The Last Sunday after the Epiphany Transfiguration Sunday and Feast of Absalom Jones
Year A.FB; The Last Sunday after The Epiphany, 2.19.2023;
Absalom Jones, Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-9; Exodus 24:12-18
Growing up in Kansas, otherwise known as The Plains, flat, flat, flat…it was a special treat for my family to pile in the station wagon and drive the 600 or so miles west to the Rocky Mountains. It took us a total of 13 hours to actually reach the Rocky Mountains. To keep the four kids occupied just after we crossed the border into Colorado, Mom would call out to us and say, “We’re almost to the mountains!” We were actually still over three hours away! But Mom didn’t care. She called out to us and said, “I’ll give a penny to the first person who sees a mountain!” Somehow that kept us engaged and our eyes trained on the horizon…for a special penny!
Finally, off to the left, there seemed to be a blip on the horizon. My brother saw it and called it out first. Darn! I missed the penny. But from then on, we couldn’t contain ourselves as the stretch of Rocky Mountains slowly came more and more into view right in front of us. We reached Denver and traveled west to the foothills. We kept driving and made it to Boulder Canyon, gawking at the pine trees and the rugged rocks. There was a sense of magnificence as well as danger as Dad called out the hairpin-turns we kept having to take around vertical rocky walls up and vertical rocky walls straight down to certain death if we missed a curve.
And heading further up the road to what Dad would call, “above the tree line,” the views were spectacular. I learned that nothing could beat the beauty of standing on the peak of any mountain or even hill and gazing over the vista, the rivers and valleys, because for me, the view inspires a sense of freedom and peace.
Even in flat Kansas, I loved going to classes in college on a high place called Mount Oread! Yes. That is the name of the hill that the University of Kansas is built on. It overlooks the Kansas River Valley to the North and the Wakarusa River Valley to the South. I’ll never forget my freshman year after I learned of the tragic murder of my classmate’s father, the postmaster of our hometown, I walked to a high place on campus that overlooked the Wakarusa Valley. In my shock and sorrow as I sat quietly, I felt something like God’s voice calling me. God asked me to be a peaceful presence for my friend and her family. I had never felt that experience before.
There are two profound experiences of God’s voice being heard on a mountaintop in our readings this morning. The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus begins with Jesus taking three disciples of his inner circle with him high on a mountain. Peter, James and his brother John accompany him. The story ends with God’s voice being as clear as sunshine stating nearly the same words of Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son. He is my Beloved. I’m very pleased with him. Listen to him!” In Holy Scripture, this is called theophany. Don’t you love that word? Theophany means having a physical encounter with God in an observable way. It’s a divine revelation or inspiration.
Moses and Elijah had suddenly appeared to Jesus and his three friends on that mountain. They all were covered in a bright cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, there is an echo of God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai. We heard that story from Exodus in our first reading this morning. The people of Matthew’s community would have been very familiar with the story of the Theophany to Moses on Mount Sinai. They would have been familiar with the story that Moses, too, took three friends with him up Mount Sinai. There, Moses heard God call to him. That place too was covered by a bright cloud. God spoke to Moses and revealed God’s desire to create a holy covenant with God’s people. God gave Moses instruction for leading the Israelites to a life of freedom and peace.
“Listen to him!” are the words God says in the Transfiguration story. They are a command from God saying, “Don’t forget what I have taught you in the stories of Moses and Elijah. And now, you have my Son. Live by the words Jesus teaches you.”
This Sunday, before Lent begins, Christians always hear the story of the Transfiguration. It takes us to the mountaintop to hear the voice of God that calls us all to listen to Jesus. God reminds us that God desires that we live in God’s holy freedom and peace.
Just before Holy Week in 1968, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what is now called his “Mountaintop Speech.” It was a robust vision for his people to be set free. We should all read it over and over because it still robust and relevant. In this speech Dr. King shared a conversation that he had with God, a “theophany” of sorts. This was to be the last speech of his life. Dr. King had come to Memphis to support a peaceful direct-action march of the sanitation workers, black men who even after the end of slavery over a hundred years prior, had to carry placards to remind us all, “I AM A MAN,” not “boy” as was the common reference for black men.
Even today, the violence in Memphis against the young black man Tyre Nichols echoes past violence against black people in this country. Dr. King knew about violence in his country and the oppression of black and poor people.
Dr. King seemed to know he was going to die. At the end of his speech in Memphis, he said, “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 the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land….”
For him, the vision of the Promised Land was freedom of his oppressed people. Freedom from violence. Freedom to vote. Economic Freedom. Freedom in housing and healthcare and education. In that same speech, Dr. King said, “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today…the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”
Some 184 years earlier, in colonial America, another man of God, Absalom Jones literally set himself free. The man we remember today, the first black Episcopal priest bought his freedom from slavery. He taught himself to read by studying Scripture. He knew the story of Moses leading his people to freedom and the story of Jesus, the Son of God who suffered, died and rose again to save God’s people.
He and the other leader of the black congregation of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Richard Allen, built up such a strong black congregation that the white vestry one Sunday without notice restricted their attendance to the balcony. Next, during another Sunday service, ushers tried to remove them altogether. Jones and Allen saved them the trouble and led their people out to freedom.
Absalom Jones led his people to found their own parish. They built their own structure and, to secure their freedom and autonomy, petitioned the Episcopal Church their demands for membership: That they be autonomous as a body in the Episcopal Church, and that Absalom Jones be licensed as a lay reader and, if qualified, be ordained. He was finally ordained a deacon. It took another 7 years for him to be ordained a priest.
But he was ordained to the priesthood. He led his people to freedom. And we are celebrating his feast today over 200 years later.
God spoke on that mountain and said, “Listen to him!” We are listening to Jesus and we pray for God to “Set us free…from every bond of prejudice and fear…” and to live in peace and true freedom. As much as we’d love to stay on the glorious mountaintop, we must come down and become God’s agents of freedom and peace.
As we prepare for a holy Lent, what does freedom and peace look like?