It’s wonderful to return to this parish that has had such a great impact on the church not only in our country but around the world. The work I do with RenewalWorks, focused on spiritual growth, is among other things based on research that says scriptural engagement makes for vital congregations. I suspect that the biblical literacy brought to you through the Bible Challenge carried you through the tension of the significant religious event last Sunday evening. I’m sure you found assurance knowing that, as I’m told your biblically literate rector told you, the word “eagle” is mentioned 33 times in the Bible, and the word “patriot” is nowhere to be found.
Before I began my ministry with Renewalworks, I served as rector of a church north of Chicago. Each summer, I traveled with our youth group on a mission trip somewhere, working with an organization that gathered many youth groups in one place for a week. We’d all stay in a high school, sleeping on the floor of the gym or classroom. We were usually the only Episcopalians among the groups, which provided lots of learnings. During the day, we’d split up and work in teams, kids from all different churches working side by side. At the end of the day, we’d come together for loud music, ridiculous games and worship. The music was lively, accompanied by dancing, a liturgical moshpit. The style of worship was not Rite I. I’m not sure it was even Rite 17. I was glad to participate and even more glad to return at week’s end to Prayer Book liturgy. But one part of the worship was a growth edge for our group. And for me.
Each night they had a segment called “God-sightings’, an open mike for anyone to come forward and offer ways they’d seen God at work in their day. A random act of kindness. A collaborative team effort. A moment of grace. For the first night or two, our Episcopal group sat in the back row of the bleachers, arms folded in Anglican skepticism, some snark, snickering and sneering. We were definitely too cool for this. Then one night, I looked over and one of our teens was loudly clomping his way down the bleachers, heading straight to the mike to speak about how he’d seen God at work that day. You could have knocked me over with a feather. The next night a couple of our young people did the same. Then I couldn’t shut them up.
When we got back to our church, I invited the young people to preach one Sunday. They talked about God-sightings. Not long after that, one Saturday morning, a most proper, reserved elderly matriarch of the altar guild rushed up to me all excited and said: “I just had a God-sighting. I was setting the altar and needed help and someone miraculously appeared. It was a God-sighting.” We experienced a culture shift, as we began to keep an eye out for God sightings. God-sightings don’t always come easy to Episcopalians. We’re reverentially reticent and resistant to being holy-rollers. But if we can get past that, it’s kind of fun, as God-sightings happen more often then we might think. They’re there for the noticing. They’re all around us. Take a second to think of a God-sighting in your own life.
The season of Epiphany comes to us each year to help us with God-sightings. It’s a season of stories about people who come to see Jesus, beginning with the magi who follow the star that leads them to the Christ child. This year, the season of Epiphany is about as short as it can be, but even in relative brevity, it’s all about God-sightings, with a beginning similar to today’s grand finale. On the first Sunday of the season, we read about Jesus’ baptism in the wilderness, a story told in each gospel which lets us know it matters. As Jesus comes up out of the water, heavens open and a voice comes from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” A God-sighting if ever there was one.
On this the last Sunday of the season, a similar thing happens. Jesus takes his disciples to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured, transformed. Not sure exactly what that means but I imagine Stephen Spielberg special effects. All of a sudden, Moses and Elijah show up. Peter, the fearless, filterless disciple who never has an unexpressed thought, wishes to capture the moment. He suggests: Let’s build a visitor center for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. As Peter makes this pitch, a cloud overshadows them all. From the cloud comes a voice, similar to the voice heard at Jesus is baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” From beginning to end of the season of Epiphany, we hear of belovedness.
I’ve gotten into the practice of noticing God sightings, thanks to my youth group. I’ve never had heavens open up at a baptism. I’ve never seen the pyrotechnics on a mountaintop. But I have had God-sightings, hearing voices of belovedness in our broken world. I hope you have too. One of my favorite books is called Life of the Beloved, by Henri Nouwen. It’s his best effort to explain to a young secular student why the Christian faith matters. He frames it as a discussion of grace, citing the epiphany voice coming from heaven speaking of Jesus’ belovedness. He says to his friend: All I want to say to you is: You are the Beloved, and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – ‘You are the Beloved.'”
As our shy and presiding bishop Michael Curry has said: If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God. I have a hunch we all need to hear that voice in order to make our way in the world. When we hear it, when we see it, it is a God-sighting, equipping us, empowering us, encouraging us to do God’s work in the world. So where do we see it? The work we do with RenewalWorks is about that, and we’d love to bring that work to St. Thomas. In this work we ask parishioners, in an online, confidential inventory, how they see God at work in their own individual lives, and how that shapes the congregations. We ask about spiritual growth, which we understand as growing in love of God and love of neighbor. We ask each parishioner, in confidence and anonymity, to reflect on their own spiritual journey, to see where God is at work in their church, in their spiritual practice when they are not in church, and in faith in action. We ask folks to reflect on where that is not happening for them, and where they might want that to happen. We ask about God-sightings.
It’s a call to grow spiritually, to grow in love of God and neighbor, even if those neighbors were pulling for the Patriots. I somewhat selfishly hope your wonderful, faithful parish will participate in this process this Lent, a season of self-examination, a season ripe for spiritual growth. I believe it will be a gift to this community if you give this a go. This morning, you’ll be asked to indicate if it’s something that calls to you. Think of it as one way to participate in God-sightings. My experience tells me that your community will be enlivened as you explore this way of seeing. My prayer is that each and all of you in this beloved community will hear that voice of belovedness.