Text: Matthew 17:1-19 (the Transfiguration)
Canadians have been in a reflective mood this summer. July 1st was the 150th anniversary of Confederation. So, there have been parades, bigger than normal firework displays, and many essays about the history of Canada before and after 1867. Paul and Lesley Verdin led a worship service here last Sunday commemorating Confederation, for which we are grateful. Most of the commemorations are over, while others continue through the year.
Kim and I were in Toronto for the holiday visiting my mother and brothers, and we participated in a some of the events there. On July 1, we went to Harbourfront to see a six-story rubber duck that drew about 750,000 people who marvelled at its lugubrious presence.
At the end of the day, we crammed into a subway car to return to my brother’s house. As is typical of Toronto, the subway was filled with people from every corner of the world. But one person caught my attention more than others.
He was a stout young man with a bushy red beard. He was wearing a baseball cap and shorts with camouflage patterns, and he sported tattoos of swords, crosses, and maple leaves on both forearms. What alarmed me was his T-shirt. On the front, it said “Warning: Canadian Extremist!” On the back, it read “Welcome to Canada. Now act like a Canadian or go home!”
Nothing untoward happened while he was on the subway. But afterwards, I realized that this was the first time I can recall casually bumping into a racist who proudly displayed his violent ideology.
I took his presence as a sign of the times. When the white supremacist group Proud Boys makes the news for recruiting members of the Canadian Forces in Halifax, some of whom disrupted an Indigenous ceremony on Canada Day; when groups like the Soldiers of Odin rally against Islam outside a mosque in Calgary as they did in June; and when the Alberta Government feels the need for a new anti-racism initiative as it announced last week, I imagine that encounters with open racists may become more common, at least for a while.
The wave of populism and fear that has swept much of the world in the last few years is also evident here in Canada.
When we celebrate Canada, many of us say diversity is one of the reasons. We are so grateful to live in a country that is not only prosperous and filled with beauty, but is also one of peace, the rule of law, and equal opportunity.
But the 2015 federal election largely hinged on fear of Muslims, and the reactionary wish to undo the past 500 years in which the peoples of the world have become interconnected is here in Canada as in many other countries.
I have appreciated the discussions about colonialism and its devastating effects on Canada’s First Peoples that have been part of the Canada 150 anniversary. As we give thanks for all that Canada offers, we also try to be aware of the parts of Canada’s history that violate our sacred values. May these discussions help us in the ongoing work of reconciliation and in building a world that is closer to those values.
But Canada is not unique in having a history marked by war, conquest, and discrimination, as I hope my comments today about ancient Israel will show.
This summer, our Sunday services form a series that move through the seven sacraments of the church. Today, I focus on baptism. Baptism is a ritual that not only affirms our connection to God in Christ. It also marks our entry into a family, church, and nation. Baptism connects us to our ancestors even as it looks forward in hope to a future of peace, justice, and love.
Our reading today is about the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Transfiguration is like a second baptism because, just as with his baptism by John in the Jordan River a few months earlier, the voice of God is heard saying, “This is my own, my beloved, on whom my favor rests.” The Transfiguration also highlights the ancestry of Jesus.
As Jesus is transfigured, he and his friends are joined by two key figures from Israel’s past: Moses, the leader of the Exodus out of Egypt 1300 years earlier, and Elijah, a prophet from 900 years earlier who led a fight against the idolatry of King Ahab and his Canaanite bride, Queen Jezebel.
Both Moses and Elijah are considered heroes by the church. Unfortunately, their stories are filled with violence.
The Exodus story includes the killing of thousands of Egyptians by YHWH when the Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrew slaves go, and of thousands of the ex-slaves when they worship an idol in the desert. The Exodus is followed by a genocide in Canaan as Moses’ successor Joshua conquers the Promised Land.
The prophet Elijah not only bests the priests of the Canaanite god Baal in various feats of magic, he also kills all 400 of them on behalf of YHWH. The presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus’ nation, Israel, has a history of violence.
Jesus encounters his famous ancestors Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop as he begins his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. But unlike them, he does not kill anyone. Instead, Jesus is crucified by the Roman Empire and is raised by God as a representative of a Love that embraces all tribes and nations.
Moses and Elijah remind me of Canadian heroes like Samuel de Champlain, General Wolf, and Sir John A. Macdonald. They too were leaders who carried out racist campaigns of war and discrimination, which continue to scar our society today.
Jesus is different. He models a path of non-violence and universal inclusion. His path leads us away from the violence of the past and towards a future that is less about land and more about love. Jesus is hailed as the King of Jews. But in resurrection, he is revealed as a prince of peace for all people, one who reigns not from a distant throne, but from the hearts of everyone of good will.
Jesus could have tried to be another violent warrior like King David. But despite being born into a nation that glorifies Moses, Elijah, and David, Jesus kills no one and preaches a message of peace and love.
Like Jesus, we too have been baptized into families, faith communities, and nations that are scarred by violence. No family is unaffected by the traumas of past wars. No faith community is free of the stain of its past support for racist policies. No nation can claim that it rests on a history without war and conquest.
Because of these legacies, it might seem easy to be fearful. The scars of past violence are still evident in our hearts and minds and in discriminatory practices. How can we overcome this legacy and heal these wounds?
Then there are people like the young racist I saw on the subway car in Toronto. Like him, many of us are prone to look at the challenges of this rapidly changing society and turn to old prejudices as a way forward. As more racists gather, organize, and gain strength, it can seem easy to fear them.
Jesus models for us a path from fear to faith. Jesus doesn’t ask that we deny our fragility or the legacy of our violent past. He understands that both are part of reality and calls us to walk with him regardless. He calls us to move forward with him as holy fools on a path of non-violence, justice, and love.
Jesus does not repudiate Moses or Elijah. He simply leaves them behind to walk to Jerusalem to meet his fate; and he calls his friends and us to join him.
When we are baptized, we become a member of the community. Despite the scars of our community, we are confident that we can move toward love with the power of God’s Spirit towards a future with less violence, racism, and hatred.
In the weeks ahead, as we reflect on other stages of spiritual growth represented by the sacraments that follow baptism, I hope to expand on how a move from fear to faith might occur. For now, I simply assert what I see as a gracious truth. Even though we are baptized into families, churches, and nations scarred by violence, we are blessed by our past. We are also called by God’s Spirit to transcend our heritage and to reach for a future that is closer to Love.
Today, amid growing calls for ethnic cleansing in Canada, we stand against racism and for reconciliation and inclusion.
We welcome newcomers to Canada as fellow children of God; people who are as broken and blessed as us; and people who have been born into the great family of all humanity that is graciously filled with holy fools who struggle to build the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.
May it be so. Amen.