Casting Out Fear
by Louise Westfall
[from the sound booth, Jon Dreux says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”] [Louise begins speaking]
Who knew the voice of God sounds a whole lot like Jon Dreux?! Yet every week we attribute the reading of Scripture to The Word of the Lord. . .and respond with thanks be to God! On the off chance that it’s become so routine we’re not even paying attention, I thought I’d mix it up. A change of perspective can be a bit unnerving; it doesn’t fit our expectations, and it may even make us uncomfortable (are you wondering if you’re going to have to stay turned around for the whole sermon?). Yet revelation often begins in darkness, confusion, or unease. [begin walking up to the pulpit] A perfect posture for the reading from Scripture today, the story of an incredible, mind-blowing event intended as a spiritual epiphany for the disciples. It’s called “the Transfiguration”–when Jesus’ appearance is dramatically changed into dazzling light–and he is joined by the giants of Jewish faith: Moses the Liberator and Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet. The vision resounds with the voice of God, and the whole thing absolutely terrifies the disciples who witness it. A reading from the good news according to Matthew in the seventeenth chapter, at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to you and me and anyone who has ever been afraid of the dark…or the light. [Matthew 17:1-8]
Peter tries vainly to preserve the moment of spiritual sight and insight. We’ll build three altars…But no. The vision fades and Jesus leads them down the mountain, back into the “real world,” where they immediately encounter suffering and resistance. Reading from verse 14: [Matthew 17:14-21]
Linking these two texts is essential I think if the Transfiguration is going to mean anything more than a fantastical exhibition of divine glory. If the dazzling Son on the mountaintop confirms Jesus’ identity as the promised
Messiah, that he descended into the valley of human chaos and complexity and the shadow of death reveals what kind of messiah he is. Not one that stays on retreat, high and exalted and above it all, but one that gets down with us in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want. The gospel writer places the Transfiguration just before Jesus’ own descent into hell–his death on the cross.
Fear imprisons the better angels of our nature, and forces us into attitudes and actions that contradict divine intention.
But there’s something here beyond simple solidarity with the human condition; Jesus reminds us of the power to shatter the darkness, heal the wounds and scars we bear, and rise even out of death into life. That power is the very power of God within each one of us; the power of love to change reality. Yep, you heard me right. To transfigure reality into shimmering light; to restore wholeness, relieve suffering, and create human community beyond our wildest dreams.
Sound too good to be true? Yeah, in a way it does. We’re much more familiar with the disfiguring consequences of ego and greed and self-preoccupation, in our own lives and collectively. At times we feel overwhelmed at the enormity of all that isn’t right: so many hungry children…wars that never seem to end…worsening effects of human-induced climate change…the bitter impotency of our national government…our own anxious thoughts about a flourishing future for our kids and our neighbors’ kids. And frankly, I need something more than faith that God is with us in these conditions. I need to know that God is doing something about them.
In this text Jesus seems to run out of patience with the skeptics, of which I am frequently one. Come on, disciples, you’ve tasted the new day; you’ve seen people healed and changed. Yet you refuse to exercise even the faith you have. (Jesus, possibly at his most annoying.)
But could he be right? Have we wielded even our mustard-seed-sized faith to change what isn’t right? Have we believed in the power of love to crack open the hardest heart, the most unpromising soil? Have we practiced it enough to make a difference?
My hunch is that–like those disciples of old–we are captives to reality as we know it. They were afraid they couldn’t cure the boy’s severe epilepsy, so they couldn’t. We’ve done the math and concluded that we don’t have enough money, sufficient resources, and ample power to ensure that children are fed and cared for, refugees are treated humanely, and reducing our carbon footprint is worth the effort. We are bound up in fear–fear that we don’t have enough, which often masks a deeper fear that we aren’t enough.
Friends, Jesus’ Transfiguration provides a strong and enduring antidote to fear. A vision of the world more real than any reality on earth, bathed in light, encompassed in the eternal love of almighty God. That’s the truth, and everything short of it is contingent and impermanent. But fear has a debilitating effect on humans; it descends like a storm cloud, blocking our vision and making us forget everything about God’s redemptive purposes brightening the past, illumining the present, and shining a light far down the future. Fear imprisons the better angels of our nature, and forces us into attitudes and actions that contradict divine intention. Fear causes us to do wrong things. Fear paralyzes us from doing good things.
It’s human to be afraid. Our lives are so fragile. And terminal. But we will live constrained and restricted lives until we learn to cast it out. I wonder if that’s why the exhortation “Don’t be afraid” is made again and again throughout Scripture. And every time it is proclaimed, it’s accompanied by some reminder of the one thing that will cast it out: love. The truth that we (and everyone) are God’s beloved. The truth that we are here to love one another (no exceptions). The truth of a day, a realm when time and tears will be no more, and love will reign.