Sermons That Work

Living in New York City…, The Transfiguration – 1996

August 06, 1996

Living in New York City, I encounter many crazy things, some even about God. As I was walking down Broadway one day, a truck caught my eyes. It was not the usual fast speed with which it was speeding down the inner city street, nor was it the hugeness of its size. But it was the sign on the side of the truck. The sign read, “G.O.D,” and the acronym stood for Guaranteed Overnight Delivery. It was clever I thought. But I was soon saddened by this commercial usage of religion. Sex and violence have been the main ploy of marketing and sales. Nowadays it is religion and spirituality.

Spirituality is in and it is everywhere. The spirit-talk is today’s biggest fad and the biggest commodity. Time magazine has found out that putting anything that has to do with religion and spirituality on the front cover boosts the sales by thirty per cent. Bookstores are stocked with a plethora of books on spiritual and self-improvement. Many of these books on spirituality attempt to suggest ways to improve ourselves and gain better control of our life situations by tapping in to the unconscious force within or the wisdom embedded deeply within ourselves. The psychic shows on TV are one of the most popular programs. People consult psychics to gain control of the outcome of various aspects of their life such as love relationships and careers. It is the hot topic in the medical and legal fields, and even in the political fields. Weekend workshops on the spiritual aspect of their lives and jobs for the doctors and CEO’s are a growing business. This has crept even into the church as if it is something new. Such interest in spirituality is probably a good thing. But, what is the cost of such spiritual quests in the context of modern consumerism?

Spirituality has become a commodity — something we can buy and own for our own good. The cost is religion and God. In the process of selling and buying religion and spirituality, we trivial and cheapen God. Spirituality is not something we own and keep. Spirituality is a way of life, a life of continuous prayer. A weekend workshop will not endow us with holy power. In fact spirituality is not about gaining power to control ourselves and others. It is not even ultimately about self-improvement and self- empowerment. But it is ultimately about God and his grace alone by which we can enter into union with God. It has nothing to do with whether we are delivered our goods overnight or not. It has nothing to do with how much power we have over our life.

Down the street from the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square is a church of Scientology. Every time I pass by this building, I cannot help feeling uncomfortable. They have successfully made a religion out of self-improvement. It is the modern day Gnosticism.

We are not explicitly told why Peter did not know what he was saying when he suggested the building of the three booths. But the implication is that Peter’s suggestion would trivialize God’s holiness. It is not just in our personal mannerisms that we trivialize God. We may do so often collectively.

One of the major issues facing the Church and society is cultural pluralism. As the global world becomes smaller with the highly developed technology and high influx of immigration, we have to face and deal with different cultural expressions and customs. Religion cannot escape the cultural context in the human realm. In fact the religion needs culture to be experienced and lived out in real human terms, and culture needs religion to be made meaningful. Often this fundamental relationship between religion and culture blinds our vision of God and the Church.

Christianity was historically developed in the European cultural context. As Jesus’ Great Commission has been lived out in its history throughout the world, Christianity is lived out in many different cultural contexts. There are some who react to the European cultural element of Christianity and disregard Christianity as a product of western colonialism throughout the world. There are those Christians of the western culture who see other cultural expressions of Christianity as blasphemous. For Christians not of the western culture this is an important and difficult issue. Indeed this is an urgent issue for all Christians in the world. Christianity has to be rescued from the cultural booths that might trap and trivialize its religion and its God.

Some years ago when I was a choir director of a Korean congregation, I introduced a new hymn composed in a traditional Korean melody. The choir members reacted against it saying that it did not sound like a hymn. Hymns for them had been those melodies of the western musical tradition. This saddened me. If they could not experience and encounter God in their cultural context, but only experience God in the western cultural context, I asked whether they were worshipping God or the western culture. There is a fine, very fine line between religion and culture. But, in order for religion to survive in its orthodox form, that fine line must be pursued after and drawn.

This is a difficult yet extremely important question for the survival of Christianity. Well, I suppose, and we would all, suppose that Christianity will be around for a long time to come. But in what form and manner will it live? If religion is to be lived out in our ritual act of worship, then every aspect of it must be examined and reexamined as temporal and cultural contexts change. Rather than putting away our religion in a confined space of our own limitedness as Peter wants to put it all in the three booths on a mountain top, we are to continue to prayerfully listen to Christ who lives in the midst of us.

God continues to beckon us beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones whether that be a physical space of the church building, a cultural and racial identity, or even our own family. One recent witness to God’s grace working in the midst of us was the way Christians of different ethnic and racial backgrounds have come together to aid the African American churches burned down by bigotry and racism. When our focus of Christian living is God and not our self, it is possible to do the impossible.

But how about in our daily life? How do we rise above and beyond the fine line of the limitations and boundaries of our human cultural context. The Transfiguration of our Lord points to the true way þ the way of discipleship of Christ with listening and discerning mind and heart. This is the life of constant prayer that can lead us by God’s grace to a full union with our Lord.

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Christopher Sikkema