Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 26, 2017, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector – Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father of light, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to see Jesus transfigured, whereby we are transformed through Him who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
“She recounts stealing money at the age of 10 from the gas station where she worked afternoons and weekends and running away to Oklahoma City before being returned home by police. She was eventually sent to a state reform school for girls in the northern Texas town of Gainesville, living there from the age of 11 to 15.
She married at the age of 16, but separated shortly after while she was pregnant. She says her mother tricked her into signing away custody of her firstborn and then threw her out of the house. “My mom screamed, ‘What did a lesbian know about raising a child?’ I lost my child, and my home,” she told the AP in 1998.
She gave a second child up for adoption, but when she got pregnant a third time she decided to have an abortion. She said she couldn’t afford to travel to one of the handful of states where it would have been legal. She said her adoption attorney put her in touch with Texas lawyers Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, who were seeking a woman to represent in a legal case to challenge the state’s anti-abortion statute. She gave birth to the “Roe” baby in June 1970.
Norma McCorvey, whose legal challenge under the pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’ led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision that legalized abortion but who later became an outspoken opponent of the procedure, died of heart failure on Saturday, February 19, 2017. She was 69. McCorvey was 22, unmarried, unemployed and pregnant for the third time when in 1969 she sought to have an abortion in Texas, where the procedure was illegal except to save a woman’s life. The subsequent lawsuit, known as Roe v. Wade, led to the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that established abortion rights, though by that time, McCorvey had given birth and given her daughter up for adoption.
Decades later, McCorvey underwent a conversion, becoming an evangelical Christian and joined the anti-abortion movement. A short time later, she underwent another religious conversion and became a Roman Catholic. “I don’t believe in abortion even in an extreme situation. If the woman is impregnated by a rapist, it’s still a child. You’re not to act as your own God,” she told The Associated Press in 1998.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, she remained an ardent supporter of abortion rights and worked for a Dallas women’s clinic where abortions were performed. In 1994 she published her autobiography, but a year later, she was baptized before network TV cameras. McCorvey also said her religious conversion led her to give up her lover, Connie Gonzales. Once she became a Christian she believed homosexuality was wrong.
She recounted her evangelical conversion and stand against abortion in the January 1998 book “Won by Love.” In May 2009, she was arrested on trespassing charges after joining more than 300 anti-abortion demonstrators when President Barack Obama spoke at the University of Notre Dame. In July 2009, she was among demonstrators arrested for disrupting Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination hearing.” (Jamie Stengle and Diana Heidgerd, The Associated Press)
We are perhaps startled and shocked when we hear of the life of Norma McCorvey. It was a difficult life, no doubt. The dramatic change in her values and in her leaves us breathless and wondering. How could someone who seemingly disdained monogamy, someone who embraced lesbianism, someone who had so little regard for life itself (Millions and millions of murdered unborn children were on her conscience. Think about that.) have made such an about face, become a Christian, renounce lesbianism, and become a dedicated, determined opponent of abortion?
What happened to her to bring about such a change? Is it enough to merely say that she had a conversion experience? If so what does that mean? Better yet, why at that time as opposed to some other time, such as, before she became the notorious stand-in proponent for abortion?
This morning we re-visit the now familiar scene of what has come to be known as the transfiguration. Jesus led Peter, James, and John with Him to a high mountain, just the four of them. Suddenly, Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” No explanation is given as to why the sudden change. Peter, James, and John might have found themselves remembering a passage from the Old Testament, the Torah:
“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.” (Exodus 34:29). As if on cue to the three’s scriptural remembrance Moses suddenly appeared and with him Elijah. Between the two of them, they represented the Law and the prophets, wherein we are to remember Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”
It is perhaps unfortunate and certainly misleading that this event where Jesus and the three discipleshad this extraordinary experience has been labeled as the transfiguration. Why do I say that? Well, obviously there is a lot more going on here than Jesus merely looking as if He had overdone it with Oxyclean. The incredible appearance of Moses and Elijah, both long since dead, followed by a bright cloud (where did we see this cloud before—in the Exodus event and at the consecration of Solomon’s temple), highlighted with a voice from that cloud (sound familiar) which said, ““This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” was certainly more than some transfiguration. What of the words, “six days later,” which began the gospel reading? Was it not on the sixth day that God created man? Now, in and through Jesus man would be recreated.
Is it any wonder that Peter, James, and John were afraid? Suddenly, the pages of the Old Testament were no longer supposed history to them. What had been recorded there was as real and as true as what they were seeing before their very eyes. Moses and Elijah had indeed been real people. The cloud and God’s speaking were not just some mythology of the past told to encourage God’s people during difficult times. Even more, this Jesus, whom they had been following, was indeed someone extraordinary, as if there had been any doubt. He was God’s son and they had witnessed it for themselves. This was neither hearsay nor doctrine. It was the truth. Their minds were blown and their hearts would never be the same.
One observer notes, “Yes, the three disciples ‘were overcome with fear’ when they heard the voice of God. When we have “mountaintop experiences,” we often become terrified and fearful because such moments may lead us to places we never thought we could or wanted to go. This happened to the disciples. They went up the mountain and saw a glimpse of something new that God was doing. Because of this encounter, the disciples left the mountain as changed men. They were transformed by the experience.” The direction of their lives was forever changed.
Emily and my granddaughter, Lucy Gardner, who is a sophomore at the University of Alabama, went to a Christian retreat this past weekend. Now, you need to know that Lucy’s dad is an Episcopal priest, the rector of a large parish in Birmingham, AL. In other words, Lucy was raised in a Christian home, went to Christian camps, and has been involved in Christian youth leadership as much or more than most youth. Do you hear what I am saying? Even so, something happened at this retreat wherein she saw Jesus, wherein she saw Jesus, not as someone whom she heard about, been told about, or read about, but as the real thing. He had been transfigured. Do you hear what I am saying? She saw Him for who He is and she was transformed.
Lucy shared with Emily how after the retreat she said to her dad, the priest, “That stuff in the Bible is real.” Her dad replied, “Why, certainly it is.” Furthermore she told her grandmother Emily, my wife, that “I am wanting to go further with this since I have never really given it a chance.” Might the same be said of us as well? Have we given our Christian walk a chance?
Sometimes when we reach the mountaintop, the light is blinding; at other times, the light is subtle. Sometimes those mountaintops are lofty vistas, and sometimes they are ordinary scenes, viewed in a new light. These moments are when we begin to see Jesus for who He is—He is transfigured. Having seen Him for who He really, truly is, we are transformed. We are not the same person we used to be. After having seen Jesus transfigured Peter, James, and John were not the same persons they used to be (seeing one’s creator and redeemer does that), neither was Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe) or Lucy Gardner. So, how serious, how necessary is it for you, for me, for anyone to see Jesus transfigured, resulting in us being transformed?
In his recent weekly letter to the diocese, Bishop Benhase shared the following story, which he titled, “Charity’s cheap absolution.”
“Luke Sanders was a sweet man. He and I would exchange greetings outside the parish office where I served as rector. He’d always smile and offer an encouraging word for me. ‘What’s the good word today, Luke?’ I’d say. And he’d say something like, ‘God’s good all the time’ or ‘I’m blessed today.’ Luke lived on the street when he wasn’t living in our shelter for homeless persons nearby. Sometimes he’d be denied entry to the shelter if he were too drunk and disorderly. So, he’d just hang out around our church block that included the shelter as well as a community kitchen that fed him and hundreds of others each day.
Earlier in life he’d been an accomplished Golden Gloves boxer. I know this because he showed me old pictures of him in the ring wearing a boxing belt with his name on it. He had family, but I could never know when he talked about his wife and children whether they were real or just a distorted memory from an alcoholic fog. Of course, I was always too busy to listen to him more.
One hot summer we didn’t see Luke for a few days. That wasn’t at all unusual. He’d occasionally get arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and spend time in jail. But then we noticed an awful odor from the window well in front of the Parish Hall. We found his body there. The autopsy determined he died of heat stroke and dehydration. A few days later, with the full Burial Office of the Church, we buried his remains in our church’s columbarium grounds. Presiding at his burial didn’t assuage my conscience.
We failed Luke Sanders. More accurately, I failed Luke Sanders. We housed him. We fed him. We pulled him off the street when he was a danger to himself and others, but we failed him. Our charity toward Luke, as Dr. Bob Lupton of Focused Neighborhood Strategies in Atlanta would say, was ‘toxic.’ I knew his addiction was a disease and not a personal moral failing, but along with others, I settled for dispensing charity toward him. We did this; all the while patting ourselves on the back for how ‘Christian’ we were toward him and toward others, who like him, were suffering.
We in the Church dispense charity because it’s easier than the more difficult work of transformation and conversion of life. Dispensing charity makes us feel good about ourselves. Such charity dispensing though keeps the other person as an object of our good works. It doesn’t, as our Baptismal Covenant says, ‘respect their dignity.’ Our behavior won’t change until we make our work to be more about the ‘good of the other’ instead of ‘our good feelings.’ Luke’s face still haunts me today. And appropriately so. I don’t want the haunting to go away. It’s a kick in my conscience’s backside reminding me that I had a hand in his death. I don’t want the cheap absolution from voices who say: ‘He was a drunk. You did the best you could.’ I’ve heard such voices too many times and I know them to be lies. We didn’t do the best we could. I know I didn’t.”
The Christian faith is nothing if it does not bring about transformation. The Christian faith is nothing if it does not bring about transformation in you, in me and in those to whom we minister. Bp. Benhase’s story about Luke so clearly illustrates this. What if Luke not only had been given food and shelter, but encouraged to see Jesus transfigured and as a result Luke was transformed? Only seeing Jesus transfigured, become real, can bring about the beginning of that transformation. No amount of Bible-reading, study, ministry, or prayer can bring that transformation, our transformation into reality without seeing Jesus transfigured, without seeing Him for real and for who He is. Until that time what we believe about Him will only be speculation. It will be a reflection on a person who supposedly lived two thousand years ago. In that respect, Jesus might just as well be a fictional, historic character.
As we begin to prepare for Lent, which begins on Wednesday of next week, let our prayer above any fasting, study, self-denial or Bible reading be that we might see Jesus transfigured and consequently us transformed. Our future individually and corporately begins there. St. Elizabeth’s future depends on us seeing the transfigured Jesus, and us, being transformed. Without both there is no future.
This then is the call and ministry of the Church, of St. Elizabeth’s, of you and me to invite others to seek and see Jesus transfigured from fiction to fact, from historic figure to personal savior, from distant memory to living presence, here, now, and always.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.