Texts: Matthew 17:1-13, 2 Peter 1:16-19
Speaker: Joel Miller
Soon after his 27th birthday, a minister in Alabama faced the most fearful day of his young life. He received a phone call around midnight. The person on the other line threatened to bomb his house if he didn’t leave town in the next three days. Also in the house were the minister’s wife and their baby daughter.
Less than two months prior he had been selected to lead the first ever large-scale demonstration against racial segregation in the US. A fellow leader later reflected that the advantage of choosing him as leader was that he was so new to the city and this kind of struggle that he “hadn’t been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies.”
But now he had made enemies, and he knew that the threat against him and his family was real.
After hanging up the phone he was overcome with fear. He couldn’t sleep. He got up from his bed and went to the kitchen. He prayed out loud: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faulting, I’m losing my courage.” In the stillness of the dark kitchen, he heard a voice come back at him: “Martin, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world.” (1)
This was Montgomery, January 1956, and it was Martin and Coretta, and little Yolanda King in that house. Rosa Parks had already refused to give up her seat on the bus. She was the leader who said King was a good choice because he had neither friend nor enemy in town, yet.
The Montgomery bus boycott is frequently referenced as the event that launched the Civil Rights, or Southern Freedom movement. As Martin Luther King Jr would later tell it, had it not been for that assuring voice in the kitchen that night, he might not have stuck around to be a part of it.
But many leaders pointed to something three months before Rosa Parks insisted on keeping kept her seat on the bus, before the bus boycott began, as the spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement.
Back in August, 1955 a 14 year boy was enjoying the last days of summer away from his home in Chicago, visiting family in Mississippi. While there, he was accused him of flirting with a woman. The boy was kidnapped by that woman’s husband and her brother, forced to carry a 75 pound cotton gin fan down to the Tallahatchie River. What happened next is too awful to describe. His body was brutalized beyond recognition, tied to that cotton gin fan with barbed wire, and left in the river.
When his body was recovered, his family could identify him only by a ring that had his initials on it. His name was Emmit Till, nickname “Bo.” An all-white jury took less than an hour to arrive at their “not guilty” verdict for the two white men. Years later the woman who had accused Emmit Till recanted her original testimony saying he had never touched, threatened, or harassed her.
A black body brutalized by white terror is not unique to the history of our country. What made “Bo” Till’s murder deeply felt across the nation was a decision by his mother, Mamie Till Bradley. Authorities pushed for a quick burial, but Mrs. Bradley insisted that his funeral be held with an open casket. That way the whole nation could see what had been done to her son. A publication with national circulation included a photo of Emmit in the open casket, and the story soon spread through other media outlets, a shocking wake up call to the depth of horror African Americans faced in this country.
Mrs. Bradley spoke of a mystical experience she had that sustained her through the whole ordeal. Whether or not you agree with the theology, this is the voice she said she heard: “Mamie, it was ordained from the beginning of time that Emmit Louis Till would die a violent death. You should be grateful to be the mother of a boy who died blameless like Christ. Bo Till will never be forgotten. There is a job for you to do now.” (2)
Emmit’s casket was exhumed in 2005 in order to re-open the legal case in the state of Mississippi. The restored original casket can now be viewed inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It’s in a section dedicated to Mamie’s vision that her son will never be forgotten.
These two stories of kitchen and casket are at the origins of the black freedom struggle that is part of our country’s history and especially remembered this month. Both stories involve horrific violence, as a threat and an act. What caught my attention in reading over these stories in a book by James Cone called The Cross and the Lynching Tree is that both Dr. King and and Mrs. Bradley were sustained and guided by the presence of a voice from beyond themselves. Something quite rare in the human experience – to hear something that brief that lands that deep and sustains for that long.
Every year, the Sunday before Lent is known as Transfiguration Sunday. Lent is a journey toward the cross, and the Transfiguration is the event that solidifies Jesus’ will to make the journey, despite the terrible violence that awaits him.
By this time Jesus has been around long enough to have some friends and some enemies. In this instance he chooses three of those friends, Peter, James, and John, to accompany him on a hike. Matthew says Jesus “led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” That’s the transfiguration part of the story. Like the line between earth and heaven temporarily blurred, Jesus’ body infused with some kind of cosmic energy and light. That’s pretty spectacular, but it’s not necessarily the main point of the story. Jesus has gone up that mountain because he has a task ahead of him so overwhelming and impossible he needs some kind of something in order to move forward with it. He needs everything God, the universe, the ancestors, the Divine Light can give him to sustain him for the next part of his journey.
It’s one of those rare times when it actually happens. “Suddenly,” Matthew says, “there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with (Jesus).” In a time before photographs I’m not sure how they knew it was Moses and Elijah, or which was which, but the point of the story is likely more about the symbolics behind these two larger than life, and larger than death, figures of Israel’s history. Over time they each became stand ins for the part of the tradition they represent. Moses as the law giver, Elijah as a prophet. On that mountain Jesus has a conversation with the law and the prophets, which is to say he’s consulting with the entire scope the tradition of his people, the voices and wisdom of the ancestors. The holy scriptures, oral tradition, the stories his mother told him as a child, the living presence of Moses and Elijah.
We don’t get clued in on any of the specifics of what gets said. It’s actually another voice that comes a bit later that provides the divine words of the moment, an echo of the words Jesus first heard at this baptism in the Jordan River. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”
As readers of this story, standing well outside of it, we have a couple different ways we can find ourselves in it. It’s a bit dangerous to overly-identify oneself with Jesus, but that’s always part of the invitation. Like Jesus, there are times when our lives hinge, and the impossibility of the future path has the potential to overwhelm. As different as our lives are from Jesus, or Martin King, or Mamie Till Bradley, there is a universal human element to needing guidance and wisdom, a voice that sustains us through the grief and struggles of life. Jesus walks up the mountain toward the light and consults with Moses and Elijah. Rev. Martin staggers into the kitchen and prays out loud as if he might be heard. Mrs. Bradley is infused with the drive to keep her dead son alive in the eyes of the watching world. Jesus hears the voice we all must hear to thrive in this life: That he is the Beloved. That we are the beloved. A name given not earned. And from this love flows everything.
How many times in a lifetime do we get to hear that voice? And how long does it last until we need to hear something like it again? And when everything goes silent and there’s no assurance for that path ahead, what then? Calling on Moses, calling on Elijah and Jesus and Mamie and Menno and Martin grandmother and grandfather and Mary Oliver and maple trees and butterflies and all messengers everywhere. Help us. Show us the way.
Can it be enough to hear nothing else except that you are the Beloved?
We can also identify with Peter, James, and John, baffled witnesses to this whole thing. Disoriented, unsure why we’re on this mountain, almost falling asleep as Luke’s version tells it, checking our phone for new messages while the main event is happening right in front of our eyes. Then suddenly inspired to enshrine the whole experience for all time. “Lord,” Peter finally manages to say, “it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” We’ll build it sure and strong and just live off the glory of this moment the rest of our lives.
But while he’s still speaking, more and more inspired by his own idea, the voice about the Beloved overshadows the whole mountain.
As many preachers have sermonized, the challenge for these three disciples is to come down the mountain, the place of light and radiance, when the world ever so briefly transcended itself and bodies glow and ancestors appear as if alive and voices point the way. The challenge, of Peter, James, and John, our challenge, is to live everywhere else where the mountain isn’t. Which is just about everywhere, and just about our whole lives. To be witnesses of these other stories, but to live within our own story. A story that intersects with others, but ultimately can only be lived by us. Our story is not the story of Dr. King, although it may involve leadership and risk. Our story is not the story of Mamie Tilll Bradley, although it may involve agonizing grief. Our story is not the story of Jesus, although we may have those times when we sense in our deepest being that we are the beloved of God.
We live most of our lives down the mountain in the mundane world of eating and working and caring for family and doing laundry and going to church and having little chances be anti-racist and having wandering thoughts about why we’re here in the first place. And there’s something beautiful and glorious and even heroic about this as well. The small acts of love, the small decisions that guide a life. The contentment to be no one else but ourselves. To treasure the beautiful moments when the world is transfigured, and to let them go so the next moment can come our way.
(1) Told in King’s sermon “A Knock at Midnight” in Strength to Love, pp. 56-66
(2) The Lynching of Emmit Till, by Cleveland Sellers, with Robert Terrell, p. 232.