Wait. Listen. Get Up.
March 17, 2013
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
If God wants us to love him, follow him, God would do well to quit scaring the bejeepers out of us.
No doubt about it, we’ve got some difficult images of God here. A God who summons Moses in no uncertain terms, and then makes him wait for a week in an obscuring cloud, before appearing, like a devouring fire. A God who suddenly, without warning or explanation, changes Jesus into a body of such incredible light that Peter and James and John are overcome by fear. Nice.
I like the God who leads me beside the still waters and restores my soul, the one whose very touch heals years of woundedness, the one who tweaks the selfrighteous authority figures, the God with his eye on the sparrow. That one’s fun to preach about.
But when I am scared speechless, everything I know about deep, empathetic listening goes right out the window.
I am a hospice chaplain, and I spend a lot of time with fear. People’s fears—what’s it going to be like to die from the disease I have? How in the world will I handle the physical, emotional, financial stress of caring for my loved one? How long will it take?
And I carry plenty of my own fears around with me. What if this happens to me? What will old age bring?
When I was writing this very sermon, I got a message from a nurse I work with. “You’d better call Mrs. Martinez; she really needs to talk to you. I told her you’d call her tomorrow.”
I called the nurse back. “I just talked to her yesterday. I’m going over there on Monday. Is her husband not going to make it through the weekend?”
“Oh, yeah, she said she’d talked with you, but she didn’t remember when, or what you’d said. You might want to call her to confirm. She’s really overwhelmed.”
We don’t process information when we’re overcome by fear. We can’t be truly present for another when we’re lost in our own fear. Fear shuts us down. It makes our world tiny. It builds a dwelling around us.
And if the simple command “Don’t be afraid” worked, there would be no need for hospice chaplains—or ministers or theologians either, for that matter. When you’re scared, is it helpful for somebody, usually the person who’s freaking you out to begin with, to tell you, “Fear not”?
Oh. OK. I’ll stop being afraid now. Why didn’t I think of that?
Fear is instinctual. Animals know that if you don’t fear, you will be eaten. We cannot simply “fear not.” Nothing in Buddhist or Christian or any other spiritual teachings suggests that enlightenment comes from cultivating fearful experiences. Peak mountaintop experiences, those transcendent encounters with the divine that are so intense you don’t really want to tell anybody else about them—this is not the goal of spiritual growth.
The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, speaking of existential angst that remains at the top of the food chain, says, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”—a truth that Swedenborg says is so beyond our capacity to make use of that it appears obscured with clouds. These are necessary clouds, to keep us from being blinded by the reality of the infinite, eternal I AM. The clouds around God allow love and wisdom to appear to us in ways we can use, make visible in our lives.
On a little Russian church out at the edge of the world in Alaska, there’s a sign that says, “You were transfigured on the mount, O Christ God, revealing your glory to your disciples as far as they could bear it.”
In today’s scripture passages, we get closer to God than we think we can bear. And Jesus doesn’t give us any explanations, or any comfort, or any direction. He tells us, “Don’t say anything about this until after I have been raised from the dead.”
No “Go out and spread the Good News.” No “Go make disciples of all people.” No “Go forth and sin no more.” No. These scary, incomprehensible encounters with the Mystery don’t send us out to witness, to live our faith out loud. They draw us inward, make us face what we think is out of bounds, out of control, what we can’t explain or make the best of in the moment.
Pema Chodron writes of three ways we cope with the myriad of fears that weave in and out of our lives— from the little worries and anxieties to the great 4 AM Meaning of Life ones.
One: We create clouds of Form—we use external, material things to keep us grounded. Our homes, nature, work, our lists—we retreat into tangible things to center ourselves and feel that we are on solid ground. Peter wanted to build three dwellings. Am I just keeping fear at bay when I go down to the creek to get hypnotized by the water going by?
Two: We create clouds of Speech—our beliefs, ideals, and religions give us the illusion that we understand and possess the truth. It’s easy to dismiss whatever doesn’t meet our standards of right and wrong. Peter’s first impulse was to express his opinion, until God interrupted him. Is this the cloud I’m creating when I judge somebody whose ideas about God seem all wrong to me?
Three: We create clouds of Mind—we work hard to cultivate states of mind that block out what we consider to be “negative” emotions. We fall in love, we meditate for the sake of bliss, we seek peak experiences, we seek that bright, blinding light—on our terms. Peter says, “This is a good thing! Yes, a good thing!” I spend a lot of effort avoiding anything in life that will make me uncomfortable, threatened, angry, or out of control. My calm, sunny disposition is actually me avoiding fear and uncertainty like the plague.
Form. Speech. Mind. Maybe these describe the three houses that it was Peter’s first instinct to build. Maybe they’re the clouds that we build low to the ground. We don’t always trust that God will give us the clouds we think we need, closer to the mountaintop. God’s idea of “as far as we can bear it” and our idea of this concept are not always the same.
So if we can’t avoid fear, can we make it useful? The Buddhists have some great teachings in this vein.
First, allow yourself to be aware of your fear, or whatever uncomfortable difficult emotion is arising. From Pema Chodron again: “To be encouraged to stay with our vulnerability is news we can use.” Simply stay present with it. Breathe. Fear has a tendency to take our breath away. Take it back. Stay with it, without judgment, without trying to overcome it, without trying to make anything of it. Simply notice it. Come up on the mountain and wait.
Second, poke around in what you are noticing. Acknowledge the visitor. Hello, fear and anger. What do you want? What are you doing here? Where are you in my body? Are you in my jaw? My back? My belly? What thoughts are you leading me to? Do you have a message for me? OK, you are here for a little while, but you are not all that I am. You are not all that I am.
Staying compassionately with our weakness, trusting ourselves to abide in the wilderness of unknowing, without having to judge it or rationalize it, or overcome it, or protect ourselves from it: this is how we listen to the Beloved in Whom God is Well- Pleased.
Remaining present and gentle with yourself, knowing that the fear is not all that you are: this is how we listen to Him whose very presence embodied a healing, compassionate love for all life, a love that is larger than our experience of self and our opinions about how life should be.
Stay with it. This is how we listen to the One whose wisdom outshines science’s ability to explain the hows and religion’s ability to explain the whys of life.
Nonjudgmental attention to what is: this is how we listen to the Word Made Flesh, who invites us to abundant love beyond the boundaries of even our own flesh and blood. We first must be compassionate to our own fearful selves, before we can be fully present to others.
Today’s texts reveal an awesome truth embodied in the presence of the Beloved. Jesus radiates the truth of our full and whole humanity, and the reality of the divinity within and around us. Fathom it or not, people saw in Jesus the compassionate God of healing and light that outshines human experience.
These encounters suggest a different kind of spiritual practice to me.
I hear the Buddhist teachings about staying present to our vulnerability, and the Christian message of trusting beyond our defenses.
Come up on the mountain and wait.
I hear the wisdom that the thoughts and beliefs that keep me safe from fear can make me deaf to the truth of God’s infinite compassion.
The Beloved is here. Listen to him.
Maybe I’ll get up from my safe place, and give up my ongoing efforts to defend myself from fear. Maybe you will, too. Amen.
Make us, blessed Master, strong in heart, full of courage, and fearless of danger. Whatever lies before us on our path, may we be strengthened by the might of your Spirit and delivered by your holy and gracious hand; and this we beg for your name’s sake.
- F. B. Meyer (1847-1929)
Lord, remove the fear that makes us strident and vengeful; take away the woolliness of thought that makes us sentimental. Give us clear eyes to see the world as it is, and ourselves and all people as we are; give us hope to go on believing in what you intend us all to be. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Rev. Kathy Speas