Transfiguration – a launching pad, not a destination

Last Fall, a member of council framed a few pieces of the original cork that lined our walls prior to the renovation. I now show you a piece of this cork as another reminder of what used to be a unique certainty every time worshippers gathered in this space, for over fifty years. Certainty no longer!

You notice, obviously, that this space is fundamentally the same. And yet what we see and what is invisible has changed. No longer cork, but drywall and insulation. No longer narrow windows placed as a trinity, but wider ones that let in more light! The reredos, the pulpit and the ceiling — all retain fundamental elements of the old, but are definitely and without a doubt new at the same time!

These are mysterious, hard to grasp perceptions that can help our understanding of the Transfiguration of Jesus — the same person, the same general shape and size, but different: not only fully human, but also fully divine!

The Transfiguration points to a truth in our lives we often, because of our sin, want to resist: Change happens; it is part and parcel of the process of life.

Before the transfiguration of this space that occurred over the last four months, did you know that this space experienced a previous transfiguration? Perhaps it was more a transfiguration of purpose, than actual bricks and mortar:

In 1965, the sanctuary was originally intended and designed to be the fellowship hall for the ‘new’ church to be built at some future date. The Annual Design Award for 1965 was given to the Schoeler Markham and Hector architectural firm by the Ontario Association of Architects, Ottawa Chapter, for the design of the “Faith Lutheran Fellowship Hall”, as it was originally named. (1)

Change in the church is the norm, not the exception. As we sit, stand and move in this space today, we know there is still work to be done. The narthex hallway is still under construction, and needs some time for its transfiguration to be completed.

Life is a process of change, of coming and going. The last four months were not a vacuum in our existence. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have changed in the time we were not here. Whether you worshipped with us at Julian, whether you worshipped elsewhere, whether you didn’t worship at all, we changed. And that is part of the reason that during midweek Lent gatherings, we will give ourselves time to process our learnings.

Much has been said and written about the extraordinary, supernatural experience of Jesus being transformed in the presence of a few of his disciples. Not only does Jesus’ countenance change, he appears with Moses and Elijah — a couple of Israel’s greats.

The relationship between these characters — Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John — is fascinating to ponder. What compels me in this reading is what happens shortly before they climb the Mount of Transfiguration, and what happens shortly after Jesus’ entourage heads back down the mountain. The movement up and down speaks of a rhythm not only evident in the bible, but in life: a rhythm of coming and going, of ups and downs, of death and resurrection.

Jesus took with him Peter, James and John up the mountain. Special treatment? After all, didn’t have twelve disciples? Were these Jesus’ favourites? I wonder. Well, Peter, in the verses prior to the text for today, gets a scolding from Jesus after Peter suggests Jesus ought not suffer and die; Jesus calls Peter “Satan” (Matthew 16:23) for expressing that opinion. So, Peter is not in Jesus’ good books. Or at least, that’s what James and John probably thought, hiking up that mountain.

And so, after the spectacular event atop the mountain, when they return with Jesus down into the valley of their regular lives, they want to keep and guard their special status among the other disciples. A few verses after the end of this text, they ask Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). The Gospeler Mark portrays James and John in a more aggressive manner, when he records James’ and John’s request more as an order, or demand of Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you … Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35-37).

The disciples are fighting amongst themselves, and competing over who is the greatest. Of course, they use the world’s standards of greatness. Jesus brings to them children and the Cross, to show them who and what is truly great in God’s eyes.

“‘BANG!’ The gun fires and the race is on. The runners take off across the field. It rained the day before and the ground is still damp. The temperature is cool. It is a perfect day for running. The line of runners quickly forms a pack. Like a school of fish they come together as one. They move as one … As with any race, in a short period of time the stronger ones will start to pull ahead and the weaker ones will start to to fall behind.

“But not Ben Comen. Ben was left behind as soon as the starter gun sounded. Ben’s not the fastest runner on the team. In fact, he’s the slowest. He has never won a single race the entire time he’s been on the … High School cross-country track team. Ben, you see, has cerebral palsy.

“Cerebral palsy, a condition often caused by complications at birth, affects someone’s movement and balance. The physical problems endure a lifetime. Misshapen spines create a twisted posture. Muscles are often withered and motor reflexes slow. Tightness in the muscles and joints also affect balance. Those with cerebral palsy often have an unsteady gait, their knees knock and their feet drag. To an outsider, they may seem clumsy. Or even broken.

“The pack pulls farther and farther ahead while Ben falls farther and farther behind. He slips on the wet grass and falls forward into the soft earth. He slowly picks himself up and keeps going. Down he goes again. This time it hurts. He gets back up and keeps running. Ben won’t quit. The pack is now out of sight and Ben is running alone. It is quiet. He can hear his own laboured breathing. He feels lonely. He trips over his own feet again, and down he goes yet another time.

“No matter his mental strength, there is no hiding the pain and frustration on his face. He grimaces as he uses all his energy to pull himself back to his feet to continue running. For Ben, this is part of the routine. Everyone else finishes the race in about twenty-five minutes. It usually takes Ben more than forty-five minutes.

“When Ben Comen eventually crosses the finish line he is in pain and he is exhausted. It took every ounce of strength he had to make it. His body is bruised and bloodied. He is covered in mud. Ben inspires us, indeed.

“But this is not a story of ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ This is not a story of ‘when you fall down, pick yourself up.’ Those are great lessons to learn, without a doubt. But we don’t need Ben Comen to teach us those lessons. There are dozens of others we can look to for that … Ben’s lesson is deeper.

“…. What Ben teaches us is special … Ben starts every race with a very clear sense of why he’s running. [It’s not about how Ben relates to his ‘competitors’.] He’s not there to beat anyone but himself. Ben never loses sight of that. His sense of why he’s running gives him the strength to keep going. To keep pushing. To keep getting up. To keep going. And to do it again and again and again. And every day he runs, the only time Ben sets out to beat is his own.” (2)

Change is the norm, not the resisted exception. When we face changes in our lives, the only competitor we face is ourselves — individually, or as a group. When we face the changes of life, we misfire our energies if we find someone else to blame, some other entity out there that is the cause of all our problems. When we play that kind of game, we become part of the problem rather then part of the solution. The greatest and most significant competitor we face, is ourselves.

From the mountaintop experience, one must return to the valley, where the real work begins. We need to ponder, now that we have this beautiful space to gather, why indeed we gather here. We need to articulate for a new day in new language and different forms what is our purpose, our mission. What is the purpose of the building?

There is no recording of James, John and Peter ever running back to the place of worship atop the Mount of Transfiguration when things got tough. They didn’t go back there every Sunday, again and again. That’s because the purpose of worship is not a destination, but a launching pad to the world around.

The purpose of this space on Sunday morning is not a destination of our faith, but a launching pad, to go out there and live out our faith in our daily, Monday-Saturday lives. Ekklesia, the Greek word for ‘church’ means literally, ‘a people called out’. We keep going, moving forward, doing what we are called to be and do.

And we don’t give up. We keep in mind that when the stress of change seems overwhelming, there is no one or circumstance ‘out there’ to blame. We are our own greatest enemy, they say; it is true. We, also, are our greatest asset. We only have ourselves to challenge, to change, and to grow.

And Jesus goes with us, and before us, through all the ups and down. Thanks be to God. Ours is the task, now, to follow.

1 – from Church Anniversary 2011, Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church Ottawa, “Some Interesting Facts”.

2 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why”, New York: Penguin, 2009, pages 222-224.

Funeral sermon – A special grace given

Just this last week in the news you might have heard that a 74-year-old nun from Quebec was released from captivity after being abducted two months ago by armed rebels in northern Cameroon.

And just around that time we heard that an American soldier was released after nearly five years of captivity in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban.

When hearing this news, I wondered how those held hostage were able to hold it together. Not knowing for sure when and if they would be released, somehow the nun and the soldier endured their captivity. They persevered, with no guarantee that they would be saved. For all they knew, those prisons could have been the last thing they ever saw.

When I met recently with Brenda, I noticed this quality of perseverance in her. She never gave up hope. She didn’t waver in what she presented to others. She gave determined witness to the faith that she would not be defeated by her illness.

After meeting with her, I wondered in a similar way I did after hearing about the nun and the soldier held hostage for significant periods of time. How could she endure? How was this possible? How did she do this? Without knowing for sure how things would turn out?

Brenda’s from the Upper Ottawa Valley. I want to welcome members of Brenda’s family who made the trip at least a couple of times down to Ottawa. Perhaps some of you know a retired pastor who has for many years made the circuit among Lutheran churches in Valley. He once told me something I have not forgotten.

He said that God gives a special grace to people at two events in life: First, God gives a special grace to people in their dying; that is, when someone dies God gives them a special strength and ability to do so. And this is not something always and easily perceptible by those witnessing the death, and is known fully, only by the person who is dying — this special grace.

The other event in life when God gives a special grace is to birthing mothers; when the time comes, finally, to give birth, God gives a special grace to endure this trying yet hope-filled event. At these profound moments of life and death, God gives to those who must endure them, a special grace.

And that is the only explanation I can give for understanding the incredible gift of perseverance and final peace with which Brenda endured this last chapter of her life on earth.

The story of Job from the bible is a testimony as well to this incredible ability to proclaim a steadfast faith in the midst of suffering. He lost everything — his family, his property. He suffered disease and ridicule. You would think that his profession of faith would come only after all his fortunes were restored, which they were right at the end of the book of Job, chapter 42. But Job doesn’t wait until chapter 42; already at chapter 19 he can proclaim a great faith even in the middle of suffering greatly.

We are Christian not because somehow now we have the secret to cheating death. We are Christian not because we can avoid suffering in this life. We Christian not because we can prove miracles sometimes happen. We are Christian, because we discover and receive the gift of grace to embrace our faith whenever we do have to suffer in life.

There is a beautiful image in the Gospel of a giant tree where birds of the air find refuge and make nests in its branches. Jesus tells the story of the mustard seed — small, seemingly insignificant, hardly noticed. It’s the smallest of seeds, barely perceptible.

“It is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). We could interpret those words “so that” merely as a descriptive consequence of the mustard seed growing into the largest of trees — that, among other things, birds would find safety in its branches.

But we could also interpret “so that” as the reason why a mustard seed is great. Because it provides shelter, care and compassion for the creatures of this world. There is an important purpose and mandate for that ‘greatness’.

The faith that can move mountains is a faith not easily noticed, perceived or appreciated by the world. Because it is the gift of compassion and care. It is the gift of grace and love which embraces others and provides shelter to those in need.

That is the greatness of faith. It is a faith that recognizes the compassion of our Lord. It is a faith that recognizes God’s steadfast love no matter what happens. “Neither death nor life nor anything in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8).

Brenda showed that grace to others in her life. But she endured these last days because of the compassion and grace given to her. Those around Brenda, closest to Brenda, you showed abundant grace, care and compassion — to put Brenda’s needs before your own, at times of joy in life but also, and especially, in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s the greatness of faith.

The special grace of God is given to Brenda. The prize is hers today. She has endured. She is released from her captivity. And this special grace is ours, also, forever. No matter what may come.