This journey into blogging is beginning in a way that surprises me: with a sermon. Although I preach a couple of times every week, I think I was expecting to post an article or other writing. Yet here I am, preparing to share with who knows whom the sermon I preached today (technically, it was yesterday but because I have yet to go to bed, I’ll consider it all of a day) at Grace Church in Oxford, Massachusetts. In case you are interested in the context, the Gospel for the day was Mark 9:2-9, one of the Transfiguration stories.
Many years ago – many, many years ago, my grandfather, one of my heroes, shared some wisdom with me. It is wisdom I have carried with me my whole life since. Before we had the conversation in which he imparted this wisdom, I had two really disturbing experiences, which I remember as happening within weeks of each other, when I was probably nine or ten years old.
I had a friend, a boy named Reggie, who was very dark complected. He and I and two other girls, both blonde haired and blue/green eyed, as I was at the time, were playing in my yard. And from a neighbor’s yard we suddenly heard a voice yell something I cannot fully speak out loud. This guy, an adult neighbor, called the three of us “n***lovers.” We were dumbstruck. We stood there in horrified silence as we watched the tears stream down the face of our beloved friend.
The second experience happened at church. The church was a place that was diverse economically, socially, and racially, and the place in my childhood perhaps most influential in forming my understanding of the diversity of God’s creation, of God’s beloved children. I spent a lot of time with a friend who was a person of color. We had a lot in common and participated in a number of activities, in and outside of church, together. It had never occurred to me that this was unusual because it just was what friends did, what we did. One day, a woman I had known my whole life and I loved, approached me and told me it was “nice of [me and my friends] to spend so much time with that colored boy.” “Colored boy” was whispered in a somewhat frightened and conspiratorial tone. Again, I was dumbstuck, so I did what I always did: I talked to my grandfather about it. Although I didn’t understand racism at all, I wanted to understand why people were so mean. And that is when he said, “Chicken, no one has a change of heart until they need to.” (His nickname for me was “Chicken,” which I knew to be a term of endearment.) He then went on to tell me a story from his experience, the story about how he learned this himself.
He was born shortly after the turn of the 20th century to hard-working Irish-Catholic parents and grew up in Roxbury and Jamaica Plains. To say that racial segregation was a part of his life would be an understatement. It was a part of the community’s DNA. He took responsibility for his own “bigotry,” something he learned about himself while serving in the Coast Guard. At 14, he lied about his age to join the Coast Guard, and sometime after that found himself serving in a military capacity because the Coast Guard was conscripted during the war. I don’t recall the details, but something serious happened and he credited another sailor, a man of color, as saving him, which changed his relationship with this man. He found that he could no longer blindly believe the things he had been taught overtly or covertly. He found that his heart was changed because it had to be.
I hadn’t thought about this story for a long time. Earlier this week, while I was on retreat, Bishop Sutton of Maryland, who was our retreat leader, was talking about how good preaching changes the hearts of people, perhaps preacher included. It is not something that is done through talking points or the relaying of facts, but rather by helping people to have an experience that speaks to their hearts. It is not lost on me now, as I preach words to you, that I am saying also it is not the words themselves that result in change, but connecting the words to something truly meaningful.
Listening to Bishop Sutton and being reminded of that time with my grandfather, led me to look at today’s Gospel in a whole new way. I have heard this Gospel more times in my life than I can possibly count. We hear it (or the same story from one of the other Gospels) every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. And, if I’m not mistaken, it shows up one other time in the year, at least in some years. So, I’ve heard it a lot, preached it a few times, and I have always understood it to be about the revelation of Christ’s glory. And that is what it is about.
Yet, when I read the story this week, a new line jumped out at me. It was the last line, the one in which Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to remain silent about what they experienced. Jesus didn’t tell them they could never talk about it, but he told them to keep it to themselves until after his resurrection. I think we can infer this to mean until others have had a chance to have their own experience of his glory, up close and personal.
Why would Jesus order them to be quiet? I think it is because Jesus knew what my grandfather learned: that changes of heart, whether they be about people who are different from us or about development of faith, are not things that happen because people have been told about them. Sharing one’s experiences, one’s faith journey, is a good thing. Words and talking are a big part of evangelism. They are not the only part of evangelism, which I think is about inviting people to come have their own encounter with God, inviting people to develop their own faith, their own relationship with Jesus. It is about how it is that we share our understanding of God’s glory, how we witness to Jesus in our own lives, how we share with others how the Holy Spirit has changed, and continues to change, our hearts. And that takes a whole lot more than words.
We’re wrapping up our first full year together, and we’ve been talking a lot about how we go out into God’s world and invite others to experience what we have experienced in this amazing faithful and Spirit-filled community that is Grace Church. Knowing what we know about how the Holy Spirit works in and through us, about how we encounter the glory of the Risen Christ in our lives and in our life together, how do we do more than just talk about it? What do we need to do, one-by-each and together, to invite others to experience God at work in and through them?
I’m not standing here suggesting I have all the answers, because I don’t. What I do have is a heart full of hope and optimism because I know who you are and who we are together. And I know that we are off to a really good start. Just in this time we spend together in worship, we do more than talk about it. We take it beyond the words to something more meaningful, to something that is real in a way that only God’s grace and Christ’s glory make real. Sure, we hear the words of Scripture and you hear the words I preach, but we do that with deep intention and in a loving and welcoming community, as preparation for what comes next. And then we are all invited to God’s table to experience fellowship with Jesus in the sacrament of Communion. And we know how heart-changing that can be. We are then sent out into God’s world, hopefully to make it a better place.
So, I stand here inviting you to join me in prayer and reflection about how we go out into the world in ways that invite others to experience the grace and glory, whether we are blessed to welcome them here at Grace or they choose to be in some other place. How do we do that in ways that remind us that words are only a part of it and that people, ourselves included, need to be able to hear with our hearts?