“Deeper Repentance” Luke 13:1-9

Buckle up, boys and girls, this is going to be a bumpy ride.   I have no choice really because Jesus sets the tone and the agenda for it and it is rather inescapable.

O.K., well let me correct myself here.  It isn’t so much that Jesus sets the tone and agenda as someone raises the issue for him to address, and in typical Jesus fashion he chooses to go where we’d prefer he didn’t go, which means of course that your Pastor is about to go where you’d prefer he didn’t go either!

See, here’s the set up.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to complete the task that has been laid before him by God.   He is about to go and confront the religious and political leadership of the day.

It will not go well for him.

We know that.

Just a week ago we heard the Pharisees try to warn Jesus off from going to Jerusalem and confronting politics and religion, or they tried to anyway, warning him that Herod was out to kill him.

Jesus responded to that by calling Herod an “Old Fox”… not a compliment in those days, and proceeded to keep right on marching.

So Jesus has already tipped his hand that he’s not afraid of taking on controversial events with overt political ramifications.

Jesus, however, almost always does that with an uncomfortable twist for those who are listening, and that is the case again today.

So, while Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to confront Pilate and Herod, a group of those traveling with him brings up this very contemporary situation.   It is a 6 o’clock news kind of tragedy.

We’ve lost the details of this event to history, but evidently a group of Galileans (those would be Jesus’ kind of folks) were on their way to Jerusalem.  Something happened along the way.  There is a bloody slaughter at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers, where the travelers and the animals they have with them to offer as sacrifice in Jerusalem all end up in a common pool of blood.

It must have been a horrific scene.

At least as horrific as the classroom in Columbine.

At least as tragic as the bedroom of the child shot in the head here in Kansas City while he slept in his own bed, or any given night when gun violence rains down in the neighborhoods around here.

Certainly as bloody awful as the elementary school in Newtown, or the Excel plant in Hesston.

No place is immune from violence and tragedy.

We don’t really know why those travelers came up to Jesus to tell him about the tragedy of the day.

Maybe this is a second attempt to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem.   Not only is Herod out to get you, but look at what Pilate is capable of doing without remorse or a second thought!  Steer clear of Jerusalem Jesus, the way we steer clear of the Troost corridor.

Or maybe they were hoping that Jesus would make some sense of this tragedy. Tell them what it meant, how to stop it.

Maybe they figured that if they told him about it, Jesus would come out in favor of “Sword and Spear control” in Judea.

Or, maybe Jesus would denounce the government, or call for better enforcement of the “Pax Romana” which should be for all people.  Maybe Jesus could be the start of the “Galilean Lives Matter” campaign while he is going along.

What is striking is what Jesus does do, the twist he gives this, because rather than commenting on the tragedy, solving it, or explaining it, he instead asks a deeper question.

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

There is the deeper question, the one that fishes for motivations.  Is the issue the character of the people who got killed, did they do something to bring this upon themselves?   If so, what was it so that we can avoid it?

Jesus then doubles down and brings up a headline of his own, how about a tower falling and crushing innocent bystanders?    Were they worse sinners for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

And in both cases there is this call to repent, which is curious, because just what am I to repent of?

I didn’t kill the Galileans!

I didn’t knock over the tower!

I don’t think I contributed to any shoddy workmanship that might have brought the tower down, or any anger or frustration that may have been pent up in the Roman soldiers or Pilate!   What does Jesus mean by this call to “repent or you too will perish just as they did?”   We all die eventually, so what is it to die “as they did?”

When the bible talks about repentance, there are really two uses of that word.

Most of the time Metanoia (Repentance) is connected up with the word for “sin”.. which is “harmatia.”   That’s a word taken from archery, it means simply “to miss the mark.”

In this construction Repentance is really about how one does a “course correction.”   Repentance is about turning around, or altering your direction.

But there is another deeper use of that word “Repentance.”

You find it in the Old Testament, and it is connected to God.  It has to do not with simply changing not one’s direction, but really changing one’s mind -it is about transforming one’s thoughts about something.

So we read for instance in Exodus 32, about God being ready to wipe the Israelites out at the foot of Mt. Sinai right after bringing them out of Egypt because they had reverted to their old ways and are dancing around a golden calf while Moses is up on the mountain getting the Commandments.  Moses has to “talk God down” and persuades him to “change his mind.”   It’s not just a change of direction, it is a completely different assessment of what to do.

Or in the book of Jonah, God has sent the prophet to preach to Nineveh so that they might repent, and it is Jonah who doesn’t want God to change his mind, he wants to see those Ninevites burn!

Jonah delivers this nine-word sermon and the Ninevites do “repent” in sackcloth and ash, down to the animals, and so God also “repents” of the destruction intended.

God has a change of mind about the people of Ninevah.   They go from being “that great city” and “those people” to being “my people.”  The ones I created.

Is this what Jesus is pressing for along the way to Jerusalem?   A complete change of mind, a transformation on how we look at things?
“Unless you repent… you will perish just as they did… stuck in the mindset in which they died!   A mindset of futility, of violence, or senselessness and tragedy.   A mindset in which day after day is filled with one senseless tragedy heaped upon  another.

What if what Jesus is warning about here is human preoccupation?   How we get “stuck” in patterns of thought and action.

Whether you are Pilate so preoccupied with keeping order that you will send out soldiers to kill and slaughter, or the Galileans preoccupied with asserting your right to go to Jerusalem and worship, or the bricklayers preoccupied with just making a buck and not perhaps doing a quality job, or the bystanders preoccupied with asserting your right to stand where you want to in order to watch the tower going up…. Unless you repent of such self centered preoccupation, you will perish in your own insistence and your own preoccupations… whatever they are!

There is a need for deeper repentance than we imagine.

The Galileans didn’t die because of lax sword and spear laws any more than they died of corrupt or brutal rulers exactly.  They died and the blood pooled because that’s what happens in a world where violence and insistence on one’s own way is the only solution to problems.   The only way to resolution to issues that is ever entertained is the exertion of one’s will over the other … insistence on one’s own way.

In other words, they died because no one could repent!

The Galileans couldn’t turn back when the warning was given.

The Roman Soldiers couldn’t hold back once the infraction of the hard line was made.

A world in which there is “no repentance” grinds you see, in its inexorable way, and it will chew up everything in its path because there is no turning aside, or turning around or changing of direction or deeper still… no transforming of the mind that might allow you to see another way!

This is the truth Jesus points to, and it is one that bears itself out in our world as well.  Another shooting, more wringing of hands, another call for something to be done, but no conversation about how to proceed, what each party may have to give up or give in or ascent to in order to arrive at a solution that just might be as distasteful for all involved.

So it does not matter if there is a call for common sense gun legislation, without repentance; –deep repentance all that happens is the drawing of battle lines and the insistence on individual rights and freedoms, even while the blood pools at your feet.

It does not matter if you have a good guy with a gun stopping a bad guy with a gun, the result is still the same, — blood pooling at your feet and blood of the innocent and the guilty all mingling together because that is just the way it is when no one will yield.

Deep repentance is required, from the letting go of the John Wayne stereotypes to the pursuit of personal protection.

Deeper repentance is required.  The marginalized of society and those locked out of opportunity will need to be addressed, so that there is hope again.

Deeper repentance by all, until we begin to have the mind of Christ, and begin to take on the Christ like attributes of humility, service, tenderness, and understanding.  For unless we begin to do that, the tower will continue to fall, and the spears will continue to fly and the blood will continue to pool around our ankles for that is what happens in a world that can only insist on its own way.

This is why Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die, to lay down his life.

This is what God in Christ Jesus shows us how to do; calls his followers to do. They are to put away pride, and arrogance, and insistence on their own way so that something besides the relentless chewing up of the “way this world works” can begin to happen.

There, I went where you did not want me to go.  I brought up politics, and violence and individuals rights, and guns and all kinds of things that are supposed to be “off limits” from the pulpit.

But I really have no choice, for Jesus is on his way to bring in Kingdom, and invites you to join him.

It is a kingdom is NOT OF THIS WORLD, and any pretense that it can be,..that we can insist on our own way and still follow Christ,  is simply falling short of the following of the Christ who lays down his life… for you.

“Sight” Mark 8:22-25

A Sensory Prayer:

Gracious God, in a mirror dimly, that’s how we see you.   Sometimes we see you dimly because of the cloudiness of our own sin. Our sin like cataracts clouds our own vision, we cannot make you out clearly because of all that gets in the way.   Dimmed over time, calloused, it is a world that we are comfortable seeing because we have grown used to how it looks to us.

At other times our blindness is one that is imposed upon us by what we do not want to see.  We turn our head away.  “No, not that one Lord, don’t forgive THAT one!  Don’t show your mercy there!”   Blinded by our own hatred, or prejudice, or desires.

Still again, we also stumble in the darkness of our own making.  The choices we have made about where to let our own lights shine, or the dimly burning wicks that we have all to eagerly snuffed out before they could sputter to flame.   The words that hurt.  The looks that kill.  The attitudes that close out any chance of illumination.

Forgive us for our blindness Lord, but more than that — heal us of it.   Bring us into the light of your love and grace, and we pray, do it gently so that our eyes can adjust, and so that we can truly take you in.  Amen.



“I can see men, but they are like trees walking.”

That is perhaps the strangest response to someone touched by Jesus found in the whole of the Gospels.  In almost all the other Gospel stories of miraculous healings, or casting out of demons, or events where Jesus intervenes in people’s lives we get responses of surprise, or astonishment, or joy and gratitude, or amazement.

But here, there is confusion, and a surprising lack of clarity!

Did Jesus just have a harder time with this man?   Could he only half heal him with the first try so let’s give this another shot?

Or is it that the person healed doesn’t know what exactly to make of what he sees?   This is not the man who was “blind from birth” as in another Gospel story, so evidently this person has seen before, and presumably at least should know a tree from a man…, but he cannot quite make it out.

Whenever I read this Gospel story I cannot help but picture my Uncle Norman.   He’s my strange uncle (actually I have more than one now that I think about it) but Norman stands out.  He was my favorite uncle as a child because he was single, quick with a comment or joke and always seemed to have some funny story or pun just waiting for the right moment.

And, as a bonus… he looked funny.

He had these coke bottle thick glasses and an eye that wandered, so you were never quite sure which eye he might be looking out of at any given time.  Was he looking right at you, or was he watching something over to his right… or his left….as the eyes would shift back and forth?

As a young child it was a source of unending amusement.

So when I read this Gospel story it is Norman’s voice that I hear coming from the man freshly, almost healed… and I can’t quite tell if he’s complaining about what he can’t quite make out – “I see men, but they are like trees walking…..

Or, whether he’s making a joke about how his eyesight is coming into focus.   “Hey, I see men, but they are like trees walking…”

Uncle Norman supplemented his impaired vision with an awful lot of other senses, primarily touch.   It’s hard to believe that he still had all of his fingers in fact, since working on farm equipment involved him not just looking but also feeling around on it, sharp edges and sometimes spinning steel and all.  He would squint at a piece of machinery, try to locate the bolts or the screws he had to loosen or tighten, or where to put the grease gun tip with his eyes, and then proceed to feel around to find the right size and location for where to apply the wrench, screwdriver or grease connector to the zerk.

The tactile and the visual often played an intricate dance of back and forth reliance.

The more I think about it, the more this kind of “Uncle Norman Vision” makes sense in the world of faith and of Jesus, for when it comes to faith seldom is “seeing believing” anymore, at least not for me.

We are skeptical beings, and our eyes are not accustomed to seeing such things, at least not clearly.

Or we see something that looks pretty spectacular, looks like someone acting in faith, or doing something out of a sense of altruism, but our B.S. detector kicks in and says, “that just can’t be all there is to it?”  “There must be some ulterior motive, some a price to pay, something hidden in the fine print.”

Grace cannot be the reason.

A life touched by God cannot be story behind what I’m seeing, because everyone has something hidden in their background and some measure of “what’s in it for me?”

We often feel we have to “feel around” a bit more than rely on what we see.

I get this story now.

My “Uncle Norman vision” is what we all have in the end.

Jesus touches us and even when it happens to us first hand we can’t quite believe it, or we question it, or we need a just little more of whatever it is that Jesus is doing to let it really sink in.

That’s why Jesus comes as flesh and blood, as one of us, to let us grasp a hand and touch a garment hem if needed or perhaps feel the warmth of his breath upon us when the Spirit is conferred.

It takes more than just seeing to take this all in.

In John’s Gospel in that long narrative of the healing of the man born blind, there is a long section in the middle of the story when Jesus is physically absent.

Jesus heals, and then leaves before the man even sets eyes on Jesus.

The man must come to terms with what has happened to him, and also try to convince the Pharisees and his own family of who he is and what has happened, how he got his sight.

At the end of the story he ends up cast out of the community, and Jesus finds him questioning himself.

“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  Jesus asks him.

“And who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

Ah, there is that Uncle Norman Vision right there.  Jesus standing right in front of you but not sure what you’re looking at, or where your eyes are focused… on Jesus or on your own troubles.

And Jesus said to him “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.”  And now looking up and hearing the voice and seeing him, the man responds, “Lord, I believe!”

It takes more than one sense to talk in the grace of God fully, and begin to understand.

It takes more than just seeing, it takes spending time to use your whole self to take in God’s grace.

“Touch” Luke 7:11-15

A Sensory Prayer –

God of touch, whose hands formed us in creation, whose fingers touched the leper’s skin, whose touch halted the funeral bier, stroked the face of Mary, and felt the pain of pounded nails, hear us this night as we come to you in worship.

As we extend our hand to touch that of our neighbor, let us feel your presence here and now.

As we run our fingers over the skin of that other, help us to feel what you must have felt, the warmth, the roughness, the softness of human contact.

We come this night to be touched with the grace that leads to life.

We come this night to be touched by your Spirit, stricken with your Word, which was made flesh, pricked in conscience by your stern insistence that this… the touch of skin, the feel of the neighbor, is what you came to die for.

Move in us this night, Lord Jesus, as you touch us with your love and grace, and open us to be healed and raised to life, by your powerful hand.   Amen.



I am trying to imagine this scene in a modern context, because I don’t think we can quite access it in our mind’s eye as it is here.

At least I can’t.

No, whenever I read this story my mind goes into the kind of soft focus “Jesus of Nazareth” mode of picturing things, where like some Cecil B. DeMille “Sword and Sandal” epic Jesus sort of floats into the scene and touches the funeral bier and all are amazed.. but it is after all Jesus… and this kind of thing can be expected.  His touch does things.

So to access this as it must have been I have to put it into a modern context and place the events into what is familiar for me.

I have to picture a funeral here at St. James, and the casket lying astride the sanctuary with the flowers carefully placed.

I have to picture that I’ve done the liturgy, talked about us consoling one another with the consolation that comes from God alone.

I have to imagine that we’ve had the eulogy, that the grieving loved ones have already begun to make their peace with the events of loss.

“How Great Thou Art” or “Amazing Grace” is playing and the congregation is singing, and the funeral director comes down the aisle to signal the pall bearers, who stand and prepare to walk out ahead of the casket as it is wheeled down the aisle for the final time to the waiting hearse, and just as they get about ½ way down the aisle, a man I do not know stands up, steps into the aisle and says “do not weep” and then reaches out and touches the casket and the whole procession stops, as the organ drones, and all eyes snap to see what is going on…..

How does that feel?   How does that touch you?

See, I think we can imagine a lot of things about this, but the key this night is knowing what to do with this moment of touch, where someone raises their hand and stops the funeral procession, and really, death itself– right in its tracks.

How does that feel?

Would we want to feel a touch like that?

This is the question that Lent begs in us as it calls us to consider our lives, consider our walk of faith, consider the rhythm that our life settles into because this really is all about rhythm of life here.

Funerals do that to us.

Funerals put us on a kind of “auto-pilot” where we do the things that are expected.

The casserole shows up.

The lunch is planned.

The card is purchased and sent.

We go to the viewing, or the visitation, or the memorial service.  – The Rhythm of it all.

In the midst of what is a great upheaval, the loss of a loved one we more than probably find solace and refuge in the rhythms of the expected.

Just let me get through this moment, this step, and then I’ll take another.

We go to the funeral director, the pastor, and the cremation society… and they have everything all mapped out for us already.   What to do next, what decisions need to be made, what wishes the loved one may have had.

The predictable order makes the steps somehow easier, more bearable.

But with a touch Jesus inserts himself here, suddenly what was predictable now is thrown completely out of order.

What is expected does not take place.

There will be no burial, not this day, a mother gets her son back, at least for a time.

Those who have fallen silent have something to say again, and palpable fear seizes everyone, as I’m sure it would if the casket were halted mid roll down the aisle and popped open to reveal the loved one back among the living.

Rhythm, the expected order of things, — gone!

How do you handle that?

What do you do with that?

Is that the kind of touch that we would want, would welcome?

I ask these questions of myself, because quite frankly I am quite content with the order of my life.   It is predictable, even if it is a slow descent into death.

I’m quite comfortable with Lent, Holy Week, and Easter as I have carved it out in the rhythm of my life.   My greatest challenge is to figure out what to serve for Easter Dinner, as I am sure that life will unfold just the way I have it planned, the way it always does.

But what if Jesus were to step out and halt the procession for me?

Would I want this touch of his, that turns the well-ordered rhythm of my life on its end?

Can I stop it?

“God’s Resolve.” Luke 13:31-35

Today’s Gospel lesson is one that is a little slippery at first hearing.  It sounds an awful lot like Jesus spouting off and rambling on with a series of disconnected ideas.

Tell that “old fox”…

I must go on my way…,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets….how I longed to gather your children, but you would not.

It feels a bit like these sayings were thrown together by the author, swept up and put in this place because he didn’t quite know where else they should go.

It wasn’t until I met a man by the name of Herman that I began to understand this lesson.  Let me tell you about Herman.

I met him a few years ago, while serving another parish.  He was then well into his 80’s and had a bad case of Asthma which kept him pretty much home bound, that is if you could call where he lived a home.   He lived just outside of town in an old mobile trailer house on a small acreage.   It was a trailer that he shared with a variety of rodents that lived in, with and under the place.

I will forever remember the scene the first time we met.  I came to the door of the trailer and knocked.    From within I heard a voice instruct me to just come on in.

There he sat, a large fellow, in a big blue chair that I never once saw him leave.  He had everything he needed organized around him.      Television remote, papers, a urinal bottle that had seen a lot of re-use.

Behind him on the wall was a framed picture of FDR with a newspaper clipping of some sort that I never actually got a chance to read, and an American Legion calendar

The trailer was beyond imaginable in terms of hygiene and general repair.   The kitchen sink and counter were filled with used dishes awaiting a washing.   The threadbare carpet on the floor was scattered with crumbs, detrious of the other “house residents.”   There was that odor of human habitation whose hygiene was lacking.   It was a sad sort of situation, but I had been told beforehand that it was not for lack of funds, but rather because he refused any kind of assistance in the area of housekeeping or other help.

As I got to know him in my monthly Communion visits, I found out a few things about him.

Herman was a Danish immigrant and still spoke with an accent after all these years.   He subscribed to a couple of Danish language newspapers and magazines that were always within an easy reach of his big blue chair, and knew what was going on in “the old country.”

The riddle of the American Legion calendar was solved as he told me that he and his brother had come over to this country as young men just before World War II to avoid the war that was gathering in Europe.  After emigrating here to America, they both entered the war   readily volunteering for service after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

When he volunteered, he told the enlistment officer that he was fluent in German, Danish, and spoke a little Dutch, and that he was skilled as a carpenter and craftsman of wood. Therefore, the army (in its infinite wisdom) promptly assigned him after basic training to duty loading and unloading cargo at a supply depot down in Texas for the duration of the war.

Following his time in the service he returned to Lincoln NE and went to work in construction and cabinet making.   In fact, he revealed to me that he had built some of the most prestigious homes in the area, which just peaked my curiosity as to why he would now live in this filthy pressboard and tin monstrosity.

And one day after a few visits, when we’d talked about all the usual safe stuff of the weather, sports teams and what was happening in Denmark, I asked him why he chose to live out here.   I didn’t say anything about the conditions of the place, — just why here and in a trailer when he had been a Master Carpenter?

He raised up in his chair for the first time since I’d met him, not in anger but in a defiant mood that showed sheer determination and passion.  His eyes went wet with stinging tears as he recounted his story.

He proceeded to tell me how years before the city had come out here and tried to tell him he couldn’t live out here.   It was some dispute about zoning and the trailer.  But he had fought back, (now pointing to the picture of FDR behind him.)

True, he could live anywhere he wanted.  He had enough resources to buy a fine house and live comfortably in a neighborhood.  But that was not the point.

“America” he said, “was supposed to be a place of freedom where you can make whatever you want of yourself, and (Now pointing to the clipping) years ago I had to fight to be what I wanted out here, and I won!  I convinced them that this was my land and I could live here as I pleased.”

I learned something that day.

I had tripped into Herman’s core values, and he had a ready speech all prepared, whether he realized it or not.  It was a speech about what he was willing to go to the wall for, and he gave me a little glimpse into his determination and sense of purpose.

You see, I would never have dreamt that the occupant of that ramshackle trailer, mild old Herman, could have ever taken on the city of Lincoln and won.

Nothing about the circumstances in which he now lived made him look like the winner of anything.  But there were more than the circumstances of where he lived going on in the story of his life.   There were the convictions deeply held, the beliefs not to be trifled with, and a power of determination that drove him.

So Herman helps me understand Jesus today, and this Gospel lesson that at first sounds like a random stringing together of phrases.   Those well intentioned Pharisees who are trying to save Jesus from inevitable conflict have in fact stumbled into the core belief of Jesus in suggesting that Jesus not go near Jerusalem.  This lesson is essentially a glimpse into Jesus’ determination to do what must be done at any cost.

When the Pharisees issue the warning that Herod is out to get him, he spits back, “Tell that old Fox Herod, I’m on my way…”   And all the rest of it, the “prepared speech” is about what is near and dear to him.  The casting out of demons, the weeping over Jerusalem, all of it is just a glimpse into the determination that Jesus has —to do whatever it takes to finish the task laid before him by a Father who he knows is “well pleased” with him; even, if it means going to Jerusalem to die.

Jesus will not be put off by the Pharisees.

He will not be dissuaded by Herod and all his political clout.

Nothing will stand in his way of completing the work that must be done, and that is in a very real sense good news for us.

When Jesus shows that kind of resolve toward his destiny, that’s a very good indicator of the kind of resolve that God shows toward relationship with us, more specifically, in relationship to you!

Jesus, you see, weeps over Jerusalem, over its people.  Despite what they have done, and what they will do to him soon, he longs to have them as his own.   Even those he does not yet know by name, the ones he hasn’t met.   He weeps for them, wants to gather them up under his wings.

All of them – including you and me.

Oh, I know there are times that I can’t believe that anyone would want me.   The things I do, the things I’ve done.    Yuck!   How unloveable I can be a times!

How difficult and stubborn and stupid I can be!

Why would anyone want to be connected with me?  Care about what happens to me?

Oh, how you must weep for me Jesus.  I who would so readily push you away, you and all others.

How good to then to be reminded here, to be given a glimpse here of your determination!

How good to hear that even though I cannot rely upon my own resources, my own reason or strength to come to you, to believe in you, — I can rely upon your determination to find me, to gather me to yourself and to love me.

It is good news to catch such a glimpse into what drives Jesus, for the single minded determination that God in Christ Jesus holds to fulfilling his destiny is the same single minded determination that God has to include you in that destiny.

Nothing will stand in God’s way.

Nothing will dissuade God from finding you, from coming to you, from loving you and giving you all the gifts of Grace that God in Christ Jesus has come to share!

And even though Jesus is making his way to a cross and crucifixion–, an inglorious death, — even though nothing about this looks like winning, there is more at work than the circumstances of the story. There is revealed in this passion of Jesus’ response a glimpse into God’s convictions.

God believes in the goodness of what God has created.

God is determined to let nothing stop God’s self from reclaiming it, from reclaiming you, as God’s own.

Beloved in the Lord, hear today how much God longs for you.

Look into the tear wet eyes of Jesus and see there not only his compassion and desire, but his determination to have you with him, and cling to that.

Trust in this passion of Jesus when you cannot trust yourself, for with a savior of such determination, who or what can stand against you?

“Spiritual Experiences” Luke 9:28-43

I am indebted to Diana Butler Bass and her book Grounded for giving me an entry into the Gospel on Transfiguration.   She points out in her book “Grounded” that in 1962 someone decided to put a rather quirky and unexpected question on a Pew Research Poll on Religion in America.   The question was this:

“Have you ever had a mystical or spiritual experience that has tra:at question that they had indeed had such an experience.

That’s not what is really interesting.

Here is what is really interesting as her book and remarks made me think about it.

1962 marked what some would call the relative height of the power of the Protestant Church in American.   If you have been around a while, you know that this was the time of Church Mission Movements, social justice movements, and the beginning of civil rights.  In our tribe as Lutherans we were talking about merger out of a sense of strength, what we could do together, which was planting the seeds for this place as St. James would come into being as Bethlehem and St. Timothy Lutheran from predecessor church bodies were combined and able to put up a brand new, bigger building.   The question on many people’s mind was whether or not we could elect a Catholic to the office of the President, or would said president be too heavily influenced by the power of the Church, namely the Pope.

Religion was, in other words, booming in America and 22% of the population polled had experienced a mystical or spiritual life changing event.

Once a question makes it onto a Pew Research Poll, it tends to hang around because after all, the point to polling is to make observations about changes over time.

I don’t need to tell you what has happened to the church since the 1960’s.   You can look around today and tell me that, those of you who recall this place teeming with children, having to set up extra chairs at Christmas and Easter.  When did we last have to do that?

So if at the height of the church’s power and influence the number was 22%, how bad must the numbers be for mystical or spiritual experience now that no one is around the church?

But here is the fascinating thing, 1962 was actually the LOW point for the answer to that question with 22%!

In 2009 when asked the very same question, while attendance in the local church had plummeted and the institution of the church was scrambling for answers, Pew was recording that now 49% of respondents in America were recounting that they had had a life changing mystical or spiritual experience!

I have always approached the Transfiguration Event as something that is hard for people to understand, because I reasoned so few had ever had any kind of experience like that of Peter James, and John.

But now it appears that if I were to ask for a show of hands, fully one half of you might have a better idea about this kind of thing than I would have given you credit for!

What do we make of that?

The interesting thing about the Transfiguration is that those who experience it aren’t quite sure what to make of it either.  It gets recorded in Matthew, Luke and Mark and each has a little different take on its meaning but all agree on this point, which is that Peter, James and John don’t know what to do with it at the time either but find it important to who they become.

So, have you had a life changing mystical or spiritual experience that you don’t know exactly what to do with?  If you have, you’re in really good company.  The company of James, John and Peter!

And something else that the story promises is that you will figure out why this is meaningful later on.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus departs the mountain and is immediately caught up in this event of the child with a demon with which the disciples have no success.  The events of the mountaintop are forgotten as Jesus does a little cursing at us, “How long must I bear with you and be with you, faithless and perverse generation?”

Ouch, it stings a bit, sorry we’re not up to the mountain anymore Jesus, the pinnacle of faith in you.  But you see, we’ve had this experience, and we’re not really sure what to do with it!

We’ve seen you in your glory.

We’ve heard the voice of God booming from the mist and shroud of cloud that we should “listen to you.”

Before all of this we’ve seen and been present and participants in your miracles and teachings Jesus; but despite all the signs and wonders and visions and the mystical and spiritual experiences of the mountaintop, we still aren’t entirely sure what to do.

James, Peter and John model this for us.

They fumble and thrash about so even while they are with Jesus.   Sometimes they become enamored with building projects,   (Look at how great the stones are in the Temple, Jesus!)

Sometimes they area stymied by the magnitude of the need before them. (All we have are 5 barley loaves and 2 fishes, but what are they among so many?)

Sometimes they are afraid to engage with the powers that stand in opposition to God and God’s will in this world, like demons that frighten.  (I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.)

I take all this as good news, for you see, like Peter, James and John, we may have felt the power of Jesus’ presence, time and again.

We may have known the depth of God’s love.

We may have heard the call to live as Jesus has shown us to live.

But as disciples, -as followers – even when given a great mystical or spiritual experience like Peter, James and John had on the mountaintop; we’re still not always sure exactly what to do with it all, or what exactly Jesus expects of us.

Perhaps this is the great take away from the Transfiguration story.

Jesus may have perfect clarity now in what he needs to do having conferred with Moses and Elijah, and yet even he still gets frustrated with the overwhelming and imposing needs of his world.

There is always another mouth to feed.

There is always another demon to address.

There is always another would-be disciple who needs a push in the right direction, or encouragement, or some gentle correction.

But having had this experience, even if you don’t know what to do with it in the moment, you will have eyes to recognize God when God shows up again, not on the mountain, but in the world you live in.

Peter, James and John will recall this moment when they begin to make sense of what it is that God calls them to do after Jesus has ascended, and given the task of spreading the good news to them.

This moment will be important, for it will mark coming of even more mystical and the spiritual moments for them as they move out into the world.

There will be the moment in the Garden for Mary, and the women.

There will be the moment along the road to Emmaus when the Risen Lord joins and opens the scriptures, and meets them in the breaking of the bread.

There will be the moment while Philip races along beside a Chariot to open the door to baptism for the Ethiopian Eunuch, and having baptized him, Philip finds himself now standing somewhere else, “How did I get here?”

The moment when Lydia is brought back from the dead, and the beggar is made to stand again by Peter who says, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, I give… rise and walk.”

This is the legacy of the Transfiguration.   It’s not something we are meant to figure out, it is a sign of what’s to come.  A sign of how God is going to one day pour out his spirit on all flesh, including us, and we will see visions and we will dream dreams… a lot of which we can’t for the life of us explain but spiritual and mystical moments when our lives are changed and we find purpose and meaning and direction to follow Jesus in new ways.

There will be in the future all those moments for us, after when something happens that we can’t quite explain or figure out but are suddenly, with great clarity, know that God is in our midst.   We discover a God who is already here and already waiting for us, Just as God was for Peter, James and John; with more than one surprise along the way as they followed Jesus in their own particular imperfect ways.

So, as we move from the Transfiguration down into the valley today we are confronted by need right away… one more demon to cast out, and it’s frustrating having just thought we’d seen the height of faith to discover that the battle goes on… but it’s also exhilarating because God is not just loose on the mountain, but God is also loose down here as well, where we live our lives.

Diana Butler Bass in her new book “Grounded” speaks of how the dimension for faith has shifted as she quotes this Pew study.

No longer is God found only in the vertical relationship, the God of “high places.”

No, now God is the God on the horizon and at the margins, and we behold and experience God in the world in those places.

It is a God who has always been present in creation, and in the world, and in the neighbor.  God is dwelling there still, and with those first disciples after Pentecost we are discovering more and more that God is to be found not just on the mountaintop, or in the sanctuary but also on the street corner, and the garden, and in nature, and in the midst of our communities.

I don’t know why this surprises us, for the scriptures are filled with the stories and allusion to a God who “tabernacles”, who lives with God’s people.

Transfiguration pushes us back down and out into the world, where that special moment that we don’t know what to do with at the time somehow begins to make more sense.

This is what God was pointing to all along.   “This is my son, listen to him.”

Listen to him in the midst of everyday life, not just when you are up and away.

Listen to him in his own frustration, and in his blessing, and in his actions for others, and connections with others.

Listen when he engages with the undesirable, and the untouchable, and the un-likeable, and learn from him… that no one is beyond God’s reach, and that you will face nothing that you have to deal with that will  be beyond the power of prayer.

49% are having spiritual and mystical life changing experiences while the church as an institution is in general decline.

God isn’t giving up on the world.  God is moving into it, and so perhaps, should we.