Last week I talked about God’s commandment to us to love our enemies. One of the things that I said was that if we fail to love our enemies, it’s quite likely that we will end up using them as an excuse to hide the things we find shameful about ourselves: our insecurities, our frustrations, fears, anxieties … the kind of stuff that can become a sort of low simmering anger, that often manifests as irritability, cynicism … that can sometimes even burst into near temper tantrums of rage. It’s much easier to imagine that ‘it’s all our enemy’s fault that we are the way we are,’ than to do the very hard and often painful work of examining our own lives and potentially having to spend significant time and effort redirecting our habitual ways of responding to things. What would compel us to engage in the hard work that is growth? And what does it mean to ‘grow’ anyway?
I’m not sure about you, but I do know that for me, and apparently (having read a lot of the literature), growth is about coming to flourish – that is to live into the person you were created to be. As for what would compel me to grow? That’s an easy one: safety, security, being loved, having purpose, mattering to someone. Here’s the thing – as most of us know – if we rely on transient, ever changing things or people (people who come and go, people who might for one reason or another leave our lives) for safety, security, being loved, and having purpose, at the end of the day, we’re not going to have a solid foundation for the seed we are, for our roots to spread, for our leaves to blossom, for us to weather the inevitable storms life throws at us. Why? Because things and people are, well finite, limited, they hurt us, they leave, they move, they get sick, they die. And as important as these relationships are – and they are exceptionally important for us – they are not the bedrock, the foundation, the cornerstone of our very lives. Your best friend, or your spouse – they might be an essential part of your life, of how you think of yourself (a best friend, a life long friend, a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a mentor, an aunt or uncle), but these people did not bring you into existence, they do not define you completely, and they cannot be with you from cradle to grave, more inward to you than your very own self is to you.
What we all are seeking – however we might pursue it or speak of it – is an unbroken endurance of embrace: of physical, mental and emotional protection, of meaning and purpose, of being desirable and desired, of being desired for who we are even when we find ourselves twisted and broken and fragile in our own particular snaggled ways. Here’s the catch though. You often hear – usually in backlash to the sort of judgmentalism and exclusion that has too often been part of everyone’s experience – that we must love people, ‘just as they are.’
But true love, perfect love, cannot actually do this. Only imperfect love, love that is limited, itself fragile, and pulled in multiple directions without knowing fully the purpose for which it was made – only imperfect love can love people ‘just how they are.’ In contrast, perfect love, will embrace you indeed, and move you to the place, in accordance with the purpose for which that love made you. How do you feel about this? Does this make your neck hair stand on end? Does this sound coercive? Does this sound as if your freedom is being somehow suppressed? I have heard this said many times: I must be free to do as I please; if you love me, you will let me do what I want.
I heard someone say this once. The person who said it was wriggling on the floor pinned down by three persons. “I don’t want my life, this person said,’ ‘I want to die,’ ‘if you truly loved me, you would let me kill myself.’ Those three people, though, they ignored this person’s physical pushes, their thrashing, their cries, their name calling, their rage. They ignored, not because they didn’t love the person pinned to the floor, but precisely because they did. I have seen parents yank children hard, turn around and scold them, even – yes horror – spank them, because the child was inches away from being run over by a car that they were not even aware was there. I have seen parents financially cut off and institutionalize their children who were addicted to drugs, who had eating disorders, who committed crimes.
And in all these cases, wow, have I seen shame. Massive shame, anger, rage, embarrassment, fear, and desire for rebellion. How dare you strip me of my freedom to be me. How dare you judge me. How dare you try to correct me. How dare you try to redirect me. F- you. I want my freedom. Here’s the thing, while our collective human push for freedom has taken many shapes and forms, and our individual lives may have looked like some of these cases, or perhaps in far less drastic ways, one of the things that each one of us shares, are things that – when seen through the lens of perfect love – ought to bring us shame. This, my friends, is sin. Sin takes so many forms that I cannot possibly name the ways it is manifested in our own lives, in our own reasoning, in our relationships with others, in things we do or don’t do, in ways that are unknown to us (that others can often see when we can’t).
The thing is perfect love refuses, actually, to accept us just as we are. If perfect love did that – we would be left thinking, ‘hey, it’s okay to respond in this really nasty way,’ or, ‘it’s everyone else’s fault that I’m always angry or moody, or irritable,’ or, ‘I’m going to constantly criticize this person, never give them credit because I want them to be just like me and what I want, rather than grow into who they actually are.’ If perfect love did not shine light on actions that are taken out of fear, anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, greed, sloth, gluttony, avarice, and lust, we would be left in a degenerate world where our meaning was solely about what power we could wield over ourselves and others. Don’t let North America fool you my friends. It is constructed solely out of a basic Christian ethic. Our wealth, our education, our medical systems, these all grew out of a basic Christian ethic, not out of a universal human desire to be kind and good. You and I live as we do now not because a good that has so recently been stripped of Christian ethos is inevitable. We live as we do because we grew out of a belief that we had a duty, a mission, a lifelong vocation, to share with everyone whom we encountered, the revelation of God in the very life of Jesus Christ.
Our reading today, about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ – God’s revealing his presence, his power, his creation of us, his reconciliation of us, his love for us that reshapes how we even think of the good – this is fundamentally about the truth, not A TRUTH, but THE TRUTH, being unveiled. No longer can you and I live our lives as if the truth of God in Christ has been veiled to us. We have been baptized and adopted into God’s family. We are his children through Jesus Christ. In his Holy Spirit, the love he pours out that constitutes his very being, corrects, burns away, chastens, and reforms us into the image of his Son. This is why the disciples bow down if fear: they recognize the truth. God has come, born to us a babe in a manger, God of God, light of light, to show up all those shameful ways we live, the things we think we can hide, not so we can remain in our shame, but so that we can find joy in our being moved by the Spirit, into conformance with the Son, as we stand before God our Father. Paul puts it like this: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory, the love, the power, the joy of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another … therefore since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry [of sharing the gospel, or proclaiming it in every word and deed that we undertake] we do not lose heart, most particularly when our shame is revealed.” Why? “For we have renounced,” in our baptisms, every time we say our common confession and then approach the alter to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, “we have renounced the shameful things we hide. We renounce these things so that they can’t be hiding places, so that we can’t make them into idols that allow us to practice cunning, that allow us to evade or proclaim God’s word falsely. We have renounced these shameful things so that opened to the sometimes painful burning away of this chaff of our own lives, this falsity, this presumption, this fear and anguish and anger and bitterness in our own lives, we might be opened to God’s grace, transformed into the image of his Son, and given hope of life now and eternal, in order to sustain this ministry through our own particular tough times, here and now. AMEN.