Get up and do not be afraid

by Genevieve Zetlan, Licensed Lay Preacher

Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

I’ve always thought the most puzzling thing about our Gospel lesson this morning is what is not said. God speaks. That’s pretty significant. That only happens twice in the New Testament – once when Jesus is baptized, when God says “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” and here, which starts in much the same way “This is my son, the beloved”. But then God goes on to give the only direct, from-the-mouth-of-God command in the New Testament: “listen to” Jesus.

And then, Jesus appears to not really say anything! You’d think when God says “listen up!” The next words out of Jesus’ mouth would be something pretty profound.

To recap, Jesus has taken a couple disciples up the mountain with him, and they have seen him “transfigured” – hence what we call Transfiguration Sunday in the church. And Peter’s first thought upon witnessing this incredible thing is to memorialize it, so the spot where it happened will be always known. So that it can be celebrated, and not forgotten.

And what’s wrong with that? We humans seem to have a need to capture and preserve the moment. Nationally, we commemorate Presidents and leaders, we remember wars and tragedies. In the Episcopal Church we still have vergers that originated in the 12th century who carry sticks to swat at any animals disrupting the procession. I’m rather certain that today Peter would have suggested taking a picture and posting it on Facebook. Preserving and sharing personal and institutional memories is important. They celebrate and define who we are, and where we come from. The things we choose to remember and commemorate become our narrative and our identity.

Personally, I am an incurable photo album keeper and video documenter of my children’s lives. Every year I create a birthday video for each of my children. I try to capture everyday moments as well as pivotal ones from the past year. I hope one day, maybe when they’re teenagers, I’ll be able to use it as documentary evidence that they did not have awful childhoods! And rewatching those videos together cements in them a narrative, a story of who they are. But on occasion, I miss the shot. When Sara got her ears pierced for her 9th birthday a month ago, I was using the iPad instead of my phone, which worked a little differently, and the video didn’t start recording until after the big moment was over. And I was so upset! Ridiculously upset. That moment was gone forever, would never happen again, and now I didn’t have documentation of this important life event!

In a sense, we feel that we ARE our memories. Our bodies change, but our memories, we believe, create the continuity that allows us to have an identity – I am Genevieve, because of all the things I remember experiencing. It’s the reason why Alzheimers and Dementia are so very scary. For those of us watching a loved one lose their memory, we seem to lose the person.

And that, perhaps, is the problem this morning. Because it is not Truth.

The Truth is that what makes us who we are is not our memories. Our identity as individuals is not in anything we have seen or done. Our identity as a church is not in our work in Pine Ridge or Dungannon or Haiti, or in our preschool or our Spanish service, or any of the things we do. Doing good work in the world is wonderful and necessary and even important. But it is not our purpose. We are not just a group of generous people supporting another charitable non profit.

Our Identity, our Truth, is that we belong to God. And that is something no loss of memory or institutional turmoil can ever change. We are not created to work, but to live, as beloved by God.

So why did Jesus take those disciples up to the mountain in the first place – If not to memorialize and remember the experience, and pass it on to us? Notice Jesus doesn’t take just one disciple, he takes a few – and he will tell them later that where a few are gathered, he is there. It is together, in community, that Jesus calls them to witness who he truly is – not in the sense of standing by and watching and remembering, but in the sense of bearing witness. Jesus’ disciples are to be living examples of God’s revelation to the world.

They are to re-live, not enshrine, their experience.

Likewise, we do not come here each week and have Eucharist to memorialize or re-enact something that happened a long time ago in a particular time and place. We come here each week to re-live the experience of Jesus’ love for us. To know that we belong to God, we are God’s beloved, and to bear witness, as part of a community that is a living example of Jesus’ Truth, here and now.

So, to those first witnesses, those few disciples, God says “listen to” Jesus, my beloved.

And then all Jesus says is “Get up and do not be afraid.” And because Peter has apparently just fallen to the ground in awe or terror, and because we hear that “do not be afraid” phrase virtually every single time someone encounters God, or a messenger of God, we are inclined to hear this phrase as a simple reassurance to Peter. But it is much more than that.

Get up. And do not be afraid.

It is the answer to the question of how we live in witness to Jesus, instead of merely memorializing or remembering him. It is the answer to the question of what we do once we define our identity as “those who belong to God”, those who have experienced the transfigurative love of God.

Because when we know, with certainty, that we belong to God, are beloved by God, then we can be not afraid. Not afraid of losing a moment or a memory or an identity that we cling to. Not afraid of change in our family or our church or our country.

Get up. And do not be afraid.

When we know, with certainty, that we belong to God, are beloved by God, then we can get up, and stand up, and do what we know Jesus would do. We can act with radical love towards the world, because we do more than just remember Jesus, we are living witnesses to how Jesus acts towards the world.

When I was growing up in Virginia Beach our church sponsored 4 young men to immigrate to the United States, just four among the thousands of the Lost Boys of Sudan. As 6 or 7 year old children they had fled their homes when parents, friends, and neighbors were slaughtered or kidnapped. They walked hundreds of miles, masses of children, dying along the way from lack of food and water, from crocodiles and lions, to reach a refugee camp across the border in another country – Kenya. And there they lived for years, sharing food and space and lives with children from the enemy tribe, also refugees from the violence. And after 10 years or more waiting in a refugee camp, four of them came to this country and were given 3 months in which to learn their way around, get a job and become self-supporting. One of them got a job waiting tables and rode a bike to and from work every day. And one day, as he was riding home, a local youth with a gun stepped in front of him and demanded his bike. And this young refugee replied, “If your need is greater than mine, you may have it.”

Get up. And do not be afraid.

Our letter from Peter, recounting the experience of witnessing to the transfiguration, reminds us that we are living witnesses to extraordinary transformation. When all around us is dark, the knowledge that we are beloved by God, that we belong to God, is what we are to be attentive to. And then we witness, through our lives, what being beloved looks like.

Two weeks ago a man who works with immigrants in Savannah, Georgia, led an adult forum at Christ Church. He talked about a immigrant from Iran who was taking public transportation to his job at a car wash. It was a two hour commute, each way. Back in Iran this man was a gifted tailor and an embroiderer of exquisite wedding gowns. One of the adult forum members at the church knew a woman who ran a tailoring shop in town, and called her right there from church. The woman said that although business was slow, she would offer this immigrant a job on the spot, on faith.

Get up. And do not be afraid.

Our identity, our Truth, is that we are beloved by God. We all belong to God: robber and a refugee, immigrant and an entrepreneur, Christian and not. And what do we do with that Truth?

Get up. And do not be afraid.