Sermon – Where is the Church? Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2013
Sermon preached by Mark Smith at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, NJ
It was a really unusual experience for Peter, John and James. It started simply enough – Jesus took them off onto a mountain to pray. And that wasn’t all that unusual – Jesus was known for praying in isolated places and had gone to a mountain to pray before. He had prayed with his disciples before as well.
While he was praying, things started to happen. Jesus’s face changed. His clothes became a glowing white – in Greek it says that his clothes were so bright that they flashed like lightning. Maybe these disciples knew their Jewish scriptures well enough to remember that Moses’s face had shone when Moses spoke to God. Maybe they remembered how the sky flashed with lightning when Ezekiel saw his vision of God, or when Daniel saw the figure in his vision that was clothed in fine linen and who had a face like lightning.
And then they were joined by two figures, Moses and Elijah. I imagine that this looked a little bit like the end Star Wars, where the deceased Jedi appeared to Luke Skywalker. Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus and told him of his departure – of his future death and resurrection at Jerusalem. Peter and the others saw all of this even though they were sleepy – they saw Jesus’s glory, and the return of the man who received the Law from God, and the Prophet of God. This was a holy moment.
And then Moses and Elijah left. Peter asked Jesus if they should build three tents – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter recognized them as three holy figures, heavenly figures, and wanted to create a special home for them here on earth. The word in Greek in the scripture that I read, that read as “dwelling,” can also mean “Tabernacle.” And the famous Tabernacle was the tent that God instructed Moses to construct to hold the Ark of the Covenant – God’s home on earth among the Israelites from the time of their wandering in the wilderness. That Tabernacle was used until God commanded Solomon to build The Temple in Jerusalem to be God’s place. Peter wanted to create a single place to commemorate the holy moment for these three great holy men, as if holy things happened in one place. The text says that Peter did not know what he was saying – he reacted reflexively, mirroring what had been done before.
Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, very much like the way that a cloud covered Mount Sinai when Moses spoke to God. God spoke from the cloud. “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” And this is a lot like the words that we heard at Jesus’s baptism. God says that Jesus is God’s son. And this time we are told to listen to him.
In the time of the Old Testament, from Moses until Jesus, there was one place that they might have called the church back then, and that was the Tabernacle that was carried around from place to place in Moses’s time. In the psalm that I read it talks about God sitting enthroned on the cherubim – and that’s what the top of the Ark looked like. If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark it looks exactly like it’s described in the Bible, and there are the two winged cherubim with their wings pointing towards the center, and that’s where the priests made their sacrifices to God, to fulfill God’s covenant with the Israelites. Later the place of this church settled in the Temple in Jerusalem. The church was in a building, at least a temporary building. God’s main way of interacting with God’s people was in one place.
A day after all of these things happened on the mountain Jesus and the disciples came down, and a man came to them because his son needed healing, and Jesus healed his son. The man didn’t need to go to The Temple in Jerusalem. He didn’t need to go to the top of the mountain where Moses and Elijah had appeared. He met Jesus where the man was – at the bottom of the mountain. He met Jesus in the world, not inside of a church building.
Jesus did most of his work in the world, rather than in a building. He did appear in the Temple, and he appeared in the synagogue a few times, but most of his work was done outside, among the people. He worked with people as he traveled. He worked with people as he preached outdoors, on a hillside or a lake. He worked with people in their homes. He talked to and ate with and healed and helped people who couldn’t come into the Temple – those who could not walk, those who were ritually unclean, and those who worked in professions that made them less acceptable in the Temple. Jesus did more of his ministry among those who were on the edges of society, than those who were on the inside. He did his work in the world, rather than in a building.
Here at Watchung Avenue, we do a lot of good work inside our building. We meet every week to praise God, to hear the scripture read, and to hear a message. We are a community that is learning and growing and building each other up. We do a lot of good for others in this building as well. We serve meals to those who need them. We collect and distribute groceries. We offer space to Headstart and WIC and the Y. And we share our worship space with Christo mi Rey. We invite others in to learn and grow, as we did with the Love Free or Die movie, with diversity training, and as we will in March with the upcoming Trigger documentary on gun violence. We do a lot of good inside our building when someone is here. The church is where we are.
We also do a lot of good outside of our building. Together we walked in October to raise money to fight hunger. We have been networking with others on hurricane relief and how we might best participate. Our youth and our adults have gone to Stony Point and other places to do mission work. Cameron has been working outside of our building on hunger and disaster relief. We also do a lot of good outside of our building. The church is where we are.
And our lives are God’s work as well. Each of us brings our Christian faith with us … to home, to work, to volunteer. The way that we live is a reflection of Christ within us. I worked in the corporate world for a while before starting seminary, and many times I found myself asking is this thing that I’m doing … this decision or this action … a good idea? Is this software that I’m writing to support an advertising campaign helping people to buy things that they want, or is it just finding new ways to take money from people? Is this report that I’m writing being used to support integrity in the business, or is it just being written to make somebody else in the company look bad? There was simply no way to act in the world without my faith coloring my thoughts and decisions. Sometimes I was able to push back when my faith told me that an action was not the right thing to do. Sometimes I wasn’t able to push back, and then it hurt. So I wonder if you’ve ever faced that – a situation at work where your values conflicted with what you’ve asked to do? How did you handle it? I brought my faith to my work every day. But it’s not just me. We create common everyday miracles of faith when we act with God in mind. When Bob helps someone plan their financial life, Bob is reflecting his Christian faith. His actions and decisions are colored by his faith and he brings the church with him to work. When Pat works with residents in senior housing, she brings her faith with her, and the image of God within her shines through in the help that she gives. She brings the church with her as well. When Virginia goes to the Senior club, she brings her faith along, and brings the church with her in all that she does. When Cori cares for her niece, when Andrew cares for his grandson, they bring their faith into their families and the church comes with them. When Ryan participates in the Boy Scouts, he brings his faith and the church. When Shelby and Chris create their art and music, they use their God-given talents to create beauty in God’s creation. They are inspired in part by their relationship with Christ, and the church comes with them. There are so many other examples in this congregation and everywhere, and if I tried to include all of them we’d be here for a while. What’s important is that the church is where we are, in this building or someplace else.
So what is common to all of this? Is it the building? No, it’s the people. We bring our talents, our time and our energy to the work that all of us do. We bring the image of God that is within each of us to our service to others and our faith and our values ride along with us in everything that we do. Is the church a building? The church is people. Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.” When we are in the world interacting with others, there are at least two gathered and wherever we are, Christ is. And we bring our community with us as well. We can draw on the resources of the church, on our fellow churchgoers, in everything that we do to help others. We can talk through issues with our church friends – whether that’s a question about what to do at work or where to go to get people the help that they need. And we can always show our faith to others, in the hope that our faith may help them, and perhaps may become their faith. The church exists where we are, doing our common everyday miracles.
I’m going to ask you all a question. This isn’t a rhetorical question – I’m actually looking for an answer.
Where is the church?
“Where we are! … Where we are…we are… where we are!”
OK, not bad. That was a little ragged. (laughter) Let’s try it one more time. Where is the church?
“Where we are!”
OK, and one more time …. Where is the church?
“Where we are!”
And that is a wonderful thing.