Text: Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36
Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing. Of such moments, Walter Brueggemann writes: “The coming of the power of God into the midst of human reality is no ordinary event. It does not admit of precise description, and the Bible offers no simple, straightforward reportage. Nonetheless, the Bible asserts that God’s sovereign presence does indeed invade and inhabit the historical process [through God’s own ordinary people].”
The Exodus reading on this transfiguration Sunday is a primal narrative of ancient Israel when God’s sovereign presence inhabited history through an ordinary person. Brueggemann explains: “In deep reverence and careful obedience, Moses—[a person like you and me]—enters the zone of God’s glory. The glory, that is, God’s unutterable, sovereign presence, according to biblical faith, is carried by historical persons.” This same narrative I would offer, of historical persons carrying God’s sovereign presence into the world, continues in the story we have heard from Luke’s gospel of Jesus’ own transfiguration moment. Yet, another human that dared to enter the zone of God’s glory.
But today is not just transfiguration Sunday in Pullen’s liturgical calendar. It is also Peace Sunday. And with that being so, what I want to do today is tell you three short stories that I believe offer a glimpse into what transformative or transfigured peace looks like in our world today. What do I mean by transformative peace? I’m talking about those moments when human beings, God’s own people of today, dare to enter the zone of God’s glory, removing the veil, and thus nurturing and creating a more peaceful and just world. And I use the words “peaceful” and “just” not by accident but with purpose because as we know there is no peace without justice.
The first story comes from an historic African American church in Houston, Texas, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Mike Graves, a professor of homiletics, tells the story of a visit he made to Wheeler Avenue. As he arrived, he noticed an elderly black man polishing these beautifully ornate brass doors that faced the street. There were several and they were gorgeous. Mike asked about the doors and the older gentleman said, “Oh, there’s a story to these doors. Years ago, the church bought these from a downtown theatre that was going out of business. These very doors were the ones our folk could not enter; we had to enter the movies from the alley way and sit in the balcony. So when they went up for sale we bought them for the church. And now we pass through these doors every Sunday. This is how we are all welcomed into God’s church.” Where there is justice, there is transformative peace.
The second story is a story in process. Last week, a New York state judge ordered the ATLAH World Missionary Church be sold at a public foreclosure auction after the church has reportedly amassed debts and liens totaling more than $1.2 million. Now you may recall that the ATLAH World Missionary Church is the New York church, located in Harlem, that is notorious for posting homophobic messages on its billboard. The latest of these messages read: “Jesus would stone homos” and “Obama has released the homo demons on the black man.” Now it appears that the Ali Forney Center, an advocacy group dedicated to homeless LGBT teens and young adults, hopes that an online fundraiser will help raise $200,000 to secure the property as housing for its clients. Carl Siciliano, who is the Ali Forney Center’s founder and executive director, said that repurposing the church to house homeless LGBT youth would “truly be a triumph of love over hatred.” He says, “The biggest reason our youths are driven from their homes is because of homophobic religious beliefs of their parents. Because of this, it has been horrifying for us to have our youth exposed to the church’s messages that incite hatred and violence against our community. We, as a community, have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn what was once a center of appalling hate into a home where our youth can be safe, nurtured, supported and thrive into self-sufficient adults.” Think about it. The possibility of transformative peace—of light shining through the darkness of hate speech, of hope overcoming the despair of discrimination, of peace replacing violence committed in the name of religion.
The third story is the story of Cardell Spaulding. Cardell Spaulding was accused and convicted of murdering two people in the mid-1970’s. Imprisoned at Central Prison, Mr. Spaulding was known as the most feared and dangerous prisoner ever to enter the North Carolina prison system. Once in Central Prison, he was housed in the I & J Block, the section of the prison where prisoners who have problems within the prison system are housed. In public court documents it is noted that, “the people in I Block and J Block are the toughest or most incorrigible prisoners in the North Carolina Prison System.”
In February of 1978, while already serving a life sentence, Mr. Spaulding was charged with the murder of Hal Roscoe Simmons, a fellow inmate. At trial he admitted killing Simmons but offered evidence tending to show he did so out of fear because Simmons had threatened him and was advancing on him at the time of the killing. In his trial, the court refused to instruct the jury on self-defense. And because of this, an appeal was filed, and Mr. Spaulding was granted a new trial. At stake for Mr. Spaulding was the death penalty.
Mr. Spaulding was appointed a new lawyer for his new trial. As the new trial proceeded, Mr. Spaulding’s defense team introduced the opinion of Dr. Collin Turnbull, a social anthropologist who had done studies on southern prisons. His opinion was that the circumstances the defendant encountered could have produced in a person of ordinary firmness an apprehension of death or great bodily harm thus justifying self-defense. In addition, the defense team also attempted to show particular aspects of the dehumanizing conditions under which Mr. Spaulding lived.
As the trial came to a close, the prosecution offered a lengthy closing argument. In the end, the prosecution submitted to the jury that the Bible supported the death penalty quoting Exodus 21:24, “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” With that the prosecution rested.
The defense attorney then rose and began his closing argument. He began with something to this effect, “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, you have heard from the prosecution the words of scripture as recorded in the Old Testament—“an eye for eye.” But I would offer to you Jesus’ words from the New Testament. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, …if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” In the end, Mr. Spaulding was spared the death penalty. But the story does not end there.
Wade Smith, Mr. Spaulding’s attorney, recalls how the next day he received a call from the chaplain at Central Prison. He tells Wade that Mr. Spaulding had requested a meeting with him the very day he returned to the prison from the trial. At that meeting Mr. Spaulding asked to be baptized. The chaplain said to Wade “there was something different about Mr. Spaulding. His face has a different look, he seems changed in some way.” It has also been said that even the warden has remarked that Mr. Spaulding went from being the most feared man in the prison system to being a model prisoner. Nancy Jones, Wade’s assistant at the time, tells me in recounting this story that she believes that the difference, the change in Mr. Spaulding, was in part that his attorney throughout the trial treated him with respect and it was probably the first time in his life anyone had addressed him as Mr. Spaulding. Something as simple as treating a broken man with respect made me wonder, was Wade Smith that ordinary person who dared to enter the zone of God’s glory thus allowing God’s sovereign presence to be carried on in this world? Could it really be that God’s presence shining on the face of Wade transformed the face and life of a person who was called the most feared man in the North Carolina prison system? Could this really be a story of transformative peace?
I will admit that each of these stories has their flaws. The doors of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church represent symbolic transformation. Society changed just enough for the ornate doors to be available to the African American community, but as we all know too well, we still await true transformation of the heart in our society when it comes to race and equality. And the story of ATLAH World Missionary Church would be a more transformative peace story if the Ali Forney Center helped raised the money to pay off the church’s debt, triggering the church to change from within. And for certain, Mr. Spaulding’s story is fraught as an analogy for the transformation of peace.
But for me when I think about each of these stories there is something about them that embodies transformation and a movement toward peace. Doors that once hinged on the injustice of exclusion, now swing wide open to all people. A building that is now being used to promote hateful speech holding the possibility of becoming a place of love and compassion for the very ones they targeted. The most feared man in the North Carolina prison system is somehow transformed in a way that is recognizable by those around him. These stories, in small and partial ways, speak to God’s sovereign presence that invades and inhabits our world today if we dare to be agents of God’s presence. These stories, in flawed and incomplete ways, speak of people and places being transformed and transfigured by God’s presence in and through people who dare to lift the veil and enter the zone of God’s glory. These stories are imperfect stories of God’s imperfect people working toward the transformative peace and justice that is God’s vision for humanity.
Whether we are talking about economic peace, environmental peace, world peace or inner peace, we are talking about God’s sovereign presence invading and inhabiting the historical process through ordinary people living their lives. Let me simplify that sentence. Whenever we talk about peace, we are talking about God using ordinary people. One more simplification. Peace comes through God using us. That is the true transformation – when we become instruments of peace, peace has come. Yes, it may take time for peace to fully manifest, but the transformation begins when we say yes to peace, and to our role in being peace in our lives and world. Transformative peace comes when we dare to step into the zone of God’s sovereign presence without veil.