It’s not quite the same as Peter, James, and John’s experience with Jesus at the Transfiguration, but we have been having a bit of a mountaintop experience here at FCUCC the past couple of weeks. In our excitement, not knowing what to say, we, like Peter, might have blurted out some odd things. (Note to self, “Come and get your stuff,” is probably not the most respectful way to invite people to the communion table. J) Though not the same kind of mountaintop experience, there might yet be something for us to learn from the Transfiguration.
The story begins with Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up a mountain. While they’re there, two figures appear with Jesus—Moses and Elijah. All three seem to glow. The point of the story—which we know after 2,000 years of reflecting on it—is that Jesus is continuing the work of the law and the prophets. Basically, God says, I spoke through Moses, I spoke through Elijah, now I’m speaking through Jesus. Listen to him!
Not having the benefit of 2,000 years of reflection, Peter babbles. “Let’s build three dwellings!” They don’t. Instead, they come back down the mountain…where a crowd is waiting.
A father has brought his ailing child to Jesus’ disciples and asked for healing. The disciples can’t do it. A debate ensues. When Jesus shows up, they want his opinion. Do you want to hear what Jesus says to the eager crowd?
Here goes. “What an unbelieving lot you are! How long must I remain with you? How long can I endure you?” Maybe Jesus needed to stay on retreat another day or two. Jesus eventually heals the child, but man! Doesn’t he seem a bit grumpy to you?
This last bit isn’t included in today’s reading. Without the scene down below, though, I’m not sure we get a complete picture of what happens up above. If mountaintop experiences are disconnected from what goes on down from the mountain, what’s the point?
Last summer, in a video interview with the search committee, someone asked: “What do you know about Asheville?” At the time, I didn’t know much. Allen and I had vacationed here once. It was in the mountains. That was about it.
As we talked, I learned that tourist Asheville and everyday Asheville can be quite different. The Asheville people experience on vacation doesn’t necessarily square with the experience of people who live here all the time.
The question intrigued me enough that I drove to Asheville the next day to see things for myself. Here’s what I wrote the search committee after that trip.
After our conversation Monday night, I decided to drive to Asheville and see FCUCC in its context. Driving, then walking around gave me some ideas about how to answer the “How will the church survive?” question.
Monday night, I answered in “be the church” terms—institutional church might be in transition right now, but the message of the Gospel has not changed—God’s love extends to every person and to all creation. The key task of Jesus’ followers is to act the world into wellbeing in his name. How individual churches act the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name depends on their context. That’s why I took the field trip—to see FCUCC in its context and begin to imagine how it might move into the future in healthy and sustainable ways.
I love the downtown area. I’m also intrigued by the buildings surrounding FCUCC. Health and Human Services, Buncombe County court buildings, Juvenile Justice, the YMCA. What does FCUCC’s location in the midst of those buildings mean in terms of its mission? Most buildings, except First Baptist and FCUCC, seem new. A sign of gentrification?
I saw other signs of gentrification. A vibrant downtown, small shops and restaurants. I also saw some guys, who I assume are without permanent housing, hanging out in Thomas Wolfe Park. The widening gap between haves and have-nots became a little clearer. It makes sense that with all the new construction, lower-income populations are being pushed out of the city.
So, how might a church be church in that context? After being in the city for less than an hour, I’m not sure of the specifics, but here’s the line that came to me yesterday on my walk—become indispensable to the Asheville community. Become an even better neighbor… you’re already a good neighbor. J You’ve got a great start with the way you invite community groups in to share space with you. I am eager to hear more about how the congregation interfaces with those groups. Room in the Inn also is a vital ministry. The church I currently serve has become more vibrant since starting to host families without permanent housing. It has deepened significantly our understanding of hospitality as a spiritual practice.
In what other ways might FCUCC become a place for the larger Asheville community to gather? Might the church become a regular venue for music events? Or maybe author events? Social justice issues are important. Vital. I suspect, though, that social justice initiatives will get more traction and buy-in from the wider community if they see, not “that church” doing things, but “my friends, Kelly, Jim, and Phillip” doing those things. Does that make sense?
Building on your initiatives in the community—feeding the homeless breakfast, giving gifts to high school students—will be another way to strengthen relationships in the community.
Hear me well. Actively engaging in social justice is crucial. Part of my desire to seek another church is to be in a place where I feel more freedom to preach directly to injustices in our country and around the world. I am suggesting that building relationships with those whose minds we seek to change paves the way for actual change to happen much more quickly.
Another thing I’m looking for in moving to another church, is a place smaller than the 18-county metro Atlanta area. Metro Atlanta is simply too big to have any real sense of community. While tourism might disrupt it some, my sense is that Asheville is small enough to have that strong sense of community.
A couple of weeks ago, an image of church-life came to me: the church as lung. The image came from reading the first four chapters of the book of Acts. The book begins with the disciples gathered to see Jesus off. After Jesus leaves the scene for good, the disciples disperse. At Pentecost, they come back togethe, then gather into community (Acts 2). Ch. 3 describes a foray by Peter and John into the wider community. As they enter the Temple, a man lame from birth asks for alms. Peter heals the man…which annoys the religious authorities. So, Peter preaches to them. After that, Peter and John return to the community (the end of ch.4).
Reading all 4 chapters together, I began to see a pattern—together in community (koinonia)-out into the wider community-koinonia community-wider community. It began to feel like breathing. Breathing in God’s love and renewal within the koinonia community—breathing out God’s love in healing and preaching and calling the powers that be to account.
Just as a body requires both inspiration and expiration to live, so does the body of Christ need to breathe in God’s love in worship, and breathe out God’s love in service, including justice work. A body can’t only breathe in and survive; neither can it only breathe out and survive. The healthiest bodies breathe in and breathe out in a regular rhythm. Come to think of it, without that regular pattern of inhaling and exhaling, a body dies, doesn’t it?
So…how might FCUCC stay alive? It can stay alive by continuing to breathe in God’s love-breathe out God’s love-breathe in God’s love-breathe out God’s love. If Spirit leads us to continue our journey together, I look forward to exploring that question further.
In order to remain vibrant, in order to continue acting the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name with passion and effectiveness, it’s important to nurture the connection between what happens on the mountaintops and what happens down below, what happens here in worship and what happens outside those pretty red doors. Mountaintop experiences without any connection to the real lives of real people is narcissism. By the same token, working to improve the real lives of real people without experiences of the holy is a sure path to burn out.
Having lived in relatively flat places all my life, I’ve had a limited understanding of mountaintop experiences. Mountaintop experiences have always been what happens when you go far away in search of awe-inspiring experiences. Coming down from the mountain always means re-entering the realm of the mundane. What happens on mountaintops seems beautiful and rare. What happens down the mountain seems blah.
Having lived in Asheville for nearly two whole weeks now, I’m realizing the distance between mountaintop and down below is much shorter than I thought–both literally AND figuratively. Here, we see mountaintops all the time. In less than a minute from our house, I can be on the Parkway. Some of us in this room live on the mountaintops. There are others who live in the mountains, but for whom life is anything but a mountaintop experience.
So maybe our location here in Asheville gives us a unique way to understand the Transfiguration…and what happens afterward. Mountaintop and real-life experiences are much more integrated than we know. We breathe in God’s love, we breathe out God’s love. We come to this place to be acted into wellbeing; we leave this place to act the world into wellbeing.
If we give ourselves over to this rhythm of breathing in God’s love, breathing out God’s love, allowing ourselves to be acted into wellbeing, and leaving this place to act the world into wellbeing, if we hold in our centers the connection between mountaintops and life down below, I suspect, perhaps sooner than we think, we, too, will be transfigured.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017