12 Years a Slave, Academy Awards, Epiphany, Essence awards, Lupita Nyong'o, Matthew 17, Oscars, progressive Christianity, Red Carpet, Sermon, Syrophoenician woman, Transfiguration, Transfiguration Sunday
This post is based on the text Matthew 17:1-9.
Tonight, those of you watching the Academy Awards, or Oscars, will see someone nominated for one of her first roles: Lupita Nyong’o. For those who may not know, she is a supporting actress in the movie 12 Years a Slave. Lupita’s parents were from Kenya, and she is of Luo descent.
Recently, Lupita was awarded the Best Breakthrough Performance by Essence magazine. When receiving the award, she gave a very moving speech on the beaming dark color of her skin.
When we see African American women on television and in movies, we often see women who are extremely light-skinned. Yet Lupita’s skin is darker than most women we see in the media. Growing up, she was discouraged by her skin color, praying that God would change that part of her:
“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.”
Eventually, through the slowly changing image on television, Lupita began to see beauty in a very different way. She said “finally, I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be… What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul.” Lupita radiates as she smiles and presents her authentic self wherever she goes.
If we watch the pre-Oscar Red Carpet tonight, we’ll see people who look like everyone else attending. Most people will be white. Overall, women are required to be thin. The ideal is lighter skin, unless you are a pale white woman, and then you need a spray tan. Men need to be tall. They are allowed to age a little more gracefully, whereas women in Hollywood are almost required to cover up the gray.
Undoubtedly, we are in a culture where there is an ideal race, gender, sexual orientation, class level, religion and even marital status. We hold those standards often forgetting that the image of God abides in those who look and act differently than we do.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the day we recall the story of Jesus radiating on the top of a mountain. It also marks the end of Epiphany, a season which begins with the magi finding the light of Christ and ends on a mountaintop with a beaming Christ. Epiphany is a season that helps us to recall that the light is among us, whether in an infant child, on the top of a mountain or within us, as we are the light of the world.
The definition of transfigure is to “transform into something more beautiful or elevated.” Jesus, a seemingly ordinary man, has a face begins to shine before his followers. The disciples present, Peter, James and John, see this overcoming beauty and want to keep “beaming Jesus” on that pedestal or in an elevated state. But Jesus knew that’s not where he beamed the most. It’s not where he was the most beautiful, and that light radiating on the mountain needed to be spread around, not just kept far from others.
He radiated the most as he gave dignity to the marginalized, healed the sick and fed the multitudes. Jesus was his most ideal self when he was serving the children of God.
However, I believe the Gospels give us a story of a Jesus who wasn’t perfect when it came to his perception of others. Remember story of the Syrophoenician woman (or, as Matthew’s Gospel refers to her, the Canaanite woman)? His disciples had such disdain for this woman who was greatly concerned for her daughter. Even Jesus questioned her background and pretty well referred to her as a dog. In the face of Jesus, she stood up for herself, her value and dignity. I believe Jesus’ greatest transfiguration was the moment that he could see the Canaanite woman for the beautiful person she was – even though she wasn’t of Jewish descent like him. In his transformation, he was a light to the Canaanite woman in front of him.
One of my favorite texts in scripture is 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.”
On this side of heaven we can’t see people in the way God sees them. We can’t see ourselves in the ways God sees us. So we create much heartache in judging others and ourselves through our human eyes. In every part of my soul, I believe that on that side of heaven, when we can experience God in our fullest, we will see everyone’s best selves.
Maybe it’s time we stop thinking that one type of race, religion, gender, orientation or class is more beautiful and transfigured than another. Maybe it’s time to stop judging others because God knows every single cell of their body and feeling in their heart. Maybe who we think is a sinful or lazy person is the individual who God needs them to be right now. Maybe it’s time for us to embrace what God was saying about Jesus – – that God is well pleased with all of us.
Sure, we all have growing edges. We all have ways to improve ourselves. It’s good to be aware of those ways and work towards correcting them. But maybe what God is requiring of us is to work on ourselves, give ourselves abundant grace when we fall short and look through the lens of God’s eyes as we love our neighbors.
Because God loves us all so much for who are at this very moment. God sees our ideal selves.
Our flaws could be some of the most beautiful parts about us. We should look at ourselves as stunning no matter what size we are or what we’ve accomplished in life. It’s time to affirm that our neighbors are beautiful no matter what their skin color, who they love, what type of work they do, how they identify with gender, how they celebrate the presence of God or how much money they have in the bank.
And in doing so, we will notice others glowing like the radiating Jesus on a mountaintop.