February 23, 2020

2020 Feb24_Berkeley

Transfiguration, Last Epiphany - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley D. Johnson


As many of you have come to learn over the past several years, one of my spiritual gifts, (some of you may have other words for it), but one of my spiritual gifts is the ability to weave together seemingly disparate threads from scripture, theology, personal experience, and current events into some sort of queer fabric, resembling an inspirational message, otherwise known as a homily or sermon, on Sunday mornings.


This morning shall be no different, so fasten your seat belts.


Back in October, when one of our Canterburians, Caroline, came to me and asked if we could have a queer theology bible study group, little did I know that four months later I would be standing here preaching on a queer interpretation of the Transfiguration; but nevertheless, here we are.


Now, you may be asking
yourself, what exactly is it that’s
queer about the Transfiguration?


After all, what’s queer, really, or different, about going up on a mountain, and taking one’s closest friends, and having one’s face shine like the sun; or and having one’s clothes become dazzling white, and having Moses and Elijah appear; or having a bright cloud suddenly overshadow them, and having a voice from the cloud declare “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”


And if you detect a slight whiff of sarcasm, you are correct; because absolutely, when considered in that light, the Transfiguration is undoubtedly a downright queer, coming out, event for Jesus. There isn’t another event like the Transfiguration during the course of Jesus’ earthly ministry (that I can think of, anyway) so we really ought to pay attention to it. Indeed, it pretty much stands alone, in his earthly ministry, as an event that happens to him, as opposed to something he does, that makes him different from us. The Transfiguration others Jesus – it makes him other than we are, for sure.

Now, the story of all the synchronicities that came together, and led to me standing here this morning preaching on the Transfiguration, is rather epic. So buckle up.


The primary text we are using for Believing Out Loud, our queer theology bible study, is Patrick Cheng’s book, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. In it, Cheng posits that “Christian theology is a fundamentally queer enterprise because it focuses upon the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Jesus Christ…”[i] So, remember that list [repeat it]


As Cheng writes,


“[q]ueer theology argues that the discourse of classical Christian theology ultimately requires the erasing of the boundaries of essentialist categories of not only sexuality and gender identity, but also more fundamental boundaries such as life vs, death, and divine vs. human.”[ii]


Thus, Cheng’s thesis is that “Christian theology itself is a fundamentally queer enterprise because it …challenges and deconstructs – through radical love – all kinds of binary categories that on the surface seem fixed and unchangeable (such as life vs. death, or divine vs. human), but that ultimately are fluid and malleable…[I]t is in Jesus Christ that all of these seemingly fixed binary categories are ultimately challenged and collapsed.”[iii]


And so, as we were working our way through Cheng’s book on a Wednesday evening several weeks ago, I mistakenly added the Transfiguration to that incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming list I mentioned above. And the question came up in the group, what exactly is the Transfiguration? Ah, a teaching moment!


So, I went to my phone, which I had put on silent for the meeting, to pull up today’s gospel passage, and in that moment, I noticed I had missed, by only two minutes, a text message from a student who was trying to find their way to our group! Because, of course, the one time you decide to move your meeting to a different location, rather than disturb the students who were in our space, someone decides to show up for the first time and can’t find us! It never fails…


So, we had the synchronicity of my mistakenly thinking the Transfiguration was part of Cheng’s list, leading to a discussion about “what is the Transfiguration?”, which led to me going to my phone to find and read today’s gospel passage, and in the process just catching a text from a new student who was looking for our queer theology study group; then learning and teaching about the Transfiguration, because I was in fact going to be preaching on it; and then, finally, with all those coincidences and synchronicities coming together, doing some research this past Wednesday evening with the group to see if we couldn’t, in fact, locate something about the Transfiguration that would further Cheng’s thesis that Christian theology itself is a fundamentally queer enterprise!

Now, I ask you, how was I supposed to ignore all that?! It’s almost as if the Holy Spirit was trying to get a message across to us or something.


And so it was, in the course of that research, just this past Wednesday evening, that I came across a wonderful sermon,[iv]preached by the Rev. Marcella Gillis of St. Paul’s on the Green in Norwalk, CT, the town next door to where I grew up in New Canaan. In fact, I pitched against Norwalk in high school…but that’s another story.


Marcella, though, seized on a beautiful and central aspect of the Transfiguration which is quite liberating from a queer perspective: namely, that the dazzling whiteness that envelopes Jesus, and which his clothes then radiate, from a scientific perspective, is not actually a color at all.


Many of you may know from physics, and some of us, myself included, may have forgotten along the way, that white isn’t actually a color; rather, white light actually consists of six basic colors arranged in a specific order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Thus, the dazzling whiteness radiating from Jesus, so central to this incredible moment, is actually made from all the colors, the entire spectrum! Yes, white light enveloping Jesus actually consists of all the colors of the rainbow!


Now, isn’t that a different way of perceiving what is going on here? Isn’t that potentially incredibly liberating for our queer siblings in Christ, who might be wondering to themselves “how do I fit into this story?” or


“how does the Christian story
include queer people like me?”


Without theologies of liberation – without these voices from the margins – how much do we lose? How much rich texture, understanding, and meaning is lost when we create a homogenous culture, where only the voices, traditions, and interpretations of the dominant race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are seen, heard, and considered?


The Transfiguration should speak directly to the inclusion of queer folk in the Christian story; but instead, we have whitewashed it, and have often used it to perpetuate the very binary white vs. black, light vs. darkness, gay vs. straight, godly vs. ungodly categories and images it certainly could, and indeed may have been intended to, deconstruct and overcome.


So, even though I mistakenly thought the Transfiguration was included in Cheng’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming list, it does appear that it could easily be included; and indeed, I believe, it supports and affirms his thesis, that Christian theology is itself a fundamentally queer enterprise.


And, in the midst of all this, I’m going to take a moment of personal privilege here to thank our college students and young adults for leading us in this direction. As many of you know, I have served our Canterbury campus ministry, as its chaplain, since 2007; and this summer, after thirteen years, I will be stepping aside.


It’s a decision I came to, a little over two years ago, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to be transparent with the church about my discernment and plans. Of course, I don’t actually know, exactly, what those plans are at the moment…but that’s another story.


But how rare, and godly, and Christ-like it is, in this day and age, where such transitions often can come abruptly, and without much notice, to be able to participate in a healthy and orderly process with our Canterbury Board, to find a new chaplain, so that our students can continue to be served, without interruption.


This Canterbury ministry, and my hospice ministry, have literally transformed my life during these thirteen years here in San Luis Obispo, and I could not be any more grateful than I am, for your love and prayers and support over these many years.


So, transformation, transition,
transparency, and
Transfiguration. Indeed, I
believe the Holy Spirit does have
a message for us this morning.


And shortly now, at the table where we gather, we will encounter yet another aspect of our Christian story that challenges, deconstructs, and collapses our binary categories of flesh and spirit, of ordinary and divine, sacred matter, as we share together in the Eucharist, and our everyday material creatures of bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ.


Give us eyes, ears, and senses, hearts, minds, souls, and spirits, to perceive Your Presence, Christ Jesus, and to become Your Body, a living sacrifice, for the whole world. Amen.


[i]Cheng, Patrick S., Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology,2011, Seabury Books, NY, p. 11.[ii]Id., p.10.[iii]Id., pp.10-11[iv] http://www.stpaulsnorwalk.org/transfiguration-june-10-2018/

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