A Step Towards the Truth
March 7, 2004
A young priest was paying his first pastoral visit to a nursing home in a new parish. He was running late. He had skipped lunch and was hungry. As he entered the room of an elderly bedridden woman and introduced himself, he couldn’t help but notice a large bowl of peanuts sitting on her nightstand. Although it was not his normal practice, he excused himself and said, “Ma’am, do you mind if I have some of those peanuts?” “Of course, Father,” she said with hospitality. “Help yourself.” So he took some, and although the peanuts had a strange texture and a faintly stale taste, it was good to have something in his stomach. So he kept eating handful after handful as the old lady rambled on about her connection to the parish and the achievements of all of her children and grandchildren. By the time he caught himself, he realized that he had eaten almost all the peanuts in the bowl. Somewhat embarrassed, he took the bowl and extended it to the woman saying, “Excuse my rudeness. Would you like some of these peanuts?” “Oh, no, Father,” she said with a smile. “I don’t like peanuts. I just like the chocolate coating. After I have sucked that off, I put the peanuts in that bowl.”
Things are often different than they seem. It is amazing how often we walk around with a false picture of who we are, who other people are, and what is the true condition of our surroundings. We can know someone for many years and suddenly find out that there is a part of that person—a gift, a flaw, a dream—to which we were blind. Someone that we always trusted can turn out to be false. Someone we never understood can suddenly step forward as a friend. And when this new truth hits us, it can confuse us and disorientate us.
This is what happens to the disciples in today’s gospel. In the Transfiguration they see a new truth about Jesus. They had always seen Jesus as a teacher and a friend, but in this experience they see him as a being in glory, as a companion to Moses and Elijah. That new truth overwhelms them. Peter doesn’t know what he is talking about. They are all terrified. Yet, when the vision passes, the disciples realize that they have grown. For now they see clearer who Jesus really is.
Even though truth can be confusing and disturbing, we always take a step forward when we can claim it. Even though truth can be painful, it is better to own it than to continue on in illusion and denial. Lent is a time where we try to take a step closer to the truth. And in a particular way where we try to own the truth about ourselves, because self knowledge is always incomplete. The height of Greek wisdom was inscribed on the temple of Apollo in Delphi, and it read, “Know yourself.” The Greeks understood that following that command was the task of a lifetime.
So how do we come towards greater self knowledge? How do we move towards knowing ourselves? Let me suggest two steps: Know who you are not, and know where you are going. No one is good at everything. None of us have all the gifts. Yet it is amazing how we continue to frustrate ourselves by trying to be people who we are not. We have always dreamed of being on American Idol, and so we sing at parties even though we have no voice. We are determined to help other people. So we give advice even though we don’t know what we’re saying. We want others to see us as successful, so we talk about our talents and our accomplishments, but instead of impressing people we make ourselves look foolish.
All of us have gifts. But the first step to discovering the gifts we have is admitting the gifts that we do not have. It is freeing to be able to admit, “I’m not good at organization. I’m not good at listening. I’m not good at communication.” When we can admit who we are not, we take a step towards knowing ourselves.
We also need to know where we are going. This truth is fundamentally a matter of faith. Because we believe that we are daughters and sons of God, that our final end is union with God, that we are bound to eternal life. When we know where we’re going, when we know what our final destination is, it gives us strength to face the troubles of life. When I was serving in a parish in Akron, I remember visiting a great Christian woman who was dying of cancer. She was in great pain, not only because of the cancer but also because of the treatments that were trying to arrest it. I remember saying to her, “Louise, how you doing?” She responded by saying to me, “It’s a good thing that I’m bound to glory, because I’m getting pretty tired of this.”
Knowing yourself is the work of a lifetime. But knowing who you are not and knowing where you are going are two steps towards greater self knowledge. The season of Lent encourages us to take those steps. The transfiguration of Jesus reminds us that moving towards the truth will lead us to growth. Even though it is difficult to face the weight of truth, it is better than living in illusion. For claiming the truth of who we are gives us power. Or as Jesus says in John’s gospel, “The truth will set you free.”
Light Is Not Faith
March 4, 2007
There is no doubt that today’s gospel involves light, overwhelming light, glorious light. Jesus’ garments become white with a brightness that dazzles the disciples. And yet, it is also clear that for all this light, the apostles do not see. Even though Jesus stands before them in glory, they do not understand. The brightness of the light leads not to faith, but to terror. Peter wants to set up three tents, but he does not understand what he is saying. And after the whole experience is completed, the disciples say nothing to anyone—hardly the sign of confident believers. Light does not necessarily lead to faith. Many things can be illumined but none of them force us to believe. Faith is a gift from God and a gift that we must choose to accept. Two people can see the same thing and come to two very different conclusions. For all the brightness of the light, faith is never inevitable.
Over three hundred years ago the French philosopher, Blaise Paschal, wrote: In faith there is enough light for those who wish to believe and enough shadow to blind those who do not. More recently, the comedian, Ellen DeGeneris put it this way: At the beginning of all things, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, and then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a lot better.
Light is one thing, faith is another. The question that stands before us this morning is what will we do with the light which God gives? What shall we see? The gospel points to what we should be looking for: the presence of God in our lives and in our world. At the heart of the gospel is the conviction that our God is not absent, is not idle, but active. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God is working to establish a kingdom, a kingdom of justice, of peace and of love. We believe that that kingdom is being established through God’s power and through our cooperation. Believers are always on the look-out to see signs of that kingdom, signs of God’s presence in our world. Because Christians are looking for those signs, their lives are characterized by joy and hope.
Christians are a joyful people because each time that we see a sign of God’s presence, we rejoice. Each time medical science takes another step towards conquering a terrible disease, we rejoice because we recognize that it is God’s action and power directing that development. Each time warring nations put down their arms and establish peace, we celebrate because we see that action as one step closer to God’s kingdom. Every time that we survive a difficult period in our marriage, recognize a family member has moved towards reconciliation, or learn that our child or our grandchild is born healthy and safe, we celebrate. We see in all of these events the signs of God establishing the kingdom. Christians are people of joy.
We are also people of hope, because when evil strikes, we do not give up. When innocent children die of a terrible disease, when thousands of people are killed in war, when greed and selfishness characterize our culture, we do not stop believing that God is present. Instead we hope that God is active in a way that we cannot yet perceive. All of these evils that are present in our world do not lead us to despair but to action. We give our energies towards building a more peaceful and just world. When someone we love is struck with cancer, when our marriage ends, when someone we trust betrays us, we continue to hope that God will still save us. We look forward to a future in which God’s action and love will become clear.
Other people will look at the blessings of life and the heartbreaks of life and interpret them differently. It is only with the gift of faith and our willingness to accept it that we can see God’s action among us. This morning we are surrounded by God’s light, the same light that illumined the disciples on the mount of the transfiguration. Let us open our eyes, not to be blinded, but to see—to see God’s presence here among us and in the events of our world and then to live as Christ’s disciples in the joy and in the hope that only faith can bring
The Ordinary and the Transcendent
February 24, 2013
The word dichotomy is used to describe two forces that differ from one another. We use dichotomies to identify our place in life. For example, we use the dichotomy happy and sad. Are you happy today or are you sad today or some place in between? We use the dichotomy holy and sinful. Are you a holy person or are you a sinful person or someplace in between? Dichotomies are important because they reveal to us the dimensions of life and the different ways in which we can look at life: rich and poor, beautiful and plain, healthy and sick.
Now of course some dichotomies are more important than others. Philosophers argue over which dichotomy is most fundamental. A good candidate is the dichotomy good and bad. Is life good or is life bad or someplace in the middle? But there is another dichotomy which can give good and bad a run for its money. That is the dichotomy of ordinary and transcendent. Is life an ordinary series of events one following after the other in a set pattern? Or is there to life a larger meaning, a transcendence, which rises above the ordinary and gives meaning to the regular patterns of our lives?
Today’s Gospel deals with the dichotomy of ordinary and transcendent. The disciples know their ordinary pattern with Jesus. As disciples, they travel with Jesus, they eat with him, they listen to his teaching, and they watch him as he cures the sick. But this day on the mountain is something different. This day Jesus is transfigured before them. His face changes. His clothes become dazzling white. He speaks to Moses and Elijah. This is not an ordinary day. This is the other side of the dichotomy. On the mountain of the Transfiguration, the disciples experience the transcendent.
It is clear that the dichotomy of ordinary and transcendent is not the same as good and bad. The Gospel is not telling that being on the mountain with Jesus was a good thing and being off the mountain was a bad thing. In fact, what we see on the mount of Transfiguration is a mixture of good and bad. Certainly Jesus’ face was transfigured and he was speaking to Moses and Elijah, but what he was talking about was his upcoming passion and death in Jerusalem. Yes, Peter says, “It is good, Master, that we are here,” but Peter is also confused and frightened. The story of the Transfiguration is not telling us that being on the mountain is better than being off the mountain. It is telling us that being on the mountain is different. It is transcendent. And in making this claim, it is inviting us to claim the transcendence in our own lives.
Now, what do we mean by this? What parts of our lives are transcendent? Let me offer you a simple example. I will ask the people who are married here tonight three questions. The first two can be answered simply. The third question is different. The first question: When were you married? Second question: Where were you married? Third question: What does being married mean? If you have the information, you can answer the first and second questions and be done with them. But the third question—“What does marriage mean?”—is a deeper question. You cannot answer it completely. Perhaps you cannot even understand it completely. Is marriage a good thing for you?—yes. Is marriage a bad thing for you?—sometimes. This question about marriage reveals to us an aspect of a marriage which is mystery, which goes beyond our ability to quickly describe or control—that aspect is transcendent.
Of course this dichotomy applies to most areas of our lives. What does it mean that I have the profession that I have? What does it mean that I love the music that I love? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to have a passion for serving those in need? Our lives are composed of many ordinary things but our lives are more than just ordinary things. They are part of a dichotomy with the transcendent.
So today’s Gospel asks us to know and to claim the transcendent aspect of our lives, to know that we can find in our lives a deeper meaning. It is in this deeper meaning that we will find God. Our lives are surely filled with ordinary things: planning our day, meeting our responsibilities, following our schedule. But to limit our lives only to that level would be stunting and incomplete. Today’s Gospel reminds us that every important aspect of our lives has a larger meaning, a mystery, a transcendence. We need to claim it. As often as we can, we need to place ourselves with Jesus on the mountain because it is there that we come closest to seeing who he really is and who we really are. We are called to be people who know the transcendent dimension of our lives because it is in that dimension that we come to understand more clearly what it means to be alive.
The Gate of Heaven
February 21, 2016
A baby was born by caesarean section. Because his mother was still under the anesthetic, the nurse brought the child to his father who was waiting in the hospital nursery. Immediately upon seeing the boy, the father became concerned. He had rather large ears that were sticking out quite prominently from his head. “Oh this is bad,” said the father. “I can already hear the children at school calling him Dumbo.” The nurse tried to console the man. “You have a healthy son,” she said, “and if necessary there is possible surgery to correct this problem in the future.” “Thanks,” said the father, “but I’m really worried about how my wife is going to react to this. She doesn’t take things as easily as I do.” When the mother was ready, the father gingerly carried the child into her hospital room wrapped in a blanket. He placed the child in her lap. Then he carefully uncovered the child’s head so that she could see her son for the first time. Immediately upon seeing the child’s face, she gasped, looked at her husband, and said, “Oh honey, Look! He has your ears.”
There is what is, and then there is the way we see it. There is reality and then there is our perception of it. The two do not always match. Today’s gospel of the Transfiguration presents an interplay of reality and perception. The disciples on the mountain do not see Jesus in a new way. They see Jesus in a deeper way. They are able to perceive the glory that has always been a part of who Jesus is. The gospel, of course, does not simply tell us things about Jesus, it addresses us. This gospel invites us to see the people in our lives and our world in a deeper way. It invites us to look beyond the surface and to perceive the reality that lies deep within.
As Christians we see that reality from the perspective of faith. We believe that at the heart of every person and every created thing lies the goodness and the glory of God. The great American mystic, Thomas Merton, puts it this way, “The gate of heaven is everywhere. We live in a world that is transparent and the divine shines through it all the time.” What a difference it would make in our life if we would be able to see that deep inner reality, the glory of God that is always around us.
This truth however is too big to be taken in all at once. Like the disciples on the mountain we can only catch a glimpse of God’s glory. But those glimpses are important and we have all had them. Maybe it happens when we are walking in the woods and see the sunlight filter through the trees or when we see the joy in our children’s faces on Christmas morning. Maybe we catch a glimpse as we share a truth with a close friend or stand before a great work of art. In those moments we do not see things differently. We see more deeply the grace of God that is always around us. This is why it is important to keep our hearts open to those moments and to treasure them. For they lead us beyond the surface of things to the true reality that lies deep within them. They are the Gate of Heaven through which we find hope, through which we find peace, through which we find God.
Looking Closer, Looking Beyond
March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
The grace of God is active everywhere. But most of the places in which God is acting, we do not see. Think for a minute how little of this world you have seen with your own eyes. Even if you travel extensively, there is only a small fraction of the world that you have seen personally. Even if we take a local example, such as the city of Cleveland, there are certainly more neighborhoods and streets in the city that you have not seen than those you have. And yet, God is active in all of them.
This is the truth that God tries to get across to Abraham in today’s first reading. As a sign of the vastness of his love, God takes Abraham outside at night and has him look up to count the stars if he is able. How many stars could Abraham count? Scientists tell us that on a clear night, you can see about a thousand stars with the naked eye. But that is not all the stars that exist. Four hundred years ago when Galileo invented the telescope, people were then able to see about three thousand stars on a clear night. And today, with the Hubble telescope, we can identify over a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. And still, there is so much of God’s work we cannot see.
This realization should give us hope. Because if God is active in so many places that we cannot see, then certainly the power of goodness in our world is greater than we usually imagine. In fact, it would be a good Lenten discipline to try to see more instances of God’s goodness in our world. How can we do this? Here are two ways: by looking closer and by looking beyond.
We look closer when we take time to see the instances of good that are right around us. Often we are so preoccupied by work and deadlines that we live through a day and never look at the goodness that is right at hand. What if we took a few moments to simply sit and listen to our children as they play? What would we hear? We may hear some fighting and teasing. But we would also hear the joy of their laughter and the enthusiasm for living. Certainly God is present in that. What if we noticed the way that a neighbor or a family member shows love and faithfulness to a spouse with dementia or to an aging parent? Would we not then see in that commitment and courage the presence of God? What if we called to mind a close friend whom we have known for many years and remembered the way that our soul fills with delight when we hear his or her voice? Is that not the presence of God’s grace? We see more of God’s goodness around us, when we look closer.
We also need to look beyond. In our world, bad news travels fast. The media is always ready to present us with another shooting, another crime, another political catastrophe. Although it is important for us to know these events and the harm that can come from them, it is also important to look beyond them. We should remember the thousands of single parents who work multiple jobs so that their children might receive a good education. We should count the number of public officials who give their lives in service so that integrity and justice might be a part of our social fabric. We should remind ourselves of the clergy, teachers, and coaches who continue to serve our children honestly, even in a society that is shaken by the reality of sexual abuse.
Good things are happening all around us. Most of them we do not see. But God is active in all of them. So this Lent, let us look closer and let us look beyond. Because every time we notice another instance of God’s grace, our hearts are buoyed up, our resolution is strengthened, and we have another reason to give praise to the God whose love for us never fails.