Sunday, February 14, 2021

Phil Kniss: When scarce is the shelter

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus is transfigured
Luke 9:28-36

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Today we combine, in one service,
two things you may think are unrelated.
But then, it happens every year on this last Sunday before Lent.

We set aside this day at Park View to recognize and welcome
new members of our community,
and hear their faith story, and bless them, and so on.

And in the larger church, it’s Transfiguration Sunday.
Every year we have this strange and mystical Gospel story
in which Jesus is glowing with glory on a mountaintop,
and Moses and Elijah show up, also glowing,
and three disciples stand by gawking.

This story didn’t get a lot of attention in the church I grew up in.
I guess because it wasn’t a practical story about following Jesus.
We can try to follow a Jesus who touches lepers,
who welcomes children,
who teaches nonviolence,
who shows grace to sinners,
who heals the sick,
who confronts the powerful.
But how do we follow a Jesus who . . . glows?

So what to do? Well we could just be practical on this Sunday—
ignore Transfiguration, and only welcome new members.

But I don’t want to do that.
I think this story is more practical than it seems,
and it relates to belonging.
This is not about having our heads in the clouds.
It’s the opposite.
Luke’s whole reason to include this story, is once again,
to show his early church readers,
that Jesus belonged to their own religious stream.
He was not trying to establish a new and strange religion.
He was not a threat to the tradition.
He was not undoing the law and the prophets.
In fact, the two people he met on the mountain
were shining object lessons to that fact.
They were the law and the prophets.
Moses the law. Elijah the prophet.
Both prototypes of the tradition.
And they were there to validate Jesus to his disciples.

This story is less about that mystical experience on the mountain,
and more about the difference it makes in life at the bottom.
It’s about followers of Jesus staying grounded
in their tradition, and walking in it.

See . . . a ministry of healing and teaching and trouble-making
that a charismatic figure like Jesus is engaged in,
is apt to spin off into something crazy,
because crowds get sucked into the moment,
and starting worshiping the man, like some new god,
and a cult is born.
We’ve often seen it happen in the Christian world, haven’t we?
And in the last few years, it’s happened in American politics.

This mountaintop experience with Jesus
was meant for life back on the ground.
It was to keep everyone clear about who they were,
where they had come from,
who they belonged to.

That’s why Peter’s impulsive offer was met with silence.
He said, “Let’s build three shelters here on the mountain—
one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
Luke tells the reader, as an aside,
“Uh...Peter didn’t know what he was saying.”
Jesus just ignored the comment and
walked back down the mountain with Peter, James, and John.
He said, “Don’t tell anyone what you saw,
until after the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”
To spread word now about that fantastical experience,
would make it more likely that the crowd
would misplace their worship of God,
and turn all this into a Jesus cult.
By waiting to tell the story until he was gone,
when the church would be navigating a hostile culture,
the event would have its intended impact—
it would encourage the church to stay true to the tradition,
to the law and the prophets,
and to renew it from within.

Now, that’s not exactly how Jewish and Christian history unfolded,
but that’s the fault of misguided humans.
It was not by Jesus’ design.

And now, to connect this story to Membership Sunday,
and to church in a pandemic.

So . . . Peter was misguided in trying to build a shelter
to house and contain and institutionalize, in a way,
their encounter with heaven.
And the church is always tempted in that same direction—
to take a meaningful spiritual experience,
and give it a physical structure to house it, handle it,
contain it, replicate it.
Then we become married to the form,
and not to the content of our faith.

We’ve done that with church buildings, for sure.
Early cathedrals were built, literally,
to house and protect certain sacred objects.
In Germany, the largest cathedral in Northern Europe
was built in the Middle Ages
to house the supposed bones of the three wise men.

Today, on the Mount of Transfiguration,
where Peter wanted to put up some quick shelters,
there’s a large, marble church building to remember the occasion.
It took a few centuries, but Peter got his wish.

Why is it that followers of this Jesus,
in a time of pandemic are suing state governments
to bypass legal and health restrictions against large gatherings,
and insisting they can’t properly be a church
without meeting inside their usual physical structure,
and engaging in their usual forms of worship?

It’s hard to find any biblical argument,
that any particular worship form,
in any particular place,
is essential to being the body of Christ in the world.
We can still be a community without the forms we adopted.

Every email you get, and every page on our website,
has in big letters, across the top,
“We are still a community.”
Those words are there because we believe them.
They are true, whether or not we have a structure to house us.
They are true, whether or not we have a way to institutionalize them.

We are part of a long stream of God’s people throughout history,
who keep seeking new ways to live out
our calling to embody Christ in the world we live in.
As the world changes, so do our ways of embodying Christ.

I sent out an email early this week to the congregation.
I asked individuals to respond to one question, with one sentence.
How do you nurture your sense of belonging to the church family,
while we are unable to meet together physically?

My main purpose in doing that, was to make you think about it.
And a lot of you did – I got 95 responses. Long and short.

This was no scientific study by any stretch.
I just tried to notice how often certain things got mentioned.
As you might expect, tuning in to live-streamed worship
was mentioned most, 40 times.
But tied for first, also at 40,
was meeting and interacting online, mostly by Zoom.
Other things that got a lot of mentions,
were writing notes and calling people on the phone, 25.
Praying for others was mentioned 13 times.
Having safe and distanced small gatherings or porch visits,
or chatting while walking, 13 mentions.
Reading the church newsletters and emails came up a lot.
Working on a project with others,
even if you worked by yourself.
Small groups and Faith Formation classes were appreciated.
And people are finding ways, even now, to join in singing.

Beyond the numbers, here are a few direct quotes:
I feel connected when I sing along with the hymns
I page through the church pictorial directory with warm thoughts and prayers
I send snail-mail cards with a personal note
When I’m in prayer I have mental images of those at Park View I’m praying for
I listen in to Shine Time and watch my kids participate
I know I still belong when I miss a Zoom meeting, and feel the loss
I call a friend once a week to talk about happenings at our church
I read From Across the Fence and I feel like I’m chatting with fellow church members in the fellowship time, coffee cup in hand. 
Our Advent small group decided to keep meeting, and now we are a Lenten small group.
And this more extended metaphor . . . I picture the congregation as a forest of trees of all sizes entwining our roots together underground. I feel the steady support of fellow root systems holding and touching me during these times of quarantine when outwardly my branches are being blown by the storms of life. We are all drinking from the water of life.

You see, we can be church even
when the physical structure and forms we enjoy
are taken away for a season.
Yes, there are losses to mourn.
We grieve the absence of sharing the same resonant space
while we are singing.
We are saddened by the eerie silence and emptiness
of our Fellowship Hall for a whole year.
We mourn the loss of gathering around tables full of food,
and sharing laughter and conversation in close quarters.
And we will notice, with heaviness,
another Holy Week going by
without an in-person Tenebrae Service, or Easter Vigil,
or a packed house on Easter morning.

But if we think these losses prevent us
from belonging to the people of God,
or functioning as the household of God,
or being the church in the world,
then we have been putting our faith in the shelter,
instead of the people who ARE the body of Christ to us.

So this Sunday, just before we enter into the season of Lent,
is meant to remind us of this.
Both the Gospel story of the Transfiguration,
and the celebration of belonging,
on this Membership Sunday.

We are still a community.
And we still belong to God and to each other,
even when shelter is scarce.

Join me in prayer.
God we confess our misplaced worship.
Our idolatry of comfortable forms and shelters.
Now, as we are bereft of much of this,
lead us on a new path toward belonging,
lead your church toward your mission and purpose.
Prepare us for the life you intend for us,
and give us courage to walk in it.
In the name of Jesus, who walked among us in glory,

—Phil Kniss, February 14, 2021

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