“Ok. We’re Coming Down the Mountain. So, What’s Next?” – a #stewardship sermon for Transfiguration

Outside of St. John’s Lutheran on a beautiful sunny Road Show weekend and Transfiguration Sunday.

It was a joy to be with the good people of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Schuyler, Nebraska as part of the Nebraska Synod Road Show weekend today (Sunday February 23, 2020). Thank you so much Pastor Day Hefner for the invitation, and to the whole congregation for hosting the Road Show. In visiting the congregation, I was invited to preach on stewardship and tell about some of the good ministry the congregation is part of as it is part of the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from, based especially on the Gospel of Matthew 17:1-9, the gospel lesson for Transfiguration Sunday (Year A).

Grace and peace from God in Christ, who is with you, for you, and loves you. Amen.

Good morning St. John’s. It’s so great to be with you today, and as part of the Nebraska Synod Road Show weekend! Thank you to all of you for hosting your neighbors and ministry partners in the Elkhorn Valley and Logan Creek clusters yesterday. Now, today I bring greetings from Bishop Brian Maas, from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Focken, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ, who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

Preaching on Transfiguration at St. John’s Lutheran in Schuyler. Thanks to Pastor Day Hefner for taking this picture while I preached.

I’m excited to be with you- to dig into our stories today and wonder about what God might be calling us to see and witness; to think about how we might respond as stewards and disciples of God’s love; and about how we are all part of God’s work in the world, together. Let’s dig in.

On the Mountaintop
Dazzling white. Basking in the presence of the founders of our faith or our heroes. Mountain tops. Ah ha moments. Moments that transcend the ability to be explained. I am hopeful we have all experienced such things. Maybe it wasn’t climbing a mountain for you, but perhaps seeing the most majestic sunrise or sunset over the corn and soybean fields in the middle of summer? Or maybe it was a life changing moment in your career? A time when you felt filled with God’s presence in a way that you have never felt quite like before?

That’s the kind of setting we find ourselves at today in the Transfiguration story. We have skipped this week twelve chapters from Jesus’ sermon on a different mount in Matthew chapter 5, to this mountain in chapter 17. A whole lot of learning, teaching, preaching, serving, healing and ministry has happened. We’ll get to all that in the year ahead. But for today, we find ourselves up on another mountain. Amid a mountaintop experience with Peter, James, and John. Pure and simple, this experience of transcendence would be like nothing these three had ever experienced, at least not yet in their lives anyway.

It makes sense that Peter, in seeing Moses and Elijah and Jesus talking with them, would say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[1] It is indeed good to be there. And no one can fault Peter for wanting to make dwellings, so that the experience might last. If you found the most awesome experience and beauty in the world and your life, would you want to leave? Of course not.

A beautiful quilt seen at St. John’s with familiar Bible passages stitched in, that remind us who God is, and whose we are.

Perhaps a more logical response might be one of fear and terror. One of wondering, “what on earth is going on?” Of course, the whole “on earth” thing might lose its meaning a bit here. But at the same time, would this really be that crazy given all that these disciples have witnessed by now? Like hearing God’s voice speak from the heavens? Or seeing the dead be raised like Lazarus? Of feeding 5,000+ people with a few loaves and fishes? The extraordinary has been happening left and right with this Jesus, so at this point, is this really even that unbelievable? It seems like it could be a rather normal day in the life of Jesus.

The story isn’t done though. Peter gets cut-off, by what we could only assume is God’s voice speaking from heaven, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”[2] To this the disciples fell to ground terrified. It wasn’t the dazzling white. It wasn’t the appearance of the fore-fathers of the faith Moses and Elijah. No. It was the voice coming out of the clouds. A voice, like that echoed over the waters in Jesus’ baptism. A voice and a spirit that called forth life and creation.

Jesus came to their aid. Touching the three disciples he said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”[3] Yet another call from Jesus to not fear, to not be afraid. The world was back to being as it was. Just Jesus and the three of them. Just like that, the white and dazzling light was gone. Just like that, the voice from heaven was no more. Just like that, things were back to the way they were before. Or, were they?

Of course they weren’t. If they were, Jesus would never have ordered them to, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”[4] No. Things are different now. The road to the cross is now in focus for Jesus. In coming down the mountaintop, things are different. There’s no going back to the way things were before. God has spoken. The prophets have appeared. And the three disciples with Jesus that day, whether they knew it then or not, were about to see even more life changing, world changing, and even faith changing events to come.

Bishop Brian Maas teaching about disciples and inviting all of the leaders and disciples of the Elkhorn Valley and Logan Creek clusters to ponder about “What’s next?” (Picture courtesy of Pr. Day Hefner)

We’re All Disciples
Now before we give Peter, James, and John too hard of a time, we have to remember they were doing the best they could. Everything was new. They had left their boats and fishnets behind. They had left their very vocations and ways of life, to follow. And for what? To see and witness this Jesus do the ordinary and extraordinary. To give hope, offer healing, and even help the dead rise again. Would they even have words to describe all that they have seen?

Back at the beginning of this season, and in Jesus’ baptism, we read Peter’s declaration that “we are witnesses” to these things. Peter repeats that in the second lesson today when he says, “we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty,” recounting the Transfiguration experience.[5] Peter, James, and John are witnesses. And so are we. We’re all disciples of God’s love. And that means that, we’ll all be just as goofy as these first three disciples were from time to time.

To the disciples’ fears, Jesus says, “do not be afraid.” Whether on a boat or in a storm, or when showing up after having been away, Jesus says these words. And then today he does the most Jesus thing of all, he says “tell no one.” Why do I feel like that’s the one commandment of Jesus’ that we take most to heart as Christians and Lutherans? It’s like we missed the qualifier Jesus adds when he says, “tell no one… UNTIL after the Son of man has been raised.”[6] Well, that’s happened. It no longer applies. We should be telling everyone about this. And that is where our lives as disciples and stewards come in.

Coming Down the Mountain
The group doesn’t stay on the mountain top, just like no one can stay forever during those fleeting but life giving transcendent moments. They come down from their moment of transcendence, because there is work to be done. The passion is to come. The Son of Man will die and be raised. More of the sick will be healed. The Word of God shall be proclaimed. The poor and needy will be uplifted. The hard work of the cross, of discipleship and stewardship lies ahead.

What makes this all possible, is that we have the Son of Man with us. We have the Spirit’s presence which made such a mountaintop moment possible, with us, guiding us and leading us. So like the disciples and Jesus, we come down the mountain and go down to the valleys of life, because that is where God calls us to. To serve. To bear God’s love. And to be that which God has called and created us to be- beloved Children of God who are stewards, disciples, and bearers of God’s love in the world; to face the challenges and injustices of the world with truth, hope, service and love for our neighbors.

The big moments of light and white and bright are wonderful. Just like the moments we have of receiving the elements of communion, of God’s presence with us and for us are wonderful. Just like a moving worship service is wonderful. Or, even the moments like I seem to be having quite a bit lately as a young father.

Sharing a story about Caroline. (Picture courtesy of Pr. Day Hefner)

If you were here on Christmas Eve, you might remember a story that Pastor Day used in her sermon about her friends and colleagues and their daughter Caroline.[7] Well, guilty as charged. I’m the husband of Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle’s Pastor Allison, and together we’re Caroline’s parents. Caroline is fast approaching turning two. And boy does she act like it. Childproofing is pointless now. She can climb on everything. Reach anything she wants. She’s not just walking, but running head first into anything. But she’s also talking and chatting all the time. We can sometimes even understand it.

A couple weeks ago Allison and I heard what we believe was Caroline’s first complete sentence. Caroline sings all the time, but she said these words clear as could be, “I’m gonna let it shine.” “I’m gonna let it shine,” like the words of the spiritual and Sunday School song, “This Little Light of Mine.” What an awesome first sentence to say. Maybe she’s doomed being a pastor’s and deacon’s kid, both. But hey, I like the start of her theology, and I love her spirit and joy in singing and saying those words. Those are words that I hope we might all say as we come down from the mountaintops in our own lives.

for you
Pastor Day sharing Christ’s body, given for you.

All these things and experiences, from vacations to life changing educational opportunities, to the experience of parenthood, and the life-giving food of the sacrament, and everything in between fill us, and then go with us as we’re sent out into our vocations and lives. Sent out for the sake of our neighbors and a world so thirsting and hungry for the abundant life, hope, and healing that God provides. “I’m going to let it shine,” indeed. And you all do this work, through your lives as stewards and disciples. But what is stewardship?

What is Stewardship?
It’s a fair question. It’s not just some old church-y word. It’s also, not as I suspect some of you might think, only about money either. Stewardship is about remembering whose we are, and who entrusts us with all that we are. The psalmist says that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…”[8] Put another way, all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s. When we recognize this, we begin to remember that what we have, isn’t ours, but it’s God’s. Entrusted to our care for us to use, manage, care for, and well, steward.

The congregation of St. John’s gathered before worship begins on Transfiguration Sunday inside the congregation’s sanctuary.

Stewardship is a much more broad and big thing. It goes hand-in-hand with discipleship. Especially when we remember that we are to steward all that makes us who we are, because God has entrusted all of that and so much more, to us. God entrusts to us: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, talents, strengths, passions, gifts, vocations, ideas, dreams, and even questions; our money, finances, treasure, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and that we are part of. The creation of all that is, the valleys below the mountaintop of life, and the mountaintops too. All of this, we are entrusted with so that we might live fully and abundantly as God wants us to. But also, so that we might live with deep meaning and purpose, sharing what God entrusts with our neighbor, and through that act of living as stewards we might be doing some of God’s work in the world.

A beautiful bulletin board display in the hallway of the church building which I think is a beautiful example of stewardship ministry.

Through this, we are turned outward from ourselves. We don’t do good works in the world just for our sake. We’re Lutheran after all. We know that what God does in and through the cross, through the promises made in baptism, and everything else, God does freely for us as a gift. Pure grace, we could never earn, deserve, or ever do ourselves. And the only response to this, is one of thanks and praise. And when caught up in our joy and gratitude, we can’t help but want to be part of God’s work in the world in some way. That my friends, is why and how we live as stewards and disciples. Not for our sake, but for our neighbors’, whom God loves and calls us all into relationship with each other.

The scene as those gathered for the Road Show on Saturday, receive their lunches thanks to the hospitality of St. John’s, and engage in conversations together

Being Church Together
I know you understand this. I see it in the way you show up for your community here in Schuyler. I heard it in some of the stories you told yesterday in hosting the Road Show. I felt it in your hospitality for your sister and brother congregations of the Elkhorn Valley and Logan Creek mission clusters. Thank you! And I know this to be true too, as your ministry partner for stewardship, through your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod through which you do ministry that spans the globe, and changes lives.

If you hear nothing else from me today, please hear this, THANK YOU! Thank you for being part of the church together. Thank you for being part of the Nebraska Synod with your 240 partner congregations across the territory of this state. And thank you for helping support and for doing all the great and important ministry that you do.

Taking the all important Road Show selfie outside of St. John’s. This visit was made with an extra special guest, my mom joined me on the road this Sunday morning too.

Through your mission share, you help raise up new leaders of our church- new pastors, deacons, and parish ministry associates. Work that made it possible for your Pastor Day, to be raised up right here in Nebraska, and to go through candidacy, and now be serving as a pastor here in Schuyler. Through your mission share, you don’t keep quiet as Jesus commanded the disciples to “tell no one,” but you spread the good news of God through sending missionaries around the globe, and supporting new and renewing ministries at home, across the Big Red State.

Through mission share you also help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them, in part through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling, as well as Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry. And through it, you see your neighbors, and you come alongside them.

Whether they are on the mountaintops or in the deepest valleys of life, you see your neighbors and love and support them, listen to them, and walk alongside them responding to their needs through supporting our church’s many serving arm partners like those who have faced and are facing the dangers of rising flood waters yet again, through Lutheran Disaster Response and Lutheran Family Services. And you support your sisters and brothers in so many ways too by helping support the good ministry of Mosaic and Lutheran World Relief. These are just a couple examples. There’s so much more that you are a part of, and that you do.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! (A message repeated on Saturday and Sunday.)

On behalf of your sisters and brothers here in Nebraska and around the globe, Thank you! Thank you for being part of this church, together. There’s so much more we can all do together, than we could ever do alone. Thank you for living in the light of the Transfiguration, and for reflecting and sharing that light through your lives as Children of God, changed and claimed forever in the baptismal waters, and radiating it through your discipleship and stewardship.

Some of the congregation’s youth helping Pastor Day, pray, bless, and burn last year’s palms from Palm Sunday to make this year’s ashes for Ash Wednesday following worship on Sunday morning.

What’s Next?
On this feast day, as we close this time after Epiphany and move our eyes to Lent later this week, I say one more time, thank you and Alleluia for all of you! I give thanks for the good work and ministry that you do, but I also wonder, what might God be up to next?

God has shown up in voice and light on the mountaintop. God has shown up in so many ways through the ministry that you do. What might be next? That’s the question we have been pondering on these Road Show weekends across the synod. “What’s next?” What a great question as we come down the mountain. What’s next? In what ways might you be invited to grow deeper in your relationship with God in this Lenten season? In what new ways might you be called to see your neighbors here in Schuyler, and be in community with them, in the year ahead? And in what ways, might God be at work in all of you, already? Doing new things, and calling and leading you out into our world that is hurting and broken, yet also so beautiful and beloved in God’s sight.

I pray you dig into these questions this week. And I’m excited to hear and see what might be next ahead for all of you. Thanks be to God for each of you- God’s stewards and disciples doing some of God’s work here in Schuyler. And thanks be to our Transcendent and Transfigured God who is with us, for us, and loves us, always. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Matthew 17:4, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 17:5, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 17:7, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 17:9, NRSV.
[5] 2 Peter 1:16-18, NRSV.
[6] Matthew 17:9, NRSV.
[7] https://dayhefner.wordpress.com/2019/12/29/sermon-weird-and-lovely/
[8] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.

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