Transfiguration Sunday—February 19, 2012
Last week, sitting with the kids, I tried to engage them in a conversation about the difference between pride and confidence. It’s a complicated point of distinction because how often do we say to our kids, “I am proud of you.” We want our kids to know this, and more important, we want our kids to feel proud of themselves. And we know that to create leaders we have to create people who take pride in their accomplishments and feel confident about their abilities. The same people who can look at a great mark on a report card and feel that they deserved it — that’s pride — can look at a not-so-great mark and believe they can do better next time — that’s confidence. The danger we face — I think especially these days — is when we get too much of the other. In that case, we become too proud to ask for help from others – or see the role that others play in our success. And we become so confident that we fail to recognize our weaknesses and improve upon them. Our focus gets blurry, you might say, and our gaze turns inward. The trouble is, if you spend too much time looking back at yourself, you miss most of the important things around you.
In large part, this is the point of our readings this morning: to make sure our gaze is directed at the right place, to ensure we are focused in the right direction. In the gospel, that point is made as clearly as it could ever be: God literally shines the spotlight on Jesus in front of the disciples. Why would God do this? After all, the disciples would have been pretty clear on who their leader was at this point. God’s light show is a confirmation of source, but it’s also a sealing of the deal: this act defines the role of Jesus and the path he will soon take. And perhaps more importantly, the role is defined for the same people who will need to maintain the highest clarity of focus in the days ahead.
The second lesson takes the same approach, but this time it is an explicit lesson for us—the lesson of listening. The lesson says, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” That is, the ministry of the church, and of our lives, is not about us: it is ultimately about Jesus. Our focus, our gaze should rest on him.
Now, you could say what difference does it make: if we take the acclaim for our good deed isn’t it still a good deed? Can’t we bask in all those wonderful acts of generosity and gospel-sharing for a little while? Jesus would be the first to say, take a breather, enjoy the glow of accomplishment and well-deserved success. For a minute. But remember when the disciples grew too cozy up in the mountain, too comfortable off their feet, too swelled up with all they’d already done, Jesus let them have it: and sent them right down the mountain side. That’s the problem with focusing on ourselves: while we are busy with the back-patting, there’s more work that needs doing.
But there’s another danger when we focus too much on ourselves. Two possibilities happen: the first is that we start second-guessing ourselves; we become too self-critical and we lose confidence. The gospel is also about risk, and a lack of confidence puts an end to any risk-taking. We might spend too much time ruminating about how we said something to someone, or how we might have done better, or how we could have made a different choice, and suddenly that’s all we’re doing. Sometimes we need a little less talk and a little more do. Self-reflection is good, but focusing inward too much –well, that tends to be paralyzing.
Some Canadian researchers recently did an interesting study with doctors. They brought doctors into a room and set them up before a computer; they were given a large sample size of patients’ profiles and told to prescribe a fictional drug for them. The computer would instantly tell them whether the drug had worked or not, and over time, the doctors were meant to develop a clear treatment plan for the drug in the experiment. Two-thirds of the doctors never got it right: they kept prescribing the drug incorrectly. But another one-third figured it out: they ended the experiment with the correct treatment plan. What was the difference? When they studied the doctors who had failed the test, they found that their brains lit up when they succeeded: when patient A got better on the drug. But the doctor who passed the test, their brains lit up when they failed: that is when the drug didn’t work. By focusing on their mistakes instead of their successes, they figured out the solution.
Researchers say this applies to all of us: we tend to read too much into our successes, and make connections that are not there. In fact, by focusing on what we know is wrong, we find a faster way to the real truth, because we aren’t jumping to conclusions. How does this fit into the gospel this morning? Well, it’s ultimately all about focus as well. On the first level, if we are busy applauding ourselves, we are forgetting the gospel; we might assume we don’t need the gospel anymore, though I think we’d find we’d get off track pretty quickly. And if we fail to focus on what is wrong with society, rather than basking in what’s right about it, then we miss the lesson that Jesus leaves to us: we can’t fix anything if we don’t see it. We have to keep our gaze, our focus, on the gospel.
Our confidence as Christians should be rooted in the gospel, not just because it is our faith, but because it is, ultimately, the only way to keep seeing the things that need fixing, the only way to avoid complacency, the only way to bask in our brilliance. There is always work to be done, and on its own, that could be pretty disheartening: after all, we might ask, when can we just call things a success? And that’s where Jesus comes in: Jesus is our confidence booster.
Because Jesus says that just as God had faith in me, I have faith in you. I am proud of you. Focusing on Jesus and the gospel reminds us not only that things can be changed, but that we have the power to make it happen – in our own lives and communities. Jesus is the one who says to us, with love: You did well. Now do it again. Amen.