Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Untameable Mount of Transfiguration

When I discovered that the reading set down for today was the story that we have come to know as
the transfiguration the first image that came to my mind was the well-worn and defined path that goes from JC Slaughter falls to the top of Mt Cootha.  For those of you who have walked on this path you will know that it is well signposted, it is wide, and for the most part quite smooth. In parts there are steps and handrails. 

As you come close to the top of the mountain you leave the forest walk to traverse the last few hundred metres on the side of the bitumen road and then on to a cement path to the shop where you can buy an ice cream or cold drink.  Clearly the journey to the top of Mt Cootha was not always like this. It is only through our human intervention and inventiveness that we have domesticated the mountain and made the journey easier for ourselves.

What has all of this to do with the story of the transfiguration? 

Just as we have sought to domestic the walk to the top of Mt Cootha so too when we hear again the story of the transfiguration, and in a sense follow Peter, James and John up the mountain with Jesus, it is not an untraveled road.  There is a well-worn path of centuries of theology, historiography and spiritual reflection on the story.  Even if you are hearing your first sermon on the story it is a story that has been and is filtered through the theological teachings and insights of the preacher.

For me this reality of the domestication of this familiar story is emphasised by the association of this story of the transfiguration with Mt Tabor.  Whilst none of the scriptural stories say where the transfiguration occurred a tradition developed suggesting it was at Mt Tabor.  This became more strongly cemented, around 200 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the great theologian and thinker Origen claimed that this was where the transfiguration took place. 

However, there are more than a few reasons that this may not be the place it occurred. There are two key ones that I want to mention.  Firstly, the long distance of Mt Tabor from Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus and the disciples were 6 days earlier. And, secondly, the fact that it is known that there was a long standing Roman fort on the top of the mountain at the time.  Despite these issues which put the location of the event into question if you go to mount Tabor today what you will see is this –church of transfiguration.

Any attempts at an historical reconstruction of the event or theologising of the moment can miss something that is entirely vital and confronting about what occurs.  In Douglas Hare’s commentary he puts it quite simply, “For modern readers, the story of the transfiguration is one of the most difficult in the New Testament… its content is so otherworldly that it is hard for us to accept its historicity.”  The story, as well worn and domesticated as we might try to make it, takes us to a mountaintop where something occurs that we have absolutely no control over and is completely foreign to our common experience.

Christ is transformed! Moses and Elijah appear! God speaks from a cloud!

There is nothing ordinary here.  There is nothing that can make this any easier to believe.  There is nothing that we can domestic about a Christophany or a theophany – and I admit to using these theological words deliberately precisely because I want to emphasise the foreignness of what is occurring.  It is not only the foreignness of an event in the disciples’ lives when Jesus identity is confirmed but the foreignness and mystery of God becoming present in the span history as in and through Jesus God reconciles the world with its Creator.

The difficulty of apprehending and comprehending this spiritual experience on the mountain is highlighted in Peter’s response which is to offer to make three tabernacles, or tents: one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  He is grasping at spiritual and liturgical straws to try to make sense of what he is seeing.  And, moreover, the instruction by Jesus to Peter, James and John not to share this experience until after Jesus’ resurrection.  This seems to indicate that Jesus well knew that the disciples had not quite got it.

An experience of the divine, a personal vision, or revelation, whether is as spectacular as the transfiguration or as ordinary as having an spiritual insight pop into your head, does not mean that you have arrived and that you have all the answers.  The disciples obviously struggled to understand Jesus presence and teaching, a fact which is further emphasised by the stories on either side of the transfiguration.

6 days earlier Peter had hit the nail on the head when he identified that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the Living God.  Ironically, he had then gone on to deny Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection.  Jesus call Peter both the rock on which he will build his church and satan.  The contrast could not be any greater!  The gospel writer leaves a long pause in the story and it is not 6 days later until we heat what happens next.

The liminal space between that encounter between Jesus and Peter and the amazing events on the top of the mountain interest me immensely.

We are told nothing about these intervening days.  Is it because of the awkwardness Peter and the other disciples felt around Jesus correction of Peter?  Is it because they were trying to process what Jesus had said about his death?  Were they just a few quiet days where no miracles occurred or nothing of significance was said?  The awkward silence on these days are for me very much about the journey of faith that most of us are on.  Days when we think about whether we have really understood God at all.  Days when we doubt God and Jesus.  Days that we reflect on how we can get our faith so right and so wrong.  Days which seem to blend into our existence and just pass by and before we know it another week has gone.

If this is what was happening before the event of the transfiguration what comes after is even more perplexing.  The disciples are told not to share with anyone their experience. And, based on their track record of getting things wrong or not fully understanding them we might well understand this.  But, then, Matthew goes on to tells us that when the group re-joins the crowds a man shows up and tells Jesus that the disciples had failed to heal his son.  Jesus heals the son and then admonishes the disciples for their lack of faith.

On both sides of the transfiguration are stories that remind us that the disciples’ comprehension of what God was doing in and through Jesus was limited at best.  Even with the spiritual high of the Christophany and theophany the disciples are exposed as having a lack of faith.  If we fast track a bit further through Matthew what we find is that it also Peter, James and John who fail to say awake and pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. 

First and foremost the good news is not about how well the disciples understand, it is not about how well they healed and participated in Christ’s mission, it is not about their faithfulness – and, might I say, it is not first and foremost about our faithfulness and participation in Christ’s mission either.

It is about who Jesus is – the Christ, the Messiah – and about what God does in and through him and continues to do in and through him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our task is not to look at the disciples and scoff at their incomprehension because through 2000 years of history we think we have domesticated the story and have a better faith.  No our task, like theirs, is with humility simply to acknowledge Christ’s presence with us and give thanks to God for what God has done for us in Christ.

Even if and when we have our moments of spiritual closeness to God our theophany, or a moment of revelation we should remember the time on the mountain and the disciples’ response.  The moment of revelation is something that should be accepted as mystery and gift.  It is beyond our control and beyond our full comprehension.  Yes, those moments can keep us going in our faith, they can inspire and incite us to action, and they can encourage to stay on the journey with Jesus.  But they should be tempered by the disciples experience and the more mundane reality that more often than not our journey is through the liminal space, the six days, the moments our lack of faith is exposed, or we are found sleeping in the garden.  Regardless of where we find ourselves the promise of the story we find is Matthew is that in Christ and through the Spirit God remains with us.

I began this morning’s sermon with that image of the walk up Mt Cootha.  We have sought to tame the mountain and we seek to tame the story of the transfiguration.  Yet whether we make the journey up the mountain easy or hard in the end the presence and work of God is not something that we can control.  Like the disciples all we can say is in Jesus, God is with us, and hope that between the liminal spaces of our lives God will intrude into the ordinary existence of our realities and make more clearly known for each one of us the hope of following Jesus.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Choose Life

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses stands as one of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament.  Hidden in the bull rushes as an infant he escapes the persecution of the male children by the Pharaoh.  He ends up being raised by Egyptian royalty.  And, he is favoured by Pharaoh until an incident defending another Israelite causes him to run away.

It is in his exile that Moses encounters God in the burning bush which sets in motion the story of the escape of the Israelites from their Egyptian task masters.  After 40 years in the wilderness he stands at the border of the Prom
ised Land and gives his final instructions.

It is part of these final reflections which we heard today from Deuteronomy. In these final words for the people who have followed him, Moses declares, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."

Choose life that you may live.  But what does it mean to choose life? What is the alternative? What is the life that they were meant to be choosing?  What is the life that we are choosing? What is the life that is chosen for us? Choose life? But what is life?

Choosing life then and now could sound very different.

At the beginning of the gritty 1996 movie Trainspotting the central character Renton reflects on the idea of choosing life in a voice over that sounds a little like this:

“Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a… big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers... Choose... wondering who… you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, sticking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all in a home… nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish… brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life.  I chose something else.” (Renton)

There is a desperation in Renton’s words, a searching for meaning. In his description of what he thinks it means to choose life the character Renton summarises something of what modern people think life might be:  career, family, entertainment, status, possessions.  What he describes is life as we know it in these modern technological age.  These are the things that seem to have become central to our existence.  But there is a deeper question. Is it really life?  Is this what Moses meant when he said choose life?

What Renton describes may be consistent with our contemporary world and whilst Moses world and his words may feel out of place and out of time they still call us back to attention in what life is.  Choose life that you and your descendants might live?  What does it mean to choose life?  It means choosing God.

Moses says to the people, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live.”

Choosing life is living in the light of God’s love. 

But Moses also issues a warning, “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.” This is a big conundrum for us for we know the chequered history of Israel and we also the difficulties of finding the meaning and purpose of life in our time.

The desperation of the rant of Renton in Trainspotting reflects a judgement around the hollowness of so many things that we pursue as important in life.  And this is the conundrum.  When we do not hear God and when we are led astray by other gods this occurs without our understanding.

Being led astray implies a level of ignorance about is occurring, a naivety.  We do not know the wrong that we are doing.  No one would choose death over life deliberately.  No one would choose a life that is not life.

Now whilst in Moses time when he speaks about being led astray by other gods he is speaking of the ancient gods, of the statues and idols and temples of the ancient world.  Yet when we hear this challenge in the contemporary Australian context I would say that the other gods are more subtle and hidden.  The things that we bow down to may not be called gods but we imbue them with power and authority in our existence as we pursue them and make sacrifices to them or for them.

The things that lead us astray are the things that we honour by giving our time and our energy to.  We deify inanimate objects and owning things; we deify our children and our families; we deify our careers and our status; we deify celebrities – musicians, artists and actors.  Whatever or whoever we sacrifice our time for can unintentionally become that which we worship.  Many of these things we sacrifice our time for are not inherently bad but when they become all-consuming or get in the road of our relationship with God they become problematic. 

Just the other day I was chatting to some dance school mums waiting on the lawn at the side of the church for their daughters.  The amount of time these ladies spent taking their kids to dance and sport and other commitments was astounding.  When the idea of church and spirituality entered into the conversation though the response was about the busyness of life.  Their lives were so filled with all of the other running around that there was not time for church. 

I understand the busyness of our modern lives, especially with children, but I did say to them that what this indicated was not that there was not enough time for church but that God and spirituality was not a high priority in their life.  It was not that could not find the time it was that in the midst of what they were giving priority to faith was not high on their list.  It is difficult for any parent, for me too, to retain a balance, to not be led astray.  But it is that there is no time for church it is simply that when this becomes the case it indicates what we give the most important to.

Centuries after Moses when Paul wrote to the people in Rome explaining Jesus significance he indicated that all of us fall short of the glory of God, we are all lead astray, we are all perishing.  God’s response to our predicament and our predilection to be led astray is to send Jesus into the world to be both the light and life of the world for us. 

In the beginning of John’s gospel John says of Jesus, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  In Jesus God’s choice for us who are perishing is life.  This is the heart of the good news when we fail to choose life, when we are lead astray, God in Christ chooses life for us.  Yet, more than this when God chooses life for us in Christ God pours out the Holy Spirit to draw us into that life and open our hearts and minds to God’s presence.

Paul, in the part of his letter to the Corinthians that we read today, reminds the community there that knowledge and understanding of God and growth in faith lies beyond us and in God.  It is God who is the source of our understanding and our faith.  And thus it is to God our attention should be directed.

Many of you know that last year I attended a prayer retreat.   Within one of the prayer sessions the words that dropped into my mind were these ones from Psalm 121, “I look to the hills.  From where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

Now in ancient times what you found on the tops of hills were temples and shrines to the pantheon of gods of the other Middle Eastern religions and later also the Greco-Roman culture.  The Psalmist, however, did not want to be lead astray. His help was not going to come from any of these other gods, on the hills, and neither, dare I say, from all of the things that we might deify, but from the Lord who made heaven and earth.

In that moment of praying I felt I was being reminded that I too had to give time to pursuing the relationship God has gifted me more intentionally.  To choose life, to choose God.

As I was thinking about this, during the week, I recalled a great quote from Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...”

And not when I came to die to discover that I had not lived!  How do we put to rout all that is not life? 

God in Christ has chosen life for us.  God in the Spirit reveals this to us.  God in Christ and through the Spirit draws us in to living life in God and life in the world.

There is a validity to seeking time with God alone to centre yourself again on God.  To discover your life in Christ and as you do so to put to rout those things which stand in the road of that relationship with God. For me, this is very much what we are seeking to do in the Sunday night prayer group.  To learn to look to God more intentionally in our lives.  But lest we make our Christian mysticism an idol, some sort of pious prayer marathon, we are also reminded that Jesus’ life was lived for the sake of others.  The times of solitude in prayer and meditation as well as our times in gathered worship are to lead us into loving and serving others not isolating ourselves from others.

We are called to choose life 

As people for whom God has chosen life we have been set free from being those who are perishing to those who are living.  We live as we centre our life on the creator of heaven and earth.  We live as God pours the Spirit into our lives.  We live as we worship God.  We live as we love and serve others.

Moses words still ring true:

"Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."

So I too encourage you choose the life already chosen for you in Christ, choose life.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

You are the salt of the earth

A bit over 2000 years ago Roman soldiers roamed what we know as Europe and the Middle East.  A great army of soldiers.  Working men who needed to be paid. For many payment came in the form of salt.  It was called the salarium argentium.  

Salt was a form of currency and for those of you who have ever been paid a “salary” the origins of this word comes from a time when soldiers were paid in salt.  In the ancient world salt was a thing of value, Romans paid their soldiers with it, Greeks traded it for slaves, and according to Leviticus salt was to be part of any offering ever made to God.  

Salt was valued and salt was valuable and Jesus said to his followers and friends "you, you are the salt of the earth". You! his followers, you! his audience, you! humanity with whom Jesus shares his life.  You are salt! You are valued by God and you are valuable.

This is and should be the starting point for our self-understanding as human beings and as followers of Jesus and children of God.  You are the salt of the earth.  This is not an exclusive claim it is a universal claim that echoes down from the mythology of Genesis.  Adam and Eve were given a unique place within the creation - dominion, stewardship, caretakers with a privileged relationship with the creator.  You are salt.  You are valuable.  Remember this. This is Jesus’ starting point in today’s reading and it should be ours when we think of other people, of other humans.  

Maybe Jesus asserts this so strongly because it is so easy to forget just how valuable we are, just how valuable other people are too.  When people around him doubted themselves, when they felt disempowered by the Roman incursion into their holy city, or challenged by the elites with power who didn't seem to care, challenge by a system which distinguished and discriminated one group from another it is easy to forget you are the salt of the earth – Jesus is saying remember just how valuable you are.

When we feel threatened by our lot in life, when we struggle for meaning, when we lose our sense of self-worth have we forgotten that we too are salt.  When we hear of a terrorist attack in a Canadian mosque, when we see people who are homeless clashing with police in Melbourne, when borders are closed and walls are built do we not wonder if we too have forgotten - these people are salt.

Maybe it is in our amnesia that we lose our saltiness, maybe it is when we see our lives are just about me and I and mine we have lost our saltiness.  When we cease contributing to the good of the whole in preference to the good of me.  What do we do when the saltiness has gone from humanity? What does God do?

Jesus says that when the saltiness is gone the salt only worth trampling under foot but then again God sends Jesus who says to us, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil."  In him God restores our saltiness. In him God reconciles and renews. In him God says to us remember who you are.  Salt that loses its saltiness is worthless, it is only worth trampling into the ground but God in Jesus is salt and light and causes us to be salty again.

You are the salt of earth – you are valued and valuable.  In Jesus our saltiness is restored and we are invited and encouraged and empowered to be salt again.  

The question is, “what does salt do?”  Salt has numerous properties and uses so today I want to simply highlight four: Salt heals.  Salt adds flavour.  Salt fertilises.  Salt preserves. In God’s grace through Jesus we are re-released into being the salt of the earth, bringing healing adding flavour, fertilising and preserving.  Let me just unpack those themes a little further. Healing, flavouring, fertilising and preserving.

So let me start with the notion of salt healing.  In the Roman pantheon of gods the God of healing was called Salus which directly relates to the Roman word for salt – sal.  The word salus was connected with healing and is also connected with the word salvation.

Now salt was used as an antiseptic to clean wounds in the ancient world.  Many of you will have heard the phrase rubbing salt into the wound.  It is usually heard as a negative thing, something that causes pain and any of you who have had salt on an open wound know that it can hurt.  Yet as a child I can remember the healing properties of swimming in the ocean when I had cuts and grazes.  Salt in the wound can hurt but it heals as well. 

In Jesus’ life we hear of many miracles where Jesus brings healing to others and in and through Jesus own life he is antiseptic to our sinfulness, he cleanses and heals us.  This process can at times feel painful as we admit our wrongdoing and are exposed to the cleansing love of God.

If we are to be what we were created to be as the salt of the earth then we too have a role to be healers.  To reach out to those who are hurt physically or mentally and help cleanse and renew people’s lives as we are able.  Not all of us can be doctors or nurses or miracles workers, some of us have special gifts and training in these areas but all of us as salt are about the desire for healing and restoration.  You are the salt of the earth.

Salt adds flavour.  Salt has been a common flavour for foods for thousands of years.  Just a pinch of salt can add so much to a meal.  It can give it life and zest.  I don’t know about you but I always notice how bland porridge is when I forget the pinch of salt.  Through Jesus life we see him engaging in the joy of life and bringing life and joy to others.  He changes water into wine at a wedding.  He shares meals with his friends and with those who were considered outcastes in the community.  In John he says to the disciples that he has come that they might have life abundantly.

Once again you may have heard that someone is the flavour of the month, or the flavour of a party.  If we are to be salt, if we are to add flavour to the life of each other, then I believe this is about encourage others to enjoy life and to live it.  To embrace the moments of joy and celebration and to remember the value of life.

Salt fertilises. It helps growth, it nurtures. Once again in the ancient world we find that salt was used as a fertilising agent.  Fertilisers assist in the growth and Jesus the teacher is always encouraging people to grow in their understanding of God. He is a teacher and sage.  To be salt means engaging in the task of teaching others.  It means taking the opportunity of sharing you faith and nurturing the faith of others.

Too much salt in fertilising or in our cooking can end up being a bad thing so there is an element here of getting the balance right.  When we share our faith and teach others about Jesus too much can be received poorly.  Teaching takes time and patience and opening up ideas over time.  Last time I preached on this passage here we reflected on the idea of being light shiners and glory givers and we contemplate how to bring God into our everyday language a little more often without adding too much.  Nurturing faith, fertilising growth, is not about dumping and downloading our views on others but weighing up carefully how much to share and when.  You are the salt of the earth – nurturing growth.

And lastly, salt preserves.  In Jesus’ time so long ago salt was one of the only things that could preserve fresh food.  It is difficult for us to comprehend life without refrigeration but for millennia salt was the main thing that preserved food and kept it usable.  Turning to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning Paul makes the claim that when he came among the people he knew nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and dare I say risen as well.  This is the message that we preserve.  That God in Christ has drawn us back into God’s life – given us to be what we were always mean to be the salt of the earth.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are valued and you are valuable.  You are healing and you are flavour.  You are fertilisers and you are preservers.

I want to add one more story about the value of salt.  In the middle ages it is said the custom for feats or dinner party was this.  The closer you sat to the salt cellar the more important you are.  Today as we share bread and wine and remember together Jesus love for us remember that God invites close to the salt cellar that as we dine at this table the salt is within reach for such is our value to God.

Being salt is not what brings us salvation but being salt is about living our salvation.  The saltiness has been restored.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out, sprinkled like salt into your life.  Hear this good news and as you live do not hide the lamp of your faith under a bushel but be a light shiner and glory giver because you are indeed the salt of the earth.