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How do you know when you are in love? And other questions I wasn't taught to answer in seminary
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on March 2, 2014
Christ Church Andover
Last Epiphany, Year A
March 2, 2014

Click for the readings for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.

A few years ago I went on a mission trip with members of the Diocesan Youth Council (high school students) to Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. We would work during the day on various projects and do a lot of group and team building during the evening. One evening, the girls in the group asked me and the other female mentor if we could have some ‘GT’ or girl talk. Sounding vaguely ominous, we assented and that evening we crowded into the relief trailer with six high school girls. And they asked us two questions: Who should pay on a date; and, how do you know when you are in love.

Divinity school and seminary had not prepared me for those questions at that moment.

Skipping past the date questionwhich is the topic of a whole other sermon—the other mentor and I struggled to speak to the love query. I mean, for some people, perhaps for most, that is a tough questionhow do you know when you are in love? Do you talk about the moment it ‘happened’? Or the moment you ‘realized’ it, which can be different? Or was it a creeper vine kind of feeling, one that builds up over time so slowly and stealthily that you don’t realize that the feeling is there until it has come in and already taken up residence in your soul? It is rarely something prove-able to others, or even oneself.

Conversion can also be a similarly variable experience. Some people can point to a moment they knew, they KNEW, that they were a Christian. They can point to an experience when it became so clear, so visceral to them that they were in love, or saved, or believed in Jesus or God, that they can make reference to it for the rest of their lives. That moment is ensconced in their personal story. Others of us find ourselves talking around the realization of love or faith, describing all that pointed to it, but unable to capture that precise moment, that instant of clarity, understanding, conviction, if you will.

How do you name and recall something that is inherently hard to prove?

That is the story of the Transfiguration.

We have Jesus bringing three of his disciples up the mountain, away from the crowds. Some would say that these were his most beloved disciples, and others could rightly point out that these were also Jesus’ ‘problem children’—Peter seemed to be constantly sticking his foot in his mouth, and the brothers John and James, the sons of Zebedee—the sons of ‘thunder’—had hinted earlier to Jesus that they would actually prefer to be above all the others when they got to heaven, and be seated on Jesus’ right and left hand sides. In either case, these are the disciples Jesus brings up the mountain where he is transfigured. His clothes change, his face shines, and the disciples are overwhelmed. In icons and images of the Transfiguration, Jesus is surrounded by a blue nimbus or halo around him, blue being an expensive and holy color to use, and there are images of the disciples falling down the mountain, their hands over their eyes, literally upside down in wonder, awe and shock.

And not only is Jesus transfigured, Moses and Elijah appear alongside him. In the gospels, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ and many suggest that others believe that he is Moses or Elijah or a prophet, but here, with Jesus flanked by two of the most pivotal people in Jewish history, it is clear that not only is he NOT one of them, but even more, he is in line with them—Moses and Elijah support and literally ‘frame’ Jesus. All of this is going on when Peter, in all his Peter-ness, says “It is good for us to be here! If you wish, I will make three dwellings for you!” This is it for Peter. This is the moment when he is convinced of Jesus’ lordship, when God’s voice came down in front of him, claiming Jesus as his own, bestowing authority on him. This is the moment Peter is convinced and knows it and wants this moment to last. He wants proof, he wants to show others that yes, see Jesus up there? All glowing? THIS IS MY PROOF. I KNOW THAT HE IS LORD and now so do you!

Peter offers to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah because he wants this snapshot to remain forever. Just stay here, he says to them, don’t move, let me get the others to come and see you so that they may believe as well. But as we know, Jesus didn’t stay that way. Jesus says, ‘Be not afraid’, and suddenly, there he is, back to his old self. The realization, that aha moment, that proof, that clarity of Jesus’ identity and power and glory are sucked up into the ether, and there is the homely rabbi that they had been following for months.

When did you realize that Jesus was Lord? When did you start to believe in God? Have you ever had a moment when, suddenly, all this stuff about Jesus and resurrection and God’s love all became absolutely sparkling clear to you, even just for a moment? Or if not clear, then real or believable? Perhaps you are one of those people who recall those moments of conversion and can refer to them, reliving them over and over again, or perhaps you, at one moment, had a glimpse of that clarity and certainty, and have been going only on faith since then. In some ways, the Transfiguration was like SnapChat- a photo message you can receive on your phone that erases, disappears, after a prescribed amount of time. As a friend of mine put it, it’s like a Mission Impossible message which self-destructs. Peter and James and John had that moment of clarity, that experience which they couldn’t bring back in photos or in fact, but only with the words to circle around what it was like to see Jesus as the Son of God, to hear God’s voice, to have Moses and Elijah literally having his back.

How do you know when you are in love? How do you know that you believe?

We are a culture obsessed with proof at times. It is part of the legacy of the Enlightenment, which was obviously a very good thing, but also a far cry from the culture of those who wrote the gospels and the one who caused the gospel to be written. As children we say, ‘prove it’ to one another to show our power. As adults, we don’t want to look silly when we rely on our faith words rather than our ‘proof’ words. We want tangible reasons to go to church or to find goal-oriented rationales for what we receive when we put aside our ‘stuff’ for a few hours to come and sit here in the pews. I would say that there is a disappointment when people come to church and don’t feel or have an ‘experience’ of God. That is certainly true for those raised in faiths which emphasize that if you don’t have an experience, God or Jesus or the Spirit is not working in or through you. It is true for those who come seeking an end-product, and who leave fairly quickly because it’s not working according to their allotted time frame. Stephanie Paulsell, Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity writes in her book ‘Honoring the Body’ about suffering several miscarriages in a row and was so disappointed that God was not showing up in the midst of this that she couldn’t go to church, she couldn’t even pray. A friend sent her a sweater to wear, saying in the note that she had prayed for years wearing that sweater, and that it was okay if Stephanie couldn’t pray—she could wear the sweater and the prayers would surround her anyways, whether or not she could feel them. And Paulsell writes that that was her experience, her transfiguring you could say, encounter with God.

We wish to build dwellings for Jesus sometimes. We want proof that we aren’t all just crazy people, misguided, deluded, and worst of all, wasting our time. I would posit that we all secretly want evidence that this church and God and faith thing is working for us. So let me ask you— how do you know when you feel love? Do you have proof (and no, trust me, a wedding ring is not proof of love)? Or is it sometimes enough to sit in awe of an overcoming feeling of warmth, gratitude, affection, vulnerability, and all those feelings which point to that experience of love? Is it sometimes enough to sit in the presence of others, in the presence of God, even when you don’t believe or feel faith or feel faithful, trusting in the gathered prayers around you, around you and us like that sweater that Paulsell wore, that those moments of clarity will come (and go) but being able to be in that sense of awe that accompanies it?

Our God shows up on the mountain, and in halos, and in trailers that smell like fritos, and in old sweaters and on the cross as a criminal. So, as we enter Lent this week, I invite you to imagine or point to or rest in the knowledge that God will show up for you—just probably not in ways you expect or imagine. AMEN.

Last Published: May 9, 2014 1:58 PM