Diary of a Preacher
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
February 15, 2015
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul Minnesota
My desk was covered with notes. The floor was covered with books. All about the Transfiguration story in Mark’s Gospel. The wastebasket overflowed with papers, crumpled up and tossed over my shoulder like in the movies. I had checked Facebook and email at least six times in the past half hour, eaten a granola bar, took out the trash, put in the laundry, woke up the cat so we could have some quality time (Again? She waves me away with her paw – Don’t use me!) So I went and read yet another online article on what I was supposed to preach about today.
I even tried to think about the Transfiguration before I went to sleep so that my brain could work on it overnight – I’d heard that works. It didn’t.
I had prayed, believe me: “Can You help me out a little? Give me a hint what You want me to say.”
It wasn’t that I had no ideas; it’s just they were bad ideas and too many ideas.
I was stuck and it was Thursday and I don’t like to be stuck on Thursday.
There’s the theory that you shouldn’t talk about yourself in a sermon. I’ve never accepted that theory because the main thing we have to offer each other is our stories and because I think that what is most personal is most universal. I hope so, because today I want to use the process of writing this sermon as a metaphor for the spiritual journey.
First, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you want it, sometimes the idea, the healing, the direction, the comfort, the sermon, doesn’t come or doesn’t come in the way we want it to. That’s one of the realities of the spiritual life.
Today’s Gospel presents an account of spiritual experience that is enviable. When Peter and the other two disciples follow Jesus to the mountaintop, we are told they saw the light of the Creator shining through their rabbi Jesus and they heard the voice of God calling Jesus “beloved.” Everything fit together for them because Moses and Elijah were there – pillars of the disciples’ own Jewish faith. No wonder Peter wanted never to leave—let’s build houses here so we can stay! This is great!
Instead, Jesus says we’re leaving and don’t talk about this.
If they had talked about it, they would have sounded ridiculous. We know that sometimes it can be downright weird to hear about someone’s “spiritual experience.” We want to believe that our friend saw an angel with wings in the hospital room or that God found them a job but it can strain our logical minds.
Jesus didn’t want the disciples talking about any of his miracles — because they could portray him as nothing more than a magician. But he never pulled a rabbit out of a hat or changed a frog into a prince or a Pharisee into a beggar.
The writer Phillip Yancy points out that the miracles of Jesus “do not usually contradict natural law, but replicate the normal activity of creation at a different speed and on a smaller scale. Today we can heal with antibiotics and medicine and surgeries. Modern psychiatry addresses the demons in the soul and often heals with medication and therapy, but all in a slower, less instantaneous manner than the way Jesus healed. Jesus used miracles not for entertainment but out of compassion and to show what God wants for us all – less suffering, wholeness, sanity, justice. Maybe that’s a mode for health care in our own world.
In the Transfiguration story, God does not give answers. God gives light. Light warms; light illuminates our paths to our own answers.
God not only gives light instead of answers, God gives stories instead of arguments. It is the church that makes the stories into arguments, into doctrine. And that’s good, says the writer Christian Wimans, “Because mystical experience needs some form of dogma in order not to dissipate into moments of emotional intensity that are merely personal.” Someone telling us a story of their dog speaking French is probably not universal and not helpful. (Besides, we know only cats talk).
My favorite concrete thing about being Anglican is the three-legged stool. That means that we hear the stories of the Bible through the lenses of the church – and its accumulated wisdom – and of our own reason and experience. Sometimes we don’t give our own reason and experience the credit they deserve because they aren’t “spiritual” enough.
Like when we feel that certain questions are off limits. The mystic Thomas Merton writes,” Anxiety results from being afraid to ask the right questions. We huddle together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we were afraid to ask.” I know that this describes some of the time I’ve spent in church basements in the great silences of classes where good but reticent people don’t want to ask their deepest questions to appear unfaithful, when asking their questions would be the most faithful—the most holy—thing they could do.
In over three decades working in the church, the key question I have heard hundreds of times is this: Do you need to believe in Jesus to be saved?
Many sincere Christians would answer yes, but I had to move from one denomination to another to get an answer to this question I could live with and keep my intellectual integrity, and that answer is no.
I think that the God of all times and all places – who created the galaxies and the monarch butterfly — is big enough – creative enough — to reach all of God’s children in all places at all times. We dare not judge unless beliefs are incompatible with the primacy of love. The spirit of God is unquestionably present in Jesus for me, but that spirit is present in other ways for my Jewish siblings and for those who lived before Jesus arrived. “Listen to him,” God says about Jesus on the mountain, not “Believe in him or you’re done for.”
It is now Friday night and I have written a sermon ready that I think is “good.” I am watching the news and there is a wrenching report of another brutal murder by ISIL. The clearly shaken reporter says that he could not use any other word to describe what he has seen except evil.
And I had just read an horrific story myself bout the Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped and still missing for months. A few who escaped tell of slavery, assaults, rapes, girls as young as nine …. Still going on now, even as we speak.
How do you reconcile your belief in a loving God with this? How can you not be overcome with sadness and powerlessness? Suddenly all the words I had written about “spirituality” seemed like the trifling ruminations of a privileged, protected, clueless Western academic. Or the Spirituality Lite that you might encounter at Whole Foods: I’m going to some super-intense balsamic karma yoga, have an organic kale-pomegranate shake, and then work with my mindfulness tapes. If it helps…no judgment.
In the story of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John see Jesus in a way that gave shape to their innermost longings. So let’s play the Transfiguration image forward and I think that many of long for this: Jesus, together with the dozens of people brutally murdered this month. Jesus, with the kidnapped Nigerian girls. Jesus belongs here because he knows what it’s like to be tortured and brutally murdered, and still be able to ask the Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing…” Jesus with the promise of Light.
Saturday morning, and I dare think that I am I done with what I now call “the stupid sermon.” It’s stupid because I’m a nerd and need to have a thesis for things I write, a clear main point. This thing doesn’t have one. No time to do it all over.
I pick up the newspaper and see the account of Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old American aid worker in Syria, devoting her life to helping other people, month ago captured and this week confirmed dead by ISIL. Letters to her family were smuggled out by other prisoners after their release and her family shared them with the press. I’m not sure how the letters fit into the main idea of the sermon (because I really don’t have one) but I decide I’ll put them in anyway because they’re so inspiring.
She writes, “I remember Mom always telling me that in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place where I have surrendered myself to our Creator, because literally there is no one else….. By God and your prayers I have been cradled in freefall. I believe that in darkness, I have been shown light.”
The letter sounds like the apostle Paul in his letters from prison to the Christian communities of his day, where he repeated that his faith was strengthened, even when he was in chains.
The writer of the article about Kayla said this: “The reference to God in her letters shouldn’t be casually dismissed. It shows evidence of her upbringing. One need not be a Christian to see that whatever Kayla’s family did in raising her – whatever her friends and community supported—they planted a seed of belief that gave her remarkable courage in the most dire situation most of could possibly imagine. She seemed to have found light in darkness.” Light if not answers.
Sunday morning, 6:25 a.m. That thing I said about your minding working on a problem while you are asleep? In spiritual moments, it’s possible to see connections you didn’t see before. And when I woke up, I saw a main idea: The point of the Transfiguration is that God may appear in the form we most need: Peter, James and John were Jewish – hence Moses and Elijah. They needed to believe Jesus that was the messiah – hence the direct affirmation from the voice of the Creator. When I needed to think that some kind of comfort should come to the victims of brutality in Syria, there was the story of Kayla Mueller and her witness to God’s presence.
Sunday 6:32 a.m. I turn on the bedroom TV to help me wake up. It’s channel 11 – the only one I can get until I reprogram the stupid TV which I’ll do some time. Unfortunately, there she is: the tightly-permed blonde woman preacher. She always drives me crazy with her smug Biblical certainty and by saying “hallelujah” as if it were a period at the end of a sentence. As usual she is reading from the Bible and this is the first sentence: “And God speaks to man in his sleep.”
I look heavenward: Stop!
7:20. I arrive at church and start adding things to the sermon. I haven’t hooked the printer yet to my new computer – – I’m going to though – so I scribble on note cards. I cut and staple the reorganized sermon together. I who usually have a “clean” script…
And now we’re all here in church.
I think that coming to church is less about getting points with God than it is about committing each week to putting ourselves in a place where we are always reminded that there is a power greater than ourselves (thank heaven), where we find our stories in the stories of God from those who came before us, and where we are offered rituals that formalize gratitude like prayers and Communion. And of course, church at its best is a place to ask your questions and acknowledge your deepest longings. Maybe we should take some of our endless choices about time, for example, off the table, and transform them into commitments. The hospital emergency room can be a difficult place to begin work on your faith.
Like Kayla Mueller, like the disciples on the mountain, like Paul in prison, some kind of seed has been planted in you, even if it’s an awareness of your own longing. It’s there or you wouldn’t be here, and, believe me, neither would I.
Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew
Christian Wimans, My Bright Abyss
Stephen Carter, Mpls. Star Tribune, Feb. 14, 2014