Sunday, February 3, 2008

Get Up, And Don't Be Afraid

This is the text of a sermon I gave at St. John’s in Taunton this week. Those of you who have heard me preach know that does not mean this is necessarily what the folks at St. John’s heard me say! I don’t preach directly from the text, so there’s always some variation, and sometimes quite a lot. But this is was at least my starting point, and I wanted to share it. ~ Suzanne

In the ancient world, mountains were where you met God. Moses met God on a mountain: Our Old Testament reading today recounts how Moses encountered God at the top of Mount Sinai. Elijiah encountered God on a mountaintop as well: 1Kings tells us that after Elijiah fled into the wilderness to escape Jezebel, God called Elijiah to Mount Sinai. There was a great wind, the story goes, but God was not in the wind. An earthquake followed, and God was not in the earthquake. A fire roared past, but God was not in the fire. And then God appeared, as a still, small voice.

So when the disciples begin climging a mountain with Jesus, Matthew's readers had an idea what to expect – Caution, God ahead! Sure enough, the disciples witness Jesus transformed before their very eyes, glowing with the Light of God, and in conversation with Moses – whom God entrusted with the Law – and Elijiah – the embodiment of the Prophets. Matthew's audience, good Jews all, would have seen clearly what Matthew was getting at even before God spoke from the cloud, reiterating the words He spoke at Jesus’s baptism.

Peter -- good old Peter -- immediately offers to build them a place to live. He doesn't even get the words out of his mouth before God interrupts him. "This is my son. Listen to Him."

And Jesus response to the disciples, who are now – perfectly understandably! – cowering on the ground, is "Get up, and don't be afraid."

This is a story where every detail carries wonderful significance, so I don't think this is a throwaway line. I think this is God's call to us – get up, and don't be afraid. The most important thing is not staying in the moment of the encounter. It's what comes next. It's walking back down the mountain with Jesus.

It occurs to me that one reason the encounter with God always happens on a mountaintop because you can't actually live at the top of a mountain. There's no water there, no shelter from sun or wind. It's a marvelous experience, standing on top of a mountain, but it's a fleeting one by its very nature. If you've ever climbed a mountain, you know that the only thing to do once you've finished admiring the view is to start back down.

Peter's instinct to want to build a dwelling for the glory of God, to bask in the light of God's presence for as long as possible, is perfectly understandable. We often want to do the same thing – we look for the "peak" experiences, and often think of the spiritual life like that of a mountain climber, scaling one mountain after another. The more peak experiences you have, the more holy you are.

But God doesn't invite the desciples to set up camp on the mountain top. He shows the disciples exactly what it is he is offering them – his beloved son, part of God's care for his people that began with the Law and continued through the prophets, and would shortly reach its most profound expression in Jesus' death and resurrection. That moment of glory and majesty will stay with them their whole lives, offering strength when the days get dark. They will will treasure the memory of God’s light in their hearts, and it will be a lamp to them as they wait, and wait, for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.

But the task for the disciples is not to make a dwelling place for God on a mountain – or in a magnicient cathedral, or in a lofty liturgy. The task is to take Jesus's hand and walk back down the mountain. On the way down, Jesus reminds them what that means – he tells them not to tell anyone the vision until "the son of man is raised from the dead." The road ahead is not an easy one. It will lead, in the end, to crucifixion. But God, in Jesus, was descending the mountain with them. They are not alone.

On Wednesday, we will begin Lent with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. We will leave the glory of Transfiguration Sunday to be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we must return. We will descend the mountain and walk through the valley of our own mortality. What tasks await us as we descend? Worship will be part of it – we will seek out God's dwelling to give us the light we need while we walk in the valley. But if worship is all of it, we've missed the second part of God's invitation – Get up, and don't be afraid. How will we bring God's light into the world?

The past week, I've been reading the book chosen for Mansfield's town-wide reading program, called Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson. The book recounts the story of an accomplished mountain climber, who on the way back from a failed attempt on the world's second highest mountain, K2, gets lost and is rescued by Pakistani villagers. Moved by their generosity to him, he promises to return and build a school – something they could never afford on their own.

The school takes three years to build -- but in the process, he finds he has discovered his life’s work. He will build dozens of schools in Central Asia, bringing the light of knowledge to villages where hardly anyone is even literate. After 9-11, Mortenson received death threats from people who believed his work was offering comfort to the enemy, but he perseverred, convinced that the only way to counter people who preach hate is to bring the light of knowledge and of hope to vulnerable to such preaching. I think we might even suggest that his work is one way of telling people, "don't be afraid."

Fortunately, most of us don't have to get lost in the Himalayas for God to direct us to the work He has waiting for us. It might be raising money to build schools, or helping to feed the hungry. It might be joining with others in our diocese to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It might be praying daily for our brothers and sisters around the world who are struggling through their own valleys – in Kenya, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan.

We don't have to climb Mount Everest, or Mount Sinai, or even Mt. Monadnok to encounter God. We can do so right here, climbing no higher than the altar behind me. We will encounter God in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. And then we are invited to get up, and no longer afraid, go out into the world to do the work God has given us to do.

For information about Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, and his ongoing efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, visit or your local library.