This is Bishop Scott Mayer’s sermon at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Fort Worth, on the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, February 11, 2018.
Read the sermon:
All Saints Fort Worth 2018 Last Epiphany – Year B February 11
Today is one of the pivotal days in the Church Year. This is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the first Sunday before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). So it’s a day when the hinge swings from the Epiphany to the 40 days in the wilderness of Lent.
Every year on this day we read from the Gospels one of the versions of the Transfiguration of Christ – this year from Mark. I cannot imagine a more appropriate text for the occasion, as Jesus invites us – along with Peter and James and John – to the mountaintop where Jesus is transfigured.
Mark describes this mountaintop experience where Elijah and Moses appear alongside Jesus, and God’s voice declares (referring to Jesus), “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” If the disciples had any doubt about Jesus before this moment, they would not now. A veil is pulled back, and the Son of God is made manifest, made known, revealed – an epiphany.
And while on the mountaintop, Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter, quite naturally, wants to stay on the mountaintop. But that’s not to be, for next on the horizon lies Jerusalem, where Jesus will suffer and be crucified. We know the rest of the story. Jesus leads the three disciples down the mountain, gathers his following, and sets his face to Jerusalem.
It’s the perfect scriptural passage to lead us from Epiphany through Lent to Good Friday; from the mountaintop to a hill outside Jerusalem; from Transfiguration to Crucifixion.
I can hardly think of this passage and its placement chronologically in the Church Year without thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and the speech he made the day before he died. On the day before he was assassinated Dr. King spoke in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking sanitation workers, and if we read that speech we know it was a sermon.
Dr. King spoke as someone who knew what it was like to be on a mountaintop, and yet he conveyed that the mountaintop has a purpose. The mountaintop gives us the courage, the faith, the conviction, the resolve to come down that mountain for the welfare of others.
Listen to what Dr. King said in his last sermon on the night before his death. (If this was a legend or a novel we would dismiss it as “something that never happens in real life.” Such is the timing of this sermon that we might be tempted to say that it’s the stuff of movies – not believable; not real life.)
But it is real life. Dr. King says: “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.”
Peter and James and John join Jesus on the mountaintop in a mystical experience, an intense awareness of the presence of God. Caught up in the event, Peter expresses a desire to stay on the mountain – to soak it up. This is the pinnacle of all religious experience – the Promised Land. Who wouldn’t desire to stay in the moment? That we understand.
We understand the desire to choose the Mount of Transfiguration over every-day life, and especially over the path to Good Friday. Peter already has heard Jesus say such things as, “the Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, and chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
We can imagine that while Peter has heard Jesus allude to what lies on the horizon in Jerusalem, he has – up to now – blocked it out, denied it, ignored it, misunderstood it. OF COURSE he would prefer to avoid the inevitable conflict and build a dwelling place on the mountain.
But I want to suggest this morning that Peter’s resistance to coming down the mountain and traveling through Lent to Good Friday – traveling with Jesus as he faces rejection, suffering, and death – could be about something less selfish than remaining in a mystical experience, or even personal self-preservation. It could be that Peter is saying in another way something he’s said before [when he said]: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you! You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”
The very idea that the Christ (the expected Messiah) could suffer is beyond comprehension, but even more than that … a dear friend and mentor – one for whom Peter has great affection, one whose very life and presence has changed Peter’s life – is giving himself totally to God’s purposes, and it’s going to cost him, and Peter knows it. So Peter pleads, “Not you!”
We see someone we deeply care about sacrifice themselves for the sake of others – see someone give up or risk too much – and something inside of us says, “Not you!”
We can imagine that Dr. King’s family and his dearest and closest friends thought, “Not you, Martin!” However proud of him they were – however invested they were in the cause –- surely a part within them thought, “Not you!”
And while I bet Dr. King had his Garden of Gethsemane moment, praying, “Let this cup pass,” at the end of the day he did not say, “Not you!” – not to himself, and perhaps even more revealing of his faith, he didn’t say it to his brothers and sisters in the cause. Rather, he challenged them – even as some lost their lives.
In that last sermon Dr. King says, “…we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother.”
And then to inspire them further, he told an inspired story about the Good Samaritan. He preached about the well-known parable of a man apparently dead or dying on the side of the road, and how everybody passed by – out of fear; fear of being robbed on this dangerous road, fear that it may be a trick (the man may be faking). Everybody passed by, thinking, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to ME?” But the Good Samaritan came by and reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to HIM?”
“That’s the question before you tonight,” Dr. King says. He challenges his brothers and sisters in the cause.
As impressive as King’s personal sacrifice (and there’s no overstating that), perhaps equally impressive and as much a statement of his faith in God: he challenged his brothers and sisters to make a sacrifice in the face of danger – maybe even make the Good Friday sacrifice. He doesn’t say, “Not you.”
He doesn’t say, “God forbid, this should never happen to you!” Or “You’re too young.” Or “What can one person really accomplish?” Or, “The Kingdom will come in … regardless.”
For that would have robbed the cause of hope, robbed it of power, robbed everyone of their faith in one another and God. But not only that – and perhaps this is the point this morning – to rob someone of their desire to give themselves; to rob them of their commitment to do what is right in that moment; to rob them of a sacrificial offering by encouraging them to play it safe is to rob them of the truth of Good Friday, and that’s that there is glory in the cross.
Something invisible and incomprehensible to the world, but something people of faith can see: there is glory in the cross.
Pastors and clergy are in position to see (Chris, Melanie, Noy, and Lynne), and have the privilege to see, glory in the pews of churches every Sunday morning. The pastor knows some of the burdens, some of the sacrifices, some of the load you carry: the worries, the fear, the pain that processes up this aisle to the Altar – as do I. I see in our congregations sacrificial giving so humbling that I want to say, “Not you” – and I probably have sometimes.
And you will say in your own way (along with the Good Samaritan), “If I don’t stop to help this man, this woman, this child, what will happen to THEM?” And that’s glory – more glorious than a mountaintop experience, I suspect – and maybe even more revealing. For that, too, is when the veil is pulled back, and we are humbled to see what God sees in you already: and that is His Glory …the Glory we are called to reveal in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.