Preached by the Reverend Este Gardner at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California.
Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9; Psalm 99
Every year, on the very last day of the bright season of Epiphany, we are gifted with one last brilliant explosion of light- the Transfiguration. And what a time it is to be gifted with such a thing!
There has been an on-going rushing revelation of political events, interspersed with epic floods and strange sightings in the heavens that is positively apocalyptic. And it is at this moment, as we teeter on the brink of Lent, as darkness gathers with barely a shred of hope, that we are invited up to the mountaintop to behold Jesus shining magnificently, surrounded by prophets and overshadowed by a bright affectionate mother cloud.
This exquisite story of the transfiguration has had scholars scratching their heads for the longest time, because it is just so weird. Is it a misplaced resurrection narrative? Is it Jesus’ second coming, his ascension, or just somebody’s dream? It is like nothing else in the New Testament. But as we heard from our first reading, it is very much like our story in the Old Testament! Both Moses and Jesus climb the mountain to be nearer to God. In both stories, and in our psalm as well, a cloud covers the mountain and a voice calls forth from it, and, “…the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai.” So it seems that in our gospel story, Jesus plays both the part of Moses and the glory of God.
About a month ago, on Martin Luther King Jr’s memorial day, I decided to mark the day by re-reading Taylor Branches’ exquisite and exhaustive book on America in the King years, Parting the Waters. And the more I delved into it, the more it I felt that those years had a lot in common with the time we now find ourselves in. We are witnessing a shocking litany of rights stolen or threatened from a multitude of vulnerable populations. And, praise be to God, then as now, people are marching in the streets, and in great numbers. Violence is erupting, and being met with non-violence.
Surprising alliances are now emerging- Jews and Muslims are helping each other rebuild their sacred sites that have been destroyed or damaged by hate groups, just as Jewish and Christian clergy joined forces to participate, not only in the marches, but in the equally dangerous freedom rides.
This may seem to be a dark and confusing time we are living through, and it may be hard to find our role in this unfolding story. We want the clarity of Jesus shining on the mountaintop, but instead we may find ourselves feeling more like Peter, fumbling to do something- anything- to manage the unmanageable. We may be calling our congress people, signing petitions, joining with this group or that, sending money to Planned parenthood or the ACLU. But we may fear we are just treading water, that no definite direction has emerged- no leader of the resistance has come forth.
So I was comforted to read the deep details and carefully recorded history of the King years in the Civil Rights movement. Because most of the heroes of the movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. really did not know what they were doing either for much of the time. They too were flailing around trying to make progress in a fog.
At the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, in 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. was just freshly out of seminary, and newly elected as the pastor of Dexter Ave. Baptist church. His proudest accomplishment was that he had just executed a coup in reorganizing the church finances in a way that gave him an unprecedented amount of control.
During this busy time for him, a series of ordinary black working women (ordinary except for their level of courage) refused to sit in the back of the bus when white passengers boarded. The first several were considered by the NAACP to be unsuitable to stand up to a trial. But when the unassailable Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, spontaneously took her turn getting arrested for sitting while black, the beginnings of an explosive movement began.
King’s art in it was that he preached about it and brought his congregation to the point of willingness to walk for the rest of their lives if they had to. They did walk. They walked through the winter, spring, summer fall and another winter. They walked for 381 days. It took that kind of commitment and perseverance before they attained their famous victory. Who knows what we will be required to do- what level of perseverance will be asked of us before we can effect a real change. The good news is that victory will come with perseverance- with persistence. The bad news is that it may take a great deal of those qualities. Lent is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on these possible sacrifices and disciplines.
As I read through the years of Martin Luther King’s life, I expected that his mountaintop moment would be at the March on Washington- the moment he gave his great “I Have a Dream” speech. But the transfiguration that leaped off the page for me was a year earlier. Just after James Meredith’s fourth failed attempt to register at Ol’ Miss, King led a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in a massive auditorium in Birmingham. Early in the proceedings, a white man rose from the audience and made a beeline for the stage. He suddenly struck King full in the face before the stunned audience. The assailant got in two more blows before something seemed to happen to him. He slowed the pace of his blows as Martin Luther King slowly straightened and faced him, dropping his hands.
Septima Clark, one of the unsung mothers of the movement, later said that she would never forget the look on Martin’s face. There was a transcendent calm and he looked, she said, “Like a new born baby.” The assailant stared at him too- perhaps seeing the transcendence, perhaps seeing that he radiated something extraordinary- something none of them had ever seen before. “Don’t touch him!” Martin called out. “We have to pray for him.” As Martin stood there shining on the mountaintop, he had his old prophets of the movement on either side of him, his Moses and Elijah. Rosa Parks tended to his wounds and Septima Clark gave him her hard-won blessings.
A tabernacle of sorts was even created, as the surrounding clergy moved in to form a protective circle around the assailant. Activist and civil rights hero James Bevel, perhaps playing the part of the voice from the cloud, announced to the audience that now was the time to celebrate a victory- the supreme test of non-violence had been passed. He then led them in a joyous rendition of the hymn “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land”, until the auditorium shook with the sound.
Is it naïve or even foolhardy to be optimistic in times like these? Is it possible to see a bright ray of hope, something shining on the mountaintop? I’ll answer with a quote from the unsinkable Howard Zinn, who seemed to know:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.”