february 14, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
February 14, 2010
2 Corinthians 3:15-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

Three stories, to start us off. Perhaps you have heard them before.

Story #1: After her first month away at college, a girl returned home for a weekend. After church on Sunday, she walked into the kitchen as her mom prepared the pot roast. She loved this part of being home—the familiarity, the predictability of it all. Every Sunday her family gathered for Sunday dinner, and almost every Sunday they had Pot Roast. She watched as her mom cut a two-inch slab off the roast, and laid it over the top. She had seen her mother do this with every roast she cooked, but it was only after being away at college and seeing other people cook roasts without cutting off the end and laying it on top, that she thought to ask her mom. So, she asked, “Mom, why did you cut the end off the roast?” And the mom paused, and replied, “I don’t know…That’s how I learned to do it from my mom.” So, the girl called her grandma, and asked her why she always cut the end off the roast before putting it in the oven. The grandma said, “I don’t know…That’s how I learned to do it from my mom.” So, the girl, lucky enough to have her great-grandma still living and just across town, went to visit her great-grandma. “Great grandma,” she asked, “I watched my mom put the roast in the oven today, and asked her why she cut off the end. She said it was because Grandma always did it that way, and Grandma said she always did it that way because you always did it that way. Why did you cut the end off the roast every Sunday?” The girl waited for the wisdom that comes only with a lifetime of preparing delicious meals. The grandma smiled. Then she laughed. “Honey,” she said, “I never had a pan big enough to fit the whole roast.”

Story #2: A new pastor was appointed to a congregation. After almost a year of learning to live and worship together, she was quite curious about a habit of the congregation’s she had never seen before—the congregation always stood and faced the back wall of the church to say the Jesus Prayer. She had been curious about it for months, and was interested in hearing the whole story behind this practice. Were they turning to face Jerusalem, like ancient communities did? Turning so their prayers were sent out into the world, rather than contained in the church? Her chance to find out came when they were repainting the building, and stripped back a few layers of old paint. Once upon a time, the pastor learned, the Lord’s prayer had been painted on the back wall of the sanctuary. Everyone used to turn around to read the prayer. And, the habit stuck…long after the prayer was painted over.

Story #3: On Thursday evening, eight of us gathered in this sanctuary for a Worship meeting. To center us as we began planning and visioning worship experiences for this faith community, I asked each person to share a reason why they come to church. And, one reason why they come to worship. The answers were heartfelt, and, I imagine, shared with many of you. To be in community. To connect with God. To find fellowship. To center yourself for the week ahead. To deepen your faith. And, one brave and very faithful soul said, among other things, out of habit.

If we are honest, and by “we” here I mean those of us who come to this sanctuary Sunday after Sunday, regularly, weekly, faithfully—and, since it is neither Christmas Eve, nor Easter, many of you are here many if not most, most if not all Sunday mornings—if we are honest, part of why we’re here is habit. And, coming out of habit isn’t all bad. Habit carries us through—doesn’t it?—between the “A-ha” and “Oh Yes” and “How amazing is this!” moments of faith. Habit can be good. Habit can keep us connected with tradition. Habit can be passed down, through generations, and connect us with our elders, with the communion of saints who came before.

When we come to church partly out of habit, we, well, come. And since we show up, God can work as mysteriously as only God can. As they say, showing up is half the battle. Habits of faith—morning prayer, Sunday worship, reading scripture, attending Sunday School, coming to youth group—can be very, very good. And. But. Getting stuck in these habits, simply because they are habit, can keep us from the “A-ha” and “Oh Yes” and “How amazing is this?” moments.

Habit can keep us making the roast our mothers and grandmothers and their mothers before made…and habit can keep us cutting off the end of the roast even once we have pans that fit the whole thing. Habit can keep us teaching generations to come how to pray the familiar prayer Jesus taught…and habit keep us turning around to face the back wall long after the prayer has been covered by a layer of paint.

Habits. Keeping them, developing them, breaking them, changing them…Habits can help us find God, and Love, where we already expect: in church…in worship…out on a walk…in your shop…over coffee with dear friends…with your family…with everyone but your family…

But. And. Habits can keep us from finding God, and Love, where we least expect.

This morning’s gospel story is the story of the Transfiguration. It is a miracle story—meant to reflect and inspire “A-Ha” and “Oh Yes” and “How amazing is this!” moments of faith. Jesus has gone up the mountain to pray, and he’s gotten Peter, John, and James to come along. Then the miracle happens…Jesus’s clothes turn blinding white…his face is lit by a heavenly glow…Moses and Elijah, both long dead, appear. It is glorious! It is amazing! It is miraculous! It is a God-moment, complete with all the pomp and spectacle we tend to want with God-moments like this.

But even with the pomp, Peter, John, and James miss it. They’ve fallen asleep, as they tend to do right before the most important moments in the gospel narrative. This tendency to doze off is meant to warn us, the readers and hearers of the story, to pay attention. To look and listen. To live our lives with awareness, looking at the world around us, looking for and finding God moving in our daily lives, looking for and finding Christ in the people we meet on the street. The disciples teach us this, in a kind of “Do as we say, not as we do” example.

So, they have fallen asleep and almost miss the whole thing, but they wake up just in time to see Jesus “in his glory” as scripture puts it, standing with Moses and Elijah. And Peter, recognizing the moment as miraculous, blurts out…”What a great moment! Let’s build three memorials!” This is the habit, the tradition of his faith…When something sacred happens, build a memorial, make a plaque, mark the spot. Make sure we designate the gift, identify the giver, and carve it in stone to be remembered, and returned to.

It is habit. And, we quickly learn, not the response Jesus is looking for, at all. A holy cloud descends, God speaks, the disciples are speechless, and they stand in awe, unable to say a word. And this, it seems, is the response God is looking for…Peter—Peter—wants to make it concrete…start a tradition…draw it out…hold on…cling tightly…protect this holy event. And, God wants them to simply stand…silent…in awe…in gratitude. To behold what is happening…something so grand, so spirit-filled, so uniquely awesome and so clearly divine that all they can do is stand in awe and amazement…to be swept away by gratitude…to praise, and worship…to know this transformation, this transfiguration changes everything, even if it never happens again, at least not like this, that it still opens up something new, creates new possibilities for us to glimpse what is holy and good—a chance to meet God, and experience God’s good gift of Love.

Some habits can help us find God and Love where we already expect. Breaking out of some habits can help us find God and Love where we least expect.

Finding God, and finding Love, and, since God IS Love, the two really aren’t so separate, where and when we least expect God to show up.

Hear these words from Jim Autry’s book, “Looking Around for God.” It is a great book, and I am in the middle of reading it: “I think it is important to keep on looking because I believe God is partly in the looking itself. Besides, I never know where I might just happen upon God, perhaps someplace I’ve looked a thousand times but never noticed God was there; we just have trouble seeing God, not because we keep looking in all the wrong places—there are no wrong places—but because we are looking at the wrong angle or we are wearing the filter of our expectations. We expect to find God in a certain place or in a certain way; we expect signs from the heavens; we expect to find God where we want God to be” (13). The same could be said of Love.

Three more quick stories, of places and moments I have encountered God, and God’s love at work in the world. Three moments, small enough moments, that have caught me recently, made me stop life as usual and give thanks to God…for the force of love unleashed in the world, for God’s power moving and inspiring and connecting and transforming us, and our lives.

Story #1: On January 17th, a dear friend took me to the Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland, California for a musical tribute to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and his vision of justice and love for all. The concert’s name was “In the Name of Love.” In Oakland, a city known by many for its high crime rates and endemic drug and alcohol addiction rates and violence and poverty. Perhaps the last place many people, perhaps many of you, would expect to meet God, or encounter God’s love. But. The music was powerful…The spirit at work. The Oakland Community Children’s choir sang, and dedicated their song to the people of Haiti, still in shock only five days after the devastating earthquake. Tears flowed down my face, and the faces of many around me, as this group of children, every color in the rainbow, sang, “To all the children of the world, no matter where you are, we pray to God to shelter you, and keep you safe from harm…” The power of God, the power of Love, transforming the world where we least expect…

Story #2: Two days later, my cell phone fell out of my jacket pocket as I boarded a BART metro train with a friend that would take me from Berkeley, under the Bay, into San Francisco. Hundreds of thousands of people ride BART every day, and it was hours before I even noticed my phone was gone. My phone, lost in a big city, and with it, all the phone numbers programmed into it, while on vacation, when I need it the most, when I count on it to keep me connected. But…a stranger found it, and called the last number I had dialed, and reached a friend who knew to call the friend I was with. This stranger, a man with heavily accented English, from somewhere in the Middle East, arranged to meet me at another Bart station. This person I had never seen before nor will ever see again spent more than two hours of his day tracking me down and traveling to meet me, to give me my phone back, to do be kind. He wouldn’t even let me pay for his train tickets, or buy him a cup of coffee. He went out of his way to do good for a stranger, receiving nothing but my gratitude in return…The power of God, the power of Love, transforming the world where we least expect...

Story #3: One of you made me a key chain that has traveled with me this past month and a half. It has charms dangling: Faith; Music; hands folded in prayer; keep me safe; live, laugh, and love; made with love. Given to go with me, a blessing and prayer and act of love, so I can bring the connection with all of you wherever I go, and them return home, to this sense of home and community in Osage, safely…The power of God, the power of Love, transforming the world even in the smallest of ways, transforming my life, in the daily, through a keychain, where I least expect…

Remember the words of Paul, found in 2 Corinthians: And suddenly, we recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation of habit is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of God’s face. And so, we are transfigured, our lives becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like our Creator.

When we keep the habits that connect us, and when we break free from the ones that constrict and contain. When we find God and find Love where we know to turn, and when we search for God and Love where we least expect to find it. When the power of God, the power of Love, transforms the world around us, even in the smallest ways, and we have the wisdom to stand, speechless, amazed, in awe, in wonder, because of what God is inviting us to experience, how God is inspiring us to live…

May it be so. Amen, and amen.

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