Friday, March 11, 2011

Skiddaw and The Transfiguration

Exodus 24.12-18

Mattthew 17.1-9

The story of the transfiguration is a strange, other worldly one. To make sense of it we have to think about one of the actors in the story, Moses, and his own mountaintop encounter with God.

Like Jesus, Moses goes up the mountain just before a new covenant is made between God and human beings. His mountaintop encounter with God is a sort of pre-meeting, roughly analogous to a pep talk with the coach before a vital sporting fixture, or - if you prefer a more spiritual analogy, think of it as a retreat, a time of quiet and reflection, before a big task. In Moses’ case he needs to be on retreat with God for forty days and nights, like the forty days and nights which Jesus spends in the Wilderness before his own ministry begins. But for Jesus, the Transfiguration experience is immediate. No sooner do he and his friends ascend the mountain than Moses and Elijah appear to talk with him, and then the cloud of God’s presence overshadows them and God speaks from the cloud.

Of course, in the story about Moses’ mountain-top experience he has to wait for six days outside the cloud of God’s presence, before he is called to enter it, whereas on the Mount of Transfiguration the cloud appears only fleetingly and stays above Jesus and his friends in the sky. They don’t have to enter it to encounter God’s mysterious presence for he is already with them in Jesus himself, as the voice confirms.

Despite the enveloping layer of cloud, we are told that the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire - and even from the valley below the whole people of Israel could see it. By comparison, the appearance of God’s glory in Jesus is almost brought down to the human scale. True his face shines unbearably bright, like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white, but it’s not an earth-shattering,world-shaking experience. For in Jesus the full glory of God is revealed, or incarnated, in a human face and in a single human existence. Perhaps that’s why Peter, James and John are able to see it, and to hear God speaking to them.

In the Exodus story about Moses, there are three versions of his encounter with God on the mountain. In one of them, the one we read today, he is probably alone, for although he takes Joshua with him it’s unclear whether Joshua can enter the cloud of God’s presence or has to stay behind. But there are two earlier versions, as well. In one Moses ascends the mountain with his brother Aaron, to receive the Ten Commandments, and in the other he is accompanied by seventy-three of the tribal elders of Israel, and they all eat a meal in God’s presence. However, all they seem to see of God is his feet, or perhaps his foot-stool, and beneath it something like a pavement made of sapphire, which shines with other-worldly clarity. In other words, they glimpse God at the point where he connects with earth, but they don’t see his full glory revealed, even in miniature. How much more striking is it, then, to be told that the disciples have encountered God’s Beloved Son and lived to tell the tale? But, of course, they didn’t really understand what they had seen - in spite of the voice from the cloud - until after Jesus was raised from the dead.

Once, many years ago, my wife Helen and I set out to climb Skiddaw, one of the highest mountains in England. We chose to go up the hard way but, when we were nearly at the top, bad weather forced us to turn back.

We have always meant to try again and last year one of our friends, who does a lot of mountain climbing, said, ‘If you want to go up Skiddaw, why not go uo the easy way - from Keswick,’ which is one of the towns in the Lake District. The guide book confirmed that this was indeed the easiest way up. It said, ‘This is a route suitable for grannies and children in pushchairs.’ That was reassuring for Helen, who is a granny now!

So, last autumn, up we went! Actually, it was a lot harder than we expected. I don’t think I would have made it without some heart medicine which I happened to be carrying with me at the time. But a couple of puffs of this medicine, which comes out of an inhaler that you breathe in, gave me the energy to make it to the top.

When we were just below the summit someone coming down warned us that it was very windy. ‘I was really frightened,’ she said. ‘I had to cling onto my husband to stop myself from being blown away!’ We thought she was probably exaggerating a little bit. How wrong we were.

Just below the summit I was still smiling but already I was holding onto my hat, just in case it blew away. And, on the top of Skiddaw, the wind made my hood stand up straight behind my head.

Helen is quite a bit lighter than me, so she found it even more difficult when the wind was giving her a buffeting. Her hat and jacket billowed out as the wind filled them and tried to pick her up off the ground! Eventually she had to take shelter inside a little wall made of stones collected on the mountain. Which reminds me of Peter on the mountaintop with Jesus. It was evidently so windy up there that the only thing he could think of was to make three shelters, one for Jesus himself and one each for the two prophets Jesus was talking to, Moses and Elijah.

But, of course, climbing up a high mountain is totally worth it. The feeling of standing on the top really is like being ‘blown away’, it’s exhilarating. And you get to experience moments like the one when the shadow of a bright cloud made a striking pattern in the sky above the Lakeland scenary, as it may have done when the disciples heard God’s voice apparently speaking to them from behind a bright cloud.

Even as the rain gathered, and the sky grew dark and stormy, there were wonderful moments when the sun still broke through the clouds on our descent and transfigured the scene with such beauty that we simply had to stop and stare, and drink it in. Is that the sort of experience which the disciples had when suddenly they saw Jesus in a new light and began to understand just a little bit more about him?

Have any of you been up a mountain or a high hill and had that kind of mountaintop experience - an out of this world, out of the ordinary feeling quite different from being only a little further down?

Or, have you ever been in a power cut at night when the house where you were staying was plunged completely into inky darkness, and even the street lights went off outside? What cheers you up again? When someone lights a candle or a torch, or better still when the lights come back on!

On the mountaintop Jesus’ friends had two feelings simultaneously - a tremendous feeling of exhilaration that was completely out of the ordinary, when they suddenly felt that they were finding out more about Jesus than they had ever noticed before, and the sense that they were seeing Jesus in a new light and that he was rolling back some of the darkness from their vision. May he do he same for us!

Trust and Acceptance

Psalm 131

This little psalm contains some intriguing ideas. In our worship we habitually challenge ourselves to lift our eyes to the hills, from whence our help will come. Or we say that we should lift our eyes to the heavens, contemplating the vastness of the cosmos and wondering at the power of the creative mind which conceived it and brought it into being. Both of these ideas are found elsewhere in the psalms. But here we are enjoined not to lift our eyes too high and not to let our hearts be lifted up.

Are we being encouraged to concentrate on the practical, everyday realities of our lives rather than getting too visionary and other worldly? Is the psalmist warning us that sometimes we can be too heavenly minded to be any earthly use? Or is the psalm a call to be ever so humble? Is the psalmist the Uriah Heep of psalmody?

Is the psalmist in fact a ‘she’, because the preoccupations of the psalm and the imagery the psalmist uses have a definite feminine bias, don’t they? It’s interesting that the writer refuses to be drawn into the big questions - the origins of the universe, what we should do about the upheavals in the Middle East, how to deal with the deficit in the nation’s finances, or what cuts should be made in council services? ‘I don’t occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me,’ says the psalmist modestly.

I’m put in mind of those surveys which ask people, ‘Who makes the important decisions in your house?’ Men will say, ‘I do! I decide who we vote for and what we think about the big issues of the day.’ And women will often say, ‘No! I do! I decide where we go on holiday, what we eat, what clothes we wear.’ Both answers are right, of course, depending on your perspective.

To me it’s crucial that I know whereabouts I am in the world at any one time. I couldn’t, for instance, bear to to be in Sheffield and not know where Sheffield is in relation to Leeds, say, or Manchester, or Hull, or Liverpool. I would feel disorientated, lost, if I wasn’t sure exactly where Sheffield was on the map. Yet to my wife it’s a matter of supreme indifference. It’s not that she doesn’t know the answer. It’s just that the question never occurs to her. She’s rooted in the problems of the moment or the things that matter especially to her. She chooses not to worry about the bigger picture.

Instead of getting wound up about issues beyond his or her control, the psalmist prefers to calm and quiet his or her soul, and - for the sake of argument - let’s say we’re talking about calming and quieting her soul. If we assume the writer was a woman it will help us to explain the next fascinating image in the psalm, the weaned child. What is this referring to? Why is a weaned child more calm and quiet than an unweaned one?

I suspect it’s a reference to the disappointment mothers sometimes feel when their newborn baby seems perfectly contented when nursed by other people but becomes fractious and upset if passed back to them. Of course, when you analyse what’s going on in a dispassionate way it becomes obvious that unweaned babies will become more agitated when they’re passed to their mothers because they associate their mothers principally with feeding time! However, once they are weaned, their mother becomes associated principally with comfort, love and affection.

The psalmist seems to be reflecting, therefore, on what it means to be spiritually mature. Is she saying that - once we mature - we’re no longer so dependent on, or at least no longer excessively dependent on, receiving spiritual sustenance from God and are ready, instead, to enter into a more grown-up phase of our relationship, where we can collaborate with God, or work alongside God - always as a junior partner, of course - to accomplish his will? (I’m reminded of my granddaughter, who recently got her first pair of proper shoes. Now, instead of needing to be carried everywhere or wheeled around in her pushchair, she can walk hand in hand with her mother. Is that what our relationship with God should be like?) Or is the psalmist saying that, in order to attain spiritual maturity, we have to move beyond demanding things from God - happiness, well-being, the fulfilment of our desires - and reach a place where we are able just ‘to let go and let God’, to accept what comes and allow God to work through life’s opportunities and challenges as we face them calmly and quietly together?

The second interpretation of spiritual maturity is probably the right one, because the psalmist links it to hoping in the Lord. When we’re ready to take life as it comes, and trust God to help us make the best of it, there’s always room for hope.

Isaiah 49:8-16

In this oracle from the Prophet Isaiah he gives a message to the royal family of Judah, perhaps intended for the coronation of a new king. At the moment they are in exile, but one day, the day of the Lord’s favour, the royal house of David will be restored to power. Isaiah doesn’t put a precise date on their return, so it could be a message for the current king-in-waiting, but it could equally be a message for a future king, not yet born. That’s certainly how Christians have interpreted it.

This is the time of the Lord’s favour because, just as God answered Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, he’s going to answer the prayers of the new king too. He is giving the king back to the people as a living embodiment of his covenant with the whole nation of Judah. Is that what Jesus was alluding to at the Last Supper when he said that his body and blood would establish a new covenant between his own followers and God?

In the original covenant, handed down to Moses, God promised to give the land of Israel to his wandering people. Now the new king will be enabled by God to restore the desolate land that has been laid waste by Judah’s enemies. The prisoners will be set free. Those who have been in hiding will be able to come out and show themselves. Refugees will be able to return home from as far away as the town of Syene in Egypt, where a sizeable number of Judeans had fled after the fall of their country to the Babylonian empire. The new king will have such good fortune that he will even be able to feed his sheep, the people of his pasture, on the bare heights of the mountain tops where grass doesn’t grow.

Of course, for Christians this liberation refers to a spiritual experience, or perhaps to the renewal of the whole earth at the end of time. The Book of Revelation picks up on this passage when it says, about the New Israel, by which the writer probably means The Church, that ‘her citizens will hunger no more and be thirsty no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat.’

It has been interesting to see the contortions which Western governments have gone through in responding to Colonel Gaddafi's savage repression of the democracy protests in Libya. Until two weeks ago they were happy to do business with him. Now, of course, everyone is lining up to condemn him and call on him to stand down. And the justification they are using for their sudden change of heart is that legitimate leaders take good care of their people and don’t deliberately try to harm them. Until now, they argue, Colonel Gaddafi more or less passed that test. He might have tortured a few people, and locked some of them up for opposing his policies, but by and large he kept the peace and enabled his people to live unmolested. Now, however, he has lost that legitimacy because his mercenaries have started to attack people indiscriminately in the streets. Good leaders don’t let their soldiers do that, so it’s time for him to quit.

Isaiah goes further. The new king will be a good leader not just because he will refrain from harming his people but because he will take pity on them in their plight and will guide them, like a shepherd, to springs of fresh water. The king’s reign and his enlightened policies will be an incarnation of God’s compassion. He will comfort the people on God’s behalf.

The desperate situation which the people of Jerusalem and Judah had been through bears comparison in other ways too with what has been happening in Libya in recent days. Like the Libyan protesters who have been attached with anti-aircraft guns, helicopters and tanks, they had suffered conquest and brutal oppression. They felt abandoned and forgotten - left to their fate; but nothing could be further from the truth.

In another strikingly feminine image, the Prophet compares God’s love for his people to the attachment which a woman feels to the child growing in her womb, or to the love of a mother for her baby feeding at her breast. ‘Would a mother forget her child and deliberately cause the baby harm?’ Isaiah asks. And then he answers his own question by conceding that, actually, pregnant women do sometimes seek to terminate their pregnancy, or do things which risk harming their unborn child, and mothers do sometimes abandon their helpless babies or fail to look after them properly. But God will never forget his people. They mean more to him even than his own newborn child.

The image of the walls of Jerusalem is constantly in the forefront of God’s mind, as if he were carrying a picture of Jerusalem like a keepsake in his wallet. And the names of her citizens are so indelibly imprinted in God’s mind that it is as if he had written them on his hands. Actually, to say that they are written may not be a strong enough image. For if someone’s name were written on the palms of our hands in ink it could easily be washed away without our noticing. The word used here, which means to inscribe or engrave something, implies a more permanent remembrance than mere ink.

Perhaps the Prophet is thinking of a tattoo - like the tattoos which people have applied of their boyfriend or girlfriend’s name. That’s fine, of course, if the relationship endures for a lifetime, but having someone’s name tattooed on your body can be a bit awkward if the relationship breaks down. Isaiah promises, in effect, that - having inscribed the people’s names on the palms of his hands - God will not go back on his word. It is unthinkable that God should abandon his people and let the relationship break down, even if they are unfaithful to him.

And notice, this is something which God has done to himself. He hasn’t been to a tattoo parlour. He has sat and patiently tattooed the people’s names, one by one, on his hands, a bit like a prisoner pricking out a homemade tattoo on his hand or arm, with a biro or with pen and ink, to pass the time in his cell. It’s a painstaking and painful business, almost akin to self-harm. And that’s a measure of how much God cares. He’s prepared to inflict suffering on himself in order to remember his people by name.

Matthew 6:24-34

Our readings from the Old Testament were about trust and acceptance. The psalmist is ready to accept her lot in life because she believes that God is looking out for her, and Isaiah believes we can trust God because he is sending a wonderful new king to protect and guide us, as living proof of his abiding love for us.

It follows that if God is like this, and Jesus is the new king he has sent to look after us, we should not worry about tomorrow and ought - instead - to take one day at a time. Jesus offers some other reasons for letting go and letting God. The birds of the air don’t worry, and neither do the flowers of the field. Of course, they’re not self-conscious, so perhaps it’s not a fair comparison. But he offers two other justifications. One is that if we strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, God will see us right. However, the history of the Christian faith and our own personal experience doesn’t entirely bear that out. So, finally, there is Jesus’ strongest argument for not worrying: can any of us by worrying add a single hour to the span of our life? By and large the answer is ‘No’, although - of course - if we have a healthy diet and lifestyle, and get a little exercise, we may live longer and we’ll certainly improve our chances of longevity. But worrying about our diet and lifestyle, without doing anything about it, won’t help us in the least.

I do try not to worry, but Helen and I are inveterate worriers. We worry about being able to manage in retirement. We worry about having a job next week. We worry about our children and our granddaughter. We worry about the future for our planet. Thank goodness we don’t live in an earthquake zone or we’d neve rget a moment’s sleep!

The people of Christchurch weren‘t worrying about an earthquake until six months ago, when the first one struck, because they didn’t know - until then - that the city was on a fault-line in the earth’s crust. Perhaps if they had known sooner, and been able to construct safer buildings, that would have helped to save lives. But of course, some of the collapsed buildings - such as churches, and the cathedral spire - were put up long before modern building methods might have helped to protect their users. So worrying about the impact that an earthquake might have on these old buildings would not have added a single hour to anyone’s lifespan.

I don’t see Jesus’ advice as an injunction to give up on sensible planning for the future. I think it’s a gentle admonition, a warning if you like, not to preoccupy ourselves with worries that we can’t do anything about, or which are so uncertain or far off that the situation might change radically long before the evil day arrives when they could become a matter of legitimate concern.

Who knows, for instance, whether I’m going to lose my job working for a charity in Sheffield? With all the cuts going on right now to public services, it might happen and I need to be aware of the possibility and see what I can do - as manager of the charity - to find alternative ways of funding our work and to position ourselves to attract whatever public funding still remains. But the fact is we might survive, just as we have survived before. And worrying unduly certainly won’t help and won’t add a single hour to my lifespan.

On the contrary, I have sometimes said to my colleagues in the past that, if God wants our work to continue, he will guide and inspire us to use our ingenuity to seize the opportunities that come our way. That’s what it means, I believe, to be a good leader. It’s about being open to the many ways in which God could be steering us in his efforts to bring comfort, and show compassion, to his people.

A Commentary on the Ten Commandments

Leviticus 19.9-18
Matthew 5.38 - 48

This passage from Leviticus is a commentary on some of the verses in the Ten Commandments. It contains some very challenging teaching which we still need to take seriously but, in fairness, it’s one of the few passages in Leviticus to which modern people can easily relate. The verses immediately before this passage are all about the right time to eat a sacrifice, and the verses immediately after it are about preventing different kinds of animals from mating, or different plants from cross-fertilising.

But verses 9 and 10 could have been written last week. They are a demand for landowners to embrace Big Society values and make sure that their harvest is not so efficient that their fields or vines are stripped bare. Instead, part of the crop is to be left for poor and landless people. And this isn’t just a pious hope, or a fanciful idea, or a pipedream, which is what many people think about the Big Society. It really happened. Ruth, the ancestor of King David, met Boaz - her future husband - while she was gleaning in one of his fields in Bethlehem. At the time she was a penniless immigrant, looking after her widowed mother-in-law. This was a society where ordinary people actively took responsibility for looking after one another.

However, the people who framed these laws are under no illusions about human nature. They don’t imagine that wealthy people, left to their own devices, will always do the decent thing. They explain that theft is not just about breaking into other people’s houses to steal the silver. It’s also about withholding an employee’s wages or deceiving your business partners by making false promises to them. And they solemnly warn people not to abuse the blind and the deaf.

Interestingly, though,the authors of Leviticus don’t accept the modern idea that God has a bias to the poor. They want the law to be administered with strict fairness. Presumably they would have approved of the idea of blind justice, wearing a blindfold to ensure her impartiality.

Finally, the law givers insist that the best way to live is to treat your neighbours as you yourself would wish to be treated. Seeking revenge, cherishing grudges, nursing hatred or being vindictive by trying to get your neighbour put to death when he’s facing a serious accusation are all ruled out, because we wouldn’t want to be the target of a revenge killing, would we, or a hate crime, or of a vindictive hue and cry if we were in a fix.

Just before the general election I held up a series of election pamphlets issued by the various local candidates and asked where was the Christian content in their campaigns? All of the Churches - the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, the Baptist Union, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England - had encouraged politicians to consider an idea called restorative justice, but it was nowhere to be found in any of the election leaflets. And yet, after the election all of the parties quietly adopted restorative justice. There was what’s called a ‘cross-party agreement’ not to oppose the new legislation that the government is bringing in.

So, increasingly, if you’re a victim of crime you will be offered the chance to come face to face with the culprit and explain how much you’ve been hurt and hear their story. I’m still not entirely convinced it’s necessarily a good idea, but it’s certainly modelled in part on this passage from the Bible. In some ways, then, the concerns which find expression in Leviticus are very contemporary, such as the corrosiveness of hatred and the need to move on when bad things happen so that we’re not consumed with bitterness.

Jesus takes what is already a challenging set of ideas and adds a further twist. In his own commentary - this time a commentary on Leviticus commenting on the Ten Commandments - he says that not only should we follow Leviticus by repudiating revenge but we should also turn and offer our assailant the other cheek after he has slapped us on the right cheek. When we’re forced to go one mile, we should volunteer to go two. And so on. Not only should we let the poor glean in our fields, not only should we make generous donations to charity, but also we should give to anyone who asks. Gone is the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Jesus demands total open-handedness. Not only should we love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves but also we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. If the teaching in this part of Leviticus seemed almost too idealistic to be achievable, even by the nicest of guys, Jesus’ commentary on it seems almost completely unattainable. He asks not only for saintly behaviour. He asks for behaviour which is on a par with God’s boundless goodness.

Is Jesus exaggerating once more, for the sake of emphasis? Well, I certainly hope he is. But actually, what I think he’s doing is reminding us that we can never take the moral high ground against other people unless we ourselves are already perfect. And until that day comes, all of us, from the most upright and upstanding citizens to the most abject and deviant ones, stand under the judgment of God and are equally dependent on God’s mercy and goodness. The sun rises, and the rain falls, on good and bad, innocent and wicked, alike.

Part of the role of the preacher is to try to unpack difficult passages like these ones and to help everyone to think about how to interpret them for today. Preaching can sometimes be challenging, or thought provoking, or we may find ourselves disagreeing with the preacher and coming to different conclusions. We know that Jesus' teaching evoked all of these responses. The scribes and pharisees sometimes disagreed with him, the disciples sometimes didn't understand him and the people sometimes enjoyed his sermons but sometimes rejected his message; on one occasion they even tried to throw him over a cliff!

Worship leaders have a very different role because, as well as challenging us, worship is also supposed to comfort and inspire us. It gives us an opportunity to approach God together and praise him, share our concerns with him, seek forgiveness and reassurance, and find the resources we need to cope with our problems and live out our vocation. The preacher might touch on these issues, but they are the bread and butter, the meat and potatoes, of the worship leader's role.

The Pearl of Great Price

Matthew 13.45-46

The story of the Pearl of Great Price put me in mind of the The Quiltmaker's Gift
by Jeff Brumbeau. This is my take on that story.

Once upon a time there was an old lady who had retired to live in a cosy little cottage on the edge of a beautiful wood. There she had everything that she needed.

Her surroundings were lovely and they changed with the seasons - lush bright greens in springtime, rich deep reds, oranges and yellows in the autumn, beautiful icy patterns on the branches in wintertime, and dew sparkling on the spiders’ webs in the early morning.

The old lady’s pension provided her with all the food and comforts that she could want for, so she didn’t need to work any more. And she decided to pass her time by pursuing her favourite hobby. She sewed the most beautiful quilts, covered in beautiful flowers, or shapes, or animals made out of cotton in bright rainbow colours. And in fine weather, because her cottage was very, very cosy, she liked nothing better than to spread out her latest quilt on the grass and work at it on her hands and knees.

The pictures were so wonderful and so intricate that the old lady could have sold them. Many people admired them, and her fame spread far and wide. But she gave them all away to people who were poor and needed a quilt to keep them warm and cheer them up when they were sad. Giving the quilts away to people who would really appreciate them made the old lady very happy.

One day the king was visiting the region where the old lady lived. His advisers told him about her marvellous quilts and he decided that he had to see one for himself. So he called to see her in her humble cottage. She showed him the quilts that she was making and he was fascinated. ‘I must have one,’ he said. ‘How much will it cost for you to make one for me.’ ‘They’re not for sale,’ she replied.

‘I see you’re going to drive a hard bargain!’ said the king. ‘So I’ll get right to the point, shall I? I am enormously rich. This whole country belongs to me. This entire wood belongs to me. I have so much money that I can have anything I want. I already own the best of everything else. So just name your price. You won’t need to live in a cottage any more. You’ll be able to afford a mansion.’

‘They’re not for sale,’ said the old lady. ‘I don’t need your money and I don’t care how much you already own. I only give my quilts to people who really need them.’

The king went away feeling very sad. The quilts were so amazing that he wanted to possess one more than anything else in all the world. But he saw that, as things stood, he would never have one.

Many years went by, and the king acquired many more expensive things, but none of them really satisfied him and sometimes he would think about the wonderful quilts which the old lady made, and he would feel sad that he did not have one.

And then one day he suddenly had a brilliant idea. If he gave away all the things he owned to charities or to people who were poor, the old lady might make a quilt for him after all!

So that is exactly what he did. He went back to the old lady when he owned nothing at all, and she gladly gave him her very best quilt. ‘When you came to see me before, you had so many possessions that one of my quilts would only have been another thing to add to your collection,’ she said. ‘But now that it is the only thing you own I know that you will really treasure it.’