Sermon: “The Mountaintop,” Feb. 26, 2017

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.

TransfigurationThis 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.”
Amen.

12-Step Eucharist this Sunday, March 5

Bringing together Holy Communion and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (the foundation of all other 12-step programs) is a moving and humbling way to enter into Lent and renew our commitment to a godly life. Join us for our yearly return to this beautiful service at 11 a.m. in the Sanctuary.

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The Twelve Steps

  1. We admitted we were powerless over [our sins]  – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [others] and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Try a “carbon fast” this Lent

Lent begins on March 1 this year, and Bishop Marc is inviting all members of the diocese to join him in a Lenten “carbon fast” — a prayerful effort to reduce daily actions that damage God’s creation. DioHouse staff are already beginning to make their Lenten commitments.

For example, Bishop Marc plans to walk or bike to work each day, Stephanie Martin Taylor, Working Group Head for Communications, will be giving up her morning ride-share to take public transit, and Melissa Ridlon, Vocations Officer, is committing to a ‘carbon tithe’ to offset the cost of planting new trees in hurricane-ravaged parts of Haiti. For Ridlon, the tithe amounts to 10% of the cost of gas she buys for her car and 10% of the cost of the ticket for her upcoming trip to Haiti.

You can find many inspirational resources and ideas for your carbon fast throughInterfaith Power & Light, the Episcopal Church Foundation, and the Anglican Communion Environmental Network — to name a few! And for more support and prayers, the Communications Department invites you to reach out to DioBytes, diobytes@diocal.org.

“Creating a Culture of Peace” training Mar. 10-12, Albany

Creating a Culture of Peace provides a spiritually grounded and interactive learning time for being peaceful, hopeful people in a time of fear and violence — a practical foundation in the principles, practices, and power of active nonviolence. Recommended for people ages 15 and up.

Sponsor: Episcopal Peace Fellowship

Location: St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 1501 Washington Ave., Albany, CA 94706
Dates: March 10-12: Fri. 4-9 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. 1-8 p.m.
3 dinners + Sat. lunch included in fee
Cost: $100   Limited scholarships available

What happens?

You will gain new tools, energy and concrete plans for taking action on issues you choose. CCP is a 15-year-old national network of peace trainings offered to Episcopal churches, seminaries and many other justice and peace organizations.

For more information or to register

Contact Deacon Kathleen Van Sickle, deaconkvs@att.net, 510-306-7292
Online registration form

Book reading & signing Feb. 25 to benefit Good Shepherd

Join Berkeley author Ellen L. Ekstrom for a reading from her forthcoming novel, Ascalon, and a Q&A session about her books. Copies of Ms. Ekstrom’s literary and historical fiction works will be available for purchase, and she will sign them if you ask!

See Ms. Ekstrom’s bio and book list at amazon.com.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017
6-8 p.m.
Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd
1823 Ninth Street (at Hearst)
Berkeley, California

All proceeds from this event will go towards the Good Shepherd operating budget. Thank you, Ms. Ekstrom!

“Godly Play” featured at 9 a.m. Sunday Eucharist

We now offer a 9:00 a.m. service of Holy Communion on Sundays designed for families. Each week we present a Godly Play story especially for children – although adults love them as well! Bring your children, your nieces and nephews and your grandchildren. And of course, yourselves if you like an earlier service!

And we continue to celebrate at 11:00 a.m. with a choral Eucharist as well!

Scripture Exploration: The Gospel of Matthew

The Rev. Dr. Bill Countryman, professor emeritus of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, continues his always wonderful scriptural course on the first Sundays of the month. On Sunday, Feb. 12 (changed from the first Sunday to accommodate the annual meeting) he will begin a series of sessions on the Gospel of Matthew.

We meet after coffee hour (usually around 12:15) . As Este says, “Can’t wait!”

Donate new or gently used cold weather clothing

Do you really need all the warm clothing in your closet? Could you let a few pieces go?

We’re collecting new or (clean, good condition) used coats, hats, mittens/gloves, scarves etc. to give away to our needy neighbors. Rain gear is very welcome as well.

Bring your contributions to our parish hall (the building behind the church on 9th Street) on Monday or Friday mornings, or on Sundays.