Don’t be a Pekinese …

Mark 9:2-9

                 This past week, two news stories having to do with perfection captured my attention.

                  The first story was that of the 136th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, where 2,000 dogs were primped and pampered, walked and watched, poked and prodded until, finally, one dog was judged Best in Show.

Now, I’m going to admit upfront: I did not like the results. The winner was a 4-year-old Pekinese named Malachy that to me looked like little more than a waddling dust mop. Me? I was pulling for the proud German shepherd … or the stately Doberman pinscher … or that gorgeous Irish setter. To me, those are dogs. But Pekinese, especially show-worthy Pekinese? Not my idea of perfection.

And make no mistake: The Westminster show is all about perfection. It’s about choosing which dog best exemplifies the written standard of “the ideal … of that breed, written by the breed’s national club.”[1]

By the time the dogs get to the group competition, they have been judged best in their breed. In the group portion, they are not competing against each other. They are competing against those written standards … choosing which of the best of each breed is, in turn, the best of that group.

In the final portion, they again are not competing against each other. They are competing against a standard … a standard of perfection.

That little Pekinese? The final judge thought he – and not the beautiful Irish setter, not the proud Doberman pinscher, not the exquisite German shepherd, and not the other three finalists (about which I truly didn’t care) – was as close to perfection as you could get this year.

The second news story that captured my attention appeared in The Washington Post on Friday morning under the headline: “Genome news flash: We’re all a little bit broken.” The reporter, David Brown, began the article in this way:

We’ve all had cars with a bunch of broken parts that get us where we want to go for years with no obvious problem. Does the human genome have the same tolerance for permanent damage?

The answer is: Sure.

A new study estimates that the average person goes through life with 20 genes permanently out of commission. With each of us possessing about 20,000 genes, that means 0.1 percent of our endowment is broken from the start – and we don’t even know it.

Whether being born with 20 broken genes is horrifying (“Get me customer service!”) or reassuring (“Whew, only 20!”) depends on one’s expectations of perfection.[2]

And there we have that idea of perfection again – this time, the news that unlike that little Pekinese that won the dog show the other night, none of us – none of us – is perfect! Each one of us, created in the very image of God, is flawed. Some parts of us are broken from the very start.

Now it turns out that the 20 genes (on average) that don’t work in our bodies don’t matter all that much. The ones that “go missing … aren’t involved in essential functions,” Brown wrote. “They control things that are nice to have (like a certain smell receptor) but aren’t required for survival (like an enzyme in a basic metabolic pathway).” The broken ones are, Brown wrote, “the radio and door lock, not the drive shaft and brake pedal.”[3] Which in the end really is good news for us. Our radios and door locks may not work, but as long as our drive shafts and brake pedals are fine, we’re good to go.

Perfection, it turns out, isn’t what we are all about.

And, it turns out, perfection is not what this day is all about.

This day, this Last Sunday of the Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, isn’t about us being perfect.

It’s about what the revelation of Jesus’ perfection means for us.

Jesus took three of his disciples and climbed up to the top of the mountain, where in their sight, he underwent a metamorphosis (that’s the word in Greek), a moment that revealed his inner essence.[4] That’s right: The Transfiguration is not about Jesus’ clothes turning a bright white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. That’s a by-product of Jesus’ transfiguration. And this day isn’t even about that. It’s really about the disciples being granted the glory of seeing Jesus in his truest, most glorious form … as God’s gift to us in human form. It was a stunning moment for Peter and James and John, the three chosen to witness this glorious glimpse of Jesus transformed and Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, standing on either side of Jesus and representing the fulfillment of the Law the Prophets. It was a moment that showed God’s complete connection with humanity and humanity’s complete connection with God.

It was, in other words, perfect.

But remember: That perfect moment is still not the point.

The point, the meaning, of the Transfiguration is not about three disciples seeing for themselves who and what Jesus really was and is. Because the full meaning of that moment didn’t reveal itself until after Jesus transformed.

Jesus went up the mountain, and that was important, yes.

Jesus was transformed, and yes, that was important, too.

But it’s what happened next, what happened after Jesus was transformed and his clothes became dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah stood there with him, and God’s voice boomed from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” that is important.

Because afterwards, Jesus went down the mountain.

He left that place of transfiguration, of transformation, of metamorphosis …

… and he went right back to God’s people, to the ones God entrusted to him, to care for them, to feed them, to heal them, teach them, bless them, live with them and die for them.

Let’s be honest: Jesus could have stayed up on that mountain (and Lord knows, that’s what Peter thought was going to happen).

But he didn’t.

Instead, he came back down the mountain.

He came back down … to live out his mission in this world, a mission of living, of reconciling, of loving.

Transfiguration, whether for Jesus or for his disciples, or for us, is not a one-time event that takes place on a mountaintop and then is over.

Transfiguration … transformation … is about the revelation of our inner essence, the essence of being created in God’s image, the image of love and community, so that we can do something with it!

That’s what Jesus did: He did something with his inner essence.

He didn’t stay up on that mountaintop reveling in his perfection! He did something with it!

He came back “down into the mundane nature of everyday life,” as theologian David Lose puts it[5] — and listen to this, because it really is elegant writing. Jesus cam back “down into the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Down into the religious and political quarrels of the day.” (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) “Down into the jealousies and rivals both petty and gigantic that color our relationships. Down into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”[6]

Which is exactly what we are supposed to do, when God’s perfection in us is revealed (not withstanding those 20 or so genes that are broken from before we were born).

We are called to back into the world in which we live and move and have our being – which is just as messy as the one in which Jesus lived and moved and had his being – so that we, by our very lives, can transform the world!

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to live into the image in which God created us, the image of love and community that God reveals to us …

… so we can live in love and community.

God does not create us in God’s very image just so we can look pretty! We are not champion Pekinese show dogs, primped and pampered so that we can be walked and watched and poked and prodded and then judged best in breed, best in group, best in show!

We are a bunch of broken human beings – even science tells us that now.

But in God’s eyes, we are perfect.

                  Each and every one of us is – in God’s eyes – perfect.

And God would appreciate it … God would very much appreciate it … if we would do something with our God-given perfection!

God would appreciate it if we would transform the world, just like Jesus did.

And we can do that, you know.

We can give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty.

It is entirely possible for us to give sight to the blind and voice to the voiceless and hearing to the deaf and hope to those who know no hope.

We can make the lame leap for joy! We can, should we decide to accept this mission, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream!

In three days we will begin the season of Lent, the season of fasting from that which keeps us from God and God’s vision for us, the season of feasting on that which brings us closer to God. On Ash Wednesday, we will, once again, undergo our own transfigurations when the ashes of death – the death that no longer has hold over us, the death that no longer stings – are placed on our foreheads.

What shall we do with that moment of transfiguration, that moment of transformation, that moment when we are reminded of our own metamorphoses?

Shall we surreptitiously wipe those ashes from our foreheads when we leave this place (or whatever place we go to receive them), hiding our transformations not only from others but from ourselves?

Or shall we go boldly into the world to live the Good News that in God’s eyes, we are perfect, and with that perfection, we can change the world?

Transfiguration, my friends, our transfiguration, is not about being the prettiest one in the show. It’s not about fixing those parts of us that are broken from before we were born. It’s not about staying up on that mountaintop, refusing to engage in God’s very good creation.

Transfiguration, our transfiguration, is about taking that glimpse of glory that God reveals to us out into the world and doing something with it.

So what are we going to do?

Primp and preen and stay up on our mountaintops, satisfied with the vision?

Or shall we go into the world and get about the business of transforming it?

With this season of Lent upon us, I ask you … I beg you … please. Please. Don’t be a Pekinese.

Do. Not. Be. A. Pekinese.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Last Sunday of the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, Year B, at the Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, Va., 19 February 2012.


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Provera side effects

Matthew 17:1-9

Icon of the Transfiguration by Andrei Rublev (1405), now located in the Moscow Annunciation Cathedral

When Peter and James and John went up the mountain with Jesus that long-ago-but-memorable day, they literally had no idea what was about to happen.

 

They thought they were going to pray. After all, that’s what Jesus regularly did, and so for them, this was just another day following their teacher and Lord.

But, really: They had no idea what was in store.

Up they go, and boom! Jesus is transfigured right in front of them! His face shines like the sun, his clothes are dazzling white, and right there stand Moses and Elijah, chatting with Jesus!

You know that was a surprise. You know this was not on their agenda for the day. (Take a walk with Jesus? Check. Climb the mountain? Check. See Jesus transfigured? Huh?)

But the surprises didn’t stop there.

Because just as Peter in his great excitement was babbling away – “Lord, this is great! Let me make three little houses for you …” (perhaps to fix Jesus, Moses and Elijah in that moment?), just as he was reacting as only Peter could react, God spoke.

Now remember:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God speaks to people all the time.

But in the New Testament, in the Gospels, God only speaks a few times (one of them being up on that mountain, when God interrupts Peter to proclaim Jesus as God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is most pleased).

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commands all the time (often on a mountain – remember Moses and the 10 Commandments?)

But in the New Testament, God only commands once.[1]

Only one time – right here, right on the mountaintop – does God issue a commandment:

Akouete![2] Listen to him!

Like the commandments of old, this is not a suggestion. This is not God saying, “Hey, you know, when you’ve got a moment, I’d really like it if you’d pay attention … but only if you want to.”

This is not God throwing a hissy fit like a little kid who’s trying to win an argument on the playground and whining: Listen to me!

This is God in all of God’s glory – remember Jesus’ shining face and dazzling clothes? Remember Moses? Remember Elijah? This is God on high booming out (because you know God wasn’t namby-pamby here):

Akouete! Listen to him!

Not “Listen to me,” but “Listen to him.

If ever you have wondered whether Jesus was the real thing … if ever you wondered – and many have – whether perhaps we got it all wrong, that perhaps Jesus is more of a prophet and less the Son of God … now’s the time to pay attention.

Because right now, in this moment, on this mountaintop, God is making it crystal clear:

This is my son.

He is my beloved.

And you had better for darned tootin’ listen to him!

• • •

For the last eight years, the non-profit organization StoryCorps has been collecting the stories of Americans “of all backgrounds and beliefs.”[3] The stories are great; I listen to them on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday. But to me, what’s more important than the stories themselves is the idea behind StoryCorps:

Listening, StoryCorps proclaims, is an act of love.

Listening … is … an act … of love.

That’s important for us to remember, because, you see, we are created in love. Remember, we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we cannot possibly be necessary to God. So God must have wanted us. God must have desired us into being. God must have loved us into being. So we were created in love.

And this command, Akouete? Listen to him?

This command is our blueprint for how we are to live in the image of God in which we are created. It is our blueprint for how we are to love.

I have something to tell you ... will you listen?

If we want to be faithful servants of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, if we really want to live our lives as God would have us live them, we … need … to … listen … to … Jesus.

Listening is how we love.

When we listen, we are loving God.

When we listen, we are loving our neighbors as ourselves.

When we listen, we are loving our neighbors as Jesus loves us.

The great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich once proclaimed that “The first duty of love is to listen.”[4] That duty comes from God’s direct command, not through prophets and apostles, but from God on high to the actual witnesses – Peter and James and John, who heard God speak to them, who heard God say to them, Akouete!

And now, today, on this last Sunday of Epiphany, with Lent beginning in just three days, God is speaking to us.

God is commanding us: Akouete! Listen to him!

And if we are wise, if we are caring, if we are faithful, we will listen.

For when we listen and are wise, we can see what is happening around us, and figure out what God wants us to do about it.

When we listen and are caring, we can build the relationships God is calling us to build, with God’s beloved children.

When we listen and are faithful, then … and only then … can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

What it all boils down to is this:

Listening is an act of love … so listen up!

We already know what Jesus wants us to do … because he’s already told us. But sometimes, we need to listen again, because sometimes, once is not enough.

So what is it that Jesus wants us to do?

Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Make the blind see … the deaf hear … the mute speak … the lame leap for joy.

When we listen to Jesus, what do we hear him saying to us?

Live lives of love.

Live lives of wild … radical … inexplicable  … never-ending … love.

This is our mission in life, my friends. This is why God created us: to go into the world and love … just as God loves us … wildly, radically, inexplicably, eternally.

But … we say … but … this is hard! How are we supposed to love like this? We don’t know what to do? (And yes, all of us say this, all the time … because loving like this really is hard and we really do need a set of directions, we really want to see a blueprint before we begin.)

The good news is, God already has told us what to do and how we are to do it. God has already given us the directions and shown us the blueprint.

Step one: We listen.

As a missionary – I served for five years overseas on your behalf (all Appointed Missionaries represent the entire Episcopal Church, not just our own dioceses, which means that I was your missionary) – I can tell you that listening is key to serving.

Listening is how we learn of other's needs, desires, joys and sorrows.

Wherever I have served, particularly as a missionary – in Kenya, Sudan, Haiti, Honduras, Appalachia or Pine Ridge, in homeless shelters and food pantries, with poor, inner city residents and rich suburbanites – I have learned that when I listen to the people of God, I hear the voice of God. I hear Jesus’ commandment to love.

And this call I hear?

It’s not just mine. It’s a call to all of us – because all of us are God’s missionaries in God’s very good creation.

How many of you are Episcopalians? Did you know that the legal name of our Church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of The Episcopal Church of the United States of America? That we made that change in 1821? And that we made that change in our name because we determined then that we were going to a Church that went out into the world and preached the Gospel, and if necessary (as St. Francis is reputed to have said) using words? Which means that all of us here are missionaries.

So all of us are sent forth into God’s world, not to speak, not to tell others what to do, not to be so all-fired certain that we are right and everyone else is … well, they’re just delusional!

No!

God tells us: Akouete! Listen to him!

Listen to Jesus as he tells us: Love your enemy. Tend the sick. Visit the prisoners. Bring joy to the sorrowful. Give courage to the fearful.  Feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty and sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and voice to the mute and dancing to the lame!

Jesus has told us … in no uncertain terms … what he wants us to do. Jesus wants us to love!

And the first act, the first duty of love is to listen.

Not just to the people we love, not just to the people we know. No! We need to listen to each and every one of God’s beloved children, because God doesn’t discriminate. In God’s very good creation, there are no us’s and them’s. In God’s very good creation, no one gets voted off the island!

Only when we take the time to listen to God’s beloved children, only then do we hear their joys and sorrows, their dreams and disappointments, and their hopes and their desperate desire to know that they are loved, that they are the beloved.

Make no mistake, my friends:

God is speaking to us. God is on this mountaintop with us, right here, right now, and God is telling us – in every way possible – that our call is to love.

So listen up!

Amen.

A sermon preached on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, 6 March 2010, Year A, at St. Stephen’s, New Hartford, NY, and St. John’s, Whitesboro, NY.



[1] Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks Christian Resources, Matthew 17:1-9, Transfiguration of our Lord, Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A,  http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[4] Paul Tillich, German-born American Protestant theologian (1886-1965), in a story about Tillich, as quoted in O Magazine, February 2004.

 

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