Homily for Epiphany 5/Transfiguration Sunday February 7, 2016 – The Ven. Grant Rodgers
We celebrate today the Festival of the Transfiguration, and also Chinese New Year, which introduces the Year of the Monkey – the monkey symbolizing cleverness, rising to greatness and importance.
People born in a Year of the Monkey supposedly have personality traits like mischievousness, curiosity, and cleverness, and they can be very naughty. They can tend to be witty, and have a restless and inquisitive nature. They are masters of practical jokes, because they like playing most of the time.
(I am not a Year of the Monkey person, in case you’re wondering).
But Will Smith, Halle Berry, Little Richard, Diana Ross, Alice Walker, and Cuba Gooding Jr., were all born in a year designated as Year of the Monkey, which is a way of pointing in the direction of our other important focus for this Sunday, which is Black History month.
To say that people of African origin have come a long way is a huge understatement on various levels, and Canada celebrates people like Michaelle Jean, who recently served as our Governor General, hockey player PK Subban, who recently donated $10 million to a Montreal hospital, the great jazz musician Oscar Peterson, world record sprinter Donovan Bailey, Viola Desmond (Canada’s version of Rosa Parks), Addie Aylestock, the first woman to be ordained in the British Methodist Episcopal Church and the first black woman to be ordained in Canada, The Hon. Lincoln Alexander, former lieutenant governor of Ontario, the first person from a visible minority to take on that role, and the first black member of parliament in Canadian history, Elijah McCoy (an inventor whose name was associated with the phrase “the real McCoy), Carrie Best, who in 1946 founded The Clarion, the first black-owned and published Nova Scotia newspaper, the musician Drake, Senator Anne Cools (first Black person appointed to the Senate), etc. The list of distinguished Canadians of African origin goes on and on, an integral and invaluable part of Canadian history and culture.
The new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA is African American. At his installation, the Most Rev. Michael Curry preached on how his father had been moved to become an Episcopalian after watching a church welcome his then-fiancée to drink from the common Communion cup in the often-segregated 1940s:
“My father didn’t feel comfortable going up for communion, but when my mother went up, he watched closely. Was the priest really going to give her communion from the common cup? And if he did, was the next person really going to drink from that same cup? And would others drink too, knowing a black woman had sipped from that cup? He saw the priest offer her the cup, and she drank. Then the priest offered the cup to the next person at the rail, and that person drank. And then the next person, and the next, all down the rail. When my father told the story, he would always say: “That’s what brought me to the Episcopal Church. Any church in which black folks and white folks drink out of the same cup knows something about a gospel that I want to be a part of.” (Michael Curry, Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus).
In an address to the Episcopal Church Convention Archbishop Murray quoted an old African-American spiritual:
Got my hand on the gospel plow
Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize.
Hold on. Hold on.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.
He went on to speak of how he was setting up a special liaison for Evangelism and Racial Reconciliation. But for him, very clearly, the prize is Jesus, and the way to get there is the way of following Jesus in love and compassion.
In this congregation we have people of Asian, African, West Indian, South Asian, South African, South American, Eastern European, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English backgrounds. It is the most diverse community I have served in, and I have felt very blessed by the various journeys represented here. For whatever reasons, we have been drawn together and we have much we can learn from each other, if we choose.
In the U.S., Denziel Washington, Cam Newton, Beyoncé, Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey,and Serena Williams are virtually household names — actors, athletes and entertainers of incredible talent (not to mention Dr Ben Carson, General Colin Powell, Judge Clarence Thomas and President Barack Obama).
Yet as we know, this year’s Oscars will be noted for their absence of African-American talent as much as anything. And many prominent people in the entertainment business and beyond are protesting.
American Baptist pastor the Reverend Al Sharpton said: “Hollywood is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher up you get the whiter it gets, and this year’s Academy Awards will be yet another Rocky Mountain Oscars. Yet again, deserving Black actors and directors were ignored by the academy, which reinforces the fact that there are few if any Blacks with real power in Hollywood. Being left out of awards consideration is about more than just recognition for a job well done; winning an Oscar has long-lasting cultural and economic impacts.”
People around the world continue to be horrified by numerous instances of blatant racism by police which create confrontation and often deadly violence out of nothing more than the simple fact of the colour of a person’s skin. Minor traffic infractions turn into fatal shootings. The Black Lives Matter campaign is hardly where African Americans thought they would be 50 years after Martin Luther King’s great moments in the 1960’s. It’s like we regressed 50 years instead.
As with the Oscars, so with our practice of religion. When all our idols and icons are white, numerous people are left out, or left thinking of themselves in negative or inferior terms.
Jesus made it clear again and again that there are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God. St Paul indicated that in Christ issues of race and even gender are overcome and disappear – because all are made one in Christ.
The Transfiguration is a glimpse into the ultimate nature of Christ, one of those moments of clarity or insight in which people are transformed in the way they see themselves and view life in general. It is a reminder to see people for what they really are rather than how they appear on the surface, that greatness is what is inside a person, not something we put on.
It says in the Gospel text that Jesus’ garments became white, but it doesn’t say that he did, yet Jesus has been portrayed so long looking like a white European that most people believe that is what he must look like.
In fact, some people think you are being sacrilegious if you use an image like the one on the front of our leaflet this morning (which shows all the figures of today’s Gospel as black), when in reality it is no less accurate, and possibly a good deal more accurate, than typical renditions of Jesus as a Caucasian.
As those of us of European origin move out of our position of dominance and the often unconscious assumption of superiority, and begin to embrace the goodness of the God-given diversity of life, we will be a lot happier and less anxious and less likely to take offense. As we learn to respect and honour members of the Body that we previously may have seen as inferior or less honourable, we will finally begin to experience the all-embracing love of God, that binds everything together in perfect harmony.
As a boy, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was profoundly influenced by a chance encounter:
Asked by the BBC to identify the defining moment in his life, Desmond Tutu spoke of the day he and his mother were walking down the street in Johannesburg (South Africa). Tutu was nine years old. A tall white man dressed in a black suit came towards them. In those days of apartheid, when a black person and a white person met while walking on a footpath, the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and nod their head as a gesture of respect. But this day, before the young Tutu and his mother could step off the sidewalk the white man stepped off the sidewalk and, as Desmond and his mother passed, tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her!
The white man was Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who was bitterly opposed to apartheid. The encounter changed Tutu’s life. When his mother told him that Trevor Huddleston had stepped off the sidewalk because he was a man of God, Tutu found his calling. “When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God” said Tutu.
Huddleston later became a mentor to Desmond Tutu and his commitment to the equality of all human beings due to their creation in God’s image was a key motivator in Tutu’s effective opposition to apartheid.
If Anglicans had saints, Desmond Tutu would be one of them. It remains one of the great privileges of my life to have shaken his hand and heard him speak in person. In fact, when I heard him speak I could have sworn he was glowing with an aura of light – I don’t know what others saw, but for me it was a moment of Transfiguration!
Its not just about embracing diversity – its about embracing the One who makes us all one. As we celebrate the Transfiguration, we celebrate the way in which God in Christ brings together and integrates various aspects of religious history. In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus integrating the story of Israel, the past and the present – Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the Law and the prophets, the greatness of Israel’s spiritual and ethical traditions. Somehow Jesus made those figures present and real, made it apparent that those figures were not just past but somehow accompanying them as they journeyed forward, looking to the future and the apostolic era.
People taken captive in Africa and brought in chains to a life of slavery in a foreign land found meaning in the stories of the people of Israel in slavery, in the wilderness, and in exile, and that shaped the choices they made about how they would respond to the situation. Holocaust death camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from us but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (from Man’s Search for Meaning). Despite experiencing captivity, separation from home and family, harsh and unfair treatment, and ongoing racism, African Americans persevered and overcame.
“Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.” Black History month reminds us of the gift of a profound theology and religious culture rooted in an experience of real suffering. We live in the age when a hangnail or a pimple or a misplaced word in a church leaflet can bring on extreme reactions. When we climb their mountain of suffering even figuratively, we gain a different perspective on our own privilege and elitism,
African Americans developed their own deep cultural, spiritual and musical traditions – music that brought forth uniquely American forms like jazz and blues, rock and of course, Gospel music. Their spirituality emphasized a deep sense of trust in the providence of God, expressed in songs like He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, the belief that things work out for good, that there is an ultimate justice even if justice is denied in the present moment – God is at work. Through songs like His Eye Is On the Sparrow, they expressed their own identification with the least, the most obscure, trusting that God cares even for the sparrow, and realizing that these are often the ones Jesus also identified with and loved.
In the future we may see the day when Black History and First Nations history and women’s history and the history of Chinese people in Canada are not separate stories searching for validation and inclusion but simply part of the history that we all share and celebrate.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Exodus 34:29-35 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
Luke 9:28-36 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.