You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website.
Cassie and I moved to south Alabama in 2007, almost two full years after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Mobile Bay. Two years might seem like a long time after a storm, but estimates were that it would take as much as a decade to rebuild after such a catastrophic event. For three summers, I joined the Saint Paul’s youth group on a trip to work at Mission on the Bay in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. To give you an idea of the extent of the work, we were still demolishing houses in 2010; five years after the storm. Mission on the Bay was a joint venture between the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the local Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It welcomed teams of youth, college students, and adults year-round to help people rebuild their homes and their lives. They offered a place to stay, three square meals a day, and the case work, tools, and expertise required to do the job safely and effectively. Because of the wide variety of groups, they chose not to offer any sort of chapel service or structured devotional time. Each group leader was welcome to create their own.
Our first summer there, I did all kinds of prep work. I created a devotional journal, complete with Scripture readings, reflection questions, and discussion topics. It only took a day to realize the error of my ways. After “sleeping” in a Quonset hut that barely got below 80 degrees, working all day in the south Mississippi July sun, and showering in a trailer with one-thousand percent humidity, none of us could think straight. The devotion time was mostly just staring at each other followed by the airing of teenage grievances over who took the most breaks or drank the last Gatorade. I quickly decided to change things up for year two. This time, under the shade of a live oak tree that had seen more than its fair share of storms, I asked the kids the same question every night of our week together, “Where did you see God today?” Their answers ranged from the sublime to the mundane. We saw God in the neighborhood children who brought us popsicles at lunch time and in the elderly woman who had taken in as many neighbors as she could after the storm, many of whom were still there. We saw God in a refreshing dip in Mississippi Sound and the ability to use power tools. As the week went on, it became clear that God can be seen everywhere, if we are willing to allow the Spirit to open our eyes.
Peter, James, and John would have had no problem answering the “where did you see God today” question after this morning’s Gospel lesson. I doubt they expected to experience such an awe-inspiring event as they joined Jesus on one of his usual hikes up the mountain to pray, but this day, something special happened. This day, they got to see God fully present in the person of Jesus. Not that God wasn’t always fully present in the person of Jesus, just that normally, their eyes couldn’t see it in its full glory. Today was special. Eight days after Peter had first declared Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus had, in turn, first predicted his death for the sins of the world, Peter, James, and John saw, first-hand, that Jesus really was the chosen one of God. With his face transformed and his clothing as bright as lightening, they saw the glory of God in him. They overheard him talking with Moses and Elijah about the death that he had predicted, the final exodus the disciples so desperately hoped he could avoid. They heard, with a mixture of fear and awe, the voice of God confirming what they had come to understand, Jesus truly was the Son of God.
Even in that profoundly miraculous moment, I suspect they could have missed it. Had their eyes not been tuned to the Spirit’s frequency, all of this may have happened while they dozed off on the sidelines. It happened on the night Jesus was arrested, why couldn’t it have happened here? Yet, they were blessed in seeing. They were tuned in with the help of the Spirit, and there, atop that holy mountain, they saw God.
It is so easy, as we go about the ongoing rhythms of life, to miss opportunities to see God. The hamster wheel of work, school, vacation, sports practices, doctors’ appointments, or however we define our days and weeks can get spinning so fast that it becomes impossible to pause for even a moment to see God. Which is why, I think it is important, from time to time, to break the routine, to be caught short, and to be forced to see things in a different way. Take today, for example. The Sunday before the start of school could be like every other Sunday on the calendar. We could come, say our prayers, sing a few hymns (if we are so inclined), receive communion, and then get about our day; ignoring completely that God will be joining us on school buses and in classrooms for the next nine months. Rather than just going about the routine of life, today we pause, and look for God. We will, in a few minutes, take time to pray God’s special blessing upon students, teachers, support staff, school board members, parents, and volunteers as a new school year begins. After that, we will gather our prayers around an altar made of paper boxes and ask God to open our eyes to see his hand at work in the world about us to be empowered for ministry through the bread and wine, the body and blood of his Son.
God is already present in these one-hundred-twenty-thousand sheets of paper. They were purchased from my Discretionary Fund, thanks to your generosity, and will be donated to Parker Bennett Curry and Dishman McGinnis Elementary Schools where they will take a small portion of the burden off hard working faculty who serve some of the most vulnerable in our community. You may recall from my third sermon at Christ Church, that for years I have volunteered at Foley Elementary School. I told you the statistics of fifteen hundred students, 80% of whom are in poverty and 50% who come from single parent homes. This week, I had the chance to meet Angie Slocum, the school counselor at Dishman McGinnis, an elementary school seven blocks that way (points to reredos). Angie told me the story of a school that has grown by nearly 50% over four years ago and now serves almost 500 students, 99% of whom are on free and reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator. That is a 99% poverty rate in our own backyard. I saw God there. I saw God in the 80 volunteers who mentored children last year. I saw God calling us to help mentor the nearly 80 others who were still on the waiting list. I saw God in teachers, counselors, administrators, secretaries, and janitors who were working, with immense pride, to ready their school to meet the needs of their students. I left the school and immediately filled out my volunteer application. I have plenty of extra copies, so let me know if you’d like to join me at Dishman McGinnis to see God and be God’s hand at work helping some of the least in our community experience God’s love while receiving an opportunity to find their way onto the first rung on the ladder to success.
If the Feast of the Transfiguration teaches us anything, it is that God longs to be seen. If we invite the Spirit to open our eyes, we will see God, but beware: seeing God will change your life. You’ll never see the world the same way again. Volunteering at an elementary school might not be for you, but I promise you, God is ready to be seen by you somewhere. Whether it is at a Wednesday lunch, Living Waters for the World, HOTEL, INC., or some other servant ministry, God is waiting to be seen, to crack your heart open, and invite you to serve. Open your eyes, pay attention, and learn to see by routinely asking yourself this simple question, “where did I see God today?”