Transfiguration Sermon

26 February 2014



Where were you on 16 May 1987? I think everyone should know this.

It was the day Coventry City beat Spurs in the FA Cup Final.

Thus putting an end to Morecambe and Wise’s trick question ‘When did Coventry City last win the FA Cup?’ The answer had previously been of course that Coventry City had never won the FA Cup, not until that is one gloriously sunny day in May 1987. 20 years and four months since I first set foot in Highfield Road stadium to see the Sky Blues beat Tranmere Rovers 1-0 in the old Second Division.

Was I at Wembley for Coventry’s greatest moment? No I was best man at a wedding, though I spent most of the afternoon sitting in the car listening to the match on the radio.
Have I forgiven Andy for making me his best man? It took a while but I think I am now coming round to accepting that I did the noble thing. Whether Andy has forgiven me for spending the day in the car park is another matter – you would have to ask him.

Football had been an important feature in my life for a long time, less so now.

I recall walking round Iona on the Wednesday pilgrimage with the Chaplain of Bonn University. Each of us shared where each of us were at the time of all the momentous matches between England and West Germany and later simply Germany.

From 1966 through to the Mexico World Cup Quarter Final where we lost having been 2-0 up. Then from the penalty shootout at Italia 90 to the 5-1 thumping we gave them in Munich in 2001.

We relived each goal and where we had been at the time; where I had been elated and where he had been devastated; though it has to be said that it was more often the other way round!

Of course there are other significant moments of greater importance than even football. So long as we have a memory I doubt any of us will forget where we were when we heard about the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon; even the date has become synonymous with the event itself: 9/11.

It replaced what a previous generation had considered its moment when everyone knew where they were, the assassination of JFK.

Events punctuate our lives as a full stop or comma does in prose.
Events of national and international significance of course:
For me JFK, the moon walk, Palestinian terrorists massacring Israeli Olympians at Munich, the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher not getting sufficient votes in the leadership contest, the death of Diana, etc.
Then there are those events on a personal level:
Meeting Karen, getting married, holding each of our boys for the first time, watching them realise their potential at various intervals.
And on a discipleship level:
Confirmation, a numinous experience, call to ministry, candidating, ordination, the first funeral!

First-hand experiences make a real impact upon us; some develop us as individuals, others threaten to hinder us.

Redemption teaches us that even the most negative of experiences can be turned to good, such is the wonder of God’s transforming love.

None more so than for Peter and his fellow disciples.

Confused and desolated at the arrest and execution of Jesus they would turn to their personal experiences to make sense of the Jesus-event.

As we know much of Mark’s account of the Gospel could be drawn from the reminiscences of an aging Peter giving his side of the story before he too must leave this world.
And we also know that this account is somehow sealed by the mention of the young boy running naked from the Garden at the time of the arrest, it could well be compiler’s signature.

Again we will have produced essays on whether the source for much of the material for John’s account was in fact the one whom it said Jesus loved.

Then there is a lesser-claimed possibility that the anonymous traveller with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus was the source for some of the material that is special to Luke’s account. I say lesser-claimed because it’s my own theory! If anyone has written this down elsewhere over the last twenty years let me know and I will sue them!

And now in the epistle set for this coming Sunday we find that there is the direct claim of personal experience: ‘we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty’.

It’s a first century form of that 20th century Welsh comedian Max Boyce’s catchphrase ‘I know because I was there!’

Here in 2 Peter the writer claims to have been present at the Transfiguration as the Gospel accounts mention.

It acts as an endorsement for the remainder of the letter.

‘We do not follow cleverly devised myths’ he writes, in other words we don’t go in for rumour and innuendo, exaggeration and spin; instead we go in for fact based on personal experience.
And this is how it was, we were there with him, we saw what happened and we actually heard the voice from heaven.

You can’t beat personal experience.

Something was taken out of the impact of the Gospel the moment someone said read this, it will change your life instead of saying listen I have got Good News for you. Even more was taken out of the impact the moment someone stopped saying read this and instead suggested we sit down and watch a Bible Study on DVD.

As ministers of the Gospel people rightly expect us to have a personal and ongoing experience of the Living God, the personal Saviour and the indwelling of the Spirit. They don’t want us to only convey the stuff they can read for themselves in books or watch on TV or find on line.

They want to access our own excitement at what it means to be a disciple or enter the mystery of faith with us.

If we didn’t know it before then each of us will have discovered by now that ministry is a huge responsibility and at times even a great burden.

As ministers we are tested to our limits yes but for those who are faithful in prayer and loyal in discipleship nothing can overtake the privilege of ministry.
In the life of the Church there is no greater privilege for ministry provides us with the experiences that make us.

In September it will be 30 years since I entered theological college. Over these past three decades I have wept with both joy and sorrow; I have laughed till my sides have ached and I have also felt my tummy so tight with tension that I could not eat; I have leapt into a room for a church meeting full of expectation and on occasions literally dragged myself out of bed on a Sunday morning. But nothing, nothing has taken away that deep, deep sense of privilege.

There are simply too many experiences to recount, too many stories to tell of members who have shared their own; take Annie Capper born in 1900 who sat in the very same room in which her brother had entered on leave shortly before he returned to the front to die at the Somme. Seven decades on and I was there with her that day in 1916.

Or Mr Freeberne who was amongst the first on the beach at D Day and many, many other veterans who took me back 40, 50 even 60 years to their darkest moments.
Or take the family whom I sat with as they let go of their precious little boy, or the woman who died as I held her hand and prayed for release.
Or of the joys of those finding Christ, or new purpose, or a sense of being loved at last.

Too many experiences to recount but each of them cherished for they have helped make me who I am. Even the darkness did not totally overwhelm me when it threatened to do so.
It’s these experiences that give us credibility and, if you like, some degree of authority.

There is a little ditty that I sometimes recall; its sentiment is not deep but it is profound, you won’t find in a theological tome but it is written on my heart:
‘We are writing a Gospel, a chapter day, by the deeds that we do and the words that we say.’
It has sometimes been said that our services are the only times when people hear the Gospel, it may be equally true to claim that we ourselves may be the only time people actually encounter the Gospel.

It is said that Winston Churchill faced his mortality with his typically acerbic wit:

“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

The most popular inscription on a gravestone is said to be that of Spike Milligan’s “I told you I was ill.”

And amongst the most famous last words have to be those of Major General John Sedgwick of the Union Forces who declared “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”  Unfortunate to say the least.  Clearly he did not know his enemy well enough to judge.

Moses knew his people.  They had spent 40 years in the wilderness together.

He was nearing the end of his life.  The Book of Deuteronomy could well be the longest farewell speech in literature.

Moses reviews his time with the people; he then reminds them of the guidelines for righteous life, which are followed by the consequences depending upon whether the guidelines are followed or not; and finally there are provisions for keeping the story alive.

 Some scholars note how similar this framework is to treaties recorded between larger and lesser states in the region at the time.  With the larger power acting on behalf of the vassal states in international affairs whilst the vassal states agree to them doing so in order to achieve some degree of autonomy over their domestic affairs.

Maybe this is how the people viewed the relationship they have with the superpower they knew as Yahweh.  The Lord may have been sovereign over creation but they had a good deal of responsibility at local and personal level.

Be that as it may we cannot escape the possibility that the words of Moses are recorded as a means of transmitting the summation of his knowledge and wisdom accumulated over the years.

And the conclusion is that the people have a fundamental choice.  Obey the commandments or disobey, the outward sign of choosing or rejecting God.

We live in an age of choice.

No generation before us had the choices that we have.

For me even a simple trip to the supermarket has occasionally been one of great anxiety. 

For example, what type of bread do we need?

A modern paraphrase of scripture could be ‘Humanity does not live by 32 different types of bread alone’. 

As a child it was merely sliced or unsliced. 

These days the range of dark chocolate on our shelves is enough to take up a good quarter of an hour shopping time.

The increasing number of choices we have before us might have been the envy of those who went before us, but this is not likely to remain for much longer.

More and more teenagers for example are opting to apply for the nearest university in order to stay at home and cut the cost of living away; assuming they apply at all as they balk at the debt they are likely to incur.

And as the impact of austerity measures continue to deepen up to half a million people in this country now rely on food aid. During Lent there is to be a campaign called End Hunger Fast; it is to be led by Church Leaders and will seek to raise awareness of the food crisis.  5,500 people were admitted to hospital last year suffering from malnutrition. There is little choice for many who are not seeing the benefits of the claimed economic upturn.

Nevertheless the choice to do right or wrong remains, just as it ever has.

And Moses is clear.

Make the right choice and you will be blessed.

Make the wrong choice and you will feel as if you have been cursed.

But how do we make the right choice?

 Life isn’t so simple that we have 2020 foresight, where we become clearly aware of the consequences of every action or word.

When we come to decide upon a career, the beginning or ending of a relationship, where we might live, whether we should downsize or move into sheltered accommodation it’s far from easy to choose what would be the right course of action.

 And what makes it so hard?

Limited experience in such matters?

Few around us to offer advice?

No hard and fast rules laid down in a manual?

Moses knows of this dilemma; he knows it well.

The people have relied on him for a long time; ultimately of course they have relied upon his close relationship with God.

Now Moses is about to be taken from them.

They must face life with all its complexities and uncertainties without him.

So in order to prepare them he does three things:

Firstly he reminds them that they have history to draw upon.  They may not have been born when they were liberated from captivity and crossed the Red Sea but their oral tradition will speak of such things and reassure them of God’s provision in times of danger.

Secondly they are not alone.  They have each other to rely upon and draw strength from.

Finally of course they have the Law, God’s manual for righteous living and in adhering to it they will be blessed.

These three factors stood the test of time for a people who were displaced and dispersed, who were the focus of hostility and hatred, oppression and persecution.  And just as they were of help to the Jewish community so they can be of enormous help in our own situation.

Let’s take each of them in turn.

Firstly today in our arrogant, self-satisfied and smug way of doing things many fail to see the point of learning from our past, they set up their own way of doing things as if those who went before them knew nothing.  Our history is important and we would be wise to learn from it; what right do we have to create the traditions of the future whilst dispensing with those of the past? 

Secondly, today we live in anonymous neighbourhoods with little sense of community.

I grew up on a coal board estate.  When someone was ill neighbours would be at the door to offer help.  When someone died there was always a whip round for the family that were left.

I now serve in the Lincolnshire District.  It is a wonderful county ranging from vast rural areas to inner city and urban sprawl. Like most areas we have not been immune to the effects of recent flooding.  One of the consequences of the tidal surge in Boston shortly before Christmas that wreaked havoc across so many homes and businesses is that a disparate community of numerous nationalities and cultures gelled as never before to help one another.  But why should it take a crisis for us to realise that community is vital if we are to build a creative and caring society?

And finally we still have God’s Law.  It may have been interpreted over the centuries and of course fulfilled in Christ but that is no reason to pretend that there is now no use for it.

It took me a while to realise for example that the Ten Commandments were not Thou shall do this or Thou shalt not do that but are in fact:

If you know you are loved by God you will be enabled to do this; or, if you know that you are one with God will be prevented from doing this.

Getting that relationship right with God is key to righteous living and vital for a caring, conscientious and compassionate community that can have such a positive impact upon society as a whole.

But the choice to live by these three guidelines is up to each of us or do we simply expect others to live them on our behalf?

Do we absolve ourselves from personal responsibility and lay the blame elsewhere?  Do we get others to do the hard tasks of alerting others to the dangers and opportunities that exist today?

A bit like the dog I heard about last week.  As a Chair of District I don’t have the joy and privilege of serving a congregation so instead I see the dog walkers as my community.  A new guy joined us this last week and he told me of two dogs his parents had when he was a teenager:  a German Shepherd and a mongrel. The German Shepherd barked loudly each time someone came to the door and the mongrel would just let him.  Eventually the German Shepherd went stone deaf and couldn’t hear the doorbell ring so the mongreal would get up walk over to the sleeping German Shepherd and bite him which caused him to wake up and start barking at the door.

For me 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of entering theological college.  Things have changed dramatically since then, I am rounder and greyer of course.  But it’s not just me that has changed.  Methods of training are now so different and few of the techniques used in 1984 have survived.  I doubt for example that today’s ministerial students begin their training by writing out their obituary!

But that is how I began my time at Hartley Victoria College.

It was a sobering act for a 24 year old full of excitement at what may lie in store to contemplate my entire ministry and end; all in less than 400 words.

Sobering and deeply humbling.

Not a bad exercise actually.  I wish I had kept the obituary to see how accurate it has turned out.  But sadly those were days well before any of us could even dream of owning a computer that would store our documents; so the 400 words that imagined the next few decades were lost for ever.

Some will choose to plan their own funeral service, especially those of us who don’t trust others to get it right!

Whether we plan our own funeral service or not it does none of us any harm to contemplate our mortality.

We may not be so bold as Winston Churchill in considering how the encounter with our Maker will pan out.

Nor is it likely that those in millennia to come will be as interested in our last words as we are in the farewell speech of Moses.

But we are significant nonetheless.

We should never underestimate the impact we have upon those around us.

That impact can be both positive and negative.

Moses said ‘I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.’ In other words live in a right relationship with God and you will be fulfilled.

I conclude with a little ditty; the sort we used to only find on cards in cathedral gift shops but today are more likely to find them on facebook:

‘When you were born you were crying but all around you were smiling.  Live your life in such a way that when you die those around you are crying and you are smiling.’