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

Christmas camping

For any one who likes to camp in one of our provincial parks, and wants to secure that ‘perfect’ site for the summer time vacation, better boot up your computer soon! The rule is: you can make an online reservation up to five months in advance of the date you wish go camping.

So you can perhaps understand that along with enjoying the many blessings of this Christmas tide, my thoughts are also going the direction of outdoor summer camping.

And while I’ve never been very successful beating others online to that ‘perfect’ site, my family has enjoyed some beautiful camp sites over the years.

We define a good site as one that, above all, gives us some privacy; that is, there are as many trees, wild grass, shrubs, and distance between our site and the ones around us. Ideally, our site would back onto a green space, a pond, a beach, sand dunes, or a wild growing, dense thicket of bush.

Conversely, the least favourable site would be one from which we could watch the TV show blaring through the window of the RV next to us, or sing along to the lyrics sounding from the radio propped on the picnic table next site over, or play catch-the-ball with the neighbour’s pet whose leash extends across our campsite.

You get the picture. Instinctively, the last thing we want is someone next to us. Even though, as it turns out, those who pitch their tent next to us are more often than not good people.

At Christmas, we hear about and celebrate the truth that God came to us. And God didn’t come to us like a visitor would, and then leave. God entered human flesh by being born into this world. And this “incarnation” as Christians call it, was an event that changed the world forever.

In the Gospel of John we read: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). “Lived among us” in the culture of first century Palestine more accurately rendered is: “Pitched a tent by us”. You can imagine the nomadic movement of people across the Judean wilderness. Putting up a tent beside another assumed a trusting relationship, where co-travelers in a harsh environment would seek solace, safety and security – in one another.

This notion of God ‘pitching a tent’ next to us is expressed elsewhere throughout sacred scripture. In the last book of the Bible, we read: “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). In the Wisdom poetry we hear the voice of the Word that became flesh – Jesus Christ — say: “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel’” (Ecclesiasticus 24:8). Of course, the very name given to Jesus as instructed by the angel to Joseph in a dream is Immanuel, which means: “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23 / Isaiah 7:14).

I must confess my human instinct sometimes goes against this Gospel pull towards involvement with other people, and their involvement with me – especially with people whom I don’t know. Like what happens initially at the camp site. The ones who pitch their tent, so to speak, beside me are at first suspect. Could I trust these strangers who come from outside my circle of family, friends and community at home, and intersect with, even intrude into, my life?

Perhaps the answer lies in the mystery of this incarnation, where the Holy Spirit found a home in Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is truly remarkable, when you think about it, how God was born from a human person.

But the popular, religious focus on Mary can be fruitful if that miracle is seen as extending to all of humanity, all of us – not just Mary. Obviously, the infant Jesus was born from Mary. But Mary was just a teenager, a country girl, representing really the common, sinful yet transformed human being in us all, as Christians.

A pre-Reformation era tradition in Germany has recently gained more popularity: It is a ritual that has been practiced mostly in small towns, villages, and rural areas. What happens before Christmas is that each family brings a small statue of Mary to a neighbouring family, where that statue remains in a central location in the household until Christmas day.

This ritual reminds each family that the gift of God comes to us, first of all, since you don’t get a statue for your own home; someone else gives it to you. And secondly, perhaps more importantly, the statue is a visual reminder that each of us is Mary, preparing a place in our own hearts for the presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

You see, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus in that small place within her where the light of the world was gestating and growing – there was no sin. Yes, Mary was sinful as a human being. But within her, too, was a holy place where sin had no power, where she was pure and reflecting truly the image of God in her.

Is that not so, with us, too? Each one of us holds the capacity, within ourselves, to carry the presence of the living God in Jesus. What difference would that conviction make in, not only appreciating the place in our own lives where God’s Spirit indwells, but in others?

The statue of Mary in these households reminds families, that despite all the conflict, stress, misunderstandings and sin so obvious in families of all kinds, especially at this time of year, there is also a place of peace, stillness, and true joy amongst ourselves. We are, at Christmas, reminded by this holy birth and through those familiar characters like Mary, that we can see one another now with what Saint Paul calls the strength of our inner nature, or being (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Ephesians 3:16-19). We can regard one another, though we are different and unique, with a knowledge and belief that each of us holds a space and a place within that is being renewed and transformed and united in God.

So rather than right away assume the worst, rather than initially write off those intruders on my camp-site, those strangers who ‘pitch a tent’ so close to mine, perhaps I need to appreciate anew the gift in them that appears. Perhaps God is coming to me again, in the guise of a stranger yet one who is truly a lover – one who comes because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).

Indeed, love has come. Alleluia! Thanks be to God! Amen!

For more information about the tradition of ‘carrying Mary’ at Christmas, please read Anselm Gruen, “Weihnachten — Einen neuen Anfang” (Verlag Herder Freiburg, 1999), p.39-41