Sermon – March 2, 2014 (Women’s History Month)
The Rev. Rebecca S. Myers, CSW
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Corbin
Last Sunday After Epiphany
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Matthew 17:2
Please be seated.
As you came into church today, you may have noticed a big poster hanging from our bulletin board next to the kitchen. It has brackets on it. No, we’re not starting a pool to see who wins the basketball challenge. The brackets are for Lent Madness, first started online by Timothy Schenck and eventually to include Scott Gunn of Forward Movement. Tim combined his passion for the lives of the saints and his love for sports to create a way to work through Lent. Each weekday, beginning Ash Thursday (March 6 this year), two saints are matched against each other. You vote for your favorite online and by March 16, there is a winner…the winner of the Golden Halo. The booklets for this year are out in the parlor and you can find them online and follow them on Facebook and on Twitter.
The winner of last year’s Golden Halo was Frances Perkins. Some of you may have heard of her. She was the first woman to serve in a President’s Cabinet. She was the longest serving Secretary of Labor, serving for 12 years from 1932 – 1944.
And she was a devoted Episcopalian. She was raised in New England as a Congregationalist, but at age 25, she found the Episcopal Church. She loved its religious structure and its formal ceremony. According to a biographer [The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey], the
…elaborate and archaic rituals…helped her remain serene and centered in times of stress. The church’s teaching also gave her substantive guidance about the right path to take when confronted with decisions, and the hopeful message of Christianity helped her retain her optimism. …[The religion] served as a bedrock and a way to seek meaning in life when so much seemed inexplicable. (p 17-18)
While she was Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins took time each month for personal retreat. She is responsible for so much of what we take for granted today – unemployment insurance, social security, child labor laws, worker safety, Fire Marshall’s safe occupancy postings in buildings. Her faith was the bedrock of her life. Once when her friends questioned why they should help people who are poor, she responded “that it was what Jesus would want them to do.” (p. 18)
Frances Perkins’ life provides guidance to us as an example of transfiguration. She had a moment of transfiguration. A defining experience where everything she had done merged with what needed to be changed…with where God needed her to go. She was almost 31. She had been a teacher of economics, worked at Hull House with Jane Addams and was an early student of the profession of social work, getting a degree from Columbia. She had worked with people who were poor, predominantly immigrants who were coming into the United States. She was concerned about living conditions and working conditions.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, she was having tea at the home of a friend in a luxurious apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. Greenwich Village was in transition from the neighborhood of the well-to-do to tenement houses and factories. As Frances and her friends were about to start, they heard fire whistles and plenty of commotion. They looked out the windows and saw fire streaming from a building across the park from where they were.
Frances rushed to the scene, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, only to witness a horrific sight. The workers were locked in the building and the firefighters had no ladders long enough to reach the 10 stories. The workers could not escape. Frances said,
One by one, the people would fall off. They couldn’t hold on any longer – the grip gives way. There began to be panic jumping. People who had their clothes afire would jump. It was a most horrid spectacle. Even when they got the nets up, the nets didn’t hold in a jump from that height. There was no place to go. The fire was between them and any means of exit. There they were. They had gone to the window for air and they jumped. It’s that awful choice people talk of – what kind of choice to make? (p. 34)
In all, 146 workers, mostly young women who were Jewish and Italian, died that day.
In our Gospel, we hear of Christ’s transfiguration… of Elijah appearing and of God’s voice once again saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” We hear that Peter, James and John were “overcome by fear.” Not knowing what to do, Peter wanted to build a memorial, but Jesus said, “no.” They were on their way to Jerusalem, you see. . . on the way to the crucifixion. You see, the response to transfiguration is action!
It is reported that Frances Perkins’ transfigurative experience of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire reoriented her life. She had always believed she would marry and do volunteer social work, helping out a little. But what she saw that day, changed her and spurred her to action. She heard God’s call to change conditions for workers.
How many times did she struggle with God, I wonder? Her life wasn’t so easy. Her husband had a mental illness and spent much of his life in and out of the hospital, unable to work and sometimes choosing to stay in New York City, while she was in DC. When President Roosevelt announced her appointment, there was great opposition to it from some places. She found the Department of Labor Building full of cockroaches and rats. She understood what it meant to be the first woman and the only woman in the Cabinet meetings. She intentionally dressed like the men’s mothers so they wouldn’t feel intimidated or put off by her. Completing the agenda, doing the work God had for her to do, was most important.
Yet, as a woman, I have to say, I know how tiring this can be…the everyday, almost every minute remembering you are a woman and what that means in every context you enter. Not letting it stop you. Not dwelling on it, because then you might be paralyzed. But every so often, allowing the full weight of it to be known to you. . . to be acknowledged, to weep for the injustice of it, so you can take care of yourself and rejuvenate to keep up the work and to hopefully make things better for the women yet to come.
As we end our observance of Epiphany. . . of Christ as the light of the world. . . and move into the change of the season to Lent. . . it is a good time to rest deeply . . . to know in your soul how following Christ has transfigured you. How discipleship is changing your life. You may not be where you’d like to be or things may look confusing or not make sense. You’ll need to trust that God is working in your life. It might help to imagine your life without the teachings of the faith. To imagine your life without the community of St. John’s…without the relationships here. To imagine Sundays without Eucharist and without prayer.
You have been and are being transfigured into the dazzling light, not as a memorial, but as substance for action. Amen