The following sermon by Reverend Erin Keys is titled “The First Step”.
The readings for the service are Psalm 139: 1-18 and Matthew 17:1-9.
The liturgist for this service is Brian Testa.
The First Step
One of the things you will come to know about me, in case you haven’t noticed it already, is that I am one of those people who gets an absurd amount of delight out of being highly organized. I love lists, I love files, I loved a schedule and routine, and love those baskets they sell at The Container Store that serve no purpose other than to put stuff it so it looks pretty and, you know, contained.
If you have been in my office now that all the boxes are unpacked, you may have noticed this. Members of other congregations I have served would always poke fun of me a little bit because my desk was always immaculate. ‘Where are all the stacks of paper?!’ They used to ask. I don’t do that, I would say. Ever since I was young I have been this way, and it’s not because I am neurotic, I’m really not. It’s just that long before Marie Kondo came out with her book The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, I had already figured this out for myself. I learned early on that the space we inhabit influences our state of mind hence my love of organizing was born.
And so I can totally relate to Peter when on the top of that mountain as Jesus transforms before them to reveal all of his glory and light, pulls out his notepad and begins writing to-dos. I can practically see the thoughts going through his head. Thought number one: This is amazing! Thought number two: Let’s organize it to make it even more perfect.
Because that’s basically what he does, right? He is standing there in the midst of this experience so extraordinary and rare, an experience only witnessed by two other people in the history of the world, James and John; he is standing there watching the true nature of Jesus Christ be revealed with a brilliance so magnificent that the rest of us can only dream about what it would have looked like; Peter is standing there while all this happens and what does he do? He makes a list.
Jesus, he says. This is great! This is incredible! It is so good that we were here to witness what happened because now we can run with it and improve upon it and I know just the way to do that. I can make three dwelling places, three tents for you and Elijah and Moses. It won’t be that hard, I know how; now let me write down everything we will need to get started…
And even though you’re is not supposed to say this, because the lesson in this text has always been that Peter reads the whole situation here completely wrong, even still, I really love that Peter says what he does to Jesus. Because, for one, it’s pretty bold. And if anything throughout Jesus’ ministry, at least until the very end, Peter had no problem being bold and saying what he thought, even when what he thought contradicted Jesus.
And that’s something to be admired, I think, because it shows him to be someone who is invested in what is going on. He is awake, he is alive, he is present; he isn’t just along for the ride. So even when that means he oversteps or doesn’t get something right, he is still trying.
The other reason I like what Peter says is because it really was a good idea. Before him stood two of the greatest prophets of the Jewish faith and the man he believed to be the Messiah and with the light pouring down from the heavens everything he had ever been told about faith and God was being affirmed. Taking in the grandeur of this spiritual mountaintop experience to trump all mountaintop experiences, a light bulb goes off in Peter’s head and he starts making a plan. And it was a good plan. In our world today we would say Peter an innovator, a forward thinker. Elon Musk is going to send people to Mars and Peter is going to figure out how to keep the transfiguration going forever.
It’s no wonder, then, why Jesus told Peter he would be the cornerstone of the church – because the idea he had during the transfiguration a big part of what we try to do too, isn’t it? In a somewhat orderly way, through worship and fellowship and service, we try to offer the world an experience of God of in all its wonder and glory and with its promise to transform our lives?
So, Peter really wasn’t that far off base. And all his organizing and planning wasn’t really wrong. He could see it all so clearly, he could see how great it could be, and he knew what was needed in order to get there, and yet…and yet, he was still missing just one key thing.
Do you know anyone like Peter? I do. It’s me. And I know I am not alone. Especially for those who may consider themselves be Type-A people, those of us who have great ideas and throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the things we care about, even if that means we sometimes do too much, or we do it too soon, or we do it even if it isn’t what needs to be done. Sometimes Peter is almost too relatable for people who are highly competent, passionate, and dedicated because we almost always get where he is coming from, but that also can mean his blind spots could be our own.
And you’ll have to tell me if this is true for you, but I know it is for me – both in what I have learned in my ministry with congregations who are full of people like Peter, and what I have learned from having to live with myself – is that as great as it can be to have a vision and a plan, and a to-do list to see that plan through…as great as it is to be productive and always growing and striving to make something better sometimes…sometimes… all our goals and intentions aren’t really about making something out there better, but about making something in here better. Sometimes our drive to organize and accomplish is not as much about improving our world as it is about improving ourselves.
In a recent New Yorker article titled, ‘Improving Ourselves To Death,’ the author Alexandra Schwartz reflected on our cultural drive to upgrade our lives the same way we might up upgrade our phones. The current zeitgeist, she says, is one of personal optimization, where everyone from charlatans peddling snake oil, to psychologists with impressive credentials and a commitment to scientific methodologies are selling a strategy for advancement. ‘The good life,’ Schwarts writes, ‘may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle, but it is no longer enough. We are now under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life.’
And while I don’t even know what means, ‘to lead the perfect life,’ I sure know how it can feel. Like pressure. Like we are behind and need to catch up. Like we made a mistake somewhere along the way and now we need to fix it, but nothing we do ever sets it quite right. It feels like judgment and blame and worry and it sounds like a quiet voice whispering, ‘this could be better.’
And that voice can be really hard to make go away. Because it is not like that voice is wrong; it’s right. This is the reality that comes with living in a world that is not by any stretch of the imagination anywhere near perfect, and people like Peter see that. They know that voice is telling the truth. And so that voice becomes a form of motivation, which in and of itself is not bad. Things always could be better; there are ways we, too, can always be better. It’s just that sometimes we miss the first step and in our vision for what could or needs to be, and so we skip over the essential element to creating the change we seek. And it is when this has happened that all those feelings of shame and guilt and judgment start to kick in; feelings that usually make us try harder and harder to improve, only to find that all our effort isn’t really working, or at least not in a way that makes us feel any better, in a way that assures us that things or we, have really changed.
And this was Peter’s challenge over and over again, most notably on the top of the mountain in the moment of transfiguration. Everything around him had changed and still he saw a way to make it better. And even if he was right, even if all his ideas were good and true, he still had not done the one thing, the necessary thing, the only thing guaranteed to make something or someone better, and the only thing that ever matters in the end. For all his to-dos and checklists, Peter had still not taken the first step and so as he rattles off his plans for improvement God’s voice finally interrupts him saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved…Listen to him!’
And finally, Peter grew quiet. Finally, the voice of ‘better’ was stilled. And then finally Peter could hear another voice, the one that had been speaking to him all along. It was the voice that called him to change from a fisherman into a disciple. It was the voice that spoke a word and water changed into wine. It was the voice speaking when the blind changed to become those who could see, when the sick changed to become those who were well, when the lost changed to become those who were found.
And what was the voice saying? What was it Peter could finally hear?
I love you.
It has taken me a long time to realize that the fastest way to improve or change is not to look first to where I want to go. Vision is important, yes, very, but it’s not what needs to happen first. First, I have learned, is that we must start right where we are, with who we are as those called and claimed by God’s love. Because when we don’t have that, or when we skip over it, or when we think that type of self-acceptance and assurance will come after we make everything outside ourselves better, we only delay the very progress we seek to bring about. All true and lasting change, all real transfiguration happens only when we are able to see ourselves as beloved.
Which sounds simple enough, but in truth is no small task, believe me, I know. And this is precisely why it is so much easier to focus on all our plans for ourselves and everything around us. But, if we aren’t careful, we can spend our whole lives that way – always looking to make better and never accepting that we were good enough to begin.
You have to start here. We have to start here. Right here in the center of our heart where all our insecurities and doubts about ourselves and our worth reside. Because I know I’m not the only one who has them. And I know I’m not the only one who tries to pretend they aren’t there by making lists and plans and setting goals and reaching and striving and grasping.
So, as I read through the hopes and dreams you have for our church of being a welcoming place for all people; a place where young families find refuge of the crazy in their schedules and a faith home for their children; a place where personal connections run deep and mission is shared among all; a place that is vibrant and growing, full of joy and compassion for one another and with a hand outstretched to those in need. As I read about your hopes and dreams for the ways you will change and grow and as I find myself getting so excited with all the plans we will create together, the path we will chart for who we are going to be, I just want to take a moment and reflect on all that you already are.
I just want to make sure you know your own worth. That’s all.
So, you don’t have to do this, and I certainly won’t be watching or keeping score, but if you get a chance after worship this morning, go over to the font and do what I invited the children to. Think of something you want to change, either about yourself or something else, bring it to mind and then look into the water of your baptism and listen.
Do you hear it? Can you hear it?
The voice saying that you are a child of God.
 Alexandra Schwartz. ‘Improving Ourselves To Death: What the self-help gurus and their critics reveal about our times.’ The New Yorker. January 15, 2018 Issue.