Sermons from Emmanuel: August 6, 2023
Sermons from Emmanuel Church, Dublin, New Hampshire: Sunday, August 6, 2023
Transfiguration, Year A (RCL): Reverend Abby VanderBrug
About once a week, someone (a colleague, a friend or a family member - sometimes my own husband) will send me an article entitled something like this “The misunderstood reason millions of Americans stopped going to church”, at least that was what it was this week - coming from The Atlantic, which multiple people sent me. The title is similar to other ones I’ve received this summer - all from mostly reputable news services, but even if these topics were not major headlines - it would be hard for me to ignore or deny the drastic change in denominational, actually, religious affiliation in our country. The article shared that about 12% of Americans have stopped going to church in recent years.
An article subject like this in my inbox usually sends me into a tailspin and I’m not proud to admit that fear is my usual reaction to this information. I wonder what type of church will be left for my children, whom I baptized into this beautiful tradition. I think of my calling as a priest, one I hope will sustain me for the rest of my life and I worry what a job description might look like in 25 years. I think about my friends, who have left this whole church thing in the dust, and wonder if I am the crazy one for sticking around?
Each article will go into detail about why this has happened, everyone likes to blame something or someone, whether that be brunch specials, social media, soccer practice, the breakdown of American society, non-existent work schedule boundaries. And, of course, we must consider that the church at large hasn’t been perfect either - sometimes people will tell me stories about their experience in the church and I think “Yeah, I would have left too.”
So, my first response is to worry, to be afraid, to defend, but thankfully it’s not my only response, and I actually don’t think it’s a Christian response.
I had never heard the word “transfigure” used in any other place except for the bible story and Feast Day, which we celebrate today. But I was preaching on it a couple of years ago and searching for something to say, when I came across the definition “To Transfigure” means “to become more beautiful.” And then the story of the transfiguration made more sense to me and helps me to reframe moments when I’m tempted to give into the anxiety, stress, and spinning out that comes with feeling out of control.
I think about the disciples (Peter, James, and John) up on this mountain with this man whom they have really not known that long really, and they once again can’t do their job of staying awake while he prayed - perhaps some foreshadowing of the night that will come in the Garden of Gethsemane - when all of the sudden these ghost from hundreds of years ago appear and Jesus starts glowing. I mean this is some weird stuff - chaotic, unforeseen, unbelievable – and this is the stuff that transfigures. I would argue that Jesus is not the only one who transfigures, because it wasn’t all about his appearance, it was about his heart, and because of that, I think the disciples transfigure too. I think they become more beautiful in the way that being in the presence of a mountain, of being vulnerable, out of our daily creature comforts and routines can open us up to things that we did not see coming.
Some of my most unbelievable, hilarious, and unpredictable moments have been on a mountain. Moments that I could have never imagined I’d be in, nor planned, and yet changed something deep within me.
In High School, I went on a hiking trip in Colorado with my youth group, and on the last night of the trip, after like 6 days of not showering and sweating, we were sitting around the campfire and all of the girls were talking about how we couldn’t wait to shower and put on make up and do our hair again - when one of the boys said to us “you girls have really never looked more beautiful than you have on this trip” and that stuck with me for my whole life - the idea that beauty radiated from who I was, not what I looked like. To be beautiful - to be full of beauty.
My sophomore year of college I went on a hiking trip during spring break to Blood Mountain, Georgia, the first big summit on the Appalachian Trail. The five of us were not really that close when we left, it was actually kind of random that we went together. We had the WORST weather, snow and rain all week, and we packed t-shirts and sandals. We were so miserable together, but man, did we laugh on that trip. 10 years later those 4 girls stood next to me as my bridesmaids at my wedding.
I heard a calling to the Priesthood after I spent 10 days in the Grand Canyon by myself. I took the Grey Hound down there when I was 25 years old, and to be honest, my life was kind of in pieces so it wasn’t really a heroic hiking excursion and more just me trying to escape from the mess my life was. When I graduated college, I told my parents and relatives at Christmas parties, “I’m studying for my LSATS and applying to the Peace Corps.” But it wasn’t true, and it wasn’t what I wanted, it was an answer that sounded like something I should want, like a life that was worthy of all the privileges I had grown up with. At 25, I had no idea how to come to terms with that and was terrified to admit to myself that I didn’t have a plan. On the way home from the Grand Canyon, I have no other word to describe the experience except a vision from God that was the beginning of me discovering a call into the Priesthood, into where I really felt called - not where I thought I should go.
At Holderness, where I’m the school chaplain, we have a lot of hope in the idea that something transfiguring can happen on the mountain. Every March we send our juniors out into the New Hampshire woods for 11 days, 3 of the days they spend themselves, and the transformation some of them go through is incredible. They come back and the way that they have changed, grown, and become more confident is just amazing. It’s such a beautiful thing to witness as their chaplain. When I send them off, I say in their blessing “May these days transfigure you into who you were meant to be”
Okay, back to the whole church in decline thing that keeps popping up in my inbox. Here’s how I think it relates - up on the mountain, there’s less control (you can prep and plan and strategize, but some things are out of your hands)) and I think as we look at our changing churches and our changing world, we grieve the stability we once had, the predictability of a future. Perhaps, our church is in a transfiguration moment. We might not be as “successful” as we once were, but that’s never what we were called to anyways, we were called to be faithful.
The church I am depending on to nurture my children and grandchildren after I am long gone is a beautiful one, and it’s actually the one we’ve had all along. It is full of hope in a resurrected Christ. It feeds the hungry. It gathers around a table for bread and wine, the mystery of Christ. It proclaims to anyone and everyone “Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here.” It baptizes us and marries us and buries the dead, weeps with the widows, and calls us beloved through it all. It trusts in things unseen. At the end of the day, it proclaims the goodness of God and the goodness of us, despite all of our fumblings.
And so my prayer for the church (which is really a prayer for myself) is not that we would snap out of this decline thing, but that we would open ourselves up to the moment on the mountain, and that we would transfigure, that we would become more beautiful.