Re-purpose the building: a sermon for Transfiguration

In the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it is the disciples’ response to Jesus’ glory that captures my attention and imagination.

In response to seeing the incredible transformation of their friend and master before them, Peter says he wants to build three “dwelling places”, or “tents” from the Greek. The Gospel of Mark suggests that Peter wants to build these shelters because they are “terrified”.[1]

It is a natural reaction when we are afraid for us to go to that which gives us security. For Peter, that means building a house. Or two. Or three. He must have been really scared. Not just a tent for Jesus, but also for Moses and Elijah who have mystically and supernaturally appeared alongside Jesus.

This is a glorious moment. Jesus’ divinity bursts upon their vision. And, we humans naturally want to contain this mountaintop experience. Put God, literally, in the proverbial box. Saint Augustine said in the fourth century, “If you can comprehend it, it is not God.”

The Gospel of Matthew goes further when he writes that it was “while Peter was speaking”[2] this, that a voice from heaven spoke: “This [Jesus] is my beloved Son.” The narrative feels like God interrupted Peter, cut him off.

It’s as if God is saying: “Don’t.” Don’t try to own such divine moments of God’s self-revelation. Don’t try to manage your spirituality. Don’t try to control the experience of gift, of unconditional love. We may want to build something and thus put God in a box. But we can’t. Because, really, there is no box.

In our religiosity, we may instinctively try to capture any glorious, God moments we experience in life. By repeating the experience, invoking certain feelings and the mood. We build buildings and keep them the same.

As with the disciples of old, we would rather escape the humdrum, ordinary realities of living in the valley of our daily, imperfect lives, and just stay on the mountaintop, containing God while we are at it. We don’t want it to change. We don’t want to change. We, like the disciples of old, just want to remain in this state of euphoric ‘mountaintop’ feelings and stay put, there.

Today marks the one-year anniversary that we have worshipped in this transfigured space. A year ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we returned from an extended absence during which we worshipped every Sunday for eighteen straight weeks with our neighbours at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Coming back to this renewed space was a joy and a blessing. We were back in our own tent, so to speak.

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I say, ‘tent’, intentionally. Because the contractors who modernized this building emphasized the strap-over accenting on the exterior – to make it look like when you put a large fly over your tent. In fact, those of us on the ‘liturgical arts’ committee who consulted with the contract designer heard him say on occasion early on in the project, that the idea behind the contrasting colour choices was to make it look like a tent.

Which was by design. And very appropriate for the church, as a symbol. Not only was the natural element emphasized in the tent-like strappings on the outside, the blue colour on our ceiling inside was meant to image the night sky – looking up, in faith.

Indeed, the structure of our church, and its recent ‘transformation’, is not new. It is to emphasize an original idea when it was first built over fifty years ago: as a temporary house worship space. The tent image for our structure underscores an enduring truth about the church: The church is a movement. It is always on the move. It doesn’t stay put in one place for long.

A church ever changing, a church adapting its form yet reflecting its original mission.

The Jeróminos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, is a UNESCO world heritage site. When my wife and I toured the massive complex last summer, including the impressive cloister and the ‘chapel’ – which views more like a colossal cathedral in typical European grandeur, I understood why. These photos don’t do it justice.

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In 1833, over three hundred years after the site and property was inaugurated as a religious Order of Saint Jerome, a state edict transferred the property and all its assets to Real Casa Pia de Lisboa, a philanthropic institution that took in, raised and educated orphan children.

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It was hard for me to imagine that a three-hundred-year-old religious institution of this magnitude would relinquish its assets. And doing this, located on prime waterfront in Portugal’s growing commercial city during the sea-faring Age of Discovery.

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Without delving into the complex history and context of the Secularization Act of 1833, the fact remains: During a robust period of historical expansion, the church made a big change. I would argue, however, the church did not lose. Sure, it no longer could boast financial ownership of the property. But, by handing over its assets and combining them with the resources of the state, it bolstered its core purpose in mission – the care of vulnerable children. The space and property, as of 1833 moving forward, would now serve the needs of needy children.

Jesus says: “Unless you change and become like children …”[3] Without doubt, the religious of 1833 Lisbon were being true to the mission of Jesus.

In our lifetimes, we are witnessing here in North America – indeed in Ottawa – many growing examples of a church re-purposing its properties to build senior’s complexes and other social enterprise. We may believe this is a sign of the times – a negative, unfortunate, disappointing, mournful reality of the church. But, in truth, in many cases, such a re-purposing of a building is consistent with the Christian mission – to care for the weak, the vulnerable and needy in our society.

I can remember driving through rural country in south-western Ontario, and more in Saskatchewan, where you would see, stuck in the middle of a wheat field, a run-down, dilapidated old church building no longer in use, just left abandoned. It is sad to see this. It’s easy to jump to the negative conclusion that the church is dying by simply looking at its physical assets. When it’s not tied to a living purpose, the building will surely die.

But two hundred years after the so-called secularization of the Jeróminos Monastery’s assets, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site every year continue to pour in and be inspired by the legacy of that bold, courageous move of those 19th century Christians in Lisbon. Good for them.

Re-purposing church property is not just a recent, contemporary phenomenon borne out of the institution’s modern demise. Re-purposing assets is not a sign of Christian defeat in a secular society. First of all, it has evidently been done throughout history when the need and opportunity arose.

Moreover, changing a physical structure doesn’t mean Christians are being decimated by an oppressively secular, contemporary, multi-cultural, diverse society in Canada. The physical transfiguration of Christian property may in truth be a positive sign of healthy, missional spirit, consistent with our Christian identity. A sign that the church and its original purpose in their properties will endure for centuries longer.

The disciples of Jesus accompany him to and from the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear with the transfigured Jesus, linking the present moment with the great tradition spanning all times and places. The community, the people, the saints on earth and the saints of heaven, accompany us on this journey.

The journey is a movement, not to remain stuck – even in moments of glory and victory. Rather, we are called to embrace the hardship as well, the challenges, the disappointments and opportunities of the daily grind of living, down in the valley of our lives. Ours is not a denial religion. Ours is not an escapist religion, one that ignores the plight of those who suffer, avoiding the normal difficulties of life, pretending that somehow we can with God only experience the highs without the lows. That is false religion.

Jesus interrupts our striving and tells us, “Don’t”. Don’t build those false expectations of a prosperity gospel. Don’t pretend you can stay on the mountaintop with Jesus forever while you live on earth. Because, Jesus, the divine Son of God, also embraced his humanity, and leads us down into the very human valley of life on earth.

Positive change and transfiguration in this light don’t come by way of escaping the world. The cathedrals of our hearts are meant to house people – all people, in their needs and for the sake of the other.

We are not alone, in this enterprise. As Jesus accompanied the first disciples up and down the mountain, God goes with us, up and down. Jesus leads the way. And, we walk shoulder to shoulder with our co-pilgrims who go with us.

[1] Mark 9:6, NRSV

[2] Matthew 17:5, NRSV

[3] Matthew 18:1-5

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

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Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

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That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

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And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

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It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

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There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

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But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

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We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5

Reforming Remembrance

In the last couple weeks, we have worn our poppies and have been challenged to remember.

There is little to question about what actually happened in the First, Great War, the Korean War, The Second World War and all the military conflicts in the last century including Afghanistan. We have the numbers, the maps, the results, the casualties. We honour the soldiers and veterans who made sacrifices in service to their country. We recall the horrors of war and pledge to be agents for peace in the world.

Remembering is important to do. How we remember and what we remember is another question worth pondering.

In recent years whenever my twin brother and I have gotten together we are intentional to remember times especially with my Father, growing up, travelling, spending ordinary days doing ordinary things. As with any life, there are lots of stories to remember.

And what is almost always the case, is that David remembers one aspect of the same event that I don’t; and, I remember a completely different part of that event – which David doesn’t. For example, David remembers the imaginative story Dad told us when we were about ten years old about Mr. Black fighting Mr. White. While he remembers more the content of the story, I remember that when Dad told us that story we were sitting on the back porch after having gone for a bike ride together.

We spend these times reminiscing by ‘filling in’ each other’s gaps in memory. Same event. Just different things remembered. And different things forgotten or overlooked.

In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches have attempted a different tact from the way we have ‘celebrated’ Reformation anniversaries in the past. Listen to what the Lutheran World Federation scholars and Roman Catholic leadership wrote together recently about the task of how we remember the Reformation events of the sixteenth century:

“What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change. Remembrance makes the past present. While the past itself is unalterable, the presence of the past in the present is alterable. In view of 2017 [the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation] the point is not to tell a different history, but to tell that history differently.”[1]

That same history, you will know, was used for centuries to incite conflict and division between our churches. Reformation was traditionally a time to celebrate how good we are and how bad they are. Today, in a changed context reflecting globalization, ecumenism and a pile of new research and study about Martin Luther, his times and his theology — these have yielded fresh approaches that emphasize unity rather than division.

Perspectives have changed. And continue to change.

This year in Canada we are also celebrating our 150 years of history with more of a critical eye. We acknowledge publicly, perhaps in a new way, the fact that Canada was already occupied by people long before the first Europeans settled here. This understanding may be challenging for us settlers because for so long we have reaped the vast material benefits of settling and working here.

Part of my sabbatical journey took me to Lisbon, Portugal. On the far westernmost coast of continental Europe, Lisbon was a natural launching point for the various expeditions and voyages made by Europeans during the “Age of Discovery”.

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On Lisbon’s extensive waterfront at least a couple of impressive monuments stand in celebration of the achievements of European explorers and aviators. There is the looming Monument of Discovery which depicts the personalities of various explorers making their way across the ocean.

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And there is an airplane monument commemorating the historic first south Atlantic crossing in 1922 flown by Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral.

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In the decade following Coutinho’s and Cabral’s inaugural south Atlantic flight, another adventuring aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who is perhaps most well-known for writing the children’s book “The Little Prince”, reflected on what flying did to our understanding of the land upon which we live:

The airplane, he writes, “has revealed to us the true face of the earth. Through all the centuries, in truth, the roads have deceived us … They avoid barren lands, great rocks and sands, they are wedded to the needs of men and go from spring to spring …But our perspective has sharpened, and we have taken a cruel step forward. Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line. The moment we are airborne we leave behind those [winding] roads …  It is only then, from high on our rectilinear course, that we discover the essential bedrock, the stratum of stone and sand and salt…

“Thus do we now assess man on a cosmic scale, observing him through our cabin windows as if through scientific instruments. Thus we are reading our history anew.”[2]

As we retell our history, as we seek understanding of what and how it happened, do we take the winding road, or do we take to the skies?

Amos the reformer was a prophet in ancient Israel. He challenged especially the northern kingdom in the eighth century B.C.E. to accept a new way of worshipping God. No longer where they to worship at the old shrines established by earlier prophets Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Beer-sheba, Bethel and Gilgal. Now, they would have to learn to worship God in a central location, at the temple in Jerusalem.[3]

In order to persuade them, he railed against the rituals and heartless pomp often associated with worship in that day.[4] The Israelites’ understanding of their own history needed changing. Without denying or changing the history itself, Amos helped them grow into an appreciation of the centralized worship which was not inconsistent with the Hebrew faith, a faith that had always emphasized care for the poor, the widow, the destitute. As such, Amos was “an agent of reformation”[5].

Whether we speak of ancient Israel, or the Reformation, or the Age of Discovery, or World War Two, or present day Canada, our remembrance is being reformed.

This first week of November is Treaties Recognition Week in Ontario. Listen to what perspective is offered in the writing of our history. Again, this perspective is not untrue. It simply offers a fuller understanding of what happened when Europeans ‘discovered’ this land:

“This native land was the home of many peoples, who have lived here for centuries and millennia. There is extensive archaeological evidence to confirm this statement. North America was occupied long before European strangers from across the ocean ‘got lost’ on their way to India and ignorantly named the inhabitants ‘Indians’.

“The residents of this new land had a deep regard for the practice of hospitality. So they welcomed the strangers to come ashore and opened their lives to these ‘lost’ explorers. This invitation to step out onto the land conveyed a message that did not make sense to the newly-arrived who had their own primary interests; wealth and resources.

“These alien visitors were nominally Christian. They were supported by ‘Christian’ interests intermingled with commercial and imperial motives. The biblical foundations and the practice of hospitality had been lost or buried under the exercise of abusive power that appears to be the inevitable companion of empires seeking to expand their influence and control. Equally forgotten or ignored was the fundamental biblical concept of covenant whose goal is establishing and nurturing respectful relationships that honour the Creator.

“These European strangers had been told by their highest authorities that any people unlike themselves actually were nobodies. The Doctrine of Discovery … reminded the newly-arriving aliens that they were superior to the ‘nobodies’ greeting them in hospitality. The rest is history and now we are trying to ‘get it right’ so that we can discover what it means to live in peace and mutual respect. It is time to set aside suspicion and abuse so that we can again become hospitable to one another as well as to contemporary visitors.”[6]

This anniversary year we sing “O Canada” and this Remembrance Day we’ve worn our poppies. It is important that we remember. It is important that we commemorate our history, good and bad.

How we remember is important, too. What aspects of our remembrance we emphasize speak loudly about the kind of people we are and aspire to be.

Amos presented a pretty bleak picture of Israel’s plight in the eighth century B.C.E.  The tone of his message is harsh, doom-and-gloom. It seems the Israelites can do nothing to avoid the inevitable calamity that awaits. It’s easy to lose hope and despair in the present circumstances. It doesn’t look good, what with all that’s going on in the world today.

From the perspective of history, though, we know how the story ends for them. We know the people of God are headed to the trials of Babylonian exile a couple of centuries later. We also know that one day, they do return to Jerusalem to restore the temple worship and re-build their lives at home.

Antoine Saint-Exupéry tells the story of when he and his friends from northern Europe invited some north Africans from the Sahara to visit with them in France.[7] These Bedouin, up until this point in their lives, never left the desert; they only knew the scarcity of water that defined so much of their lives and perspective.

When they climbed in the foothills of the French Alps they came across a thunderous waterfall. The French explained to their astounded friends that this water was enhanced by the Spring run-off of melting snows high above them. After minutes of silence during which the Africans stood transfixed before the bounteous and gorged scene before them, the Europeans turned to continue on their mountain path.

But the Africans didn’t move.

“What are you waiting for?” Saint- Exupéry called back.

“The end. We are waiting for the water to stop running. A stream of water always runs out. We are just curious to see how long it takes.”

They would be waiting there a long time. The prophet Amos concludes his diatribe by doing what so many other prophets of Israel do: They call on the people to have faith in God’s action in the world, God’s righteousness and justice. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[8]

God’s justice never runs out. The waters of God’s grace, mercy and truth never cease flowing. Our perspectives, our experience, our opinions are limited and sometimes scarce, if we rely on these alone.

But God’s work continues to gush forth in and all around us. Let us trust and have faith in the never-ending flow of God’s love and presence in the world today. So we may grow into the fullness of God’s vision for us all.

 

[1]  “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017” (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt/Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2013), p.16

[2] Antoine Saint-Exupéry, “Wind, Sand and Stars” trans. by William Rees (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), p.33-34.

[3] Wil Gafney in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.266-270

[4] Amos 5:18-24

[5] Wil Gafney, ibid., p.268

[6] Reconciling Circle: reconcilingcircle@execulink.com, Daily Readings for Treaties Recognition Week: 5-11 November 2017, Day 1 “Have You Ever”

[7] I summarize and paraphrase his telling from “Wind, Sand and Stars”, ibid., p.54-55

[8] Amos 5:24