Transfiguration Sunday - 2021b
Old Testament - Psalm 50:1-6
New Testament - Mark 9:2-9
INTRODUCTION: Nashville, as many of you might know, is often referred to as the Belt Buckle of the Bible Belt.
Home to over 700 houses of worship, as well as several seminaries and Christian Universities, the Music City is sometimes even called “the Protestant Vatican.” Or, as one joke goes that I learned while a divinity student myself in Nashville, “You can’t throw a rock in Nashville without hitting a church.”
Of course, it’s not as if churches can only be found in thriving and bustling metropolitan areas, right? Turns out places of worship can also be found in some of the most remote and isolated places in the world.
In the country of Georgia, outside a tiny village with a name I have no idea how to pronounce, a lone pillar of limestone rises almost 150 feet into the air. And perched at the top of the pillar is the Church of Saint Maximus the Confessor. To get to it, however, you have to be willing to scale an iron ladder attached to the side of the pillar. Just looking at pictures of the needed climb can make one a little queasy!
Believed to have been started in the early medieval period, the church was in use for several hundred years before going dormant for some unknown reason. Perhaps the nearly 150 foot climb straight up a ladder had something to do with the church slowly going quiet.
Recently, though, after scholars and archaeologists took to studying it, the Church of Saint Maximus is once again active. The sanctuary has been restored and a monk has even taken up residence. I am sure he would welcome a visit if you are so inclined - again, just as long as you are willing to put your life at risk.
So houses of worship can be found in more places than just bustling cities. They can also be found in villages and towns and in some of the most remote regions of the world. Why, one even exists perched on top of a pillar of limestone in the small country of Georgia 150 feet up in the air.
ONE: Well, Peter, James, John also knew about wanting to start a place or worship in a remote location, right?
Pulled to the top of a high mountain, most scholars think it was Mount Hermon, they soon find Jesus being transfigured. With Jesus decked out in clothes that dazzle with whiteness, the ghostly figures of Elijah and Moses soon appear to chat with Jesus.
Presumably, the conversation is meant to convey a kind of passing of the mantle. In the same way Moses and Elijah had been spokespersons for God in the past, Jesus is to now assume the role. What’s more, a cloud soon engulfs the top of the mountain with God’s voice echoing through it: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
And so Peter, for his part, quickly wants to get the building campaign for a new worship center started ASAP. “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three dwellings - one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter, in the midst of a fresh encounter with the divine, wants to mark the moment by constructing places to honor and celebrate the occasion. Encountering the holy, bumping into the sacred unexpectedly, Peter's response, as it often is after such moments, is to hold a worship service.
“Whatever we are to make of this story…” says one man, “we know it to be a moment of worship, a time when human beings are brought very close to the glory of God. It is a moment of worship.”
TWO: Of course, these days we modern people can often find it hard to be troubled by something as mundane as a worship service, right?
While we churchgoers are often quick to wonder and pine over people no longer coming to church, and we spend a lot of our time paying church consultants to figure how to make ourselves more attractive to folks, maybe the problem isn’t solely our fault.
Look, being Presbyterians we know one thing for sure. Not always, but more often than not, when it comes to the problems and ills of life, there is usually enough blame to go around for everyone. And so while churches could (and should) make a good faith effort to be more welcoming and friendly to visitors, and we should try to find ways to make worship services accessible and meaningful, and we should offer assorted programs, truth is some people also just don’t want to be bothered with the demands of having to be religious.
“Like any skill,” says one woman, “religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline. Some people will be better at that than others, some appalling inept, and some will miss the point entirely. But those who do not apply themselves will get nowhere at all.”
Originating from the Old English word “worth-ship,” the implication is that there is something of value and, yes, worth in worshipping. But the hard reality is this...there are simply a whole lot of people these days who don’t see the matter that way. Whatever value there is in worshipping, well, it just alludes some people.
So, sure, we church folks could be more welcoming and we could adopt various strategies for making ourselves more “attractive,” but let’s not forget this problem is a two-way street.
THREE: And the problem, of course, is only further complicated by the fact that many people, even when they do manage to participate in a worship service, well, they simply no longer seem to know how to actually worship.
Rather than see worship as fundamentally a time for praise and thanksgiving, as a time to give something back to God, many people these days seem to have a kind of utilitarian and transactional mindset. If they are going to go to the trouble of worshipping, well, then they should at least get something out of it. “I just don’t get anything out of worship,” is a line I hear a lot from non-church goers. As if by doing X, one should then get Y.
There is a story about a church member who sent the pastor a cranky text after attending a rather somber and gloomy Palm Sunday service. "I go to church only two Sundays a year,” read the text, “Palm Sunday and Easter. I expect those occasions to be pleasant experiences."
And while people “getting something” out of a worship service is important, that is hardly the main goal, as far as we Presbyterians are concerned. “What is the chief end of [humans]?” we’re asked in our Shorter Catechism. “[Humanity’s] chief end,” goes the response, “is to glorify God and worship him forever.”
And so while, again, some of the blame can surely be put on churches for not being friendly enough and offering enough programs, we can, I think, cut ourselves a little slack. For some people, as far as I can tell, just don’t want to be bothered with the hard work of being religious.
FOUR: While I have never explicitly had this conversation with the session, I have been impressed and pleased with the session’s desire to continue with live worship services at our usual time, even when having people attend in person hasn’t been an option because of COVID.
And likewise, I have also been impressed, first, by the session’s willingness to invest the needed time, energy, and, yes, money so we can broadcast the service live, and second, that so many people at home routinely avail them themselves of that opportunity. While some churches (understandably so) have opted to pre-record their services, we’ve committed to keeping worship services live.
For the religious life, after all, has its own rhythm and flow, right? And in our particular case, worship services are at 10:30 am on Sundays, and so we’ve, wisely I think, stuck to that even during a pandemic.
And perhaps even more importantly, the commitment to streaming services live at 10:30 has, I hope, also provided a bit of normalcy and even structure during this crazy time. So even now, amidst all the other uncertainty and fluxations, we continue the practice as best and as safely as we can.
Because to be religious is to wrap one’s life around a set of routines and practices. As strange as it sounds, rather than live by our own schedules, we live by another’s schedule. And I think our desire to keep services live and at 10:30, shows that we understand that.
Religious people, no matter what life happens to be throwing at them, regularly worship.
CONCLUSION: So it’s easy to get down on ourselves, right?
We look at all the studies showing church attendance is going down, and it’s only natural to wonder what we’re doing wrong.
But here’s the thing, while we could always be friendlier and adopt assorted practices to make ourselves more attractive, this problem is really a two-way street.
For truth is, some people just don’t want to be bothered with having to be religious. Because religion, well, it’s hard work, and anyone who says otherwise is just selling something.
And now to the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.