March 2, 2014
The Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, is also World Mission Sunday. How appropriate.
“Mission” is derived from the Latin word mittere, which means “to send.” It entered the Christian lexicon in the 16th century during the Age of Discovery and the expansion of imperialistic European power to the “New World.” However, the concept of mission – to spread the teaching of Jesus Christ – can be traced back to the first century and Paul of Tarsus. We are all familiar with Paul’s dramatic conversion story on the Damascus road. And it would be safe to say that that transfiguring encounter with God is what compelled Paul “to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory of Jesus and his love” – what compelled him to become a missionary.
Our gospel reading for this Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a mountain where he stands in conversation with Moses and Elijah – a symbol that the ancestors recognize Jesus as the one who has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. And the encounter seems all well and good until the voice of God speaks from a bright cloud, at which the three disciples of Jesus fall “facedown to the ground, terrified.”
Icons of the Transfiguration story show the three disciples on their hands and knees, cowering, crawling away and covering their faces. They are high-up, isolated and vulnerable. And although by this point in Matthew’s gospel at least one of them, Peter, acknowledged that Jesus was “the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” he and his friends quickly forgot about Jesus’ divinity upon realizing that they had no control in the presence of God penetrating their human realm.
They were being changed, and that change frightened them. Yet, ever so gently, Jesus looked upon his friends and said, “Do not be afraid.” And then carried them down the mountain into the midst of human squalor and need. They had seen that God was real, and could now go tell the story to people who needed to know.
Jesus called them to be uncomfortable, and reminded them to be unafraid.
So often, church folks, much like Peter, James and John, are stubbornly adverse to change. Whether the argument is about liturgy, or pew leaflets, or the church’s race and gender politics, there is ample evidence around the Anglican Communion that suggests we have become comfortable in our silos of privilege and tradition. A lot of us do not prefer change.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the world’s pervasive evils as racism, militarism and materialism, and to this we can add sexism, heterosexism and ableism, which is the discrimination against people with disabilities. These evils convince some of us that we cannot be too sure of God’s presence. We are persuaded, then, to control our environments as to not become overwhelmed or vulnerable. The limitations of our eyes and ears sometimes make the comprehensibility of God’s goodness impossible. So, routine becomes our god.
Routine, comprehensible and comfortable, becomes a means of protection from a constantly changing life. We erect structures of narcissistic might where we employ rituals to remind God to protect us and show us favor against a common enemy – it helps if the enemy looks different or loves differently, has less or knows less. Sometimes those structures and rituals are cultural, humble externalizations of how we communicate with God. Too often those structures and rituals are seemingly immovable symbols to keep out the “other,” whom we fear will steal our things, or praise God too loudly, or whose stories will force us to face our own brokenness, or remind us of our complicity in oppression.
Yet, Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.
Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the very nature of the universe of which we are a part, and of which God is at the center. And it contradicts who and what we hope to become as followers of a metaphysically and physically transitory Christ.
Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, to go and “make disciples of all nations.”
Unwillingness to change is ultimately unchristian, because it is a selfish relinquishing of our responsibility as bearers of the Good News, which requires us to get up and get out.
However, in our gospel reading today, Jesus calls us to transgress our comfort zones and be transfigured, to be changed into the very likeness of God.
Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.
The Episcopal Church has 25 young adults who have answered Jesus’ call to us to be uncomfortable and unafraid. The Young Adult Service Corps, a part of the Global Missions Office of the Episcopal Church, has young adult missionaries in 14 countries – South Africa, the Philippines, China, Italy, Haiti, Panama, Spain, Tanzania, South Korea, Cuba, El Salvador, Japan, Honduras and Brazil. These young adult missionaries give anywhere from a year to two years of their lives to the work of God. Many of these young people have never been to the countries where they now live and work. And many of them have little proficiency in the local languages and no experience with the local cultures and social mores. It is the perfect recipe to be uncomfortable, and thus the perfect place to be transfigured.
In partnership with organizations associated with the Anglican Church in those various countries, some of the work of these Young Adult Service Corps missionaries includes helping victims of domestic violence, teaching children who have been the victims of sexual violence, working in economic relief and development, working as student ministers to university students, and working as spiritual companions to seafarers who spend a majority of their year away from home, at sea.
And while many people think that missionary work is about going to some dark place and Christianizing a desperate people, the missionary often finds that she is the one who is being converted, changed, transfigured.
The missionary finds that she is called to do as God instructed Peter, James and John: to “listen.” And in her listening she learns to become one with the people, to get to the heart of things, to lose herself in love of and in service to the people she now calls her family and friends. And in that very coming together as one, she becomes a witness to the transforming and transfiguring presence of God.
The Young Adult Service Corps of the Episcopal Church is giving a generation of young people the opportunity to fling open the doors to their silos of privilege in order to build bridges and partnerships with God’s church all over the world – to do their small part in joining together the disjointed places of the family of God.
Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.
Once we have been to the Mount of Transfiguration and blessed with the knowledge that we are one with the entire universe – at one with each other, nature and God – then we can’t help but to tell the story, walking as one constantly being transfigured. Indeed, the transfigured one dedicates her life to bringing about God’s peace on earth.
A Franciscan prayer asks God to bless us “with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships … with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people … with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war.”
Whether abroad or at home, once we’ve broken open the doors to our silos of privilege and tradition to encounter God’s transfiguring presence, it must become our mission, with God’s help, to descend the mountain and enter into uncomfortable places, to be a transfiguring presence in the lives of others.
Howard Thurman, a 20th century theologian and mystic said it best:
“There must be a matured and maturing sense of Presence … on the social, naturalistic and cosmic levels. … Modern [humans] must know that [they are children] of God and that the God of life in all its parts and the God of the human heart are one and the same. … Thus, we shall look out upon life with quiet eyes and work on our tasks with the conviction and detachment of Eternity.”
— Paul Daniels, II is a Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) volunteer serving as the Student and Young Adult Minister at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Grahamstown, South Africa. He is from the Diocese of North Carolina