Date: Feb. 27, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-43a
Sermon: Glory! Glory!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
From Mount Kenya to Mount Everest, from Mount Olympus to Valhalla, since ancient times humanity has associated mountains with the presence of the gods, divinity, deity, the holy. Mountains are high, in the sky, and seen as a gateway to a higher reality, a heavenly world.
We also want to remember that from a mountain there is a vast vista. Miles upon miles of earth can be seen from a high mountain. The view from a mountain conveys a magnificent seemingly endless reality. And from a mountaintop, you don’t see the trash in the streets and the tawdry machinations of those too small to be seen from such heights the humans. From a mountaintop you don’t see the abused laborers and the people without shelter and those who are suffering from violence and oppressive governments. Ah, the mountaintop. Where all you can see is a vast vista of a glorious landscape. An uplifting view. An awesome vision.
So our religious tradition, like most others, has its share of mountaintop stories and we heard two of them today. One about Moses going up Mount Sinai, again, to get another set of the commandments, because, well, things didn’t go so well with the first set. Moses couldn’t see the golden calf episode from the mountaintop. This time he comes down the mountain with two new tablets and he is visibly changed. And we heard the story of Jesus going up the mountain with three of his closest allies and having a mysterious mystical experience. There was not only a vista and cloud cover, but the luminous presence of Moses and Elijah, two pillars of Israel representing the Law and the prophets. And then is the altered appearance of Jesus, seemingly taking his place as a pillar. Yes, the glory of the Divine in its luminescent wonder is portrayed in both of these mountaintop stories.
So, what about us? Do we need to be headed to the mountaintop to be filling our spiritual cup? That’s a challenge for those of us here in Florida living at sea level. There are certainly many offerings of such mountaintop experiences through spiritual practices that often actually involve a mountain. And there are those who pursue such spiritual illumination through structured, monitored, drug-induced visions. And there is a place for such revelations and illuminations and transformations.
But I don’t think that we are being told by our scriptures that this is the only way to experience, to encounter, the glory of God. The luminous Divine presence. It isn’t just a mountaintop thing. Moses and Jesus experience the glory and then they share it with others.
Let’s back up a moment. In the story of Jesus’ baptism, as his ministry is about to begin, we are told of a voice from a cloud saying to Jesus, “You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests.” [Luke 3:22] Later, there is the story that we heard today of the Transfiguration. In this story, Jesus is in the middle of his ministry. He has healed and taught and fed and cast out demons and forgiven sins. He has gained a following. And as he and James and John and Peter prepare to descend the mountain and head toward Jerusalem where Jesus will face the crucifixion, these words are heard from the cloud: “This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him!” So words of assurance to Jesus at the baptism, “You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests,” become words of admonition to the disciples: “This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him!” Some translations are even more emphatic ending with, “Hear him!”
Evidently, the disciples were not paying enough attention to the teachings of Jesus. And we see this borne out in the story of the healing of the boy with demons when they come down the mountain. Jesus has given his disciples the power to cast out demons. But they don’t seem capable of using it. Trusting God. And Jesus is frustrated. He is not being heard by his disciples.
In the words from the cloud, “This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him,” I think we are given direction related to experiencing the glory of God. It is not just about going to a mountain and having a literally awesome spiritual transformation. It is also about listening to Jesus. Hearing him. Following him. Living in the reality of God that Jesus shows us. And when we do this, we find that we see glimpses and glimmers of the glory of God. In our solidarity and relationships with those who are poor, and marginalized, and suffering we may glimpse the glory of God. When sitting at the death bed of a loved one, or even a stranger, we may glimpse the glory of God. In a conversation with a death row inmate, we may see a glimpse of the glory of God. In company with those who are taken advantage of and demeaned and discounted and denied their full humanity, we may be given a glimpse of the glory of God. In our efforts to be peacemakers, in our personal relationships and in the world, we may glimpse a glimmer of Divine glory. When we help a child learn to read, we may glimpse God’s glory. There are so many opportunities in our every day lives to witness the power and presence of the glory of God. And listening to Jesus, hearing him, following him, trains our spirits to see and experience that sustaining glory.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the power of Jesus’ witness because that is what compelled him to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. King chose to live his life in the reality of Jesus. In the commonwealth of God. In the kin-dom of Love. He could have chosen middle class America. He was well educated, well paid, and respectable. He wasn’t raised to be involving himself with the ‘rabble.’ Oh, but he discovered that he did need to be involved in the struggle because he had chosen to follow Jesus. And he knew that in that struggle, he would see the glory and it would sustain him. That is the power of Jesus. King had this to say about Jesus:
“I know a man, and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I‘m talking about as I go down the way, because he was a great one. And he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And then he went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
“He was thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies, and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. One of his closest friends denied him. Another of his friends turned him over to his enemies. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. When he was dead, he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.
“Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today, he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life. . . . He didn’t have anything. He just went around serving, and going good.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, p. 266.]
It is clear that Dr. King knew the admonition of the story of the Transfiguration: “This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him!” And he took that admonition seriously. We can see in King’s leadership in the movement and in his ministry that he was taking his marching orders from Jesus. It’s notable that despite the Nobel Prize and his many lucrative speaking engagements and his coterie of celebrity associates, King died with less than $6,000 to his name. [Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968, epilogue.] As a follower of the simple Palestinian Jew, who, as he said, never even owned a house and really owned only the clothes on his back, King challenges America: “There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’ These are questions that must be asked.”
King goes on to refer to the story of Nicodemus and being born again. Which leads to, “. . . in other words, your whole structure must be changed. . . America, you must be born again!” [A Testament of Hope, pp. 250-251.]
King was clearly driven by the teachings of Jesus and the way of Jesus. Jesus was his living water, his bread of life. This is where King got his capacity to persist and to go on. And to expand his vision to include all who were suffering, from America to India to Africa, and to Vietnam, and we might add, Ukraine. Because he knew from Jesus that every single person is a child of God.
In his every day witness following Jesus, because King was listening to Jesus, King received glimpses of glory that allowed him to keep on keeping on. In his service and sacrifice, in his engagement and incarceration, he saw glimmers of the glory of God. The God of divine love and power, that sustained Jesus. And those glimmers sustained King.
On the third of April 1968, the night before he was assassinated, King preached his last sermon. He had left Atlanta that morning for Memphis where they were in the midst of the sanitation strike. The flight from Atlanta was delayed because of a bomb threat targeting King. The plane was throughly searched as well as the baggage. King found this out when the pilot told all those aboard the plane. The FBI never let him know when there was a credible threat to his life, though they did inform others under their watch. They did not give King that common consideration. [See Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968.] Even so, he knew that his life was in danger. But he was not afraid. In his address to the sanitation workers, who came out in an extremely threatening storm to hear King, King told them that if he could pick any time in history to live, he would pick the mid 20th century. After eloquently reviewing ages of old, he lands where he is, saying, “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’” [A Testament of Hope, p. 280.]
In the midst of the chaos, King saw the glory. After discussing a number of other issues, including world peace and the sanitation strike, King turns to his conclusion in which he refers to another mountaintop story about Moses who was given the opportunity to go up the mountain and look down on the land of Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the land that he had brought the Hebrews to as their homeland after leaving slavery in Egypt and wandering in the wilderness. But Moses was only allowed to see that promised land from the mountain. He died before the people entered the land. King refers to this in the closing of his last sermon:
“It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning . . .
“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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.” [A Testament of Hope, p. 286.]
It’s a different mountain story, but the same glory. By following Jesus and listening to him, King saw the glory. He learned what it means to trust God and to be part of a reality beyond your own individual existence. He was transformed by listening to Jesus and following him. So, we may not have that mountaintop experience, we may not routinely experience those lofty spiritual highs, but when we follow Jesus, the light of the world, when we listen to him, when we live lives dedicated to making thing better for others, we are given glimpses, glimmers, flashes even, of the glory of the presence of Divine Love, imbuing, saturating, permeating reality. Reality is awash in the glory of God, and when we hear Jesus, when we listen, when we follow, we shine. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.