Sermons That Work

As the Twenty-Second…, Last Sunday in Epiphany (A) – 2002

February 10, 2002


As the twenty-second Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church stepped to the pulpit at the Seattle Center Arena on the evening of September 17, 1967, most of the 18,000 laity, clergy, and bishops gathered there had little idea what to expect from their new leader, who was about to deliver his first address to a General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

By the time he sat down, an electrified atmosphere had spread across the audience, surprised and inspired by the powerful delivery and challenging words they had just heard. John Hines had delivered what is arguably the most significant sermon of the 20th century Episcopal Church.

The 57-year-old prelate reached to the depth of his character and experience to preach a profound Gospel theme with such rare eloquence and genuine passion that most of the assemblage was persuaded by his prophetic call. He challenged church leaders to take a radical new departure, reordering the church’s financial priorities in “a moment of passing grace given to us by God, that may never again reoccur.” He shared his vision for creating “a happy sacrament” in the midst of a deeply troubled country that seemed to be coming apart at the seams, as a wave of riotous violence exploded in the ghettoes of American cities.

Displaying the extraordinary courage and integrity that characterized his entire life, Hines called the church to take its place “humbly and boldly alongside of, and in support of, the dispossessed and oppressed people of this country for the healing of our national life.” (The Episcopal Church would never be the same again.)

This episode marks the highlight of the ministry of a prophet of our time. The experience of Bishop Hines’s transforming, at least for a season, the face of the Episcopal Church, provides a good illustration of a central theme of today’s Gospel reading.

It was an unexpected moment, like other times in life when we perceive the Presence of Christ among us in the unexpected, in flashes of insight, brief glimpses of Eternity, in which the barrier between the broken and incomplete NOW and the Godly and complete FUTURE is lifted. In such moments, we see clearly who Christ is and what God’s presence means for our lives.

In today’s Gospel we hear St. Matthew telling us of a time when the holiness of the Man Jesus shone through his humanness. When his face was so dazzling with the presence of God that Peter and James and John were almost blinded. This was a time when Jesus’ Godly side became so brilliant, so alive, that it transfigured his human side.

We, of course, can only know about that mountaintop experience through a reading of the Gospel. Sometimes, though, in different, probably less dramatic, ways we can experience Christ in our own transfiguring moments. Times when the brilliance of the Christ so touches us that we are transfigured in our humanity — when we can become more closely in touch with God; times when God can become so alive for us that the experience is almost beyond bearing.

One such time in the history of this church occurred through an event that transfigured the 1967 General Convention and brought about a transforming moment. But, surely, such moments more often come to us in simpler, “non-churchy” settings. Happenings that help us see with absolute clarity who and what God is.

Maybe it is seeing a parent walking with a daughter in a park. Or a father gently teaching his son to hold a baseball bat properly. Or a woman too old to still be working, hoeing in a field in the hot summer sun. Or a nurse wiping the face of a dying patient. Or a baby being born to a frightened, pained mother. Or a grocery checker smiling and cooperative, despite having been on her feet for eight hours.

Such transfiguring moments help the Christ shine through to us, so we can see his dazzling brightness and his incomparable wonder — in a way reminiscent of that moment beheld by Peter and James and John on the mountain so long ago.

These are our moments of transfiguration.

By them we experience the presence of Christ among us. In these unexpected moments, that come as flashes of insight or glimpses of the holy, we see the barrier between the broken and incomplete NOW and the Godly and complete NOT YET broken down.

We see clearly who Christ is and what Christ’s Presence means for our lives. It means that we can be transfigured from what we have been to what God calls us to be.

AMEN

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Christopher Sikkema

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