Friday, February 28, 2014

SERMON: "Get Your Head in the Clouds"

Matthew 17:1-9 Exodus 24:12-18

I used to enjoy hiking mountain trails. My favorite one was the one to the chimneys in the Smokies. I probably hiked it about 15 times. The last time was the summer after I turned fifty – just one month before my son’s wedding. It was something I wanted to do to mark that birthday milestone in my life. My wife, Dorothy, and our two adult children, Jeremy & Megan, agreed to do it with me.

There was something very different about that time than the first time I hiked it. My memory of that first time with my children was that we had to stop a lot because they were tired. We had to take water breaks and trail mix breaks. I remember consciously trying to be very patient with them. The something different was that they kept checking to see if Dorothy and I were OK, if we wanted to stop! (In one of Erma Bombeck's books she has a chapter titled: "When Did I Become the Mother and the Mother Become the Child." Yea, it was something like that!) (1)

While I'm quite sure it was the physical challenge of the climb that motivated my first climb, it was the experience when I got to the top that became the reason for all future climbs. There is just something wonderful about finishing the climb – being on top of a mountain and being able to see for miles – the being able to take in the absolute majesty of God’s creation from that perspective. There’s something exhilarating, calming, healing, spiritual about being on top of a mountain. I know it has partially to do with the air that’s breathed. But, it also has to do with this sense of serenity and peace – that all is fine with the world. There is a sense in which God seems closer – more real – more present.

One of the images that is forever captured in my mind is the image of being in the midst of the clouds or above the clouds when on top of the chimneys. It’s the one that comes into my mind when I read about Moses’ experience at the top of Mt. Sinai and the one that inspired the sermon title. It’s important at times for us to get our heads in the clouds What I mean by that is that it’s important for us to take time to be with God. There’s something transforming – transfiguring – about spending time with God – being in God’s presence - experiencing majesty and mystery.

Moses and Jesus were facing some challenges in their lives. Jesus knew that the things he was teaching were leading him to the cross. He needed some confirmation that the course he was on was the correct one. He needed to gain strength from God by seeing things from God’s perspective for awhile. He needed to see things through a different set of lenses – from a different point of view and the mountain was certainly a good place to do that.

Now, not all transforming experiences happen on mountains – not all “getting our heads in the clouds” involve an encounter with the clouds of nature. Sometimes it involves a simple getting away from what is familiar – a spending time reflecting on what’s going on around you and within you and the relationship between the two.
Several years ago my daughter, Megan, wrote a paper for a high school English class. I've used it several times when referencing transforming experiences suggestive of helping us understand this Transfiguration text. Her paper attempted to capture the uniqueness of the experience she had while on a mission trip to the coal-mining community of Gary, West Virginia. Her experiences on that trip left a mark on her life that influences how she lives and how she does her ministry. There was a transfiguring – a transforming – that took place in her. She titled her paper, “Touched By the Hearts of Gary, West Virginia.” While I’m not going to share the whole paper with you in the sermon, I will include it in the footnotes. (2)

The story Megan told in her paper was about one of those serendipity-type of things that sometimes happen and that we can never really program into life or events or trips. It’s just one of those things that happen and result in experiences beyond our wildest dreams or expectations. It all began when a group of sophomore guys decided that it would be great fun to throw a football around – inside the house. Within seconds there was the sound of crashing glass. They had shattered one of the shower doors of the two showers. Now, you have to understand that there were fifty teenagers and fifteen adults staying in that house who were going to share those two – er, one shower.

Well, word got out in the community about our situation and by the evening meal a dozen Gary residents had offered the showers in their homes for our use. While we were at first relieved, as the time approached after our day of work the next day, talk turned to how awkward it felt to be going into the homes of strangers to take a shower.

It turned out to be one of the most meaningful aspects of the whole trip. Over and over again during the evening time of reflection teenagers and adults shared about what happened in the homes of these people and what it was doing to them. Conversations between the residents of Gary and high school teenagers from Worthington, Ohio produced a much more profound experience than anything we could have ever scripted. They talked about family and life and school and goals and coal mining and life in a community abandoned by a large corporation. Sometimes who was helping and who was helped got a little blurry. It was a transforming experience for all of us.

Would anyone be surprised if I told you that the conversation near the end of the week often involved comments about not wanting to leave – about treasuring the experience so much that there was a reluctance to leave the place where something special happened – about wanting to mark the place in some way. Those of you who have had life-changing experiences on a retreat or a mission trip or a vacation know about what they were going through. While it’s often hard for us to schedule in those times with God, when it happens we don’t want to go back to the real world – our daily lives.

We’re in good company when we have feelings like that. That’s really what was going on with Peter when he suggested that he make a couple of dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah up on that mountain that day. He wanted to capture the moment for all eternity. He wanted to mark the place – to build a monument to the experience – to live there.

But Jesus led them back down the mountain instructing them not to share their story until a later time. “Put it in your head, boys, but don’t talk about it just yet. Give it some time.”

There's really a longer title to this sermon. To “Get Your Head in the Clouds!" would be added: "And Then, Get It Out of the Clouds!” Life is about getting our heads in the clouds and getting them out – it’s about spending time with God and being transformed by God and living in the real world a transformed life.

1. Erma Bombeck, "When Did I Become the Mother and the Mother Become the Child," If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? (New York: ICONIC EBOOKS from Open Road Media).
2. Megan Croy, Touched By the Hearts of Gary, West Virginia, 1992.

“Did you guys hear that?” I asked the nine other girls that would be rooming with me for the next five days.

“Hear what?” my friend Marika inquired.

“That shattering noise. It sounded like it came from upst…” The sound of six sophomore guys plodding down the stairs yelling at each other interrupted my train of thought.

“It’s your fault, Reilley. You could’ve caught it,” Mike yelled.

“Mike, there was no chance in hell he could’ve caught that awful pass,” Dave yelled back, defending his friend.

This sounded like one of those times when I should’ve kept my mouth shut, but I didn’t. “What happened?” I asked.

“We, ummm, I mean . . ., the shower door kind of broke,” Reilly mumbled quickly.

I couldn’t believe it! We’d been there less than ten minutes, and they had already broken a shower!

We were on a work camp in Gary, West Virginia. Gary is in southwestern West Virginia and is a small, one-store, old mining town. It is poverty stricken due to the closing of the coal mines. As we drove into town, we questioned why they needed us to come in and fix up their houses when they could afford nicer cars than most of our families.

Upon our arrival we discovered we were going to be staying in a very large three-story house. Despite the size of the house, we knew it was going to be a challenge for the thirty-four youth and eight adults who had made the trip. We soon discovered we did not have the house to ourselves, however. Another church youth group from Cutler, Florida warmly welcomed us to our shared living quarters. This meant there were fifty teenagers and fifteen adults who had the challenger of eating, sleeping, and yes, showering together. Only two showers would have been hard enough, but we knew it was going to be impossible with only the one shower after the boys’ little football accident.

Soon, word got around the neighborhood that we were in need of showers. Within a few hours more than a dozen families offered to let a few of us take showers in each of their homes. We were amazed and touched that so many people would open their homes to teenagers whom they had never met before.

One of our counselors, Lauri, my friend, Jeni, and I were assigned to an elderly couple who lived on Lovers Lane. When we finished working the next day, Jeni and I walked the few blocks to the couple’s small home. On our way to their home, we discussed how awkward we felt going into the house of strangers to shower. We also doubted whether we would have anything in common with them.

Our worries were soon relieved when they welcomed us into their home with open arms. They introduced themselves as the Mitchells. We soon discovered they were a friendly, elderly couple loved by all the children in the neighborhood.

While Jeni was in the shower, I sat and talked with them in their living room. Although we weren’t helping them directly, they thanked us countless times for what we, complete strangers, were trying to do to help their community. We had already discovered the homes and cars we first saw were not representative of the really deep level of poverty around Gary.

We went to the Mitchell’s every one of the five days we were in Gary. Each day they offered us food and beverages and we never left with less than a Three Musketeers candy bar, two suckers, and a feeling of happiness.

This feeling of happiness came from the interesting conversations we had with the Mitchells. We talked about our families, goals, education and life in general. We also talked about the past of their town, Gary. They said that they had retired a few years before the mines shut down so that their lives didn’t suffer much from the closings, but it tore them apart to see their friends’ and neighbors’ lives destroyed. The Mitchells mentioned that a family’s only source of identity became a car. While the American dream for many people has been to own land, the people of Gary just wanted to own a nice car.

I went on this work camp to help other people, but I feel that my encounters with the Mitchells helped me at least as much as I helped their community. I learned how decisions by large corporations affect real people, witnessed what it means to be a community of people who truly care for one another, and not to judge people by first impressions. However, the most important lesson I learned is that it is possible to build friendships despite differences in age, financial status, or cultural upbringing. I will use these lessons as examples for building my relationships in the future.

"All all this because of one broken shower.”

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