by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Probably for the last year, I’ve slowly been reading a book by public theologian Rob Bell entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
Among many other helpful insights, he illustrates in the book how we as people of faith came to create religion, in particular the Christian religion on the heels of the Jewish religion. Please understand, he describes the creation of religion, not God. He describes the slow progression of designating some places, some objects, some people as sacred, set apart from the mundane and ordinary. By designating some places, some objects, and some people as sacred, everything not sacred was deemed secular, mundane, ordinary. In ancient Judaism, only certain people could enter certain sacred places while secular places could welcome all. From the perspective of ancient Judaism, while all humanity and all creation were inherently valuable, sacred spaces contained a different quality than secular spaces. One such sacred space was the mountaintop.
In today’s gospel, Jesus climbs to the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John. There, Jesus is altered, his clothes dazzling. Moses and Elijah, prophets long dead, appear in glory and speak with Jesus about his departure, we assume his death. A cloud overshadows them, and a voice, presumably God, declares: This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him! Apparently awestruck and reveling in glory, Peter makes a plan. “Master,” he says, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter doesn’t want to leave! He’s making plans to stay in the glory of the moment, in that sacred place, for the foreseeable future. Understandably. When you have something good going, you want to hold onto it. Of course.
What happens next? Does Jesus say: Well done, Peter! Good idea! Let’s stay here on the mountain. No. Jesus doesn’t say anything, at least that we can glean from the text. They just slink off down the mountain into a crowd of people, one of them a father who needs healing for his son. Peter, James, and John follow Jesus from this sacred place—the mountain—to the mundane, the secular, to get on with the dailyness of ministry.
As a teenager each year of junior high and high school, I participated in a music festival at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Choirs from all over the state attended, and at the end of the day, we would perform a concert in the chapel. A beautiful and austere space, full of light and concrete, stained glass and vaulted ceilings, the chapel space seemed alive with the presence of God. Each year, we concluded the concert with a choral piece entitled “Gathered in God’s Presence,” sung in full voice by hundreds of teenagers and accompanied by a massive organ, the most appropriate of all texts for what I felt in that space. A sacred space where we sang sacred music.
What are the sacred spaces in your life? Where do you most keenly sense the presence of God? Where are you when you feel most acutely that God is working through you? Perhaps here at Grace. Perhaps the camp where we share in prayer retreat each year or the churches who have hosted us for mission trips. Perhaps a mountain on which you hike or your garden or a city park you love. Perhaps your sacred space is a beach or a cabin where you vacation. Regardless of where that space lies, you know the presence of God there. When you’re in that space, you feel at peace, joyful, alive. In this space, you are confident of God at work in you and through you.
The mountaintop was just such a sacred space for Peter, James, and John. There, they knew the presence of God in Jesus in the most vivid way one could this side of the resurrection. But when they left the mountaintop, when they traveled down the mountain and plunged back into the mundane ministry of Jesus, God was still present. In fact, while the transfiguration knocked the socks off the disciples, the healing of the boy that followed the transfiguration revealed God’s glory in an intensely personal and deeply felt way by the boy, his father, and their whole family.
The same is true for us. Regardless of where we are, God is present with us, at work among us. In that way, every space is sacred. On this, Rob Bell and our reformer Martin Luther agree. While Bell writes that “everything is sacred,” Luther writes “What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God. We should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position and work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow.” Whether you are in the sacred space of church or in the sacred space of your office, Sprouts, the library, your school, your car, or your home, God is present and at work. Everything is sacred.
And because everything is sacred, we cannot enter a space where what we say and do doesn’t matter. As a pastor’s kid growing up, I regularly witnessed my peers deem me and my family, the church and all things church related as sacred. My classmates wouldn’t swear around me, wouldn’t engage in questionable behavior in front of me. We’d walk into church, and suddenly, they would neither yell nor run. At the conclusion of confirmation class or Sunday morning worship, however, all bets were off, and my classmates would bolt through the doors of the church now returned to their typical teenage selves. And of course, we are all familiar with this dynamic. We expect something different of ourselves and others when we’re at church, things we don’t expect at our homes, at parties, in college dorm rooms, in our various workplaces. As if God were only present in some places and not others. As if we were called to God’s work only at some times and not others. Everything is sacred.
If you yearn to see God at work in your life, if you yearn to know God’s presence as vividly as Peter, James, and John felt it as the transfiguration, I don’t think you need to quit your day job and spend all your time at church—as much as I would love to see all your smiling faces at Grace all week. That we designate some spaces as sacred and others not may be the action that blinds us. When we open up the field of our vision and get ready to see all that God is doing before us, then, we see that, everywhere we go, we are in God’s presence. Every conversation, every space, every person. Everything and everyone matters. Everything is sacred.