Listen to Him: Waking Up From the Story of Our Life
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark on the Feast of the Transfiguration (transferred), August 11, 2019 by the Very Reverend Tyler Doherty.
When I was a kid with a bunch of brussels sprouts and liver and onions (no joke) left on my plate, I would hesitantly ask in a half-whisper, “Mother, may I please be excused?” It was futile. I already knew what the reply would be. And sure enough it came as predictably as fog in San Francisco—“Finish up what’s on your plate. You are what you eat!” Being a rather difficult child, I would protest, “But I don’t want to be a brussels sprout or chopped liver!” to which my mother retorted, “It’s vitamins, silly! You want to grow up to be big and strong.” And so, with the aid of a tall glass of milk I choked down the remainder of my meal trying to chew as little as possible.
We intuitively understand the age-old parental advice that we are we eat. It makes good sense. On the spiritual level, we can understand this as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about others, and about God. We are storied people. We understand the world according to narratives. And those stories have the power to shape how we see the world, relate to others, and work for freedom, justice and peace. In the age of social media, the power of stories, sound bytes, and memes to shape our reality is undeniable. The stories we imbibe, the narratives that we make our own and live by, have a profound effect on our actions. Spend time in on-line white supremist forums, ingesting racialized rhetoric, and stewing in a swamp of conspiracy theories, and it’s predictable that you’ll see an imminent threat in the face of every person who’s different from you, who is “other.” Garbage in, garbage out.
The Feast of the Transfiguration is a reminder that as Christians we are called to listen to the story that relativizes all other stories, the story that is revealed by the gift of God’s only Son in the person of Jesus. When Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up the mountain to pray and is revealed in his raiment white and shining before their heavy-lidded eyes, a couple of important things are going on. First, notice that Jesus takes the disciples “above the fray” so to speak. By climbing up the mountain they get a little distance from all the other competing voices that clang around in the marketplace, in their heads, and their hearts. Going up the mountain is really a symbol of stepping back from all the usual stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about others, and about God and making a little space for something new, something true, to emerge.
We’ve all got these stories we live by. For lots of people it’s some version of “not enough.” If we are people who internalize things, we tell ourselves that we we’re not rich, enough, smart enough, skinny enough, spiritual enough…. If we are the type who externalizes things we tell us ourselves stories about how the problem is somehow “out there”—we can live according a fond nostalgia for a bygone age that never really existed except in our idealized imaginations and measure everything according to its false light as always falling short, always not like it used to be, always a day late and a dollar short. Whether we internalize or externalize the effect is the same—what’s here, now, is somehow deficient, lacking, and not enough. It’s a place of poverty and lack, driven by the story of deficit either in ourselves or in our environment.
So going up the mountain is a way of saying that we need to identity the stories that run our lives, often unconsciously. In the company of Jesus, often in the context of prayer, we ask that these inhibiting stories might be brought to light, be seen through, for the imprisoning, life-draining lies that they are. As Mark Twain says, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” That’s a humorous way of showing us the power, the thrall, that stories can have over us.
The great aid in developing a little self-knowledge, of learning the stories we live by (and often expect others to live by) is attention. “You will do well to be attentive,” Peter says in our epistle today. So often, we are asleep. Unaware, unconscious of the stories that are running our lives, and we move through life on auto-pilot. This the great challenge of the life of discipleship—to stay awake, to resist falling asleep, to recognize when we are falling into old patterns of thought, stale modes of seeing and being, and to make little room for something else, to make a little room for the light to get in and heal us, transfigure us, make us a little more like Christ. We like our old stories about ourselves, others, and God, not because they bring us happiness, but for the simple reason that they are familiar. We erect little tents, encampments of self-enclosure, and hang out in safe confines of what we already know. Watchfulness—what the Greek fathers call nepsis—is what helps us see these encampments for what they are—ways of insulating ourselves against the bracing, undefended freedom of life in Christ.
Once we gain this little bit of self-knowledge, once we know the stories we live by, there’s little chink in the armor that’s opened up, as if someone has momentarily pressed the pause button on the tape-loops that dominate our thinking, and there’s the opportunity to listen to something new—the new song God is singing at the depths of being in the person of Christ Jesus. That’s the second thing to notice about Jesus taking the disciples up the mountain. When Peter, James, and John see Jesus transfigured, a voice speaks from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” As Christians, we find our true identity and calling in listening to Jesus. In his birth, life, death, and resurrection as revealed in the Gospels, we learn a different story of who we are and who we are called to be. Like Mary, we sit at Jesus’ feet and make our whole body an ear, an open, attentive and receptive tent of meeting where the Word can transform us.
At Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, the same voice speaks from the torn-open heavens—“This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” But this pronouncement is not just about Jesus (though it certainly is that). It is about each and every person, without exception, being loved by God. You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. In you, and you, and you, I am well pleased! You are beloved there is nothing you can do to separate yourself from my love. That is the story, the reality, that the life of Christian discipleship asks us to live from. When we look to Jesus, when we place him first in all things, when we root and ground ourselves in him, we are making God’s transfiguring love for us in Jesus through the Holy Spirit the foundational story of our lives.
That’s what it means for Jesus to have triumphed over the powers and dominions of this world. That’s what it means when Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning.” Those are ways of talking about the power of recognizing our own belovedness, the abundance that is always on offer right here and right now, when we let those old stories fall away. I remember speaking with someone who had grown up in a household where she was told that she was lazy, stupid, ugly… you name it. One day I ran into her and noticed something different about her. “What been going on?” I asked. “Oh, nothing really,” she replied. “`Cause you seem different somehow… lighter,” I ventured. “Did you fall in love? See a therapist? Go on medication? Start exercising or something?” “All of those things actually, but that’s not what’s different. What’s different is that I know that I’m loved, unconditionally. I was drinking a cup of tea, grinding through the same old stories about my crappy life and how I’m a crappy person, when I suddenly saw that it was all made up. I didn’t have to believe that stuff anymore. Suddenly, it was like this great feeling of peace welled up in me, almost from the soles of my feet, and I knew it was true, and I knew I was home.”
The Feast of the Transfiguration is about Jesus’ human and divine nature revealed, to be sure, but it’s also about the transfiguration that happens when belovedness becomes the ground from which live. Peter uses those beautiful images of the lamp shining in a dark place and of the morning star rising in the heart. When those cramped stories of “not enough” are left on the plain, it’s as if a light that has always been shining in our hearts is finally glimpsed through the clouds of our thoughts inherited from parents, teachers, churches, and nation, we see that just as we are, we are loved, we are cherished, we are enough.
And once that reality breaks through the hardpan of our hearts, we suddenly find our voice. It’s a voice that proclaims the belovedness of all of God’s children, that sees fear-mongering and scapegoating for what they are, and works to undo the power of those demonizing narratives in our city, in our nation, and the world. We become the bearers of a story not of exclusion, fear of the other, and scapegoating violence heaped on the backs of innocent victims, but of belovedness and welcome. Love rises like the morning star in our hearts and we find ourselves walking in solidarity with those whose dignity as children of God created in God’s image and likeness has been diminished, or denied. Satan fell like lightning. Jesus’ story has triumphed over every other story. But the question for us is what’s our story? And what kind of fruit is it bearing in our lives? Is it time to listen to Jesus to find out who we really are?