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My Eyes Have Seen the Glory

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August 6, 2017  — The Transfiguration

Rev. Alison Quin

Today’s Readings:

My Eyes Have Seen the Glory

When the sun is shining and you are looking at a lake, you can only see the surface of the lake because of the reflection of the light.   But when a cloud passes over, suddenly you can see down into the depths of the lake.  In the story of the transfiguration, a divine cloud passes over Jesus and three of his disciples, and for a moment, they see beyond his surface identity into the depths of his true nature. [1]

Peter, James and John already believed that Jesus was the messiah.  They had seen his miracles, heard his teachings.  But even that knowledge of him fell far short of the reality.  For a moment, on top of that mountain, the veil between heaven and earth was drawn back and they glimpsed the glory of God shining in and through Jesus.   They saw him as he exists beyond time, in the company of Moses and Elijah.  He stood with those two great prophets of Israel to show that the promises God made in the past were being fulfilled.

But to get the full impact of this story, we need the context.  The story of the transfiguration is bracketed by Jesus’ first and second predictions of his death.  The first time the disciples heard him say he would be killed, they were horrified. Peter tried to argue with Jesus, only to be sharply rebuked.  Then the transfiguration happened, and then Jesus predicted his death again.  The gospel says the disciples were deeply distressed.

What a paradox—the moment of foreseeing the cross is also the moment of seeing the glory of God.  As commentator Tom Long put it, “ Historically speaking, Jesus is on a death march, entering the gloomiest season of his life.  In the heavenly light, however, his face and clothes gleam with the favor of God.  The earthly Jesus is headed toward his doom on the cross, but suddenly we see not a victim, but a victor; not the one despised and rejected by the world, but the one beloved and well pleasing to God.”

What is that divine glory that shines from Jesus’ face and clothes?   It points ahead to the resurrection—the victory of life that will follow the defeat of the cross.

But the divine glory means even not only life after death. It also points ahead to the fulfillment of God’s promise of justice and truth in this life.  Moses liberated the Israelites from slavery here on earth, in history.  Elijah too, was an historical figure—he lived in the 8th century and confronted one of Israel’s most evil kings, Ahab.

Our God is the God of history, and God cares what happens on earth, in this life, as well as our ultimate salvation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way,

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

His words ring as true today as they did in 1968.  Racism may take a different form today, but it still systematically oppresses people of color. We have mass numbers of people languishing in our prisons.  Some of our schools treat kids as if they are headed to prison, and guess what, the prophecy tends to be self-fulfilling.  Access to basic human needs like nutrition, education, health care and housing depends on how much money you have.   Our government is in too much turmoil to have time to serve the people.

But do you know what Dr. King said about living in the turmoil of the late 60’s?  He said that if God gave him his choice of living at any moment of history, he would choose the late 20th century.

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 20th 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 . . .– the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where . . .It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. . . .

And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding.

Taking the long view of history, I think that we are still working out the issues of justice that Dr. King lived and died for.  And I too am glad that I am allowed to live in this period, because I have seen many changes and I see more on the way.  I see people coming together to undo mass incarceration, like the conference here yesterday.  I see people rising up for the poor and hungry, for basic human rights, for the environment—this fragile earth, our island home.

As Christians, we too have to rise up, and keep rising up for all our brothers and sisters. Jesus’ people are our people—the poor, sick, imprisoned and oppressed.  We may do it by marching as Dr. King did, or we may do it by pressing our government, or we may do it by working at the food pantry or the schools or the prisons.   But we must rise up—as Jesus says, “whenever you did it to the least among you, you did it to me.”

Jesus tells us that to follow him means to pick up our cross—to be willing to follow him into serving others, and suffering for others.  But we don’t have to be afraid of being servants or of suffering.  We know that God’s promise of victory over death has been fulfilled, and we wait in faith for God’s victory over evil and injustice.   The glory of God is the fire of love that has been kindled in our hearts, a fire that nothing can put out.  That was the glory that Peter and James and John saw on top of that mountain.

The speech that I have been quoting from Martin Luther King took place on the night before he was killed.  Like Jesus, Martin had an intimation that his death was at hand.  But Martin followed Jesus.  Martin had glimpsed God’s glory and trusted God’s promises, and so he was not afraid.

. . .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 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.

On this feast of the Transfiguration, we too can see the glory of the coming of the Lord.  We too are called to stand up against injustice, always looking to God’s future when justice will prevail and love will triumph.

[1] I owe this image to Tom Long’s commentary on Matthew.  (Matthew, Thomas G. Long, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).

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