Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jonathan Bachman.
“Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” Exodus 24:18
We have all heard the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This is true. Yet some photos capture the contours and complexity of a moment better than others. These are the photos we consider iconic.
Consider Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize winning photograph of a nine year old Vietnamese girl Kim Phúc. In 1972 her image seared into our memory just like the napalm seared her naked flesh. There is the more recent photo of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh. Omran is the Syrian boy who was photographed sitting dazed and bloody inside of an ambulance in Aleppo. Such images capture the horror and inhumanity of war. Such images challenge our willful ignorance. They name the exorbitant price of our collective indifference.
While some iconic images reveal the depths of human suffering, others project the height of human courage. Recall Amelia Boynton and other protestors along the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Seeing Boynton endure blows from Sherriff Jim Clark’s cattleprod helped American understand what some were willing to sacrifice for the cause of justice. Similar might be said of the unknown protester standing down a tank in Tiananmen Square. That picture provided a powerful moral lesson. Steel made weapons of war are rendered futile before a human spirit that seeks to be free.
This is how I feel about Jonathan Bachman’s picture of Ieshia Evans. Ms. Evans was the young woman caught standing seemingly serene and tranquil as police attempted to arrest her at a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The officers appear less photogenic than Evans. They appear clunky in full riot gear, as a slight zephyr catches the bottom of her sundress. Despite being heavily armored and weaponized, the police appear anxious. Ms. Evans looks calm and confident. The officers signify the dispiriting backdrop of the protest: another unarmed citizen killed by state power, the militarization of the police, and the rhetoric of law and order laced in economic and racial inequality. This woman, however, projects the opposite: calm in chaos, self-assuredness, and strength. Ms. Evans reflects dignity in the face of dehumanization.
Ms. Evans’s image is what came to my mind this week when I reviewed the scripture lessons for Transfiguration Sunday. Power under control. Certitude in the midst of uncertain circumstances.
Transfiguration Sunday is the moment we mark a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. It’s the time when Jesus goes up the mountain to commune with God. He is preparing for the final dangerous path of his ministry—a path that leads him away from the praise and popularity of adoring crowds, to the pain and heartbreak of unjust crucifixion. This is a path that leads him away from folk celebrating his name to shouting “crucify him.”
Thus, while on top of the mountain, Jesus has a conversation with God. He also has a critical conversation with the prophets who came before him, Moses and Elijah. This time changes Jesus. The radiance of God’s love and grace rests upon Jesus’s countenance. And despite the trials that are to come and persecution that will surely ensue, Jesus refuses to waffle or waver. He has come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the imprisoned, provide sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18) Jesus has a job to do.
This is an example that all of us would do well to embrace this morning. This is an important lesson for our students who have their whole lives and careers ahead of them. Our students are young. They are gifted. They are passionate and compassionate. Their ideals paint castles in the sky—beautiful kingdoms of equity and justice for all of God’s children. Cynicism born of age, experience, and injustice has not dimmed the bright lights of their moral imaginations. Thus Transfiguration Sunday and the seasonal shift to Lent can serve as a powerful and productive reminder. They must develop strategies now to prepare themselves for the frustrations of the future. Inevitable heartbreak, compassion fatigue, and disillusionment are real. These feelings lay in wait around the corner like an angry and unruly mob. They are ready to attack your spirit.
It’s not just about the kids. This is an important lesson for us all. Each one of us who wakes up each day trying to hold on to our faith. How many are trying hard not to end up overwhelmed by more bad news? When it seems like evil is everywhere and all news is bad news, it is easy to begin feeling like bluesman T-Bone Walker.
They call it Storm Monday, but Tuesday is just as bad.
They call it Stormy Monday, but Tuesday is just as bad.
Wednesday is worse, and Thursday is oh so sad.
I think we can learn a powerful lesson from somebody who knew something about the blues. I’m not talking about Jesus, though Jesus was indeed a bluesman. I’m talking about the original bluesman in the Hebrew tradition, Moses.
Moses knew something about feeling dehumanized, dispirited, disquieted, dejected, depressed, and despondent. Moses had a blues song to sing.
First, consider the fact that Moses was born illegal. You’ve heard the story of his birth. There arose a Pharaoh in Egypt that knew not of Joseph. This Pharaoh was both ethnocentric and narcissistic. He felt overwhelmed by Hebrews. He embraced an “Egypt first” agenda. When enslavement wasn’t enough, he ordered all sons born of Hebrew women executed. Moses, then, was born outside of the protections of Egyptian law. If it had not been for the cunning and quick thinking of his mother, we would have never heard of Moses. Egyptian society would have aborted his beauty and brilliance at birth.
Not only did Egyptian society render him illegal at birth, they sought to frame him as ungrateful in adulthood. Does anybody remember what happened to Moses? When his mother cast him down the Nile river, Pharaoh’s daughter discovered him. She then took him in as a pet and hired his own mother to raise him. His mother taught him about his background. She taught him about the God of Abraham and Sarah. And when Moses came of age, he could no longer tolerate the suffering of his people. This is why Pharaoh cast him out of the royal palace. Pharaoh labeled him an ingrate. I can hear Pharaoh saying, “After all this country has done for you, Moses! You are an ingrate. You’ve had the best education. You’ve benefited from privilege and access. And you are concerned about some people who shouldn’t even be here anyway?”
Moses knew the blues. Yet it was hope born of the blues that bred his courage. This is why with little more than the authority of his faith and the clarity of his conviction, Moses stood before Pharaoh and declared, “let my people go.”
Yet these were not the only reason Moses knew the blues. This wasn’t the only reason he felt dispirited. Yes, he was born illegal. Yes, he was framed by the nation as ungrateful. But probably what hurt Moses more than anything else was how the Hebrews treated him when they escaped bondage. His own people regarded him as incapable and ill-equipped.
Moses risked life and limb for his people. Yet all they could think about was their own personal wants and desires. Moses sacrificed power and privilege for them. And all they did was grumble and complain about him. When they were hungry, it rained bread from the sky. When they were thirsty, God turned a rock into a water cooler. When they were lost, God used cloud by day and fire by night into an ancient GPS system. But how did they treat Moses?
“We are hungry, Moses. We had dining options in Egypt. We are sleepy. We had comfortable beds in Egypt. Where are we going to live? At least we had a roof over our heads in Egypt.”
Thus, for all of his sacrifice and service to the people, he received only grief in return. Moses experienced an enduring truth. Grief is the price we often pay for love.
Might this be why we see Moses going on a sabbatical here in the text? He’s had it. He’s feeling defeated. He’s feeling dejected. He’s feeling dispirited, but he wants to keep his dignity. He doesn’t want to lose his cool. He does not want to begin treating others in the manner others have treated him. So what does he do? He takes some time out. He goes atop Mt. Sinai to commune with God.
We should all be so fortunate to find our own Mt. Sinai. We must find our own place where we can go to commune with God. Each of us, at some point or another, will get weary in our well-doing. Each of us, at some point, will feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of bad news. And each of us, whether we realize it or not, are susceptible to the very things we oppose. It is easy for us to start reflecting and representing the very behaviors we profess to oppose in others when fatigued and frustrated.
I can imagine Moses atop Mt. Sinai talking to God. But not just talking to God, also talking to himself. Maybe some of his mother’s teachings from when he was a child began to come back to him.
“Don't forget who you are, Moses. More importantly don’t forget whose you are. The same God who delivered you from the Nile River, is the same God who will be with you in all of the challenges you will ultimately face.”
Maybe Moses recalled the words of a wise Hebrew teacher from his youth. “If you fear people saying bad things about you, then there is a simple way to live your life: say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing. But if you are going to live a life of service than you better prepare for a life of judgment and ridicule. Remember, however, that it’s not what people call you. It is what you answer to.”
Or maybe when Moses was atop of Sinai he remembered the advice of that kind aunt or uncle. “God won't hold you accountable for how others treat you, Moses. But God will hold you accountable for how you treat others. So when others go low, you go high. When others spread gossip, you spread compliments. When others spew hate, you speak love. When you feel dispirited, you must maintain your dignity.”
For forty days and forty nights Moses stayed atop that mountain. For forty days he refrained from hearing bad news. It was not because he desired to stick his head in the sand and ignore life’s problems. But rather he wanted to come down ready to confront life’s challenges with renewed energy and creativity.
This is what I hope you might consider as we enter the season of lent this week. For forty days we should seek our own Sinai experience. For forty days, we should try to refocus our minds on the things that we ought to value most. For in giving something up, you and I might have the time and opportunity to replace it with something more productive and life giving.
Maybe it’s coming off social media like Facebook and Twitter. Maybe it’s cutting off television infotainment like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Some of you are thinking that this is how you stay informed of political developments. That is fine. But rather than becoming distracted by the reality show environment of current US politics, a forty-day hiatus might renew our spirits. You and I might put our phones down, cut off the televisions, and reconnect with friends, family, and neighbors in the flesh. For human dignity is best served by embracing other humans in dialogue and mutual respect.
What you decide to give up this Lenten season is your choice. Let’s make it meaningful. We can pull away from the pain, violence, and voyeurism of our society, in order to better prepare ourselves to challenge evil and injustice for the long haul. And if you and I are going to challenge injustice with sincerity and humility, then we need reflective Sinai moments to make sure we are not simply part of the problem.
The great Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran once asked, “If our heart is a volcano, how can we expect flowers to bloom?” This is a question, like Moses, we will do well to ask ourselves. Let’s take some time out. Find your Mt. Sinai. Then let God transfigure the volcanoes of dispiritedness into gardens of love and dignity.
So when it comes time for God to snap a photo of our lives, though the context may appear dispiriting, we will appear dignified.