Sunday, February 11, 2017
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Black History Month first began as a result of the work of writer and educator Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Woodson launched Negro History Week in 1926 and proclaimed that it be held during the second week of February between the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.
The move from Negro History Week to Black History Month came in 1976. President Jimmy Carter declared February as Black History Month and that has continued to this day. The theme for Black History Month this year is “African Americans in Times of War” honoring the women and men who served in the armed forces protecting the American ideals of freedom and democracy.
During World War II, more than 2.5 million black men registered for the draft. One million served as volunteers or draftees. More than 12,000 served in the segregated 92nd Division. Many received citations for “extraordinary heroism.”
The Tuskegee Airmen became legendary for their heroic feats receiving a Distinguished Unit Citation, several silver stars, 150 distinguished flying crosses, fourteen bronze stars, and 744 air medals. By the end of the war, recognition of their contribution to the war effort would eventually lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
It was in 1955 that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott. In the years that followed he helped organized the non-violent resistance that was at the heart of the civil rights movement.
It was during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that Dr. King gave his iconic speech calling on the U.S. to make real the promises of democracy. Over 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 for the speech that became a defining moment of the civil rights movement – “I Have a Dream.” I was fourteen years old at the time. I still remember his speech.
On October 14 of the following year, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. I was just shy of my eighteenth birthday when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee as he was preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign March on Washington.
He spoke the night before at the Mason Temple, Church of God in Christ, headquartered in Memphis concerned about the strike by sanitation workers in that city. He called for unity, economic actions, boycotts, and for nonviolent protests. At the end of his speech, he referred to threats against his life and used language that seemed to foreshadow his impending death. But he made clear that he was not afraid to die.
When Dr. King spoke, he spoke with a rhythm and cadence that was clearly recognizable. And perhaps most significantly there was a resonance to his voice that was unmistakable.
I want you to recall for yourself his voice as I share his words with you.
“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 (sic) 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.”
“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 Lord.” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” (Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968)
In his speech, Dr. King drew references to events described in The Book of Deuteronomy. Moses had been called by God to lead the people of Israel out of slavery from the land of Egypt. They followed him through the desert wilderness to a land that was said to be flowing with milk and honey. However, before they reached their destination, Moses was informed by God that he would not reach the land himself, but would only see it from a distance.
The Scriptures read: “Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo . . . and the Lord showed him the whole land . . . The Lord said to him, “this is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob . . . I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (Deuteronomy 34:1-4).
It is difficult for me not to sound impertinent, perhaps even blasphemous, if I were to say it was petty of God to say to either Moses or Dr. King, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You don’t get to cross over into the Promised Land. I’ll let you see it but that’s it. And in order for you to enter into the joy of your master, you must die” (Matthew 25:14-30).
Were it not for the story of the transfiguration of Jesus that is told in our reading this morning from The Gospel According to Mark, I would be inclined to hold on to my cynicism without reservation. As we come to end of this season of Epiphany, the story of the transfiguration of Jesus is patterned after the story of Moses’ experience of God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24 & 34). The same elements are present: six days of waiting, the cloud, the glory, the voice, the descent from the mountain. Moses’ face shone as a result of his experience in the presence of God in the same way that Jesus’ face shone.
But more importantly, the story lies halfway between Jesus’ baptism and his resurrection. A voice from heaven tells Peter, James and John to “Listen to him!” (Mark 9:8) – to believe Jesus’ word that rejection, suffering, and death will come and that the way of the cross is inescapable for all who would follow him (Mark 8:34-38).
Terrified by what they saw, Peter attempted to honor and preserve the moment when Jesus was transfigured by a dazzling light by building three structures to commemorate the experience – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter as well as James, John and the other disciples were unable to accept Jesus’ impending suffering and death. Although they are given a glimpse of who Jesus really is and what is to come, they are unable to fully comprehend what Dr. King came to realize.
Again, Dr. Kingʻs words: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s (sic) 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 . . . that . . . as a people, we will get to the Promised Land.”
As the season of Epiphany comes to an end and as we celebrate the Black History Month, may we be mindful that many of the battles today are not neither political nor ideological. Most of us may want to stay on the mountaintop with Peter, James and John away from all the battles and conflicts we face in our own lives..
But the early disciples know and we know that we cannot stay on the mountaintop nor can remain within in our dwellings. We must come down from the mountaintop. We must step outside the walls of the church and walk where Jesus walked – into the light. That is the light we see.
We must walk toward the Promised Land - a land where health and healing is available to all; where there is be justice in the land for all; where there is food and drink for all. How we treat each other and everyone - the poor, the homeless, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, people of all colors, and the sick – how we treat each other and everyone will require that we seek equal protection under laws for all; the desire for peace within and among nations; and our care for the earth that is our common home.
Ten years ago, the Rev. Robert Hunter, now Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia noted in his reflections on the Transfiguration: “It is inevitable that the commitment we make to the reign of God on earth “will provoke the powers that be . . . to make their oppressive response through fear, hatred, greed, falsehood, violence and the despair that pervades and distorts everything human.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville & London, 2008, pages 453-454). “The Transfiguration,” Hunter concludes, “is therefore also a powerful word to us to take up our cross and follow Christ, to walk in his way that in one way or another will provoke the powers against us, but that ultimately discloses the eternal truth and trustworthiness of God’s nonviolent love and justice in the midst of evil” (Op. cit.). It is a love for which Jesus was crucified. It is a love for which Dr. King was assassinated.