The Truth of Blinking
February 17, 2008
It is a scientific fact that the average person blinks twenty five times every minute. It is also scientifically verifiable that the average blink lasts one fifth of a second. What this means is that if you were to take a ten-hour automobile trip, driving at fifty miles per hour, you would drive fifty miles of that trip with your eyes closed. (Now aren’t you glad you came today? Where else can you get this kind of information?) But hidden in that scientific statistic is an important truth about life. In life we see certain things very clearly, but there are also other things, which we do not see, things to which our eyes are shut. And much like the experience of blinking, we are largely unaware of the things we do not see, of the things to which are eyes are closed.
Now this is what makes the transfiguration in today’s gospel so important for the disciples. They thought they knew Jesus. They walked with him. They ate with him. They saw him heal. They heard him preach. Yet they were largely unaware of how much of Jesus they did not see. In the transfiguration, they receive a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, a flash of his brilliance which normally they did not see. In the transfiguration, they were confronted with the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection which they had not begun to anticipate. The transfiguration told the disciples that Jesus was more than they had ever imagined, that as much as they knew about him, there was even more that they did not know.
This experience of the transfiguration provides us with a model of discipleship. In our our lives, we must claim the things that we can see, the things that are visible. But at the same time, we must remember that there are many things that we do not see. The model for discipleship is then a combination of wisdom and humility: of wisdom to know what is visible, of humility to remember that there is even more that we do not understand.
Parents need this model. They are charged to share what they see, their wisdom, with their children. They are charged to warn their children about what they feel is harmful and to guide them to the decisions which they see as the best decisions. But even as they exercise that wisdom for the sake of their children, parents must remember that there is a part of every child which they do not see, a part that is only now emerging. Parents must respect that part which they cannot see. It is the only way in which their children will grow to be the persons God wants them to be.
You and I must use this model of discipleship every time we interact with people who are different than us, people of a different race, nationality, or sexual orientation. There are things about all of all people which we can clearly see. But we must also remember that there are parts of every person which we do not see. It is only by humbly remembering what we do not see that we can enter into honest dialogue and deeper understanding.
We must be attentive to this model as we deal with people of different faith traditions. As Christians, we proudly claim that Jesus is the way to salvation. Even as we assert that truth, we must at the same time, realize that God is working in the lives of other people in ways which we cannot see. God is active in the lives of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Their way to God is something we cannot understand because it is not our way. Yet we must respect their witness of faith.
This model of discipleship lastly is crucial as we deal with the reality of evil in our lives. As followers of Christ, we believe that all good gifts come from God. So whenever we are blessed in any way, we rightly claim that this is a sign of God caring and loving us. But when we experience evil in our life, we must humbly admit that we do not understand its presence. We cannot explain why the innocent suffer, why millions of people die from disease and natural disasters. We do not understand, we cannot see the reason or the meaning of evil. It is better to claim that we do not see, than to adopt explanations that warp the goodness and love of God for us.
A disciple of Jesus is called to follow him in wisdom and in humility: in the wisdom which claims the truth we can see, in the humility which admits that there are other truths that we cannot see. Both wisdom and humility are necessary. Not to claim the truth which we can see is foolish. Not to admit that there is the truth which we cannot see is bigotry. The follower of Christ strives to be neither a fool nor a bigot. We try to be both wise and humble. We remember that we blink. With God’s help we can trust that in time we will come to see the light to which now our eyes are closed.
The Command to Remember
March 20, 2011
The most important line in today’s gospel is the last line, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Now, usually when we consider this verse, we puzzle over the first part. Why did Jesus tell the disciples to remain quiet and not tell the vision to anyone? But it is really the second part of the verse that is most significant. Because the second part of the verse implies that the disciples should remember the vision.
What this second half of the verse tells us is that Jesus wants the disciples to remember what happened to them on the mountain, because a time will come later in their lives when that vision will be useful, perhaps even necessary. The disciples’ experience on the mountain was a special one, a life-changing one. They quaked; they rejoiced; they saw things differently. They saw Jesus and their own lives in a new way. Jesus charges them to remember that vision because later on it will be important. It must be proclaimed.
Now, everyone of us has mountaintop experiences in our life. A time when everything changes, a time when we see life in a new way, when we are swept off our feet. It might be the first time that we met our future spouse and realized that he or she was the “one”. It might be the moment when we recognized what we wanted to do in life, what our vocation would be, when we were called to build, to design, to teach, to heal, to sell, to organize the world around us. It might be the first time that we held a newly born son or daughter in our arms and realized both, with joy and with fear, that life would never again be the same.
Jesus charges us to remember those transforming moments, those mountaintop experiences, because they have the power to help us live. But in what sense do they do this? In what sense do these transfiguration moments guide us and direct us? When we remember a transformative moment later in our life, it has the power to revive us. It revives us by recalling for us our initial enthusiasm and excitement and challenges us to use that enthusiasm and excitement as a way to break the routine of boredom and ingratitude.
For example, we can remember the initial thrill of falling in love or beginning a life-long friendship. For some of us that’s looking back over twenty, forty, fifty years, and much has changed in that time. The relationship in which we are now standing may have taken on the attitude of ordinary routine. Conversations might become limited only to the daily transfer of information. We might stand in the other’s presence and see that presence as expected and barely appreciate it. We need to remember the original transfiguring moment: the time when laughter came easily, when conversations could go on for hours, when we would fight for even a few moments to be in the other’s presence. Recalling that life-changing time gives us the power to re-introduce excitement and passion into our relationships.
We might recall the moment when we decided how we were going to spend our lives: what we were going to do, how we could make a difference by teaching or healing. We need to remember the excitement of that time to realize that our present work is more than just earning a paycheck, that there are possibilities even now that can change others for the better. Remembering that initial moment revives the work that we do and the time that we spend.
Jesus calls us to remember those moments that changed our lives because we need them now. In remembering them, we recognize them as God’s gift—a gift that we can use as we live today to live our own lives more deeply and with abiding gratitude.
Learning from Peter
March 16, 2014
The apostle Peter is one of the most vivid characters in the New Testament— bold, decisive, outspoken, and often wrong. At key points of the gospel narrative, Peter is the first one to speak, the first one to act, and the first one to be corrected. At Caesarea Philippi he advises Jesus to avoid the cross, and therefore receives the rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan.” At the Last Supper, he boasts that he is ready to die with Jesus, only to hear Jesus say that Peter will deny him three times at cockcrow. And in today’s gospel, as Jesus is transfigured before the disciples, Peter again steps forward with a plan. He wants to set up tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, so that they can remain in the glory on the mountain. But the text tells us that while he is still speaking, his words are drowned out by the voice of God that thunders from a cloud.
Peter routinely chooses the wrong response. But his errors are recorded in the gospels not to diminish him but to instruct us. We are meant to learn from Peter’s mistakes. What are we to learn today in this gospel of the Transfiguration? This gospel would have us understand that awe must precede action. When Jesus is transfigured, Peter is ready to take charge. He steps forward and begins to speak even as he looks around for tent material. But Peter’s plan is premature. It is a half-baked idea without a foundation, and that is why the voice of God cuts him off to proclaim, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Before we act, we must listen. Before we begin to execute our plan, we must take in the glory of God. The Transfiguration reminds us that God’s glory and power abide deep within our lives and that God’s presence is available to us if we look below the surface of our experience. The fumblings of Peter are meant to warn us that before we take charge, we need to embrace God’s glory.
All of us must make decisions in life and set goals for ourselves. What career do I want to follow? What kind of money do I want to make? What kind of values do I want to pass on to my children? But this gospel says that before we set out to realize our goals, we should measure them against the holiness of God that pulsates below the surface issues that often determine our choices. That holiness reveals the importance of generosity, simplicity, and service to the poor and the oppressed. When the people we love are in trouble, we all want to fix things. When our children’s marriage is under stress, when a friend develops cancer, when our parents are coping with depression, we want to step in and make things better. But this gospel tells us that before we take charge we need to rest in the truth that God’s glory already surrounds those that we love and that God is working in their lives. Then, only after we appreciate that truth, can we decide how many demands should we make, how much advice should we give, and how much should we simply stand with those that we love and give support. When we are hurt or disappointed by someone, it is easy to jump into action. We can be quick to retaliate and get even. But this gospel tells us that, before we jump, we need to listen to the God who speaks to us from the cloud. God’s voice reminds us how blessed we are, how much we are loved, and how we are called to love our enemy.
There is no doubt that Jesus wants us to do what is right. But the example of Peter reminds us that awe must precede action and listening must inform deciding. Yes, we are to act. But we must take in God’s glory before we take up God’s service.
March 12, 2017
Matthew 17: 1-9
Every year on the second Sunday of Lent, we have the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. The Jesus that the disciples knew, the Jesus whom they followed throughout his ministry, was changed before their eyes. His face shone like the sun. His clothes were as white as light. But as many stories in the gospel, today’s gospel story is not just about Jesus. It is also about us. The gospel does not only tell us that Jesus was changed, but promises us that we can change as well. On the mount of the transfiguration, the person of Jesus was revealed in a deeper and fuller way. This gospel assures us that we can grow in a deeper and fuller way to become the person that God wants us to be.
Now this is an important message, because all too often we conclude that we cannot change. As we get older, we begin to suppose that we are the way we are and nothing can be different. Especially if we have tried to change ourselves in the past and were unsuccessful, we can easily draw the conclusion that we will never be able to be the person that God wants us to be.
When we start thinking in this way, it’s important for us to remember the words that Jesus tells the disciples in today’s gospel. “Rise. Do not be afraid”. We might have a problem in our family. A son or a daughter who has greatly disappointed us, a in-law who always irritates us. And as hard as we try to push past those feelings, they keep rising up every time we think of the person. So we say to ourselves, “This is it. I will always be this way.” Jesus says, “Don’t say always. You can find the ability to forgive”.
We might for a long time carry a prejudice, viewing people of a certain race or sexual orientation negatively, seeing somebody at work or in politics unfavorably. We know that our opinion is extreme and unfair, and yet we cannot shake it. So we say to ourselves, “What’s the use? I’ll never win this battle.” Jesus says, “Don’t give up. I’m not finished with you yet”.
Maybe our whole life, we have prided ourselves on our independence, on our ability to take care of ourselves and to help others. But now we are growing older and developing health problems. We know that we are not able to care for ourselves as we should. But we cannot reach out to ask for help. We say to ourselves, “I cannot set my pride aside and ask others for what I need.” Jesus says to us, “Your life is changing. Wouldn’t it make sense now to let the people that you helped help you? Rise. Do not be afraid.”
Jesus was changed on the mount of transfiguration. We can change by the power of God. Even though we have failed to change in the past, today is a new possibility. Because today Jesus reaches out to transfigure us.