Matthew 17.1-9 and Exodus 24.12-18
The Israelites looked up at the mountain, day after day, night after night. It had been so long since Moses had left for the summit of Sinai, and they were getting restless. What if he had been killed by the inhabitants of this strange desert land? Or an Egyptian who had managed to escape the sea? Or even by the glory of the Lord that enshrouded the mountain with clouds and light? What if Moses had disappeared again, like he did after he had killed the slave-driver, afraid to face the daunting task of leading the people? They didn’t know anything for sure, but that he was gone.
And fear began to creep into their hearts. Fear of the unknown. Of the armies of the empires that surrounded them. Of the gnawing hunger that grew as their food supply dwindled. When Moses left, he told them to have faith. But fear asphyxiates faith. Chokes it. Cuts off its air supply.
So, as an asphyxiated faith tends to do, the people of God reached out for other gods. Temporary, replacement gods. They cried out to Aaron, who was thinking the same things they were, but unable to say them out loud in case it made him look weak. And Aaron gave them something to do to keep them busy. To distract them from their fear. A calf. A golden calf. A symbol of virility and power and strength. That would ward off their fear. “That way,” they thought, “we won’t be afraid anymore.”
The disciples looked up at the mountain. It had been so long since Jesus, and Peter and James and John had left. They were getting restless. A boy and his father had been waiting, almost since Jesus had left them. He was in terrible shape, possessed by a demon that caused emotional and physical harm to him. They had tried and failed to remove the demon and had only made things worse. What if the boy was killed while they waited? And what was keeping Jesus so long, anyway?
Fear began to creep into their hearts. Fear that Jesus would leave them, and only take his favorite disciples. Fear of the demonic presence that inhabited this boy. When Jesus left, he told them to have faith. But fear asphyxiates faith. Chokes it. Cuts off its ability to create healing and wholeness. Their faith gasped while they waited.
So, as an asphyxiated faith tends to do, they were paralyzed by fear. They doubted themselves and waited for Jesus to fix it for them. “He’ll come back,” they thought, “and it will all be OK. Then we won’t be afraid anymore.”
Seventy-five years ago this week, the disciples of God looked up to the horizon and were afraid. The horror of Pearl Harbor was directly behind them, and they were getting restless. What if another attack came? What if it came against them, in their community, and not far away in Hawaii? What if the people that they saw everyday were actually spies for the Japanese? What if the shop-owners and employees that they worked with were watching them at night? What if the church members that they worshipped beside were reporting their conversations to the Empire? There was no actual evidence of this, of course. But followers of Christ still suspected their neighbors – American citizens of Japanese descent.
Fear crept into their hearts. Fear that the Japanese people that they worked beside, lived beside, worshipped beside, were actually spies bent on their destruction. They were a people of faith. But fear asphyxiates faith. Chokes it. Causes us to see children of God, even sisters and brothers in Christ, as the enemy.
So, as an asphyxiated faith tends to do, the people of God reacted out of fear. President Roosevelt, who was thinking the same things they were, but couldn’t say them because he didn’t want to look weak, gave them something to do. Executive Order 9066. It gave permission to round up every Japanese person on the West Coast and place them into internment camps around the country. Soldiers rushed into their homes and told them to pack a bag and leave the rest behind. Transported them away, sometimes hundreds of miles from their homes. Put them behind barbed wire fences. To take them out of their homes and away from their businesses and schools and churches and put them where they could keep an eye on them. Sure, they would likely lose their businesses. Maybe their houses. They would have to live in barracks, go to the bathroom in public stalls. But they couldn’t hurt anyone behind those fences. The people of faith cried, “now we won’t need to be afraid anymore!”
Three stories that all intersect this week. The first two come from Scripture on Transfiguration Sunday – Exodus and Matthew. And the final one comes from our own history in our own country – one of the darkest chapters of our history.
In each case, the underlying story is the same. Both of these Scripture passages tell the story of a transfiguration. Moses caught up in the glory of God on Sinai, enough that he would return to the people with a countenance of light. Jesus on the mountain with Peter and James and John, his countenance shining like the lightning.
But these transfigurations are not for the sake of Moses or Jesus. It is not for their benefit. It is for the sake of those watching below. For the Israelites or for the disciples. The Israelites were asked to have faith in a God that was only now coming into new covenant with them, to trust Moses as their leader. And the disciples were asked to have faith in God incarnate that was explaining what this new life must now look like: “This is my son…listen to him!” They were asked to trust the ones that this Transfiguring God sent to them.
And they failed. In both cases. The Golden Calf represented failure to trust God and his servant Moses. The failure of the disciples to care for this boy. Even at some level the failure of Peter and James and John. Peter wants to build tents for everyone – let’s stay up here and never go down into the real world! The opposite of what Jesus had been preaching to them. They were given the opportunity to have faith in a Transfiguring God, and their faith was asphyxiated by fear. They were asked to give their lives to this God in ways that demonstrated real, and likely, danger. And, in both cases, this nascent faith was asphyxiated by fear of the unknown.
And yet. The Two-Way conversation on Wednesday night pointed out that God had to know what was happening on the bottom of the mountain. God had to know that they were melting their earrings down to worship another god. God knew they were down the hill, their faith failing to take care of this boy.
God still showed them a message of hope…anyway.
God still breaks into the chaos…anyway.
God provides an encounter of covenant and power and glory…anyway.
These are stories of a God who knows our fear, but gives us a reason for courage…anyway.
God knows that fear can asphyxiate faith, but it doesn’t have to! What is the message that God in Christ delivered on the mountain: “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
Erica Brown Wood captures this good news beautifully in her commentary on these passages: “When facing a wilderness without markers that is fraught with potential danger, are we tempted to let fear overwhelm our faith? Do we panic and begin to worship other, more instantly gratifying gods? (Or) with the abundant and gracious inbreaking of God into our lives, is our faith strengthened?”
The story of the Japanese internment camps one of many in which we have allowed fear to overwhelm our faith. Failed to treat God’s children as such, because we were motivated by fear. The Trail of Tears. Jim Crow laws. Even our overreaction as a country after 9-11, targeting every Muslim because of the horrors of 19 individuals. And yet, our history tells us that God still breaks into our lives, in spite of our fear…in spite of our failure.
For many followers of Christ allowed fear to guide them in 1941, but many others did not allow fear to asphyxiate their faith: Christians stood by the barbed wire and reached through the fences with love to those who were unfairly treated. They offered ministry of relief, caring for their needs, helping to offer food and hot coffee and Christmas gifts for the children. They were heckled by Christians who claimed that they were aiding the enemy. But they were not motivated by fear, but faith.
Churches took a stand against these policies, including American Baptists. This month, we take up the America for Christ offering. The organization that invites that offering – the American Baptist Home Missions Societies –offered aid to the Japanese in the camps. But they also took a stand for justice: they released materials decrying the suffering of God’s children in these camps, and calling for a relocation to their homes to begin immediately.
In the face of those whose faith was asphyxiated by fear, they heard the words of Christ: do not be afraid! American Baptists knew of the God who loved them, and loved them in spite of their fears and failures!
Because that is our good news today. That God knows of our tendency to have our faith asphyxiated by fear. And yet…
In spite of knowing us better than we know ourselves, God breaks into our lives…anyway.
In spite of the Golden Calf that he knows is at the bottom of the mountain, God offers us covenant…anyway.
In spite of the denials of Good Friday that he knows are coming, God in Christ invites Peter up the mountain…anyway
In spite of the brokenness and sin and fear that we will exhibit, God reaches into our lives and shows us his full glory…anyway!
God is not a God of “why bother?” but a God of “stand up and do not be afraid!”
In spite of knowing our failures, in spite of knowing that are times when we are still overwhelmed by fear, God still reaches into our lives and offers us another chance. A chance to let our faith asphyxiate our fears.
Edward and Martha Okamoto were a young man and woman in the concentration camps. They were forced to leave their homes to be interred in Idaho. After some time, they were allowed to leave to go to a new home. In Lawrence, Kansas. Where they found a church that welcomed them and showed them the hospitality of the life of Christ.
And here is where they stayed.
This is where they raised their two children.
This is where they worshipped.
This is where they practiced about the call of Christ on their lives.
This is where they were shown love.
This is where they showed love to others
This is where – some decades later – a generous gift was given in their name to the worship ministry of this congregation, purchasing three octaves of choir chimes. The chimes that our children played today.
They allowed the chime of Gospel love to ring forth from generation to generation.
May we continue in the legacy of welcome and love that is deeply held in this place!