New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 2, 2014 – Transfiguration Sunday
One day in the span of eternity, Jesus and Moses decide to visit their former stomping grounds for old time’s sake. While walking in the Sinai they come to a huge rock; Moses takes a wooden stick, strikes the rock, and water comes pouring forth. Jesus says, “Not bad, old man, not bad.” Upon entering a small village Jesus finds some jugs filled with water; he dips in a cup and the cup is miraculously full of wine. Moses said, “Still got the touch, huh?” Then they come to the Red Sea; Moses lifts his hands in the air, the waters part, and they cross safely. Jesus says, “Wow. That one is my all-time favorite.” After a few days’ journey they come to the Sea of Galilee; Jesus steps out onto the water and begins to walk across the surface. All of a sudden, he sinks like a stone. After he swims to the shore, he says to Moses, “I can’t understand it. I used to be able to do that, no problem.” Moses says to Jesus, “You putz! Now you’ve got holes in your feet!”
We love to relive the good old days, those days of glory when things were familiar and comfortable, and seemingly more predictable. Though we would never admit to a desire to live in the past, many times we may find ourselves unconsciously trying to recreate the good memories and feelings we enjoyed in past relationships, events, and patterns of behavior. Even if some of Freud’s theories of psychology were a bit outlandish, he was right about one thing: we tend to project our nearsighted view of the past onto present circumstances as a way of creating a comfort zone to shield us from the unknown.
Look at what has been coming out of Hollywood in recent years. Many big movies and TV shows are remakes of each other, or of Broadway productions, adaptations of popular books or earlier versions of a familiar story. Recent movies such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Godzilla, The Lone Ranger, The Great Gatsby are all examples of our longing for the familiar past recaptured by new technology and another generation of magic-makers. In the short term it can generate a lot of excitement, but in the end, a steady diet of old-made-new produces a cynical viewing audience who think they’ve seen it all because they have.
When Peter sees Jesus in all his glory, together with Moses and Elijah from those good old days, it’s as if God were back in the house. Before Israel settled down and made a home and built a temple for the presence of God, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in a tent that could be packed up and go wherever God led the people of Israel. The festival of Sukkot, or the festival of booths, is to remind faithful Jews of the wandering in the desert and of their dependency on God. Peter reacts to this holy event like any good Jew would: he wants to build booths for the presence of God revealed in Jesus.
But this isn’t the good old days of Israel. And what’s ironic is that those good old days weren’t so good all the time. The people murmured and complained to Moses about the food and water. They turned from God and worshiped a golden calf. They were bitten by poisonous snakes. When Elijah was prophet, Israel was a divided kingdom and there was drought and famine in the land. He had to flee Israel because there was a price on his head from Israel’s foreign queen, Jezebel.
Though God’s people had not had a prophetic leader in a long time, even so they weren’t really paying attention to the new thing God was doing in their midst. Jesus wasn’t God’s version of “Prophet 3.0”—he wasn’t even behaving like the messiah that had been long-expected. God snaps Peter out of his ‘glory daze’ with words similar to those heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!” It’s a new day! The Good News, fresh words of grace and mercy, peace and justice, are forthcoming—take notice!
Even though our culture has been changing rapidly for the last 50 – 60 years, the Church has not been keeping up. Most mainline Protestant churches still work on a version of the 1950’s model: Sunday morning worship, Sunday School organized like public school, with the expectation that the local church and its pastor and programs will attract new folks.
Sure, we use some of the new technology, like having a Facebook page, a blog, and a website—known as the digital narthex—but then most people who don’t go to church would say, “What the heck is a narthex?” We may be using new tools but we’re imposing them on an earlier version of church. We know that whenever we download new software or a new operating system that in some way we will have to change how we manage a task. We will have to adapt.
Five hundred years ago the Church went through several reformations, each going further than the one before it. If we compared the Puritan church to the Catholic Church we’d hardly know that one came from the other. And yet even as we in the United Church of Christ claim these Puritans as our forebears, how we do church now is very different from how it was done then. Each generation must continue to ask “How is God speaking to us today?” It’s not about visioning, so much as we are being called to choose how we will give expression to the still-speaking God in our own context.
Last weekend a group of 20 or so of us gathered to begin a process of discovering what we hold valuable about the Christian education of our children and youth. As I have begun looking at responses, the two that number the highest are that you deeply value intergenerational experiences of all kinds and that you wish more people were involved in teaching and assisting in the faith formation of our children and youth. It was also speculated that it takes about 25 people or more to get Sunday morning worship off the ground. And I’ve been sensing an undercurrent of anxiety in almost all of our activity, whether it’s a committee meeting or a potluck lunch or worship planning.
This is the Church all over. Though this context, the New Ark, is unique to us, our values and our wishes and our anxieties and worries are not. Most, if not all, of the mainline (now sideline) Protestant church struggles with the same issues. And that is because we are operating on a mostly 1950’s model of church in the year 2014. Traditional church appeals to some but unfortunately many folks have abandoned traditional church, traditional ways of listening to the still-speaking God, perhaps because God is speaking in fresh, new ways and not just in church.
Looking at those responses, recognizing that how we do church needs to come out of our context, and who we are, what if we had intergenerational Sunday School? What if we had church in the evening so that everyone could have their rest? What if we had a simple community meal every Sunday evening or once a month, remembering Jesus as we broke bread and shared the cup?
It’s not about institutional survival but about being a part of a movement to help others find the sacred in ordinary living. It’s not just about learning the stories of faith but what the stories point toward: creating a compassionate, justice-filled, peace-loving world. It’s not about being in church but being Christ-like out in our homes and our workplaces and our daily connections with others. It’s not about church for us but about God’s love, justice, and mercy for those who need it most.
The future church won’t be like the good old days before but like the new glory days ahead. The lectionary passage from Matthew begins with the words ‘six days later’, recalling the sixth day of creation when humankind was created in the image of God. God is not done with us yet. God is still creating, still speaking.
Six days after Jesus foretells his death and resurrection he is transfigured into glory. Where Jesus leads, the church is to follow. We too will make sacrifices on our way to the cross. We too are called to carry our own cross and to die upon it. But we will also be resurrected into glory, into new life and yet-to-be-imagined possibilities.
What are we looking forward to as a church? What are our dreams, our hopes for the new glory days ahead? How open are we to the unexpected, to the surprising ways of the Holy Spirit? What past behaviors, expectations, and habits do we still need to let go of? What do we need to be doing in our own spiritual life to be able to follow Jesus wherever he leads?
God is always coming into our lives in new and fresh ways, still creating, still speaking. We are made new whenever we listen, when we pay attention to Jesus and where he is going next. And when we go with Jesus, we’ll never be able to say that we’ve seen it all. It will be as the beloved hymn: “Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, crowned as saints, we ever shall be lost in wonder, love and praise.” May it be so. Amen.