(NEVER) Mind the Gap!

Sermon preached on the 6th August 2017 – Feast of the Transfiguration

Readings Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14;   Luke 9: 28-36  

Today’s Feast of the Transfiguration is perhaps one that doesn’t register in our thoughts as often as it might! For some of us, in fact, the term “Transfiguration” may be associated less with the Bible than with J K Rowling’s “Harry Potter” stories – where Transfiguration classes develop the art of changing one object into another.

And if you’ve seen anything of the Athletics heats taking place in London, just now, you’ll have seen an equally dramatic “change of appearance” on the faces of the athletes, as they move through nervous anticipation, to focused preparation, to determination and then to relief, or anguish, or elation – depending on how they fare.

Of particular note, of course, was Mo Farah – whose eyes almost seemed to precede him along the track and he willed himself to victory – followed by the gentle smile of success – and then, an altogether different smile, of contentment and pride, as his family joined him on the track to mark the end of his running career. Within a few minutes, it seemed, the changes in the facial expressions of one man revealed a number of truths about him. All of them good.

In the biblical accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration – his appearance is changed, before the weary eyes of his closest disciples. This was clearly quite an experience for them – not only the dazzling vision of the transfigured Christ – but also the appearance of Moses and Elijah – heralding Christ’s own imminent departure.

Curious then, perhaps that “in those days they told no one any of the things they had seen.” That final sentence, from today’s reading, is a bit like the end of Mark’s account of the Resurrection – when those who discover the empty tomb “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”.

In both cases, it seems an odd reaction to a truly mind-blowing encounter. Were they “afraid” that no-one would believe them if they did speak about thee things?
Were they not actually sure that they themselves could believe their own eyes? Were those on the mountain, described as being “weighed down with sleep”, perhaps wondering if they’d dreamt the whole thing? Or was it simply TOO profound an encounter for them to relate? After all, we’re told that those on the mountain with Jesus were “terrified”, as the cloud overshadowed them.
Whatever their reasons for keeping quiet – they have been drawn into a meeting of two worlds – heaven and earth – in which the changing appearance of Jesus reveals his true identity; his true nature; his true glory.

In this diocese, some years back, there was an oft-repeated phrase from St. Irenaeus -”the glory of God is a human being fully alive”
-”the glory of God is a human being fully alive”

And I found that phrase coming to mind this week on the back of a very different kind of encounter – recorded on a documentary for Channel 4, called “An Old People’s home for 4 year olds”.

Someone had decided to see what would happen, if the energy and curious enthusiasm of group of young children were unleashed upon the residents of a rather sedate and very plush retirement home – some of whom were used to children, some of whom were decidedly not!


One particular resident, Hamish – a slightly grumpy looking man with an artificial leg – seemed to undergo a transformation ALMOST as dramatic as Jesus’, but without really admitting it!
He was adamant, before the children arrived, that this was all a pointless exercise – which would not benefit anyone and would doubtless end in tears.
And, true to form, as the children arrive, we see him sitting in his usual chair, reading his newspaper as a kind safety barrier between him and them.

But he doesn’t know about children – and if he’s not going to initiate the conversation, then 4 year old Amiya is. And soon Hamish finds himself cheerfully answering a barrage of questions.

Before long, this self-professed sceptic – who really has no time for these children or this silly experiment – is to be seen lying on the lounge floor, playing dead, and then roaring to the delighted squeals of the children.
He just seemed to forget that he was supposed to be grumpy – and, for a while, we glimpsed the 4 year old Hamish peeping out from an older shell.
And there were other transformations. One lady, who had no children or grandchildren of her own, and had just lost her husband – rarely moved from her chair and was displaying signs of depression. She found herself “adopted” by one particular girl who just wouldn’t leave her sitting there to mope. Quite remarkably, she changed before our eyes.

There was a sports day – with the slightly scary sight of normally gentile octogenarians pushing themselves to new limits – three-wheeled walking aids whizzing along the track at speeds they were not designed for –
but, fortunately, no casualties!

There was an end of term assembly – for the children’s parents – with both residents and children side by side.

It was a really moving encounter – on lots of levels.
In some cases it quite literally seemed to bring back to life some who’d really given up on living. Young and old together gave a glimpse of what it is to be “fully alive” – and it left you wanting to see more of this, not on the TV screen, but in the community at large.

We live in a society in which the generations seem to be more separated than ever – both by the rapid pace of change and differences in upbringing – and also by the heightened concern to protect children from unfamiliar adults.

That protection is necessary – as is the need to protect vulnerable elderly people. And yet, there must be a way to provide safe spaces where the generations can encounter each other – and where young and old can help each other to a fuller understanding and engagement with life itself.

And I think there’s a challenge in that for us:
can we find ways to make this parish church OR perhaps the people of this parish church the natural “meeting space” for people of different ages and backgrounds?

Can we somehow draw our disparate neighbours to each other – in ways that will allow us all to discover, or perhaps rediscover, hidden depths within ourselves – the glory which is a human life lived as fully as God intends.


This year there have been lots of things bubbling up here – signs of new life budding into growth.

Now is a good time, I think, to really take stock and see how we might develop some of those things – to benefit more of us, and more of those living around us.

I’m hoping we’ll have an opportunity to do just that, after the holiday season is over, with another Parish Planning day – something we haven’t done for quite a few years now.

And so, before then, during this relatively quiet time of the year, can we consciously think back, and look out, for examples of other social groups and church projects that inspire us?

Are there ideas which we could explore – simple ways of reaching and connecting people which we could offer?

And if you CAN think of encounters of this kind, that have impressed and moved you, please don’t follow the disciples lead, and keep it to yourself!
It may just be the good news we all need to hear.

At the transfiguration of Jesus, God’s glory is revealed to ordinary people through the transformation of one Man.
Let us hope and pray and work for the transformation of our lives and those of our neighbours – in such a way that God’s glory shines through us all.

Problematic prose, a prig, a prelate and a people’s princess!

Sermon preached on 3rd September 2017

Readings: Romans 12: 9 – end ;  Matthew 16: 21 – end 

Very often, at this time of year, I’ve reported back with my allegedly profound thoughts, – having taken some time off and ploughed through a whole stack of books.
This year I’ve been rather less successful – on both counts – and during these past few days of summer holidays, I’ve resorted to the television for relaxation instead: Roald Dahl would not have been impressed!

And yet – there was food for thought – even amidst that unplanned viewing. Two programmes in particular came to mind as I pondered today’s readings.

I’ll come to them in a moment but first, just to reflect that both readings are pretty familiar to us – every Lent we sing “Take up thy Cross” – and the sentiments of the first reading are echoed strongly in the hymn we’ll sing shortly, “When I needed a neighbour”.

Both readings also have a “catch” – one phrase that suddenly jars and leaves us scrabbling to make sense of it.

“Let love be genuine”, our first reading begins positively – and then goes on to details what that means.
The “problem phrase” comes at the end where we’re encouraged to help our enemies because “by doing this you will heap burning coals upon their head”.

That seems a rather odd reason for doing something good – is Paul saying “be kind to someone who doesn’t like you because, in the end, you’ll make it worse for them”?
That doesn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the passage – and Paul has in fact borrowed that verse from Proverbs – but he’s clearly included it for a reason.

Perhaps this is just a slightly strange figure of speech – meaning that, by showing kindness to an enemy, we confound their way of being – that we do in fact “overcome evil with good”. Or maybe that’s just what I hope it means!

Cue programme one – a documentary marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.
On Thursday evening, as I waited in vain for one of our cats to come in from the garden, I found myself sucked into an hour long reflection on the extraordinary scenes that surrounded Diana’s funeral – so many people, from all walks of life, weeping openly in what we were told was a very un-British display of emotion.
And it’s the reason for that response – the reason why so many different kinds of people felt drawn to show their respects – that I think might be relevant here.

Very many of those people had, of course, never been anywhere near Princess Diana – had no real idea what she was like in person.

Some of those people who wept for her, would probably have been pretty hostile to anyone else who’d enjoyed the kind of wealth into which she was born. The “class wars” of the 80s were still not that far behind us.

And yet, by the time of her death, there were very few people who dared to speak against the People’s Princess.

I suspect that one of the reasons why so many people did feel drawn to her – did feel that they knew here – is that we’d been used to seeing images of her, our beautiful young princess, spending time with those whose were less than beautiful – embracing those disfigured and isolated by illness, cradling malnourished children,
loving the unloved.
It’s very hard to dislike someone we’ve seen expressing such love and acceptance of others – whatever their own background. Perhaps that is why Diana drew such large and varied crowds at her funeral.

And perhaps that’s what lies behind Paul’s words – and the burning coals. Perhaps the best way to deal with hatred or division is to show such kindness to those who hate us – that we simply make it impossible for them to go on thinking and behaving in that way.

Onto our Gospel then and, for me, the snag here is that paradoxical phrase “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. However we interpret those words, losing our life for Christ’s sake doesn’t sound a very inviting prospect.

Cue second TV experience – a rather longer viewing experience from even longer ago.

Back in 1993 Anthony Hopkins starred in a film called “The Remains of the Day” – appearing as “Stevens”, a very proud and devoted butler in a large Country House during the 1930s.
Stevens is definitely NOT prone to any un-British displays of emotion!

He is completely devoted to his employers.
His role within the household IS his life.

Even when he begins to suspect that his Lordship is welcoming some rather unsavoury guests, he will not utter or hear a bad word spoken against him.

Stevens’ life is based on duty and service – and that’s all there is to it. He is so devoted to serving others that he simply doesn’t HAVE a life of his own – and as the final scene fades, with an aging Stevens gazing out into the grey skies of a rather changed, post-war England, we’re left with a strong sense that this was a wasted life – a man devoted to a world that has gone, a man whom life has passed by.

Fortunately, Stevens is only a fictional character – but one with the power to move us, and caution us, about getting sucked into artificial systems and other people’s demands.
Surely that is NOT the kind of self-sacrifice that Jesus has in mind, when he spoke of “losing our lives”?
As it happens, I was rescued from my dark ponderings by the Radio – and another, very real, voice from the past.

A short clip was played, on Friday morning, of a recording of the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, who has just died. And I was struck instantly both by how familiar that voice sounded AND the fact that I’d entirely forgotten about him.

He had the rather difficult task of succeeding Cardinal Basil Hume – one of those rare people who just seemed to exude some kind of “personal holiness”. And, like Diana, Basil Hume was well connected – both by family ties and through the generations of public school boys he taught at Ampleforth.

Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was none of those things – and just seemed so completely and utterly different.
He was a very large man who somehow still managed to fade into the background – never seeking the lime-light for himself.

When he needed to speak out he did – I can remember him very ably deflating Richard Dawkins when he was at his most provocative and anti-Christian.
For the most part, however, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was content just to be there in the background – dependable, faithful, gentle presence – a committed servant of the Church, but very definitely still himself: a very human Archbishop.

And perhaps that’s a better model for us than the fictional Stevens – a better response to Jesus’ call to service.

As a Church we are called to provide that same, dependable, loving presence for all our neighbours – neither seeking publicity or glory for ourselves, nor allowing ourselves to be worn out by unthinking drudgery.

As individual Christians, we are called to give our lives to the service of others, but not to forget who we really are.
That call, it seems to me, is not so much a call to sacrifice our own identity, but our selfish pride – to live in such a way that we can both be fully ourselves and engage fully with one another.

To “give our lives” in that way is to gain more than we lose –
as we discover what it really means to live in communion with God and our neighbour.