This morning I’d like to begin by telling you about a rather amazing and saintly man, George Frederick Houghton, who was the founder of the first church I served in New York City, the Church of the Transfiguration.
Fr. Houghton was a New Yorker, and, as a very young man, had been given permission by his bishop to begin a new church when he was just out of seminary – in fact, before he had even been ordained a priest. And he chose the site for the church very carefully: East Twenty-fourth Street, later to move to East Twenty-ninth. This was a seedy section of town in 1848, an unlikely place to start a new parish. But Fr. Houghton chose it precisely because it was seedy, shanty-town, and because the large and relatively new public hospital, Bellevue, was nearby. For, you see, George Frederick Houghton had a compelling devotion and aim for his life, and that was to work among the poor, the outcasts, those whom society used, but rarely cared for.
Fr. Houghton made that his purpose and the purpose of his new parish, and in that regard the story of the Church of the Transfiguration is glorious and exemplary. It was the first Episcopal church in New York actively to recruit black children to its Church School. Before the Civil War it was a way-station on the Underground Railroad – escaped slaves were hidden there on their way to freedom. During that war – in July of 1863, to be specific – when the Draft Riots convulsed the city for nearly a week (some say as many as 1,000 people were killed), several hundred black people were hidden in the church. At one point a mob gathered outside. Fr. Houghton stood in the doorway – holding a crucifix – and alone he stared them down, and the crowd broke up.
Most of his ministry was quieter than that, attracting the attention only of neighboring clergy who found his church peculiar, if not bizarre – “all sorts and conditions,” a motley crew up there on Twenty-ninth Street. He’d even hired a Jewish sexton. In 1870, however, something happened which put the church on the map. An actor died, an Englishman, and as an act of kindness to his family, one of his friends and colleagues offered to make arrangements for the funeral. He stopped at another church some blocks away, spoke with the rector, and set the day and time for the service. But as he left, he made the mistake of mentioning that the man who was to be buried was an actor. (You must remember than in those days theatre people were considered to be dishonorable, dishonest, and immoral by “polite society.”) And so – from this stuffy, polite clergyman: “I’m sorry. Those plans will have to be cancelled; we don’t perform services here for such people.” “But, what can I do?” “Go to that little church around the corner. They do that kind of thing up there.” Well, that’s been the nickname of the parish ever since then. “The Little Church around the Corner” – first uttered scornfully, now affectionately – a name that came to be because of a simple act of Christian charity to an outcast, one whom polite society considered to be beyond the pale.
But to get back to Dr. Houghton. An influence which had a profound impact on his life and the style of his ministry as a priest was the Oxford Movement, the Tractarians, Anglo-Catholicism. The movement we’ve been studying for the past few months. You may, then, recall that this was a movement begun in England in the 1830s with the purpose of restoring to Anglicanism part of its heritage, the Catholic part. The Tractarians understood the Church to be a supernatural society with its own particular ways of doing things and not a this-worldly institution subject to secular standards. They sought to revive the teaching and understanding of the doctrine of the Catholic Church and to do away with the arid rationalism of the day. Their emphasis was on Christianity as a sacramental and mystical religion – a faith which lived as much in the next world as it did in the present one. And like the founders of this parish, they sought to restore dignity and beauty and glory to the worship of the Church, which in those days was more often than not sloppy or dull or strictly pro forma. Fr. Houghton was one of the first Americans to be influenced by the Oxford Movement and his church on 29th Street was one of the earliest Tractarian parishes in the country.
Now just in case you’re wondering why I’ve told you about Fr. Houghton, the reason is this: he gave his new church a name and dedication, which had never been used before in the whole of the Anglican Communion: the Church of the Transfiguration. And, that, the Transfiguration, is what we heard about in the collect and the Gospel this morning. This event in our Lord’s life was for Fr. Houghton an icon; it was an expressive symbol of the mission of the Church. It made clear, he felt, the individual, the societal and even the cosmic implications of Christianity; and so he named his church after it.
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The Transfiguration was a strange and visionary experience granted to three of the Apostles, Peter and James and John. Jesus took them up to the top of a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, his appearance was changed. They saw him as he is: dazzling and bright with the glory of God. Beside him were seen Moses and Elijah, indicating that He was Himself the fulfillment and end of the Old Covenant. And even more, out of the cloud of God’s glory spoke a voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.” Many in the Church, and as I said Fr. Houghton among them, have seen this as an epitome of the Christian life. Christians are those who have seen the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the lens, so to speak, that focuses the eye of the soul on God’s glory. And what they have also believed – and known in their lives – is that glory is catching. Let me say that again – glory is catching. St. Paul puts it this way, and the collect today echoes him: “and we beholding the light of his countenance will be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Glory is catching – to see it, that is to say to know the love, the forgiveness and the acceptance of the Savior and His splendor is to be changed into its likeness, to become like Him. Christian life is and must be a transfiguration into the glory of Christ. We become alive with His glory – that is ourselves alive with His love, His forgiveness, His acceptance, His splendor.
And what is evident from the lives of people like Fr. Houghton and so many of the saints is that the glory, once caught, demands to be spread. Glory, once caught, once seen, demands to be spread. Why else would anyone give up their live in service and charity? Our Fr. Houghton, for instance, gathering those whom no one else would have. Or Francis of Assisi making the Gospel known by the example of his simplicity and holy poverty. Joseph de Veuster, known as Fr. Damian, among the lepers in Hawaii until he too died of leprosy. Or, of course, Mother Teresa in our own day bringing hope and love to those who in the reckoning of the world were most hopeless, abandoned, and rejected. And it is because of this – this impulse to spread the glory, to transfigure human life – that Christianity, in spite of many lapses, has been one of the most potent influences and agents for social improvement in the history of the world. And I wonder, whether it may not be that those who have had the greatest good effect on this world are those whose hearts and minds and eyes are set on the next world?
Glory is catching and glory demands to be spread. The King of glory comes to us in Jesus and He commands us to extend His Kingdom and make His glory known. We, transfigured into his likeness, become his agents and his instruments for the transfiguration of the whole world.
And now to Him, the Redeemer of the world, be ascribed love, forgiveness, honor, majesty, and splendor. King of kings and Lord of lords, our Savior Jesus Christ.