Listen to the audio recording of the sermon:
Rev. Michael Blair
February 23, 2020
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
There are those in the community of African descended peoples who complain about the fact that Black History month falls in February. It is often the coldest month of the year, and it is also the shortest month of the year. And we often wonder if there is an agenda to confining the celebration of Black History to this particular period. And we may want to debate that, and those of us in the community debate that in all kinds of ways.
Yet I think for those of us in the Christian tradition, the celebration of Black History month, at this particular time in the liturgical calendar, is instructive. Black History month always falls within the season of epiphany. The season when we think about light – light as it reflects truth, light as it enables us to see and to be able to move forward. So, it’s critical for me that within the context of Church, we celebrate Black History month in the context of epiphany, a time of light. And often, this period of time in our lives is a time for us to reflect; to reflect again on the relationship and the contributions of people of African descent to our particular context in Canada.
Today, we look particularly at the story of the transfiguration. And, for me, the story of the transfiguration comes at, in some ways, the end of the third act of the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, and it becomes a pivotal shift in that story of Jesus’ life and ministry: Jesus is born. Jesus had to escape to Egypt. He came back as a child, was baptized and began his ministry. In the early part of Jesus’ ministry he began to, in some ways, shed new light and understanding of the Jewish tradition in which the new community was being born.
In the first part of Matthew’s text you see Jesus constantly challenging the religious leaders in their understanding and perception of how life ought to be for people of faith. Recognizing that in the ways in which the early church leaders – the early Jewish tradition – understood what it meant to be a person of faith was very oppressive and not life giving. And Jesus comes and begins to speak into that context a sense that faith offers to us a level of freedom and a level of life that the text hasn’t necessarily [offered] in terms of how the religious tradition has been understanding. And Jesus comes to a point where he begins to look to the next chapter of his life.
You know the story where Jesus gathers his disciples together and asks them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they say, some say a prophet, and some say… and Jesus asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ And Peter has this incredible declaration of who Jesus is. And then Jesus begins to tell them that he must die. And Peter, as he often does, begins to say that Jesus is talking nonsense. There’s nothing to this. That’s not the kind of messiah that I expect you to be.
And so, Jesus takes – and we may ask the question, why these three particular disciples? – nonetheless, Jesus takes them up to the mountain and they experience an incredible sense of seeing Jesus transfigured, and of seeing Moses and Elijah and they want to do something. And in the midst of that, a voice comes.
We hear the echo of what happened at Jesus’ baptism. We hear these words, ‘this is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased.’ Listen to him. Listen to him. I’ve been thinking about this text, particularly in the context of Black History month.
When I did my Masters degree, the transfiguration story was the story I did my thesis on. I’m not going to bore you with the issues from my thesis when I studied this text but the particular thing that strikes me, as I think about this text in the context of Black History month, is that statement of the voice of God to the disciples that it’s important to listen to Jesus. And I want to suggest to us that in the story of the transfiguration, and this particular call to listen, is something imperative for us as we think about our engagement with Black History month.
In the context of the text, and in the context of the flow of Matthew, it was important for the disciples to understand that they needed to listen to Jesus’ self understanding of who he was. But in order for them to listen, they had to come to terms with their own perception of who Jesus was. Peter couldn’t get it through his skull that this Jesus that he was hanging around with had a different kind of self understanding of who he was. So, the disciples are asked, and the Church is asked, and we are asked, in this particular context, and the context of Black History month, to listen.
It is important for us to listen to people of African descent and to listen to their perception of their own self understanding. We often come to people of African descent with all kinds of perceptions. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, that question “Where are you from?” [is asked] as if somehow my answer to that question tells you everything you need to know about me. You haven’t given me the opportunity to talk about who I am, but you have defined me. Your perception of who I am somehow fits this neat little box if I say I’m from Jamaica, or from Trinidad, or from Kenya, or Uganda, or from Brazil. The disciples, the Church, and you and I, are invited to listen to people of African descent in their own definition of who they are. That’s critical.
For the disciples to experience the transforming power that Jesus was about, they had to give up their preconceived notion of who Jesus was and to embrace Jesus for who he was. So, it’s important. In order to be able to listen, it is important then that we are in relationship. The only way that we can begin to understand and allow people to define themselves for us is if we are in relationship with them.
Let me ask about the invitation at the start of our services every Sunday when we acknowledge the land and we recognize that we need to be in relationship with Indigenous peoples, [what is] our response to the invitation to acknowledge the land? We will listen. And that listening is not just about their stories; because oftentimes we get to a point where we start to tell our stories and you feel victimized by our stories or you feel pain by our stories, but what we need to be listening for is how do folks understand who they are? How does Jesus understand who Jesus is, and what his ministry is? It is critical to our engagement.
The disciples are also invited to listen to the truth about Jesus’s experience. Just prior to the transfiguration, Jesus has told his disciples that he’s going to the cross; that he’s going to die. And [in] Matthew’s text, at least twice after the experience of the transfiguration, Jesus reminds the disciples that he’s going to the cross. They can’t get their heads around this notion that Jesus is going to die. They can’t get their heads around the notion of Jesus’ struggle for life in the midst of what he’s doing.
And so, it is important for us in this Black History month and this time of celebrating Black History, that we learn to listen to the truth of the experiences of people of colour.
So, when people of colour say we don’t trust the police, you can’t say you shouldn’t say that, because we have legitimate reasons why we say that. When we talk about the disproportionate number of people of African descent and Indigenous peoples who populate our prison system, and what gives rise to that, you cannot just simply dismiss it and say you must have been doing something wrong. If we have this perception that the only time we’re going to get into trouble with the law is if we do something wrong, we’re not going to be able to hear the experience of the fear and the anxiety and the discomfort and the challenges of mental health that happens in communities of African descent because of their experience.
So, in the story of the transfiguration the disciples are reminded to listen to the truth of Jesus’ self revelation, and they’re reminded to listen to the truth about Jesus’s experience, and the spin Jesus puts on his experience is important – Jesus knows. But finally, the disciples are invited to listen to the truth of Jesus’ ministry.
And Jesus’ ministry; both in his actions and in his words, and in his dealings with the people who he intersects with, says something about how Jesus understands human beings need to be. Jesus’ engagement can bring about healing. Jesus and his engagement in terms of power structures, we see a commitment to bring wholeness and healing and life to people who are pushed aside by society.
One of my favourite texts is Jesus and the woman at the well. Jesus says to her ‘Can I have some water?’, and she asks, ‘How come you’re a Jew asking me, a Samaritan, for water?’ And Jesus tells her to go call her husband. She tells him ‘I have no husband,’ and Jesus says she’s right, she doesn’t have any husbands. And she says to Jesus, whoop de do! And she tells him, I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about worship. She then engages Jesus in a conversation about worship. There’s no invitation for her to come and be saved but out of that experience of Jesus sitting and listening and engaging in relationship, she is transformed, and her community is transformed.
The text in John tells us that she goes back and tells her community. They come, they experience Jesus and then they say to her, we no longer believe because you told us, but we’ve experienced it for ourselves. There is in the life and ministry of Jesus an honoring of the individual that brings about healing and transformation and wholeness.
In this season of Black History, my invitation to you, and to us together, is to listen. Listen to the truth as people of African descent name themselves. Listen to the truth as people of African descent tell of their experiences. It is not your right or responsibility to validate those experiences. It’s not yours. You’re called to listen, to hear deeply those experiences and we need to listen to the ways in which we engage together to bring about healing and wholeness to a community of people who have been pushed aside.
May God give us the healing and the grace to be people who listen. Amen.
Photo Credit: from Wikimediacommons. Additional information about kente cloth can be found on http://kentecloth.net