Prayers and sermon for First Christian of Portsmouth, Ohio–Transfiguration Sunday
Matthew 17:1-9 The Transfiguration
17 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Call to Prayer
Let’s go up the mountain.
Let’s go up to the place where the land meets the sky
where the earth touches the heavens,
to the place of meeting,
to the place of mists,
to the place of voices and conversations,
to the place of listening.
We open our eyes and we see Jesus,
the months of ministry transfigured to a beam of light,
the light of the world,
May your light shine upon us.
We open our eyes and we see Moses and Elijah,
your word restoring us, showing us the way, telling a story,
your story, his story, our story.
May your word speak to us.
We open our eyes and we see mist,
the cloud of your presence
which assures us of all we do not know
and that we do not need to fear.
Teach us to trust.
We open our eyes and we see Peter’s constructions,
his best plans, our best plans,
our missing the point,
our missing the way.
Forgive our foolishness
We open our eyes and we see Jesus,
not casting us off,
but leading us down, leading us out
to ministry, to people.
Your love endures forever.
We open our ears and we hear your voice,
‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him!’
And we give you thanks.
You have been a church for 160 + years. Is that right? I understand the old church was bought by the highway to develop a new wider road, by about what, eight feet? I wonder what was the hope for this new broader road? Easier travel? Easier access? But to what, to where?
Are we to only be concerned with a destination in worldly terms: how fast can I get to Chillicothe, to Columbus?
Jesus walked. And he did not worry about how long it might take or not. He trusted that God was there, no matter where.
He had quite a special connection with God, didn’t he, being the son.
But we too are the daughters, the friends, the relatives of Jesus through our baptism. The question becomes what does that mean?
Portsmouth has seen a lot of changes over the years.
In the 1790s I read that there was a small town just west of here called Alexandria which got flooded quite often. So, this guy, Henry Massie, found a place away from the flood plains. It wasn’t just about him. His actions resulted in Portsmouth being born. It replaced Alexandria because it was a better place to live, a better place to build dry houses–safe shelters for people.
And we in the church must seek that too, a better way to live, a better safer, dryer shelter. Not just for ourselves, but for others.
The Bible teaches about spiritual growth of individuals, communities, and nations. Many changes occur as we mature. Moses in Old Testament days went up on the mountain to receive stone tablets with God’s instructions to the people of Israel. They were a rag-tag group who’d been slaves and probably had no clue how to live in polite society. These laws and rules were a beginning for them, a way to help them form community and learn how to live together. Eventually this group of struggling people claimed a land of their own where they could put down roots, both physically and spiritually–they were Jews with certain traditions and expectations. Jews would be known to belong because males were circumcised.
Who belongs to this community, to this church? From talking to Harald and Linda, I know a little about your struggles in this church. You had many members worshiping in the past, but here you are now, with only a few faithful coming…
Churches everywhere, it seems, are in decline.
Decline, we might interpret as failure. Yet, there is a natural cycle to life: we are born, we grow, we age, we die. The question is when is a church ready to close its doors? When are people incapable of being in community? When are people no longer able to help others? When should they succumb to death?
Perhaps the when is not for us to answer because as long as we can take breath, we are capable of being of value to ourselves and to others. And we are always important to God. Always loved.
|Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and spiritual leader tells us this story about The Moment of Enlightenment
“Where shall I find God?” the disciple asked the elder.
“God is with you,” the Holy One replied.
“But if that is true,” the disciple continued, “why can I not see this Presence?”
“Because you are like the fish who, when in the ocean, never notices the water,” the Holy One explained.
It is not that God is not with us, it is that we are unaware. Dualism, the Western philosophy that divided reality into matter and spirit, into bad things and good things, into body and soul, has so distorted our ability to see what is around us that we have learned to look and see nothing at all or at most only half of what’s there.
I was sad to learn about Portsmouth’s hillbilly heroin–its prescription drug epidemic. Drug abuse is everywhere, that’s for sure, not just here. People who are seeking relief from pain, physical, emotional, spiritual, want to be high: they take drugs, booze, overeat, overshop. Nothing satisfies them for long.
Why isn’t life enough? When you can’t find a job, don’t see yourself getting an education, maybe get pregnant with no hope of a committed relationship, have low esteem–it’s pretty easy to give up hope. Those moments of relief through drugs, alcohol, food abuse are a substitute for the real shelter which keeps us safe, dry, warm, and most importantly holds us in a loving embrace and gives us hope in our minds and hearts.
In the church, we are rooted in Christ’s teachings.
Chittister tells us: We go to church, many of us, at least sometimes. But church and religion and spirituality are not synonymous terms. It is very easy to have one without the other. It is very easy to have all of them and still miss the mystical dimensions of life. We can go to church and never become immersed in God. The Mystery. We can espouse a religion and be far, far away from God. We can develop a spirituality that is deeply devotional but never deeply aware of the presence of God now, here, within us. I can go through life without ever realizing consciously that I am never for a moment out of the womb of God.
What Chittister means is that we are unaware of the presence of God which is a lived experience. In fact we want to make things the way we want to make things, based on our understanding and knowledge which is, no matter how smart or dumb we are, gifted and talented, limited.
Consider the transfiguration. Here is Jesus radiant with unearthly light meeting with two amazing prophets out of the past: Moses and Elijah.
Many outside the church might scoff at this Biblical tale as some sort of oddity, and plenty within the church would rationalize this as a myth. But Christianity is a religion that is more than merely rational.
In our scripture Peter is fiery and outspoken. That’s his personality. What does he want to do? He wants to build shelters to contain the prophets, Moses and Elijah, and he wants to build one for Jesus. What a crazy loving man! He wants to take care of Jesus!
How good that churches want to take care of Jesus and want to bring in people so that they might get to know about Jesus and live more deeply.
The question we must ask ourselves is what is God saying to us today? How are we to be the presence of Christ in our world? Now. Here. To the Portsmouth community?
Your church is a beautiful place, well kept, inviting, and in a great location near Shawnee State.
I’ve heard efforts have been made to encourage students to come here, to worship here.
But I have a question for you–why in the world would they come here? What is relevant for them?
You might say Jesus is always relevant, and I would agree. But young college students are learning skills that are immediately relevant to their lives and their futures.
I have a lot of faith in the young.
If you want to engage these young people in church community, then you must figure out what is important to them.
Certainly they must be treated with respect.
They are not fools. They might well see us in the church as aging irrelevant people hanging onto the ancient past; they might see us as hypocrites who don’t practice what we preach.
Most of us here understand something people outside of the church, perhaps especially the young, don’t: aging churches, aging bodies and aging communities are difficult to cope with–unless we remember we are not the last word, but God is.
As we get old, we see our bodies weaken, and we realize we cannot hang onto them forever. Death is going to come to us. But we are not dead yet. And real strength is not about physical prowess, or former achievements. It is about worthily glorifying the name and purpose of God. We just have to figure out how.
Though the mountains may fall and the hills turn to dust,
yet the love of the Lord will stand
as a shelter for all who will call on His name.
Sing the praise and the glory of God.
Go to Him when you’re weary,
He will give you eagle’s wings.
You will run never tire,
For your God will be your strength. Based on Isaiah 54: 6-10, 49:15, 40:31-32
Shawnee State seems a natural resource since it is nearby with over 4000 students.
We older folks tend to call college students kids. I call them that all the time. But it implies certain assumptions and biases. They party and don’t care. They’re irresponsible. They feel entitled. Etc. These assumptions are sweeping generalizations. They might be somewhat unfounded.
What might their assumptions be about churches, about Jesus? What are their backgrounds? One of my good friends who is an atheist and an incredible educator, attended a church when she was young. She told me she knew the messages from the pulpit about hell and damnation were lies. She despises churches because of that early experience.
It seems to me in order to be Christ in the world, we need to get to know the people we are interested in partnering with. Yes, partnering.
The students and the faculty at Shawnee State might become partners in ministry, not recipients of our desire to help them be, well, like us.
We in the church have to welcome others and discover what they might teach us.
Have you ever asked the student body how your church might be relevant for them? In today’s world?
I love your trash and treasure ministry. Orange balloons to signify the celebration of giving–
You could become known as the Balloon church, the church that celebrates life, celebrates God by becoming relevant in Portsmouth. Blue balloons might mean food pantry day. Green balloons might mean praying for the environment. Purple balloons might mean gathering to begin a protest against injustice in the community…
At the church I pastored for three years, the people wanted to have an old fashioned revival. I advertised it as a party with God. I was criticized by some for that language because they felt it disrespectful.
But if we are to survive as Christian communities, we must party with God and with the young. That does not mean having loud praise music, but it might. That doesn’t mean doing drugs and alcohol. It means becoming relevant, respectful, and a help. It means being authentic and tolerant leaders.
6:10 is a contemporary worship service in Lexington, KY. One of my friend’s has a son who went there. This young man didn’t show much interest in regular church worship–but this got his attention because it was relevant. They had guitars and contemporary music and they worked for social justice in the community. They were purposeful, and engaged in helping others.
What about Shawnee State? Go to the student bodies and ask them how might you be relevant in their lives? What do they need? What do they want?
What and who would Jesus help here in Portsmouth? You know, he wouldn’t go to a posh community in London or New York, Mayfair or Manhattan. He’d be with the people, especially the least of these.
In the Gospel of Mark 9: 35-37 we hear Jesus
Sitting down, calling the Twelve and saying, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Partner with the students, faculty and staff at Shawnee State. Ask them how might you together be relevant in this community? And how might they want to help? How might you empower them to be a help? What are the issues important to them?
Perhaps they are interested in feeding the homeless, in gay rights, teaching needy kids to read? Perhaps they are worried about global warming–how might you provide leadership for them to express and explore their concerns, and help them discover the ways to make a difference.
Go to the faculty meetings and ask how you might be relevant to the professors and to the college? They may well be required to do community service. How can you make that a possibility? The Word became flesh through deeds, through love. It is important to become the lived experience of the God of love, of justice, and of truth.
Peter wanted to build shelters for the awesome power he had witnessed–he was well meaning, but we do not shelter God. God shelters us.
The moment of enlightenment, Chittister tells us, comes when, like the mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg, we see “God in all things and all things in God.”
It is an awesome thought. If God is in this life struggle and this life struggle has something to do with the God-life in me, then it is to be dealt with reverently, thought through gently, handled honestly, and lived through trustingly…. Then the despair will dissolve. Then the bitterness can ebb. It is not that God is in this awful thing, treating us like mice in cages and tweaking our tails with glee. No, it is that we are in God. We are safe and loved and wrapped round with the Divine. What can really harm us? What can be taken away that will leave us bereft? What can rob us of life once we decide to live in the heart of God?
Being a Christian is to open up to a fresh worldview that enhances and possibly replaces narrow worldviews we might formerly have held. It’s about opening up to God’s worldview. It is about being transformed into something and someone new. It is about fulfilling our destiny—living up to our dreams—overcoming what holds us back, overcoming what keeps us earth-bound. It is about finding shelter in a broken world, in our broken lives, so that we can be part of the movement, the process, the solution leading to enriched lives for everyone, everywhere. It is the promised fulfillment of our yearning for meaning. For relief. For love. It is a movement from entitlement to responsibility. It is the movement from infancy through childhood into becoming an adult.
God of the covenant,
the cloud of your splendor and the fire of your love
revealed your Son, Jesus, on the mountain heights.
Transform our lives in his image,
write your law of love on our hearts,
and make us prophets of your glory,
that we may enable others to become your presence in our broken community.
Go now in peace, strengthened and embraced by the loving light of God
Adapted from http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=22