18 February 2007 *Last Epiphany C
Luke 9:28-43a * The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
It has been an interesting week outside of the snowbelt and the parochial irritations of what passes for the American manifestation of the Anglican tradition. A story came across my email transom about an evangelistic effort underway among some of our Australian sisters and brothers in the Anglican Communion.
Some parishes in Australia have hung banners outside that feature the words, “Jesus Loves Osama – Matthew 5:44 ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” I probably do not need to tell you that the reactions are strong, varied, and causing quite a stir.
Some have suggested that perhaps this is theologically true, but something more nuanced might be better, such as, “Jesus loves us all, no matter who we are or what we may have done.” For the logic of the signs, of course, is that the name “Osama” is merely an extreme stand-in, or place-keeper if you will, for any of us.
As Melbourne’s Archbishop, Dr. Philip Freir puts it, “Jesus does not love acts of terrorism, acts of violence, sexual abuse, stealing, lying, greed or any other selfish acts.” That is, the daily, ubiquitous sins of society matter just as much in the eyes of God as the sins of Osama.
Evidently, however, we do not care much for such nuanced introspection and self-reflection. You may have read by now that today is Amazing Grace Sunday in the United States (see http://www.amazinggracesunday.com/) . This is a worldwide effort to remember that it is the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England.
Two men had an influential hand in this effort, both of them Anglicans – John Newton, the former slave trader, later priest, who penned Amazing Grace, and William Wilberforce, a member of the House of Commons who persisted for more than 20 years introducing legislation beginning in 1807, until finally the Slave Trade was ended in 1833 in the United Kingdom.
Newton had mentored Wilberforce. While caught in a storm with a shipload of slaves bound for the New World, Newton fell on his knees and prayed. He sensed that God hears our prayers, even those of the worst of men – or as he would later write, “who saved a wretch like me.” Newton went from slave trader to abolitionist because he had felt the glory and grace of God touch his life.
His hymn has been sung on both sides of the American Civil War, by the Cherokees at the end of their Trail of Tears, in the Civil Rights struggles, by Dr. King on the National Mall, when Nelson Mandala was freed from prison in South Africa, when the Berlin Wall came down, on 9/11 across the nation, and recently when the New Orleans Saints football team first returned to play in the refurbished Superdome. Newton’s words have the power to uplift the hearts and heads of the broken, and soften the hearts of the hard hearted.
Today, all across this hallowed land of ours, people and choirs inside and outside of churches are singing Amazing Grace to recall the work of people like Newton, Wilberforce and abolitionists in our nation, but also to call attention to the fact that world-wide, including in the United States, it is estimated that 27 million people are still sold into slavery – many of them women and children. That is more than all the slaves world-wide at the height of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. There is plenty of work yet to do to make the world slave-free.
And yet we read that there are Christians today who will sing an altered version of Newton’s hymn, replacing the words, “that saved a wretch like me,” with the more palatable, “that saved and set me free.” Just like some who refuse to say the prayer of Humble Access that says in part, “…we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” We don’t like to think of ourselves as wretches, we prefer to feel worthy. It seems more modern to believe, as Eucharistic Prayer B puts it, “you have made us worthy to stand before you.”
But that is just Newton’s point with the words, “who saved a wretch like me.” God makes us worthy, not we ourselves.
What all this has to do with a Transfigured Christ is just this – we read that Jesus is speaking of “his departure.” The word in Greek is exodos, the word for exodus, that defining event of Biblical Faith when a band of slaves escaped to freedom by the grace of God. The Exodus and Passover define the New Testament’s ultimate understanding of who Jesus is: our Passover. Luke carefully chooses just this word in a narrative meant to make Christ’s identity manifest to the world.
And the Exodus has long been the inspiring theological underpinning for all freedom movements throughout history, especially the Slave Trade. Slaves would read the texts of the Exodus and Passover and pray and sing for their day of Exodus from slavery to come.
Then note the movement– from witnessing the divine nature of Jesus on the Mountain Top one day, to the very next day going down to the bottom of the mountain to heal a young man convulsing with “a spirit” on the ground. We might note the very human lack of patience on the part of Jesus as he uncharacteristically berates anyone and everyone within earshot – putting our essential wretchedness there for all to see. Yet, God’s Amazing Grace is on display as the young man is healed and we read “all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
John Newton knew what such healing felt like within himself. He wrote his hymn so that others might come to recognize the need to let God’s grace into our lives so that we might undergo the kind of transformation that led Newton to put an end to an evil that was at the time understood as an economic necessity. As Christ was transfigured on the mountain top and began his Exodus journey to the cross and resurrection, Newton was so transfigured – made new. One man, and he made transfigured and new, came to make an enormous difference for countless thousands of people.
I suspect that Transfiguration has something to do with our developing a capacity to somehow put into action Jesus’ very real call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It does not feel natural, and it does not come naturally to us. It seems likely that if we were ever to fully embrace our Lord’s commandment in Matthew 5:44 the world would truly be a very different place. In the end it is all about healing – healing a broken world, and healing our broken selves.
Perhaps if we can sing Amazing Grace enough times we too, like Newton, might feel the inner workings of the Holy Spirit working God’s amazing Grace in our lives. We and the world may yet be healed of all wretchedness. Amen