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.

Dialogue sermon – Epiphany 3A

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned (Matthew 4:16)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2b)

Voice 1: We confess that we sit in darkness (Matthew 4).
Voice 2: We confess that we even have the gall to walk around in the darkness (Isaiah 9).

Voice 1: Whether we are moving, or staying put, the darkness of sin clouds our vision, purpose and value in the world. We stumble and fall —
When we exclude, and draw lines of division between the haves and have-nots;
When we ignore, avoid and despise those different from us who press into our private places, disturbing the darkness and isolation.

Voice 2: We confess our longing to sit and walk in the light.
A place to be, free from our stuck-in-the-rut-ness,
free from what holds us back — our prejudices and fears.
A place to affirm and re-affirm our call.

Voice 3 (from balcony):
Bethlehem.
Egypt.
Nazareth.
Jordan River.
Wilderness.
Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee.

Voice 4 (from balcony):
The places where Jesus had his beginnings —
moving,
interrupting,
disturbing,
challenging,
calling.

Voice 1: Where are we now? What place inhabits our vision?
We long to return soon to our home, at 43 Meadowlands (Faith Lutheran Church).

Voice 2: We long to identify our place in the mission of God to the inadequately-housed (Julian of Norwich Anglican Church).

PLACE IS IMPORTANT.

Voice 5:
Our place in this world.
Our purpose.
Where we pray, sing, do mission together.
Where we affirm week after week who we are in Christ,
the light of the world.

In relationships, where we act boldly, and immediately, as did Christ’s disciples of old.

Jesus comes into the places of our lives to change us, challenge us.
No longer complacent,
but urgent following.
No longer passive,
but active response —

Voice 1: to the God who has, does and will continue to shine
God’s light and love in Jesus Christ
upon all who sit and walk in the darkness of the world.

Sanctuary

For a year and a half my wife and I took dance lessons. We learned Latin dances such as the Salsa, Rumba, Samba, Triple-Step, Merengue, and the Cha-Cha. 

I was motivated, at the start, by a beautiful vision in my imagination: I could see my wife and I swinging to the music, sweeping across the dance floor, effortlessly. I had a vision of us moving in complete sync with one another, twirling and swaying together in perfect rhythm and harmony. What a vision!

When I first proposed we take these lessons together, she was all game. So, every week we dutifully went to our lesson and met with our dance instructor who showed us the steps and taught us the moves. We were doing this together!

After a few lessons, however, I was becoming a little bit disappointed. My vision was not panning out. We weren’t always in sync with each other. Indeed, more often than not, we were stepping on each other toes! Oh yes, we giggled about our missteps, but it seemed we were not getting anywhere.

Our instructor calmly yet persistently reminded us that we needed to practice. Before the fun would come, she said, we had to master the steps. And for me, the lead, I had to memorize the patterns and in my mind always be one step ahead, knowing where we were going with each and every move. And this took work! And persistence. And time. The fun would come later, I held on to the promise.

It wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be, working towards that vision. In fact, it was my wife who grew into the love of the dance and often had to cajole and encourage me to keep up with the program.

The Gospel text (Luke 18:1-8) today describes a woman who is persistent in her pursuit of justice. Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what it means not to lose heart. In the story, persistence is not just about building up the courage to do something beyond one’s comfort zone just once, and then give up because it doesn’t turn out. 

How often, isn’t that how we operate when trying something new for the first time? Something doesn’t please us the way we expected or wanted the first time we try, and so we just give up on it. No, in the story, she goes back “continually”. The vision of justice never wavers in her commitment to do the hard work.

This relentless pestering is accomplished in adversity, and really against all odds. Why the woman would even consider trying, up against someone in power who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, is remarkable. At the onset, we would say she is hardly setting herself up for success!

Setting up a contrast of visions to describe God, is what Jesus is up to in telling this story. The place where we meet God is a place of mercy, of sanctuary. People, in the course of history, could enter a church and find respite from the condemnation of the law. The police, the authorities, the powers that be, even the force of the law could not touch you in the holy space. Here, you found immediate relief and mercy, just by entering the space.

The place where we exercise our prayer is a place where we receive forgiveness, despite the imperfection and sordid realities of our lives in the world. That is why Jesus tells of a woman receiving justice, not because she goes to the temple per se, but a court of law in the secular world: Even there, you can find justice, despite the unjust and sinful people involved. God’s love is greater even then the most powerful, unjust judge.

Indeed, this is our challenge today. God is not just in one, holy place that we have cherished for the past fifty-five years. God is out there, too! In the imperfection of our Monday-to-Saturday lives. In the imperfection of our secular world. In the seat of government. In the marketplace. And, would you believe it, also in other churches. The truth of the Gospel resides in a worshipping community that is far from perfect. That, in fact, has weakness and brokenness imbedded in our very being together.

When Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), he didn’t hold back any punches, so to speak. He let God have it, and prevailed! His encounter with God, nevertheless, left him with a physical reminder of relationship with God: A bad hip. He would live the rest of his days, “limping because of his hip.” 

To be in communion with the Holy One is to bear the physical, real mark of sacrifice, of weakness, of imperfection. Followers of Christ, if you want to know them, are not perfect people. And if you meet Christians who appear to be perfect — or you want them to be — you are missing the truth of it I am certain. In fact, we would throw our lot in with the unjust judge, more than anyone else in these stories I would guess.

I read recently a story told by Marianne Williamson in her most recent book: “Tears to Triumph”. It’s “about a chimpanzee troop in which a portion of the population displayed depressed behaviour. They didn’t eat with the rest of the chimps, play with the rest of the chimps, or sleep with the rest of the chimps.

“A group of anthropologists wondered what effect the absence of these depressed chimps would have on the rest of the troop and removed them for six months. When they returned, they found that all of the other chimps, those who remained in the troop, had died! Why?

“According to one analysis, the chimps perished because the so-called depressed chimps among them had been their early warning system. The depressed chimps had been depressed for a reason; they registered that a storm was coming or snakes, or elephants, or disease. The presence of the depressed chimps had been an aid to the survival of the entire population … ” (1)

We need each other. We need our faults, you could say, just as much as we need our strengths. To remind us of what it’s all about. To point us to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. To help us remember that the church is not about our mission, but about God’s mission. To emphasize the grace of God under which all of us stand. To encourage us to work together with others that appear different from us. Going to, and persisting with, people that do things differently from us — in some ways better, in other ways not so much — is vital for the health and survival of the whole church.

So, after today we begin an adventure. Worship and faith and life-in-our-community does not stop now because this particular space becomes a construction zone for a couple months. We will continue to worship as a community, as Faith Lutheran Church. Yes we will! 

Our prayer will continue, and we will persist with others who are different from us (and I suspect we will soon discover they are not that much different from us!) at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Being outside our comfort zone is a critical, healthy, spiritual exercise. Should we persist together in this adventure, I believe we will grow in ways that are both vital and healthy to the future of Faith Lutheran Church; persisting together in this adventure will also deepen our walk with God.

I want to encourage you over the next two months to embrace this challenge, not shy away form it, maintain the vision, not lose heart, and pray always! Because God is already and always merciful and just.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment”, HarperOne, New York, 2016, p.84-85