Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
“Get Up and Do Not be Afraid”
Psalm 121, Matthew 17:1-9
Sunday, March 12, 2017
As a child, I was taught not to question certain adults. For example, I could question my school teachers so that I could understand what I was learning. But, I was definitely not to question my religious education teachers. And, I was especially not to question the Rabbi. He was the ultimate authority. I was to accept things as they were presented to me. As you might imagine, this created an internal struggle for me, because I had lots of questions about God and where God was. For example, one of my first days in Sunday School, I think I was 4 or 5, I was told that God was everywhere and you never turn your back on God.
I must have been a literalist at the time, because I distinctly remember one night in my bedroom, as I started to get ready for bed, I remembered that God was everywhere and I was not to turn my back on God. So, my young mind reasoned that when I stood still, I was turning my back on this God who was everywhere. So, I started turning in circles so I would not turn my back on God. Well, that lasted about 10 seconds as I got so dizzy that I fell on my bed. I recall apologizing to God for turning my back on him. I just could not figure out a way to not turn my back on a God who was everywhere. My first of many, many theological conundrums!
Later on I learned that what my teacher was referring to was that I was not to turn my back on the Torah or the ark, so that when leaving the bema, or altar, I was to step backwards until I got to the top of the steps and then turn around and walk down the steps. Of course, I then thought that the steps were the point where God was no longer everywhere. I didn’t question these things, I just had to accept them – because questioning those adults was disrespectful.
I am not sure when that changed. But many years later, the tables were turned on me because, when I became a chaplain, some people assumed that I was the authority on God. In seminary, I tried to learn the answers to any and all of those deep theological questions, which, of course was impossible. So, when I was told during my chaplaincy training that I did not need to have all the answers, I was greatly relieved. Instead I needed to sit with the questions which was not always comfortable, but it was something I came to appreciate. And, it gave me freedom to be able to struggle with the questions along with the person who was asking them.
During one of the workshop sessions I led in Germany, on helping clergy better respond to human-caused trauma, I mentioned this to the group – about not having to have the answers, but rather needing to be able to sit with the questions and be comfortable with that, because we didn’t always have the answers. I pointed out that to give someone false hope or make up an answer would not be helpful to the person who was struggling. I talked about how when someone was angry with God, that I didn’t need to defend God. God was big enough to handle their anger, their doubts, their questions. Further, God gave us the gift of being able to be angry, to doubt, to question. And I added that I believed that these feelings were prompted by God or by something that could ultimately lead us to a closer relationship with God.
At the end of that session, a young woman came up to me. She was not a clergyperson, but worked with victims of abuse and trauma. At the beginning of our first session, when I asked people why they were at this workshop, she said that she hoped to learn some additional skills to help her in her work. Now, as she stood before me, she had tears in her eyes. She talked about having questions about God as a young person and that the adults around her had also told her not to ask questions, to just accept God as God. That made her angry with God which also made her afraid of God because she had also been taught that she should not be angry with God. So, she had closed her heart to God and had kept that inside of her for more than 25 years.
She said that my talking about not having to have the answers or defend God had touched something deep within her. She realized that since I didn’t have answers that she too didn’t need to have answers about God; she just needed to be open to God. She said she going to go home and think more about all of this. I gently suggested that perhaps she might actually try to talk with God, that God would listen and might even provide her with some insights about faith and belief and what that means and feels like.
Marcus Borg, in his book, The God We Never Knew, writes about what it means to “believe.” I love his books because rather than speaking in intellectual terms, Dr. Borg speaks in plain language that anyone can understand. He writes of belief as trust, as faithfulness. Dr. Borg wrote that faith that “believes God” is not something we can simply will, on our own: “we are led into it. It grows, (he wrote)….It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens.” But (he writes) we do have to “take the first step, and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience).”
This young woman, I believe, was led to be where she was at that workshop. She was lured, as Dr. Borg suggests, to take that first step. She was longing to let go of her anger and find some answers. God put something before this young woman that she was not expecting, but perhaps deeply yearned for.
We never know what we might say or do that will help someone else. I was not even aware that what I was saying would make a difference for her personally. I hoped it would help her professionally, but had not considered that it might affect her personally. That is the mystery and the awesomeness of believing in a God that is still speaking to us and through us. I am often amazed at the possibilities that God puts before us and wants us to see.
For example, God often puts things before us here at FCC. Most recently, God put before us our assisting our ESP guests both last week and in January. We made a difference for them. In a time when many of them are worried about deportation and their family being safe, we provided a sanctuary for them, where they could sleep and be fed and were safe.
I wonder, did Peter and the other disciples who witnessed Jesus with Moses and Elijah want to provide a sanctuary for them? Did they want them to feel safe? Or perhaps it was such an awesome sight on that mountain, that they didn’t want to see it and thought that by constructing tents around them, that they could be spared from this truly unusual sight? Well, eventually, they were scared by hearing the voice of God which sent them trembling to the ground. We also hear God’s voice and it can scare us too. It makes us stop and figure out what God is trying to tell us. Our Confirmation Class is learning what God it trying to teach us. They cooked and fed our guests, talking with them and serving them, treating them as people, not objects to be scared of or left out of our radical hospitality. Our young people are beginning to experience the awesomeness of God in ways that will hopefully become clearer when they travel to Boston in two weeks and our older youth travel to North Carolina in April.
At the end of the second day of the workshop in Berlin, we closed by celebrating communion. Before we partook of the bread and the cup, I invited people to offer a word or a phrase that they would take with them. As we went around the circle, I wondered what the young woman who had talked with me the day before would say. Tears were streaming down her face as she shared that it was the first time in 25 years that she was partaking in communion. She said that she was in the midst of re-finding a connection to God that had been missing.
She said that her heart was now opened in a way that was enabling her to find a peace that she had never felt before. She was no longer afraid to look upon the face of God. Not unlike the disciples, she wasn’t sure what was ahead of her, but she was ready to take one step, and then another. As all of our eyes welled up with tears, we shared a sacred moment, as we watched the transfiguration of this woman into a child of God, one who found a new way of being present with God. It was holy ground. It was ground upon which no tent needed to be constructed. We heard God’s voice through this young woman. God was fully present and we were all open to the awesomeness of that moment.
God had brought me to Berlin to be with these amazing people who were serving not just those affected by the terrorist truck attack at the Christmas Market, but were also working with Holocaust survivors. I was so focused on the terrorist attack that it had not even occurred to me that the people I would be working with might have worked with Holocaust survivors as well. As you can imagine, that added a whole new dimension to my time with them, and opened new places in my own heart as I listened to their stories. I will be processing these moments for some time to come and am sure that they will find their way into my sermons in the future as they become more settled as memories.
Our thought for this Lenten week comes from Dr. Seuss. “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” While I knew the value of my time with this group, it was only in looking back on it, as a memory, that I could see God’s hand in both this young woman’s life and mine. It brought us to that place at the same time, to step onto that holy, sacred ground.
We never know how God will be manifest within us and how God will use us to help others, and to help ourselves, perhaps without our even knowing it. We need only to be open to that mystery, that voice, that longing, that power, that urging of God’s Spirit, that we get up and not be afraid. We know from where our help comes. We know from where our strength comes. We know from where our guardian comes. So, when you feel Jesus touching you, urging you to reach beyond yourself, whether it be by baking cookies, or selling clothes or making a pot of spaghetti sauce, or getting rid of shoes you no longer need or wear, but will benefit our Youth and their mission trip, get up and don’t be afraid. God is calling you to serve in ways that you might never have dreamed possible. And, you may never know whose life you have changed, but know that you do make a difference. Jesus is touching you, so, get up and don’t be afraid!