Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tutu: A simple, Sunday morning message

Archbishop Desmond Tutu /
"Isn't it exhilarating to be
an agent of transfiguration?"

The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu is a much beloved spiritual leader, one of the most recognizable public figures in the world.  As an apartheid fighter and Nobel laureate, he is also a man of many hats, not including the commanding mitre he wears as an Archbishop emeritus in the Anglican Church.

On Sunday, the soft-spoken and genial Tutu was guest of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, where he delivered a nearly 20-minute homily during the 11 o'clock Episcopal Choral Eucharist service that was part political, part grandfatherly wisdom.  He preached a simple message to the standing-room-only congregation numbering about 1,000, that as human beings: "We are all agents of transfiguration."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu /
"We are all agents of transfiguration."
Tutu explained that transfiguration can happen because "you have smiled on someone carrying a heavy burden. Transfiguration can happen because you uttered a word of concern."

Although much of Tutu's sermon was gentle in its tone, he did speak out about the forever-changing world political climate, one that has transformed since he was awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in defeating apartheid in his native South Africa. He chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and has been credited with coining the term "Rainbow Nation" to describe post-apartheid South Africa.

"Apartheid in South Africa gives way to a nascent democracy. You helped us gain that freedom," Tutu said in his recognizable, lilting voice.

He continued:  "A Berlin Wall tumbles down.  Soviet injustice collapses.  The horrid, oppressive Mubarak steps down.  No situation could ever be described as hopeless."

Tutu spared no punches, giving mention to oppressive nations around the world, including Burma, Tibet and Libya.  He had a warning for each:  "All those who strut across the stage of the world as if they were invincible, they, too, without fail, will kiss the dust and become the flotsam and jetsam of history."

The sound bites contained in the brief political message of Tutu's homily played well for the local TV cameras that were positioned in a corner of the French Gothic-style cathedral near the pulpit, and just a few feet from where my wife and I were seated for the Choral Eucharist service.  Our seats provided us with an excellent sight line for seeing and hearing Tutu's moving homily.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu / At the Grace Cathedral altar
for The Blessing and The Dismissal.

These days, Tutu, 79, is retired as Anglican archbishop from Cape Town, South Africa.  The global activist makes few public appearances. So, I feel privileged and honored to have shared company with this most revered of homilists.

"You, I, we are agents of transfiguration," Tutu preached. "Go forth and transform your personal relationships, your community, God's world, so it becomes hospitable to laughter, to joy, to caring, to sharing, to compassion, to justice, to freedom, to peace."

Reflecting afterward, I think what most parishioners took away from Tutu's message ~ and, hopefully will remember ~ is his thoughts and wisdom regarding transfiguration.  I know I did.

"You are an agent of transfiguration," Tutu said. "As you walk the pavement of this city, you do not need to do anything that is spectacular.  As you pass someone on the pavement, how about signing the sign of the cross over them in your mind.

"Isn't it exhilarating to be an agent of transfiguration?"


It was a simple message, but it resonated throughout the cathedral on this rainy, winter morning.  Then, the congregation rose and gave Tutu a standing ovation that left him smiling.

Editor's note ~ To listen to Archbishop Tutu's sermon:

All photos by Michael Dickens, copyright 2011.  All rights reserved.

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