Transfiguration, Perfectionism, and Practicing the Presence of God

Here’s the sermon I preached yesterday at my sponsoring parish. Please excuse the jump-in start—I began with a brief introduction of myself to new parishioners that’s not needed here. 

Things were intense for our family about this time last year, when I was just beginning at Sewanee with a five week old baby. In case you haven’t heard, new motherhood is not for the faint of heart. Your body is wrecked, you don’t get more than an hour or two of sleep at a time, and you’re doing this incredibly high stakes work with no previous experience. It’s complete bliss, complete terror, and complete exhaustion.

And there we went, heading up the mountain. While everyone at the School of Theology was incredibly kind, I was so spent and frazzled. I didn’t really know what I was doing—neither as a mom nor as a seminarian, bringing my newborn to new student orientation. I had the distinct feeling that my brain got misplaced somewhere in that last month of pregnancy. It seemed that I’d made a tremendous mistake.


So on my first day of class we’d gotten up at 5 to make it there with plenty of time for morning prayer in the Chapel of the Apostles. There are all my new classmates, other new seminarians that are distinctly more bright eyed than I am. I have my son in a sling carrier on my chest, a book of common prayer in one hand and an Anglican chant psalter in the other. Of course, halfway the scripture lessons, Sylvan starts to fuss. I’m not talking about chatting or whining. He was gearing up for the big one. And let me tell you—the only thing louder than a screaming baby in a church are the voices of shame and inadequacy shouting in a new mom’s head.

We swayed in the back row, and I desperately tried to calm and comfort him.

Oh, but then, the organist begins to play that refrain and just like that my tiny son goes calm and bright eyed. We felt the music from the organ and voices ring through our bodies, and the wind of pipes and throats was like the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing away my anxiety fear. There was enough stillness that for a moment, I noticed the way the morning light was coming through walls of windows in the Chapel, noticed the hint of incense and the feel of stone under my feet, notice that maybe my neighbors don’t mind the fuss as much as I think. Maybe we can do this! Maybe there is space for us here!  Maybe I can just show up and be present to God in this space. It was a little revelation of the presence of God, up on the mountain.

This morning we heard the good, good news of Jesus transfigured on another holy mountain, shining the divine glory and affirmed of God’s presence. We see the law and the prophets, represented in Moses and Elijah, all come together in the perfect revelation of God’s heart, Jesus Christ. With the disciples we see the fire and cloud and hear the voice of the Father proclaiming that God is with us in Jesus Christ.

And this divine revelation is seen in the midst of messy, faithful work. In the surrounding stories of Luke, we can read about Jesus’ healing of the little girl and the hemorrhaging woman, taking time for everyone from the social elite to the desperate and destitute. Then he’s sending out the disciples to heal and preach, with that terrifying instruction to go without money, provisions, not even a change of clothes. And after their apprenticeship, the disciples return, the crowds congregate, and we have the feeding of 5,000 people from 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. What exhausting work! Then Jesus is having the toughest conversations with the disciples, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” and telling them that faithfulness will mean carrying a cross.

To see the bigger picture of who God is, we have to take the story of the Transfiguration in its context. To know Jesus as fully God and fully human, we have to see the glory and the struggle, we have to see the toil and valleys on either side of this sacred mountain. If we want to journey on with Christ, we have to remember that even in the middle of the glory, Jesus talks to the prophet and the liberator about the hard road ahead. We have to remember what Peter, in his enthusiasm to put up a shrine, forgot—that the retreat to prayer and glory is only for a moment.

When the organ stops playing, the baby will fuss again.

When the cloud dissipates and the heavenly voice quiets, the disciples have to walk back down the mountain, and they walk toward Jerusalem, where Jesus will be arrested and abused.

It is hard to leave the mountain and show up for the messy, faithful work.

Brene Brown, a professor and researcher of social work, has done incredible work on courage, shame, and vulnerability. In her research, she identified a category of people who seem to be resilient, present, open, honest. A good Episcopalian, Brown calls them the “whole-hearted,” pulling  this concept from our prayer of confession: “We have not loved you with our whole heart,” and turning it on its head to ask what a life of whole-heartedness might look like.

Brene Brown’s research identifies one main thing as a whole-heartedness killer, a shame trigger that will keep us from fully loving God. It’s perfectionism, the desire to get things right, or appear as if we have gotten things right. Perfectionism is wanting not just a change of clothes and a walking stick for our mission, but also maybe some decent hotel reservations, a game plan, and a buddy system, and Siri. Perfectionism is sending the hungry crowd away, because we can’t try the hard new thing if we think we might fail. Perfectionism, God help us, is trying to interrupt the epiphany and put a shrine around it so that we can control what’s happening or document it to show our friends later.

Think about the last really brave thing you did. Think about the last time you prayed, “God help me!” and really put yourself out there. I hate to tell you, and you might already know, that courage and openness usually feels excruciating, exposed, anything but brave. It might feel like showing up in a strange town doing strange things, like preaching and healing, when you don’t know how you’ll be received. Wholehearted may in fact be like stopping on your way, like Jesus did, to say, “Who touched me?” “Who needs help?” when you aren’t sure what will be asked of you. What looks like glory, fire, and Spirit on the outside, might have felt very different to Jesus, who stood in a place of reckoning with the hard choices and suffering that lay ahead of him. If we want to be in a place to experience transfiguration, we have to embrace the difficult daily work and deny our impulse to control. We have to receive the good and maybe uncomfortable news that we don’t have be perfect, just present.

The transfiguration is an important moment, but only one moment in a lot of work, work that took a lot of risks and a lot of guts.

In the revelation of the Transfiguration, and in the ministries surrounding it, Jesus invites the disciples into a moment of pure presence—to God, showing up in the world in all its need and beauty, in the magnificent moments of epiphany, in the interior prayers and the serious conversations, in the hard every day work of dying to the self. To be present to God and to our lives, in both the glory and the work, takes a lot of courage. When asked to be present to our lives, we might be overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, or so busy that we miss the opportunity for miracles. When asked to be present to God, we might fear that glory and intimacy, and like the disciples, try to build a shrine, a box for God.

But God knows we are only dust, God knows we struggle with this. And so Spirit offers invitations to be present, again and again, invitations  to take notice of all kinds of epiphanies taking place all around us. Every invitation is a chance for our faces to blaze with the light of God. Every invitation is a chance to let that blaze of glory light a fire underneath us to go forth into the hard and beautiful work of proclaiming love, feeding the hungry, taking up crosses, and being present to the presence of God.

 So, what is the last brave, hard thing you did? What’s the next brave, hard thing on your horizon? How can you find the glory of God’s presence in the middle of it?

Diffusing Release all day every day.

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