Monday, February 28, 2011

Don't Miss The Trip - A Sermon on the last Sunday before Lent

"O why do you walk  through the fields in gloves,
    Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
    And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
   Missing so much and so much?"
            --Frances Cornford 

Have you ever missed a trip? At one time or another we all do. But my question today is more far-reaching than that? Will you miss the trip? Max Lucado tells of sitting on a plane waiting to take off. He was in 14D. She was in 14E. She was obviously country with her velour pants suit. He was from the city—with his Brooks Brothers' suit and Johnson and Murphy’s. From her talk you could tell she was pretty cornpone. He was sophisticated, sitting there with his aluminum briefcase and laptop. He said he didn’t know how old she was—but she looked old.

It was obvious she had never been on a plane in all her life. “I don’t do this much,” she grinned, “Do you?” He nodded. She said, “Oh, that must be a lot of fun.” He groaned. It was going to be a long flight. Here he was in the middle of a hectic week; his plane was already late and overbooked. He had stood in a long line already. He had a slight toothache and didn’t get enough sleep. He just wanted to be left alone.

She looked out the window and squealed: “Ooooh—look at that big plane.” He just wished she would shut up. She volunteered that she was going to Dallas to see her boy. She said: “I hope he’s Ok. He had the flu last week. He’s got a new dog. A black Lab. I can’t wait to see it. The dog’s name is Skipper.”

As the plane climbed, she looked out the window. “Oooooh—look at the trees—they look just like peat moss.” People turned around in their seats and stared. The man next to her wanted to crawl under the seat. “What’s that river?” she asked. He nodded his head, “I have no idea.”

The flight attendant came by asking what they’d like to drink. He asked for a coke. She asked a second time about the choices. When her drink came she said she didn’t know that apple juice came in cans—but it was delicious. And when the sandwich came by she said, too loud: “Why there’s even mayonnaise in here.”

This went on the whole flight. She missed absolutely nothing. She opened the airline magazine in the pouch and oozed and ached. She turned the little overhead fan on. She adjusted the seat. She tried the light. She loved the lunch. He thought it tasted like cardboard. He said the man in front of them was discussing a business trip to Japan and dropping names like crazy. The fellow behind them kept ordering two beers at a time. The woman to his right had important-looking papers stacked all around her. And he opened his laptop and tried to work. It occurred to him that the only person on the whole plane enjoying the trip was the woman sitting next to him.

When the plane was on the ground, she turned and said: “Now wasn’t that a fun-un trip?” And as he watched her get her sacks and belongings, waddle down the aisle and leave the plane, it hit him. What was it that she had that he didn’t have? What was it that she knew that he didn’t know? Why had she enjoyed the whole trip from beginning to end while he was miserable?

In Matthew 17 Jesus took three disciples up to the top of a mountain. It was midpoint in Jesus’ journey. The clouds were hanging low over his ministry. The Pharisees and Saducees were making it hard. His disciples bickered continually. And he began to talk to them about suffering and Jerusalem and the cross. He talked about saving your life by losing it. And so Jesus took the leaders of the disciple band, Peter, James and John. He took them up to the top of Mount Hermon which was about 9,100 feet high. And there on the mountaintop something happened. We’re not sure what occurred. But they called it transfiguration, which meant change or metamorphosis. Moses and Elijah appeared. Jesus’ face shone in a way they had never seen it. His garments glistered and it hurt their eyes. And God spoke, saying, as he did at baptism: “This is my beloved son…Do not be afraid.” It turned them inside out. It changed their lives. They were never quite the same ever again. Simon Peter wanted to stay there forever. Let’s building three temples and just stay, he said. But Jesus wouldn’t stay. The vision faded. Moses and Elijah left as quickly as they came. And Jesus and the three disciples made the winding trip back down the mountain.

Jesus called it a vision in verse nine. Scholars would call it a theophany—a visitation from God. And the disciples would tell it over and over again. That day, that special day when God came down and they beheld his glory. But maybe you’re wondering what does the story of the woman and man on the plane and the Transfiguration story has in common? Everything.


 There comes a time when we have to disengage. From time to time we activists need to stop, look and listen. Don’t do anything—just stand there. That’s hard thing for most of us. We think we have got to be doing something.

Have you seen the T-Shirt that says: “Jesus is coming back—Look Busy.” There’s more truth to that than we let on. The man on the plane missed the journey because he was immersed in busy-ness. The woman was able to focus on the moment. The reason Jesus took his disciples with him was so they could be prepared.

But those who give the stress tests tell us that one of the stressors is getting away—a vacation. I think that probably more fights occur in marriage during vacations than any other time. Maybe all that quality time together. I know sometimes we come back more exhausted. You can’t enjoy the journey with pauses.

I remember somewhere Robert Fulghum tells about this woman who was so stressed out he went to see a psychiatrist. After listening to her a long time, he wrote out a prescription and handed it to her. She didn’t notice it. She just took it to the drug store and handed it to the pharmacist. He read it carefully and handed it back to her. “I can’t fill this—but you can.” She read it: “Spend one hour some Sunday watching the sunrise while walking in a cemetery.” And she said that she got in touch with her life again. Standing there, with the dawn coming up, listening the birds and watching the world come alive even in the cemetery did something special for her.

Open Our Eyes

We are to open our eyes. The woman on the plane saw. The man was blind. He missed the whole thing. On Mount Hermon the disciples told the others: our eyes were opened. Why, we saw things we never saw before. Once, years ago, someone handed me a little book. People are always handing the preacher a book. I groaned. But one day I picked I up and began to read. I was intrigued by the title, A Touch of Wonder. Dear God, I remembering thinking. I need that. I need a touch of wonder. It doesn’t happen to most of us very often. But we all need some transfiguring experiences when we see what we never saw before.

II Peter 1. 16 is one of the lectionary passages for today. It reads: “We have been eyewitnesses to the majesty.” What a wonderful thing to say about Christians and about the church. Of all the things I read in the secular press—I don’t hear this very often. Why, those Christians, they are eyewitnesses to the majesty around them. One translation says: You do well to pay attention. For, you see, when you pay attention, everything changes.

Perspective Changes

One of the things that happens is that our perspective changes. We see the big picture. What is this big picture? Well, the transfiguration text says that after it was all over they saw Jesus only. They remembered God had said this is my beloved. Do not be afraid. Even if he suffered—they would later piece it together. God was in it. Even if it did not work out the way they thought it would—God was in it. They began to see this was a large thing—this Jesus, his calling of disciples, this thing called church.

I went back to Clemson, SC some time ago where I had served for thirteen years. They were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the church and we had a great time. As I started to leave one of the centennial committee members said they were putting together a video of different pastors and their experiences and wondered if he could interview me for just a few minutes. Not wanting to miss my chance to be a video star I agreed. He asked several questions. One of the questions he asked was: What have you learned through the years that you would like to say to the church. I told him that one of the things it had taken me a long time to learn was that we need to look at the long view. So much of our time in our lives and church is spent overreacting to some little something that hardly matters. I told him much of my time as Pastor had been spent on things I could not remember two years later. We have to look at the big picture. You can‘t tell what is going on by some little old crisis. If we really are people of faith we have to believe that God in this thing and we need not fear. That’s one of the things I deeply believe. So I tell churches all the time: It’s going to be all right. This is God’s thing. Quit worrying and fretting.  

God was There

Above everything else, we learn from this story that God was there. God is infinitely concerned about our lives and our futures. At Transfiguration God spoke to Jesus and his disciples. This is my son, that voice said, my beloved son. And so later when they put the story together they could only think in terms like glory…clouds… Moses and Elijah…vision…dream-like. And even though they found it hard to put into words they were touched and their lives were changed. And years later they would remember that special day on the mountain and Matthew and Mark and Luke would write it down.

Several years ago my wife and I spent a wonderful month in Oxford, England. Right down the street from our flat, about five or six blocks was a very old Catholic church. Gerald Manley Hopkins had served as Assistant curate there for one year in the 1870’s. I decided to wander in and just sit down. No one else was there. It was quiet, very quiet. I noticed the Stations of the Cross where Christ moved slowly in segments toward the cross and his death. But at the center of the church hanging suspended over the altar was this huge golden statue of Jesus standing with his arms outstretched. And as I sat there I suddenly knew that those arms held me…and the people I loved…and all those who wandered into the church. I knew, as if for the first time God really did have the whole wide, world in his hands. The little bitty baby, the desperate woman scared of the future, the old man living alone…the teen-ager struggling with his sexuality. I left there with my own transfiguration experience. I was kept. The world, crazy as it was, was kept. And those I passed students, teachers, domestics—all of us were kept in the everlasting arms of that love.

They Couldn't Stay

The story said that they couldn’t stay on the mountain. Reality intrudes. Visions don’t last unfortunately. Somebody said there are just enough mountain peaks to get us through the lonesome valleys. You can’t stay high forever. That’s the myth of drugs and alcohol and any other addiction. There is an unreality about it all.

As quickly as it came the vision faded. Moses and Elijah were gone. Had they ever been there or was it just some sort of apparition. Jesus’ face did not glisten. They heard nothing but the birds sing. And it was time to go back down the mountain. Reality time. At the bottom remember a child convulsed on the ground. The disciples stood there helpless. They didn’t know what to do.

They couldn’t stay. Reality intrudes here, too. We lose a job. We get depressed. We have wreck. Our back hurts. All hell breaks loose. We wish we didn’t have to get out of bed. Anybody who has ever been to New York City and tried to board a subway at rush hour knows how difficult it is. A woman and her little boy were trying to squeeze on the E train and get off at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street found it a zoo. The boy and his mother were on one of two working escalators with zillions of others. Moving along, the little boy about 8 said: “Mom, are we in line?” Mom said, “No, There is no line. This isn’t school. This is life.”

And life is sometimes tough and crowded and difficult. But the test of the vision is what we do when we get back down to the bottom of the mountain. This is life. Called to make this a better place. Called to make this a better church. Called to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We remember the story of the woman on the plane. We remember Jesus and his disciples on the mountain. We remember what he told us. It was a warning really. Life is short. It doesn’t last long enough. Enjoy the journey. For God’s sake, don’t miss the trip.

1 comment:

  1. My husband Pat and I love to travel. He drinks in more information than anyone I have ever seen. Ten years ago, Pat was brave enough to take me and two of my sisters, Edith and Grace, to Ireland and England. We were riding down those narrow roads in Ireland -- on the left side of the road, which made me and my sisters very nervous. We had our eyes glued to the road, occasionally glancing to take in the countryside. Pat was driving, but trying to experience everything on both sides of the road. Frustrated, he said: "I am missing so much because I have to give such attention to driving." My sister Grace, realizing how much he WAS taking in, said: "I don't believe you have missed a gnat on a fencepost!"