Frederick Douglass- Looking for the Transfiguration

Homily, Frederick Douglass- Looking for the Transfiguration
Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The most photographed person in all of the 19th century—more than Charles Darwin, more than Henry Ford, more than Helen Keller, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, or Mark Twain, even more than President Abraham Lincoln himself—was Frederick Douglass, the brilliant and gifted abolitionist, orator, writer, newspaper publisher, and politician.

It is black history month and I am highlighting for us stories of Black Christians in our faith tradition to help us unpack the Scriptures for the day. This week in our liturgical calendar we remember Frederick Douglass. Douglass was born enslaved in 1818. Pretending to be a traveling sailor, as an adult he escaped via train and steam boat in 1838 and eventually made his way to New York City where he connected with abolitionists working for black freedom. They immediately recognized in Douglass an incredible skill for speaking and writing and he began to work with them for the cause. 

In 1845 Douglass published his first autobiography, which shared his life story under the oppressive conditions of slavery and his escape. The book immediately became a hit, especially in Europe, where for the first time many could read about the institution of slavery from the point of view of one who was enslaved, and in beautifully written language. 

Through his book and later books, through his speeches, through his newspapers, through his involvement in government, Douglass made it his mission to change the popular perception about black Americans. 

He also did this through photography. In his day, black folks were rarely depicted in the media in positive ways, but more often through caricatures and stereotypes, with exaggerated facial features. But Frederick Douglass, through more than 160 photographs, presented himself as dignified, well-dressed, regal, and confident. And in so doing, he helped transfigure the public perception of not only himself, but black Americans everywhere. See, Douglass understood that we see with not only our eyes, but our expectations. We see what we expect to see. If we expect to see a caricature, that’s what we’ll see. If we expect to see dignity, that’s what we’ll see. We see only what we are looking to see. 

Today is the last Sunday of the Season after the Epiphany, and traditionally on this day we hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. He took up with him three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, and there on the top of a mountain he was transfigured before them so that they saw him in dazzling and overshadowing brightness with two of the most famous prophets in Jewish history, and they heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my son, the beloved.” 

But there is one thing that has always perplexed me about this passage. If the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is meant to reveal his true identity—that he is the Son of God, the beloved— then why did it take place for just three of his disciples, who were already in the know? Just a few verses earlier, in chapter 16, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” And the disciples answered, “Well, some people say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.” And Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter responded, “You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God.” 

So Jesus already knows, that most people really don’t know who he is, but that Peter, and the disciples, they know. They know that Jesus is the Son of God. And yet, here in chapter 17, Jesus is transfigured not in front of all those people who don’t know, but in front of Peter and a couple of other disciples who do know. Why?

Perhaps it’s because we see only what we are looking to see. Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured before their eyes only because they had already seen Jesus transfigured before their hearts. They were already looking for the transfiguration. They were watching for the light of Christ. They expected to see it. They may have been startled by it’s brightness, but they were not surprised. That’s why Peter responds not with a question, “What’s going on?” But with a statement, “It is good for us to be here.” Jesus was transfigured before them because they were looking for it. 

The question for us this morning is: are we looking for it? In each and every moment, in each and every person, in each and every experience, Christ is present. And if we look for him, then those everyday experiences will be transfigured before us to show the light of Christ. Every person we meet will become an image of Christ if we but look for it. Every experience of pain or frustration will hold the presence of Christ if we but look for it. Every part of our broken or aging bodies will become bits of Christ if only we look for them. But only if we look for them. Just as we say in our baptismal covenant, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God’s help.”

In some ways, that’s exactly what Frederick Douglass was doing with his photography. He was helping people see the holy in their black neighbor. He was helping people look for dignity and beauty where before they had not seen it. Douglass was helping to transfigure Christ before his society so they could see him in every human being. 

What do we see when we look at our neighbors? What do we see when we look at people different than us? What do we see when we look at ourselves? Do we see there dignity? Beauty? Holiness? Do we see Christ?

If we but look for Jesus in the world around us, then like Peter, and James, and John we will see him transfigured before us. If we only look for him. Amen.