Our True Identity
March 12, 2006
The transfiguration of Jesus was a revelation to the disciples and to us. But what did it reveal? As Jesus stood in glory between Moses and Elijah, the disciples saw things they had never seen before. But what did they see? The most frequent answer to this question is that they saw Jesus’ heavenly stature, that it was revealed to them that Jesus was divine. True as this answer is, it is not precise enough. Because the words which came to the disciples from the heavenly cloud indicate that what was revealed was not so much who Jesus is, as to whom Jesus is related.
The revelation of the transfiguration does not center on Jesus’ being, but on his connectedness to the Father. The words that come from the cloud are, “This is my beloved Son “. What they reveal is the intimate, unbreakable bond of love that exists between Jesus and the Father. What they proclaim is that Jesus is more than a prophet, more than a teacher. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. The words that come next are every bit as important: “Listen to him.” Why should we listen to him? What should we listen to? We should listen to him because if Jesus is in fact God’s beloved Son, then we who are baptized into Jesus are truly God’s beloved daughters and sons as well.
The mystery at the heart of the gospel is that through Christ we participate in the intimate union of love that exists between the Father and the Son. This is the good news. This is what we must hear and believe in above all else. Why is it so important to hear it, to listen to it? Because the minute we forget our status as beloved daughters and sons of God, the Good News evaporates. The minute that we begin to substitute some other identity in place of our identity as beloved children of God, the Gospel vanishes. I can testify that from the experience of over 30 years of priestly ministry, there is no more common or fatal mistake made by Christians than to forget this basic identity.
When we ignore our status as beloved daughters and sons and begin to see ourselves primarily as sinners, as victims, as unlovable, as flawed, as unworthy, the power of the gospel is lost to us. Do we sin? Are we flawed? Is there a real sense that we are unworthy of the tremendous love that God showers on us? Of course. But despite all of those flaws, we remain chosen and beloved children of God. It is only by claiming our true identity that we find the power to turn away from sin, the power to heal our hurts, the power to claim the dignity that God has so freely given us.
Richard Rohr, the spiritual writer and lecturer, once admitted that he was a rambunctious and mischievous child. There was in his neighborhood an elderly gentleman, Mr. Brown, who was very protective of his property. He built a fence around his yard. He forbade all the children of the neighborhood to walk on his lawn and insisted that they stay away from his apple orchard which was his prize possession. Well this demand of Mr. Brown was seen by Richard and his buddies as a challenge. One day they climbed over the fence and stole as many apples as they could from the orchard. Mr. Brown spied them and came after them. They all escaped except Richard, who Mr. Brown collared and dragged back to the Rohr’s home. He buzzed the doorbell. Mrs. Rohr answered. Mr. Brown immediately demanded, “Your son stole apples from my yard and he must be punished.” Mrs. Rohr said, “Mr. Brown, I’m sorry. I’ve told Richard over and over again to stay out of your yard. He’s done what is wrong, and I will punish him.”
But Mr. Brown was not satisfied. “Well what punishment will you give him? I want you to tell me! I want to hear right now!” At this, Mrs. Rohr’s back straightened a bit, and she said, “Mr. Brown, I’ve told you that I will punish him. I will take care of it. Now have a good day.” But Mr. Brown would not be satisfied. “Mrs. Rohr,” he said, “I don’t think you are taking this seriously enough. You are forgetting that Richard did something that was wrong.” Mrs. Rohr said, “Mr. Brown, I told you I will take care of it. I will punish him. But I cannot see Richard as you do. You are forgetting that Richard is my son.”
Richard Rohr insists that this is how God looks at us. God never forgets that we are beloved daughters and sons. For all of our faults and all of our failings, God continues to look at us with love. This is what we must listen to. This is what we must never forget. So when you become discouraged, when you find yourselves losing hope because of your faults, because of your inability to be as patient or as generous as you would like, because of your inclination to be judgmental of others, remember: God loves you with the same love that God loves Jesus. When things are going wrong, when you cannot find a way out, when you are beginning to think that God is punishing you, remember: God is not about punishing you. God is about loving you with a love that never ends. When you become overwhelmed with grief, with sickness, with an emptiness that will not let you go, remember: God’s love for you is everlasting.
You are not one among many people. Your dreams and your needs are always before God’s face. Jesus himself assures you, “You are God’s favored daughter. You are God’s beloved son.” Listen to him.
Good News, Bad News, and Faith
March 8, 2009
Mark: 9: 2 – 10
There are many perspectives through which we could view Jesus’ transfiguration. What did it mean to Jesus? How does it relate to other passages in the New Testament? How have later saints and theologians have reflected upon it? But what I would like to focus on today is what did the transfiguration of Jesus mean to his disciples? And when we adopt this perspective, it becomes clear that in Jesus’ transfiguration the disciples saw something that they had never seen before. They saw a new dimension to Jesus, a new level of his glory and his power. They had walked with him; they had heard his teaching; they had eaten with him; but on the Mountain of Transfiguration they saw a truth that was greater than anything they had seen before.
This truth leads to an application to our own lives. I would like to make that application through a story, an ancient story from the Taoist religion. A poor Chinese farmer owned one horse. One day that horse ran away up into the mountains. The farmer’s neighbor came to him and said, “My dear friend, I am so sorry for your bad news.” The farmer said, “Bad news, good news, who knows? Time will tell.” A couple weeks later, the horse returned and brought with it another horse that it had found up in the mountains. Now the farmer had two horses. Again his neighbor came to him and said, “Congratulations, my dear friend, on your good news.” The farmer responded, “Good news bad news, who knows? Time will tell.” The farmer gave his new horse to his son who rode it around the countryside. One day when he was riding, he fell off the horse and broke his leg. So the neighbor returned again. This time he was more cautious. He said, “Well your son broke his leg. That sounds like bad news, but maybe it’s not.” The farmer said, “Bad news good news, who knows? Time will tell.” A couple weeks after that the Emperor of China declared war against Japan. He sent his troop to all the cities of his country to forcibly conscript young men to fight in battle. But when they came to the farmer’s son they passed him by and let him stay with his family because he had broken his leg. The neighbor and the farmer time agreed that this was good news.
Now this parable from the Taoist religion is over 2,000 years old. It is getting a lot of play recently because of the economic crisis. It is popular because it causes people who are facing a negative financial situation to recognize that positive outcomes are possible. Yes, many people are losing their jobs. But some of those people might find a new career in which they will be much happier. Many people are dealing with less income. But in trying to live with less they might learn more of the value of family and life. The Taoist parable names a truth. I can’t tell you how many times I talked with a person dealing with cancer who testified that this persistent disease forces you not to worry about petty things but to live each day as fully and completely as you can. Good new, bad news? I have experiences where someone has had to face the sudden death of a friend and yet the shock of that loss has caused that person to put their own life in order and to live life with more thankfulness. Good news, bad news? We must not judge too quickly when bad things happen to us. The ultimate outcome will only be seen in time.
Yet, without denying the validity of this truth, the Christian gospel adds a whole other dimension to it. That dimension is the revelation of the transfiguration. Christians do not simply believe that bad things can lead to good. We also believe that there is a God, a God of power and glory who is working through the twists and turns of history and of our own lives in an effort to save us, in an effort to bring us to life. The Taoist parable tells us what life is like. Christ’s transfiguration reveals to us who God is like. God is at work in our lives bringing us to salvation. So when we have to face bad news in our life, it is important to listen both to the Taoist parable and to Christ’s transfiguration. First of all we should not over react to the bad news because we are not sure where in time that news will lead us. It might lead us to a good outcome. But secondly we must believe that God is involved in our lives. In faith we believe that the things that happen as we move from bad to good and good to bad are not random. They are not impersonal surges but outcomes guided by a God who is committed to us.
As we patiently wait to see how things will play out in our lives, it is important for us to follow the command that we heard in today’s gospel, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” We need to listen to Christ and to his teaching as we endure at the twists and turns of life. Even though it is not clear how the news of our lives will play out, we need to live as people who love our families and friends, who treat others with respect, and who care for the poor. As we commit ourselves to live lives of integrity and wisdom we trust in a God who will not forget us. When the disciples saw Christ’s transfiguration, they witnessed something they had never seen before. They saw something on an entirely new level, and so should we. When bad things happen to us, we must be patient and hopeful, realizing that good can turn to bad and then bad can turn to good again. But above all we must believe in a God who is powerful and real and who is working to save us. When things happen to us, is it good news or bad news? Who knows? Time will tell. But God will be faithful.
The Tragedy in Chardon
March 4, 2012
I believe that all of us have been preoccupied this week because of the tragic events that unfolded at Chardon High School on Monday. There has been a tremendous amount of news coverage. But one comment has stood out for me. I listened to a radio interview with a woman whose daughter was in the cafeteria during the shooting. She first described what happened, and then went on to affirm the competence of the high school teachers, and the technical skill of the police who handled the tragedy. She emphasized the strength of the community of Chardon as people pulled together around the victims and their families. At the end of the interview she said, “If I had to summarize what happened this week, I would say an evil thing happened in a very good place.”
I would like to use her statement as a way for us today to reflect upon this tragedy. It poses two questions: What does this tragedy tell us about evil? and What does it tell us about our faith?
What does this tragedy tell us about evil? One of the most unnerving things about the tragedy is that no one would think that such a violent action could happen in Chardon. Chardon is a good community, a safe community, a community in which people cooperate and work together as neighbors. I am that sure many people consciously chose to live in Chardon and raise their families there because they saw the community as solid and safe. Therefore when this kind of violence happens, there is a fearful whisper in our hearts which says, “If this can happen in Chardon, this can happen anywhere.”
This tragedy shatters our illusion of safety. Sometimes we think, “If I can only be clever enough, responsible enough, or good enough I can keep evil away from myself and from my family.” But this tragedy reminds us that that is not the case. Nor am I simply talking about school shootings. We can work very hard to eat a responsible diet and exercise, and yet at our next Doctor’s appointment discover we have three months to live. We can be very satisfied in our marriage only to find that our spouse is asking us for a divorce. We can be a generous and giving person and find ourselves crippled in an automobile accident. Evil knows no boundaries. In one way or another evil will touch our lives. We are not safe simply because we live in a good place.
Having said that, living in a good place is still important. And I am not talking about real estate. If we have to face evil, we definitely want to face it surrounded by a solid community, by a network of family and friends, and by a belief system that will support us. Here is where our faith comes in. Whatever we have to face, our faith tells us that God is with us. As Paul says today in the second reading, “If God is for us, who can be against us.” Faith assures us that God will be with us as we face the evil and tragedy of our lives.
The sad events this week in Chardon can redefine our relationship to evil. Yes, we should take every step possible to protect ourselves and our family, to make our lives as safe as possible. But there is no protection that is a hundred percent effective. Therefore, as we protect our lives, we should also take steps to deepen our lives. We should make sure that we are living in a good place.
Now is the time to see that the relationships that we have with spouse, family, and friends are honest and true. When evil comes, we will need those relationships to support us. Today is the day that we should pray to God. We should strive to reflect upon what God has done for us and thank God for that relationship. When tragedy strikes, we will need to know the God to whom we call out.
Today is when we should pray. Today is when we should forgive. Today is when we should grow. Because each of those actions makes the place in which we are living better and stronger. Evil can happen in a good place. Today we should make our place as good as possible. So that when evil comes, we will be ready.
March 1, 2015
Genesis 22: 1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Today’s first reading from the book of Genesis is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible. It presents God testing Abraham by asking Abraham to kill his son. Now even if we suppose that God never intended that Abraham to go through with the slaughter, is it not still unthinkable that God would ask any father to perform such an action? Does not this passage somehow show our God as monstrous and cruel? Many writers have struggled with this problem. But today I would like to present to you the perspective of that great biblical theologian, Woody Allen.
Here is Woody Allen’s take on this story [From Without Feathers] :
And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son Isaac, “I have had a dream, and the voice of the Lord said that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on.”
And Isaac trembled and said, “So what did you say, I mean when he brought this whole thing up?” “What am I going to say?” Abraham said, “I’m standing there at 2 am. I am in my underwear, with the Creator of the universe. Should I argue?” “Well”, Isaac said to his father, “Did he say why he wanted me sacrificed?” Abraham said, “The faithful do not question. Now, let’s go because I have a heavy day tomorrow.”
But Sarah, Abraham’s wife heard of Abraham’s plan, and she became upset. She said, “How do you know that it was the Lord, and not, say your friend who loves practical jokes?” Abraham answered, “I know it was the Lord, because it was a deep, resonant voice, well-modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that.” And Sarah said, “And are you willing to carry out this senseless act?” Abraham told her, “Frankly yes, for to question the Lord’s word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly when the economy is in the state that it’s in.”
So Abraham took Isaac to a certain place, and prepared to sacrifice him. But at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could you do such a thing?” Abraham said, “But you said…” “Never mind what I said” the Lord responded. “Do you listen to every crazy Idea that comes your way?” And Abraham grew ashamed, “No, not really.” “I jokingly suggest you sacrifice Isaac, and you immediately run out to do it!” Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.” And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor, I can’t believe it.”
Abraham objected, “But does this not prove that I love you, that I was willing to kill my only son on your whim?” “No.”, says the Lord. “It only proves that some people will follow any order no matter how asinine, as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”
At the basis of Woody Allen’s take on this story is the conviction that Abraham misunderstood God. This is not a new idea. Many ancient Jewish scribes had already suggested it, because they could not imagine their God putting Abraham to such a monstrous test. This passage reminds us that we can misunderstand God, and misunderstanding God can be dangerous. When we act on a religious impulse that is misguided, it can become unjust and violent.
Just look in our world today at the actions of ISIS. Here are believers who are convinced that God is asking them to cut off the heads of non-believers. They believe that they are following the word of the Koran, though most Muslims in the world today believe they are misinterpreting the Koran and misunderstanding God.
So what can we do to make sure that we understand God’s messages to us correctly? Two suggestions. First, we should never focus on one saying of God in isolation. We should never take one verse of the Bible and say, “This is what God wants me to do.” We must place every verse of the Bible in the context of everything else that God has revealed. We must not only listen to what God said, but remember who God is. For Jews and Christians our God is fundamentally a God of mercy, compassion, and love. So every command from God must be interpreted in that context.
Following Elijah and Moses
February 25, 2018
A famous musician was debuting a new work which he had just written for the piano. As he struck the last chord, the audience rose to their feet applauding in appreciation. A reporter from a local paper came to interview the musician. “That was an amazing new piece,” he said. “But can you explain to me what this music is about? What it means to you?” The musician looked at the reporter for a long time in silence, and then he sat down and played the piece all over again.
This was probably his way of saying that music cannot be explained. It must be heard. Indeed, some of the deepest mysteries of our life cannot be analyzed. They need to be experienced. This is certainly true of our relationship with God. We cannot explain God or understand who God is. But we can have experiences in our life where, for a moment, we catch a glimpse of God’s goodness and God’s glory. This is Mark’s aim in today’s gospel of the Transfiguration of Jesus. He fills the scene with mysterious elements such as the dazzling white clothes, the cloud that overshadows the disciples, and the voice that comes from the heavens. All of these are in the story because Mark knows that we cannot explain Jesus’ glory, we can only embrace it.
Yet despite the fact that Mark would insist that the glory of Christ cannot be analyzed or packaged, he does leave clues in this story of how Jesus’ glory can be repeated. He uses the two characters of Elijah and Moses to point to ways in which we can experience the glory of Christ in our own lives. In the First Book of Kings, Elijah experiences God’s presence on the holy mountain of Horeb. Although Elijah expects to experience God in thunder and in lightening, God comes to him in a quiet whispering sound. So, the experience of Elijah tells us that we can find the glory of God in the small but true blessings of our lives, the blessings that we experience every day. As we watch our children or grandchildren play, as we catch a smile from our spouse whom we have loved for years, as a particular melody warms our heart or the beauty of a full moon deepens our soul, as laughter comes easily with a friend who knows us better than we know ourselves—all of these small and common blessings are signs of God’s love and glimpses of God’s glory.
The character of Moses points in a different direction. Moses experienced God’s presence on Mount Sinai when he received the gift of the law. The law was God’s gift to Israel. It gave direction to serving God through the service of others. So, the experience of Moses tells us that we can find the glory of God as we reach out to serve our neighbor. As we try to help out the member of our family who is the most discouraged or misunderstood, as we give of ourselves in service of the poor or teach a child to read, as we speak out for the marginalized in our society: immigrants, the imprisoned, or those who are victim of violence—in each of these actions we are not simply helping others in need, we are catching a glimpse of the love of God that expresses itself in our love for one another. God’s love tells us that every person is a beloved daughter or son.
The glory of God cannot be explained. It must be experienced. But the characters of Elijah and Moses point to where those experiences can be found. So, in this holy time of Lent, let us rededicate ourselves to follow Elijah by noticing the blessings that surround us and to follow Moses by reaching out to those who are in need. In these two ways we can come to see the love that God has for us and catch a glimpse of the glory that shines in the face of the Transfigured Christ.