Sermons

Beyond Fear and Uncertainty; Rev. Dee Ledger, February 14, 2021

I’ve been feeling uncertain lately.  It’s not just a feeling—it appears to be the reality of things.  Not knowing when a vaccine will be given.  Not knowing if my kids are going to return to school anytime soon, despite the March 15th return of at least some of their class.  Not knowing whether the benefits of return are worth the risks.  Not knowing what Church (with a capital “C”) will look like when the pandemic is over.  Not really knowing what church on the corner of Democracy and Fernwood will look like or “feel” like when the seasons change, never mind when the pandemic ends.  Add to this uncertainty about taxes, health, and family well-being, not to mention the bigger issues of addressing the environment, dismantling white supremacy, and supporting economic recovery.

I know that I am not alone in this.  Some of you have been dealing with significant health issues that promise no end in sight—at least not the kind of end you’d want to anticipate.  Some are dealing with “too much togetherness” with spouses and significant others or a general lack of certainty around your career, your workplace, or retirement.  Some are dealing with uncertainty in planning your lives–how and why to plan anything when plans can be upset at any moment due to the pandemic or whatever obstacle might be lurking around the corner?

But plan we must, if only to give us a more stable ground than flailing around.

I suspect that Jesus and the disciples had a plan that day.  The disciples were invited to go mountain climbing and I wonder if Peter, James, and John were anticipating something significantly different than what happened to them on that mountaintop.  I highly doubt that Jesus said to them, “Hey, do you want to go up a mountain to see me transform into a blinding white light in front of you?”  I’m not even sure Jesus knew what would happen.  Likely, they just wanted to go for a hike together and talk shop.

Up they go and Jesus suddenly becomes something different.  He’s shining.  It needs to be said that the “whiteness” of this passage is jarring—as if being white, Divine, and glowing were a kind of sacred, subliminal, and culturally-approved Trinity canonized in scripture.  It is jarring today in the same way that a recent jeep commercial is jarring: featuring a socially acceptable trinity of the working-class—the hero/singer Bruce Springsteen, a Kansas chapel in the middle of America, and the backdrop of the American flag with a message preaching unity without reckoning to the masses.

Not to mention the total absence of female power on that mountain, excepting the women quietly standing in the wings who bore those men into the world.  Leaving those criticisms aside, the patriarch who inscribed this passage was trying to illustrate an epiphany-in-the-making: the realization that Jesus was somehow both one of them, but also different.  As if trying to make a point, Jesus has a couple of well-known prophets from history standing next to him: Elijah and Moses, long dead, yet present.  A cloud overshadows them and then a voice gets their attention.  “Listen to my Son, the beloved!”

This mountaintop experience is weird.  It’s transformative.  It’s a revelation and awe-inducing.  It’s also spectacularly terrifying for the participants in Jesus’ circle.

Whatever “certainty” they thought they had while walking at Jesus’ side was overturned with a suddenly glowing Jesus.  We don’t have to make him white to set him apart.  We can simply say that his whole being radiated in all of its beautiful ethnicity: as a Middle Eastern Jew.   Whatever ideas these disciples might have had about their mission together were unsettled by a God who decided that it was more than necessary to shout a reminder for Peter, James, and John to “listen”!  Which kind of makes me think that God was a frustrated parent reminding the guys to give her beloved son some airtime for God’s sake!

Speechless Peter fumbles and says, “Rabbi, let’s make some booths (aka monuments) for you, Moses, and Elijah.”  He decides that building memorials is the best they can do up there on the mountaintop.

Scholars have different ideas as to what this story is about.  Why are the disciples so terrified if what is happening to Jesus is a good thing?  Perhaps when we get so close to Divinity or Divine Moments we are similarly on the brink of terror.  But maybe it is something more.

We have all witnessed a friend or loved one changing before our eyes.  Sometimes it is a health matter, like a disease.  Sometimes it is a new obsession like weight loss, or passionate hobby or addiction, or even a new significant other.  Sometimes we understand the reasons for the change…but many times we don’t.  When a family member or loved one changes, we often wonder if she or he will be the “same person we know.”  We have no way of really knowing how the transformation will affect our loved ones or friends…and we often we don’t know if we are going to be able to adapt to the change or not.  So, there is uncertainty—both in how the person is going to change and how we ourselves or our relationship ultimately and intimately may change.

This peak experience on the mountaintop causes fear in the disciples because of the deep uncertainty it provokes.  It is one thing to be hanging out on a mountaintop together in the privacy of your own little gathering, and it is quite another thing to go down the mountain into the mess of human activity and life following someone who seems to have different ideas about life, loving one’s neighbor, and calling out demon spirits—including the diminishing and oppression of others.  “Just who is this person I married/birthed/friended?”  we might think.

I am reminded of a pastor who was purposefully taken to tea.  While at tea, her polite host pointedly asked her to be less passionate in her sermons which was a coded way for the powers-that-be to tell her not to preach about racial relations and white supremacy in her presence.  At the end of the tea, her host presumed that she had sufficiently and successfully made her point.  She sweetly smiled and confidently said, “So we agree that you will be less passionate, dear?”  “No,” the pastor firmly replied, “but thank you for the conversation.”

Is it not plausible that the disciples were afraid of their own transformation too?  Might we also be a bit hesitant of our own transfiguration?

We think we know ourselves until something happens or some information is discovered that upsets our internal “status quo.”  We are used to—if not comfortable—with ourselves until someone or something comes along and upsets what we think we know about ourselves and others…or even society’s ways and history at large.

Imagine someone falling in love.  Perhaps he or she is shocked to find himself or herself doing things they would have never done previously, or entertaining questions never entertained prior to this other person showing up in real life.  Or take a health crisis.  We may find ourselves looking at life differently because we appreciate life and our moments here much more deeply.  Or take history:  When we learn that at least 3 lynchings happened in Montgomery County in the past and how they were systematically pushed aside in the historical record, we must rethink how history is written, remembered, and processed and why it is so important to uncover what others may wish to bypass.

Isn’t it possible that the disciples, before heading up on that mountain, thought they knew Jesus?  And after his transformation, they realized that maybe they didn’t *really* know him—his full capabilities, his liabilities, his understood purpose, and mission—quite as well?  And therefore, they did not know ultimately how his transformation would affect their own.  Meaning, perhaps they really didn’t know themselves in relationship to this Rabbi.

We see in hindsight so we can remember that Peter will ultimately deny Jesus when he is seen by bystanders warming his hands.  Do you think Peter knew that he would deny Jesus when he was up on that mountain suggesting memorials for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus?

How well do we know ourselves?  What has this pandemic uncovered about us—both positive and negative?  For all our talk about the pandemic and the future, no one really knows what life will be like as we return to a new kind of living together.  No one has a magic ball that can show us what will happen as we begin to mingle again safely and as we try to put what we have learned during this time to good use.

As there is a great deal of uncertainty, how do we live with that in a way that allows us to trust life and to move into the valleys of life with confidence that we can handle what lies ahead?

John Allen Paulos, the American mathematics professor, has stated that “uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

If life is uncertain—if some times are more uncertain than others—then perhaps we might consider how to live best within the uncertainty.  In a broadcast from NPR, Sarah McCammon makes some suggestions from those who have dealt successfully with uncertainty.[1]  She is not alone; if you do a search on “living with constant uncertainty,” you will find numerous articles on how to navigate uncertainty.

From these articles, here are five concrete suggestions to living within the chaos:

First, psychologists recommend taking time to reflect on where you are.  Peter momentarily recognizes that “it is good for us to be here” but then he jumps too quickly to action.  Just sitting down and reflecting on where you are and how far you have come and getting those feelings down on paper or talking with a safe someone can help us deal with the uncertainty that we face.

Second, McCammon suggests figuring out what our “best gift for the day” is.  This is what you can give to yourself and the world in that one day.  Maybe it is organizing your office; maybe it is making dinner for your spouse; maybe it is shoveling your neighbor’s driveway, or phoning your parents, or painting the view from your balcony.  It is the gift that you offer for yourself and others for the moment at hand and therefore is something that you can control and generate.

Third, determine who your “hiking partners” are.  Be willing to ask for help.  McCammon calls this your “resilience circle.”  Peter had James, John, and Jesus—none of them hiked alone up the mountain, or down the mountain.  We are social beings.  We need each other.  Who is your resilience circle?  Who are the people who can lift you up and who can remind you that transformation doesn’t have to be so scary and that others before you and after you have also encountered change?

Finally, and importantly, McCammon and others urge trying NOT to make meaning too soon.   In the case with Peter, James, John, and Jesus, it would be long after the events of the cross and Jesus’ resurrection that the meaning of the transfiguration would become clearer to Jesus’ followers.  Indeed, we are still trying to make meaning from this story today.  But usually, we are quick to demand meaning from events before we have even processed or grieved or celebrated them fully.

How can we forge meaning when we are still trying to understand what has happened and for what purpose, if any?  Too often, in the case of loss, we urge others to make meaning or to give events meaning when the pain is raw and searing.  The meaning of a child’s death or how to live in the aftermath of divorce or a diagnosis is not for observers to speculate or decide.  It is for the ones who are experiencing change to navigate.  That is why platitudes such as “God has a reason” or “it was never meant to be” or “God never gives us more than we can handle” are so difficult to swallow or hear or put up with when the person hasn’t been given the opportunity to make their own meaning of events (or not).  Time doesn’t always heal all wounds and to pretend otherwise is to deprive the one suffering of finding the meaning (or not) in their experience.

Similarly, when we ourselves jump to meaning making prematurely, we may find those meanings ultimately insufficient or inappropriate.  I am reminded again of Peter who earlier tried to dissuade Jesus from his mission and ministry because he had different ideas of what a Messiah should be and do.    Often, our meaning making is revised upon further reflection and as new information comes to light.  We also revise our meaning making as we gain perspective both when we stand at a distance from events and when we so close that we lose the ability, like Peter, to find the words to respond.

Finally, a story for those of you who may be seeking a way to proceed with your own transformation in this time of uncertainty.  Richard Rohr writes, “Most people just listen to my ideas and judge them to be true or false. They either ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ them. But thinking about ideas or making judgments about what is moral or immoral seldom leads to a radically new consciousness. Transformative education is not asking you to believe or disbelieve in any doctrines or dogmas. Rather it is challenging you to ‘Try this!’ Then you will know something to be true or false for yourself.

Rohr encourages us to “ try something new: change sides, move outside your comfort zone, make some new contacts, let go of your usual role and attractive self-image, walk instead of drive, make a friend from another race or class, visit new neighborhoods, go to the jail or to the border, attend another church service, etc. Then you can live yourself into new ways of thinking, which then seem so right and necessary that you wonder how you could have ever thought in any other way.”[2]

 

Friends, may you go beyond fear and uncertainty and welcome your own transformation.  May you, like Peter, go beyond making memorials to the past and find healthy and healing ways to live within the uncertainty that you experience.

Amen.

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[1] Sarah McCammon, “Advice for dealing with Uncertainty from People Who Have Been There,” NPR.org, October 12, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/05/01/849181366/advice-for-dealing-with-uncertainty-from-people-whove-been-there

 

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, “The eight core principles,” Radical Grace, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Center for Action and Contemplation: Fall 2012), 44-45