Down the Mountain
Rev. Michael Livingston, Executive Minister, The Riverside Church NYC
Princeton University Chapel, February 26, 2017
Lent must be near, the final journey of Jesus to Jerusalem hangs in the air like a fine mist. It has not yet become the violent storm that will drench the people and events to come and change the course of history. Here is the Transfiguration, plopped into the middle of telling of the story of Jesus. He is raised above a mountain. He pivots toward Jerusalem. Sayings, miracles before and after but for a moment this extraordinary event, unusual even for the story Matthew and the other gospels tell.
We get the same cast, the same now elevated giants of the history of Israel but we don’t get dialog with Matthew, as we do in Luke, we don’t know what is being said. But we know Moses, the lawgiver and we know the great prophet Elijah. Jesus is among the giants of the history of Israel. He belongs there, Matthew wants to be sure his readers and we, know. And what better way than to look back to the beginning, back to the Baptism, the opening of the heavens and that voice confirming, “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.” Well there isn’t much of that going on in the gospels. They don’t listen, they don’t really hear Jesus, they certainly don’t understand.
And look at Peter, he’s eager isn’t he. He’s busy. He’s happy to be there to be a witness to this unbelievable sight. He had to do something, “How about I make three tents, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you?” We know how that is, what that feels like—in the presence of someone of something so extraordinary and don’t know precisely what to do but we can’t help but do something!
I was with a group of denominational religious leaders from the National Council of Churches for a meeting at the White House with President Obama in his first year. We met to both celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NCC and to talk with him about several priorities we had as a community of faith. I was to talk with him about public education. So here I am in the Roosevelt Room, a few steps away from the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House (I’d seen the show but never been in the building except for a tour 30 years ago) about to speak to President Barack Obama. All of that hit me about a sentence into my remarks.
I stood up (we had agreed to remain seated when we spoke). I was talking and characteristically using my arms and hands, then my brain simply shut down as I looked at him—though my colleagues tell me my mouth continued to move and words continued to flow. I may as well have been like Peter at the Transfiguration, only I was watching Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Barack Obama having a conversation about the next phase in the history of black America—that is to say about the future of the United States of America.
What a difference a bag of Electoral College votes make. If Hilary had been elected we’d have had a long period between the election and the inauguration to celebrate Barack’s eight years…to say goodbye. We’d have had a wonderful time marveling at this curious and history defying thing: the first woman president of these United States and following the historic presidency of the first African American president. Instead…let’s review…Russian election tampering, Muslim registry/ban, deportations, the wall, Ivanka’s clothing line and the Nordstrom fuss; cabinet picks, with at least some of them that seem chosen because they oppose the fundamental functions of the departments they will lead. Something extraordinary has happened in our nation and we are all in a frenzy unlike anything we have ever seem. And we are doing something. From the women’s march on the day after the inauguration to the town hall meetings where angry and shouting people are confronting legislators home for a recess—people are doing something: organizing, marching, calling congressional offices, writing letters…
I remember another time, here in Princeton. I had the enviable task of driving Arthur Ashe to the train station at Princeton Junction and I kept asking him questions and getting short answers in return…and silence. I thought this uncharacteristic. We had so many commonalities: African American men, interest in matters of race and social justice, graduates of UCLA, tennis players! I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get more out of him. I was disappointed that very likely my only opportunity to be with Arthur Ashe alone for a few moments was so oddly flat. I greatly admired, may I say, loved, this elite tennis player, thoughtful and compassionate humanitarian, significant contributor to ending Apartheid, writer and historian, husband and father. A few months later I understood his silence and sadness as I watched the press conference in which he told the world he had contracted AIDS during a blood transfusion some years before.
What fear he must have known as his world unraveled. If only I had listened. There was nothing for me to do. Jesus came down from the mountain headed inexorably toward Jerusalem and death. He knew fear and a deep and profound silence that must have been a source of strength as well. In Luke, the Transfiguration comes from a retreat to pray. And what is prayer if it does not begin in silence, waiting, listening for God to speak. We’re down the mountain like those disciples. Needing to listen, working through the fear fueling our anger at what we know and what cannot be known about where this is all going. The center is not holding. Anything can be said and many will believe it true. In Swing Time one of Zadie Smith’s characters says, “I thought about what it might be like to live in this world of shifting facts that move or disappear, depending on your mood.” Welcome to the world of our President.
Last year mass incarceration was a scar on the flesh of our democracy. The failure to enact legislation to forge a just and fair path to citizenship for millions of hard working people and their families was a stain on our common life. Black lives didn’t matter. Threats to the LGBTQ community were real despite some progress in attitudes and practices in our common life. Women were still paid less for the same work and still subject to physical abuse at alarming rates. Death by gun violence was routine, an acceptable loss of human life, too normal to compel congressional action to change gun laws. The earth was a commodity, its resources available for continued exploitation, science be damned.
This year, what is different is the candidate we thought qualified to continue and build upon eight years of promise won the vote but lost the election. And like those disciples we feel lost. We want to do something.
“There was a sense in which she couldn’t quite believe in violence, as if it were, in her view, too stupid to be real.” (Swing Time, Zadie Smith). Substitute anything you want for violence, but don’t you have the sense that so much of what is going on in our national life is too stupid to be real? And yet, it is. We need to listen, we need to overcome our fear about the hard days and things that are ahead for us to do. We need to be invested in the one who came down from that mountain and turned resolutely toward Jerusalem. We need to be encouraged by the courageous people all around us overcoming their fear: undocumented immigrants telling their stories unafraid of the consequences, journalists, even now, thank you, never too late to begin challenging administration officials on the veracity of their claims, retired coal miners, who supported our president, insisting that their health care remain a priority.
Zora Neale-Hurston writes in Their Eyes Were Watching God about one of her characters, “She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up.” And that’s got to be our reality, that kind of faith, that kind of faith in the possibility of our humanity, in the possibility of what we can do when we listen, when we overcome our fear, when we trust that the rising of the sun each new day is an opportunity for us to be the people God wants us to be. To change the world, to resist the many ways we are not taking care of one another in this world, in this too troubled reality.
And James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time: “I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.” That’s what those disciples were faced with, that’s what we are faced with today, the impossible. That is what history is made of. That is what every day gives us the possibility to do: Change, grow, resist, challenge, listen, transform, love. Amen.