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When I was planning my sermon this week and thinking about the theme for the day which is Do Not Be Afraid – and about us Sharing Encouragement, I had a much different sermon in mind leading up to Wednesday night. Thursday I spent the day reflecting on how when presented with the reality of Russia invading Ukraine with no just cause, what does standing up in the face of fear and encouraging one another look like?
How can we find comfort and meaning in this scripture passage, when, really – weren’t things bad enough with one thing after another in recent times – Covid on its own was enough, the severe weather events, then recently the freedom convoy disrupting lives and creating division in our country, more children’s remains found on residential school grounds, and now Russia launching an invasion, with the death count already significant, with real reason for fear throughout Ukraine, Russia and for the rest of us looking on from afar.
And Jesus says “get up and do not be afraid.”
Sometimes we have real reasons to be afraid. In light of all the things happening in the world and in our lives right now – what does it mean for us to hear “get up and do not be afraid?”
I was thinking about the Russians who are protesting Putin’s attack on Ukraine and getting arrested by the hundreds and thousands? Standing up in protest against a ruthless leader. What does it mean for them to get up and not be afraid?
And we have seen so many images these last few days of Ukrainians who are hiding in the underground subways to keep themselves safe. Ukrainians who are fleeing on packed highways just to try to find a safer place to be. Parents who are having to say tearful goodbyes to their family as they go off to fight in this war to protect their country, not knowing if they’ll see their children and spouses again. What does it mean for them to get up and not be afraid?
When I think about these situations that people on the other side of the world are in right now as I sit comfortably in the safety of my home and we sit in the comfort and safety of this sanctuary, I recognize that I have never known such fear as they are experiencing right now. That kind of life-threatening situation is not one that I have ever, or hopefully will ever find myself in. I cannot imagine the amount of courage required to get through those types of experiences.
I imagine that fear would immobilize some and act as motivation for others, sometimes motivation giving them courage, and sometimes the motivation might lead them to have the courage to take unnecessary risks.
For us here, the kind of fear of imminent danger that is being experienced in Ukraine right now feels like it is on a completely different scale than the fears that we have here. But the fears we experience are real and can still be immobilizing.
In our local context of the pandemic, for the immunocompromised in our communities, who are still at risk of severe illness if they get Covid. Many are afraid as restrictions are being eased. What does it mean for them to get up and not be afraid?
Or for Indigenous families who have experienced loss on so many levels throughout their lifetime and generations before, fear for their children’s futures knowing that they are at higher risk for addictions, suicide, homelessness and incarceration and the women in their community who are going missing and being added to the statistics of missing and murdered Indigenous women. What does it mean for them to get up and not be afraid?
Or as we see the effects of climate change causing increasingly severe weather events and misuse and destruction of our planet. What does it mean when faced with climate change to say get up and don’t be afraid?
It seems to me that Get up and don’t be afraid – is maybe not the message that people need to hear right now.
But what did it mean in the context of this morning’s scripture?
Jesus takes some of the disciples up the mountain after sharing his teachings and ministry with them. On top of the mountain they had this amazing experience. Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Then Moses and Elijah appeared.
On top of the mountain, Peter knows that Jesus’ dazzling appearance in the presence of Moses and Elijah is significant– He says “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”–but he does not fully understand what he is seeing. His suggestion to build three dwelling places, seems like his attempt to capture the moment, to preserve it for safekeeping, to contain this wild, frightening experience into an everyday, household encounter. One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like a student who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not fully understand the question.
At its core, the Transfiguration insists that change is difficult but needed. Change rocks our world, but likely our world needed some sort of earth shattering event.
Change demands reorientation and sometimes the change happens before we know where we are heading.
I suspect Peter is caught in that space between wanting things to stay the same and knowing that change is about to happen.
So, we build dwelling places or tents, as it is sometimes translated. A rather appropriate metaphor for this in between experience. Not permanent structures, but structures just the same — to give us more time, to hold on to something we likely know cannot be held. To capture, even briefly, a moment that might very well carry us through the change that is about to happen.
The Transfiguration is that threshold moment between what was and what is to come. You get a glimpse of what could be, when actually, it was all along. You know what I mean, right? It’s not that we haven’t seen the change coming. It’s not that we haven’t recognized what the change might look like. We just wonder if we are ready. If we can we handle it. If we are prepared. We erect temporary structures as an act of holding us in the past, but also to capture a memory to cope with what is to come.
Yes, Peter wants Jesus to stay. But Peter also needs the memory to stay — the glory, the confirmation, the assurance, the promise, the declaration — because he will need it later on – we all do.
Peter is hesitant to let go. Letting go is almost impossible without the act of holding on.
As we move into Lent this week, this seems essential. Holding on when letting go — letting go of our images of God. Letting go of control. Letting go of certainty. Letting go of conviction. For the disciples in this story it was holding on to Jesus’ eternal message of hope and love and new life, and letting go of the relationship with Jesus as they know it.
Yet Jesus tells them Get up and do not be afraid.
Jesus stands there in dazzling glory, in the light of God, and gives them comfort in their fear. Jesus stands in his tradition alongside the law (represented by Moses) and the prophets (represented by Elijah) and as the Messiah he represents a continuation of God’s story in the world, of God’s love, constant and eternal for all people for all time.
The Transfiguration is a fitting story to transition us to Lent because it insists that we keep what was and what can be in tension: the what can be of Lent and Easter, the what that is essential to the Christian faith, is both constant change and yet a resistance to it. As it is in our own lives too.
Not always. I get that. But perhaps a lot more than we realize or that we care to admit. We are in constant movement of change in relationships — with partners, with friends, with children. We recognize major life changes — graduations, marriages, children, grandchildren, retirements, deaths.
Change, by definition, is a simultaneous holding on of what was and a looking toward the hope of what can be. And that’s why it is rather excruciating. Change insists that we exist in a place that we don’t want to be. Change demands that we stay in a space that is yet to be resolved. Change creates a sense of grief over what was and yet excitement or hope for what is to come.
In the fears that we experience now, and even the fears that people in Russia and Ukraine are experiencing now – sometimes the courage to act in spite of our fear comes with the realization that there is hope for something better. That hope for something better gives us the strength to not be immobilized by those fears. This story reminds us that in our fear Christ holds us and wraps us in the saving history of God, the love that will not let us go, therefore our fears will not consume us.
That’s Transfiguration. It’s not the glory. It’s not some sort of “get over it and come down the mountain” lesson. It’s both. It’s faith. It’s the sense that change is necessary but yet that truth is hard to accept. It’s the knowing that moving on is essential but we have yet to reconcile the past. It’s realizing what we need to walk into, what we have to live in to, is so incredibly hard when we have yet to come to terms with why we should.
Change matters are heart and soul matters. Change exposes. Change changes. But change matters are the very essence of our faith.
And Lent is our own chance to have a mountaintop experience where we can be changed – when we listen to what God has to say to us. And when Jesus will be there, with words of comfort, saying Get up and don’t be afraid.
The story of the Transfiguration tells us that no one has to go up the mountain alone. It tells us that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy. Above all, it tells us that there is someone standing in the center of the cloud with us, shining so brightly that we may never be able to wrap our mind around him, but who is worth listening to all the same–because he is God’s beloved, and we are God’s beloved, and whatever comes next, we are up to it. Whatever fears we may face, we are not alone. God is with us, God’s love surrounds us, Christ provides comfort in our fear. Thanks be to God.