We’ve all had life defining experiences. They may not be Damascus Road, Mt. Sinai, or the Mount of Transfiguration types of experiences, but whatever they might have been, they helped define our lives and transform us into the persons we are today. If we look back on them, even years later, we can remember the event vividly.
There are historical and public events that define us – events like Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Martin Luther King, or 9-11. These events define generations and eras. Those of you who grew up during World War II see things differently than we who grew up during Vietnam or the first Gulf War. Because they’re public events, we share them with the multitudes, and so even strangers can find a connection through them. There are also very personal events that mark us as individuals. We may share these events with a few people, but the circle is much smaller and deeply personal. I’m talking about events like a marriage, a birth, a divorce, a death, a graduation. If we’re willing to listen closely I think we can hear in these events the voice of God calling out to us. What we hear is God making a claim on our lives.
1. Personal Markings
Because this is my first Sunday and my first sermon as pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church I wanted to say something autobiographical. I wanted to share with you a couple of events in my life that define me and have shaped me into the person I am today. I could have chosen other events, perhaps events that seem more spiritual, but these are the ones that reveal my identity as a person. In sharing these events, I assume things like my confession of faith and my baptism – they are the foundation upon which these are built.
The first date is July 9, 1983. That was the day 25 years ago, that Cheryl walked down the aisle in her white lace wedding dress and joined me at the altar in marriage. I can say that I was truly enraptured that day by her beauty, and as I stood there at the altar hands in hands, my life was changed forever. We celebrated the 25th Anniversary of that event this past Wednesday with a visit to a furniture store and then Starbucks!
The second date is June 9, 1985. On that warm Sunday evening hands were laid upon me, ordaining me to the ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although I didn’t anticipate being a pastor at that point, it was this event that gave direction to my life work. It would be 15 more years before I heard the call to be a pastor, and even then I wasn’t sure, but God had long before placed a mark on my life.
The third event came during the evening of April 3, 1990. I won’t go into the details, but that was the day, 18 years ago, that Brett was born. Up until the very moment of his birth I wasn’t sure whether I was ready to be a parent – and I was already 32 years old! But when the nurse placed him in my arms for the first time, I was so enthralled that a sense of confidence replaced the fear I had felt. Of course, that was only the beginning, and other fears would set in over time, but for the moment I sensed God’s calling and I was transformed.
The final date is June 15, 1991. On that day I received my Ph.D. It was the culmination of many years of study, but in receiving that degree I sensed God’s call to be a scholar in the service of God’s kingdom.
Each of these events has marked me for service -- as a husband, a father, a pastor, and a scholar. They are markers of God’s grace and they helped mold me into the person I am today. What is true for me is also true for you. Your markers might be different, but God has placed a claim on your life as well.
2. Mountain Top Experiences
We call these kinds of life events mountain top experiences. This metaphor has deep roots in human experience. There’s something mysterious even mystical about standing on the top of a mountain. It can be the view or may be the thinness of the air, but for some reason you feel closer to God. We call these thin places, because the boundary between God and us seems much thinner up on the mountain.
Ancient peoples, including biblical people, understood the spiritual power of the mountain. In our text this morning we see Jesus going to the mountain. Moses went to the mountain, as did Abraham. We still talk about God being in the heavens – up there above us. This need to go to the mountains was so strong that some people built artificial mountains if they lived too far from real ones. Just think about the ziggurats of Mesopotamia or the pyramids of Egypt, Mexico, and Central America. The story of the Tower of Babel is a good reminder of this need to get close to the heavens – though in the case of Babel, the people wanted to draw close to God on their own terms.
When Jesus went to the mountain he was transfigured. The scriptures say that his countenance changed and he heard God’s call on his life. Like Moses before him, he became a new person. Moses became the Law Giver and Jesus the Redeemer of humanity.
3. Experiencing Transformation
I told you a little of my story, but each of us has our own story to tell. These are the events that marked me for service, but you have also been marked for service. Some of the markings might be similar to mine, but others will be quite different. In this we’re all much like Moses, Paul, and Jesus – we’ve been to the mountain top and we’re not the same because of it.
As important as these defining moments are, we also need to experience God’s transforming grace as we live our lives on the valley floor. Remember both Jesus and Moses had to return home. While there are many ways that we can experience God’s grace, let me suggest just a few for your thoughts.
- In Prayer and Worship
Time spent regularly in prayer and in worship is one of the most important aspects of living faithfully on the valley floor. This can happen privately or corporately; in church, on a retreat, or in the bedroom. Even if our experiences aren’t dramatic, God’s grace and love washes over us, empowering us for service. And, it’s important to remember that each of us will experience God’s presence differently. For some it will be a song and for others the Lord’s Table; it could be a sermon or maybe a prayer simply spoken; whatever it is, we hear God speak to us. Whatever it might be, that moment will be unique to the individual.
Worship and prayer is about being – being in the presence of God. But the Christian life is about more than being, it also involves doing. God can and is encountered not only in our worship and prayer; God is also present in our doing.
God was just as present with Moses and Jesus when they got to the valley floor and had to deal with the mundane issues of life. After Moses came down from the mountain he found the people in rebellion. Jesus found his disciples struggling with a botched healing. As glorious as the mountain top experiences might be, they had work to do, and so do we.
In the coming months we will be being and doing. We will stop and listen closely for the voice of God in our prayer and worship, but we’ll also be working on any number of projects. The important thing is to keep things in balance and in perspective.
And what will we be doing? That’s to be determined. It might be serving a meal to the homeless or tutoring a child. It could involve driving an older person to the doctor or sitting with someone in great pain. Maybe we’ll be building a home or advocating for peace and justice in our world. And as Brother Lawrence discovered, as we do these things we’ll “practice the presence of God.” As we do these things our lives will be changed.
Let us then, go to the mountain top and experience the enrapturing presence of God and then return to the valley refreshed, empowered, transfigured and marked for service to the kingdom of God.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
July 13, 2008