Preaching Notes for Black History Month 2017, week 4
In honor and recognition of the tradition of “telling the stories” during Black History Month, we are please to share the work of Rev. Dr. Joy Moore. Serving as assistant professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA., and academic liaison to the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies, Joy J. Moore, PhD (Brunel University/London School of Theology) teaches in the area of homiletics and the practice of ministry. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Joy seeks to encourage theologically framed, biblically attentive, and socially compelling interpretations of familiar passages to help people understand the critical issues influencing community formation in contemporary culture. Read the full introduction to Dr. Moore's preaching notes for Black History Month »
There is an old song written by Rev. F.C. Barnes that says I’m climbing up the rough side of the mountain.1 Someone once reminded me that you can’t climb up a smooth mountain; you need something to hold. In Scripture, mountains are not always places of struggle and trial. Today’s readings remind us that mountains enable us to see the world with new perspective. From the mountain, Israel received a set of terms and conditions that contradicted the practices of national leaders. A set of instructions that turned a people toward the Creator God and toward one another. Throughout the biblical record, the people of God are reminded that the mountain is the place of teaching on to which we hold. But we must come down from the mountain to the valley below.
It is in the valley below where we meet Jesus. For when the word became flesh, the words of the commandments became enacted in the person of Jesus. We hold on to the words of Jesus, waiting until we see him again. But while we wait, we who claim to be Christlike live so those words continue to be enacted as hope and promise.
The Second Psalm asks a simple, relevant question: Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? It is almost dangerous to preach this Psalm, as it suggests that God finds humor in the counsel of human leaders. Except, this week, all the readings point beyond human understanding to the revelation of God made known in Jesus. Such is the revelation of Scripture. Human plans to rule, to govern ourselves, to ignore God are contrary to the requirements of God. God speaks of nations in the plural as the possession of his son. Here, in the moment recounted in the gospel and epistle, is a foreshadow of the one promised to come as ruler and judge. Those in the first century–tax-collectors and disciples – recognized this in their encounters with Jesus. In the unexpected actions of washing feet, upturning tables, healing hands, and declaring forgiveness, Roman rule, religious segregation, and human hostilities are confronted and undermined.
I often want to sense God’s anger at the horrors of this world. But how humiliating for the powers-that-be to recognize, as the Psalmist suggests, that the Creator of the Cosmos is laughing at the plans of those who lead our nations? Might it be that Jesus is like a big brother standing behind the wimpy sibling, and before the bully, arms outstretched saying, “little one, I got this.”
Our foreparents took refuge in God against national conspiracies that enacted slavery and Jim Crow. Their hope in a horrific situation resulted in our voices being raised today against the plots of mass incarceration and deportation. May we find confidence in serving the God made known in Jesus, for the promise remains that the ends of the earth are promised as the possession of those who serve in his name.
How might we search the Scriptures for the voice of the Spirit rather than the constructed messages humanly devised? The words of Second Peter remain hauntingly true: we must first understand that the witness of the biblical narrative is not a matter of individual interpretation. In this account of the Transfiguration, the focus is on the words of God. Absent is the mysterious vision, to which the writer claims to be an “eyewitness” as the attention is placed on God’s announcement. The focus, which the Spirit confirms, is the the dawning light of God in a dark, hostile world. The peculiar personal opinions, no matter how clever, are not the location of humanity’s hope.
If ever a cleverly devised myth has captured the imaginations of humanity, it is the myth of racial identification. From the vantage point of those who believe themselves to be white, it seems to claim Christianity as originally Western European rather than Eastern Asian. During the Reformation, these claims accepted systematic formulations to divide into ethnically segregated communities – think Swedish Covenant, German Lutheran, Dutch Reformed. (There is a reason that Sunday morning congregations are racially segregated.) From this account of the Transfiguration, the reader and the preacher are challenged to focus attention on the promise of God that brings every nation, every tongue, and every tribe to hear the promise of life offered in Jesus.
This is My Child, Listen
Jesus takes Peter, James, and his brother John up a high mountain. Like a Steven Spielberg frame, Matthew relies on moments on the mountain to telegraph awe and resonate with the memory of mountain experiences described in the Old Testament Scriptures. Moses’s face glowed; Jesus’ face shone like the sun. And the onlookers found themselves paralyzed between worship and wonder. The appearance of the lawgiver and the prophet and the voice of God reframes the disciples’ recognition of Jesus. This is not just a community organizer, another teacher, or even our homeboy. Capturing their imaginations is a declaration: This is my Son. This exhilarating moment sears their memory, leaving a mark that will become an encouragement when they find themselves in the valley, especially the one in the shadow of Jesus’ death, soon to come.
We do not recall experiences like this anymore. Not because the Holy Spirit has silenced us as Jesus did for these three. We report our most significant moments, again and again on Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet feeds of the local news outlets. Yet, too often, they have little or nothing to do with a miraculous encounter with the divine. We are awestruck in the presence of television celebrities rather than local teachers. What stirs us to wonder are viral videos of urban murder rather than the hand of someone offering life. We are rendered speechless by the divisive voices of politicians rather than promises of a restored community. In light of these encounters, the monuments we desire to build are just as misguided as Peter’s.
When I was growing up, we were often challenged to ‘see Jesus’ in the face of our neighbor. Today, with the image of non-Americans cast as violent terrorists, our youth as riotous protestors, and immigrants and refugees as a threat to our way of life, it is difficult to see the mark of humanity on our neighbor. Is it possible that God might called a Palestinian, his child? Is it possible that God might call undocumented US residents, beloved? Is it possible that God might call you and me to listen to cries of those we deem “other”? This moment in Jesus’ life is recorded in Matthew between Jesus’ predictions of his death. Before and after these predictions, the religious leaders demanded a sign, and the people asked whether Jesus paid taxes. The extraordinary and the ordinary questions we pose to Jesus fail to capture God’s favor. But in God’s time, those who follow Jesus will see. That is those who follow beyond where everyone else gathers. From the mountain, they will see that the fullness of God’s law requires a life- altering justice. In the face of a Middle Easterner, the light of God. In the eyes of common man, evidence of divinity. And if we listen beyond the clamor of our expectations, we too might hear God’s voice inviting us to see his child and listen.