To See God Alone
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
I was curious about the origin of that phrase which I hear a lot these days. Come to find out it’s a tag line from a 1986 sci-fi horror film about a scientist played by Jeff Goldblum who through a flawed laboratory experiment begins to change into an insect, a human-sized housefly. Attempting to reassure a reporter who is following the story, he says Don’t be afraid. To which she replies, No. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Well, I never saw the movie (which actually won an Academy award that year….for best make up!), but the phrase has worked its way into our common vocabulary, to warn of dangers both real and imaginary, significant and trivial. Fear it seems was hardwired into humans as a survival mechanism prompting protective responses of “fight or flight.” Certainly there are things of which to be afraid. But I wonder if faith offers a wider range of responses through which to overcome it.
The scripture reading for today is a classic narrative of spiritual enlightenment. Jesus and three of his followers hike up a Middle Eastern version of a fourteener. Mountains have long been associated with “thin places” —not indicative of the oxygen level—but where the Divine comes closer to human reality; sort of an intersection between heaven and earth. They are places to approach with a spirit of openness and receptivity, willingness to walk a long and even difficult way, and the possibility that you might be changed. A reading from Matthew, in the seventeenth chapter at the first verse. Listen…..and expect to hear God’s Word to you. [Matthew 17:1-9]
I lift up my eyes to the hills, the Psalmist wrote in praise to the God who watches over us. Similarly, the transfiguration text lifts our gaze from daily life to a higher elevation, a place apart. Sometimes it’s good to broaden our view, to make time to remove ourselves from active routine and full schedules and look at our world and our lives from a different perspective.
On the mountain top, the disciples with Jesus got more than they bargained for in an experience so dramatic that the narrator struggles to put it into words. Enterprising Peter tries to incorporate the astonishing vision into familiar norms, to make it fit with what he knows. Let’s build and preserve, so that it can become, perhaps, an object of adoration (and maybe even a revenue source!). His hurried proposition is interrupted by a presence and a voice that cannot be ignored. Silence, mortal!
I think this text is a good antidote for rational faith, a faith we can wrap our heads around, one that’s not too “woo woo” but is entirely compatible with a scientific worldview in which everything can be explained through natural causes. Really? Faith is not anti-science and in fact welcomes exploration and inquiry and empirical research. But faith points us to something different, something that transcends all human knowledge and experience. God is mystery—immortal, invisible as we sang earlier. Visual renderings of this scene always strike me as hokey with the flashes of light, illuminated clouds and backlit Jesus, and a thundering male voice commanding attention. But that’s the limitation of language—trying to capture something elusive, something beyond human explanation. Sometimes words are not enough.
Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain reminds us that we are not God. Even the best of us—represented in this vision as Freedom-fighting, lawgiver Moses and truth-telling Prophet Elijah—-are pale comparisons of the real deal. No wonder the disciples fell on their faces, overcome by fear, aware of their own failings, overwhelmed by an encounter with the living God.
What happens next contains the very heart of the Christian story, and why this indescribable scene has the power to make a difference to us, today.
Jesus comes to them and touches them and tells them not to be afraid.
Does anything banish our fears more wonderfully than a simple, human touch—an outstretched arm, a warm hug, a hand clasping your own? Former Central pastor John Wilcox called it “God’s love with skin on,” and I don’t know any better way to say it. The
transformational, transfiguring truth of the universe is that the magnificent wholly other God chooses to come alongside us, to touch us and release our fears. When Jesus was born, the angel messenger proclaimed him “Emmanuel,” which means God is with us. Jesus’ hand on the shoulder of the disciples is none other than God’s own touch, because the extraordinary God willed all God’s hopes for us to be communicated in ordinary human touch. [see Feasting on the Word, Patrick J. Willson, p. 457]
Let the reality of that sink in, by looking at your own hands. You are holding the glory and magnificence of almighty God, the power to convey the unconditional love of the One who created us, who made a way when there was no way, and who welcomes us without reservation and without a reservation. Through a touch, transcending even the most eloquent words, the most accurate data. It’s well known that newborn infants need touch to survive and thrive. It doesn’t end when they enter the terrible twos or the teen years, even when they shrug off a parent’s touch. Physical contact with another person is part of what it means to be human. A church member who had to live in a sterilized environment to prepare for a bone marrow transplant spoke of her heightened sense of loneliness. Widows and widowers and others who live alone often describe “skin hunger”—a physical yearning for the nourishment of loving touch. Look at your hands and see what you hold there.
Not long ago I scanned a Sunday newspaper and found over thirty headlines using the words “fear” “afraid” and variations. There is a lot of fear out there. Fear that one’s quality of life is diminishing; fear that something is in danger of being irretrievably lost. Fear that one’s community is becoming unrecognizable. While fear once helped us survive primeval dangers, it can also become a means to control people, to reduce our capacity for generosity and good will, heighten a perception of enmity and us v. them. Then the way to assuage fear is through exclusion and narrow self-interest. Friends, God wants more for us and the whole human race. We who have received the love that casts out fear are called to use our hands
to feed the hungry,
to welcome the stranger and protect little children,
to visit the sick, imprisoned, and lonely, courageously to speak up for ones who have been systematically silenced, dismissed, belittled. . . . . but also to get out of our bubble and reach out to those across the divide that has rent our country and jeopardized its promise of liberty and justice for all.
And then to return from the high mountains of glory, with light in our eyes and the memory of Jesus’ touch on our shoulders, back down into the city of tears and fears and broken dreams and great weariness. . . .
. . . .and touch one another with the very love of God.
It happened at a high school football game in Grapevine Texas, a place where they take “Friday Night Lights” pretty seriously. Everything about the game between Grapevine Faith and Gainesville State School was unusual from the start. When the Gainesville team took the field, the Faith fans made a 40-yard spirit line for them to run through, accompanied by high fives and handshakes and back pats. A large group of Faith fans sat on the Gainesville side, cheering the individual players by name.
And even though Gainesville got walloped 33-14, the kids were so happy that after the game they gave their coach a Gatorade shower, as if they’d won the State championship. But then you saw the 12 uniformed officers escorting the 14 Gainesville players off the field. They lined the players up in groups of five—handcuffs ready in their back pockets—and marched them to the team bus. That’s because Gainesville is a high-security juvenile correctional facility.
This all started when Faith’s head coach and some of the parents got to thinking about the game, and the lop-sided circumstances widely separating the two teams.
So they got this idea. What if half of them cheered for the prison team? “Here’s the message we want to send:” they wrote to school families. “You are just as valuable as any other person on Earth.”
It was a strange experience for boys most people cross the street to avoid. “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games,” said Gerald, a lineman doing three years. “You can see it in their eyes. They’re lookin’ at us like we’re criminals, which we are. But these people, they were for us! They even knew our names!”
After the game, because this is Texas, both teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray and that’s when the Gainesville quarterback surprised everyone by asking to lead. Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank You, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us. [from an ESPN blog by Rick Reilly]
Imagine, the touch of God, dispelling fear and bringing these disparate tribes together. And by God, it felt just like human hands. Because it was. Amen.