Road Signs

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | February 27, 2022

Luke 9:28-36

Today’s story is about a journey; we might even say it’s about the journey of life. We might find something of our own journey in the story.

On a cold Saturday in January of 1980 I drove my VW Beetle 120 north of St. Paul to the town of McGregor, Minnesota. I went another 12 miles outside of McGregor where in a clearing in the woods stood the Round Lake Presbyterian Church. They were joined with the First Presbyterian Church of Tamarack, a village of 90 people 6 miles further along the road.

They had been without a regular minister for 30 years and wanted to get back into the habit of having one around. I had just turned 26 and was finishing seminary. The only experience I had working in church was as the church custodian.

I saw the sign for the church and turned into the drive at which point my VW Beetle spun around and landed in a snowbank off to the side. I was early.

It was a fitting start to the most intense training I’ve ever undergone – Stuck in a ditch. I could have seen that as a sign – a sign saying, “Road Closed.”

The couple I was to meet soon pulled up. Jack and Ella Burton. We got hold of some shovels and dug the car out. Then we got on with the purpose of my visit. The first look at the manse should have confirmed that this was a no-go area. Ice on the walls and a dead squirrel in the toilet bowl. But we could make it work.

It was like a lot of starting points in life – the first step of the journey has to begin at the beginning. That may sound corny, but with the journeys that really matter there are no shortcuts to the end.

I sometimes wonder if when Jesus said to folks, “Follow me,” he might have added, “We’re going to take the long way around.”

The story is told – “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.”

One day I was walking along in the city center of Glasgow when a guy asked me for directions. He was European – his accent sounded Danish – and he seemed to be around 70 years old. He looked like a tourist – camera bag, the many pocketed vest and map in hand. It’s a common practice over there for people to ask for directions. The streets in those old cities can be a puzzle. I pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his way.

Just across the street I ran into more tourists in need of directions. This encounter was different than the first. There was a man and a woman dressed in a similar tourist fashion as the other tourist. By their accents they sounded American. They were standing in the sidewalk holding a map and close to arguing about some point on the map that it seemed they wanted to get to.

I asked them, “Are you lost?”

To which the man angrily barked, “No!”

What I should have asked was, “Are you in need of directions?” For a certain type of American male, the notion of being lost is entirely unacceptable. Of all the things one might be, one will never admit to being lost. Lost would require asking for directions, perhaps being just a wee bit vulnerable, in need of assistance and by golly no one ever gave me anything, including directions!

The woman immediately said, “We’re trying to get to George Square.”

I pointed them in the right direction and sent them on their way. She thanked me. He said nothing, but the look on his face seemed to imply, “I knew that.”

In the journey of life there’s a sign by the side of the road that reads: There is more to see when you are willing to ask for directions.

“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said.”

This is one of those stories that beg for some sort of explanation – what exactly were they looking at and what did it mean? But some stories are better left unexplained. The best way to know some stories is to “be there.”

I wonder how this story would have played out if the followers of Jesus had been in possession of IPhones and selfie sticks. There’s Peter, James and John smiling into the camera while in the near background is this white-light blazing Jesus talking to two ethereal figures. They could put it on their Facebook pages and tag their friends. The caption might read, “Went for a walk today and look who we ran into!”

Some years ago, while on a trip to Berlin we toured a nearby former concentration camp that had been turned into a holocaust memorial. Sachsenhausen. It was one of the first camps built and served as a model for other death camps. It was used as a training ground for the Nazi SS.

I didn’t bring my camera because I wanted to be in the moment. It was a walking tour, so we walked the same route that prisoners had walked from the train platform and through the town to the gates of the camp.

There were many sights in the camp, things that had been preserved for history, that are just difficult to put into words, because words can hardly contain the measure of what went on there.

We left the camp through the same gate we entered and above the gate in wrought iron letters were the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” “Work Makes One Free.” There were people standing under the sign angling their cameras on selfie sticks for just the right shot.

Their concept of capturing the moment of, “Here I am at a Nazi death camp” was certainly a world away from people once marched through those gates thinking, “Here I am at a Nazi death camp.”

Up on the mountain with Jesus, Peter wanted to capture the moment. His saying that they should build three shelters, one each for Jesus, Elijah and Moses was a way of saying, “Let’s hold onto this for as long as we can.”

It would be nice to be able to go there and plug into that spiritual electricity any time we wanted. Keep the excitement going. Just knowing it was there would be enough sometimes.

If Peter were to have built his three shelters, then over time folks could go back and improve them. They could decorate them and make them bigger. They could build them out of solid materials and put seating areas inside them.

Some people would say, “We go to the Moses place.”

Some people would say, “We go to the Elijah place.”

Some people would say, “We go to the Jesus place.”

In time you could go to the mountain and have your pick from amongst thousands of shelters in homage to the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah discussing what Jesus would accomplish when he soon departed in Jerusalem.

After a while the people in each place would think they had it best, better than the others. And in time there would be differences of opinion within the three places and people would split off and form up new associations – the “True Moses Place,” “People of the Only Elijah Way,” “First United Followers of Jesus.” None would be caught dead setting foot within the other.

“While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

When we look at our lives – where we have been – where we are – and where we might be going, we can imagine the signposts along the way and how they might have warned us, provided guidance, or said something about the meaning of our travels. The friends of Jesus didn’t tell the story of their mountain side experience until long after it happened. Even then they couldn’t explain it. But if there was a lesson, they took from it was to simply listen – remember what it was he was telling them. That would be enough.

In the journey of life there’s a sign by the side of the road that reads: The meaning of some experience is not in how we capture it, contain it, explain it or tell it, but in how we let it be. 


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