Sermon for Sunday next before Lent – High Mass Sunday 2 March 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Exodus 24.12-end; 2 Peter 1.16-end; Matthew 17.1-9
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
The Transfiguration is a strikingly visual event, with its glorious transformation of the physical appearance of Jesus on the holy mountain. It leaves the disciples stunned. In confusion Peter makes his offer to build shelters to prolong the experience: a proposal Matthew clearly regards as laughable.
It is then that sound is added to light, voice to vision, the voice of God is heard from the bright cloud; that visible symbol of the mysterious presence of God. That voice proclaims: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
This divine command evokes memories of Moses in the first reading, but it also alerts disciples, then and now, to Jesus as the teacher, Jesus whose words and ways are to be obeyed, whose law of love is to shape his disciples. Both his words and his path of suffering and death are to inform and shape the identity and life of his followers.
That combination is reflected in the pattern of our worship. We listen to Jesus speaking to us in the scriptures, in the Gospel. We see and touch and receive him in the sacrament of his presence. This is the shape of all sacramental worship – the word precedes, informs and prepares for the celebration and reception of the sacrament: the sacrament fulfils that word.
Sometimes the words Jesus speaks are transparently clear, their meaning so unmistakeable, their challenge so obvious, we wish it were not so. We know exactly what Jesus is asking us; it’s just that we would rather not do it, at least not this year. At others, we share the confusion, even the fear, of the three disciples.
Today we are also celebrating someone whose medium was not the visual but sound: music and words set to music: William Lloyd Webber who made music to the glory of God in this church and in other places.
One review of the recording our choir made some years ago of Lloyd Webber’s liturgical music describes it as “contemplative” rather than “celebratory.” Some of those high notes may not seem very contemplative, as we usually understand that word, but Christian contemplation is not the same as de-stressing or chilling out. That contemplative quality, said the reviewer, is something the Church’s worship needs. Music can help us explore and express the range both of human feeling and of God’s love for us expressed in the Christ who shared our life that it might be transformed; that it might sing.
The Transfiguration’s rich theological tapestry does include celebration: it looks forward to the resurrection, the ultimate glorification of Jesus. And it looks forward to the transfiguration in him of all humankind and of all creation; the consequence of his assumption, his taking into the life of God, of the material, of humanity and creation, in his incarnation; its reordering in his loving obedience to the Creator; so that it might be the new creation; a new heaven and a new earth. And so, the Church’s life rightly includes the glorious celebration in music and ceremony, art and architecture, of the triumph of Christ. It is the celebration of the Christian hope. Worship is the anticipation of heaven.
But the Church’s worship and life, if it is to be true to its source and its end in God and Christ, must include other and more sombre notes, other and darker colours.
There is no short cut to this glorification. Jesus reaches it only by way of the cross and the tomb. The Transfiguration comes at a crucial point in the ministry of Jesus. He has already spoken of his passion – to the bafflement of the disciples, – and will soon do so again. Jesus will lead the three disciples down from the mount of transfiguration, from that extraordinary spiritual experience, into the reality of human suffering and the clamour of dispute. Jesus will take his disciples down the mountain. There with him they will encounter a suffering boy and his family. After he has healed him, the disciples ask him why they had been unable to do so. In Luke’s version, he responds that this kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer. Our worship must include the contemplation of all this too.
Jesus still calls us up the mountain to pray with him. On Wednesday we begin our observance of Lent; the 40 day fast inspired by his forty days’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness. Those forty days mirror the forty days Moses spent on the holy mountain and the forty years which the people of Israel spent in the wilderness being formed into the people of God after their disobedience at the foot of the mountain.
Jesus summons us into the wilderness with him to fast and pray. In its silence we face, as he did, the cost of our calling and its temptations. In its light we face the reality of ourselves, our shabby compromises and tawdry betrayals, both of God, of others, and of ourselves; our falling short of the glory of God. In its hunger, we learn again our dependence on God. But, we find too, that as the angels ministered to him, so the one who has been tempted as we are, is able to help us. He reaches out to reassure us.
Then, as we move through Lent, our attention is turned more and more to the passion of Jesus, until on that Friday we call Good, we hear St. John, who has no account of the Transfiguration, proclaiming Jesus glorified on the cross.
The Jesus who takes us up the mountain to pray will lead us down into the world too. He who prepared for his ministry in the wilderness, and prepares us for ours, will lead us out with him. The prayer of the Christian, the prayer of the Church, is no escape from pain and suffering, but a deeper encounter with it, an entering into it, a compassion, a suffering with, a bearing of one another’s burdens. The Christian prays in union with the Christ who shared our suffering and pain. So our liturgy with its intercession, and our personal prayer must hold the suffering in its embrace. So, just as we find the same three disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are called to share in that prayer of Jesus, who suffers with all who suffer.
As the prayer of Jesus overflows in active compassion, so too will ours. And that active compassion, that engagement with real people and situations, will drive us back to prayer. Contemplation moves to action and action to contemplation; prayer to work and work to prayer. Contemplation and action inform each other. Our encounters with the world and its needs feed into our prayer. The deeper our union with Christ in prayer, the deeper will be our union with others. Our union with them and the realisation of our need and powerlessness, will drive us to seek a deeper union with Christ.
The more active and involved we are, the busier our lives, the more vital it is that we take time to step back; that we look and listen, both to God and to others and to ourselves. And what is true of our relationship with God is true of our bonds with others. They come undone when we do not listen and look.
This contemplative movement, into and out of prayer, is vital to the life of Church and disciple, not so that we might be successful, but so that we might be faithful. And faithful individuals and communities, discover, in ways they could no more imagine, than the three disciples could have anticipated what would happen on that mountain, that their lives can reflect something of the glory of God.
This is a place of prayer. Part of our mission is to keep this church open as a house of prayer for all people: a wilderness where people can wrestle with their demons, a shelter where they can weep in their sorrows, a mount of Transfiguration where they can glimpse something of the glory of God, and be thankful for the traces of that glory in our lives.
This too is a place where music has been offered to the glory of God for more than 150 years, by Lloyd Webber and many others. Part of our mission is to ensure that it remains where music helps people plumb the depths and scale the heights of God’s love: to sing of what it is to be divine and human made in the image of God.
Places of prayer need communities of prayer; people to pray in them – not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others. It is important that others encounter in us people who care about them as people, as Jesus cared for that epileptic boy, but it is also vital that they see in us people who take our relationship with God seriously: that we are people who pray, and whose lives are changed by that prayer.