Transfiguration Sunday was the second time I've preached, but it was my first sermon.
From today’s Gospel:
Jesus [led] Peter and James and John up a high mountain . . . And. . . was transfigured before them, . . . And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus . . . and Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”
The Transfiguration is one of the “big events” in our Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s not as big as the parting of the Red Sea or the crucifixion, but it’s still pretty big. It’s easy to look at the “big events” in the Bible as the main message, the extent of what we learn about God’s presence in our midst. After all, this is what most of us learned in Sunday School. When we stop at the “big event,” though, we miss one element that runs through so many of these stories. That element is how we as observers react when “the Kingdom of God comes near”.
For example, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it was such a big deal to the Company of Heaven that a band of angels got together, formed an impromptu chorus, came down and sang Christmas carols all around the neighborhood, then flew back to Heaven and probably drank hot cider or something. I’m sure they were satisfied with their performance, but it terrified the observers, the shepherds. Before they collected their wits and went to see the infant Jesus, I said a few years ago that I imagine they washed more than their socks that night.
Let’s take another example. In Mark 5, Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee (on the way, he dozes off in the back of the boat in the middle of a major storm that scares the wits out of his disciples). He goes to the country of the Gerasenes. A demoniac, a man possessed by demons, approaches Jesus and begs not to be tormented. Jesus confronts the unclean spirits and gives them permission to leave the demoniac and enter a herd of two thousand swine. The swine promptly stampede down a slope, into the water, and drown.
The observers are the swineherds. Their reaction? Probably panic. They run into the town and inform the townspeople. What do the locals do? “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion [of unclean spirits]; and they were afraid”. The demoniac, the one too strong to be restrained, who lived in the cemetery howling and bruising himself with stones, running around naked or nearly so, the townspeople were willing to live with; it was Jesus they asked to leave.
So, in today’s Gospel, Peter and James and John observe Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, the very Jewish embodiment of all the Law and the Prophets, Jesus’ clothing dazzling white, and “[Peter] did not know what to say, for they were terrified”.
They were terrified. This is our typical reaction when the Kingdom of God comes near us. We come to this Table and eat the Body of Christ and drink His Blood, and, little by little, the Kingdom of God comes closer and closer to changing our hearts, to turning us away from cultural expectations and dicta—the world—and toward his call to each of us. It’s terrifying.
Who isn’t terrified today? We see that fear all around us:
1. A woman struggles to reconnect her emotions to her true worth, a connection damaged by physical and psychological abuse;
2. A young man, overwhelmed by the cultural expectations he perceives demanded of him, hides his imperfections in an outburst of sexual promiscuity;
3. Yet another person, terrified by feelings of guilt or shame, resorts to alcoholic anesthesia rather than deal with them; and
4. A middle-aged man, a thousand miles from home, trapped in a parking lot between a culture that expects him to maintain his marriage and family, and an orientation that drives him to seek a relationship with another man.
We know fear, even terror. To a greater or lesser extent, it controls all of us: the more we react to fear in our lives, the more we are controlled by others, and the less freedom we have to respond to God’s love.
What does God say about fear? Just about everywhere, God says, “fear not,” do not be afraid.
As Bishop Gene Robinson pointed out in a sermon last year, Jesus’ life is bookended by calls not to be afraid. Bishop Robinson, of all people, a man not afraid to be open and honest about his sexual orientation in a culture that, more often than not, punishes such honesty and condones the violent suppression of homosexuals by fear-filled people.
At the front end of Jesus’ life are Joseph and Mary. In Matthew, just as Joseph has just decided to dismiss Mary quietly, an angel tells him not to be afraid to marry her. The angel Gabriel visited John the Baptist’s father and scared the wits out of him. Gabriel got much the same response from Mary, who was “much perplexed” by his appearance. Gabriel told Mary the same thing he told Zechariah, “Do not be afraid”.
At the end of Jesus’ life, after the Crucifixion, the two Mary’s who went to the tomb on the first day of the week encountered the stone rolled away and one or two men in clothes dazzling white. The guards were paralyzed with fear. The women were so terrified they couldn’t even look up. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid”.
And even after the Resurrection, the disciples get together in an upper room and lock the doors and windows “for fear of the Jews”. After Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, the Lord speaks to Ananias in a vision, calling him to go to Saul and lay his hands on him. You can tell from the ensuing discussion in Acts 9 that Ananias has a very clear impression of what will happen to him if he does. He obeys the Lord, but one can easily imagine the fear he must have felt on this mission, God’s reassurances notwithstanding.
How do you overcome fear? I have a few practical ideas.
First, name your fear, just as Jesus asked the unclean spirits, “What is your name”? Write down what you’re afraid of, pencil and paper or keyboard and Microsoft Word. Write it down exactly, graphically, all the details, don’t leave anything out.
Second, assess if you can the risk that what you fear will actually occur. For example, If you’re afraid to drive on expressways or fly on commercial airlines, find out how many people actually do without incident.
Third, move toward the fear, not away from it. Jesus spoke directly to the unclean spirits; Ananias went to the house where Saul was staying. Reacting to the fear means the fear controls you. Moving toward the fear puts you in control. It has been my experience that my irrational fears vanish like smoke when I move toward them and stop giving them control.
Finally, and always, trust in God. Love God; God loves you. And love your neighbor as yourself, which I interpret to mean that in order to love others, you must first love yourself. You are, after all, “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
And when you have overcome your fears and love God and know that God doesn’t love you less than anyone else, or more, but that he loves us all beyond our wildest imaginings, you will be able to say to others with genuineness and conviction from your heart, the peace of the Lord be always with you.