CH Mel Baars O’Malley
February 7, 2016
I was thinking, as I was preparing for this sermon, that the last time I preached in chapel, fear was the subject. If Chaplain Leathers, one of the Clinical Pastoral Education supervisors were here, he might ask me what it says about m that this theme of fear keeps popping up in many of my sermons. And, he would have a fair point. It seems that fear is everywhere. We can’t really navigate our world without it. Fear is one of our most important survival instincts. We use it to teach our children not to touch the stove or run into traffic, things that can be very harmful for us but, when we are young, we don’t really understand that. Fear quells our curiosity so we don’t have to learn the hard way.
But fear can become counter productive. When we take fear to an extreme, we can easily become paralyzed. I have been known to do this on occasion. J When we let fear take over, we end up missing out on a lot of life because fear has become too important, has taken over everything. We are so afraid of the possibility of one bad apple that we throw the other 99 away. Fear can cause us to close ourselves off so much that we even miss encounters with God.
There is a lot about fear in the Bible. It is a safe bet that no matter the story, the details of what is happening, the people involved are dealing with fear. The Bible tells us the story of God and God’s people, but the story is told as it unfolds. This means there is a lot of unknown quantities. The people wonder, “What’s going to happen?” How is all of this going to turn out?” And most importantly, “Am I going to be ok?” Again and again, God says to them, “I am with you. Do not fear. I love you. You are mine.” But memory can be so fleeting so just as soon as God has come through for them, a new challenge arises and, again, they are wonder, “What’s going to happen?” How is all of this going to turn out?” “Am I going to be ok?” It is a vicious cycle.
Today we have two passages involving groups of scared people. In Exodus, Moses has just had an encounter with God, and this exchange between them has physically changed him… profoundly. His face is shining. He is radiant. Moses’ presence is literally reflecting God’s brightness. But, rather than be drawn to him, the people are terrified. They won’t come near him. It gets so bad that Moses literally has to put a veil over his face whenever he is around the people so that they will not avoid him.
In the gospel reading, what we often refer to as the transfiguration, Jesus has taken Peter, James and John, his close friends, up another mountain. There, Jesus is transformed into a dazzling white. The disciples witness him having a conversation with Moses and Elijah. Then, they are enveloped by a holy cloud and God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” It should be no surprise to us that they are terrified, too.
Just like it is healthy to fear a burning hot stove or being run over in traffic, there has often been healthy fear associated with God. The creator of the universe, the author of all, the One who is able to do anything, everything. Awe, respect, and healthy fear these are all appropriate responses to this holy presence. But, the people with Moses aren’t merely shielding their eyes or bowing their heads out reverence for the holy, they are literally running in the other direction. It is as if they are afraid that a close encounter with God might change them, too.
Humans seem to be deeply resistant to change, even when we tell ourselves that we want to change. I have heard it again and again, conversations with patients and service members and friends and in my own head, this feeling of bewilderment over those times when we do or we feel the opposite of what we want to do or feel. We want to be generous, open, loving and yet some days it is such a struggle. And, too often, we justify our behavior by blaming our fears.
Richard Rohr, a priest who has written prolifically on Christian spirituality, talks about this resistance to change in terms of sin. We are addicted, in a way, to our sin just like an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol. Resistance to chance, our sin, is part of who we are. Even a life of seeming sinlessness doesn’t eradicate sin just like sobriety doesn’t mean a person is no longer an alcoholic. In fact, one of our biggest dangers is to think that we are ever fully recovered. Instead, we are continually striving for recovery. It is never complete but an ongoing process of transfiguration.
Much earlier in Exodus, God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. It is a safe bet to say that fear and trembling pulsed through Moses’ veins, as it would for any of us, when God first called out to him from the fire. But fear didn’t paralyze Moses. In fact, once he gets over his shock over this encounter with God, he takes off his sandals to signify that he is standing on holy ground. He is in the presence of God and he is afraid, but his fear doesn’t compel him to flee. Instead, he stops everything he is doing, embraces God’s presence and is forever changed.
So what helps Moses breathe through his fear so that he is able to stay open to God’s presence rather than run in the opposite direction? When fear sets in and we feel those survival instincts ramping up, what can help us, to stay right where we are, to take a risk, to remain open to a God who surprises us where we least expect it, in burning bushing, a dazzling face, or a mysterious clouds, or in the places we are most afraid to go, into relationships with someone who is different than us, back to the doctor to get the news about a biopsy, to all those spaces of unknown.
Jesus doesn’t invite Peter and James and John to go with him up that mountain so that they will experience fear. He invites them because there they will encounter holy ground and be forever changed. It is where God is at work, transforming and transfiguring. And, because they go with Jesus they teach us a valuable lesson about God’s presence. When a cloud descends, when darkness comes and you can’t see anything and you are afraid, God will be there with you.
The Israelites were afraid of Moses and his shining face because he was living proof that an encounter with God would change them forever. Change, transformation, is scary and unknown. I am sure that some of them wanted to be free from the burden of their sin, something that only God can help with, but their survival instincts would not allow them to voluntarily wade into that uncharted holy territory. Very few of them would go there on their own. And, we understand. We struggle to go there, too.
But just like Jesus invited Peter and James and John, he invites us up to the mountain of transfiguration. He doesn’t ask us to come because he wants us to be terrified. Jesus invites us to come to the mountain so that we can have the experience of facing fear with him by our side. Come on, he says, let the cloud envelop you and let the fear swell. But hold on to me, too. Breathe in and out and let me transform you.
In a few days we will be marked with ashes and reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. As we enter into this season of Lent, may we see this time as an opportunity for growth, for a time for our own transfiguration. And whether we focus on sacrifice or on a new spiritual discipline this Lent, whatever we do to expand our faith, may it help us to find our way up the mountain, and with both fear and trust in God’s promises to us, allow the holy cloud to wash over us, changing us forever.