On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a large crowd inside a church in Memphis, Tennessee. He spoke about the history of the struggle for civil rights in the United States and the difficult days ahead. Towards the end of his sermon, King raised his voice as he was known to do, and said: “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” People applauded and cheered. The crowd knew that King was mentioning Moses, that Biblical character from the Jewish Torah. The people had heard the story of Moses and the Israelites and their ancient story of liberation. Of course, they knew about their own situation—injustice was their day to day reality and inequality was all around them. The mountaintop meant something to them.
Still today there are many who hear the story about Moses and the mountaintop and it resonates with them. People who have experienced racism or discrimination; people who have been pushed to the margins; people who are called lesser; people who suffer at the hands of evil oppressors.
The summit of Volcán Popocatépetl
Puebla, Mexico State, and Morelos, México
Now of course not everybody can claim this story in the same way as African-Americans or others who have experienced slavery and brutal racism can. And not everyone experiences what immigrants to this country go through—the hate and mistrust and abuse. Nor has everyone felt the heavy stare of someone just because of skin color or cultural background. And how many of you can claim that your family and tribe had their land and way of life stolen from them—only to be misplaced in reservations, forgotten, and abused? And there are too many women—qualified and more than capable—who do not get jobs or are verbally abused simply because they are female. And then there are others who have been told, just because of their sexual orientation, that they do not deserve certain rights and that they cannot commit to a love partnership with someone.
Martin Luther King’s speech about the mountaintop, Moses’ story on Mt. Sinai, Jesus’ mountain tale–are about all those in the world who have indeed been pushed down and oppressed and those around the world who are still in captivity.
There are people who deserve to be free in every way and yet, they are not free because someone else doesn’t want them to be free.
In Latin America, this led to what is called liberation theology, basically the idea that the teachings of Jesus are meant to free people from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. Some call it “an interpretation of Christian faith through the suffering, struggle and hope of the marginalized; a critique of society, the church, and religion itself through the eyes of the oppressed. Liberation theology spread from Brazil and Argentina to Nicaragua, Africa, and eventually the United States. It continues as a response to the Moses story, believing that all human beings have the responsibility to bring justice to those who are oppressed and to loosen any chains or bonds that are placed on people.
I say this because Biblical stories only matter when they are contextualized. But we all have different contexts. Moses’ story in Exodus 24 and Jesus’ story in Matthew have always been and will always be interpreted differently by different people in different eras and places. This should be obvious to us by now. Read these stories as a Black kid growing up in Mississippi or Alabama in the 50s and 60s; read them as a Sandinista in Nicaragua in the 1980s; or a Black South African in the 90s…well, you get the idea.
And these stories matter if they bring about change in you. After all, that’s what the story of Moses and the story of Jesus are all about: change.
The Exodus story of Moses and the Matthew story of Jesus go together. If we don’t get that, it won’t make sense. Jesus and three disciples go up on the mountaintop. Matthew mentions 6 days. What do you know—Moses just happened to be on Mt. Sinai for 6 days! We are transported back to the Torah story. Remember what the 7th day is all about in Judaism—Sabbath and rest. God the Creator rested on the 7th day because creation was finished and fulfilled. In these 2 parallel stories, both Moses and Jesus do the “work” of creation for 6 days and then find fulfillment on the 7th day. On top of that mountain, Jesus is transformed by the presence of God. There is light that visibly changes him, just like Moses’s shining face. But in Matthew’s story, Jesus doesn’t wear a veil to cover the light. The three disciples then talk in their sleep—dreaming about Moses himself and the other prophet Elijah. But then more light comes [in cloud form] and wakes up the sleepy disciples, with a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
But the three guys have trouble listening and they fall to the ground, scared out of their minds. But with a simple touch [like in healing] and these words: “Get up and do not be afraid” Jesus gets them to look up. And they notice that there is no Moses or Elijah, no crazy, talking cloud—just Jesus and just them. And then they come down from the mountain.
Some call this the transfiguration but that’s not really what it is. The word transfiguration wasn’t even used until the 14th Century. The real word and concept here is metamorphosis—caterpillar into butterfly stuff. In fact, if none of this story makes sense to you still, you’re better off reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Because this is not just some spiritual or religious vision that is disconnected from real life. It is a journey to a mountaintop metaphorically. It is a connection with something greater than yourself, greater than your fears, greater than your traditions, greater than your religion—it is experiencing a light that wakes you up, and shocks your system. It’s a change that inspires you to go beyond what you thought were the limits of your humanity and living. The world doesn’t look the same anymore after the change.
For some [and this may be you], who have been oppressed, the mountaintop encourages and inspires. There is healing and strength. They wake up to know that the evil oppressors out there in the world are people doing evil things. Their evil choices and actions are not God’s desire and are unacceptable. In this case, the mountaintop can inspire those who have been pushed down to stand up to claim the justice and freedom that have been taken from them.
For me, going up to the mountaintop is about enlightenment, too. But I need to wake up and become more aware of what is happening in me and in the world. I need to stop ignoring the sounds of oppressed or the sounds of nature crying out. Yes I need to change spiritually and mentally, but then that change has to lead me to do just and compassionate things.
Metamorphosis on the mountaintop should change us in such a way that I become more compassionate, more in tune with injustice, more committed to peacemaking, more eager to love. If I pray or meditate or commune with this God, I better go into it expecting to change.
It has to make me a better person and a better global citizen of this planet.
Friends, you don’t have to literally climb a mountain. But you have to journey on the path to the mountaintop, whatever that means for you, so your metamorphosis is real. Faith practice does not exist just because. It’s supposed to change you for the better. When you practice prayer or when you meditate or worship or read scripture or serve in the community—all of this should change you. If not, rethink it all. Because listen–the world is full of injustice and oppression. There are real people of all ages who experience this every day. And so any one of us who chooses to go up to the mountain must do so expecting to change—accepting the light and accepting the challenge; internalizing it and then externalizing it by compassionately moving our hands and feet to love and serve others.
Those who journey up to the mountaintop must be inspired to come down.
Berryman, Phillip, Liberation Theology: essential facts about the revolutionary movement in Latin America and beyond(1987)
2 thoughts on “Trans-Figuring…and We Go Beyond”
Enjoyed this sermon. Always nice to read it after hearing it. Also came across the term liberation theology in a book I am currently reading, Healing the Divide by Amos Smith. My question for you is from your very last paragraph. You suggest that one needs to rethink it when prayer, scripture reading, service stops changing you. How does one rethink it? What would you suggest when one finds they no longer feel changed by these activities. Thanks.
I say we ought to rethink any religious practice that does not change us or lead us on a path of enlightenment and positive impact. Religious practice is human expression of communion with the divine. But the practice is irrelevant if it does not change us. And change is not limited to ‘aha’ moments or deeply religious visions….change, in its real sense, is quite small, builds itself up, and then can become metamorphosis. For some, connecting with nature is just as spiritual, if not more, than any Christian practice. Why is that? I think it is because we limit G-d so much to sanctuaries, liturgy, dogma, and doctrine.
I challenge myself to rethink my religious practice every day. That means, for me, that older habits with no meaning fall away like leaves. And then I am more open to being changed by the divine in me that is not limited.