It was an emotionally charged time in the church, especially in New York. After seminary I worked in the AIDS community and I was very displeased at what I felt was a weak and tentative response by the church to the AIDS crisis. I was disappointed for many reasons and stood in opposition against much of what was happening around me. My voice from the pulpit that day was forceful, provocative and even angry.
Three decades later I'm back in the process for ordination, speaking to you, a new generation of God's chosen people, and finding a new voice. So if this voice shakes, becomes tentative or stumbles, I beg your patience and support.
Our communal religious heritage is very important to me. I am new to you in this role and as we get to know one another you will hear me speak of us collectively as "this generation of God's Chosen People". My Old Testament professor at General Seminary, Fr Boyce Bennett, began our first class by explaining that God thinks in generations. God's promise was delivered to Abraham and all the generations that followed him. And the apostle Paul reminded us that we are the sons and daughters of Abraham. So if a generation is 20 years, and it has been 2000 years since Christ walked the earth; we, this gathering here and now, are the 100th generation of the faithful followers of Christ in the light of the resurrection.
Also very important to me is our liturgical heritage - something for which we Anglicans are well known. The seasons of the church year follow the arc of our sacred journey and provide the context for the stories of our heritage. Each season dovetails into the next and builds a structure for celebrating God's promises.
Only a short time ago God boldly intervened in our history at Christmas -- the Incarnation - and after 12 days Epiphany began. And as we transition into Lent, I'd like to look back.
Last week, David eloquently defined our call to servanthood as the "διακονία". That inspired me to haul out my Greek dictionary to get started with this sermon.
The Greek word ἐπιφάνεια, means a "manifestation” or a "striking appearance". Today we use "epiphany" to describe a moment, an event, in which one suddenly sees something in a new and unexpected way. "I had an epiphany!" - or as Oprah calls it, "an ah-ha moment".
I'm a scuba diver. If you have gone diving you know that all the gear, especially the heavy air tanks, seem designed to make one feel awkward and anything but graceful. But once I'm in the water the cumbersome equipment no longer burdens me; I feel weightless and become absorbed into the environment. The amazing colors and gentle dance of the fish and coral take over my thoughts and I leave my worries back on land. But what is most captivating to me about diving is the sheer and complete silence of being deep below the surface. The ocean cradles me in its silence and the entire experience becomes a meditation. I feel serene.
Each winter when the North Pacific waters become intolerably cold, humpback whales migrate south to feed and raise their calves in the warm waters around Hawaii. One December I was diving with friends in the channel between Maui and Lanai. There wasn't anything unusual about the dive except perhaps that we had descended deeper than usual, well over 100 feet. We were getting ready to start our ascent when something very strange happened. I began to shake and at the same time, I felt paralyzed. I got goose bumps all over as a powerful vibration took over my body, from head to toe, penetrating down and through my bones. I had never felt anything like it before and I was stunned and confused, even frightened. I looked around at my friends and they had all stopped swimming as well. We were all just sitting there motionless at the bottom of the channel.
Afterward, back in the boat our dive guide asked, "So what did you think of the whales?" Perplexed, we said, "What whales? We didn't see any whales!" And then he explained that the sensation we had all felt was whale songs passing through our bodies. Whales communicate at frequencies so low that our human ears can't hear them, but our bodies had vibrated from their sound waves moving through the water. At 100 feet deep, not my ears but my entire body had 'heard' whales talking to one another and inadvertently, talking to me. As I rested in the boat I realized that I'd experienced something unimaginable and absolutely indelible.
During Christmas, God became human. And in Epiphany, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. We began with John the Baptist's prophecy that God was soon going to act in a new way. Then Jesus took over the message, bumped it up a notch and we moved from anticipation to revelation. Jesus started low in the water for baptism and ends today high on a mountain in glory, in relationship with his spiritual ancestors, and setting the stage for the greatest epiphany of all - his death and resurrection.
Hear the commands God uses during Epiphany:
Many years ago I read, "The Wounded Healer", by Henri Nouwen. The book had a major impact on me at a pivotal time in my life and I go back to it again and again. Nouwen believed that we can only become effective ministers of God's grace by being totally authentic with one another; and to be authentic requires first that we look closely at and know our own wounds, and then share them with one another. Nowen said,
"[Jesus] showed us all that the very things we often flee - our vulnerability and mortality - can, at any moment, become the place of holy transfiguration."
When we open ourselves enough, become vulnerable enough, we experience God's glory in such a way that nothing less than radical and complete transformation happens.
Today's story is not just a miracle around which to build a shrine, as Peter mistakenly suggested; but a huge source of strength, a promise that as we move into Lent we are emboldened to take up our cross. Because like the 99 generations of God's chosen before us, we don't get the resurrection without the cross. Light cannot shine into a tomb that isn't first dark.
Two years ago, almost to this very day, I first met with my discernment group here at St Michael's. The initial purpose of our work together was simply to help me find my place in this spiritual community. After 6 months of prayer, telling our stories, and listening in silence for guidance from the Spirit, the issue of ordination took over the conversation. Together we shared many of our wounds as well as our victories. And change occurred.
The Transfiguration isn't just one in a series of miracles during Epiphany -- one last injection of spiritual good "joo-joo" before entering the dark days of Lent. For me, today's story underscores God's promise to be always present, lovingly and powerfully so, as we move through the rhythm of our spiritual lives -- desert to Promised Land, vulnerability to wholeness, cross to resurrection.
When my spiritual friends in the Discernment Guild held me close to them, my heart began to soften and I was able to speak words that had been silenced by brokenness for an entire generation. And now I can stand before you in this age, with a new, transfigured voice. It was only when I dived deep below the surface, entered the silence and faced my fears, that I felt the whales' songs.