Where did you see God today?

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?”

A Key Missing Detail

The story of the Transfiguration occurs four times in the New Testament.  Each of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – have their own version, though it is likely that Matthew and Luke based their stories off of Mark’s original.  It also shows up in the Second Letter of Peter, one of only a handful of references to the ministry of Jesus in the letters.  On Sunday, we’ll hear Luke’s account, and there is plenty to be gleaned from what occurs in which version of the story, but what has really struck me today is that there seems to be a key detail missing in three out of the four versions of the Transfiguration.


One of the surest signs in Scripture that one is having a true theophanic experience are the words “Do not be afraid” or “have no fear.”  We hear it again and again from the lips of angels, from the resurrected Jesus, and even the Lord God Almighty.  It is the first word of comfort to those who are, understandably, afraid of what they are seeing before their very eyes.  It seems only reasonable, then, that somewhere in a scene in which Jesus’ clothes are described as a flash of lightening, we might hear someone offer these words of comfort to the terrified Peter, James, and John.  Yet, Luke, Mark, and 2 Peter are all silent.

Matthew’s Gospel includes it, but only after the whole scene has ended.  Peter, James, and John, having all but fainted with fear, are met by Jesus, now all alone, who touches them and tells them to “be resurrected” and “have no fear.”  I can’t help but wonder, given that only eight days ago (in Luke), Jesus had told them about his death and called on them to lose their lives for his sake, why this particular phrase is missing.

Part of it, I supposed, is the reality that fear is an appropriate reaction to what they are seeing and experiencing.  In the thought of ancient Israel, to encounter God was to die, and not only were they seeing Jesus brought to glory right before their very eyes and Elijah and Moses standing alongside him, but the cloud of God’s presence was right there, looming right above them.  If they weren’t afraid, there was something wrong with them.  But to what end?  What purpose does their fear serve?  Is it, quaking in your boots fear and trembling?  Or, as is more likely, is it the holy awe that is often associate with the fear of the Lord?

Not a lot of answers today as my mind runs in 30 different directions, but I know this, there must be something to that fear.  Some reason that these words aren’t there.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the Proverbs tell us, and maybe that’s the gift the disciples received on that holy mountain: the beginning of wisdom.

Tough Teaching Moments

The astute listener, especially one who is listening with the hope of arguing against the religion founded by Jesus’ disciples, will notice a disturbing trend in the Gospel lessons for Lent 4 and 5 in Year A.  No, it isn’t that they are insufferably long, Lent 3 had that too, but that is an interesting conversation topic for preachers who visit this website with regularity.  How does a six minute long Gospel reading impact the way in which a preacher prepares her sermon.  Do we allow the text to tell more of they story, or do we, as TKT and I have done the last two weeks, just preach as long we always do and risk breaking the imaginary one-hour threshold for service length?

Like I said, that’s not the trend I wanted to talk about today.  Instead, I’m troubled and seeking a good answer for two things that Jesus says in these lessons, both early on, that seem to require some unpacking.  First, from last week’s lesson about the man born blind, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Then from this week’s story of the resurrection of Lazarus, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  It sounds like the old attack on God that he is arbitrary and capricious.  God is in need of a couple of teaching moments for Jesus so twenty-some years earlier, he formed a blind baby in his mother’s womb and decides to strike Lazarus dead.  At best, Jesus (or John) seems to be setting up faulty causation by suggesting that the man’s birth defect and Lazarus’ illness are predestined by God so that Jesus could perform miracles.

Perhaps I’m making something out of nothing here, but my preaching goal on Monday morning is to figure out what I think the average listener in the pew will be thinking about while I read and preach the gospel.  Aside from looking the bulletin and thinking, “O MY GAWD!  Could this be any longer!?!” I’m thinking that maybe some people will find Jesus’ reasoning troublesome.  I’m thinking of the parishioner who has just undergone surgery or received an unwanted health diagnosis or has recently lost a loved one or has been unemployed for months on end.  How do they hear that these words from Jesus?  Are they hopeful words?  Are they condescending words?  Are they scary?  Are they comforting?

No matter what, it seems to me, they both are and offer a tough touching moment.  Or maybe they just get lost in the glazed over eyes of the long lesson.  What do you think?