Transfiguration Sunday - February 11, 2024
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
2 Kings 2:1-12 + Psalm 50:1-6 + 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 + Mark 9:2-9
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
In order to protect the guilty, as it were, I will call him “Edward.” The first and only time we met was in January of 2017. As I came down the stairs from the nave to Frick Hall, I found him sitting on a stool in the kitchen. Rather aged, heavy set, and balding, Edward was leaning forward with both hands resting atop a wooden cane. Initially, I approached him with as warm a greeting as I could muster, extending my right hand in a gesture of welcome, expecting, at the very least, a perfunctory reciprocal hand shake.
Instead, however, he stared, unblinking, directly into my eyes: silent, piercing, and angry; seemingly oblivious to the social awkwardness of my now fully extended hand. Sensing a shift in the room, I slowly withdrew my arm. My heart now racing; my throat parched. There was something hostile, indeed chilling in his unflinching stare. His upper lip now began to quiver as if uncontrollably twisting his face into a snarl. I stood frozen. Silent. “I am Edward…” he said, his chin dropping to his chest even as he held his gaze from the top of his eyes. “I am disgusted” he went on, “…disgusted that the bishop would appoint you here. You are an abomination and I will never return to this church again.”
It was an old trope, and not the first time that condemnation had been hurled at me. An obvious reference to one of the most toxic of the so-called “clobber passages” in all of Scripture. Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; for this is an abomination.” There was no question in my mind, nor could there be any doubt, that this was indeed the basis of his condemnation. The fear that had been growing in me as I tried to assess his inexplicably deranged hostility toward me suddenly gave way to rage. Not anger or irritability, not annoyance or frustration. Absolute, unadulterated and instant rage. I refused to feel threatened in a church over which I had been given rightful authority.
It took me a moment to compose myself interiorly, as I sought the grace to respond in a calm but unequivocally clear manner. And with a soft voice, and a sweeping gesture in the direction of the parking lot I simply reminded him: “There is the door…don’t let me stop you.” With that, I walked over to the office, where our former treasurer – completely oblivious to what had just happened – was reading a newspaper. “See to it,” I said to him firmly, “that Edward finds his way out…” I think he sensed the urgency in my eyes as he jumped to his feet.
Turning, I headed back upstairs, ignoring the glare from Edward as I made my way past him. It was not until I walked back to the safety of vicarage that I first noticed my hands. Trembling uncontrollably. Adrenalin racing through my veins as I sat down to. Breathe. Pray. Absorb, don’t deflect. My meditation felt more like an effort to bring me back to myself. Protective. There was no mental or emotional space to cultivate compassion. It was too soon and this cut too deep.
Edward and I would never meet again.
So, one might imagine my surprise when a former parishioner (from a previous chapter in the life of St. Columba’s) called me in December to inform me that Edward had passed and whether I might be willing to preside at brief funeral and interment of his ashes somewhere on the grounds of the church. The request itself was not unusual as there is a long history of interring the ashes of deceased community members at various points around the property. But given my brief history with Edward, the request did strike me ironic. And, I would be dishonest to say I did not feel conflicted. But I did reluctantly agree and the service was planned for a Wednesday morning in mid-January.
As I was preparing for the service on Tuesday afternoon, I found myself irritable, resentful, and anxious. The few who would attend the service were largely comprised of the “old guard.” Those who had been members here in a very different era and who made it clear that they too specifically left because of my appointment. I can honestly understand how good Christians can disagree on important issues, but it was their overt hostility that plagued me. And I was dreading the day as I tried continually to cultivate a sense of compassion and of dispassion (that is to say, of detachment from my feelings of reactivity and defensiveness).
In the midst of this, I received a bid from a local contractor for our roof-leak project and forwarded it by text to Carl, our Junior Warden. That sparked an exchange between us in which he asked if we might meet on premise the following day (Wednesday) to review the bid. I explained I would not be free until after the 10am funeral that followed that morning. To which he replied in our typical bantering manner: “How about 10:01am?”
Something in his text triggered me and I unleashed in my response an onslaught of resentment that I was carrying. In my text I told him my brief history with Edward and concluded that I had a right mind to toss his ashes out the door of the church and call it a funeral. 10:01, I concluded. I’ll see you then!
Now as most of you know, Carl is hardly the poster child for a touchy-feely Christianity. Or for that matter, a touchy feely anything. A proverbial bull in the China shop, often times glaringly oblivious to social cues, Carl and his full-speed ahead kind of energy is a thing to be managed. When alone, our meetings can often sound like two men arguing in an army barrack. I like that about him, actually. I can tease him relentlessly and he me, and the more we insult each other the more we both roar with laughter like those two grumpy old-man Muppets that used to sit high on their balcony making fun of everyone below.
But it was this same Carl who responded to my text rant in a most unexpected way. “It’s a deep hurt.” [he wrote] “And it never goes away. For all the kidding around, I’m really sorry.” Short. Simple. To the point.
It is important that you know, Carl, and that this congregation knows how those words cracked me open. In a way that I could not really understand at the time…but after much reflection, do now.
My reply was as immediate as it was inadequate: “Yes. [I said] It is. Hard to deny. Thank you for seeing me. 🙏🏼” Once sent, I instinctively buried my face in my arms now crossed over the top of my desk, and sobbed. Now, I know that none of you here will be shocked to learn that I may have shed a tear now and again…but this was different. It was as cathartic as it was transfiguring. While I did not fully appreciate the meaning of my own words to Carl, it indeed struck at the core of this seismic change that was suddenly unfolding within. “Thank you for seeing me.”
What Carl did in his response to me was to leap-frog over the towering fortress of my rage with as much ease as the risen Christ walked through solid doors. And uninvited, but no less abundantly welcomed there he stood, not outside my fortress of protection, but right there in the center of that primordial wound. Seeing. Witnessing. Accompanying.
Carl could very well have tried to encourage me from the outside looking in. Calling attention to my behavior, encouraging me to step up, to consider the gospel call to compassion. “What would Jesus do?” (and the whole bit). He could have tried to mitigate the intensity of my reactivity with words of encouragement or gently chiding me about what kind of example I might want to set for my beloved flock. He could have given me a pep talk or a pat on the back, “Go get ‘em – you’ll do fine.”
And no doubt all of that would well have been edifying, even encouraging, but it would not have been transfiguring. Because what all of those responses share in common is that they would have been dealing with the fortress but not the wound. With a simple gaze, “I see you” – he reversed the hostile glare that Edward pierced right to my heart seven years ago.
With an acknowledgement as gentle as it was powerful, “It’s a deep hurt…and it never goes away” – he named it. Without judgment, without fanfare, without prompting, he saw it. And in that instance literally transfigured my rage into compassion. Not for me but for Edward. My defenses crumbled; I had a new found capacity to feel something for Edward other than resentment. I had the grace to feel a softening, a shift, a sadness for his difficult and fraught life. Not because I was schooled or admonished or even encouraged. But because I was seen. From the inside out.
The following day, Carl did not show up at 10:01 for our scheduled meeting. He arrived at 9:30 just before the ‘old guard’ began to arrive. And there he sat quietly, unflinching, without fussing, just accompanying. Indeed, ensuring that, if nothing else there would be at least one pair of eyes among all those who gathered for the funeral who saw me.
Now as if that grace were not enough, Peter knowing fully what I was walking into, cancelled his much-needed appointment with the DMV that day, to make a point of being present with me as an acolyte as well. A decision that had to me a double irony not lost on either of us. First, the irony that when given a choice people will actually choose attending a funeral over going to the DMV. Not a good sign! But more importantly, the irony that Providence would have arranged it that a man so virulently homophobic in this life would be ushered by two gay men into the next. High Five!
Jesus brought up to the mountain of transfiguration Peter, James and John. But I will take my Peter, Carl and the rest of you any day. Because it is precisely in you all that the transfiguration is not just a moment in the past, but a reality you make alive yet again today. And this is what we celebrate on the Feast of the Transfiguration today. Not just the disciples who saw. But Christ who was seen, really seen…from the inside-out. A kind of seeing that has the capacity to transfigure our world.
Isn’t it true that all we want is to be seen. Really seen. Beyond the fortresses of our judgments, beyond the reactivity of our emotions, beyond the walls we erect to protect our primordial wounds. Because it is precisely for having been seen that I was able to begin to see. To see Edward beyond his struggle with mental illness, beyond his history of violence, beyond his inability to see me as anything but an abomination.
Maybe it was, after all the transfiguration, the realization that Christ himself was seen by another atop Mount Tabor that gave him ultimately the capacity to pray, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do” in the midst of his own crucifixion. And perhaps it is precisely in being seen that I too can make that prayer my own for Edward: “Forgive him Father, he knows not what he did.”
May we then, each of us, renew our resolve to see one another as Carl saw me. To be a community who makes it our very vocation to ensure that all who walk through our doors, do not depart again without knowing they have been seen. Really seen, from the inside out. I pray you then, look around. Notice the faces unfamiliar to you…or perhaps some who you know already but have yet to really see. And rest assured, each of these is a transfiguration waiting to happen. Let us together ascend the mountain.
+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.