Transfiguration – February 14, 2020
Faith Lutheran Church
It was a stormy night in Memphis Tennessee on April 3, 1968. Hundreds had gathered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple to hear a speaker that had been supporting the strike of the Memphis Sanitation workers. However, the scheduled speaker hadn’t been feeling well and asked his friend Ralph Abernathy to speak in his place.
Yet, as Abernathy began to speak, he could sense the disappointment in the crowd, and so he called and convinced the original speaker to brave the bad weather and slight fever, and when the 39 year old civil rights leader arrived he began to speak extemporaneously. And during his almost 45 minute long speech, Dr. King spoke of having “Been [pause] to the Mountaintop.”
With our gospel lesson for this morning being the Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountaintop and with it being the second weekend in Black History Month, Dr. King’s speech to the sanitation workers has been on my mind.
Mountaintop experiences have been on my mind. The idea of “mountaintop experiences” was first explained to me as a middle school youth attending Church Camp. I have a distinct memory of the college aged counselor telling my cabin that camp was often a “mountain top experience” for people who attend. It could be a place and time when campers felt especially close to God. He warned us that when we left camp and headed home, we might not feel that same closeness in our relationship with God.
And so we were told to seek after time and places where we would experience God’s presence. As an impressionable middle school student, I naturally believed every word my cool college aged counselor said, and for a long time I remember seeking those close experiences of God–whether that was through worship or playing music, or being out in nature.
However, I wonder if there was another way we might have been taught about the mountain top experiences in our lives? A different way of relating to them.
In the gospel reading, Peter–that forgetful rock of a disciple– said to Jesus, “Teacher. It is good for us to be here, let us make a dwellings for you and Moses and Elijah.” I wonder of the sentiment my camp counselor shared, and that I initially adopted was the same as Peter’s?
Let’s imagine for a moment, the experience those three disciples had:
Jesus–transfigured from his normally modest appearance into a dazzling brightness.
Moses & Elijah–Two long departed leaders of the Israelite people, representing the law and the prophets, all of which Jesus had come to fulfill.
Peter recognized the magnitude of the experience and like so many of us he sought to capture it. He sought to freeze this mountain top experience so that it would always be nearby. I am reminded of the refrain one hears during any big event, “Who has a camera?” Or maybe more poignant today: “Who has their phone?” It was a kodak moment, so to speak.
Especially living in an age when we can capture any experience in High Definition video at the tap of a finger, Peter’s desire to freeze that experience in time and space is all too relatable.
But in his desire to remain frozen in place, Peter received the most surprising wake up call possibleThe voice of God from a cloud that overshadowed them, saying “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to Him.” And as quickly as they had appeared, Moses & Elijah Disappeared. Only Jesus remained. That mountain top experience had come and gone, and they headed back down the mountain.
The transfiguration witnessed by the disciples was certainly magnificent. Yet it came–and went–and they followed Jesus back down from that place. And Jesus continued on in his ministry. He continued healing, casting out demons, preaching, and teaching about the approaching dominion of God. And it was after that experience on the mountain top that he began his journey toward Jerusalem-toward the cross.
If we imagine all of Jesus’ ministry, it was not up on that mountain but down in the valley where it primarily occurred. Off of, away from, that high and magnificent place where he had been transfigured and shone with dazzling light.
As we gather each week for worship, I wonder if it is easy for us to imagine that our life as followers of Christ is supposed to be rarefied in some manner. We think of our “Sunday’s best,” I put on this Alb and stoles, and other clothing that is magnificent and sets this time apart from our time outside of worship. It is our own weekly mountaintop experience.
But dear people, just as Peter, James and John followed Jesus down the mountain after the transfiguration, I think it is imperative that we do the same. Don’t get me wrong, I think that there are places and times in our lives where we recognize the glorious splendor of the Christ. Where we identify Jesus in all his sublime beauty.
Yet when we recognize Jesus in those times and places, that should not be the end or pinnacle of our praise, but the catalyst for our service. Naming and acknowledging Jesus’ divine appearance, we can follow him down from that experience into the valley where his ministry was lived out in its fullest.
What would it mean as followers to go forth from the mountaintop experiences of our lives and serve our neighbor in response to the glory we have witnessed? How might we share the gospel, the good news with everyone we encounter outside of church on Sunday morning?
In his speech in Memphis in 1968, Dr. King spoke of the ministry he had engaged in in the struggle for Civil Rights. There had been many mountaintop experiences-experiences that had marked what seemed to be turning points in the struggle: The freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery March. All of these experiences were shrouded in the veil of pain, and hurt that was a part of the struggle. But for Dr. King, they had been mountaintops from which he witnessed what the world could be, rather than what it was.
And he recognized that after reaching these mountaintops, that his call was not remain in those moments, but to return to the valley, to the communities Jesus would have lived and worked among to help bring about the dominion of God.
Dr. King concluded the speech in the following manner, he said:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Less than 24 hours after Dr. King spoke these words, he was dead. He had been assassinated on the balcony of his motel.
Through his life, Dr. King serves as an example of what it means for us follow Jesus from the mountaintop back into the valley. An example for each of us to follow Christ into the challenges and pain in our world.
As followers of Jesus we might not all be called as Dr. King was to engage in non-violent direct action. As the Apostle Paul’s words remind us, we are one body with many and varied members.
So following Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, maybe one person volunteers at a food pantry, another brings meals to the homebound, and another writes letters to their legislator asking for help to address the root causes of hunger.
Heading Jesus call to free the oppressed, one person might letters to the imprisoned, another might volunteer as a court advocate, and another might gather at a vigil calling for the release of the unjustly imprisoned.
Recognizing that we are all made in the image of God and that racism and white supremacy have no place in our world, one person might work to make the church more welcoming to all people, another might run for office on a platform of promoting racial equity and justice, or another might even follow more directly after Dr. King in protest and demonstration demanding change.
As people of faith, there are countless ways in which we can live out that faith. As we live lives that respond to the call of Jesus to follow him from those mountaintop experiences back down into the valley, may we obediently follow, wherever that might lead us. For we know that we never go alone, but always in the company of the Spirit, who empowers us to follow as the saints who have already gone before us exemplified. Amen.