Changing God

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?