Sunday, February 07, 2016

Unveiled Faces, Bright Shining as the Sun

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 7, 2016

Year C: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43a

Unveiled Faces, Bright Shining as the Sun
            Some of you know that over the last few decades it’s become popular to remove the pews from churches and replace them with chairs that can be moved around or put away as needed.
            Just look at our sister churches: Grace Van Vorst took out their pews a long time ago and Incarnation recently got rid of theirs.
            There are lots of good arguments for getting rid of the pews.
            It gives the church a lot more flexibility with how it uses the space.
            It provides the opportunity to have worship in the round, which can be a very powerful experience.
            But – and, I can see some of you starting to get anxious – don’t worry, it’s not something I’d want to do here at St. Paul’s.
            First of all, I’m a pretty traditional priest so I kind of like things the way they’ve been.
            And, taking out the pews would mess up the aesthetics of this beautiful old building.
            Plus, only a little more than a year ago we put in a beautiful new floor designed to accommodate the pews.
            So, don’t worry, we’re not doing it.
            But, I also have a selfish reason for leaving things as they are.
            Each week I get to stand here and look out and see all of your beautiful faces, all of your beautiful, shining faces.
            I see most of you when you arrive at church, either outside on the front steps or back in the narthex or, ahem, when you arrive after the service has already started.
            Some of your faces are already shining when you arrive, shining with the excitement of being here, of seeing friends, of praying and singing and hugging and enjoying a coffee hour feast.
            Yes, some of your faces are already shining - but not all.
            Some of you arrive and your faces are…veiled.
            There are faces veiled by worries about health and money. Veiled by regrets about mistakes made and opportunities missed.  Veiled by the anger and hurt caused by being let down by others. Veiled by the ways that we’ve let ourselves down.
            I can see your faces veiled by the burdens you carry into this place – and, of course, I’m sure some of you sometimes see my face veiled by the burdens that I carry into this beautiful old room.
            But, then.
            But, then… we’re here together and just like Moses on the mountain long ago we are most powerfully and clearly in the presence of God – the God who dreamed all of this up – the God who loves and sustains us all.
            Just like Moses on the mountain long ago, here we are in the presence of God.
            God is present in Scripture that we read and hear.
            God is present in the prayers that we offer, silently and aloud.
            God is present in the music that we sing.
            God is present in the handshakes and smiles and hugs.
            And, God is very much present in the thin little wafer and the drop of wine that we take into our bodies and souls.
            And, I’m not kidding, by the end of the service, your faces, our unveiled faces, are, to borrow from Amazing Grace, bright shining as the sun!
            You know, one of the distinctive things about St. Paul’s is that very few people are in a hurry to leave, especially after the 10:00 service, which is by far the longest.
            Almost everyone stays for the postlude and then after – and you know this – most people will just sit, kind of just soaking it all in.
            Jeanette is often the first to get up to start the little receiving line and she often says to me, “They don’t want to leave!”
            We don’t want to leave. Kind of like the Apostle Peter in today’s gospel lesson who, along the brother apostles James and John, had a most powerful mountaintop experience, witnessing the Transfiguration, experiencing the presence of God in Moses and Elijah and Jesus in dazzling white.
            Kind of like us, Peter didn’t want to leave. No, he wants to stay right there on the mountain where he had experienced God so clearly and powerfully.
            But, then the disciples hear the Voice from heaven declare – they hear the voice of God command, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
            And, what is that Jesus says to the disciples – says to us - over and over?
            Go out – go out there into the world and offer healing to the sick, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and, most of all, love to the brokenhearted.
            My beloved sisters and brothers, we are not so different from Moses, not so different from those first disciples on the mountain long ago.
            We come here to St. Paul’s and, if we’re open to it, we have powerful encounters with God.
            We leave this place with our unveiled faces bright shining as the sun!
            Now, like Peter, we can try to hold on to this most powerful experience, try to put it in a box, try to preserve it somehow until we can get ourselves back here the next time.
            We can try that, but it doesn’t really work.
            No, instead, Jesus sends usus with our beautiful unveiled faces bright shining as the sun – sends us down from this mountain and out into the world where people are hurting in ways we know about - and in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
            As I hope you know, today we have our annual meeting – the 156th in the history of St. Paul’s.
            And, as I look back over this past year, actually the past almost three years, I’m happiest about the fact that more and more of us have followed Jesus command and gone down the mountain to love people out there, out there in Jersey City, to love – to love especially those who may be the hardest to love.
            And, we’ve also invited more people to come join us here on the mountain – to come worship with us, to come eat and drink with us, to be enriched by beautiful art and glorious music.
            And, look what’s happened! Can you see it?
            More and more people, their faces veiled by burdens, have encountered God in and through us – and they’ve been transformed.
            Now, their beautiful faces are unveiled and bright shining as the sun.
            But, of course, as we heard at the end of today’s gospel lesson, we won’t always be successful.
            The disciples had just had their powerful mountaintop experience but then couldn’t cast out even just one evil spirit.
            Jesus gets exasperated with the disciples and I’m sure he gets exasperated with us sometimes.
            But – and this is the best news ever - no matter how many times we fail, now matter how many times we mess up, we’re always welcome back here on the mountain.
            We’re always welcome to bring our burdens, bring our failures and disappointments, bring them all right here in the presence of God - the God who dreamed all of this up – the God who loves and sustains us all.
            God isn’t going anywhere – and neither is St. Paul’s.
            It’s here that our faces are unveiled, bright shining as the sun.
            I see it all the time.