Monday, March 7, 2011

Head in the Clouds

Sermon from March 6, 2011
(Last Epiphany – Year A)
Matthew 17: 1-9
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Twenty-three years ago, I experienced a summer of love.
In the summer of 1988, I made the irrational discovery that I was in love with a young lady named Susan Stephenson.
Susan and I had met before at a Young Singles retreat at Camp Allen sponsored by our church.
We were friends for several years while we both attended St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston.
Yet it was in 1988 that something happened to me – to us – and I fell in love.

I cannot fully explain what happens when two people fall in love.
In fact, falling in love is not based at all on logical, rational arguments and theories.
Falling in love is based upon illogical, irrational feelings and experiences.

Remembering that summer of love in 1988, I can still almost smell the perfume that Susan wore during our whirlwind courtship.
All I wanted to do was to be with her - and to hold on to her.
My friends and my family noticed this transformation and observed:
“Ever since Jeff and Susan got together, he just hasn’t been the same.”

Although it can be rather embarrassing to talk about openly, the experience and feeling of falling in love was and is real to me.
Yet some would say that when I fell in love with my wife - that my head was in the clouds.

Almost two thousand years ago, three of the followers of Jesus experienced a conversion in the clouds.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain.
Jesus is transfigured.
He is changed in front of three disciples - as his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white.
Peter smells the heady perfume of the divine coming from the bright cloud.
Peter babbles like a youngster in love about wanting to stay on top of the mountain, about wanting to stay in love forever.
Irrationally and illogically, with sweaty palms, Peter proclaims that it is good to be converted and changed.

When the three disciples come down from the mountain, it would be rather embarrassing to talk about their conversion experience with the nine disciples who did not feel or experience the transfiguration on the mountain.
Yet the experience and feelings of Peter, James and John were very real.
Some would even say that their heads were in the clouds.

Thirty-one years ago, I had a transfiguration experience.
I grew up in a faithful Episcopalian home, going to church every Sunday in our suburban parish on the west side of Houston.
I served as an acolyte and attended Sunday school faithfully.

In 1979, the new assistant rector at our church took our youth group on a field trip to the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, on the near east end of downtown Houston.
For those who do not know about Church of the Redeemer, in the 1960s and 70s, Redeemer was transfigured from a dying Episcopal church near the inner city - into an exploding church that became the center for the charismatic and renewal movement in the wider Church.
Miraculous healings occurred at Church of the Redeemer.
Singing and speaking in tongues were commonplace in the worship services.
And a new style of music, centered on guitars and simple voices, emerged from this Episcopal parish on the other side of town.

In December of 1979, our youth group traveled from west Houston to a Sunday evening worship service at the Church of the Redeemer.
As we entered the front doors, each usher hugged us.
The hymns were sung out of the very same hymnal that I had used my entire life.
Yet I was amazed how every song sounded fresh and new and alive.
People in the congregation raised their hands in praise.
And yes, after communion, a chorus of angelic voices singing in tongues could be heard.

My friends, I cannot fully explain what happened to me that night.
But I do know that for me – and for many other teenagers in our youth group – it was a moment of transfiguration, a conversion experience, as I felt the power of the Holy Spirit as a fresh and new reality in my life.

After our youth group’s initial visit to the Church of the Redeemer, renewal began to spread through our own suburban Houston parish.
In just two years, our youth group exploded from about 12 kids to over 40 kids.
Our youth group was transfigured - from a motley crew of preppy, upper-middle class teens - into a true Christian community.
And lives of all ages in our parish church were irrationally changed and transfigured.

And thanks to the miracle of Facebook – I am now in touch with many of the friends I made in that youth group 30 years ago.
Amazingly, from that group of kids who got turned on by the Holy Spirit, many of us are now still involved in our churches.
Two of us are now priests.

Last weekend was the last Sunday of worship at the Church of the Redeemer in Houston.
Church of the Redeemer has been closed, due to declining attendance and the structural aging of the buildings.
I was there a week ago Friday night for worship on their last weekend.
It was important for me to return to the place where my head got up into the clouds.

Now I realize that in the years since the 1980s, an expose book has been written about the glory days at Redeemer – and about the abuses of power that also became tragically apparent.
Over the years, I have become a bit embarrassed by my irrational and illogical experiences that began at that church that was on fire with the Holy Spirit, yet a church that was also wounded and strange.

You see, as Episcopalians, it can be rather embarrassing to talk openly about our experiences of transfiguration.
For example, in all my years of being a priest, I have never spoken from the pulpit about my own experience of conversion that was sparked at Church of the Redeemer.
In my years as a priest, until this morning, I have never spoken about my experience on the mountaintop with my fellow teenagers in the Youth Group of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Houston, Texas.
Some might say of me during that time that my head was in the clouds.
Yet the experiences and feelings of the Holy Spirit that I felt in those years were and are very real to me.

In 1799, the German theologian Friedrich Schleirmacher, wrote a paper called “The Addresses on Religion.”
Schleirmacher is referred to as: the Father of Modern Protestant Theology.
Schleirmacher believed that the bedrock of religion is not based upon scripture, nor is it not based upon the creeds.
In his “Addresses on Religion” from 1799, Schleirmacher writes this:
Religion is “above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling.”

I can see Schleimacher’s point, because when I come to church and I say the Nicene Creed, the Creed has never convinced me to be a Christian.
Yet my own transfiguration experience - the feeling of Jesus Christ coming alive in my life – is what is convincing to me.
And the words of the Creed and the words of the sacred scriptures simply give a language and a depth to my experience of an illogical faith.

Now I realize that some people here this morning have had a feeling or an experience of faith – and some have not.
Even in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, three of the disciples shared in that feeling on the mountain – yet nine of them did not.
Yet I do not want to overlook the fact that for many of us, we have experienced that thin place where the human and the divine come so close together that we are transformed -
And our lives are never the same again.

When I fell in love with Susan, people said:
“Jeff just hasn’t been the same.”
When I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit as a living presence in my life, some folks said:
“Jeff just hasn’t been the same.”
And because I have heard your transfiguration stories, I know that some people have said about you:
“You just haven’t been the same.”

Many of you in this congregation have had your faith in Jesus Christ come alive by an illogical experience or by an irrational feeling of God in your life.
And in this upcoming season of Lent, please do not be afraid to share your story, your witness, with others.

Don’t be embarrassed to tell the story of your summer of love.
Don’t be afraid to share your transfiguration story,
When your head was in the clouds.


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