Experience, experience, experience! This is what is written all over in a human being’s life from the very first moment they set their foot on the planet for their first experience is of breathing oxygen through their own lungs, and they cry - new environment, and new experiences. We all did and for some of us it has been a familiar experience ever since, which from time to time we revisit and has become a routine. Since today is International Day here at St. James, I will tell you about my experience visiting the United States of America for the first time in person in August of 2013, August 23, to be particular. Having started from Zimbabwe, Africa, on the 22nd of August and connected via France, I was picked up from the airport punch drunk from jet lag as my body was supposed to be sleeping at that particular time. Greetings were done, and I was told to get in the car as my bags were being loaded, I found myself face-to-face with the steering wheel. Wait Monte, I said to myself, we cannot be driving in this state, to which my welcomer shouted, “Do you want to drive now?” I have been a driver for the past ten years now, and going to the passenger’s side is a learned experience, but the steering wheel was just at the wrong side! Welcome to America, Pastor Monte – STRIKE NUMBER 1.
Then I decided to joke about it, in my British English mixed with my native Shona accent, “Oh, obvious, I do not have the car keys!” To which I got the response, “You cannot be saying that sir, you are putting them on!” Obviously, my welcomer had heard “khakis” and was referring to the khaki cargo pants that I was wearing instead of the “carrrrrrrrrr keys” that go into the ignition to start the carrrrrr! You have to drag your r’s Pastor Monte to be heard in this part of the world – STRIKE NUMBER 2 – LANGUAGE. This was to form part of my welcome experience to America, huge cars, huge buildings, and a different way of speaking. Take the instance I went into the cafeteria, and there were young people seating behind me having a conversation. All I could hear was, “Like, like, like, like, like!” Never in my life had I listened to a sentence with five “likes” at one go. “I was like walking in, and I like saw this guy and he was like staggering, and I was like dude, you are like so drunk!” Of course, I had to turn around to see if a trick was not being played on me by playing a recorded statement that kept repeating itself. You never can stop getting these experiences, can you? When I went shopping for food, I needed about 4kilogrammes of meat packaged in smaller packets and the shop did not have the familiar KGs and even the smaller denomination of grams, but it had LBS and OZ for pounds and ounces. And when I wanted to pay I asked for the nearest till, and I was told, “No Sir it is a check-out counter!” I love America!
I will monumentalize my times in writing my memoirs about it so that those who come after me will know of my experiences, just like what you folks did with the Statue of Liberty in Upper New York on Liberty Island. There are eleven symbols each standing for something that reminds you of “Liberty Enlightening the World.” I will just mention the eleven in passing and not talk about them. These are The Torch, The Crown, The Tablet, The Writing on the Tablet, The 25 Windows of the Crown, The Shape of The Tablet, The Sandals, The Robe, The Broken Chains, The Shields, and The Granite Brick. American founding fathers built it as a reminder for what America stands for. And my second three words in succession will be Monuments, monuments, monuments.
Well by now, some are wondering at what I am angling at; so let me go to today’s gospel on the transfiguration. I want to draw your focus on the not do very often visited words of Peter; “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Friends, do you now see it all now making sense. Peter is like any one of us in here today. What was his default reaction upon such an amazing experience? Monument 1 for Jesus, Monument 2 for Moses, Monument 3 for Elijah. Monument, monument, monument. I guess my rhetorical question is, “Is that not how we behave at high moments in life, turning them into monuments?
What was happening here was beyond what beheld the eye. To the children of Israel, to whom Peter, James, and John belonged, Moses represented all the law, the Torah, Elijah represented all the prophets, and for them their ways of life was hung on the Law and the Prophets. The Bible records that at one time, a Pharisee lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). On these two commandments hangs all the law and the prophets – this was the defining moment being enacted before Peter, James, and John. Mark 9:2-13, and Luke 9:28-36 has what Jesus, Moses and Elijah spoke about, but that is not what we are focusing on today, today we are focusing at the defining moment which defines our belief as Christians, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). It was such a defining moment and Peter’s reaction, having this experience, as a normal human being as you and me, was to monumentalize the moment.
What am I driving at, one may ask. Let me give you a personal example of what happened to me when I was searching for a place to worship in Cambridge.
I went to many other churches that I will not mention by name, then I came to St. James, this very same place that I am preaching in today and I heard:
Listen now for the Gospel, Alleluia!
It is God’s Word that changes us! Alleluia!
Come Holy Spirit, melt and break our hearts of stone
Until we give our lives to God and God alone
Listen now for the Gospel, Alleluia!
It is God’s Word that changes us! Alleluia!
And there is this melody that Pat Michael makes with it that I could not place. Just listen to it – Pat. I could not place it until I stumbled upon the song in St. James Sings, Song number 7 and then I realized - it is the song that I have danced to over a dozen times back home, and we sing it thus:
Ngariende (Spread the Gospel) x 4
Kuti ngariende (Since I told you to spread the Gospel) x 4
Ooooh, alleluia hosanna, praise be to God – monument building times Pastor Monte! One for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. It was the music for me, but it could be in your baptism that was performed here at that beautiful font, or your wedding ceremony that was performed in this sanctuary, or it could be the Holy Eucharist that you receive every Sunday here at St. James. It could be any of the Christian feasts that we have, like the Christian high of Easter that has 40 days of Lent. God, I love God’s church; all these Christian highs give us adrenaline rushes that makes us say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Now, what is wrong with that, one might ask. I will give the story of what happened back home in Africa. One Sunday the priest’s wife came with a lorry full of household goods whilst he was preaching in the pulpit. She then entered movie style in the church whilst carrying two huge suitcases with one kid on her back and the other by her side. “What is the meaning of this?!” the preaching husband demanded. The wife addressed the congregation and said, “Well since he is a loving person here at church and treats people much better that he does at home, we have decided to relocate to the church premises here!” The priest had built his monument at the church. As for Peter, James and John, the issue was not to build a monument on the mountain and stay there, but the real need was in the valley. When you continue reading the story, you will notice something.
When they came down to the valley, a need immediately met with them. In the valley, that is where you will meet with the need. There was a demon-possessed boy who needed deliverance. Jesus’s disciples could not deal with this need; the focus was on the high monument time on the mountain. Friends just as just two of the symbols of the Statue of Liberty stand, the:
Tablet: The Statue holds a tablet in her left hand. It is a book of law based on the founding principles of this nation, a nation based on law.
Broken Chains: Located at the Statue's feet symbolize the freedom that Lady Liberty has. It demonstrates that the Statue is free from slavery and bondage.
Friends, the United States of America will not be the United States of America if these only remained as monuments on the Statue of Liberty. You do not enact these things and Americans would scream until they are done.
What bothers me as a preacher is that, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” remains a monument to which we visit on Sundays especially. In our day-to-day lives, we operate in other modes until we revisit the monument on Sunday.
And thanks to Rev. Holly of late she spent a month reminding us of our baptismal highs, and every Sunday we come in for the high of the Eucharist and we monumentalize these. Friends, it is not about monumentalizing but going ahead and listening to what the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” St. Peter in reproducing this moment in the Epistle’s reading for today highlights, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased,” words which endorsed Christ right there in their face. If they thought that the same words were a fluke at Jesus’s baptism, God repeated them for the second time, and there was no excuse from that time onwards not to talk, walk, and live the Christian life.
Some have said to me, well in Africa you can publicly shout, walk, and live your faith, here in the United States you cannot. Friends, Romans 12:9-21 has given me about 20 ways of Christian living that you can adopt without monumentalizing your Christianity to Sundays only. They can never charge you outside of this building for 1. sincerity, 2. for goodness, 3. for brotherly and sisterly love, 4. for honor and respect, 5. for never giving up, 6. for eagerly following the Spirit, 7. for serving the Lord, 8. for hope and gladness, 9. for patience, 10. for a prayerful life, 11. for charity, 12. for hospitality, 13. for loving your enemy, 14. for rejoicing in others’ happiness, 15. for friendliness, 16. for humility, 17. for not taking revenge and 18. for having respect for another human being, 19. for being peace, and 20. for defeating evil with good.
The Son, whom we are supposed to listen to, said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” that for me is your own transfiguration in your day-to-day, not monumentalizing your Christianity. Experience, experience, experience can lead to monument, monument, monument! However, the choice is yours. And today I have come with a word of faith in action, not faith in monument as you love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and as you love your neighbor as yourself, ACTION, ACTION, ACTION.
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.