Mountaintop Experiences (2/26/17)
Transfiguration, Mosaic along the entryway to the Basilica of St. Peter
It was great to have a week off and to spend some time away, but it's also great to be back. One of the recurring themes of the Epiphany season is that we are called to act on what we have learned. Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday and I shared a story about my experiences on a mission trip to Nicaragua, and also how I was called to action because of my experiences.
Good morning! I want to start by saying, thank you! Thank you for giving me a week of rest and relaxation. It was a wonderful vacation and my mother thanks you, too! I tried to bring some of the warm weather back from Southern California. I guess it lasted about a week, but that’s pretty good for February.
This is the entrance to the Getty Museum, one of the places I visited on my trip to California.
I would also like to thank you for extending such a warm welcome to my friend Becca last Sunday. She told me that she had a great time preaching here—she said that you were all so very friendly to her and you sang really well! She said it was a joy to preach to such a large congregation and hear you sing.
Now some of you may have laughed just a little bit that my friend Becca thought of this as a large congregation. But in truth, this congregation is much healthier than many of you may realize. Our vision is selective; for the most part, we only see the situation of this congregation, Rehoboth Presbyterian Church. My friend Becca preaches in lots of congregations; she’s seen many empty churches.
I spent about two years doing pulpit supply before I was ordained. I preached to congregations of fifteen or twenty. One time, I preached to a congregation of four! And they all sat in the back! The truth is, Rehoboth Presbyterian Church is still a healthy congregation. Let’s start with some numbers.
About half of all Presbyterian churches have fewer than 95 members. That’s not 95 people in attendance for worship, that’s 95 people on the membership rolls. We have 50-60 people in worship on most Sundays. That’s not what it used to me, but it’s not bad. And we have children in worship. Most Sundays there are five or six little ones here for the children’s sermon, sometimes there are eight or nine. I’ve seen lots of churches where there are none. And there’s another one coming! Not only that, there are new members in this congregation, new blood, new life!
We also have capital—human capital and financial capital. This congregation has about four hundred thousand dollars in its investment funds. Most churches have less than $100,000, if they have anything at all! Our budget is tight, but we have resources. Half the churches in this presbytery can’t support a full-time pastor. Many churches can’t afford to do routine maintenance, and they no longer have members who can do that work. We have an effective building and maintenance committee; we have a financial secretary; we have a board of deacons. I’ve seen congregations that have none of those things.
I firmly believe that there’s nothing wrong with this congregation that can’t be fixed by what’s right with this congregation. What’s more, if I thought you were too far gone, I wouldn’t have taken this call. I believe that God still has a plan for you folks and there is still a future for this congregation; it’s just going to look a little bit different.
For the last few weeks, our gospel lessons have come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In that sermon, Jesus calls the disciples to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; he teaches the disciples how to go about doing the work of reconciliation and building the Kingdom of God. Jesus gives them sacred instructions, and then the disciples are charged to go out and do as they’ve been taught. All of this takes place on a mountain. Our gospel lesson this morning is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration; it also takes place on a mountain. Even our Old Testament lesson takes place on a mountain. Hmm, maybe this is a theme!
The story of the transfiguration resonates for me now in ways that it never did before; I can relate to it from my own mountaintop experience and my understanding that I had to act on my knowledge. As I’ve told some of you, my sense of call crystallized in 2010 when I participated in a mission trip to Nicaragua. I didn’t have great epiphany or road-to-Damascus conversion experience; I didn’t witness the transfiguration. It took me several months to process that experience. My sense of call came out of the work that I did to process my experiences in Nicaragua and discerning how God was calling me to serve.
At that time I was a member of Sixth Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh. That congregation has a relationship with a coffee farm in Nicaragua. The name of that farm community is El Porvenir, which is Spanish for, The Future. El Porvenir is located on the side of a mountain, smack dab in the middle of nowhere.
This is the view from the building where we stayed.
We stayed at a building that belonged to the entire community. It was the building where they stored the coffee after it had been harvested and dried. The building had a wide veranda and we set up our cots on the far side, overlooking a wide valley at the foot of the mountain. I have to tell you, the view was incredible. Nicaragua is a lush, green country. It gets lots of rain and it has volcanic soil; it’s ideal for farming. It’s also very warm down there. In the lowlands, daily temperatures are usually about ninety or ninety-five degrees and the humidity usually runs somewhere between seventy and eighty percent. Now I’ll grant you, those temps sound pretty nice in February, in western Pennsylvania, but trust me, after a couple hours, it gets oppressive. The conditions at El Porvenir were a bit more comfortable. Temperatures were in the mid- to high-eighties, while the humidity dropped to a tolerable sixty percent, or so. The low temps at night were in the mid-sixties. Remember, we were sleeping outside. And before you start getting jealous, I should also add that there was no electricity or running water at El Porvenir. It was quite . . . rustic.
This is where we slept; notice the mosquito nets over our cots.
I should also mention that one of our members, Sara, was originally from Nicaragua. She and her husband, Chris, had visited Nicaragua many times they are both fluent Spanish speakers, and they were the ones who organized the trip. We had one other fluent Spanish speaker on the trip and it wasn’t me.
On our second night on the co-op, as we were doing our evening devotions, a woman from the community came to speak with us. Her fifteen-year-old daughter was beginning to go into labor. There was a midwife in the community, but because this girl was so young, and also because it was her first child, the girl’s mother and the midwife both thought it would be best if the girl went to a hospital. The nearest hospital was in the city of León, which was about three hours away by car. And because our group had a truck, we were asked to take the girl and her mother to the hospital. This was at about 8:30 at night—it was pitch black outside. Also, we were down to our last 5-gallon jug of purified water. Chris and Sara would get water while they were in the city, but we had no idea when they would get back and we had no means of contacting them while they were gone. And we had only one fluent Spanish speaker remaining in our group.
This was a scary moment, to say the least. We were in a remote location, with a reduced capacity to communicate with our hosts. It was really easy to think about all of the nightmare scenarios: What if something happens to Chris and Sara? What if we run out of drinkable water? In that moment, I had to let go and trust God completely. Before that time, the idea of trusting in God to provide for me and to protect me, that was just an abstract idea. Trusting in God is a spiritual way of being—a way of being that was new to me, that I was unable to live into before this experience in Nicaragua. I should also add that trusting and letting go are difficult things for me, but on that farm in Nicaragua, I was boxed in. I had two options: I could fall into the pit of fear and despair or I could let go and trust in God.
I let go. I embraced God’s overwhelming love and let go of my worries. It wasn’t easy, but I’m sure that I wouldn’t be here this morning if I hadn’t been able to trust God in that moment. After we all got back—safe and sound, all ten of us—we began the challenging work of processing our experiences. For me, as I processed everything that happened on that trip, my sense of call began to crystallize. I had thought about entering the seminary before I went to Nicaragua, but I didn’t have that sense of call. After I had processed the experiences from that trip, I knew that I needed to go to seminary—that I was called to do this.
I offer this story of my own sense of call because it represents a mountaintop experience. Of course it is quite different from the story of the transfiguration, but there is something important about these kinds of experiences. Moses received the Ten Commandments on a mountaintop. Jesus is transfigured on a mountaintop. Mountains represent a thin place, where the boundaries between heaven and earth are blurred. Mountains are isolated places, where great truths are revealed.
That is certainly the case in this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus ascends the mountain with his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they see something miraculous: they see Jesus transfigured; they see a vision of Elijah and Moses; they hear the voice of God saying of Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
This story is about Jesus and his true identity. It is also a story about the disciples and their response to Jesus, and this is where we fit into the story:
The intimate relationship between Jesus and his disciples forms the underlying structure [for this passage] and it also provides a basic link between this ancient writing and our lives today. This gospel is written for disciples of every age; the disciples often stand for the evangelist’s church or simply the Christian community. Similarly, the Twelve represent church leaders in any age.
Simply put: the disciples are us! We are human; the disciples are human. Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh. We are human, fallible and limited in our understanding, just like the disciples. At every turn, they show that they don’t quite understand who Jesus is or exactly how they’re supposed to follow him.
We see that very clearly in this account of the transfiguration. The fancy seminary term for what happened on that mountain is a theophany. That is, Peter, James, and John had a direct encounter with the presence of God! Jesus’ clothes “became dazzling white.” This calls to mind the radiance that was reflected in the face of Moses after Moses spoke with God on Mt. Sinai. And hey, in case we didn’t catch that reference, look! There’s Moses on the mountaintop, along with Elijah! And then the voice of God comes out of a cloud—again, just as it came to Moses, during the Exodus. But Peter doesn’t fall to his knees and say to Jesus, “oh, Lord, what may we do to serve you better?” No. Peter wants to build three dwelling places. He wants to find a way to stay in the moment, to make the experience on the mountaintop last. Peter wants to stay there.
Another view from the side of the mountain.
This is where my mountaintop experience is quite different from that of Peter, James, and John. I didn’t want to build a dwelling place—none of us did. We had a schedule to keep. And besides, that experience—having our trip leaders leave us, and having no way to contact them—that was truly frightening! We did NOT want to remain in that experience. But like the disciples, we could not truly appreciate the significance of what happened to us in those moments. And that’s the thing, God knows we are human and fallible; God knows we don’t always get it right the first time. So God gives us constant reminders: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” God isn’t speaking to Moses and Elijah. God is speaking directly to Peter, James, and John. And by extension, God is speaking directly to us.
Sometimes we want to stay on the mountain; we want to remain in that one perfect moment. In the Church, and I mean in every congregation, it’s easy to remember the glory days of the 1950s and 60s, when there wasn’t enough room to fit all the kids in Sunday school. Even in the 70s and the 80s, the church seemed more alive. I don’t know, maybe we confused programming with faithfulness. Whatever it was, many congregations have turned their buildings into tabernacles, shrines that are dedicated to a glorious past.
We’re not called to build tabernacles or shrines or monuments to our own experiences. We are called to come down off the mountain and share the story of God’s love for all of humanity. We didn’t have to do this when the Sunday school wing was full of kids and the sanctuary was packed. But now we do. Now we have to carry the Good News of the Kingdom of God to our own community. That’s scary, I know. Remember, Jesus tells Peter, James, and John, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This may be the most important part of this story: Jesus calls us to act and he tells us to let go of our fears.
A generation or two ago, all we had to do is come to church. We didn’t have to think all that hard about how we were called to engage the community. We did most of that inside the walls of this building, whether it was raising money for charitable causes or inviting people to events like the chicken-and-biscuits dinner. Now we have to go outside of our walls to engage the people in the community who aren’t in our pews. This is what I mean when I talk about being the Church, and it’s true everywhere, not just here at Rehoboth.
However, here at Rehoboth, we are in a time of transition, so we are all called to focus our attention and our energies on defining the vision for this congregation. In other words, we have to figure out how we are called to be the Church in this place. This isn’t easy.
Before we can define our vision as a congregation, we have to figure out who we are, as a congregation. We can start by sharing our stories with one another—share your experiences of this congregation and your experiences of your faith. We also have to pray. Constantly. As we do this, we must come to God in prayer and humility. We must ask for guidance and clarity. This way, we open ourselves up to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is part of how we let go and trust in God. These are spiritual practices.
As we engage in these practices, we come to terms with our own experiences of God. We grow in our faith and we learn how to talk about our faith with others. We are called to come down from the mountaintop and show visible signs of God’s grace in the world. It’s okay if we don’t get it right from the start, but we must never forget that we are called to share that love. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to come down from the mountains and share our stories. We are called to be disciples and we are called to reach out to one another. Sometimes this work is difficult, but it’s our work, all the same. So go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!