And so we have come to the end. One last Sunday we sing our Alleluias. We shout with a special measure of joy, because we know what is coming. On Wednesday we will return to church, the clergy will smear ashes on foreheads. We will remember we are dust, to dust we shall return. Lent begins. But first today we shout, we make our song Alleluia.
We have come to the end of the season after Epiphany. Our Roman Catholic siblings have a name for the time after Epiphany, which they collect with the summer and fall Sundays between Pentecost and the start of Advent. They call all of the time when we vest the altar with green, all the time between the great feasts, they call it all “ordinary time.” Sometimes I’m attracted to this name. I like the idea of “ordinary time,” when life and church go along without a sense of rush.
But we’ve come to the end of this season. We’ve come to an end to Ordinary time. I find a certain poetry there. Because we live in a time that is anything but ordinary. You know the old supposedly Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times?” This week, in front of Congress, a man who once served as the sitting president’s attorney said of the supposed leader of the free world “he is racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.” These times are not ordinary.
There is a certain appeal to ordinary time, the the idea that we might return to something more ordinary, return to something more recognizable in our collective life, that we might go back to some default setting. But today’s strange stories from the Bible offer a word of caution.
Moses’ and Jesus’ appearances are changed today. The encounter with God that both Jesus and Moses have on a mountaintop re-shape them. They come back looking strange.
Flannery O’Conner once quipped: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.”
The scripture today cautions us: Following God a little too closely, looking on the divine, spending too much time in church, too much time with scripture, too much time following Jesus, it will make you odd. You will become less ordinary.
Transfiguration and Jesus’ Race
Before I go much further, I need to pause with this story of Jesus’ face. I have a difficult time with this passage, because though the color of Jesus’ skin is not mentioned in this story, or any story about the so-called Transfiguration, in art it has ordinarily been depicted as gleaming white, like Jesus’ clothes. This story has been cited by White Christians as evidence that Jesus shared our racial identity, our color. This story has done violence. I have a difficult time preaching this story, because our cultural background noise around color and tone is so strong.
Like most of my fellow white students at the University of San Diego, in my sophomore year, I was doing my best to get a tan. Now I have to be careful because my fair skin turns lobster real quick, but vanity is strong at California colleges and so I tried. One afternoon I invited a friend from the dorm to come lay by the pool with me, and she laughed as she declined. “I don’t want to get too brown” she told me. I didn’t go to the pool that afternoon. Instead I listened as she told me about the pressure she faced as a darker Filipina woman. She described how, when she was a little girl, her female relatives brought her from the Philippines the first bleaching lotions she ever used on her skin, how the chemicals burned. I remember my surprise, and my anger. It was the first time I really understood that racism can be internalized. Racism comes in all shades, and the repercussions are often perpetuated within communities of color.
There is a strong background noise with this text, so we need to be clear: Jesus was not white. He wasn’t. Jesus’ people genetically had more in common with today’s Iraqis than with Northern European Jews. Jesus most likely had dark skin and Arabic features. Doctor Christena Cleveland, who incidentally has one of the coolest titles of anyone I know, “Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation” at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Cleveland has said:
Many well-meaning Christians minister across a social gap, but whites can minister to people of color without truly seeing them as equals, and higher-income people can serve lower-income people while knowing little about their daily lives. Jesus’ ethnic identity and social location require that we must not only minister TO people who are marginalized, we must stand WITH them as Jesus stands with them…But first, those who still perceive a white Christ must ask whether they can and will worship a dark-skinned Jesus.
The tension in Professor Cleveland’s words comes from a consistently reinforced depiction. Even here at Holy Communion the pictures of Jesus are white. The stained glass windows feature white Jesus after white Jesus. All the saints have light skinned faces. As you heard me say last week in the sermon, as you heard our senior warden say in our Capital Campaign video, we’re raising funds to make changes to some of our stained glass.
It is time to put an end to the ordinary way we tell these stories. Our kids deserve to grow up in a church where Jesus, and Mother Mary, and the saints and angels look like their whole neighborhood, where all skin colors are associated with holiness and Godliness and beauty. It is time to put an end to an “ordinary” where some images are held up while others are held down. It is time to Transfigure, to change the face of the ordinary, of the norm.
Methodists and Mainstream Homophobia in Christianity
This week the United Methodists voted by a slim majority to reaffirm and reinforce another “ordinary” way of doing business in the church. The official stance of the denomination will remain that LGBTQ+ people cannot be married or ordained. The news carried a particular pain for many of us in this church. Many of us have survived this argument in our own denomination, or in the church we grew up attending. Homophobia, Transphobia, and Misogyny are still the majority voices in the church, they are still in the ascendency. Churches like Holy Communion, like the Episcopal Church, our wider body, are the minority. That news came crashing down this week, and it was difficult. We changed our sign to say LGBTQ Methodists: God Loves You, not because we are hoping disaffected Methodists will come here, but because we stand in solidarity with ALL God’s beloved queer faithful people, in every church, in every tradition. We witness that the ordinary proclamation of hate is wrong.
And already there are pastors who are organizing, already we have siblings in the United Methodist Church who are working to overturn and to defy this legislation. Already there are faithful queer Christians who are ordained, or are preparing for ordination. Already there are same-gender couples who are preparing to be married in Methodist Churches. Because the “ordinary” way of doing things isn’t enough. The ordinary way is less than God hopes for, the ordinary way won’t stand.
We may never return to Ordinary Time
This is a time for extraordinary love, for extraordinary work, for extraordinary faith. This is a time for extra-ordinary churches to work to proclaim God’s love in this world.
Jesus’ and Moses faces today shine, but not in a way that even the Bible seems capable to describe. We do a disservice to these texts if we try to fit them to our sense of the ordinary. Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the fourth century, described Moses’ encounter with God as a disclosure of God’s “dazzling darkness.” Maybe that image, dazzling darkness, might better approach the strangeness of these stories, the wildness of God, of what happens to both of these characters’ appearance. Moses has to put a veil over his face, the change is so distracting. Jesus tells the disciples not to say anything. Their faith, their closeness to God, the message that they preach has made them anything but ordinary. God has made them odd.
We have come to the end of a season in the church, and it is particularly fitting that these stories bring an end to ordinary time. Today we shout Alleluia, for the invitation to be more than ordinary, for the invitation to stand in solidarity with our neighbors, for the work God calls us to. We shout Alleluia because we are invited by God to transfigure, to grow, to become more ourselves. We are invited to be part of transforming our city, our nation, our world. We may never get back to ordinary time. Thanks be to God.