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Sunday, August 06, 2017

Spiritual Intimacy

“The secret of being human is to share the secret of our humanity”
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

On this glorious summer morning in August, the Sunday the liturgical calendar calls “Transfiguration Sunday", I want to talk to you about spiritual intimacy.

Let me start this way: Several years ago, I was at a James Taylor concert. I’m a huge fan of Sweet Baby James. As I remember, it was a beautiful summer’s evening. It was outdoors. We were sitting on the grass with a picnic basket filled with cheese and crusty bread, some fresh fruit and, of course, a few bottles of the fruit of the vine.

Before the show and during intermission, the air was filled with the sound of chatter and laughter and the occasional singing of a favorite JT song. It was also heavy with the smell of a variety of foods and wine and beer all mixed in with human sweat and cigarettes and cigars and, well, let’s just call them “funny cigarettes”.

After intermission, James and the band came back on stage and were tuning their instruments. After a few waves of applause, someone yelled out in a voice thick with alcohol and probably a funny cigarette or two, “I love you, James.”

James Taylor stopped in his tracks and looked into the crowd for a few long seconds. Then, he leaned into the microphone and said, “That’s only because you don’t know me.”

I’ve never forgotten that moment. I still carry it with me, all these years later. It sums up for me one of the essential dilemmas of being human. We want desperately to be known and loved.  And yet, being fully known and yet still completely loved is one thing that frightens us to death.

Some of us know instantly what Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden felt, after they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Do you remember what they did? They heard the voice of God and they immediately covered themselves.

And, perhaps most foolishly but humanly of all, they tried to hide from God.

In this morning’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture, we read that, after Moses went to speak with The Lord on Mt. Sinai, “his face shone because he had been talking with the Lord”.

Indeed, his face was shining and people were afraid to come near him, so he covered his face with a veil when he was with the people.

Even so, the people could still see that his face was shining. When he went to talk with the Lord, he removed the veil. But, when he talked with the people, he hid his face.

If we only knew what he was thinking. Maybe he was thinking what James Taylor was thinking. That if they really knew him, they wouldn’t love him. Wouldn’t follow him. Then again, maybe not. Maybe he was only trying to protect them from the fear he saw on their faces.

Peter’s epistle repeats the story we heard from Luke. While Jesus was praying on Mt. Thabor, he and James and John noticed that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.”

Scripture tells us that Moses and Elijah were leaving Jesus when Peter blurted out that he wanted to build a dwelling for them – one for each of them. Was he frightened or in awe? Was that his clumsy way of holding onto the glory of this amazing moment? Was this Peter’s way of saying, “No, don’t go. Not yet.”

Was he trying to contain their glory? To capture it somehow and tame it? If he could fit the glory of these three into three dwelling places, maybe it wouldn’t seem quite so daunting and scary.

The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is one that can be easily turned into a romantic theologizing of his public life. Scholars are also known to want to tame it and control it, to fit it into three neat boxes of his public ministry: the first labeled Baptism, the second labeled Transfiguration and the third labeled Ascension. And then, they package all three boxes up into on packaged labeled “Mystery” so we can study it and learn it and know it.

Except, of course, we can’t.

We get hints and glimmers, a wee peak into the divine nature of God which is glory surpassing our wildest imagination. So, we try to contain it. That way, it’s not so scary.

Presbyterian minister and author, Fredrick Buechner, in his book, Telling Secrets, writes this:
“I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.”
How transfigured – how transformed – might we be if we engaged in an intentional effort toward greater spiritual intimacy?

I don’t know but I have a strong hunch that this is the reason this congregation is as close as it is, the reason you all are tenacious, why you continue to be alive and vital, even as you face the gaping hole in the earth that once was the Methodist Church right across the street from you.

It’s because you know some of each other’s secrets. You’ve seen each other at your best and your worst. And still, you love one another.

As a Hospice Chaplain I have come to hear what many people think are their secrets. What is amazing to them – and to me – is how often their families, their loved ones, their friends, are not at all surprised by what they hear from their loved ones. And, how it doesn’t matter. How they love them. Anyway. Or, in some cases, because of the secrets they have kept.

Beuchner wrote the book Telling Secrets after his daughter struggled with depression and bulimia. Only after she was able to tell the secret of her depression which affected her disease was Beuchner able to admit his own depression. He was also – for the first time in his life, able to admit to the secret of his father’s depression and the deeper secret of his suicide.

As Beuchner also wrote:
 “I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.”
After 30+ years of ordained ministry, I have come to know that the “secret sauce” – the ingredient that makes a congregation “successful” – is not size. It is not the bottom line of the budget or the “ASA” (Average Sunday Attendance) or the amount of the endowment.

I have come to believe that the measurement of success of a Body of Christ is in direct proportion to the level of spiritual intimacy shared among the people of God who call themselves a community of faith. That’s really hard to measure which may be the reason social scientists and church growth guru types never include it in their calculations.

I have come to understand that success in Christian community is the ability to say, “I love you” and to know that you not only have your secrets, you are your secrets and others have theirs. And, as it is often said, we are only as sick as our deeply kept secrets. 

Yet, God knows. God knows and God sees and God loves us.



And, when we do that – when we know our spiritual secrets and still love one another as God loves us – we are not only transformed, we are transfigured, and we shine with the glory of God – naked and unashamed.



Leonard said...

You just grabbed me by my ongoing deep search for real...having secrets, telling secrets does make reality pour out of the inner-me spiritedly... it has, and stark clarity has, been dammed up waiting to cascade forth into a truer cleaner/clearer view of my nature. Some of it was hiding out/in. It's been over a decade now...again, now as sometimes before now, I can understand a clearer version of me (and you) that pops me back into the flow of humanity. Thank you, is this love in the bold? As my Mom always said "We shall see what we shall see, dear"...I agree. Len

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

W"e shall see what we shall see." Indeed. A wise woman whose wisdom, no doubt, was revealed to her slowly, over time. Listen to her.