19 February 2023 – Seventh Sunday After The Epiphany
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“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’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, [because] Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” That’s from the conclusion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech. The one he gave in Memphis on April 3rd 1968, the night before he was murdered.
In this speech, King imagines himself as Moses…Moses on top of a mountain—where he had met God so many times before. But this time God issues no instructions…creates no stone tablets with laws written on them…this time —on the mountain, God only offers a vision…of the promised land…and a reality check. Here, “is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, [saying] ‘I will assign it to your offspring,’” says the Lord, “I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there,” [Deuteronomy 34:1-4]. And indeed, Moses dies and is buried on the mountain. And it’s easy to see the eerie similarity between the mountain top vision of Moses and the mountain top vision of Martin Luther King, isn’t it?
The road to the promised land is long…and takes many unexpected turns, and while the people as a whole always get to the promised land…individuals…may not…at least not in this life. We will all see God’s promised realm of peace and justice…and we all even catch glimpses of it in this life…in those brilliant, transfiguring, mountain-top experiences we all have from time to time…but we will not all see it…in it’s fulfillment…in our lifetime. Just as our ancestors caught a glimpse…but didn’t see it’s fulfillment. Just like them, we are harvesting fruit from trees that we did not plant…and we are sewing seeds for fruit which we will not harvest. That’s what you can see…that’s the kind of vista you have…the kind of transfiguring vision you can get on the mountain top.
Martin Luther King Jr. was transfigured on that mountain and in his last speech he embraced—and encouraged us to embrace—what he called “a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” And he described this by retelling the story of the Good Samaritan. Reminding us that the Jericho road—where that parable takes place…”is a dangerous road…” in the days of Jesus, King says, it was known as “the bloody pass,” it was so dangerous. So it’s understandable, he says, that the Levite and the priest were afraid…and passed by…the injured person…maybe they’re really hurt, but maybe it’s a trap…King imagines their primary motivation…their driving question being, “If I stop to help this person, what will happen to me?” But the Samaritan reverses that question and asks, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to them?” That’s what he means by a “dangerous unselfishness” shifting the center of our concern from self…to other. Not if I do or don’t do X, what will happen to me? But if I do or don’t do X what will happen to them?…For King they were the Memphis sanitation workers, but for each of us it will be a different someone or some group…the black man being pulled over by police, the LGBTQ+ teen being bullied at school, the Asian woman being harassed at work…you can and will undoubtedly come up with and be faced with your own examples.
We are harvesting fruits from trees we did not plant. And some of the fruit planted by our ancestors is bitter and toxic… racism, sexism, hate, greed, corruption…but some of the fruits they planted are sweet, and nourishing: joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…love… [Gal. 5:22-23] We are harvesting fruits we did not plant…but we are also sowing seeds…and what are we planting? Will the seeds we sow…the decisions we make…grow and flourish and bear nourishing fruit for the generations yet to come? Here’s a good question to sit with in Lent: In the face of all that is difficult and dangerous in the world, am I (are we) becoming more dangerously unselfish? and asking “what happens to them?” or am I (are we) just more selfish and hence just more dangerous? In short, what kind of ancestors are we becoming?
Mountain top experiences can be really clarifying…and I’ve never had an authentic mountain top experience that doesn’t come with this mix of gobsmacked awe, and gut-churning fear. The blinding clarity that…this is going to be scary…this is going to require more of me than I ever imagined…AND…it is absolutely vital…I can’t NOT do it…and the result…whether I can see it clearly now or not…will be glorious…because I have let go of what happens to me…And I’ve shifted my focus to what happens to them…to those who comes after me…come after us. The disciples are right to be filled with fear as their eyes behold the glory of the Lord. They don’t yet understand how difficult the road ahead of them will be…but they have seen the Glory…and they carried on…They passed on what they knew…what they learned…and we have received those lessons…and we must pass them on as well.
The road ahead of us is a dangerous…We will always have difficult days ahead. That’s not a bleak statement…that’s just a fact. The world is complex…and full of challenges…and there are crises both large and small that will have to navigate, and work through, and walk through…but we will make it to the promised land…someday…God’s reign of peace and justice will break free…God will overcome…if we walk hand in hand…if we are not afraid…if we remember that we are never alone…then we will live in peace…someday…deep in my heart…I do believe…that we shall all be free someday.