Sunday, February 3, 2008

Good News for Challenging Times

The Reverend Mary Marguerite Kohn

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Feb 3, 2008

Last Sunday After Epiphany (Transfiguration)

Exodus 24:12-18 Psalm 99

Philippians 3:7-14 Matthew: 17:1-9

These are exciting and challenging times for St. Peter’s. At our annual meeting there was a very spirited discussion regarding the best use for our property. As I believe you are aware, our vestry has spent the last two years investigating the possibility of selling some of our property in order to create an endowment with which to fund out reach projects. Having received permission from the Standing Committee to go forward with the next step in the process, this sparked a variety of comments as to what would be the best use of our property in order to live out our mssion statement and to establish a financial solvency.

On Wednesday night Bishop John Rabb was present at a meeting to present the Renewal and Growth Committee’s report to the congregation. There was a very good turnout for a Wednesday night, and another vibrant discussion regarding the best way to involve the whole congregation in the next step of renewal and growth, including work on healing and reconciliation in the congregation.

Third, our vestry met yesterday for their annual retreat at the Franciscan Priory. To begin, we met together in small groups for spiritual sharing, and then proceeded to work on goals for the coming year. After a lot of creative brainstorming, the vestry came up with a plan which will be presented to the congregation next week. Your participation is not only needed, it is crucial, and I hope you will add your voice and your talents.

So, as I said, a lot of exciting choices and challenges before us. However, I believe that the most important decision we have to make is not which specific choice we make (e.g., sell the property or keep it) but how we make the decision, how we frame our conversation. The story of the Transfiguration which we heard today can be of help to us in framing our discussion. In fact, I have been thinking of this sermon as “St. Peter’s meets the Transfiguration.”

We hear the story of the Transfiguration every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and again in August if we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. All 3 synoptic gospels contain this event, which means that it is very important for understanding our life in Christ. A quick recap of the familiar story as Matthew tells it: Jesus has taken his close friends and disciples Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. While they are up there Jesus is transformed in some miraculous way that makes clear to the awestruck disciples that he is bathed in the glory of God. Then Moses and Elijah, the two greatest people in the history of the people of Israel, appear and begin talking with Jesus. Peter, seeing the three of them, says the first thing that comes to his mind, wouldn’t it be nice to build three dwellings, or tents for the three divine beings, and they all can stay there and worship.

Next something happens which I hadn’t fully noticed in previous readings. It seems as if God is bent on interrupting Peter, on stopping Peter’s train of thought before he can finish it. The voice from Heaven cuts in, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" The first part of the sentence should take us all back to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, when the same words were said. And I think the second part is a direct command: listen to Jesus, not to your own instincts. And all of a sudden, everything is normal, the prophets are gone, Jesus is telling them not to be afraid, to keep quiet about what happened and heading back down the mountain.

As Matthew tells the story, the next things that happen are that Jesus heals an epileptic the disciples could not heal because of their lack of faith, and then begins teaching about right relationships among his followers. They are on the road to Jerusalem and the cross. So it seems to me that Jesus is making the point that a mystical encounter on the mountain is a brief, wondrous event, but the real work of discipleship, the real “transfiguration” takes place in the work of ministry and the sacrifice he will make on the cross.

Despite my earlier statement, perhaps you are wondering what in the world the transfiguration has to say to our situation. Here is my argument, beginning with some thoughts on sacrifice. Sacrifice is a word with unpleasant connotations: sacrifice is hard, painful, and grim. Yet in theological terms, sacrifice is something given up willingly out of love for God. Sacrifice is not capriciously demanded by God—it can lead to our spiritual growth, and the good of others. Jesus’ offering of his life on the cross is the ultimate example of sacrificial love. I would suggest that we at St. Peter’s are being invited to sacrifice--give up, let go of—three things if we are to listen to the voice of Jesus and move forward in faith in our mission.

First, we are being invited to let go of our comfort zone—the ways we have become comfortable in our life at St Peter’s. The disciples left everything they had to follow Jesus, and were continually nudged and pushed beyond their faith comfort zones. Things like “the way we’ve always done it.” Or just assuming that my opinion is the right one. We are called to really listen to our sisters and brothers here, making the assumption that views they hold are just as sincerely and faithfully held as our own. Whatever decisions we make will entail risks, and new ways of being church. That is always what it means to follow Jesus—to listen to his voice.

Second, we are being invited to let go of the vision we might have of the “perfect” or “best” church. Often that vision is a memory from the past. I know my own “best church” memories come from my time at St. Mark’s, Raleigh, the first church where I truly felt at home and connected with God as an adult. I will find myself thinking, “If we only did things here the way we did them at St. Mark’s, we would take care of a lot of problems.” Well, my wonderful experience occurred over 20 years ago in a different city and a different context. I am sure that if I went back to visit, that many things I treasured would be changed. And if they were the still the same, then St. Mark’s would have stagnated, listening to the voice of comfort rather than the voice of Jesus.

A wonderful church experience might have been in a different congregation, or occurred some time in the past at St. Peter’s, when you were happiest here. Or just possibly, a “best church” is one that doesn’t exist—one where there are never any conflicts, never any difficult decisions, and everyone is easy to like. These feelings are natural, part of human nature. But if I hang on to my vision, I won’t be following Jesus because I won’t be able to hear or see him.

I bring up the third item knowing it may not apply to everyone here or be known to everyone here. This has to do with St. Andrew’s, Glenwood. Some years ago, St. Peter’s decided to send some of the congregation to start at mission there. I have heard more than one person reflect that in hindsight perhaps that was a mistake. Had these congregants not gone, we’d have a “large enough” congregation, wouldn’t be in financial difficulties, and would have been able to build on our property already. I wasn’t here, but I am sure that the sending was a sacrificial offering for the people who stayed and those who left. And I believe we are invited to let go of whatever “what if’s” we have about St. Andrew’s. We are being invited to look at the matter from God’s perspective, not our own. There is now a thriving congregation in that area—thanks be to God!! And while we may miss the people who left, there are plenty of people right in our neighborhood who need God, whether or not they know it.

The Transfiguration makes clear that following Jesus means being on the road, being willing to let go of whatever may be keeping us from hearing and listening to his voice. Our baggage may be material possessions, but not always. Memories of wonderful times in the past in a congregation, or wonderful personal encounters with God can keep us stuck if we cling to them. A wise spiritual friend called that “living in our spiritual archives”. If you or I spend all our time thumbing through our special scrapbook of the past we will not be awake or aware in this exciting present. Jesus always calls us to live in the present, in his Kingdom that is new each day.

So, my friends, that is how I think St. Peter’s meets the Transfiguration today. We have nothing to fear and much to gain. If we truly desire to live out our mission statement: feeding, healing, and reaching out to others, then we have all the gifts we need and will do more than we could ask or imagine. Yes, there will be sacrifices and hard work. St. Paul says it best to his beloved friends in Philippi, explaining why following Christ is the only path worth taking:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.


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