Sunday, February 14, 2021 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Acts 11:1-4, 15-18 & Mark 9:2-9
Let us pray…
Glorious God, Igor Stravinsky reminded us, “to listen is an effort. Just to hear has no merit. A duck also hears.” In this time of exploring your word, help us to listen, and not just to hear. Open us to your glory and your revelation. Amen.
Duke University, west campus, centered around the gorgeous and glorious Duke Chapel, this gothic, stone edifice that soars high, lifting the eye toward heaven—a place dear to my heart. Many have walked the quad of this gorgeous stone campus, attended basketball games in historic Cameron stadium, received medical attention at the ornate (and now expanded) hospital, and studied in the wonderful library. Harvard University-Widener Memorial Library, an architectural masterpiece that has graced the Harvard campus for many, many years and enriched the lives of countless students, faculty and visitors. Philadelphia Museum of Art, a treasure in the city of brotherly love.
Some of you may have visited one or more of these places or, at least, seen them featured in the news, on a television show, or in a movie. If you can’t pull these places up in your mind’s eye, please look them up online—after the sermon—and take a moment to gaze at the beauty of these structures. I remember the first time I walked down Chapel Drive on Duke’s west campus, the glorious chapel front and center, rising before me. It was breathtaking. It was summer, just before I was to start my first semester of graduate school, and I was arriving for a tour. As I walked back out later that day, glancing over my shoulder at the glorious chapel, I saw things very differently.
The statue before the chapel is of James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, the ‘founder’ of the school and campus, a white businessman who sought to create an educational institution for his beloved region. But the tour had revealed that the historic west campus was designed by Julian F. Abele, an African American architect who was never able to step foot on the campus he created. He died before integration became a reality for Duke University. Julian Abele also designed Harvard’s Widener Memorial Library. He designed Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. This beautifully talented architect poured forth this beauty that has stood for 100 years, and yet wasn’t admitted to the American Institute of Architecture until 1942, just a few years before his death. No one in leadership at Duke University knew that Julian Abele was the architect until 1986, when anti-apartheid rallies on campus revealed the designer, while his own great-grand niece was attending the school.
The beauty of the campus had not changed that day as I left. The wonder of the buildings, especially the chapel, remained amazing and enduring. What had changed as I walked back down Chapel Drive toward my car was my perception. I had a new appreciation and a richer understanding of this amazing architecture—and a vivid reminder of how much history has been suppressed—Black history, American history.
Transfiguration. I specifically chose today’s reading from the Common English Bible translation because the translators sought to change transfiguration into transformation—Jesus was ‘transformed’ in front of them. Normally I very much appreciate the choices the CEB (as it is called) in translating from the Greek into a more vernacular English, but not in this case. Transformation is very different…VERY different…than transfiguration. In fact, even dictionaries struggle with the difference between these two words, wanting to suggest transformation or metamorphosis are synonyms for transfiguration. However, scripturally and theologically speaking, these words are not interchangeable.
What is happening in this strange and wild story? As the disciples, and especially Peter, wrestle with Jesus’ first revealing of his upcoming death in Jerusalem, Jesus takes Peter, along with two others, to a time apart. On this mountaintop, something beyond words happens. The gospel accounts try to describe it. These authors struggle to put words around this new revelation of Jesus, but it is so hard to do. Jesus is transfigured, that is the word chosen. But…Jesus isn’t changed. He doesn’t become someone or something else. Jesus is unveiled…revealed. Jesus shows these three who Jesus has been all along, but they could not see it. Jesus lets the heart of his identity seep through and the disciples are washed in the glory of God.
Transfiguration is not a transformation. It is not a metamorphosis. It is a revelation. For a few minutes, Peter, James and John are given the gift of true sight, deep perception. These three are opened to experience Jesus as the Word made Flesh, God with us, Emmanuel. For just a moment, these three stand in the very presence of God, as Moses and Elijah did before them. As the glory tucks itself way within the flesh of Jesus and the cloud recedes, Jesus leads them down the mountain. The disciples struggle to take in this new information. Jesus is the Messiah as Peter confessed six days earlier. Jesus is their Rabbi. Jesus is their Lord. But now they perceive Jesus more deeply. Though they may not completely understand it all, they have seen God’s very glory, God’s very presence, shining forth from their Messiah-Rabbi-Lord. They will never look at Jesus the same way again. They will never look at Jesus’ work the same way again.
Though it is harder to see, something similar is happening in our Cornelius-Peter story from Acts 10 through 11; this story that we have been spending time with for the last few weeks. We can certainly argue that Peter is transformed in this story, that Cornelius and his household are changed by their encounter with the Holy Spirit. However, as we see this intimate encounter in Cornelius’ home ripple out to affect the core of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem and beyond, is it accurate to say that the community of Christ—what we call the Church—is changed? Did this experience of the Gentile community washed in the Spirit also transform the community God is creating?
I would argue no. To be transfigured is to be show someone/something to be different than was assumed. Transfiguration is an opening to see, to perceive, in a new way, a true way. Jesus didn’t change who Jesus was, Jesus was suddenly revealed to Peter, James and John as his true self—God made flesh. In the pivotal story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, Peter suddenly sees—perceives—the true identity of the community of God, the Beloved Community. The heart of the Beloved Community, God’s Dream, hasn’t changed. It isn’t transformed. It is revealed. It is shown to be different than Peter assumed, than the leaders in Jerusalem assumed. “If God has given the Gentiles the same gift God gave to Peter and the others then who can stand in God’s way?” Transfiguration is to suddenly be opened to a deeper understanding of the way things really are.
I hope that Duke University, Harvard’s Widener Library, and Philadelphia’s Museum of Art look different to you today as you realize the talent behind the architecture, and the way the knowledge of this talented architect was suppressed for decades because of the color of his skin. The essence of the structures has not changed, but our appreciation for them is deepened. And I pray, though the essence of God’s Dream remains unchanged, that having explored the core values of Beloved Community, Spirit-filled connections, acts of compassion and standing up for justice, our vision of the Church is enriched. May we perceive the glorious heart of Beloved Community and commit to living each day grounded in this reality.
Let us embrace God’s call to us by speaking aloud the values of God’s Community, God’s Dream. Would you join your voice with ours…
Striving for Beloved Community:
St. Paul’s seeks to create a community that reflects the dream of God, wonderfully diverse and deeply united. We seek to create a place that welcomes a diversity of race, ethnicity, citizenship, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical and mental ability, faith background, economic status, appearance, marital condition, political persuasion, education and life experience. We strive to do so in a way that protects the most vulnerable among us.
Connecting With and Through the Spirit:
Though we are all in unique places on our lifelong spiritual journey, St. Paul’s seeks to connect us for mutual support, fellowship, guidance and transformation. St. Paul’s offers connection with the sacred through authentic worship, study, practice, nurture, and prayerful engagement with one another and the wider world. With the Spirit’s direction, we continually evaluate, dream, and create opportunities and spaces for divine revelation and relationship.
Acting with Compassion:
Jesus taught his followers in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, that when they minister to the ‘least of these’ -the hungry and thirsty, the sick and imprisoned, the naked and the stranger- they minister to Jesus. Following the leading of the Spirit, we at St. Paul’s strive to see Jesus Christ in each person and come together from a variety of places within the mystery of compassion to serve those most in need in our world, often in partnership with community agencies and groups, and with other faith communities. Through our beloved community and sacred connections, we open ourselves to the world, discerning where joy, peace and compassion are most needed.
Standing Up for Justice:
Throughout the Book of Acts, the movement of the Holy Spirit challenged the infant church to redefine who was included in God’s dream for the human community. The Spirit revealed to the early church that “God shows no partiality.” As those who follow the Spirit’s call, St. Paul’s stands for justice and works alongside those who are marginalized, oppressed, and silenced in our society and the larger world. We are constantly listening, learning, and acting to end “injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves (United Methodist Baptismal Covenant).” Our Beloved Community and connections to the sacred give us the courage and endurance we need to “realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice (Martin Luther King, Jr.).”