Sermon, Feb. 15

The Rev. Miranda K. Hassett, St. Dunstan’s Church, Madison, WI

Today we come to the end of the church’s season of Epiphany, as we receive the Gospel of the Transfiguration. Epiphany always begins with two holy stories from the Gospels, the books that tell the life of Jesus. First, the three Wise Men, those patient seekers, who saw a remarkable future for a seemingly-ordinary child, and honored him with royal gifts. And second, the baptism of Jesus, now an adult – that moment when those gathered beside the Jordan saw the Spirit descend like a dove upon the stranger in the water, and heard a voice from heaven proclaim, This is my beloved son!

And we conclude the season with one more story of revelation, of seeing truth beyond what’s readily visible – Jesus’ closest friends follow him off to a nearby hillside, probably expecting to spend some time in quiet prayer. Instead they see their friend and teacher transfigured before them, dazzling white, shining bright; and then obscured by a dark cloud of holy mystery.

All of these keystone stories of Epiphany are stories of people having their eyes opened to see the holiness in what’s right in front of them – the scruffy radical from Nazareth. It is an experience that can be joyful, strange, and/or terrifying.

We use another text of revelation, of transfiguration, in the season of Epiphany – Canticle 11, the Third Song of Isaiah. We use it as our Song of Praise in this season. Here is the text:

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the people. But over you the Lord will rise, and his glory will appear upon you. Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning. Your gates will always be open; by day or by night they will never be shut. They will call you, The City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel. Violence will no more be heard in your land, ruin or destruction within your borders. You will call your walls, Salvation, and all your portals, Praise.  The sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon. The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

This text comes from near the end of the book of Isaiah. It is part of a long prophetic hymn about the restoration of Israel after decades of conquest, destruction, and exile. It holds out the promise and hope of a new season of peace, prosperity, and righteousness. The chapters that follow offer beautiful verses like this: “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord… You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her…. You shall be called, ‘Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.’”

All these rich and lovely images of restoration and peace focus on Jerusalem, the great City of the people Israel. Jerusalem was both the religious and political capital, the site of the great Temple, the heart of the people.  Jerusalem stands symbolically for the whole nation – rebuilding Jerusalem is rebuilding the people Israel; peace and prosperity for Jerusalem mean peace and prosperity for the whole land and its inhabitants.

In casting this beautiful image of a restored Jerusalem, the prophet, inspired by the spirit of God, isn’t just seeing beyond the ruins left by conquest; he is seeing beyond the squalor and poverty of normal life in a great city, even at the best of times. Big cities, always and everywhere, have some things in common. They’re always places of great cultural mixing, folks from all over rubbing shoulders – resulting in terrific food, art and music; and also intergroup hatreds and gang violence. Cities are always places of extreme population density, meaning crowdedness and discomfort and lack of privacy; meaning also the rapid spread of whatever diseases the human race is dealing with at the time: bubonic plague, HIV, measles. Cities are always places of extreme poverty – because if you’re poor in the country, at least you can build a shack and grow a little food; but if you’re poor in the city, you can literally have nothing. Nothing but your own labor or your own body with which to try to earn enough to stay alive. And of course population density and poverty mean that cities have also always been places of crime and danger.

What I’m saying is, even before Jerusalem was conquered by her enemies  in the 6th century, the great city was no vision of loveliness, justice and peace. She was a city. Messy and risky and smelly. Like any great city today.

Canticle 11 offers us a vision of a city transformed – you might even say transfigured. Its violence and its poverty swept away; shining with the light of God, a beacon to all those dwelling in darkness, near and far.

Who here knows the name Brandon Stanton?  …  Okay, who here has heard of Humans of New York? …

Humans of New York, or HONY, is a photoblog, posted on Facebook and Instagram. It’s the work of a photographer named Brandon Stanton. He approaches people on the streets of New York City – notorious as one of the world’s most unfriendly places – and asks if he can take their photo.  And if they say yes, he uses the process of taking the photograph as a doorway into conversation. He asks them things like, Tell me about a person you admire. Or, What’s your biggest struggle right now? Or, What’s your biggest regret in life? Your biggest hope?

And he publishes a photo, or two, of each subject, and a few evocative sentences from whatever that person shared in conversation. A bright-eyed child says he wants to be an architect when he grows up. A white-haired lady holding an umbrella printed with kittens talks about her husband’s dying advice. An elderly couple remembers a night of dancing, a half-century ago. A young woman – the photo only shows her hands – talks about bathing her dying sister. An unshaven man perched in a doorway, with garbage bags of his possessions at his feet, shares memories of his father.

The photos and the words are remarkable. And so is the response. If you read things on the Internet with any regularity, you know the cardinal rule: Don’t read the comments. The comments on any story are often where the hate and irrationality and nastiness spill out, regardless of the substance of the story. But the comments on the Humans of New York posts are amazing. Partly because Brandon has established policies and norms about nasty or unkind posts; but more because the way Brandon presents his subjects invites the viewer to see and respond to their humanity. To affirm the hopes of a child, the beauty of an uncertain young woman, the value of a scarred and weary man. Unlike almost anywhere else on the Internet, the comments on HONY are uplifting. People offering affirmation, praise, hope, prayers, words of encouragement, offers of help.

Think about what it’s like to be on the sidewalk of a big, big city – remember or imagine; we’ve all seen those movies. Crushed among strangers, avoiding eye contact. Trying not to see, not to be seen, just keep moving and get on with your business. HONY, Brandon, breaks that open. Strips away the strangeness of the stranger. Reveals our shared humanity, and calls forth our compassionate response.

And amazing things can happen when we see each other. On January 19, Brandon took a picture of a young man,  an African-American middle school student named Vidal. Vidal goes to school in a high-crime part of Brooklyn – as Brandon says, “not the best place to be a kid.” Brandon asked Vidal to tell him about a person he admires. Vidal told Brandon about the principal at his school, Mrs. Lopez, and her compassionate response when kids get in trouble. Vidal said, “One time she made every student stand up, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Brandon got interested and visited the school, and ended up profiling the principal and teachers, and their hard, passionate work to create hopeful futures for kids from poor and under-served neighborhoods. Turns out Mrs. Lopez had a dream for her students. She wanted to take every incoming 6th grade class to tour Harvard University. Many of the kids have never left New York, and she wanted them to know what it feels like to stand on the campus of one of the world’s great universities. To imagine that they could belong there.  But of course, that trip is expensive – a stretch for the budget of a small school and its families. Brandon wondered whether he could use the popularity of HONY to get them some help with that project. He created an online fundraising campaign for the school. His goal was to raise $100,000, enough to fund the program for three years. The campaign hit $100,000 within an hour, and raised $700,000 in the first four days, from 25,000 donors all over the country and the world.

The total on the campaign – which is still going – now stands at $1.3 million dollars. Incredible wealth for a high-poverty middle school in Brooklyn, which will enable them to open a lot of doors for their kids. You might have seen that just last week, Brandon, Vidal, and Mrs. Lopez took a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit President Obama.

Amazing things become possible when we see each other.

Through Brandon’s lens, New York is a city transfigured. A city Not Forsaken; a city with walls of salvation, and gates of praise; a city ablaze with the Presence of God. No longer reduced to its dirt and crowdedness, poverty and crime. A place where human hopes dwell, a place where people love and dream and remember. A place where people can, sometimes, take the risk of seeing each other, and responding to each other, to the beauty of our shared humanity.

In the Gospel of the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John, and we with them,  witness the dazzling fulness of divine grace present in their friend Jesus, who usually just looks like an ordinary guy. And what about the rest of us ordinary folk? If a city can be transfigured into a haven of plenty and peace – if a man can be transfigured into a icon of God’s glory – can you or I be transfigured too? Do we, might we, shine with divine light, once in a while?

Paul thinks so. In today’s Epistle, in language so beautiful that it’s been woven into our Eucharistic preface for Epiphany, he writes, ‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’

God shines in our hearts; and makes us shine with the light that comes from encountering the fulness of divine love made known to us in Christ Jesus. Elsewhere, in the letter to the Romans, Paul writes,  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) Our translators here have gone for the rhyme, conformed/transformed. But that word, transformed? It’s the same Greek verb as “transfigured,” in today’s Gospel. Be transfigured by the renewing of your mind.  

When our guest iconographer was with us last month, he talked about holy images in Eastern Christianity and traditions about how the faces are painted. They’re not painted as if there were a light over here, casting highlights and shadows. Instead, they shine gently with their own light. In the understanding of the iconographic tradition, holy people glow from within. Holy people glow from the inside. God shines in our hearts.

But it can be hard to see that light, to notice that glow, in each other, and maybe especially in ourselves. We need a mountaintop moment when the veil of ordinary sight is ripped away and we see clearly, for a moment, the staggering beauty of something so familiar, so humble. We need poets like the voice of Canticle 11 to cast a vision of what could be, if we scrubbed the streets and threw open the gates and lived into our wildest hopes. We need a new way of seeing, a fresh lens, like Brandon’s work with HONY, to help us notice that that stranger on a park bench, or a doorway, or the next office over has a story, and a heart, and a beauty all his own.

I think one of the holiest things we can do, as a church, as a community of faith, is to look at each other with those eyes. Witness to the light that shines from your neighbor’s face, and life; and name it, speak it. Because we often can’t see our own light.  Be the Humans of New York comments section for each other: offering affirmation and praise, hope and prayers, words of encouragement, offers of help.

And I think another of the holiest things we can do as a church, as a gathering of God’s people in this time and place, is to look at the world with those eyes. With eyes that see beauty and hope and possibility in the mess and struggle and ugliness around us. With eyes that see even in stranger the truth of our common humanity, the light of divine grace stirring in each soul. With eyes that are eager to see, that search passionately and persistently, for glints and sparks and divine twinkles that show us God’s transfiguring and transforming grace always already at work, waiting for us to notice, and catch up, and join in.