Harrowing Of Hell
February 26, 2017

Mercy Transfigured

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Transfigured Mercy

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Life happens mostly like this — a fairly static line of routines and habit, patterns and consistency, bumping along even a little boring, until something jolts us out of our complacency. Maybe it’s the February Seattle blahs talking and I’m just vitamin D deficient, but the other day when I heard the question posed in a group, “What are you looking forward to?” My ears perked up.

Everyone took turns answering the question and each response shared one commonality. Each person was looking forward to something out of the ordinary – a trip, a special event, finishing a big project – we were all looking forward to experiencing something that doesn’t happen every day.

In an otherwise static line of ordinary events, the stuff of which life is made and where God dwells, we anticipate and remember the extraordinary, the special, the utterly unique events that break in and wake us up.

In the time of Moses, extraordinary looked like the glory of the Lord appearing on a mountaintop in the form of devouring fire in the sight of the people. That’s memorable.

In the time of Jesus, extraordinary looked like lots of things, but today we remember another mountaintop and the time Jesus’ appearance changed before Peter, James, and John. Jesus’ face suddenly shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. But it didn’t stop there, suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared talking with them. Then, a bright shining cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud, God said, “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” That’s sure something you don’t forget.

I’ve always thought of these events as being transformative and been tempted to draw parallels to our own mountaintop experiences, but I’m not sure that’s right. These ethereal and magnanimous encounters with the divine are more about the transfiguration of appearances; the drastic change of how we see and experience God’s Kingdom.

Hearing God’s voice, truly seeing the transfigured appearance whatever it may be, being transfigured ourselves is a call to step into vulnerability and openness to change. The difference is slight, but it’s there. Moses and Jesus are both calling us to wake up to ways in which appearances are transfigured and not necessarily the ways in which we are transformed. That’s something different and a topic for another day.

Recently, I’ve experienced a profound shift in the way I see things. The appearance of race and racism in this neighborhood, in our city, and in our country, has been transfigured. This shift has happened through conversations and experiences surrounding our formation series this year called “Under Our Skin.” Many of you are walking this journey alongside me and for that I am grateful. For those for whom this is new, I invite you to step into the conversation this Lent by reading with us the book, “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson. We’ll be discussing this book next week during the Everybody Hour and I encourage you to join us.

You see, before journeying down this path this year, I didn’t realize that I am a racist. I preferred the term “colorblind” or “politically correct”, but never racist. I found it easier to be in relationship with all different kinds of people, while carefully avoiding the topic of race mostly because I feared saying the wrong thing or embarrassing myself – or even worse I was afraid I might offend someone. Except I’ve found that by being willing to be vulnerable, risking saying the wrong thing, asking questions, and putting myself in uncomfortable situations to learn more about myself and others has made me confront my own privilege and has transfigured the rose-colored hue through which I have viewed racial progress in our world.

Any illusion I held that things were better than they once were for people of color was shattered and then tentatively rebuilt as I read Stevenson’s brilliant and engaging work about founding the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system.

With tears in my eyes, I read Stevenson’s reflections in summation on our broken system of justice which mirrors our own lives full of brokenness. In quoting Thomas Merton, he writes, “We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons.

Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity; the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion” (289).

As I read about the lives and families shattered by injustice, racism, poverty, and violence in the pages of this book, I couldn’t help but recall a story from my own privileged past – a story which only goes to prove his point and highlight the structural nature of racism and injustice.

About ten years ago, tragedy struck my hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma when my second-cousin, a high school senior was driving his parents’ Ford Expedition to the Christmas Dance with the car full of friends. They had all been drinking and on their way to the dance, my cousin hit and killed a 59-year-old man and fled the scene. It was tragic all the way around. A man had lost his life. A teenager had taken a life and fled in fear. Others had participated and enabled in underage drinking and driving, and a hit and run. Tragedy on so many levels.

After reading “Just Mercy,” I could easily play out this scenario a couple of different ways. If the driver of the car had been black and poor, and the victim white we can guess how it would have ended…But in this situation, the driver was white, with no prior record, and from a good family of means. While the victim was a person of color and poor.

My cousin’s father cashed in his pension to hire the best lawyer in town and my cousin ended up serving only one of four years in the county jail, some community service, and time on probation. That was considered a good and fair deal for a minor with no prior record. With my new lens and perspective, I can now see it clearly for what it is, racist. And what makes it racist is because of his privilege he received a reasonable sentence while a poor teenager of color would have likely ended up in prison for many, many years or worse…

Last week, Doyt talked about living in proximity to neighbors whose lives look very different than our own. He told a story about a boy and his father whom he recognized from tutoring at Madrona Elementary and introduced himself to as he saw them waiting at a bus stop last week. In the days after that sermon, I heard people wondering about the rest of the story. “What happened to the family at the bus stop with their luggage?” they asked. And that’s just it. There isn’t an end to their story. That family is just as broken as any of us, united in our brokenness as part of the same common humanity.

The legs of justice are relationship and action. And so, it is only through our openness to God and our willingness to be vulnerable that we can be transfigured – that we can allow appearances to shift and change as we are changed. This kind of change happens primarily through relationship, in conversation with people whose experiences are different than our own. We do this because in the Kingdom of God it is primary and relationships are central to our transfiguration.

Did you know that the way it is decided how many prisons to build in any given area is based on 3rd grade literacy rates? I heard that some time ago and haven’t forgotten. That fact alone tells a story. A tragic story.

Through the lives of the broken men and women in the pages of this book, Stevenson comes to understand why “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent…a system that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, and must be changed” (313).

God appeared on that mountain before Moses and the people, not for Moses’ benefit, but for the people. Jesus was transfigured on that mountaintop not because he needed it, but because we desperately do. The glory of the Lord in a reign of fire, the transfigured Christ shining brightly, these divine moments breaking into the monotony of our daily existence shake us out of our complacency in much the same way as God’s abundant mercy.

As Stevenson reflects at the end of the journey, “mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the underserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion” (314).

God’s abundant mercy breaks into our lives and shatters the appearances of what we once believed and transfigures our hearts into seeing a new creation. That is God’s Kingdom.

Sermon Reflection Questions
1) What are you looking forward to?
2) What in your life has been transfigured? And how does it now appear differently to you?
3) The two legs of justice are relationship and action: If something has been transfigured with regards to your neighbor, what are you going to do about it?

The book references in today’s sermon is called, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson. For more information visit Stevenson’s website: bryanstevenson.com