READING FROM THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES (Mark 9: 2-10)
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
SERMON “Transformed” By Robin Bartlett
I’m so glad you all came to church today, and on Stewardship Sunday. For those of you who are new to the church world, “stewardship” is a fancy church word for “fundraising.” You may not know this, but all of our staff salaries and programs and Sunday School and everything you value and benefit from in this church is paid for by all of you. So if you aren’t pledging, someone else is paying your way. Some people don’t realize this about church, since you walk in the door, and unlike the opera or the movie theater, we don’t charge an admission fee and hand you a ticket. And this is important, because we want our church to be accessible and welcoming to all, regardless of ability to pay. But sometimes we who have the ability to pay make the mistake of thinking that our church is “free.”
I’m going to be honest with you, as I promised to be honest with you since the day we met: the church you dream about is quite expensive.
Every year, we have a Sunday in which the minister talks about money, and everyone dreads it because the only thing people think is more embarrassing to talk about in church is perhaps sex. But we’re going to talk about money today, and we’re going to endeavor to talk about money a lot all year, because friends, money (and sex, for that matter), are urgent spiritual issues.
I said last week that a colleague’s “shadow name” for this sermon is “It’s stewardship Sunday. Come to church anyway.” That same colleague invited my other colleagues to say what their shadow sermon titles are for stewardship Sunday, and these are some of what they shared:
Pennies from Heaven is Only a Song
"Two fishes and seven loaves won't do. I ain't Jesus."
"Feed My Sheep: Yep, That's a Metaphor"
"You Don't Get To Complain About a Church You're Not Paying For."
Your Faith in the Miraculous Is Only Evident at Budget Time
We Have All the Money We Need, As Soon as You Pledge It
Bring the Change You Want to See
Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz
You would all be shorter if you weren’t standing on your wallets.
The Good News is that we have all the money that the church needs to fulfill its mission. The Bad News is that it is still in your pockets.
Your Pledge Tells Me You Want My Children to Starve
Nobody gets out until we make budget.
I upped my pledge—up yours.
I would just say “amen” now, and go on to the hymn, but I love talking about money so much that I’m going to go on.
Actually, to tell you the truth, I hate talking about money. I have always tried to pretend that money doesn’t exist. That it doesn’t matter. That if I don’t think about it, it will just go away. This comes from my family history, and your unexamined biases about money come from your family history, too. My money “stuff” comes from the weird ways in which my two parents dealt with money—one too tight with it, one too loose with it, and there was always not enough of it. I didn’t know if they gave money to causes they cared about, or the church. I just know that we fought about it, and money highlighted the different values my two parents had; the vastly different values that led to their divorce. No wonder I don’t want to think about it. The church is the only thing that has taught me how to make meaning of my money, and I’m still learning every day. Beginning to have these conversations—to tell my money autobiography, if you will, is going to change my life. I contend it will change yours’ too, if it hasn’t already, so we will do this work together.
And we will start, as we always do, with the Bible. The Bible has a lot to say about money, and it is usually uncomfortable for us to hear. It tells us, for instance, that we must “tithe”, or pay 10% of our income to the church, which is why biblical literalist churches fare much better than we do, to be very frank. That’s one reason why they have big staffs, and thousands of members. Jesus is even more extreme when it comes to money. Jesus tells us to give up all of our possessions to follow him. He says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich people to go to heaven. And by Jesus’ standards we’re all rich. I could go on.
But I want to talk about the subject of transformation, and our Lenten text today.
Our scripture text today is the story of the transfiguration, which is a fancy bible word for a magic thing that happens to Jesus--an outer transformation that reflects who he is on the inside. In our scripture today, Jesus goes up to the top of a mountain with his friends, and is bathed in a white light by God, and everything changes for him in that moment. God calls him his beloved son, and tells everyone to listen to him. And then Jesus goes back down the mountain with his friends, who are totally weirded out by the whole thing. What’s significant is that Jesus doesn’t go up to heaven to be with his Father even though he has clearly been declared “set apart”, and even though he probably knows that all of this is going to end badly for him at the end of his journey. Instead, Jesus goes back down the mountain and out into the world, transformed. He goes back down the mountain to help transform others.
God invites us into transformation like this all the time, so that we can go back into the world to transform it; to transform others. We are given this invitation all the time. I believe it’s why we go to church: to risk transformation. The question is always whether or not we accept the invitation.
One of the best invitations for transformation that the Church gives us is the invitation to spend our money differently than we do now. This may seem like a clever way that the church has to fundraise, but it really is true. The Church invites us to transform our outsides to match our insides—to have our giving match what we most closely value. Transfiguration.
I want to ask you: what do you value most in your life?
I hope church is on that list. We have heard from some new and long time members of our community giving testimonials for weeks—testimony about the ways in which this church has transformed lives. Melissa told us that this church helps her to reconnect with her beloved grandfather who died years ago, and Jan told us how this church helped to initiate her into a multigenerational group of women who mentored her and held her, and Bob and MJ told us that this church helped them come full circle; helped them find a “home” after journeying for years in the civil rights movement and ministry, and 12 year old Xan told us how her Baptism into this church gave her an external sign that God and this community saves her from the barricudas of life. And Janet, who we will hear from in a moment, felt warmly welcomed into this church despite her disbelief. This church matters. It has value beyond measure. It transforms people. It transforms the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that we become what we worship.
And David Foster Wallace says:
"In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it Jesus Christ or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.”
Church—our church--gives us the opportunity to save ourselves from being eaten alive by worshipping the wrong things. This church invites us to put our deepest held values in line with what is most noble and true; to focus less on self-worship and more on transcendence; to keep the truth up front in our daily consciousness.
If you want to look at what’s eating you alive right now, there is no better way than to look at your bank statement and your crammed full, over-scheduled lives. How you spend your money and your time.
If you look at your bank statement and your little iPhone calendar, you can have a good idea of what you are currently worshipping, and it may not line up with the things that you value the most. And that can be soul-killing. You know it, I know it. I look at my calendar and see too many things to “do” and not enough time for my family to connect. I look at my bank statement and see a slavish devotion to gel manicures and clothes, and Apple products.
But time with family is something I most value. And Love. And service. And justice. And education. And freedom, and dignity for all people. And an end to oppression and violence. And most of all: a safer, better, more peaceful, more loving world for my children to live in. A world that is worthy of their promise. I bet you value those things too, or else you wouldn’t be here.
Does your bank statement reflect those values? Does your calendar?
I love the church because it gives me a way to let my external reality reflect my internal one. A chance to take God up on God’s invitation to transformation. A chance to spend my money in a way that says, “I have been transformed by this place, and I want to go back down the mountain and help transform others and the world.” This is why I give to both my home church in Jamaica Plain, and to this one. Because this church’s mission—to gather in the spirit of Jesus, to create heaven and earth—is transformative and expensive. And it is completely priceless.
So I give until it is only slightly uncomfortable for a total of 5% of my income, because it is a spiritual practice to let God into my wallet, but it is irresponsible to give more than I can.
And I happen to know that this church has value in your lives literally beyond measure. You tell me this all the time. This church gives you a way to spend your time and money toward what you want to worship: the unending Love of God and Love’s power to change the world. So I invite you to celebrate this Love with your wallets. I invite you all to consider giving at least 5% of your family’s income, or a full 10% tithe for those of you who can afford that, because tithing is not just for religious conservatives, y’all. [Imagine how much power we could have in the world if we tithed. As much as some of the mega churches that distort the Christian value of spreading God’s love by spreading judgment and damnation instead. Imagine the power that we have to change the world with our Love if only we funded it.]
The good news is that we have all that we need to build the church we dream about and then some. The bad news is that it is still in your pockets. We have pledge cards in the pew for those of you who want to up your pledge from what you originally had decided on. You can find them in the holders in front of you.
Please won’t you pray with me. God, Our bank statements and calendars reflect what we worship, and we know we become what we worship. Help us to worship You, first and foremost, with everything we have. Transfigure us; transform us. May we use our gifts to build a world worthy of our children’s promise. We pray all this for love’s sake.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org