Get Up, Don’t Be Afraid

(sermon 2/26/17 – Transfiguration Sunday)

dontbeafraid - Copy.jpg

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”  – Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)

=====

They started out early in the morning, when the fog was still hanging heavy over the top of the mountain, because it was a long, steep way to the top. Before long, though, the sun had burnt off the fog, and they were enjoying a beautiful, bright, sunny day that they were enjoying as they made their way higher, higher up the winding path. Of course, Jesus was leading the way, and right alongside him were Peter, and James, and John, maybe excited about the trip, maybe feeling just a little bit superior over the thought that Jesus had picked the three of them over the others to join him on this trip. Surely that must have made them Jesus’ inner circle, didn’t it?

The day wore on, and at some point Jesus decided they’d gone far enough. And then, Matthew tells us, Jesus was changed. He was transfigured, he was transformed. His face blazed like the sun; his clothes were dazzling white, brighter than Tide white, brighter than my pasty white body enjoying a day at the beach white. In that moment, these good Jewish disciples of Jesus had to remember the scripture, our first Lectionary reading today, that told about Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, and that his face turned a dazzling, bright white like this too. And then, as they’re thinking about that, Moses himself actually appears, and Elijah, and they’re talking with Jesus – and it’s clear to them what this must symbolize; here’s Moses, representing the Torah, the Law; and Elijah, representing the prophets; and that this is a sign that Jesus is the culmination, the fulfilment, of the Law and the Prophets; that Jesus is indeed God’s chosen; God’s anointed one.

It was an amazing, incredible thing. The three of them stood there completely overwhelmed by it all, this great, incomprehensible mystery that they were standing in the middle of. And of course it was Peter, because he was, well, it just always seemed to be Peter – impulsive, fly-off-at-the-mouth, shoot-from-the-hip Peter, who stands up and does what human beings often end up trying to do when they’re in the middle of an incomprehensible mystery – they try to put some structure to it. They try to put some order to it, to make it understandable. “Lord, let’s build three dwellings. We can put together a building program. Well, first, I suppose we should draw up some paperwork, and maybe incorporate, and probably set up some bylaws. Then, we should probably elect a few committees, and then we could start a capital campaign – after all, we really should do this decently and in order…”

It’s a normal human response to want to try to make sense out of something we don’t really understand. To take apart the mystery and get it to fit into some system, some structure, that we can understand, that we can get our arms around. That normal human response is an important part of how God designed us, and in all honesty, it’s led us to great advances in human knowledge and understanding. There have been other times, though, where that structure, that system, that we use to try to understand the mystery, actually sucks all the life, all the power, out of the mystery that made it so special and wonderful to begin with. Just as one example, you surely don’t need me to tell you that there are times when our institutional church structure serves us well, but there are other times when it gets in the way, when it clogs up the work of God’s Spirit.

Well in any case, there’s Peter, going on and on, talking about what they should do, until apparently God has heard enough about Peter’s plans to put some structure to this great mystery – to quantify it, organize it, maybe put it all on a spreadsheet somehow to make it more understandable, so they could keep it all going just as it was in that moment – and a dense cloud rolls over the mountain, even thicker than the fog of that morning, and the voice of God booms out of the cloud, “Enough! This is my Son – listen to *him*!!!”

And in an instant, everything is changed. The great, fantastic moment is shattered; it’s vaporized. Peter, James, and John fall to the ground in white-knuckled, heart-pounding, can-barely-catch-their-breath terror. All the plans, the hopes they were starting to put together to keep this mountaintop experience going on, have come crashing down in an instant. Now what do they do? Now what’s going to happen?

Well, the first thing that happens is that they feel Jesus’ hand on their shoulders, touching them, reassuring them, “It’s OK – Get up, don’t be afraid!” Even though things didn’t work out the way they’d started to plan, God was still there, Jesus was still there, helping to lift them up, dust them off, and to guide them forward.

How many times have we found ourselves in the same kind of situation? Things were going well for us, and we were making plans and doing what we could to keep things going the same way going into the future, when all of a sudden, something brought it all crashing down. Suddenly, everything was different. The old assumptions didn’t apply, and we found ourselves trying to figure out how to move forward when now, everything is uncharted territory.

We definitely find ourselves in that kind of a situation in the church today. It used to be that the church pews were full every Sunday, and nothing ever had to change, and nothing really ever did change, but still, people kept on coming back. Until one day, they didn’t. Fewer and fewer people started coming to church, and we worried if we’ll survive, and we didn’t know what to do, and honestly, maybe we still don’t. And that terrified us maybe as much as Peter and James and John were terrified on that mountainside. But the good news for us is that just like them, we don’t need to be terrified, either. Because Jesus is reaching out to us, telling us the same thing – Get up, don’t be afraid; I’m here with you.

And it isn’t just the church; it’s our own personal lives, too. Times when our lives are turned upside down, when we’re knocked to the ground, and we don’t know how to move forward or even *if* we can move forward. Maybe we’ve lost someone we love, someone who’s everything to us, they’re like the air we breathe, and we don’t know how we’d get along without them – and one day, they’re just gone. It’s like we’ve been punched in the stomach, we’re knocked off our feet. But Jesus reaches down and touches us, and says “Get up, don’t be afraid – I’m right here with you.” Maybe we lost a job; we’ve never been rich but we always made do, and we paid our bills and maybe socked a little bit away for a rainy day, but now that’s over, we don’t know what we’re going to do, we don’t know how we’re going to get by, and the bills just keep coming in the mail every day – but Jesus reaches down and touches us and says “Get up, don’t be afraid – I’ll help you find a way forward.” Maybe we get bad news, terrifying news, a life-changing diagnosis from the doctor, and we’re terrified at what it means for us – but there’s Jesus’ hand on us again, “Get up, don’t be afraid – we’ll walk this path together.” Society changing, government changing, laws changing, and always it seems for the worse, going backward and not forward – and Jesus says “Get up, don’t be afraid.”

There are all sorts of things preachers can preach about when we read about the Transfiguration – but for me, it’s always been about this moment when Jesus reaches down, even after the disciples were missing the point and going off in a wrong direction, and he lovingly helps them up, telling them to not be afraid. I always thought that in that moment, when they let their fears go, and trusted Jesus, and got back up out of the dirt and on their feet, that they were transfigured – they were transformed, too – maybe not as big and bold as Jesus was, but in a real way, their lives were changed, and they were made a bit more the people God had created them them to be.

And I believe that’s true for us, too. When Jesus reaches out to us in our times of terror, our times of worry, our times of doubt and uncertainty; and when Jesus reaches out to touch us, and to lift us back up, and to lead us forward, we’re transfigured, too. We’re new creations, loved by God, empowered by God, led by God. We know that’s true. And if we know that’s all true, and we know that Jesus is indeed right here with us, telling us not to be afraid of any of those things, then really, there is nothing – nothing! – nothing outside these walls, or within our own hearts, that we should ever be afraid of.

Thanks be to God.

On and Off the Mountain (sermon 2/7/16)

hello my name is

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God.   – Luke 9:28-43a

=====

I’m not sure about you, but I always thought it was a bit odd for the Christian calendar to jam Christmas and Easter so close together in the year. From a logistical standpoint, wouldn’t it have been easier to observe them further apart, even a full six months apart? I mean really, we just got Jesus born and out of the manger, and we’re already getting ready to kill him off – and it’s more pronounced this year, when Lent and Easter come so early.

Be that as it may, today is Transfiguration Sunday, when we hear about the amazing things that took place on the mountaintop. This event is a pivot point in Jesus’ life. It’s a literal high point, after which Jesus comes down from the mountain and resolutely heads toward Jerusalem, where he’ll face rejection and the end of his earthly ministry. And of course, it’s this journey toward Jerusalem, the days leading up to the crucifixion, that we’ll walk with Jesus symbolically by way of observing Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday this week.

It must have been an incredible thing, really – Jesus, dazzling white; the appearance of Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the Law and the Prophets and that Jesus himself was the fulfillment, the very personification of them both. Just as a sidebar here, did you ever wonder when you heard this story just how the disciples actually knew these two strangers were Moses and Elijah? When they appeared out of nowhere, were they wearing name tags, “HELLO, My Name Is _____” Did they have a little meet & greet? In any case, we hear how the story progresses. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about… well, something, we tend to imagine Moses and Elijah giving hope and comfort to Jesus as he approaches his time of crisis. And in the middle of this incredible, surreal experience, Peter starts running off at the mouth, because, well, that’s what Peter does, and because he doesn’t really know what to say but he thinks he should say something, so he suggests that this is such an incredible thing that’s happening that they should build three booths, like they do in the Jewish festival of Sukkot – they need three structures, three dwellings, for the three of them to stay in and settle into – showing us all that from the very beginnings, the church had a tendency to get all wrapped up in its real estate, until God steps in and cuts Peter off, telling him to be settle down, be quiet, he’s missing the point of what’s happening in front of his very eyes. This is my Son; listen to him.

We can all imagine for ourselves what this mysterious encounter on the mountain must have been like, but the one certain thing is that it had a profound effect on the disciples who witnessed it. So profound that they didn’t want it to end; as misguided as Peter’s idea was, it came from a place in his heart that recognized this, and he wanted to keep it going, just as it was in that moment.

But we all know it doesn’t work that way. Whether it’s some incredible “mountaintop experience” we have while attending a spiritual retreat, or anything else for that matter, we know that the ordinary always returns. The next day, the next step, the next thing always comes, and God tells us, just as with Peter, to be obedient and step into it in faith.

And it’s interesting to note that that’s exactly what Jesus and the disciples did. Apparently after a good night’s sleep, they came down from the mountain, they got right back into the thick of things. Back into the daily routine of their work. Even knowing what lay ahead, Jesus continued to proclaim the good news, and continued to heal people.

It’s easy for us to be distracted in our own lives of faith by voices other than the ones we should be listening to. It’s easy for us to want to settle in and set roots when God actually wants us to sprout wheels. It’s easy to hear voices like Peter’s instead of God’s. Instead of the voices of poor, the sick, the marginalized and oppressed; the voices from down off the mountain; the ones we’re called to bring good news to. The mountaintops of our lives of faith can be amazing, soul-nourishing experiences. But we have to realize that they aren’t there just for no reason. They’re meant to nourish us for the things that God is drawing us toward, the things that God is leading us to do for the good of God’s reign, and for the good of others. They’re meant to nourish us for life off the mountain, wherever and whatever that might look like; and whether name tags are needed or not.

Thanks be to God.

Exhibitionist Jesus (sermon 2/15/15)

Foggy Day

A foggy morning at the Church of the Transfiguration at the top of Mount Tabor while visiting there in January 2012; supposed site of the story we hear in today’s gospel text

=====

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. – Mark 9:2-9

=====

On a family vacation a long time ago, when Erica, my oldest daughter, was only three or maybe four years old, we were staying at a hotel that had a big plaza out back, with a number of picnic tables just outside the hotel door, and then some playground equipment, and then a nice, large swimming pool beyond that. One afternoon while we were there, we decided to hit the pool, and after a couple of hours it was time to find something to eat, so we gathered up our things, and we each took one of Erica’s hands, and with her between us, we started walking back to the hotel. As we walked, Lori and I were discussing where we might go to eat, and what we might do after dinner. And all the while, Erica was chattering a mile a minute about something, the way three-year olds do, but we were paying more attention to our own conversation at that moment. As we continued talking, and as we were getting closer to the door, I became slightly aware that there were two boys, maybe high-school age or so, sitting on one of the picnic tables, and they were laughing at something. I didn’t pay any attention to them; Lori and I kept talking, but as we were getting closer to them it became harder not to notice that the kids at the table were laughing, louder and louder; they were doubling over, almost crying from laughing so hard, and I admit that in the moment my mind strayed from our conversation and I wondered what these two kids were laughing at. And it was only then that gradually, my own daughter’s chattering came into focus in my brain, and I heard her going on and on at the top of her lungs, “Hey Mom, hey Dad, look at that guy over there – he’s really fat! Really, really, look at him! He’s so fat he might break that bench! Look! I think that’s the fattest man I ever saw, I mean, he’s really fat!!!”

And sure enough, I looked over, and sitting at another one of the picnic tables was a really, really large man. Between his angry, beet-red face at the one table, and the laughing teenagers at the other, all that my wife and I could do was to grab onto Erica and walk as fast as we could, with her feet barely touching the pavement, until we got inside the hotel doors, where we all collapsed into a pile of simultaneous embarrassment and laughter and scolding her not to say things like that.

In the midst of us focusing on our own priorities and trying to set our own pattern on things, we’d been missing the significance and meaning of what was really going on in the moment.

I think that’s part of the significance of this story of Jesus’ transfiguration, too. Jesus and these three disciples trek up a mountainside to get away from the distractions of daily life and to pray, to meditate, to re-center and refocus their relationship with God, to try to hear God’s word speaking within their hearts. It was something that they did fairly routinely as we read the gospels. But this time was different, with Jesus’ clothes suddenly appearing a dazzling white, radiating, almost glowing. The passage doesn’t really say that he himself starts to radiate, but I imagine that he does, if just from the brightness of his clothing. And all of a sudden Moses and Elijah appear along with him.

It’s a truly incredible scene. We try to imagine it, and we try to understand it, and we try to make some sense out of this completely incomprehensible event. What does it mean? What does it symbolize? Jesus blazing white, Moses and Elijah, the key representatives, the symbols, of the Law and the Prophets of holy scripture, all there together. Just what’s going on here? In the moment, Peter starts trying to put some meaning onto it. He tries to organize and categorize what he’s seeing, trying to put some overlay or a pattern to it; he’s trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. And the pattern that he seems to be using as he tries to apply his own meaning to the scene is that he may be looking at what’s going on and thinking it’s the end of the world. It’s what the Jews called “The Day of the Lord,” the final Judgment Day when the dead will be raised, and God will rule on the physical earth for all eternity. And in trying to make sense out of what he’s seeing in front of his eyes, Peter seems to think he’s standing at ground zero of the beginning of this Day of the Lord, especially because in Jewish religious thought of the time, the Day of the Lord was associated with Sukkot, the Festival of the Booths, where the faithful set up small tentlike structures or booths outside and live inside them, symbolizing the time of the Exodus. It’s a tradition that many Jewish faithful observe today; this year the observance is in late September. Maybe you’ve experienced that if you have some Jewish friends. So Peter starts to blather on and on, saying they could make booths and live there. He goes on talking about this until the voice of God brings him back to focus, telling him to stop all that and to pay attention to Jesus.

In the midst of him focusing on his need to put his own meaning to what was happening, and trying to set his own pattern on things, Peter was missing the significance and meaning of what was really going on in the moment. Maybe this past week you saw the pictures online of the guy sitting on a sailboat during a whale-watching outing who was so wrapped up in staring at his phone and sending a text message that he completely missed the amazing sight of a humpback whale surfacing just a few feet away from him. Peter seems to have been having a similar moment, and God was telling him to stop texting and to pay attention to what was going on in front of him.

And what exactly was going on? Nothing less than Jesus making it absolutely, positively clear that he was God’s chosen, beloved, anointed one; the one in whom God was very pleased. That he was the Christ. Throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly telling the disciples to not tell people that he’s the Christ, but now, here, in this scene, Jesus is practically an exhibitionist, making the point of who he is in blazing white neon and floodlighting.

It’s easy for us to want to always apply pattern, and reason, and meaning to things so we can understand them. We can put them into neat, manageable boxes and deal with them. But when we try to do the same thing with God – when we try to wring all the incomprehensibility and mystery and wonder out of God; when our rational minds demand to only seek God too decently and in good order; we’re likely closing our hearts and minds to experiencing God in the way that God is trying to speak to us.

Lent is a time when we’re supposed to not be like me and my wife on that vacation; or like the texting guy on the whale watch; or like Peter on the mountaintop. It’s a time when we’re called to put aside our demands for order and pattern, and to be open to God speaking to us in times and ways we’ve been blocking. That’s the reason behind the Wednesday evening services this Lenten season, to create a space for us to do that. That’s the reason why during those services, the chapel will be configured in ways different from the norm, to help break through the established, familiar patterns and to help make us able to hear God in new and unexpected ways.

This Lent, I really hope that we all try to do that. Just as this congregation is in an overall time of transition, let’s allow Lent to be a time of transition within our own hearts, too. Let’s be open to God breaking in and transforming, transfiguring our lives, in ways large and small, healing whatever our particular brokenness might be, speaking to whatever the particular longing is in our own souls. Let’s do that, because just as we’d be wise to pay attention to what a three-year old is trying to say to us, we’d be all the more wise to do the same with God.

Thanks be to God.

texting man misses whale