock-your-socks-off church service like that one?  Or a powerful lightning and thunderstorm?  Or a miraculous story of someone beating cancer?  I suspect many of us would say we most find God in these kinds of spectacular moments because these are the places where God seems most alive.

The prophet Elijah thought he knew where God was most alive.  We pick up the story of this great prophet whom folks called the Man of God in the 19th chapter of the 1st Book of Kings. He's running, trying to escape Queen Jezebel, who had had all the other prophets in the land killed. He finds his way to a cave on Mount Horeb--also called Mount Sinai--where God centuries earlier had appeared to Moses. Elijah is scared and does not know what to do next. "I alone am left!" he cries out desperately.  He's at the end of his rope, and he needs to know God is alive.  

So God tells him to go outside the cave and wait, for God will pass by and make the Divine presence known.  One chapter earlier in this text God was revealed to Elijah and a group of people in a pillar of great fire from heaven. Elijah is expecting something like that, something spectacular, and in a way, he gets it.  First comes a mighty wind, but God is not in the wind.  Next comes a thunderous earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake.  Then comes fire, the same fire that announced God’s presence  before. Surely God will be found in the fire.  No.  Where then is God found?  As our New Revised Standard Version puts it:  "in a sound of sheer silence." Some of you may know the King James Version better:  "in a still, small voice."  That’s where the prophet finds God in his distress.  It isn't in the powerful spectacles of wind, earthquake, and fire, but rather in the silence, in a voice so still and small that we don't even know what it says!  This is a relatively unspectacular moment, yet this is where God is found.  When Elijah realizes he is in the presence of God he, like Moses before him, covers his face to meet the Most High, and is then reminded of who he is what what he is called to be.

A grieving Elijah meets God in the silence in this work by Julian Poon called Elijah Hears God.

Elijah learned something that evening on the mountain that is Good News for us even now:  God is not locked into any one mode of appearing.  This means God can show up anywhere, in any circumstance and among any kind of people.  Thus, God is alive in a roaring cathedral, but also on a silent beach. God is alive in a miraculous healing but also in a heart-wrenching death.  God is alive in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Chris but also in the teachings of the Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, the prophet Mohammad, or the Law of Moses.  God is not limited to the spectacular moments, nor is God limited to our own means and methods.  God can be found in all places because God is alive everywhere!  Sometimes the places we find God are unspectacular, unexpected, and maybe it even takes us a while to realize God was there.  Nevertheless, these thin places are where God dwells.  I'll share with you two such places where I found God this past week.  

A husband and wife came to the church early last week in need of groceries.  I took them to the store and saw God in a moment that was not spectacular or extraordinary, but still very holy.  The wife, a 30-something African American woman with visible tattoos, cornrows in her hair, and a bubbly personality, struck up a conversation with one of the workers, a 17-year old, seemingly shy, home-schooled white girl.  For almost 15 minutes they talked about everything from food to jobs, to places the older woman lived and places the young girl wanted to live. I looked around and saw people's faces.  There were those whose visages clearly said, "What's up with these two black folks and this white minister?  And what's going on with that black woman and that white girl?!" Even in the silence of their stares, I could hear the still, small voice of God telling me what a holy and beautiful moment this was, especially since the North Carolina county in which I live still has a very real problem with racism and how to even have a conversation around the topic.  God was speaking in that moment in the grocery store aisle!  

I'm glad I had that moment in the grocery store because, as it turned out, I needed it.  On Friday I saw, as many of you did, the news coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia.  A number of white supremacist groups, which included neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other so-called "alt-right" groups, assembled on the campus of the University of Virginia to march in protest of a confederate memorial being taken down and for the cause of "white pride."  In response the people of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Charlottesville assembled to pray together and stand against the hate-filled protestors.  The protestors were scheduled to rally Saturday morning, but instead they marched to Saint Paul's and surrounded the church with torches in-hand, shouting terror-filled things like "Blood and soil!" (an actual Nazi Germany slogan) and "White lives matter!"  Meanwhile, inside the church, an assembly of layfolk and clergy--including the Bishop of Virginia--as well as folks from every culture and religion throughout Charlottesville, continued to pray as they heard the shouts and saw the flames outside.  The still, small voice of God was speaking to those folks gathered in Saint Paul's that night.  As the images have poured in over the weekend, I know that I have seen God.  I've seen God in the actions of those who stand against hatred, even if those actions are as unspectacular as folks gathering in a church to pray.  Charlottesville serves as a reminder that God is always present, even in the midst of racism and our moments of sheer terror.  

Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists assemble in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend

The events of this past week have filled many of us with fear.  However, the Good News of this story from I Kings is that God is present, even in the fear Elijah felt, even in the fear we feel. God is present in the silence, even when Elijah could hear nothing, even when folks glare in judgement at two black folks and a white minister together in the grocery store.  And the still, small voice of God is still heard, even when shouts of terror ring through the night sky as folks assemble for prayer.  It is in these moments when we, like Elijah, meet the Holy One and are reminded of who we are--beloved of God--and what we are called to be--healers, pray-ers, lovers, workers, seekers, and servers.  Take heart this week, brothers and sisters, and know that even in the unspectacular, fearful, and altogether disorienting moments of life--especially right now in our country--God is still speaking, still moving all of us toward the plan of salvation as we stand against evil and work for a world transformed by God's love.  May you find God this week.  May you hear the still, small voice and behold God in the sound of sheer silence.  

Monday, August 7, 2017

Coming Down the Mountain

'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.'
--Luke 9: 28-36

An icon depicting the Transfiguration.

This past Sunday I saw several confused looks on people's faces in my church.  Suddenly our colors changed from green to white.  I was wearing the cope (a fancy cape-looking thing), which I only break out on important days.  And we read Scripture that most folks were pretty certain we had already heard a few months earlier.  The cause of all this confusion was the fact that we were celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a major feast day in the life of the Church, not unlike Easter, Christmas, or Pentecost.  Normally if a feast day falls on a Sunday its commemoration gets booted in favor of that Sunday's observance; after all, each Sunday is like a mini-Easter.  However, if the feast is a celebration of a day in the life of Jesus himself, then we celebrate the feast.  We hang the colors of the feast day, break out the fancy cape, maybe throw a little incense, and go big (or go home, right?)!  As for why the readings sounded so familiar, that's because the story of the Transfiguration is always the Gospel reading on the Sunday right before the start of the season of Lent.  We heard these same readings on February 26, complete with a dynamite sermon by Kristen Southworth, which you can listen to by clicking here .  So now you know!  

The story of the Transfiguration always makes me think about the mountains.  That’s due in large part to my growing up on a mountain. As a little kid I spent my afternoons running around in the woods with my dogs, picking blackberries, swinging on our tire swing, and going for long walks on the coal mining job site behind our house, which overlooked our little community of Flat Gap.  After high school the mountain became a sanctuary, a place of retreat from the much busier world; the mountain was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful.  It became my favorite place in all the world. 

View of Flat Gap from the strip job behind the house where I grew up.

In the desert between Galilee and Jerusalem lies Mount Tabor.  It isn’t the biggest mountain in the area but it’s still quite a site to behold, and many archeologists and scholars claim it as the site of Jesus’ Transfiguration.  When you finally make it to the top of Mt. Tabor you are greeted by the enormous Church of the Transfiguration, which is kept up by the Franciscans.  Dozens of outdoor chapels surround it, and just inside the main entrance are two smaller chapels, one dedicated to Moses, and one dedicated to Elijah, just like what Peter wanted. When you look out over the Palestinian landscape you can’t help but be awestruck. It’s a beautiful place, the kind of place that, when you see it, you don’t want to leave. 

View of the Jezreel Valley from atop Mount Tabor and the Church of the Transfiguration

Whether it is Hale Gap Mountain in Virginia, Mount Tabor in Palestine, or any of the mountains my parishioners so often visit here in North Carolina, there is something about the mountain that just makes so many of us feel closer to God.  Maybe it is the altitude, or the beauty of creation that we see around us.  Like Peter, many of us, when we are atop those mountains, we feel so close to God and want only to stay.  We don’t want to leave and head back to our regular lives.  It seems only natural; after all, who WOULD want to give up feeling THAT close to God?

These mountaintop experiences are not limited to geographically high places, though.  Mountaintop experiences are any of those moments when we feel such an awareness of God’s blessings and love for us, likes things couldn’t be more perfect, or the world couldn’t be more beautiful.  A graduation, a wedding day, or a new rector joining a church are all examples of such moments.  They fill us with such joy and excitement, and we cannot help but echo Peter's exclamation: “Lord it is good for us to be here!"  “Let us stay!”

Yet Peter does not get his wish.  The light eventually fades away.  Moses and Elijah depart.  Jesus' visage returns to normal. It is time for them to make their way down the mountain and back into the desert towards Jerusalem....and the cross.

The thing about those mountaintop experiences is that eventually we have to come down, and  the high of being up on that mountain eventually fades.  A graduation is exciting, but soon the graduate has to find a job. Wedding days are lovely, but then a couple has to learn to live with one another.  The arrival of a new rector is thrilling, but eventually the shine fades and the priest and people have to do the nitty-gritty work of ministering together.  We have to come down.

In August of 2009, after having lived there on and off for 25 years, I packed up a van and pulled out of our driveway and said goodbye to the Hale Gap Mountain.  I moved to New York to start seminary, and shortly thereafter my father and stepmother moved off the mountain and into the valley on the other side of the county.  The very thought of losing the mountain, losing the long walks with the dogs, the view of Flat Gap, and the feeling of sanctuary al brought me to tears, especially when I realized I would never be able to go back.  Still,  had I stayed on that mountain I never would have been able to live into who God has called me to be; I never would have had the experiences of New York City; and I wouldn’t be where I am right now.  In order for my life to have its fullest meaning, I had to come down off the mountain.

The last picture of my home on Hale Gap Mountain, taken just before my move in 2009.

We have to come down from our mountaintops, brothers and sisters.  We are not meant to live in a continuous state of excitement and euphoria. Like Jesus and the apostles we have to leave the splendor of the mountaintop from time to time and walk through the brutal and unforgiving desert. Nevertheless, the coming down is not about completely letting go of or forgetting about the mountaintop experiences, rather it is about learning from them, being transformed by them, and heading into the unknown valleys and deserts a different person than we were before.  I’m sure the apostles’ lives were never the same after that day on Mount Tabor.  Nor are our lives the same after those mountaintop experiences.  My life was forever changed by the mountain, as I am sure your lives are changed by those mountaintop experiences like graduations, wedding days, or the start of a new ministry.  We may wish we could hang on to those good and joyful feelings all the time, but it ain’t about that!  It’s about the whole journey, mountaintops and the valleys, the good and not-so-good.  It's about having the grace to come down, to be changed ourselves, so that we can walk through the valleys, and go to our own Jerusalem, to our own cross. For it is from that place that we can look back and find meaning in both the mountaintop and valley experiences, seeing our journey as a whole, and becoming the person that God has called us to be.  That is the great teaching of this glorious feast day, that the Transfiguration is as much about our own journey as it is that of Jesus.

It's easy to feel close to God when we're on the mountain and everything is bright and wonderful. It's the great challenge of our faith to remember that the God we meet on the mountain is also found in the valleys down below.  Some of y'all today may feel like you're on a mountaintop at this point in your lives. That's great!  Cherish the moment. But I pray you'll have the courage and grace to remember that you can't always stay there. Meanwhile, some of you may feel like you're down there in the valley, in the bleakest desert, and you can't even remember ever being on the mountain. I pray you will remember that Jesus spent more time in the valleys and deserts than he did on the mountain, and that you may have the grace to remember that he is walking with you.  

That, brothers and sisters, is good news for not only a major feast day, and everyday.