St. John’s Church, Salisbury, Connecticut

St. John’s Church, Salisbury, Connecticut

The Transfiguration Of Politics[1]

Sermon by Fleming Rutledge
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany: February 9, 1997

We were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (II Peter 1:16-19)

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Desmond Tutu, the first black man to be named Archbishop of South Africa, is on prayer lists throughout the Anglican Communion today, for he is battling cancer. I never think of today’s theme, the Transfiguration, without thinking of Bishop Tutu. Over the years, he has repeatedly stated that his faith in the Transfiguration of our Lord has been a towering source of strength for him as he has fought the good fight for half a century, not only against apartheid, but against oppression in all its forms.

I have been following Bishop Tutu’s career closely for many years. I keep waiting for him to be exposed as some kind of fraud. It hasn’t happened. He is by no means perfect, of course, being a human being, but he is the genuine article. He is of the same stuff as Nelson Mandela. When a collection of Tutu’s speeches and letters was published a couple of years ago, it was widely noted that he had been faithful to the highest standards of Christian love during his entire life as a public figure. As matters presently stand, he will go down in Christian history as one of the greatest servants of God in our time. Over the years I have prayed for him more often and more regularly than any other person not in my own family. He is one of those people that keeps me from giving up on the Christian faith.

It is hard for us to conceive what it is like to be Bishop Tutu. Until apartheid ended five years ago, he had to deal every day of his life with humiliations, rejections, provocations and temptations such as you and I cannot even imagine. He was, and still is, constantly criticized by both the left and the right. He has often been threatened with bodily harm. He has had to weigh the significance of every action, every word, every day. One can only be staggered by the challenges he has had to face as he has walked the diplomatic tightrope every day, balancing not only Nelson Mandela but also Winnie Mandela, not only Buthelezi but also de Klerk, not only the charismatic black Anglicans but also the upperclass white Anglicans, not only the Afrikaners but also the Zulus, and all the while maintaining a consistent stand against violence and revenge while refusing to yield to despair or hopelessness. He has remained untouched by any form of scandal. And to top it all, he is famous for his buoyant high spirits and nonstop sense of humor that keeps the cloying odor of sanctity permanently at bay.

Some of the most colorful things written when apartheid was dismantled were about Bishop Tutu. Here’s an example: “More prominent than the red of Leninism was the clerical purple of Christianity sported by Archbishop Tutu….The Anglican Primate of Southern Africa arrived at Parliament in a state bordering on delirium. “It’s a transfiguration!” he shouted of the power shift. Rabbi Jack Steinhorn….part of the multi-denominational phalanx led by the Archbishop, shrugged and smiled. ‘We’re the God squad,’ he explained as the archbishop fairly whirled on into the Parliament.” [2]

So what does the Transfiguration have to do with power shifts? First let’s be sure we understand what it was. In the simplest terms, it was an occasion when Jesus climbed a hill and, while three of his disciples were watching, became supernaturally radiant with a blazing light which caused his face and garments to give off a dazzling brilliance. While this was happening, the disciples saw two men appear; the most colossal figures in two thousand years of Israelite history, Moses and Elijah, came and spoke with the young rabbi from Galilee. As they talked with one another, the disciples heard the voice of God saying, This is my beloved Son; listen to him. Then Moses and Elijah vanished, the light faded, they came down from the mountain, and everything returned to the mundane. Or did it? Anyway, those are the bare bones of the story that Bishop Tutu has carried with him during all these years of confrontation with the powers of this world.

The conventional way of explaining the presence of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration is to say that one of them represents the Law and the other represents the Prophets. This is true, but it is a pale way of trying to transmit the powerful thrust of the story into the living, breathing struggles of our own time. Moses and Elijah were both sent by God to confront mighty kings. Moses went to the Pharaoh of Egypt and told him that he was going to have to give up his cheap labor force without a penny of compensation. Elijah appeared before King Ahab with such maddening regularity that we can still feel over the centuries the rage of the ruler when he erupts at Elijah, Have you found me [yet again], O my enemy? (I Kings 21:20) The servants of the Lord, it seems, are called to speak truth to power. After Moses had come back to Pharaoh twelve times with yet another plague, the king finally said, “Take your miserable slaves and be done with it.” Disempowered and oppressed people everywhere have found in these stories a pattern and a promise of their own liberation.

The story of Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus has been placed by the Church on the last Sunday after the Epiphany. Next week it will be Lent. The last thing that happens before Ash Wednesday is the resplendent event on the mountain. Jesus sets forth to deliver himself up, but he does not go before the Father reveals his glory as the only begotten Son. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, but not until he has been shown forth as the summary and fulfilment of all God’s purposes for the world. Jesus goes to be betrayed, mocked, scourged, and executed, but not before his epiphany on the mount. Years later the apostles remembered it in very powerful terms, as we read in our first lesson today: For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty…We heard the voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (II Peter 1:16-19)

The Transfiguration is an epiphany, “a breakthrough happening.” [3] God’s presence and purpose appear with blinding clarity. The disciples recognize that something has happened, though they do not understand it. Mark uses the strong Greek word ekphobos —they were “exceedingly afraid.” Coming face to face with the glory of God is not like being a bit tongue-tied in the presence of a famous person. This is of a different order altogether, because Jesus is of a different order altogether. This is what has sustained Bishop Tutu all these years—the conviction that a power beyond ourselves has broken into our human arrangements, overturning them as Jesus will overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.

But why should this make us exceedingly afraid? And why is it that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? Isn’t fear a poor teacher? Let me try to illustrate. The fear of God is different from any other kind of fear because it calls absolutely everyone into question. God is no respecter of persons, as Peter says in the Book of Acts. This generation’s upper class may be out on the curb with the trash in the next generation.

This brings us back to Bishop Tutu. In 1992, when Mr. Mandela was set free, Bishop Tutu relinquished his prominent political role. He said that stepping back “gives us [the church] the right to have an independence where we are able to address every group—we don’t belong to a church that is any party at prayer—so we can say to all and sundry, Thus says the Lord.” [4] “Today’s oppressed,” he went on, “may become tomorrow’s oppressors. We sometimes see that. People have such horrendous experiences that you never thought they would treat others as they had been treated, and lo and behold, they do.” [5] Now you may think it is no big deal for Bishop Tutu to say this. But it has been costly for him. When apartheid began to crumble (not before), he instructed the clergy in his wide jurisdiction that they were to disengage from their political party activity. He said at the time, “Some of my young priests are ready to eat me up raw.” He held his position, summing up in simple terms: The black church, he said, is getting a taste of power. “I do not want to see the oppressed become the oppressor.” This was also the message of Martin Luther King.

I have been at St. John’s for seven months. I want you to know, in case you don’t already, that I love this area, and the people here, even more now than I did when Dick and I decided to build a house up the road. The people of the Northwest Corner have been incredibly wonderful to me for reasons that I can only ascribe to the grace of God. I really feel that New England is my spiritual home. I can honestly say that I will always deeply love the people of this town and especially the people of this parish. Having said this, I go on to say something more. I have been disturbed by some of the things that I have heard since I have come to Salisbury. We are not immune to the currents that are running in America right now. This is the first time that I have addressed politics so directly in a sermon, but there is a deep theological reason for doing so. We need to see how the events of Jesus’ life affect our thinking. What is it about the Transfiguration that might make us—you and me—exceedingly afraid?

Whom does God favor? Who is on God’s side? Who are the right people? For whose benefit was that appearance in glory on the Mount? As I look back over the 34 sermons I have preached at St. John’s, I see a theme emerging. Christ died, not for the “good people,” but for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). Jesus, as he said himself, came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17). The first shall be last and the last shall be first (Mark 10:31). Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of you (Matthew 21:31). Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches,…who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but care nothing for justice for the poor and disenfranchised (Amos 6:4,6 and passim). I think Salisbury is one of the most generous and egalitarian communities I’ve seen, but as Christians in this place we can never assume that we have done enough. How are we going to vote as it becomes more and more unfashionable to worry about illegal immigrants, migrant workers, the underclass and their children? Are we going to join in the general disdain for “trailer trash”? What are we going to do when this area starts, as it will, to become more Jewish? I return to a theme in the sermons this summer about Christians and Jews: the bottom line in the Judeo-Christian tradition is about defending the defenseless. whoever they are, wherever they are. [6]

In South Africa, the power shift is already happening. Those who were once on the top are now in the dock. If they want to receive amnesty for their crimes, they must come before the Truth Commission. The whole world is watching. Who is the chairman of the Truth Commission? Bishop Tutu. When all is said and done, it may be that this role has been his most severe trial. A few months ago, hearing detailed reports of manifold atrocities committed against his people, he put his head down on the table and wept. He said, “I am too weak for this job.” Yet he has persevered. The “breakthrough happening” occurred just a few days ago when the killers of Stephen Biko, hero of the resistance, confessed their crime for the first time.

But what does this have to do with you and me? Dear, dear friends—brothers and sisters at St. John’s—here is the gospel message on this day of Transfiguration: You and I, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, oldtimers and newcomers, pillars of the community and black sheep of the family, all of us are defenseless before God. Like the reformed slave trader who wrote the words of “Amazing Grace,” [7] we know that only God’s mercy can save “a wretch like me.” That’s the meaning of being exceedingly afraid. There isn’t a single righteous deed that you or I can serve up to justify ourselves before God. But guess what. Grace has already happened. God, in the person of his own Son, has set himself between us and the judgment. The transfigured Lord goes to take our foolishness and sinfulness upon himself. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. I see it rising in many ways already. I believe that the light of the Transfiguration is shining upon you today in ways that we have yet to discern but that will be told of you in generations yet to come. Let us do well, let us do well to pay attention to the Lord’s majesty and splendor, that we may be lights in our own day—to our great good, and to his great glory.

 

[1]”The Transfiguration of Politics” is a phrase used by Paul L. Lehmann, one of the leading Christian ethicists of his generation, as the title of one of his books. In the interests of full disclosure, Prof. Lehmann was my most important mentor.

[2]Francis X. Clines’ “Reporter’s Notebook,” under the subhead, “A Jubilant Archbishop,” The New York Times, May 10, 1994.

[3]Paul Lehmann again.

[4]The Anglican Church has famously been described as “the Tory Party at prayer,” (or “on its knees”), or, mutatis mutandis in America, the Republican Party on its knees.

[5]Quoted in The Living Church, April 12, 1992.

[6]Sermon entitled “The Israelite Connection (Part Two),” Sunday, August 18, 1996.

[7]John Newton (1725-1807)

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