Wednesday 2 March 2022

A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

Transfiguration Sunday 

Trinity Wall Street, New York

27 February 2022

Readings: Exodus 34: 29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3: 12-4:2; Luke 9: 28 - 36

May I speak in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our lives, Amen.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, dear people of God,  it is wonderful to be back with you, and a special honour and privilege to have been asked to share with you the Word of God in this momentous weekend as we celebrate the institution of the Revd Phil Jackson as your Rector. Many thanks to you, Father Phil, to your leadership team and to the whole community for this invitation. Thank you also to those who have worked hard on the preparations for the events of this week. Phil, on behalf of my Diocese of Cape Town and my Province, of Southern Africa where we are experiencing the burning heat of summer right now, I bring you our warmest congratulations. 

In the storied history of your Parish, a changing of the guard such as this is always an important milestone, a big deal Phil, as you discern the future of your service, witness and ministry, not only in downtown Manhattan but to New York, the United States and the Anglican world. And of course it is the road you have travelled with the worldwide Anglican Communion, and with the Province of Southern Africa in particular, that brings me here today and makes your invitation especially meaningful. 

What a happy coincidence it is that you have asked me to preach when you celebrate Transfiguration Sunday. For the Transfiguration of our Lord was the favourite theological theme of our much-loved Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the priest we simply called “Arch”, who died just two months ago yesterday. I shall return to that shortly, but first I want to thank you all at Trinity for the role you played in his ministry to the world. I have mentioned this previously in the Parish,  but it bears repeating: you set an important example in the 1980s when, against the instincts of the financial community, you chose to oppose American investments in the apartheid regime in South Africa. We would not be a free and democratic nation today without the pressure you, and the others who followed your example, brought to bear on the apartheid rulers of our country. 

And when Desmond Tutu became Archbishop of Cape Town, amid controversy in our church over his support for sanctions, you helped to empower his ministry. Under the leadership of Father Jamie Callaway, who we are proud to call an Honorary Canon of our Province, your Grants Department provided Archbishop Desmond with the resources, in staff and in computer bulletin boards in the days before the internet, to communicate his message clearly and accurately across our Province and the world. And you have continued to empower our ministry in the years since. From the bottom of our hearts: Thank you. In some of the languages of our Province, Rea leboha! Siyabonga! Enkosi! Nikhensile! Baie dankie! We couldn't have done it without you. 

Those around the world who saw or read the coverage of Desmond Tutu's death and funeral only on television news bulletins or in your newspapers might be surprised to hear of the centrality of the  Transfiguration in his thinking. For as I tried to highlight in my announcement of his death, his life's achievements were not primarily of a secular nature. As many of you experienced yourselves, he was a deeply spiritual person whose alpha and omega – his starting point and his ending point – was his relationship with our Creator. He took God, God's purpose and God's creation deadly seriously. Prayer, the Scriptures and his ministry to the people God entrusted to his care were at the heart of his life.

Archbishop Desmond took the story of how the divine glory was witnessed by Aaron and the Israelites in Moses, and Luke's account of Jesus praying on the mountain – of his appearance and garments taking on a heavenly lustre – and used them as symbols of hope in times of despair. Analysing the Arch's treatment of the Transfiguration, the South African theologican, Dr Khamadi Pali of Free State University, points to how Tutu chose “to use transfiguration to delineate transformation”. He defined transfiguration as “divine transformation”, a transformation that is radical, “not just cosmetic change or [a] rearrangement of structure.” No! In his vision, “Transfiguration goes deeper to remove that which is festering, it cleanses, cauterizes so that a new beginning becomes possible.”

The power of the story of the Transfiguration first occurred to Archbishop Desmond amid a confrontation with the apartheid government in 1980. While preparing for a meeting with the prime minister, he sought some quiet in the garden of a priory. The garden was dominated by a huge wooden cross, which was empty but had a crown of thorns and large nails protruding. It was winter in Johannesburg and the grass was pale and dry. As he looked upon the cross, it struck him that in a few weeks the grass would be green again. In his vivid description:

"As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration – of God's transformation – in our world. The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again. Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches. Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water; when winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.”

Extending the metaphor further, the Arch focused on the Cross itself, describing it as perhaps the most spectacular example of the principle of transfiguration. I paraphrase and add slightly to his words: Can you imagine someone taking an electric chair, or a gallows, or in this country a tree from which someone has been lynched – “a ghastly instrument of death… an object of dread and shame” as he described it – and setting it up as an object of reverence? To quote him again: “This instrument of a horrendous death has been spectacularly transfigured. Once a means of death, it is now perceived by Christians to be the source of life eternal. Far from being an object of vilification and shame, it is an object of veneration.”

As we contemplate what we can draw today from the story of Moses coming down from the mountain, from Paul's analysis and finally from the Luke's telling of the story of Jesus and the three disciples, we can ask ourselves: What veils are there shielding Jesus from our faces? What does the Transfiguration mean to us in the here and now?

Well, just as the Israelites were afraid when Moses came down from the mountain “with his face radiant”, we minister in a time of fear. It might not be the unexpectedness of Moses’ radiance, but there are plenty of things to make us afraid – the Covid pandemic; the plague of racism which ravages both of our countries; the spiral of poverty that makes ever- increasing numbers desperate; and a culture of exclusion ranging from women being excluded from education to the rural poor finding no access to vaccines; these all underline that we live in a world wracked with fear. 

In recent years, we have seen people in Syria and Yemen, in Somalia, Sudan and northern Nigeria living in fear. Now we see the people of Ukraine and its neighbours living in fear. The answer to this challenge is provided by the story of the Transfiguration. Moses came down from the mountain and called together those trapped in fear. Jesus didn't follow Peter's advice to stay on the mountain but came down back into the world. Again in Desmond Tutu's words: 

“The Transfiguration was happening so that they could descend to the valley of human need, of faithlessness, of dangerous evil spirits. In this life we could never remain on the mountain-top. The authenticity of the transfiguration mountain-top experience would be attested by how it fitted us to be God's presence, healing, restoring, forgiving, reconciling, admonishing, comforting in the world…”

Through the ages the church has called people closer so that we may know in some part of us that in the times of deepest fear, we can find the answers to life's most difficult questions in the intimacy of a God who enters the fears and issues of life, and does so in a way we can truly understand; in the life, ministry and painful death of one man, Jesus. So now also, the church's vocation in the midst of fear is to call the terrified together and give them hope. For Desmond Tutu, nothing was incapable of being transformed, nothing was “untransfigurable”. Jesus, pronounced dead on the Cross, rose again. Peter, who denied Christ not just once but three times, went on to be the rock on which the church was built. Saul the persecutor became Paul the missionary. In the 19th century, slavery was abolished in most of the Western world. In the 20th century, apartheid was brought down. 

I am fascinated by the line in Exodus that tells us that though Moses's face shone, he was not aware of it. He was humble. It is a line that Phil, that I, that all of us who exercise ministry in the church, however exalted or lowly, should carry in our hearts. It describes the kind of ministers we should be, people who build up confidence, who enhance faith so that fear cannot override us. In our times, we need people in ministry whose lives tell us that grace is everywhere, that God's compassion reaches into the most awkward situations and that his love covers a multitude of types of brokenness.

The Transfiguration leaves us no choice but to act in times of crisis. After drawing apart to hear what God is saying, to receive new inspiration, we must come down from the mountain, renewed and revitalised to be yeast in the world: in South Africa, to end corruption and create jobs so we can avert a violent insurrection; in the United States, to campaign for equal access to the vote so that all have an effective say in the way they are governed; and across the world, to work to overcome authoritarian governments within nations and to end aggression by one nation against another.

We navigate difficult times in which many fear and feel the burden of uncertainty. But as Desmond Tutu said, “nothing, no one, no situation is beyond redemption, is totally devoid of hope.” This is an hour for the church to offer leadership, to minister fearlessly, to open doors as we continue to confront fear and proclaim confidently that the hour will come – indeed it is already dawning – when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

God bless you. God bless New York. God bless the United States and South Africa. God bless and protect the people of Ukraine and God bless the people of Russia. 

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