February 19, 2023 - The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Good morning, St. John’s! What an absolute joy it is for me to be with you today! I’ve been so eager to get here. Your priest, the Rev. Canon Calhoun Walpole, better known to all here and across our diocese as Callie, is a gift and a blessing. Callie, I am so profoundly grateful for you. Your gifted, faithful, tireless leadership in the Herculean task of setting St. John’s on solid footing as we welcome back this historic parish and prepare for a bright and bold new season here is truly a labor of love. And, to each and every one of you who have given of your time, your talent, your treasure—day in and day out—thank you. Whether you are very new here, have loved this place for many years, or somewhere in between, your presence is a gift.
The work you all have done together already in the months since you began this season in June is so inspiring. Already, you have vibrant ministries, already the campus looks fabulous, already you have welcomed newcomers and longtime members into the fold here at St. John’s.
As some of you may know, last week, I traveled to the Dominican Republic. Our longstanding and strong relationship with the Diocese of the Dominican Republic is due in large part, as are many good things in this diocese, to the leadership and enduring commitment of Callie. She and others in our diocese have nurtured this relationship for decades. And you all generously hosted Bishop Moisés and his wife Jeanette here just a few months ago. I am so glad to be stepping into the work with all of you and eager to take next steps in furthering our partnership there.
There is a custom in the Diocese of the Dominican Republic of a procession through the local community immediately preceding the Opening Eucharist for Convention. It is quite a strong public witness. Children come into the street to join the procession. People come onto their porches or balconies seeking a blessing from the bishops in procession. Folks wave and greet one another. It is a scene teeming with life, evidence of the profound impact the church is making in local communities across the country.
And, it was hot. Really hot. We marched for over an hour in the heat on dusty roads, fully vested. I realized, by the end of that hour, what a wimp I am. The procession made its way into the ministry center in San José. Stepping into that air conditioned building was quite a relief.
I couldn’t help but think a bit about the Transfiguration. The whole afternoon was, for me, a mountain top experience. But one moment will stay with me for a long while. As we moved through the streets greeting the people, I noticed on one particular porch, a small girl, her teenage older sister, and their abuela, I believe—their grandmother.
I smiled, waved, and gave a simple greeting. The little girl and I had a moment of smiling at each other. I waved to her. She waved back most enthusiastically. The older girl, presumably her sister, did the same. Then, the matriarch, likely their grandmother, looked me directly in the eye, smiled, put her hand on her heart, as if to say, “thank you.” It is a gesture I love and often use myself, as I believe it translates most everywhere. I returned the same greeting to her, putting my hand over my heart. Perhaps she was glad for the exchange between the youngest child and me. Perhaps she was reflecting her appreciation of l’Eglesia Episcopal and the many services they provide in her community. Perhaps she was simply enjoying the moment of a parade. I’ll never know. And it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that in that moment, for just that moment, all the barriers that naturally exist between us fell away. And we communed together through one simple gesture. She, a wisdom figure who has certainly endured things I shall never know. Her two young ones, who graced me with their beaming lovely smiles. And I, the newcomer to their beautiful land, soaking it in, receiving the gift. It was a moment when the simplest exchange became luminous.
Today, we heard the story of the transfiguration. Like our band of disciples on the streets of Santo Domingo, Jesus and his closest friends had been on a hot, dusty path up the mountain side. They got to the top, exhausted, I imagine, from the pace and public life they kept. Then, came this moment. A moment when Jesus’ closest friends stand at the top of this mountain and watch Jesus change. Jesus dazzles, the text says.
And then, Moses and Elijah appear, representing the law and the prophets—or the boundaries of a life and the promise of a life, we might say. And Peter wants to stay there—to build booths and live there. But he didn’t get to do that. He was kind of missing the point.
Because the story is not primarily about savoring the light, much as we may want to. The primary tension in the story is the perennial struggle we face to see beyond our limits—beyond the dust that is who we are, as we will proclaim on Wednesday—to our promise—to the luminous, dazzling beauty, often eclipsed from our sight, but always right here, within us, that is also who we are.
Transfiguration is the experience of seeing the light beyond the dust and remembering there is more, so much more, than we have come to believe there is—within us and all around us. On one particular hot day, Jesus’ closest friends receive the gift of remembering.
For one brief, shining moment, the veil was pulled back. And they saw the truth. They dazzled. The light, the beauty, the glory shone through, past the dirt, the exhaustion, the discouragement.
It is always there, this luminous beauty. Only, most of the time we miss it, preoccupied as we are with our worries, with the many demands we face, with our grief, our uncertainty, with our complex lives in this world. The beauty gets eclipsed.
But, when we follow Jesus, particularly up the hard climbs, as you are doing, particularly on the hot, dusty roads that require our full bodied response—cleaning gutters, scrubbing kitchens, feeding hungry children, offering shelter to others, staying by the side of those in pain, building community—particularly when we do these things, we get moments. Moments when, just briefly, we see behind the veil. Someone puts her hand on her heart as the beautiful abuela did in our parade. Someone looks you in the eye. And you know, you know you are in the presence of holiness.
Here, in this historic parish, you are surrounded by the heavenly hosts of saints who have gone before you to prepare the way. People like the faithful lay members who with dedication and generosity rebuilt the parish after the great fire that swept across the island in 1864 and decimated this holy place. And people like many of you who now tend this place and care for it with acts of generosity and labors of love.
I want to take a moment to speak directly to those of you about to be confirmed, received or to reaffirm your faith.
I want you to remember, every day, that you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. You may not see them, but they are here. In the walls, in the stories, in the sacred ground on which we stand. And, too, all around you—are living saints. People who walk with God in a myriad of ways and who will walk with you, if you let them.
They are present with you today, and they will surround you, uplift you, and illumine your path for the rest of your lives. You are not alone.
So, in times of trial, of discouragement—when your way seems unclear, when you are weary—look to them. Let them carry you through the fires that inevitably come your way. Just as those who have gone before you here did in their day. Behold the light. And then, share it. Take it out with you. In real and tangible ways in this community. This is what it means to be church.
The way of Jesus is not an easy path. He will lead you on hot dusty roads, up steep mountain paths, to serve those with needs that may overwhelm you at times, to forgive opponents who may confound you at times, to get up from falls that may overcome you at times.
But always, just when you imagine you cannot go one more step, if you look just a bit further, you will see something unexpected. In the midst of the ordinary, the veil will give way. And you will see, as surely as I saw it in the abuela’s eyes meeting mine and in her hand over her heart—you will see the luminous presence of the Holy One.
And in that moment, you will find strength—strength for the valley below you, strength for the challenges ahead of you, strength for the grief you carry from the past.
Always, you are surrounded by the light.
You must only lift your eyes to see it just beyond the dusty road.
Thank you, St. John’s, for carrying on the work of the saints who have gone before you in this holy place. May you always see the dazzling light that surrounds you here. And may you always be the light that you behold.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.