Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Get up, and do not be afraid." -- A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, March 6, 2011

About 25 years ago, when I was growing up in Tucson, there was a girl named Jeanne. Jeanne stole my heart in that way that can only happen when you’re 15 or 16 years old. That way that turns your stomach into a butterfly sanctuary. Maybe it was because she was just so adorable standing as she did just a shade under five feet tall. Or maybe it was her flaming red hair or her devilish smile. Or maybe it was the way she could tease me and make me feel good about myself at the same time. There’s probably no use trying to figure it out. I mean, I was 15, so how much logic could be involved, right?

It was clear pretty quickly that Jeanne and I weren’t going to end up together … at least not in the romantic way I wanted. She had a string of other crushes and it was clear pretty quickly I had taken up permanent residence in that dreaded “friend” category. But she was so kind and so sincere that something rare and special happened. My crush turned into deep affection and that affection turned into friendship. And so when I went off to Mizzou and she went off to Arizona State, we kept in touch – which in the days before Facebook, texting and free long distance meant actual handwritten letters and the occasional very expensive phone call.

Jeanne and I shared everything. I shared my freshman year homesickness and my joy at having a great roommate and finding a wonderful church in Columbia. She told me about her battles with her parents and this cute guy she liked who was a cook at the restaurant where she was waitressing.

This long distance friendship continued through college. She even came out to visit me once, and I always tried to see her when I was home. Then one day in our junior year a particularly long letter came. After a page or so of small talk and teasing me about my life among the cows in Missouri, she told me I needed to sit down because she had some news to share. Jeanne was pregnant.

I scanned the rest of the letter as I picked up the phone. Jeanne answered and the tears began. She said loved the father and she was going to keep the baby, but she wasn’t even 21 yet. And most of all she was terrified to tell her dad.

Jeanne’s father was imposing. Not because he towered over you – he was only a little taller than Jeanne. But he was rock solid and a commanding presence that probably stemmed from his time in army during the Korean War. He was the kind of man you called sir without thinking because part of you was afraid of what happened if you didn’t. He was stern and strict and when you saw the twinkle in his eye you realized you had had to work to earn it. Mostly, he loved his daughters with the ferocity of God in the Old Testament. With the kind of love that would utterly destroy their enemies, but would also demand obedience and loyalty.

Jeanne adored her father. And more than anything else, more than the prospect of being a teenage mom, or trying to finish school and carry a child, she was terrified of sharing this news with him. She was afraid of what he would do. She was afraid of what it would do to their relationship. She was afraid she wouldn’t be his little girl anymore.

So Jeanne did what most people would do. She put it off as long as possible. She wasn’t going to be showing for awhile, so she told herself she could wait for just the right moment. Only a few weeks later she began to have some abdominal pain and her roommate took her to the hospital and in a fit of worry, called her parents.

Jeanne ended up being fine and was furious at her roommate, but she also knew the moment had come. So as she walked into the emergency room waiting room where her parents were standing, she screwed up her courage, took a deep breath, walked up to her father and said the words she had been dreading to say.

Dad, I’m pregnant.

Jeanne’s father paused for a second, stone-faced, as the words sunk in. Jeanne wanted to melt into the floor. She was paralyzed by fear. What words were about to come thundering down on her head? Or worse, would he say nothing and turn away. His pause was only a second, but to her it felt like hours.

What broke it first was not his booming voice or him turning on his heel but almost imperceptibly, and perhaps only visible to a beloved daughter the twinkle in his eye. The look of love. Then this man who had ordered men into battle and who had ruled his family like a platoon opened his arms and said to his little girl: “Give me a hug.” And he reached out and touched her. And Jeanne knew that there was nothing to fear. That even though the road ahead would be hard, that the life she had planned for herself was never going to happen the way she had thought, that even though she had no idea how to be a mother, unmarried at age 20. As she felt her father’s arms close around her, she knew that whatever the road ahead held she could do it because she was not alone.

It’s the Sunday before Lent again … and for reasons that have never been really clear to me, just like every year, this year once again, we hear the Gospel story of the Transfiguration.

We need to remember that Matthew is written for a Jewish audience so we need to put those ears on when we hear it. And there are lots of parallels Matthew’s listeners would have heard to the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, which is Moses receiving the 10 commandments. In both cases, the power of God is revealed after six days, which like creation, gives what happens the sense of consummation or completion. In both cases this revelation of God comes on a mountain top and out of a cloud – because you aren’t able to look God in the face and live. In both cases, what happens defines the relationship God will have with the people. But there the similarities end.

In the Exodus story, the takeaway for Moses and the people of Israel is a set of rules for the community – the 10 commandments. God’s message to the people is “Follow me by following the rules. If you follow the rules, and do what I say, we’re OK and good things will happen. If you don’t follow the rules and don’t do what I say, not only will bad things happen, you’re going to be on your own when they do.”

But something different happens on this mountain in Matthew’s Gospel. There’s a shift in God’s relationship with the people. Before, God’s power was to be cowered from, and fear was actually a part of faithfulness. Before, God’s presence was housed in a place – the temple – and part of faithfulness was building and tending to that Temple. Before, God’s presence was mediated through kings and rules. And part of faithfulness was following the law and listening to the prophets knowing that if you did you would be right with God.

And Peter knows this. That’s why Peter is being faithful when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus and he says “let us build three dwellings … one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” That’s what you do with God. You build God a house. You follow God’s rules. And above all, you never look God in the face, you never touch God, you always fear God … lest ... ye ... die.

But God is doing something different in Jesus. Peter is expecting more rules, but what he gets is something entirely unexpected. Something as unexpected to him as when Jesus said that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. What Peter, James and John get isn’t more rules but a relationship.

When Moses came down the mountain, he had a set of rules for the community. When Jesus and his disciples came down the mountain, they had a person ... Jesus. God's message in Exodus was "follow me by following these commandments." God's message here is "This is my Son, the Beloved ... listen to HIM." God’s call to them and to us is not just to follow rules, but to be in relationship with Jesus. To believe in and follow the Beloved and thus to become the Beloved. This is Jesus "who came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them."

Matthew tells us that when Peter, James and John heard the voice of God “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” They knew they were sinners. They knew how many of the rules they had broken. They knew the power of God to devastate or abandon them. And they were terrified, and who wouldn’t be?

I wonder how long the disciples stayed cowering in fear? It was probably only a moment but I’m sure it seemed like hours. It must have seemed like hours before Jesus did what God never does … reached out his arms and touched them, and with a twinkle in his eye said “Get up and don’t be afraid.” Said, it’s OK … Give me a hug.

We usually think of this event as the transfiguration because of Jesus shiny new white outfit. But what was really transfigured. What was really changed forever was Jesus relationship with his disciples and his disciples’ lives. When they came down the mountain, they began the road toward Jerusalem – toward that suffering and death. But they knew then they could walk that road, no matter what it had in store for them, because they could feel Jesus’ arms around them and they knew they would not be walking it alone. They knew that their relationship with God had moved beyond just following the family rules to sharing a life … and that because they were in it together even the powers of death could not prevail against them.

What happened on that mountain, what happened in that waiting room and what God longs to give us is the transfiguring power of love. It’s a power that certainly can be expressed in faithfulness to boundaries and rules but can never be contained by them. It is the power of grace that overcomes fear. The power of standing with and embracing in the midst of pain that doesn’t make life easier or the pain magically go away but opens up possibilities of new life coming from it. And whether in the form of a father embracing his little girl or a savior touching a cowering disciple, or a hug at the peace or a phone call just to check in, it the power to change lives and transform worlds.

The road from that mountain led to the cross, but it did not end there. And even though Peter denied Jesus three times and the disciples fled in fear from Calvary, the transfiguring power of love was so strong they were all back together again to hear the resurrected Christ say “and remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The road from that waiting room was bumpy, too. Jeanne had a little girl, Nicole, who I’m proud to call her my goddaughter. Nicole’s father ended up becoming a cocaine addict and Jeanne was left as a single mom … but never alone. She had as doting a grandfather as ever walked the earth keeping mother and daughter under his watchful eye. Jeanne finished her degree at ASU, and today is married with three other children. Nicole turned 21 last October, graduated college and works at a library in Phoenix. And if you ask Jeanne how she did it, she’ll think of her parents, her husband, her friends, and her kids she’ll say simply one word: Love.

As we head down the mountain into Lent, down the road that leads to the cross and beyond, this year think of Lent not in terms of giving up or taking on, but touching and being touched. Of embracing and not fearing. Of walking together not tackling alone.

As we head down this mountain into Lent, what road are you on? What rules have you broken? Whom have you disappointed? Of what or whom are you afraid? Where do you long for the touch of Christ but fear to share that truth of your life that gives Jesus the opening to reach out to you? Who in your life needs that twinkle in your eye, that touch of your hand … those calm, loving words of “get up and do not be afraid.”


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