Sunday, February 22, 2009

Farewell Sermon as Curate of St. Alban's

Last Sunday after the Epiphany (BCP)
1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 27:5-11; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Mark 9:2-9
Sunday, February 22, 2009 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

If someone were to ask you what one story in the Bible describes what it means to live, or at least to try to live, the Christian life, what would it be? There are so many great choices. For me, it would probably be the story of the Transfiguration, which we just heard. This story is so rich, carries so much imagery, has so many meanings on various levels, that in many ways, it does provide a pretty good summation of what it means to be a Christian. Or more importantly, what it means to be a Christian on the journey of faith, attempting to understand, to be faithful to, to live, the Gospel message.

For a long time, I had never given the story of the Transfiguration much thought. But when I started the formal process of discerning whether or not I was being called to Holy Orders, the story of the Transfiguration attracted my attention, and has continued to hold my attention ever since. For me, it has almost become a signature story, if you will. It is a story of transformation that helped carry me through not only the discernment process that led me to the priesthood, but also one which continues to guide me in ministry.

While on the surface, the story of the Transfiguration illustrates the revelation of who Jesus is and, indeed, the transformation of Jesus into the fullness of who he is and who he was called to be, it is, in many ways, also the story of the transformation of the followers of Jesus into who they are called to be. As the story of the Transfiguration unfolds, we see the disciples who accompany Jesus up the mountain, Peter, James, and John, but particularly Peter, for who they really are, in all their humanness. And as the story unfolds, we get a glimpse of who they are called to be. When Jesus is transfigured before them and when Elijah and Moses appear and talk with Jesus, the disciples are awestruck. They don’t know what to make of the situation. They are not able to comprehend what is happening. In response, they fall back on their basic human nature. They become fixated, stuck on that which they know, on that with which they are comfortable. They become stuck on very human things. Peter’s response is “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” They wanted to hold on to the moment. They wanted to bask in the glory they were witnessing. They wanted to stay there and live in the afterglow of that mountaintop experience.

But I think there was something even more basic at the root of this desire to remain on the mountaintop with their transfigured Lord. They wanted to keep the glory of the Transfiguration to themselves. After all, they had been chosen, of all the Twelve, to witness this event. They had been chose from all the people on Earth to share in this experience. They were obviously the chosen ones. They wanted to keep this miraculous experience to themselves. But they also had other, equally selfish motives. Just six days before, Jesus had revealed to them that he would eventually suffer and die. Staying on this mountaintop, maybe, just maybe, they could prevent, or at least deny, the inevitability of Jesus’ suffering and death. Yes, he could still be the messiah. But rather than one who was to suffer and die, maybe they could prevent such a tragedy while still making Jesus into someone who conformed to their idea of what a messiah should be, an earthly messiah.

But despite Peter’s best efforts, Jesus’ glory at the Transfiguration reveals that our human goals and desires are futile, that they are of no importance compared to what Jesus has to offer. For in response to Peter’s proposal, God breaks the tension between what the disciples want and what must be done – “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In this simple, yet profound statement, no new information is being given. What the disciples need to know they have already heard and seen. What they need to know has been or will be revealed through Jesus, as proclaimed in his words, as enacted in his ministry. What the disciples need is to go back to the basic message of proclaiming the Good News, working for justice, feeding the hungry, healing the sick. And that they cannot do alone, by staying on the mountaintop.

In this, the disciples glimpse a new view of reality – but not the reality they thought. It was not the reality of the Transfiguration event itself, but the reality of a world transfigured by the grace and love and mercy of God. It was the reality that cannot stay bound to a particular place, but must be taken into the world. We see the disciples called into a new way of viewing Jesus. We see them called into a new way of viewing what it means to be Jesus’ followers. We see them called into a new way of being. The disciples are called to leave the safety of their mountaintop “church” and to go into the world – to take what they have gained in that mountaintop experience and embody it in the world. They are called to follow Jesus’ example to preach the Good News, but even more importantly, to live the Good News, to give the Good News not so much in words, but to exemplify it in their actions.

I dare say that this message applies not only to Peter, James, and John, but to all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ. To truly follow him, we cannot remain on the mountaintop. We cannot remain in the pews, keeping the wonder of what we have experienced to ourselves. Like Peter, James, and John, we are not called to build dwellings for ourselves or for our Lord, here in the safety of the church. We are called to build something even greater out in the world. We are called to build the Kingdom of God out there, in the world, for all to see, for the benefit of all.

Don’t get me wrong. Church is important. It’s where we go to hear the word of God. “This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!” More importantly, it’s where we have the support of community. It’s where we hear and process the Word through interaction with our fellow Christians. It’s where we discern how to live the Word. It’s where we receive support from community as we go out into the world, and where we provide support to others as they do likewise. It’s easy and comfortable to want to stay in the pews. But that’s not what we are called to do, difficult thought it may seem. We must come down from the mountaintop and go into the world.

Last Sunday I had a personal lesson in just this very thing. Or maybe it was God holding me accountable to the lesson of the Transfiguration. As you may recall, the gospel lesson for last Sunday was the story of a leper coming to Jesus and saying “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus responds, “I do chose. Be made clean!” During my reflection at the Sunday evening Canterbury service, I talked about how Jesus reached out to the man, across the barriers imposed by Jewish purity laws and social convention. He chose to go against all that was expected so that he could heal the man. I then posed the question “what does this passage have to say to us about how we deal with those on the margins, such as people with AIDS or who are homeless?” The students got into a lively discussion, struggling with what the passage means for us. But this posed a real dilemma for the students. How can we possibly make a difference? The problems of society are so great. Jesus could make the problems go away, just as he healed the man of his leprosy. What little we could possibly do will not make the problems go away. One student said, “we don’t have that kind of power.” I responded that we need to do something, no matter how small the gesture. Sometimes, just taking a little time and treating a homeless person as a human being, with a little respect and dignity, can make a difference. As little a thing as that may seem, that simple act can make all the difference. I’ve seen it happen. Treat someone with a little respect, and they begin to have respect for themselves. They begin to have faith in themselves. And then they can begin to change their lives around. That is grace. That is mercy. That is the love of God at work in the world.

Now during the service, an older man slipped into the chapel. After the service, I went up to the man and introduced myself. He told me that he was one of those we had been talking about, someone who was, at least temporarily, homeless. He told me about how he was visiting LA and had been robbed. He had no money and was trying to get back home. He didn’t know where to turn and had seen the church and felt compelled to go inside. He said the group’s reflection on the gospel lesson had really spoken to him and given him a sense of hope.

My first thought was, “is God testing me?” If I refused to help, I would be acting counter to the very thing we had just talked about in worship. I would have been keeping the message of Jesus a private thing, locked up in the church, on the mountaintop. I realized that God was not testing me as much as holding me accountable. It’s one thing to talk about the meaning of the Gospel. It’s another to live the Gospel. So that’s what I did. I decided to live the Gospel. I spent some time talking with the man, hearing his story. I prayed with him, and gave him enough money for bus fare and some food. I did not allow myself to stay on the mountain, basking in the glory of Christ, contemplating the meaning of the Gospel in a safe haven. Instead, I walked down the mountain and was instantly confronted with an opportunity to actually live the Gospel. For me, it was an important lesson about the connection between what we do in here on Sunday mornings, and how we respond and live our lives out there the rest of the week. The need is there. The opportunities for living the Gospel are there.

As I end my tenure as your curate, I cannot help but reflect that, at least for me, there is a more significant, long-term implication to the story of the Transfiguration, to the reality of transformation that can occur, particularly within a parish. That is through relationships formed in the parish community that can have a long-lasting transformative effect.

For me, this is best expressed by an image presented by Peggy Tabor Millin, in the autobiography of her spiritual journey, Mary's Way. Millin writes:

“I was on a train on a rainy day. The train was slowing down to pull into a station. For some reason I became intent on watching the raindrops on the window. Two separate drops, pushed by the wind, merged into one for a moment and then divided again—each carrying with it a part of the other. Simply by that momentary touching, neither was what it had been before. And as each one went on to touch other raindrops, it shared not only itself, but what it had gleaned from the other . . . I realized then that we never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.”

Two and a half years ago, the raindrop that is me splashed into the mass of raindrops that collectively form St. Alban’s. Over the past two and a half years, the winds of parish life, sometimes turbulent, sometimes soft and gentle, the winds of the Holy Spirit, have blown that mass of raindrops around, with each of the drops, yours and mine, touching and colliding and mixing. And now, the time has come when the wind of the Holy Spirit once again separates the raindrop that is me from St. Alban’s. But the raindrop that fell into your midst two and a half years ago is not the same as when it first fell. Because of it being touched by and mingling with the many other raindrops in this place, it blows off in some unknown direction, forever changed, carrying with it, a part of you, and leaving behind, a part of itself.

You have prepared me well. When I engage in ministry in the future, wherever that may be, that ministry, the way that I enter into it, the way that I engage it, will be informed by my time here as your curate. A part of you will accompany me. A part of you will have become a permanent part of who I am, as a priest, but also as a person, as a child of God. In this way, I will be able to share a part of you with those with whom I do ministry in the future. And I can only hope that as you continue on your own path, as a parish, and as individual members of the Body of Christ, a small part of me, of my presence among you this past two and a half years, will be with you, supporting you, encouraging you, loving you. For in this way, while we may be physically separated, we will continue to be a part of each other’s lives and ministries.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Yard[D]og said...

Your a good man, Mr. Fincher ...