Overcome by Love

Overcome by Love

Overcome by Love

Matthew 17:1-9

17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then 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.” 5While 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!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As 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.”

 

The past several days I joined about 125 people for a national conversation about theological education, the training of our clergy through seminary education. We discussed the reasons why it is important to support the education and training of clergy. We learned how to better inspire people to support seminary education. And in our closing keynote by John Kinney, Dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University. He ended his remarks with these words, “These are scary times.”

Theology helps us understand who we are and who God is in the midst of times such as these where so many people are afraid.

Our scripture testimony comes from the gospel according to Matthew where the disciples struggle to understand the revelation of God in Jesus.

In this scene on the mountain top we witness what has been called the “Transfiguration.” A now iconic story of when Jesus was glorified on a mountain top with three of his disciples. This story is traditionally celebrated the Sunday before the church begins observing its 40 days of Lent leading up to the remembrance of the death, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

A quick reference to the word “transfiguration” and we find the definition to be “a change in form or appearance,” “a metamorphosis,” or “an exalting, glorifying or spiritual change.”

So in our text today the Gospel of Matthew relate that one day Jesus took three disciples up a mountain, where they witnessed his transfiguration into divine form: his face shone like the sun, his garments became brilliantly white, and a voice from heaven proclaimed that this was the son of God. Transfiguration was first used in English as the name of this biblical event, and the Feast of the Transfiguration remains the name of a holy day. So the word has always kept a somewhat religious—and almost always positive—tone.

 

Yet what was the response of the disciples to Jesus’ transfiguration?

The fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. Let’s look at the details. The gospel tells us that the disciples didn’t immediately fall to the ground in fear upon seeing Jesus’ face shining and his robes glowing white. But only after they heard audibly a voice from a cloud that had as verse 5 says, 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!”

And that’s when: boom! All three of the disciples fall to the ground, in verse 6, When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

Jesus says, “get up and do not be afraid.”

Not only does Jesus say, “get up and do not be afraid,” but Jesus gets close to the disciples when they had fallen to the ground because they were overcome by fear. So Jesus gets down with them and touches them on the ground and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Jesus does not leave them on the ground!

Jesus does not leave them in their fear!

Jesus calls them up!

Jesus calls them out of their fear!

There is tension in this story! Here we have Jesus being spiritually transformed, being transfigured, in the brilliant light. Let’s not forget that we also have in this vision the prophets Moses and Elijah, too. Then the voice from the cloud saying that Jesus is the Beloved son of God. Jesus is radiating with love. The disciples are clouded with fear.

Why it that often times the human response to transformation is fear? We know from the study of change theory that the most human, the most common response to change is fear.

This has been a scary week for people who are transgender. There are question being raised about the moral values of a nation that fail to secure human rights protections for all people.

As Christians who follow a Jesus of transfiguration, we understand that inherent in human life is “embodied mystery.” Transgender studies scholar Carrie Howie says that, “Transfiguration names the becoming apparent of an embodied mystery that challenges our everyday distinctions between being and becoming; in the process, it makes language strange.”

As Christians we live with this tension of being and becoming, of mountaintop illuminations and valley shadows. At the heart of it all is a prophetic Jesus who comes near to us, touches us, and says, “do not be afraid.”

This is the message of the gospel that in our scary world is needed now more than ever. The reason for us to not be afraid is that we cannot be frozen by fear and stay down and out. We cannot just do nothing. In Jesus we are released from our fears and empowered to move! To get up and go!

We’ve got to be overcome not by fear but by love!

The love of God made flesh in Jesus is a liberating love!

We are set free to love our transgender neighbors as ourselves!

And this love is needed now more than ever.

We need God’s liberating love to set us free from fear.

Too many of us are scared and afraid. And it is painful.

One of the most powerful explanations that I heard for why a person would think about suicide was shared by a survivor of a suicide attempt, a man who lived with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. He said that his desire was not to die, but his desire was for the pain to stop. He simply wanted his pain to stop and death was the only way he could imagine his pain and suffering ending. It was not wanting to die, but wanting to end the pain.

My family knows well the pain and suffering associated with mental illness. My father died from untreated bipolar disorder ten years ago and my brother is on full disability because of his bipolar brain disorder. He told me last week that he thinks about ways to end his pain obsessively. His treatment and recovery program keep him alive. It is a real daily struggle. He has made several attempts in the past and has been hospitalized at least half a dozen times.

As a family member, as his sister, I often feel helpless, wanting to have the power to cure him of his mental illness, or at least stop his pain. What I find myself doing is making an effort to talk with him, even if it is difficult, and listen to how he is doing, showing him that I care about him and that he is not alone. I have found that I need support as a caregiver, and I find it in taking care of my own mental health through exercise, eating healthy, getting enough sleep and seeing my therapist.

We all need, as Patrick Kennedy says, “a check-up from the neck up” as part of our annual wellness physical exams. We know that 1 out of 5 Americans in any given year will experience a mental illness.

Suicide impacts members of the transgender community at the highest rate of 50% reporting thoughts of suicide.

“Suicidal behaviors in LGBT populations appear to be related to “minority stress”, which stems from the cultural and social prejudice attached to minority sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

This stress includes individual experiences of prejudice or discrimination, such as family rejection, harassment, bullying, violence, and victimization. Increasingly recognized as an aspect of minority stress is “institutional discrimination” resulting from laws and public policies that create inequities or omit LGBT people from benefits and protections afforded others.

 

Individual and institutional discrimination have been found to be associated with social isolation, low self-esteem, negative sexual/gender identity, and depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.”

 

In fact, identifying as transgender itself historically has been viewed by society as a form of mental illness. It has not been until recently that gender and sexual identity have been understood more as an expression of the wide spectrum of the human experience.

In fact the church for most of its existence has condemned gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning people. Just recently in the past few decades some branches of the church, including University Christian Church, have changed its position and now accept and celebrate the wide spectrum as created by God.

The church continues to be challenged by its history of judgement and exclusion of people who are on the margins: including glbtq as well as people with disabilities because such differences were thought to be caused by sin.

Today, more than ever, we need a loud and visible church, a transfigured church, to stand up and be seen as a community of welcome, inclusion, support and engagement with people marginalized and oppressed by society.

The work Jesus calls us to is the work of overcoming fear with love. This is the work of justice that is at the heart of following in the way of Jesus.

What do we mean when we say “justice”? We can define justice as anything that we do in community “to create a better and safer place for all of God’s children.”

Transgendered persons experience stigma, discrimination and oppression. And that’s where Jesus calls us to come together as a community to work for justice…to make this a better and safer place for all God’s children.

My friend Gabby Bychowski is a scholar of transgender studies and is herself transgender. She shares this story on her blog:

“My partner joined a Transgender Alliance group on Facebook and she has called me crying, “every day someone new says they are planning to commit suicide.” This is real. It’s an epidemic. It’s been going on for a while. I think reaching out is a good thing. We just need to make sure that we take them seriously. They aren’t deluded when they see that the world is and will hurt them badly. We need people to hold on to hope, but we need to know what we are asking of them. We are asking them to continue to suffer in often impossible circumstances. When we walk away from the keyboard, turn off Facebook, we leave them to return to that world.

This an epidemic. We need immediate and direct action to save who we can. We also need systematic change, because our arms will never be big enough to carry everyone out.”

We are alive in this moment in time. This is our moment to use our lives to make a positive difference, to be guided by our faith and the teachings of Jesus.

We, like the disciples, are touched by the Transfigured Jesus, and invited to stand and journey down the mountain together. Overcome not by fear of the transforming nature and mystery of life, but to be overcome by love for one another: hand in hand, let us journey together to make our communities safer and better for all God’s children.

We can do this hard thing, we can honor all lives and trans* lives and we can save lives because God’s power is at work in our lives to transform us!

God is faithful and God is with us!

God’s Spirit is moving among us to transform fear, removing the clouds of injustice so that we can rise up in the brilliant light of freedom!

God can do all things and so we can do all things through Christ Jesus!

All honor, and praise be to God. Amen.

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