(Matthew 17:1-9, Matthew 5:9-10, Matthew 10: 5,7-8,16_ “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. The time is always right to do what is right. Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase. God, please help me to take the first step.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I heard on the radio a story told by a man about him and his four year old daughter. At Christmas time one year, she became very curious about Jesus. So the father got a children’s bible and every night they read from it together, and he explained to her as best he could about Jesus’ life and his teachings. She loved it all. She loved the stories about Jesus’ compassion, Jesus’ message about “do to others how you want them to do to you,” which took some explaining to a four-year-old, but she got it.
One day they were in the car and drove past a church with a big crucifix out front – probably a Catholic church, you know, with not just a cross but one with Jesus hanging on it. The daughter pointed to it and asked, “Who’s that?”
The father hadn’t gotten to that part of the story. He said to her, “Well, I haven’t told you this yet, but everything Jesus was doing and teaching didn’t make everyone happy. His message was actually so radical and upsetting to some people in power that they wanted him to die. So they killed Jesus. Around mid-January was MLK day. The daughter had off preschool, and the father had off work, so he took her out to lunch.
And here I’m going to pick up verbatim how the father tells the story, they’re at a place for lunch: “And we were sitting in there and right on the table where we happened to plop down was the art section of the local newspaper. And there, big as life, was a huge drawing by like a 10-year-old kid from the local schools of Martin Luther King. And she said, who’s that? And I said, well, as it happens, that’s Martin Luther King, and he’s why you’re not in school today. So we’re celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life. And she said, so who was he? I said, well, he was a preacher. And she looks up at me and goes, for Jesus? And I said yeah. Yeah, actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message. And you’re trying to say this to a four-year-old. This is the first time they ever hear anything so you’re just very careful about how you phrase everything. So I said, well, yeah, he was a preacher and he had a message. She said, what was his message? And I said, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like. She thought about that for a minute, and she said, well, that’s what Jesus said. And I said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And she thought for a minute and looked at me and said, did they kill him, too?”
That brings tears to my eyes every time. I’ve listened through that story a bunch of times now, and every time it gets me …
It’s the story of a child first learning about Jesus, her falling in love with Jesus because of and his compassion, his goodness, his message about God’s love. And it’s the story of this child then learning that in this world there are forces of violence that seek to destroy that love of God and that compassion. It’s then also a story about this child learning that it takes courage to be in this world and carry the message of compassion and God’s love. Or she’s starting on the path of learning that it takes courage to be a person of good faith.
One thing about this courage of Jesus that her father did not make clear – which is fine, she’s four years old – is that it’s not like Jesus and Martin Luther King and all the other saints of our faith who followed Jesus, it’s not like they just sat out on their porch all day being nice to everyone who came by, and mean people got mad at them for it. No. They took the message of God’s love and went out and confronted all the forces that deny that love. That’s what got them in trouble. That’s what takes a special kind of courage. So what does it take to have this courage?
I should say first that in our lives having this courage doesn’t need to look like epic heroism. Courage is not an elite sport; it’s for everybody whatever your challenge and circumstance, however the forces that deny God’s love appear in your lives.
And having this courage doesn’t mean we somehow don’t feel fear, but rather that we don’t let our fear keep us from doing the right thing.
Courage is having just enough faith to take that first step, and then take the next step. Courage is what it takes to keep a light burning, even if the darkness tries to overcome it. Courage is what it takes to keep a good heart in the face of the violence in this world – not just the violence in the world at large, but the violence in ourselves, towards ourselves and towards others, and the violence in our families, in our communities.
So, what does it take to have this courage?
Look, I’m here to tell you: Jesus is enough.
God is the final answer. God is the ultimate source of courage, as God is the ultimate source of life. But for those of us who need a little help when it comes to something as awesome as God (and I’m pretty sure that’s all of us, who need a little help), Jesus is enough.
If we are sincere in trying to follow the Way Jesus leads us, that’ll give us what we need to grow as we can in courage and compassion.
Today we tell the story of a very important stage in this journey of walking on the Way of Jesus: the Transfiguration.
So, midwinter was Christmas, when we celebrated Jesus’ birth. And we’ve come this Wednesday to Ash Wednesday when we begin the season of Lent, which is the 40 days and 40 nights leading to Holy Week in the spring, when Jesus dies and descends and is born again on Easter. The season we’ve just passed through from Christmas until now is called Epiphany – the dawning of the light – when we explore the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry. This year, through this hard winter, we’ve been trying to see things by the light of Jesus’ teachings, how they can fire the values that move us as a community of faith.
The peak of the season of Epiphany is the Transfiguration. Today.
Jesus leads three of his disciples up to the top of a mountain.
They witness him transform – transfigure – into a being of light.
His true nature shines through for them to witness.
He is not the scapegoat of those who come to hate him. He’s not covered with the mud that people come to throw at him. He is not only a body that can be made to feel fear and pain.
He is a being of light, a window for a light of life beyond all bounds.
He is joined by Moses and Elijah. They have also gone to the top of the holy mountain to encounter God, an awesome God beyond all bounds. The disciple Peter wants to keep them there, he wants to hold on to this holy moment, to house it somehow. And just as soon as he tries to do this, a cloud comes and muffles and covers the mountain and muffles the awesome light. So it glows, the cloud glows.
From this bright cloud on the mountain, a vibration, a voice, a singing voice, sings to this being transfigured into a being of light: You are Beloved, Beloved of God.
The disciples are terrified. It’s too much to hear this. But Jesus comes down and touches them and says, “Do not be afraid.”
He is prepared now for the journey he must take. He has courage, and he shares that courage with those who would follow him in walking on this Way.
So take courage, my friends. You do not walk alone.
[Delivered February 26, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg] [Image: “Transfiguration” by Helen Siegl]