It was the Last Sunday after the Epiphany yesterday, in nearly the longest season after the Epiphany as possible. And it was Annual Meeting Sunday. The lectionary text on the Last Sunday is always the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top—it’s known as T-Fig to the cool kids in seminary. It’s always the big high experience before we descend back down the mountain and into the valley of Lent and Ash Wednesday.
So when combined with my 1st Annual Meeting at St. Mark’s it gave me an opportunity to speak about mission and the year ahead. I won’t repreach my sermon here—you can read it below—but it was a new take on the T-Fig for me. And it was a great meeting to boot, because we spent time discussing the questions at the end of my sermon. I hope those conversations continue, and invite you to keep them going on this blog post.
And, FYI, I’m getting closer to finding a sermon-recording solution. Stay tuned!
Last Epiphany — Matthew 17:1-9
It’s six days after some pretty heady stuff in our gospel lesson this morning. Jesus was with his disciples after Peter had just declared Jesus as the Christ, and he began telling them that he was headed to Jerusalem, which would lead to his execution and then he would be raised on the third day. Peter took Jesus aside and told him that this wouldn’t be so. What follows is that well-known rebuke from Jesus to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” and then a moment of teaching. Jesus tells that motley group this: “If any want to become my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
It’s six days after that, Matthew tells us. And Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain by themselves. I suspect at least Peter, if not the two brothers, are still mulling over this need to deny themselves. They want to be Jesus’ followers, but all this talk about losing their life and whatnot has to be troubling.
And then suddenly Jesus is transformed right in front of them, and light is radiating from his face, and his clothes turned dazzling white. Those disciples have no idea what is happening, and then they see two prophets—Moses and Elijah—speaking with Jesus. Peter wants to say something, so he pipes up with, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here; let me make three dwellings for the three of you.” And while he is saying this, the cloud comes down from heaven, and God speaks. “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased—listen to him!”
The disciples then fall to the ground in fear. Jesus comes to them, tells them not to be afraid, and the entire episode ends. They come back to their senses and back down the mountain and Jesus tells them not to speak about this until after he’s been raised.
Peter’s desire to stay up there on the mountain—Lord, it’s good for us to be here—is so typical. Whenever things are good, or things are deeply spiritual, we want to stay in those places, many times calling them “mountain-top experiences.” When we have a connection with God, we don’t want it to end. We babble like Peter, “You know, it’d be really great to stay here and never go back to the real world!” We want to set up monuments just like Peter as well to remember the time. We want to dwell there in those moments.
Yet isn’t it fascinating that the voice of God says, “This is my beloved Son—listen to him!” Listen to him. Follow his teaching. Teachings like the one he gave just six days prior, “If you want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me.” Those teaching are tough because we want to build permanent memorials and see if God can do that whole transfiguration thing over again.
I hate to say it, but it’s nearly universally true: most churches want to live in the past. They desire to go back to the time when they were in the groove, when everything was firing on all cylinders. When there were more people at services, and Sunday School classes were overflowing and the choir stalls were packed with excellent voices and events were well attended and there was that magical buzz. They want to find their way back to the mountaintop experiences of their collective church life, whenever they happened.
In other words, they want to get back to the mountain even if Jesus is headed to the cross.
And the reality is that most clergy try to accommodate this notion. We create more and more programs, we do new things, we try to get the buzz going—and many times it happens for a season—and then the numbers stagnate and the energy goes down and the parish begins to wonder if they’ll ever get back to the way things used to be.
The good news is that I haven’t heard a great deal of that language from St. Mark’s through the search process and since my arrival. And I also want to say that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with offering programs or trying new things. The problem lies in when we want to set up camp in a particular place or time, when we want to stay on the mountain top of the golden era. It’s a problem because God asks us to listen to Jesus, to follow Jesus, and Jesus always comes back down the mountain.
To me that means this: Jesus comes back down to the people. By following Jesus we recognize that Jesus lives in and among the people, not off in some far distant place, removed from it all. Jesus is here, in the day to day experiences of our lives and not just reserved for momentous spiritual highs.
And that is good news.
When I began the process with you all I said in my cover letter that while I am concerned about what happens with Sunday morning worship gatherings, I am even more concerned with what happens after parishioners leave the church building, what takes place the rest of the week. If Sunday morning isn’t anything more than an hour of sitting and standing and singing and whatnot—if it doesn’t do something or stir up something deep within us—then why bother? Sunday worship and the ministries of the church should lead us to so much more. It should invite us to be active in Jesus’ transformative work in our world.
It should invite us to be Jesus’ followers. To be his disciples.
And that’s the work I feel called to do during my tenure as your rector. I want to be about discipleship, and inviting you to join with me in that journey as we follow Christ, not for some spiritual high or exciting moment—although I hope and trust they will happen from time to time—but so we can transform the world and help establish the kingdom of God here and now.
What would it look like for St. Mark’s to become more and more a community of authentic followers of Jesus? What would that mean about our regular worship and faith exploration? How would we engage in sacrificial living, or deepening this community or in service to the world? I think all of this begins with an invitation into a deeper spiritual life. We can only expect to be light to the world if we ourselves are regularly connecting with the source of that light.
If we as a community become singularly focused on the mission of God in the world—rather than be solely concerned about what we supposedly want from a church—we would change the world. I say this quite certainly because when we focus on what we want, we aren’t concerned with following Jesus as much as being focused on our hope to experience something we experienced before, or we hope to be able to continue on in our lives without having things complicated by the call of God on us.
“If you want to be my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
In my prayers and longings, I see St. Mark’s becoming a parish known for its deep spiritual connection to the Triune God. I envision us as the church who gives generously to our local community, to places in our nation, and to those around the world. We do this because we believe we are both called to do it and because we recognize that working alongside our neighbors changes us through the gifts we receive from them. I trust that we will engage in faith formation, knowing that none of us has learned all we can about this life in Christ, and that as we learn from one another and explore our faith we all will be transformed. Finally, it is my sincerest desire that we become a welcoming place, where we genuinely care for one another and invite others to share in the life of our community.
What about you? What do you sense God calling us to in the year ahead as a parish? And what about you as an individual? What longings do you feel deep within you about your spiritual life as a disciple of Christ?
My hope is that we share these dreams with one another. That we listen to one another and see where there is connection and confluence, since that will ultimately be the direction the Spirit is leading us as a parish. I am truly excited for this year ahead, and I know that if we follow Christ both up the mountain and back down among the people, and if we listen to his teachings, we too will be beloved of God. Amen.