The wonderful and mostly retired gentlemen who assist funeral directors in Northeast Philly are always very respectful to me, but they’re often a little uncertain as to how I should be addressed. “Do I call you ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend?’” one such gentleman inquired of me recently. “What title do you prefer?”
I thought about this for a second and replied, “I think I prefer ‘Monsignor.’”
It took the old fellow a second to realize that I was having him on, and then we both had a chuckle. Now, I wouldn’t want to make too big a deal out of this, but it’s recently occurred to me that there are only three ELCA pastors in the city of Philadelphia who have served in their current calls longer than I’ve served in mine. I am the longest-serving pastor in my parish’s history, and I’m the oldest man in my conference pericope group. I’m actually rather shocked to find myself in the role of elder statesman—mostly because I’m not at all sure I’ve gained any wisdom whatsoever in my time in the pulpit. Yes, I’ve done hundreds of masses, hundreds of funerals, sat at hundreds of sick beds, read tons of religious books, watched kids I’ve baptized grow to young adulthood, and seen fellow clerics come and go. Still, I think I remain spiritually just the same everyone else—patiently among the ranks of the perpetually perplexed.
But, even if God never speaks to me in a whirlwind or a burning bush, I’m glad I’ve put the time in. I find in the First Lesson for Transfiguration, Year A (Exodus 24:12-18) there’s value in being a guy who is willing to wait. Dear Moses goes up the mountain to find God, but God takes his sweet time with Moses. Forty days and forty nights the old boy has to wait before he can come down and get back to the job of leading the children of Israel. Fortunately, he’s arranged for some good coverage while he’s away (v. 14), but taking off for over a month might’ve seemed a bit excessive to the folks left behind. While God spends the next six chapters of Exodus giving Moses an excruciatingly detailed lesson in liturgics, the gang down at the foot of the mountain starts to panic.
The children of Israel don’t seem to have much patience. They don’t get that building relationships—be they with each other or with Almighty God—will be time-consuming. Nope. Moses doesn’t come back in time to suit their short attention spans, so they go and start worshiping a Golden Calf[i]. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
God, of course, is not real happy with this turn of events, and it’s just one more reason why the Lord teaches this bunch patience by having them wait another forty years before they can reclaim the land promised to their ancestor, Abraham.[ii]
I think it speaks well for Moses that he’s willing to put the time in up on that mountain. He really wants to get to know what God wants of him. He’s different from Peter in the gospel lesson (Matthew 17:1-9). Pete’s an impulsive dude. He gets a little glimpse of the glory of God, and he starts shooting his mouth off. God has to tell him to shut up and listen. Moses is willing to be quiet, listen, and be taught by God. When he gets what God wants, it’s written in stone.
I don’t think we ever learn anything instantly. We have to put time in and learn slowly in order to have anything that looks like mastery. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do—hit a baseball, shoot a free-throw, write a novel, repair a carburetor, replace a heart valve, or fall meaningfully in love. It all takes time. So does learning to be a Christian.
If you’re reading this, I’m probably preaching to the already converted. But maybe not. If you’ve come seeking a transfiguration experience of God’s glory and promise, you may just have to wait a while. We’re on God’s time, not our own. The best we can do is be patient, faithful, and disciplined. That’s kind of what Lent is about: a return to discipline.
When young folks tell me they’re “spiritual but not religious,” I always ask them what their spiritual disciplines are. They generally look at me as if I were speaking Mandarin. But faith and understanding come with practice. Scripture takes on new and deeper meaning the more we expose ourselves to it. Prayer gets richer the more we pray. Generosity gets easier once we realize how generous God is. Worship is more of a blessing when praise of God becomes part of who we are. The “C & E” faith will certainly get you to heaven, but it may be a very dry and unsatisfying wilderness in this world.
Put the time in. It’s worth it.
[i] I always figured that the Golden Calf was a symbol for money in the bank. After all, nomadic folk looked on livestock as a sign of wealth. If you’ve spent any amount of time around bovines, you’d be hard pressed to find anything else majestic or god-like in their personalities.
[ii] 40 is a real big number in the Bible in case you’ve noticed. In Hebrew numerology, 4 is the number of earthly completeness. If you intensify it by adding a zero, it means you’re more than complete. If you’re wandering in the wilderness 40 years, you’ve certainly been there long enough to get your act together. Possibly, you’ve been there long enough for all the whiners and weenies to die off and pass the leadership to young people accustomed to rugged living.