Saturday, March 12, 2011

What Does It Mean to Be Transfigured?

Sermon preached at St. Stephen's Church on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Matthew 17:1-9

I put myself in grave danger a couple weeks ago. I said “yes,” when the Bishop asked if he could appoint me to be the Dean of the Rochester District.

I’ll be perfectly honest. I have wanted to be a Dean or a Canon for some time now. Why? Well, it’s mostly about wanting to be recognized for doing a good job. I’m a little needy in that regard, something I don’t mind confessing because I know I am not alone. It’s not a character defect, or, if it is, it’s a very common one.

But it is spiritually very dangerous. Clergy live with this danger all the time because of the title we get (which is a little ridiculous, if you think about—calling a fallible human being “reverend?”) and the way people tend to treat us with deference and the things people trust us with and the clothes we get to wear, etc. etc. It’s all dangerous.

It’s all dangerous because we can easily begin to think that all those things are us, or at least the most important thing about us. We can easily slip into believing that we somehow deserve this special treatment. In my more rational moments I call it living with the “Success Monster.” As I said, “Yes,” to the Bishop a couple weeks ago, I knew I was staring the “Success Monster” in the face.

So what did it mean for Jesus to be transfigured? Wasn’t this a kind of reward? Wasn’t the message, “Job well done Son. You’re a chip off the old block!” After all, he says, “With him I am well pleased.” But of course, if you’ll remember the story with which we began these Sundays after the Epiphany, he said that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry too, at his baptism. So I don’t think this was about any kind of success.

An aside: I don’t believe that God doesn’t want us to be successful or isn’t pleased with us when we do a good job. And I think it’s perfectly fine to be happy with our accomplishments and even to need some recognition for them. All of that is fine. It’s just also dangerous, and we forget that at our peril.

So what was happening on the mountain? What does it mean to be transfigured? I think it means simply to be loved and to have no doubts about that whatsoever. “This is my…Beloved.” Jesus needed to hear that not so much as a reward for what he had done as strength for what he had to do. That love was about to be tested to its very core. Jesus will cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And in that moment, he got no answer. There was no voice from a cloud. He had to go through what he had to go through.

But, we know, of course, that the love won out in the end. The love refused to stay dead.

The good news is that this story is not just about God and his Son, and it was never intended to be. Jesus bore in his body all of us, and we should all hear as if spoken to us, “You are my daughter, you are my son, the beloved.”

And the challenge for us is this: can we live as if that were the only thing that really mattered?

It’s really, really difficult. It’s why we have Lent every year, by the way. Lent is not about groveling in our sin and guilt and basically feeling bad about ourselves for forty days a year. Lent is about taking the time once a year to strip away the stuff that keeps us from believing that we are loved by God unconditionally. Because over time that stuff accumulates like layers of old paint and it gets between us and God and we’ve got to get rid of it, with God’s help.

That isn’t all fun. It’s often hard and it’s sometimes painful. It’s why we begin Lent with Ash Wednesday and do the hardest thing first: admit that we’re going to die. I am not going to live on this earth for ever. Strip, there goes one of the layers.

Lent is always a trial for me because I love surrounding myself with things that make me feel good. Again, that’s not necessarily bad, just dangerous. It’s OK to have them, but the attachment—the need to have them—has to go. On Friday when I left the office, I checked in with Nancy, our secretary. She smiled broadly and announced that she had found everywhere she possibly could and added the word “Very” to my title. “The Very Reverend…” I said thank you and turned to go with a warm feeling. But then I felt the Success Monster put his hand on my shoulder, and I knew I have some work to do during Lent.

We read the story of the Transfiguration every year just before we begin Lent, I think, to help us be clear about what the task is ahead of us: to be, in fact, transfigured ourselves, changed by the love that is given to us just because we are.

Let me end with some words from the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, the Dean of the Chapel at Harvard University who died this week, one of the country’s best preachers, African-American and gay. I’ve played with his words a bit, so it is not an exact quote.

To be transfigured is to recognize here and now that God’s love for me is not about what I have, or what I give away or in what I do. To be successful is not to be transfigured. To be transfigured is to be in relationship with God. To be transfigured is to know that I do not belong to myself, or to my work, or to my vocation, or to my ambition. I belong to God. I do not belong to my talent, or to my skill, or to my identity in the world. I belong to God, and, therefore, I am never alone. I am not isolated; I am not on my own. To be transfigured is to be in relationship with God, which the world does not give me and therefore cannot take away, no matter what adversities or trials I go through. To be transfigured is to believe above all other things that I am eternally God’s beloved.[1]

I pray that by the time we celebrate Easter we are a little, or even a lot, more transfigured, and, therefore, ready for the good news of resurrection.

[1] From the sermon “When Too Much is Not Enough,” Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (Morrow, 1998), p. 67.

No comments: