Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A: Last Sunday after Epiphany (3 February 2008)

Matthew 17:1-9

I want to begin today by being a bit more autobiographical and personal than I usually am in a sermon—not, I hope, for whatever gratification may come from talking about myself, but because the main insight I want to leave you with emerged from the gradual process that I’m about to describe.

As most of you know, I came to the Episcopal Church as a young adult, in my early twenties. The tradition in which I was raised happens to have been Baptist, but it could easily have been any of a number of different free-church evangelical faith communities. I am grateful for my upbringing. It taught me to love our Lord Jesus, to study the Scriptures, and to honor their authority. When we got together on Sundays, the place we gathered in and what we did there looked rather different than what we experience at St Anne’s and in other more liturgical churches. Rather than the altar being the focal point of the room, there was a raised platform in the front, with an imposing pulpit at dead center. Behind the platform were raised pews for the members of the choir. Behind the choir, discreetly hid from view, was a large tank where baptism by full immersion could be performed. In our church, there was a large wooden cross on the back wall—not a cruxifix, certainly, but just a plain cross—but there was virtually nothing else in the room by way of overt Christian symbolism. Even though our pastor tried to get us to call it a “sanctuary” rather than an “auditorium,” we certainly thought of it in functional terms, as a comfortable meeting place, not as the venue of an encounter with the Sacred.

As people came together, there would be soft organ music in the background, but instead of a reverent hush, there was a good bit of visiting and socializing in the pews. The service itself usually began with the choir singing a short “Call to Worship,” followed by a congregational hymn. Then there would be about twenty or thirty minutes of an informal routine of announcements, a reading from Scripture, a musical solo and/or choir anthem, and a long prayer improvised by the pastor. But this was all pretty much just a warm-up for the main event, which was the sermon, lasting anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes. This was the high point, the real reason we came to church. After the sermon, there would usually be a closing hymn, often something kind of slow and sentimental, hopefully motivating us to continue to take to heart the pastor’s message. Then there was a benediction, and then the organ played again—more loudly this time—as everyone left the church.

This routine . . . does many things well. I learned a great deal from the sermons delivered by the pastor who served that church during the mid-to-late 60s, while I was in junior high and high school, and I am very grateful to him to this day. My heart was stirred . . . and my devotion aroused by guest preachers, many of them fresh from the foreign mission field, who challenged me with the invitation to commit my life totally to Christ, to surrender the aspirations of my own ego and to yield completely to the biddings of the Holy Spirit. I marvelled at, and was inspired by, the example of their sacrifice, and gradually began to see myself as destined for—as they would have described it—“full-time Christian service.”

At the same time, I also knew, albeit “pre-consciously,” that there was something missing. Even now, I can scarcely find the right words to name what was going on in my soul, but there was, deep within me, a desire and longing to connect with the Eternal, the Transcendent, to know God in His surpassingly beautiful glory. But as a child and teenager, I wouldn’t have been able to use those words. I wouldn’t even have known that the yearning I felt was religious in nature, that it was God who was seducing me with His glory. The only outward sign in my experience of what I intuitively felt within myself was the pomp and pageantry associated with royalty and the military. So I was drawn to stories and moves and TV shows that depicted such ceremony. I fantasized about living in a country with a monarch who required that his subjects prostrate themselves upon entering his presence, and leave the throne room walking backwards, so as to never turn their backs on the sovereign. I fantasized about being in combat, and following orders with such abandon that I did not care an instant for my own safety.

What I was looking to do, of course—though I certainly didn’t know it at the time—was to worship the Almighty and Everliving God, to give appropriate expression to my avowed intention to serve and follow Him. And I was looking for it because what I experienced in church on Sunday mornings did not give me that opportunity. We were good at talking about God, but we didn’t have a clue how to actually worship God.

Now, lest you continue to wonder where I’m going with all this maudlin self-disclosure on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, it’s because of the Transfiguration. In all three years of our lectionary cycle, this Sunday before the beginning of Lent confronts us with the Transfiguration of our Lord. This year we hear about it from Matthew. Jesus takes Peter and James and John up to the top of a mountain, and sometime during the night, he starts to glow—Matthew tells us, “like the sun,” so it was no mere nightlight—and two of the heroes of Israel’s history, Moses and Elijah, show up for a while beside him. In that moment, in that mountaintop experience to define all mountaintop experiences, the three disciples found, concretely and tangibly, that which the youthful Dan Martins was unknowingly looking for. What I have seen, what most of us have seen, only in shades and intimations, fleeting shadows and sidelong glances, Peter and James and John saw straight on, dead ahead.

And what, we might ask, was their first response? What did they do before they even had a chance to think about what they should do? “Lord, this is wonderful. Let’s make three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Now, in their accounts of this incident, Mark and Luke give the impression that Peter’s offer was inappropriate—he didn’t know what he was saying. But not in Matthew. The way Matthew tells the story, it was a perfectly plausible response. The word which most translations render as “booth,” and which I have just quoted as “tabernacle,” and which we just heard read as “dwelling,” is the same word which, in the Old Testament, was used for the special tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant during the wilderness wanderings of the ancient Israelites. It was the place where God’s glory dwelt, the place which Moses would enter to commune with God, and when he came out his face would glow so much that he had to wear a veil in order for anybody to look at him. Later, when they settled down permanently in the Promised Land, they built a temple in Jerusalem, which became the permanent home of the Ark. The Psalmist would say of it, “Lord, I love your house, and the place where your glory abides.” A tabernacle serves a very useful purpose. It transforms God’s glory into an intensity which might not actually kill us if we look at it, the way an electrical transformer takes power from the high-voltage lines and turns it into something you can use to light your house without exploding your breaker panel.

And what, we might ask yet again, was the disciples’ second response to the Transfiguration? They hit the deck. They fell to the ground prostrate, noses in the dust, lost in utterly pure and abject worship. It’s the response my young heart wanted to make, but didn’t know how. It’s the response we all would want to make if confronted with such an overpowering vision of majestic glory.

How, then, can we begin to approach the experience of God’s glory—glory that virtually compels us to prostrate ourselves in front of it? Well, God has given us a gift which enables us to take the next step. He has given us a transformer. We call it the Liturgy. In my Baptist youth, as you might imagine, liturgy was not a positive word. It was used disparagingly of those pseudo-Christians who don’t know how to really pray so they have to use a book. Needless to say, I was conditioned to be suspicious of liturgy. But as I grew into my college years, that suspicion began to melt, and that melting, over time, turned into a warm and joyful embrace. I discovered that the liturgy—and I refer here to the whole complex of words and actions and material objects that symbolize our encounter with the Transcendent and Holy God—I discovered that the liturgy supplies both the experience of Divine Glory and the transformer, the “tabernacle,” which enables us to bask in the light of that glory.

Some years ago, I was shooting the breeze with the rector of a parish nearby to the one I was working in at the time, and he told me about a conference that one of his parishioners attended—at a nearby seminary of the Episcopal Church, no less—at which the idea was put forward that the churches that are really enjoying substantial growth have a very informal and passive worship style, with music that was written only last month, where every Sunday is Praise Band Sunday, and that if Episcopal churches want to grow, then we need to do the same thing, and sit very loosely to the Prayer Book and make the inside of our church buildings much plainer and simpler,
and let go of the traditional music that we’re accustomed to. My clergy colleague and I agreed in our reluctance to accept this advice. It’s not that we don’t think new music in a popular style has any place in our piety and worship—it does, and it certainly does at St Anne’s—but we were both of a mind that, rather than blurring and downplaying the edginess of our liturgical inheritance, we need instead to accentuate it. Rather than trying to be who somebody else is, and do a poor job of it, we need to be who we already are, but do a better job of it.

People are, I am convinced, hungry for a vision of God’s glory, yearning for an encounter with the awe-inspiring majesty of God. They want an experience that will induce them to fall down flat on their faces, and then get up and walk out of the room backwards so as not to show any disrespect to the Holy One. Ought we not to employ every means at our disposal to encourage and facilitate such an encounter? We have this wonderful treasure in the Liturgy, and it is capable of both evoking and providing the vehicle for responding to the glory of heavenly beauty. This is done through architecture and the arrangement of sacred space, it is fostered through an environment of worship that invites reverence, it is nourished by the finest music—old and new—performed with excellence and attention to detail, it is encouraged by the artistic use of glass and paint and fabric, it is accomplished through movement and posture and symbolic gesture, and it appeals richly to all the senses: taste and touch and vision and hearing and smelling. It is our liturgy, the true “work” of the people of God.

“The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come, let us adore him.” Amen.

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