Harrowing Of Hell
February 23, 2020

The Real Beauty of God’s Love

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers and friends:

How are you doing this morning? Can I tell you a little secret (that, knowing my blabbermouth I have probably already told you at least once or twice). Since I was ordained over 21 years ago, I haven’t had many a good night’s sleep on a Saturday night. I imagine you all know what I am talking about, too. Saturday nights for me are a little like an actor before a performance, or an athlete before a race or someone right before that big presentation at work.  All my nervous energy means I sleep fitfully at best—with odd dreams of things like coming here this morning and finding out I am supposed to preach but I had forgotten to write my sermon or coming in late to find Epiphany Church has changed into this cavernous and confusing cathedral and the procession as already begun and I don’t know where my alb or vestments are —and the Presiding Bishop is here….

And so, the sad truth is that on the one day a week that I am most likely see the majority of you —my beloved community—I am almost constantly looking my worst. You might be pleasantly surprised if you come to see me on a weekday! Anyway I find I can’t help but think about this on the Feast of the Transfiguration when we are thinking about the glorious reveal, if you will, of Jesus as the Messiah on the top of the mountain where his face shone like the sun and his clothes were dazzling white—and here’s me looking a little like death-warmed-over… Right now, I’m thinking what I need is a good filtered light—like they used in the Hollywood films of old – or, though it wouldn’t help right here and now, a good person to photoshop or digitally modify my appearance. But, while our culture would urge me to do so, I don’t think Jesus would agree.  Because, while to our human minds, this story of the transfiguration seems to be just the right shiny and glitzy way to confirm that Jesus is the Messiah – showcasing Jesus in all his glory filtered through the beautiful crepuscular light, that moment is not the denouement of Jesus’ ministry. Nor is that magnificent moment when the voice from heaven – which like in Jesus’ baptism affirms “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” and adds for good measure, “Listen to him!” That is why, much to our surprise, Jesus tells his disciples that they aren’t supposed to tell anyone yet.  As he told Simon whom he just named Peter for proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus didn’t come to give a flashy ‘sign’ to those around him that he is the Messianic king. He came for a much greater victory. “Get behind me Satan” Jesus says to Peter when he would not hear that Jesus was to die.  

As Jesus told Peter six days before, when we just want to see ourselves and others in our best/most powerful and flattering light, we might just be “…setting…[our] mind[s] not on divine things but on human things.” Because, while it is a good thing to try to do and look our very best and to put ourselves in our best light, God doesn’t love us or value us any less when we don’t. And quite frankly, God has gone to incredible lengths to let us know this from the very beginning of time. While we spend a lot of time thinking about the Fall, what we seem to forget is that the story of God with humanity in the Garden is how God ideally wants to be with us—walking and talking with us in an intimate and loving relationship. In truth, although we have a tendency to make important things much more grandiose and dramatic than they need to be, God has always been pretty laid back. God’s relationship with us has always been based on God’s love freely given and our freedom to live into and respond to that love as children of God. That God cares about the freedom of his children is revealed in his relationship to the Israelites who were held in slavery in Egypt. God heard their cries and acted to set them free. And after leading folks out of Egypt, God travelled with them both day and night in a pillar of fire and cloud. God responded, too, to their need for food. God gave them heavenly food—manna—and when they were thirsty, God gave them fresh water from a rock. And all of this God did even though, in their fear and uncertainty, the Israelites weren’t showing their best selves. God gave them—gave us–freedom but, like us, they struggled to understand it and keep it. So, when folks wanted guidance and a list of rules, God gave them the 10 Commandments. But when folks, so recently freed from slavery, asked God for an earthly King, or when Abimelech forcefully tried to make himself one, while God would give them a king  – God put these words in the mouth of Jotham who told this parable from the top of  the mountain — Mount Gerizim. It a little lengthy but I am going to share it with you because I think it is important.

The trees once went out
    to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree,
    ‘Reign over us.’
The olive tree answered them,
    ‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil
        by which gods and mortals are honored,
        and go to sway over the trees?’
10 Then the trees said to the fig tree,
    ‘You come and reign over us.’
11 But the fig tree answered them,
    ‘Shall I stop producing my sweetness
        and my delicious fruit,
        and go to sway over the trees?’
12 Then the trees said to the vine,
    ‘You come and reign over us.’
13 But the vine said to them,
    ‘Shall I stop producing my wine
        that cheers gods and mortals,
        and go to sway over the trees?’
14 So all the trees said to the bramble,
    ‘You come and reign over us.’
15 And the bramble said to the trees,
    ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you,
        then come and take refuge in my shade;
    but if not, let fire come out of the bramble
        and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’

I think often about this parable of the trees. It is a nicer version of what Jack Nicholson’s line in A Few Good Men. “You want the truth – you can’t handle the truth!” You want a king God warns—are you so willing to give over your freedom to another human being? Think about the brambles. Those of you from this region, know a little bit about brambles— especially the wild Himalaya blackberry brambles which have taken over a lot of our area here. As a Montanan and a latter-day New Yorker, I was amazed by the plethora of blackberry bushes all around. My mom was a forager before foraging was cool – so I picked huckleberries and chokecherries and wild asparagus and raspberries throughout my youth in my home state. But I couldn’t believe just how many blackberries there were all around the city of Seattle itself…but what I didn’t initially know was just how invasive this species, first sold here by Luther Burbank, was to the Puget Sound region and just how tenacious they were.  Getting rid of the Himalaya blackberry is almost impossible once it gets established and it erodes soil and kills indigenous plants. Yes, the berries are huge and when ripe super delicious, but they thrive at the expense of other species.  And as the parable suggests, while the brambles may agree to be your king – look at those who refuse to do so. The olive tree has no desire to be king because it knows that its gift of oil is important. The fig tree has no desire to rule because it rejoices in its ability to give sweet and delicious fruit. And the grape vine has no desire to reign and sway because it gives the gift of wine. But the bramble concedes to be king with the warning that if the trees do not take his rule seriously – he will devour the very cedars of Lebanon. 

So, while God will give us a king—while God would anoint the lineage of David—as the children of God we already are the real heirs of God.  So, what God most wants us to know is that our glory doesn’t come from how we are perceived by others – our outward success or beauty. Our glory—our beauty and goodness comes as a birthright from within—a gift from the God who made us – our God who dwells within us.  Right now, we are in an age where everything is computer- enhanced. We look at the ‘beautiful people’ in magazines and on the billboards and can find ourselves feeling like we don’t measure up. It’s rather absurd how we can get sucked into these visuals right? We know that an actor or a model or sports star will rarely be gifted with the kind of personal and spiritual gifts that changes the lives of those around them for the better. But they look so perfect—so flawless. And even though we know that what we see isn’t really true – we still feel like we don’t measure up—as ashamed as Adam and Eve found themselves with their new “knowledge.” And while a  few actors are now coming forward and making a point of being photographed or filmed without the photo-shopping, body-doubling and computer-generated images, I wonder if as they age their decisions may be changed by the necessity of competing in the gilded and false world of glamour? Can we handle the truth?

While I was never a huge fan, I remember being a little girl listening to an interview with the late Farrah Fawcett who was a huge star at the time. And I remember when she was asked what it was like being one of the most beautiful women in the world, she answered, “ You know, I don’t think I am —the most beautiful woman in the world is probably living in some small-town somewhere in the middle of nowhere and we will never even know her name. “As a little girl-child of a beautiful mother, I thought that was true…. Because that beautiful woman could be my own mom who used to say, “Ruthie, everything you do in your life shows on your face.” Mom believed in the beauty within.

And that is the kind of beauty that God is calling us to– a beauty that doesn’t depend on the light quality around us but the light that comes from within.  Jesus on that mountaintop didn’t look any different than he did any other day of his life on earth. It was just that in that moment it was revealed to his disciples just how majestic and beautiful Jesus was. And the Jesus who will later so willingly go to the cross allows us to see just how beautiful God’s love is too. The one true King divests himself of his glory to wear a crown of thorns so we can claim our freedom and our glory as the children of God. That’s what love looks like. That’s truth. So, while I might not look my best this morning, I hope you are seeing the Christ within me. Because we all look good in God’s light. My siblings in Christ, I pray that our thoughts, our deeds, our kindness, and our love may show on our faces. May we see the beauty within each other.  We’re ready to shine!