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Are we changing God? Or is God changing us?

This past week I had the privilege of being invited by our national church offices to be part of three days of conversation. There were about 40 of us, pastors and elders, invited from around the country so that the national leadership of the Presbyterian Church could hear from us: what’s working, what the challenges are, what we are excited about.

The conversations ranged all over the place: from music to art, from finances to leadership, from buildings to mission, from church politics to theological education. And throughout, there was one word that kept coming up: change. Now I’m aware that this tends not to be a popular word among Presbyterians, this change thing. The old joke goes: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? That lightbulb? My grandmother gave that lightbulb to the church! Or as the saying goes, the only thing constant in life is change.

The reality that we all know is that change is a part of the passage of time. Our bodies change, at times betraying and frustrating us. Our opinions change; things we once held as near sacred no longer matter to us. And the world around us, well, change seems to whizz by at the speed of light. I often talk about the telephone as the perfect example of the rate of change. When I was away earlier this week, walking back to my hotel room, my phone rang. It was my family calling me from the grocery store for a video call. When I was a kid, those kinds of possibilities were reserved for the absurd fantasies of science fiction.

Speaking for myself, I remember the days of rotary phones, when you hoped the number you were calling didn’t have a lot of zero’s in it so you wouldn’t get finger cramps. And you also hoped that the person you were calling was home, because there was no answering machine. Some of you go back a little further, remembering party lines and switchboard operators. Meanwhile, my own children cannot conceive of a world where the only thing you could do with a telephone was make a phone call. I can ask my phone questions. I can give it commands. And it responds! (You know what’s creepy is that when I was writing this section, I initially said about my phone “she responds” because of the female voice that is encoded. That says something about the way my own subconscious has come to understand things)

Things are changing.

And technology is merely a benchmark of that change. We talk often of the challenges that a changing world presents to the church. There was a time when we could take a Field of Dreams approach to evangelism: if you build it, they will come. But Sunday mornings are no longer the sole domain of the church. People are suspicious of institutions, and church scandals have contributed to this situation.

Now I don’t know if this is comforting or distressing, but we are not the only ones struggling with change. The music industry can’t seem to find its footing. Traditional journalism is fading away. Schools, corporations, non-profits, just about every corner of our society is being affected. It seems that churches are just part of a larger trend in our society. So even though we may not like change, change is an integral part of the world we inhabit. The question, then, is not if we change. There are two better questions: how we change, and why.

When it comes to the church, I think we can fear change because we think we are messing with something that is eternal and unchanging. In other words, rather than asking God to change us, we worry that are trying to change God (or, at least, repackage God) in order to please people. I also think that this fear comes from a good place. Is the change we implement a cop out? When we do things like broaden our styles of music, or project worship information on a screen or a wall, are we dumbing down faith, cheapening it? Or are we using current technology in the way that Martin Luther utilized the new-fangled printing press to spread the word of God? Or, perhaps, is there something else altogether at stake?

It’s no accident that today, Transfiguration Sunday, is the day that we have chosen to have a Town Hall meeting after worship. It was not my intention, or session’s intention for that matter, but I’m also pretty sure that God can work around us if need be. And the thing that the two lessons we read today have in common is simply this: an encounter with God changes us.

Moses’ regular meetings with God on the top of Mt. Sinai leave him so transformed that he has to veil his face so that the Israelites won’t be distracted by his appearance. Whether or not they found the veil distracting is another question. And as Jesus stands on top of Mount Tabor with Moses and Elijah, he suddenly looks as though he has been filled with light, much to the astonishment of the three disciples who have accompanied him there. They don’t know what to make of it, but they do know that it is holy, that is remarkable, and that it is terrifying.

Change is frightening. Let’s be honest. And one of the things that I love about this community is that we recognize this. We don’t change because change represents an easy fix, but we see it as an important way to make room for those who are most unlike us. The fact is that we are blended community. It might not look that way at first blush, but it’s true. There are those who love traditional music and those who prefer contemporary. There are those who have never entered the world of email and those who live tweet worship. There are those who live in Brookhaven and those who travel from other parts of town.

All of these things make for an interesting community of different interests and ways of experiencing God. And we make room for each other here, even when it means having to expand our approach, because deep down, we all know that none of us knows the answer to the challenges of living and believing in a changing world. Instead, we would much rather learn our way through it together, because we are far stronger together than we are alone.

And that is the challenge of Transfiguration, of trusting in a God who changes us more than we could ever change God. You see, the temptation of that moment on the mountain top is to stay there. Peter wants to build shrines, to preserve the spectacle in a way that it would last. The truth is that these moments are often fleeting. We get glimpses of heaven here. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the celebratory feeling of a full Sanctuary on Christmas Eve; or the intimate power of footwashing on Maundy Thursday; or the intellectual and spiritual challenge of Bible study; or the blessed gift of serving in the Food Pantry or Habitat or Journey or the Bargain Shop. There are moments in our life as a church that we are tempted to think, “If only it could be like this all of the time!” If only we could enshrine these moments and live within them now and forever. If only…

But that’s the thing: the purpose of these moments is not the possibility of their permanence. Their very power is in the fact that they are fleeting. The question is whether we are open to allowing them to change us…now and forever.

What is that moment today? Where is your glimpse of the kingdom going to be? Will you recognize it when you see it? Will you make room for it to change you?

Amen.

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The pace of technology is mind-boggling. From the dawn of the internet to the introduction of power-packed cellphones and tablet computing devices, the way we interact with each other has changed dramatically in the span of a generation. And like most things, this evolution is a double-edged sword.

Global Positioning Systems on our smartphones have rendered maps, directions, the yellow pages documents of a bygone era. Programs like Skype allow us to video chat for free across continents, a thought that was mere science fiction not that long ago. Platforms like Twitter have even been at work in unseating dictators in the Middle East.

But wait: there’s more!

For the iPhone alone, you can get the following apps:

  • Payphone locator! Have an iPhone? Want to know where the nearest payphone is? Love irony? Then this is the app for you!
  • How about Beer Opener? You can enjoy the experience of opening a virtual beer without the hassle of having to drink it!
  • And my personal favorite: HangTime. This app measures how high you can throw your iPhone. And it only costs 99 cents. Plus the cost of a new iPhone.

For every device that might save us time, there are tons that would love to waste it. When you embrace technology, you have to take the bad along with the good.

We might as well say the same thing about our current sermon series. The basic idea is that, as we face the dawning of a new calendar year, we might consider the ways we might like to start over. And the beautiful thing about our faith is that it constantly gives us the opportunity, no matter the season, to begin again.

Now the title, Ctrl+Alt+Del, is taken from technology. If you own a Windows computer, you have, at some point, had to use this little combination of keys to restart your device. So if you understood the title of the series without the explanation, then you are a fellow lover – and hater – of technology.

Today’s sermon pushes the technological conceit one step further. It’s a play off of the idea of Web 2.0. If you know anything about this concept, then you will know that I understand it only in part. But here goes:

The world wide web began as a one-way communication technology. Sure, you could send emails back and forth, but these were not interactive in the way that, say, a face-to-face or a telephone conversation is. And websites took this approach as well. Websites started as kind of a virtual brochure. For your company or your organization or yourself, they were places you could post information that you wanted the user to know about you: your history, location, telephone number, email address, etc.

In tech circles, this approach is now referred to as Web 1.0 – kind of a rough draft version of the internet.

We have now moved into a phase known as Web 2.0, which has added the interactive component to internet activity. Rather than a model in which the owners produce the content, the reality now is that the user has a great deal of say in how the content is received. It has introduced a level of participation to the internet.

Anyone can start a blog. For free. And anyone can respond to that blog. For free. Anyone can post a video on YouTube. Again, for free. And anyone can respond to that video. For free. If you have a website that is of the 1.0 “information only” model, people will not be interested. You have to open up your site so that people can tell you what they think of your content. And that reaction helps to shape your future content in conscious and subconscious ways.

Another aspect of Web 2.0 is syndication, or the ability to share the content you find. Through social media, like Twitter and Facebook, among a hundred others, you can let other people know what you’re reading, seeing, thinking, engaging, and let them know what you think about it. And they, too, can share that content with others. When a piece of information spreads rapidly, it is said to “go viral” – that is, it has taken on a life of its own and spreads further than the creator of the content could ever have imagined.

At the risk of stretching my metaphor well beyond its breaking point, could it be that the birth of Jesus ushered in a new era of God 2.0?

This may not sit well with some of us. The very reason that we find God to be worthy of trust is that we trust that God is unchanging; that the same God who created the universe is the same God whom we meet in Jesus Christ and is the same God whom we worship here at OPC.

I do believe that this is true. But there is something earth-shattering that happened at the birth of Christ: incarnation…the human embodiment of the divine…God in baby form. As human beings ourselves, our best possible understanding of the nature of God comes through our understanding of the nature of Christ.

In our texts today, we moved from the almost fatalistic quality of Ecclesiastes to the sublime awe of Anna and Simeon. The author of Ecclesiastes lets us know that everything good and bad has its place: birth, death, planting, sowing, crying, laughing, killing, healing, holding on, letting go. And we see all of these things in the life and ministry of Jesus himself.

What springs forth in the lesson from Luke is in the echoes of Ecclesiastes, but in an incredible way. We meet these two characters who fade from the scene as quickly as they arrive. Both have been waiting a lifetime for the promises of their faith to come true: that God would deliver the Messianic goods. Simeon seems to channel the author of Ecclesiastes, saying of Jesus that he “marks the failure and the recovery of many, a figure misunderstood and contradicted…but his rejection will force honesty.” The infant will be a double-edged sword, bringing both division and the possibility of healing to the people.

For Simeon, this is enough. He doesn’t have to see the results. It’s enough for him to know that the child has arrived, that hope is on its way. Anna, too, is stunned by what she experiences. She had been faithfully waiting in the Temple for decades. As soon as Jesus arrives on the scene, she departs – both from the Temple and from our story – to sing God’s praises for the birth of this baby.

God is the same, the alpha and omega, the first and the last. And yet, there is a newness in the form of this infant Messiah. We now have the opportunity to know God more fully than ever before. Rather than dealing with a divine abstract, we now see God as a concrete reality. This is, no question, something new. And if we choose to embrace that concreteness, we must embrace it for the double-edged sword that it is. Christ comes to comfort us in our woes. And Christ comes to heal us, in the fullest possible sense of that word. And part of that healing means the shaking of our assumptions to the core.

How was your 2011? Are you happy to see it in the rear view mirror? Are you ready to start over completely? Or was it, like most years, a year of ups and downs? Are there those moments that you’d like to have another shot at? Then this is your year.

My invitation for all of us for 2012, beginning this week, is simply this: interact with God. Reflect on those places where your faith-life still exists in a 1.0, rough-draft kind of world. God wants your engagement! God wants your participation!

Amen.

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