Saturday, February 10, 2024

Racial Justice and Transfiguration Sunday 11th February 2024 at Southwark

How clearly can you see?

I’ve just admitted defeat after decades of wearing glasses to drive, and am the somewhat anxious owner of my first pair of variafocals. In theory this should mean that absolutely everything is much clearer, though I’m not completely convinced yet. I asked the Sub-Dean for advice and he simply told me to follow my nose – but I’m not quite sure that my nose knows where I’m heading, which makes me feel rather like an unsuccessful blood-hound., so I’m wearing my new glasses rather less than I should.

However – the whole experience has made me think hard about the gift of sight, and the need to see clearly in order to navigate life without injuring myself or anyone else.

And that seems a good route in to today’s readings – and to Racial Justice Sunday too.

It seems to me that a great deal of what Christian spirituality is about is "seeing."
When Elijah was taken from him, the critical question for Elisha was “would he see it happening”
On that hung so much of his own future hopes in ministry …He would be given a double share of his Mentor’s spirit if he had eyes to see, even if to see is not always a joyful experience. Whenever I read this passage I’m struck by Elisha’s desolation “father, father...the chariots of Israel and its horsemen”

He can see that for Elijah there is no going back. He really is leaving, so Elisha stands, bereft, tearing his garments, confronted by the incontrovertible evidence of his own eyes.

Clear vision isn’t always welcome – as we begin to comprehend things, notice hard truths that we just hadn’t seen before.

When I was a child, Racial Justice Sunday simply hadn’t been thought of. It was first marked in 1995 though it has taken far longer to gain a secure foot-hold. At its best, I imagine that the Church of my childhood was full of benevolent paternalism, that my mother’s view that to be colour blind was the best possible approach was pretty widespread, that nobody had noticed, somehow, that the playing field on which different races and colours were standing was unimaginably far from a level one. It took a long time before anyone felt able to acknowledge that.

It would be great to be able to say “But that’s all gone now...” - except that clearly, it isn’t. If we’d learned, then there might be no need for Racial Justice Sunday at all -….but you’ll know the statistics as well as I much harder it can be to simply get through life, let alone thrive, if, to put it crudely, your face doesn’t fit.

It can be very hard indeed to truly see and name the situation for what it is. White privilege remains white privilege whether we acknowledge it or not...and can be internalised in myriad unhealthy ways. I discovered this for myself when I first spent time in India, as part of a diocesan exchange programme. Wherever we went, with our Indian clergy hosts, queues formed to ask for blessings and I discovered that there was an unexpected hierarchy at play, such that the hands of a white British priest, - even a woman- were perceived as somehow more holy than the hands of the faithful Indian priests who served those communities day in day out. It was shocking, unwelcome but undeniable. The myth of white superiority had been so thoroughly absorbed in those rural communities, it was hard to imagine an appropriate response that did not look simply ungracious. And, after all, that myth had its origins in the days of the was my forbears who had taught those communities that they were of second rank, second value.

Simply because I was, in effect, wearing new glasses, this did not change the view for everyone. Seeing clearly can be very hard work…Sometimes the gospel, the truth of God’s unconditional, all-inclusive love, seems to be veiled by the very institutions that exist to embody it – and that is something of which the Church must, and does, repent.

But the truth, of course, is always there, whether we see it or not, just as it was for the disciples on the holy mountain. Listen to these words from Madeleine l’Engle’s wonderful book The Irrational Season:
"Suddenly they saw him the way he was; the way he really was all the time, although they had never seen it before, the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible. This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. This is the way he was - is - from the beginning and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself, came manifest to us; and there on the mountain, they saw him; they really saw him, saw his light. Now, perhaps, we will see each other, too."


That must be our task, on this Racial Justice Sunday.

To see ourselves, to see the unconscious privilege that some of us enjoy and to repent of that.

To see the face of Christ in all whom we meet, regardless of race, colour or all the other external markers that might deceive us or threaten to distort our vision.

To see Christ and so seeing, to love and serve him as he loves and serves us all.

So, how clearly can you see?

Perhaps you need new glasses yourself...

As a pilgrim in the Holy Land some years ago, my own experience on the Mountain of the Transfiguration provided the kind of lesson I wish I didn’t need. We visited in January, and as the group emerged from our taxis close to the church, cloud did indeed overshadow us so that we could see – , honestly, precisely NOTHING.

Inside the church building all was gold and blazing splendour – the image of Jesus with Moses and Elijah instantly recognisable and unmissable.above the altar Outside, though, I could barely see the ground at my feet...had no idea where I was heading...was in real danger of falling over my own feet or tripping up others..

I know I can be guilty of that in daily life too. I just don’t see

But perhaps that is the task of priesthood: simply to help others to see.

Or better yet, perhaps we can help each other..

Would you help me?

Together we might learn to see God’s presence in everything and everyone, to see one another with his eyes of love…with no judgement, no comparison, neither anxiety, pride nor fear…

To look at one another and to see, not those features that divide us, those characteristics that irritate...but, like the disciples, only Jesus.

As we begin our journey through Lent, our eyes fixed on the cross and the love that transforms it,, let us pray for that grace to see God’s glory blazing through the ordinary til everything is extraordinary, everything illuminated. May we see that more and more til the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.

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