“Get Up and Do Not Be Afraid”- a sermon for The Transfiguration of Our Lord (Year A)

It was a joy to be with the people of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska on Sunday February 19, 2023. Thank you Pastor Kim Osborn for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. I was invited to preach on Transfiguration Sunday and share about the Vitality Initiative as part of my work of visiting congregations who are a part of the first vitality initiative cohort. Following worship I was in for a treat too, as the congregation had a Shrove Sunday breakfast of great pancakes, sausage, fruit and fantastic fellowship and conversation. It was a great day! What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from, which is based primarily on the appointed gospel for Transfiguration Sunday (Year A), Matthew 17:1-9. If you would like to watch the service, or listen to the sermon you can do that by playing the recording of the service available embedded below and made available by the congregation on its YouTube page.

Grace and peace from God in Christ who is with you, for you, and who loves you. Amen.

Good Morning St. Andrew’s. It’s so good to be back with you today on this great festival day of the faith. Thank you Pr. Kim and to the whole vitality team for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring you greetings from Bishop Scott Johnson, from all my colleagues on the Nebraska Synod staff, as well as from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. In being with you today, I’m grateful to be able to dwell in the word and see what God might be calling and inviting us to see and ponder, as well as to think some about your congregation’s journey through the Nebraska Synod Vitality Initiative for Congregations,[1] and the many experiments, discoveries, and big questions you might be pondering now.

The worship service from Transfiguration Sunday at St. Andrew’s Lutheran, courtesy of the congregation’s YouTube page.

The Vitality Initiative
Okay. Before we get to the familiar story of the Transfiguration, I think we should start with a quiz time of sorts. How many of you know that your congregation has been one of eight congregations of the 235 in the Nebraska Synod journeying through the inaugural cohort of the Vitality Initiative? That’s great! Don’t sweat if you didn’t put your hand up. I am going to share a bit more about what your team and your congregation has been up to.

Your vitality team has been doing wonderful work, and I know that especially because I have been your congregation’s coach. It’s been a joy to walk alongside your team, as together with the other seven congregations, they have continued to learn together and explore over the past year and a half. Not too long ago your vitality team shared some discussion and presentation time where it put boxes in front of you all. The boxes were signs of some of the ministries that you all make possible and make happen. They also hinted at some of the questions your congregation and the whole cohort have been wrestling with. Do you remember that experience with the boxes right up here? No matter how the boxes are or were stacked, that metaphor points to how this is all an on-going process of discernment, discovery, and experimentation in the life of the congregation as a whole.

Through this journey, I have learned something new about my own ministry too. As your partner in ministry for Mission, Innovation, and Stewardship, I’ve really come to sense that part of my main work right now among God’s faithful people who are the Nebraska Synod, is to be one to ask questions for congregations, leaders, and disciples. To leave space for those questions, and help create an environment of imagination and wonder, and to give the unnecessary but sometimes helpful affirmation and permission to “go.” Go and try. Go and do. Go and learn. Go and be.

I am proud of your congregation because you have embodied this. It’s as if you have responded to Jesus meeting you where you are at, like he does to the disciples in today’s gospel story saying, “get up and do not be afraid,” and you have done that.[2] You have done that through the way in this vitality journey that your congregation has wrestled with the big questions of: Who are we? Who are our neighbors? And, what might God be inviting us to be a part of next?

The children’s message with Pastor Kim. It was a great message about Christ’s light and love.

The Transfiguration
Let’s turn to the Word. The Transfiguration story needs little introduction. We know this gospel story. Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up on the mountaintop.[3] And, for the umpteenth time in Jesus’ life and ministry, the world will never be the same again. Jesus shone like the sun with clothes that were dazzling bright.[4] Think the culmination of the themes of this time after Epiphany meets Easter, and your imagination is maybe about halfway there. Throw in some clouds and the story of Moses with God and receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai that we heard in our first lesson, and we might be a bit closer.[5] This story that we all know so well, is one of those though, that if we take a moment to imagine the scene and experience, we might have the hardest of times if we’re honest picturing. Because for most of us, we have never had such an experience of transcendence, of literal transfiguration.

Now put yourself in the story. As we reflect on this familiar story, I want to invite you to use some new lenses. Think about the questions of the vitality journey- Who are we? Who are our neighbors? What might God be inviting us to be a part of next?

What would you do or say if you were one of the three disciples who was there with Jesus that day and witnessed and experienced what they did? I’m not sure in witnessing Moses and Elijah, that I would have had the presence of mind like Peter to say, “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.”[6] I suspect I would have been awe struck, or freaked out of my mind. But maybe you wouldn’t have been. But I am a little relieved at least to know that I’m not alone in that. Though I’m always surprised that the three disciples with Jesus weren’t out of their minds at that point. That they were still present and seemingly not phased by the presence of two of the giants of their faith with them. Well, God would make sure that they would have that experience too.

The story moves rather quickly from there. I kind of wish it didn’t. I wish we had some more time just to sit and breathe in that mountaintop experience. That epiphany and moment of pure wonder. A moment like one might have when they have climbed to the top of a hill, Scottsbluff here in Nebraska, a mountain like any of those in my home state of Washington, and looked out at God’s good and beautiful creation. The wonder in that is impossible to define. It’s those moments where you can’t make it up, but you’re speechless. Held in wonder and awe of God’s creative powers. Held in wonder and awe about all that God can and will do. Or, like other kind of mountaintop experiences.

Heading out for Lincoln early on Transfiguration Sunday morning, and I had to stop and admire with awe the beauty of yet another glorious and transcendent sunrise. Maybe this helps you imagine what the Transfiguration might have looked and felt like?

Moments like meeting your hero or someone you have long respected, and just feeling so welcomed to be with them and hopefully to learn that they are a genuine person who cares about others. Moments like figuring out or discovering something in school or work or one’s vocation, and feeling like, it all just clicks. It makes sense. Moments like Sunday mornings here gathered as God’s people of St. Andrew’s Lutheran. Gathered for worship, fellowship, and times of discipleship growth and strengthening. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. These are good moments to breathe deeply. Peter is certainly right, that it is good to be there in that place and time. But these moments, are just that, moments. And God doesn’t let us sit in them very long.

Who are We?
That brings us to our first vitality question. Who are we? In this story, we’re probably one of the disciples. Following Jesus. Not sure quite what we’re doing. Not quite comprehending all that God is up to. But we’re there. We’re witnesses to these things. We’ve responded to Jesus’ invitation to come and see that the Lord is good. As God’s people here and now, we are Children of God. Disciples. Stewards of God’s love. And more specifically, you are God’s people gathered as St. Andrew’s Lutheran here in Lincoln. A community of disciples who have answered God’s invitation to come and see and follow, and who continue to answer that call in new and various ways each day and week as you are sent out into your lives and vocations as signs of God’s love and presence in the world, who actively reach out and share grace. We’ll get to what that might look like for your neighbors in a minute. But let’s pick up the story again.

Get Up and Do Not Be Afraid
The gospel story implies that Peter is still talking after offering to build dwellings for the three. He’s still fixated on the idea of staying in that space. It’s so great, why would they want to leave that experience? I don’t blame him. That’s human nature. But we know what happens next. While Peter is still talking and focused on his first thoughts of building three dwellings, he’s interrupted as “suddenly” there’s a bright cloud and a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”[7] God does what Moses and Elijah don’t earlier in this story. God’s voice terrifies, and the disciples are overcome in awe and fear and fall to the ground. I would imagine we’d all have a similar reaction. Though again, I kind of think that might have happened earlier in the story too. In seeing Moses and Elijah. But the reaction here leads to Jesus doing what he does. He comes alongside his disciples and meets them where they are at. He came and touched them and says to them, just as he does to you and me, “Get up and do not be afraid.”[8] “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus is back by himself. It’s quiet now. There’s no more thunderous voice from heaven. No figures of the faith from generations past. Just Jesus and the three disciples who came along with Jesus for his walk up the mountain.

Happy disciples enjoying their Shrove Sunday pancake brunch.

We can surmise from there, that the time at the mountaintop has come to a close. Because the next thing we know, Jesus and the three are coming down the mountain. I really wonder what that walk down the mountain would have felt like? Silence? Conversation? Confusion? Excitement? Fear? I’m not sure where I would fall on the emotional scale there, but I doubt I could stay quiet the whole walk home afterward.
Though the story does seem to suggest that’s what Jesus wants. As he orders them to “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”[9] I fear we as Lutheran Christians take this order from Jesus as a marching order a little too much. We do the first part well, we too often, “Tell no one,” while missing the condition that it only holds until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Jesus doesn’t want this story to stay silent forever. Just long enough to make it through the events that he knows are coming quickly. The events we will begin to journey through in our Lenten walks later this week with Ash Wednesday.

Who are Our Neighbors?
So let’s not “tell no one,” anymore. Yes, I know that’s a double negative. But let’s lean into this story today knowing that we don’t stay on top of the mountaintop moments of life forever, but that these moments fill us and send us down into the valley to live and to serve and to grow as disciples. To lean in deeply out of our baptized lives and vocations. And to go about the work and life of relationships which God calls and invites for each one of us. We’re enough for this because we are not alone in it. God walks with us in it. Jesus meets us where we are, at every day, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

The neighbor school to the congregation, right outside of the church’s doors and across the parking lot.

That’s the reminder we might all need to ponder the second vitality question. “Who are our neighbors?” That’s not just a question to acknowledge your neighborhood. The fact that you have a school next door, right out those doors across the parking lot. That you are in a neighborhood, but not far at all from some of the larger commercial and shopping areas of the Lincoln metro, and not far from a hospital or two. This is all true. And these are your neighbors. But to really answer the question of who your neighbors are, means forming and building and growing relationships. It means knowing who your neighbors are at a deeper level. It means discovering and knowing what your neighbors’ needs are, and their hopes, dreams, and even fears. And meeting them where they are at as signs of God’s love and presence made real. And your congregation is doing this by really leaning into your ministries of hospitality. Of showing up next door at the school and helping whenever possible and providing in even small ways to help make the days just a little brighter for teachers, students, and their families.

What Might God be Inviting Next?
As the disciples came down the mountain, we’re kind of left hanging in our story. What’s going to happen next? We know what lies ahead. But the disciples right in the middle of this story, are left to make sense of what they have seen, heard, witnessed, and been surrounded by. That would lead to a sense of wonder.

To wonder, just as the vitality cohort moves to with its third question, what might God be inviting next? In coming down from the mountain top, Jesus invites the disciples to continue to follow. To continue to come and see that the Lord is good. And to be sent too. That’s what happens in this story today for the three disciples who journey with Jesus in it. I wonder. As you come down from your mountain tops, what’s next? What might God be calling for and inviting next?

Each one of us as a disciple, I’m sure has a unique answer or answers to that question. I’m certain of that. And that’s good. That’s part of each of our unique calls and vocations. But I have a sense that for your congregation as a whole, St. Andrew’s, you might have some ideas now that you have been journeying through the Vitality Initiative. Collectively your team has sensed a real push and focus on matters related to hospitality and communication which is shaping some of your experiments that you have embarked on and that you might be trying in the days and months ahead. Through which your congregation will continue to open yourselves outward as signs of God’s abundant and abiding love made real right here now today. Of telling the story of all that God has done, and will do. Of believing and proclaiming through word and deed for all that might hear, see, and witness, that Jesus is for you, with you, and loves you. Always.

The faithful congregation greeting one another near the close of worship.

That’s all of our work. It’s not just the work of a deacon like me, or of a Pastor, like Pastor Kim. It’s all of our work as we live out our baptized lives, through asking big questions and being open to trying new things. Of leaning in, and stepping up. For me, that’s the biggest piece of the Transfiguration story. It’s the what’s next question that the story, though unspoken, ends with. What’s next? We can ask that question with confidence and hope because we know Jesus’ words on the mountaintop to the disciples are his words to us today too. “Get up and do not be afraid.” Because Jesus is with you in this, you are enough for all that God might be up to and inviting.

Lean in. Try. Do. Go. Be bold. Experiment. Learn. And do it some more. That’s what vitality is all about. And it’s what a living faith looks like. May we lean in with joy, good and hard questions, and as signs of Christ’s peace and love. What might God be inviting next? I’m not sure. But I’m excited to see, witness and wonder, and I hope you are too. Thank you for getting up and doing all that you do as Jesus’ disciples. And thanks be to God who calls us, sends us, is with us, for us, and loves us. Always. Amen.

Citations and References:

[1] To learn more about the Vitality Initiative, or to apply for your congregation to participate in the second cohort, please visit: https://nebraskasynod.org/faith-in-action/outreach/vitality-initiative-for-congregations/.

[2] Matthew 17:7, NRSV.

[3] Matthew 17:1, NRSV.

[4] Matthew 17:2, NRSV.

[5] Exodus 24:12-18, NRSV.

[6] Matthew 17:4, NRSV.

[7] Matthew 17:5, NRSV.

[8] Matthew 17:7, NRSV.

[9] Matthew 17:9, NRSV.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s