Sunday, 10 February 2013

All change

There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a priest asking a group of children what a saint was. One of the children pointed at the stained glass windows and said. “They’re the people the light shines through” which I’ve always thought was rather lovely.
That is the way I’d describe what was happening in this story, now known as the Transfiguration of Jesus when his face and his clothes shone dazzling white.
In order to ram home the point of the closeness and intimacy Jesus enjoyed with God the story is set on a high place. High places were always thought to be especially Holy places in those days. Then another metaphor for God is employed – a cloud – envelops them and then the cloud representing God speaks and repeats the form of words Jesus heard at his baptism “This is my beloved Son – listen to him”
As I have said before, the presence of Moses and Elijah is there to show the Jews that followers of Jesus saw him as the culmination, the zenith of everything their religion had been hoping for.
I always thought that transformation was a central goal of all religion – that in putting ourselves in God’s way, as we are doing here this morning – perceptible change would happen. When I was at Mirfield,  and we knew which was to be our first parish we’d go to after training – our vicars where we were going to serve came up to visit us.
I always remember Brian Sharp, vicar of St. John’s Margate asking me. “What do you expect to see in your ministry?” I said “Transformation”. He then said in his deadpan way “You are going to be very disappointed”. And he was right.
Not only in my ministry but in me as well. Transformation, the changing of habits, becoming kinder, more loving, braver, bolder, just doesn’t happen overnight.
Change does happen, but it is slow, steady, almost imperceptible. Change comes gradually. It is bolstered and encouraged by regular practice. Coming close to God, the source of that light, is what we are doing in church. It is what we do when we pray and meditate.
Ironically the biggest and fastest change in my experience comes through trauma;  death, disease, divorce. It appears that we have to die a bit inside before we can grow again, this time a little differently. The central Christian motif of death and resurrection couldn’t be truer in this case. The trouble is that we have to die inside first before we eventually grow the fruits of resurrection, and even then it may be slow and may indeed never happen.
That is not to say that there are not people who do let the light shine through in their lives a little more than others. I often hear people talk of Peggy Conway in those kinds of terms, who I have never met but obviously left a deep impression on all who know her and on Tuesday I conducted the funeral service of Nancy Deas, and Maureen spoke of Nancy in just those terms.
Unusually for a funeral we didn’t have the usual readings about death – we had Paul’s hymn to love – 1 Corinthians 13. Maureen also linked that to something else Paul wrote about the fruits of the Spirit.  A list, not exhaustive, of what our characters grow into, how we change when we let more of the light of God shine through our lives    Paul writes “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  and self-control”
And of course Jesus said. “By our fruits will we be known”. 
The trouble is, that when we compare our own lives with that impressive list the outcome could be depressing, when we  see where we don’t measure up. I’m sure my life is pretty spare of most of the things on that list.
That is where the other , and actually the most important Christian understanding of God is so important. We believe that even when we don’t measure up – God loves us unconditionally anyway. That idea is called GRACE.
No, perhaps we don’t measure up. Perhaps we never will, though we want to. That is why we continually put ourselves in God’s way by coming together to commune with the divine and each other Sunday by Sunday.
Transformation does occur. But it is slow and sometimes brittle and it relies on practice. And as I say, often the most dramatic change occurs through trauma – but it does happen.
The way to personal growth is to bask in God’s unconditional love for you. To know that you are infinitely loved  is the greatest and most fertile soil you can have to blossom and grow.
But we can often forget that simple fact, as I often do myself. We need reminding often.
We are infinitely loved.

Monday, 4 February 2013

The shock of the new

That Luke in his story is confused in his description of what is going on – he confuses  two Jewish customs – The purification of Mary and the presentation of a first-born male – is of no real interest to me.
That is all just a preamble anyway whose function is simply to place the infant Jesus in the Temple so that Luke can explain the real thrust of the story. It doesn’t really matter how he got there – it is more the fact that he was in the Temple. So we come to the real meat of the story  - the encounters with Simeon and Anna.
This might sound a bit harsh but what we heard read today is actually a marketing strategy that failed.  It failed to reach and convince its target audience – the Jews.
Just as the figure of John the Baptist was supposed to be representative of the entire prophetic tradition of Israel that was pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, so the story of Simeon and Anna are, in a similar way supposed to represent the Holy and wise sages of ancient Israel.  Their function too was to point to Jesus and say “this child is the one we have been looking for all our lives, the one who is going to redeem Israel.”
The reason for these stories is that the nascent Christian movement was desperately trying to convince their fellow Jews (and Christianity at first was a small sect within Judaism) that Jesus was no bolt from the blue, no wild eyed radical with no back story or provenance. However new and decisive Jesus was, he was essentially, for Jesus’ Jewish supporters, the culmination, the climax of Jewish religion. There was continuity with the past and everything that had gone before.  This was essential to establish because human beings distrust new things. They prefer, especially in religion to imagine continuity with what has gone before. The tightrope they were treading was also trying to express the universality of the Jesus way with the closed promises to a “chosen” people.
“A light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (V. 32)
But of course this failed in a quite spectacular way. Judaism was not convinced in the slightest. Judaism continued in its own way and developed into the vibrant modern day religion that it is today and within a generation Christianity became an almost entirely separate gentile (non Jewish) religion.
The tragedy is that the relationship between the two faiths became increasingly poisonous and paved the way for two thousand years of hatred, discrimination and pogroms. When we hear people like the new Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi who was recorded making comments comparing Jews to pigs and monkeys or the rhetoric of Iran, we understandably baulk, but let us not forget that the planned extermination of Jewry did not take place in Islamic lands, but in the heart of Christian Europe just over  70 years ago.
The catholic church’s Good Friday liturgy referred to “Perfidious Jews” until very recently and in a return to Latin rites have reared their head again.
So to return to the story itself; to the audience it was actually aimed at, this story and others like it in the New Testament were dramatic failures.  So is there anything we can draw from it at all?
For me, the most striking thing to draw out is the deep seated need in human beings for continuity which provides a kind of solidity.  For the majority of Jews, Jesus couldn’t be true in his own right – only in the context of the established religion. We instinctively seem to distrust new things. We get comfort when something is old. It seems to convey comfort and time honoured truth. That is why people are very conservative and traditionally minded, especially in religious terms.
If its old it must be true!  We get comfort from tradition, from old buildings, from old hymns. You will hear people wax lyrical about walls steeped in prayer, or lose themselves in ancient mystical sites like Stonehenge.
People get comfort from the Book of Common Prayer, because it is old and uses arcane English, whilst perhaps missing the fact that when it was written it was a radical expression of Protestantism written in the common language of the day. Everything old and venerated was once bold and new!
But there is a deeper spiritual point I want to make here. All of this is a grasping after something  that appears permanent or at least has an air of permanence about it  (and we all do it), I submit that this is always a search for a deeper reality  that is God
Because here’s the rub. Nothing is permanent in the created universe. Everything is in a permanent state of flux. All the things we use to convey an air of permanence are in themselves in a constant state of change. Not only will this church one day not be here, but neither will the earth on which it stands. Our search for permanence, our search for solid ground, is partially sated by “things”, but in reality they are all just substitutes for the search for God.
The problem is that God is indescribable, ineffable, a true mystery that we struggle to comprehend and apprehend. But we can comprehend things like books, wonderful words, ancient buildings, people, so we fix our gaze on them.
There is nothing wrong with that in principle. It is only a problem if we mistake and confuse that which is transient and impermanent with the eternal mystery that we call God – the true depth of all things.
 In what is for me the most helpful part of this religion we call Christianity is that impermanent things can be vehicles for communion with God, because the divine indwells all things. That is the underlying logic of all sacraments – that physical things can convey God.  Pernickity Western Christianity, true to form, wanting to neatly package God tried to name and list them. Baptism, eucharist etc. As official ways of meeting God through things. Thank goodness for Orthodoxy who saw the madness in that and said – why list them. The whole world is aglow with the glory of God and God can come to you through anything and everything.
When for example we pray and light a candle, that most beautiful image and icon of our prayers , this ancient symbol touches something very deep. As a sign it seeks to bypass all that is transient and join our collective prayers together  at a deeper level, the level at which we are all joined together, with each other, with the candle, and with the essence of all those people we are praying for, subsisting in the wholeness that is God.
A mystical communion that joins the physical with the spiritual, the living and the dead, using a beautiful physical symbol to embody a deeper spiritual reality.   In that sense tradition is magical. It has the power to move and connect us with the deepest parts of ourselves .  All things, ancient churches and liturgies and hymns, ancient mystical sites, symbols like candles or flowing water, dramatic landscapes, or the mundane yet magical miracle of childbirth or the beauty of a tree or a flower can all move us towards the oneness of the divine, so long as we don’t see all of those things as having a power of their own separate from the divine. That, in the Bible is called idolatry. God is the  mysterious depth within all the impermanent things that we use to commune with the divine.