Sermon on the Transfiguration 2017–The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith
The Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017
I must share with you my experiences with food this past week. It started with a trip to the farm market to buy corn—corn that had been picked that very morning. It was home and in a pot of boiling water by 1 pm that afternoon. And, oh, how it tasted. I didn’t even need butter or salt. There is nothing like the taste of freshly picked sweet corn. There’s a science behind it. You see, once you pick corn, when it is 12 hours off the stalk it begins to convert the sugar to starch. That’s why that stuff they strip-mine in Florida and ship up here tastes like wood.
I also bought some peaches and yesterday they were ripe. I took one and peeled away the skin. It came off without effort, just lightly falling away with a little tug. And when I tasted it, oh my. I know you’re supposed to let the juice run down your arm but I ate it so fast there wasn’t time.
And last night I made salsa, with fresh tomatoes and peppers from my garden, and onions and cilantro grown locally. I didn’t even waste chips on it. It tasted so good.
I love this time of year. It is the only time of year you can get these kind of fresh fruits and vegetables; the only time of year when you can enjoy these incredible flavors. And when those tastes registered in my brain they latched on to the pleasure centers and opioid receptors and made my mind go Ka-pow.
That is what is supposed to happen. We are wired that way. We are wired to love fresh fruits and vegetables because they are good for us. Our bodies, after years of evolution, know this. So, these foods appeal to us in ways beyond even taste to the very pleasure receptors of our minds.
My recent experience with food reminds me of a sculpture I saw recently on the trip Jan and I took to Italy. I was reading in our guidebook, while on the train from the airport to downtown Rome, and I discovered that one of my favorite pieces of sculpture was just a block and a half away from the central train station. It was just there in some random church. We had to see it.
I had only seen pictures of this piece of art. It was amazing in real life. The sculpture is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Bernini. I love Teresa of Avilla. She was a great mystic who said people could have direct encounters with God, that did not have to be mediated through the rites and offices of the Church. She ticked off a lot of priests and bishops. She was not saying the church was unnecessary, after all we need the church to help make sense of our experience. But she did insist that all people could have direct access to the presence and love of God.
In the sculpture Teresa is obviously in the throes of joy and ecstasy. It is sensual. And it is obvious that this encounter with the presence and love of God is making the pleasure receptors in her brain go Ka-pow. And the incredible realism with which Bernini depicts this scene makes you realize that he had to know what Teresa was experiencing. He knew. It must of happened to him as well.
Now there will be people who will tell you that my experience with food and Teresa’s experience with God are two very different things. After all, I was truly eating these foods, and my body is the product of years of human evolution that made it possible for me to enjoy such flavors. Whereas, Teresa had an imaginary or fantasy encounter with God.
Some scientists would disagree. About 20 years ago, a group of scientists studied mystics who claimed they had experiences of the presence of God, detailed in book entitled Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. They mapped the brain waves of these people while they prayed and asked them to raise a hand when they felt they were in the presence of God. In every case, the parts of the brain that lit up were not the parts associated with imagination, dreams or fantasy. Rather the part of the brain that was active during mystical experiences was the part associated with sensory perception: hearing, sight, taste, and sound. The experience of God, and the way it effects the pleasure receptors in our minds is, according to our brains, just as real as the ecstasy at the food I ate this past week. It appears that we are hard wired even for God. This is real.
So, let me tell you what is truly unreal. What is unreal is the assault we have waged on our minds’ opioid and pleasure receptors.
Human beings have always had pleasurable experiences with the things we’ve ingested. We discovered, early on, what plants would stimulate the pleasure centers and opioid receptors. We learned fermentation. We have ingested things that altered our moods, and our view of the world and reality, and often this brought us joy.
But a few hundred years ago we discovered distilling. So now we have rapid alcohol delivery devices. We also discovered ways to turn the poppy plant and cannibals into massively potent mood alerting drugs. And, if that isn’t enough, we have created synthetic drugs with massive mood and pain altering power and we are overwhelmed.
Human beings have always loved beautiful images; sunsets, oceans, the attraction of another beautiful human being, the beautiful earth on which we live, or even the starry sky at night. But now we are so bombarded with images on TVs, Computers, phones and all around, that they overwhelm our minds.
And food. Yes, we love the taste of fresh food. But through years of evolution we have been wired to crave and love things that we could only find rarely in the natural world. We needed these things to stay alive and they were in short supply, so we developed an almost insatiable appetite for them. These foods are salt, fat and sugar. Now, food companies take advantage of that natural craving and overwhelm us with these ingredients, and it is killing us.
What is more, all these overwhelming assaults on our brains are dulling our pleasure centers and opioid receptors, so we are less likely to respond to the natural and real stimuli of ecstasy. Now that is unreal.
Which brings me to Jesus’ transfiguration. You might say that Jesus’ transfiguration was a mystical experience. While with his most trusted community, Peter, James and John, he is caught up in the presence of God. He is declared the fulfillment of the law (by the presence of Moses) and the prophets (enter Elijah). But more importantly, he is reminded who he is—the son God, the chosen. He is the beloved.
Now I have often said that most of what happens to Jesus can happen to us. We too can be caught up in the presence of God. We are not the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, but we are beloved children of God. And that is real. It is who we are. And it is worth contemplating that reality and allowing it to soak into our very being. Allow it to reach even to the pleasure centers and opioid receptors of our minds so our brains go Ka-pow; just like Teresa, just like Jesus.
So every morning, before anything gets turned on, I want you to remind yourself that you are a beloved child of God. And every night, when everything is turned off, remind yourself that you are a beloved child of God.
It won’t necessarily make your life easy or free of pain. After all, the transfiguration is the last thing that happens to Jesus before he starts his journey to Jerusalem. And we all know how that turned out. But we know that the one who loves us will carry us through our tough times.
And, if we can make ourselves aware of the presence of God in our lives through community, through beauty, through food, or just in prayer, and if we can allow that experience to remind us who we really are—the beloved children of God—then it will make our brains go Ka-pow.