Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The scripture for this sermon is Matthew 17: 1-9. The text can be found by clicking here.
Where is God most present?
Where do you see God most active?
I would like you to spend a little time reflecting with me about these questions. I would like to use a recent movie as a way into our reflection together. So forgive me if you have all ready seen, The Strange Life of Walter Mitty, but for those who haven’t it will be helpful if I spend a couple of minutes reviewing the plot.
Walther Mitty is the manager of Life magazine’s photo negatives. He finds his life boring and terribly routine. So much so he spends a lot of time daydreaming of about having adventures. Mitty works with photojournalist Sean O’Connell, who is a highly regarded photographer. O’Connell has sent Mitty his latest set of negatives along with a wallet as a gift in appreciation of Mitty’s work. O’Connell believes negative #25 captures the “quintessence” of Life Magazine and that it should be used for the cover of the magazine’s final print issue as it converts to a solely online format.
The negative is missing, so Mitty decides to try and find O’Connell. Mitty uses the other negatives for clues for where to look For O’Connell. Along the way, Mitty has a number of adventures including being in Iceland as a volcano erupts. Mitty finally catches up to O’Connell in the wilds of Afghanistan on an isolated mountaintop that few people will ever see. O’Connell, has traveled thousands of miles to photograph the elusive snow leopard.
As they sit together on the isolated mountain the snow leopard appears. O’Connell moves away from his camera so that Mitty can see. Mitty moves back out of the way so O’Connell can take the picture. But, O’Connell doesn’t take it. He looks up from the camera and just sits there watching it.
Mitty asks, “When you going to take it?”
O’Connell replies, “Sometimes I don’t – if I like a moment – I mean me personally – I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. So I stay – in it.”
Mitty trying to understand, repeats, “Stay.”
O’Connell continues, “Yeah, right there. Right here! – Oh, it gone. It’s gone.” O’Connell looks again through his camera to confirm the snow leopard is gone, then he looks down the mountain a group of children who have been playing soccer, and tells Mitty, “That looks like fun, I think I going to jump in. (It’s a great clip. You can watch it here.)
When a great moment happens there is a temptation to want to hang on to it. But, O’Connell doesn’t try and preserve it – capture it – with a photograph. He wants no distractions. He just stays – in it. And then when it’s over – and it is only there for a brief time – he lets go of it and heads down the mountain to play soccer.
Back to the movie for a minute.
Mitty asks, “Heh what – what was the picture, Sean?”
O’Connell responds, “We are going to be odd numbered if you don’t join.” as he starts down the mountain.
Mitty asks again louder, “What was the picture!”
O’Connell never tells Mitty what is on negative #25. But does tell him the message that came along with the wallet, “look inside,” was to be taken literally. The negative was in the wallet. Mitty has thrown the wallet way, but going home, he discovers his mother has retrieved it from the trash. Even though he has been fired from Life magazine for not having produced negative #25 sooner, he now gives it to them without looking at it. Life uses it for the cover of their last print edition. What was negative #25?
It’s a picture of Mitty sitting on the steps of the Life Magazine building holding a sheet negatives and looking over a contract. The cover says: “Dedicated to the people who made it.”
Why is it, that when we look at our lives they seem boring and routine? Why is so hard for us to see meaning in the contributions we make? But, when others look at us they see what we don’t see? Have you ever felt like your life was boring and routine? Ever looked at someone else and wondered, “Why can’t my life be as meaningful and as significant as theirs?”
It may be tempting to look at Peter, James and John in today’s gospel and be envious of the way in which spirituality, God, and Jesus were so real to them. But, there is another temptation here also. It’s the temptation to confine God’s activity to the past. To say, “OK, maybe God was active at the time of Jesus, but that was then – God doesn’t show up anymore.” But, I think both of these reactions, while understandable and very natural, miss the point of this story.
I think the point, is found in what the voice says. After identifying Jesus as God’s Son, the voice gives Peter, James and John a command – “Listen to him.” Do you find it easy to listen? You children out there, “How would your parents answer that question?” You adults out there, “How would your children and spouse answer that question?” Do you find it easy to listen as a boss or as an employee?
Listening is hard. And then, there are so many voices to listen to. So many perspectives. How do you even know who to listen to, or what voices to trust?
Today, God breaks through to Peter, James and John. God also is seeking to break through to us. “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. And what does Jesus have to say?
Let’s go back to Matthew.
Hearing God speak, Peter, James, and John fall to the ground in fear. Then Jesus comes over and touches them. It is interesting that in Matthew, Jesus’ touch is most often associated with healing. Then Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
The word translated here “get up,” is an interesting word in the Greek. It is only used a couple of times in Matthew. It is same word as the angels use when declare to the women at the empty tomb: “He is not here; he has been raised!” Jesus tells the disciples “Be raised up.” Or even, “Be resurrected.”
What it like to hear Jesus to tell you to “be raised” in the midst of the routine, boredom, and confusion of your life? Do you hear in his words a call to action? Do feel the power in his words to give you the energy and will to act, to make a difference, to be about being Jesus, heart, hands and feet in the world? Can you hear in his words the encouragement to see your contribution in the way that others see it – to see with the eyes that Sean O’Connell saw Walther Mitty? Sean O’Connell had photographed a moment a volcano erupts in Iceland. He had climbed the Himalayas and seen the elusive Snow Leopard, and yet, he sees the “quintessence” of Life Magazine in Walter Mitty sitting on the steps looking holding negatives and looking over a contract. Can you see yourself with the eyes of Sean O’Connell? Can you see the way that God sees you?
This is only half of what Jesus says. Jesus also says, “Do not be afraid.” Over and over in the gospels, this is a word from God. The angel speaks these words to Mary, angels declare it to the frightened shepherds, and the women at the empty tomb, to cite just a few examples.
What frightens you? The threat of terrorism? Losing your job? Fear the President will make good on his promises? Fear that he won’t? The fading hope of a better future? A dread illness, unexpected death? There are countless things that go “bump” in the dark of our souls. But, Jesus, response to all of these is the same: “Do not be afraid.”
When Jesus says this, he is not chastising Peter, James and John, or us, for being afraid. Rather he is speaking a word that has the power to address both their fear and ours. Jesus’ words have power. We need to hear Jesus say, “Do not be afraid,” in the same way that Jesus commanded the storm to “Be still!” Jesus spoke and the storm calmed. Now Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus intends to break in with his healing touch and remove the depilating fear in our lives with his healing touch of love.
This does not mean that are lives will be free of problems, or that our lives will be free of things that threaten or concern us. But is it is a reminder to listen to Jesus speak a powerful and healing word in the midst of these times.
Becoming afraid is not a mark of a lack of faith. There are and will be situations and circumstances that can and will frighten us. But in the midst of those times, Jesus seeks to have us hear his clear voice: “Do not be afraid. Be raised!” You were not created for death. You were created for resurrection. The end of the story is not death – it is life! I am the Lord of Life! So do not be afraid. Be of good courage, know that your life and your contribution have meaning and purpose because I am at work in you, even if you cannot see it or find yourself feeling afraid. Amen.