Sermon: The Way of Transformation

03 February 2008

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
February 3, 2008

Transfiguration Sunday

The Way of Transformation

Exodus 24:12-18; 25:1-2, 8
Matthew 17:1-9

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In case you missed it, this new church year (which actually began at the beginning of Advent, in December) is the year of Matthew.  Matthew’s Gospel is featured in Year A of the Common Lectionary, which we and many other mainline denominations, Protestant and Roman Catholic, follow in our preaching.  So if you’re thinking you’ve heard me preach a lot from Matthew lately, you’re right.  I think it’s helpful to have the opportunity to hear Matthew’s “Good News” as it flows from one story to another, as theological ideas are connected.  And one image that appears in Matthew five times is Jesus going to a mountaintop – just like Moses, which is why we read again the familiar Exodus of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments.  It’s no accident, as Matthew is trying to make a point – not only is Jesus “the new Moses,” the long-awaited liberator and Messiah, he is a great teacher.  In this text God repeats those words we heard at Jesus’s baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased,” but he also adds the all-important “listen to him” – the charge parents still today give to their kids about respecting their teachers.  In other words, according to Matthew, there’s no point knowing Jesus as the Son of God and our Savior, if we don’t actually heed what he has to say.  Obeying the Teacher is a first step on “The Way of Transformation.”

Today is both the end of the season of Epiphany and “Transfiguration Sunday,” which is about the “Aha!” moments in people’s lives that set us off to journey with Christ, committed to the life of discipleship in a new way.  “The Way of Transformation” begins with this “mountaintop experience” of faith that dispels disbelief and re-energizes us for self-giving acts of worship, service, and stewardship.  Have you ever climbed a mountain and felt something like that – a mountain high enough so that, near the top, you’re almost disconnected from your tired body and soaring somewhere beyond yourself?  After a long, steep climb, where you push yourself beyond your limit, there’s a way in which something in our souls can break loose and the Spirit of the Living God can rush into our lives.  Up in the clouds, or up beyond the clouds where sunlight breaks through and the sky is blindingly bright – the problems of the world below seem to melt away and we can believe again that God is with us, and with God, anything might be possible.

My grandfather who grew up at the Cumberland Gap, shared with me his love of hiking to a high place to be alone with God.  I first came to know that transcendence of God at John’s River Valley, our North Carolina camp for the United Church of Christ, like Silver Lake here in Connecticut.  We held our daily devotionals – both morning worship and evening vespers – at the top of the highest hill there, where we could look down across the valley to the cabins and playing fields and river below.  The best time to hike up there was sunrise – the blue mists over the ridge across the valley would begin to turn deep purple and then pink and then fiery salmon and red before the sun would finally burn through and flash a blast of warm, golden light directly onto your face.  God was there.  You just knew it.  It was a faith "Aha" moment.

I always hated to have to go home from camp, because there, worship would literally take me to the mountaintop and we’d sing songs that kids my age really loved at the top of our lungs, and the power of those songs would echo across the valley in a way that gave us hope in the transforming and almighty power of God.  We would believe that peace had a chance, and that the Vietnam War really might come to an end.  We would believe in Dr. King’s dream that one day – even in our schools in North Carolina, which were still segregated even though church camp had been integrated – kids of all colors might one day walk hand in hand.  Up there at the mountaintop, holding hands with kids of different colors that we hadn’t even known a few days before, we became the risen body of Christ, proclaiming the Kingdom and singing, from deep in our hearts.  We were singing, and we could believe, we really did believe, that we might overcome some day.  In that one short week each summer, I would be completely filled up and lifted up by the presence of the living God.  My spirit would be transformed, and I could believe again.

But back home, mountaintop experiences like the ones I had at camp didn’t happen very often.  My church was probably a lot like yours, if you grew up in a mainline Protestant church in the 20th century.  Worship was a lot like ours – with certain prayers and sung responses each week, with scripture and sermon focused on learning new things about the Bible and how to live in the Christian way.  But worship was never a cathartic or emotional experience.  I knew many people in our church actually frowned on that kind of worship – some had come from country churches where revivals and altar calls were rooted in hellfire-and-damnation preaching, where fear was the goal, and not joy. 

I loved it, though, when we had our annual pulpit and choir exchanges with the African-American churches in town, because that was when I got to hear really exciting preaching that moved my soul.  I loved the way black preachers would really work up a sweat, and shout out, and pound the pulpit.  Their voices were so full of passion.  I knew they made most people in our church uncomfortable, but I had to wonder, “Well, if Jesus is Lord, if he has saved us from aimlessness and sin, if Jesus really loves me that much, shouldn’t I want to shout with joy?  Shouldn’t I want to give it everything I have – body, soul, mind, and strength – with generous gifts of time and talent and treasure?” 

The thing was, as the daughter of a sports writer, I had been a lot of big games – games people had paid big money to attend. And many of those same churchgoers who couldn’t handle emotion in worship would have no problem at all screaming with joy when their team made a touchdown.  I saw them transformed from stuffy church folks in suits into wild animals at the stadium.  They’d pound their seats and jump up and down.  I saw some big, tough, grown men weep and hug each other when their team actually won.  Up high there, in the nosebleed seats at the Coliseum, they’d have their own mountaintop experiences – the spirit of the game would take over and they would be lifted up and out of their bodies and their spirits would fly with Michael Jordan to the hoop on the lay-up.

Why, I wondered, couldn’t church ever like that?  If we come together as God says to Moses, into a sanctuary where God himself dwells in our midst, why wouldn’t we want to pour out generous offerings of both money and shouts of praise?  And the conclusion I came to, when I decided to follow my call into ministry NOT into seminary but into acting school, was that the problem with most of our churches was they seemed to be places where not much of anything was supposed to happen. They were not places where the soul was supposed to be deeply touched.  Instead, they seemed to be places where people came together to just weekly touch base with their faith tradition, like punching a religious time card. They came to get a new tidbit of moral guidance. No one seemed to expect any actual transformation to happen.  In the theatre, on the other hand, you expected your emotions to be touched and your spirit to be transformed.  In a ballpark, you expected to be lifted up and connected with those thousands of screaming fans just like yourself.  Church was more like going to the dentist.  You didn’t go for the fun of it.  You wouldn’t wait in line to get in. You went because you knew it was good for you.  It was like… good spiritual hygiene.

My dream for our church is that it doesn’t have to be like that.  I’m not saying that we have to go all Pentecostal and jump up and sing and shout and dance for us to praise the Lord.  We can do it in our own quiet, New England way.  But my hope and prayer for us is that real spiritual searching can take place here – the kind that invigorates a person body and soul, the kind that makes us break a sweat and really want to shout for joy when we get to the top.  My hope and prayer for us is that the Holy Spirit can break into our lives like the bright light of dawn and really make a difference in our lives.

As we enter into these 40 days of Lent with this coming Ash Wednesday, we are called to re-enact a faith journey with the Israelites, who wandered 40 years in the Sinai wilderness and then were delivered safe into new life in the Promised Land. They were not the same as when they started, because they had taken a long hike up God’s Way of Transformation.  We are called to join Jesus and re-enact his spiritual pilgrimage up the mountain and into the wilderness to fast and pray and wrestle with demons for 40 days, the way he did when he began his ministry.  It’s a long road up, but it’s God’s Way of Transformation, and there is Glory at the top.  Up there, the spirit of the living God falls afresh on the world.  Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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