Be (Un)Prepared!

July 7, 2013

Harvest

Isaiah 66, 10-14; Galatians 6, 1-16; Luke 10 1-11.

I recently read a story online about a couple and their daughter who emigrated from Hull to Australia after watching a TV documentary about the luxurious life there – and then returned to the UK two months later because of the high cost of living they encountered, the difficulty of getting their favourite foods, and missing their families. It cost them £10K to move to Australia – and now they are back without their furniture, and without a permanent place to live.

I just can’t imagine making a major decision like moving house, let alone moving continents without a lot of research beforehand. Even when we go on holiday, we look up hotels on TripAdvisor and make sure we have somewhere to stay; we make lists for what we pack, and plan out routes  before we set off.

So, the Gospel passage for today, which has been described as ‘The Owner’s Instruction Manual for Christian Mission’ is really rather daunting for me. I tend to follow the Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’, but this passage seems to be saying “Be UNPrepared”. It seems to go against everything that our society regards as sensible – planing things out, taking out insurance, making sure you’ve got the resources to finish something before you start, relying on yourself and your abilities, and so on. What is God saying to us through this passage?

This passage comes in the second half of Luke’s Gospel, after the Transfiguration, when Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. It parallels the sending out of the 12 Apostles in Luke 9, and reflects Luke’s special interest in mission to the Gentiles (in the Bible 12 is the number of Israel and 70 or 72 the number of the whole earth). So this passage is telling us about the wider mission of the church.

Jesus doesn’t minimise the challenges of mission activity – then, as now there will be plenty of resistance to the Good News, fuelled by fear, by indifference, by self-interest as the message of the coming Kingdom challenges the prevailing power structure. Jesus warns his disciples that they will be going as “sheep among wolves”. He warns them that the work will be hard: “The harvest is ready but the workers are few”. He doesn’t give them impossible targets; their job is simply to prepare the ground for his arrival. They are to speak words of peace, heal the sick and announce the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. The implication is that he will do the rest, building on their preparatory work, when he comes.

Some of the instructions Jesus give seem familiar to us as we plan church activities. First of all he instructs his disciples to pray – but the prayers are not for success, but for each other, and for more and more people to become involved with the work of mission. That’s a good reminder for us that mission is not the work just of the ordained, or of trained mission workers, but of every Christian.

Second, Jesus instructs them to go out in pairs, a sensible instruction when we go out into hazardous environments; but it’s not just about our personal safety – it reminds us also that we are part of a Christian community, made up of members with many different skills and talents, all of which may be useful in bringing different sorts of people into fellowship. In today’s world, when there is so much cult of personality, we tend to focus on individuals and what they achieve; it is all to easy to forget the people who support and co-operate with the front line workers, and so play their part in the harvest of mission.  The church has tended to do that too: this story is a useful counter to that. We know the names of the 12 apostles who were sent out, and have made them into saints, and named churches after them. We don’t know anything about these 70 or 72 disciples, not even their names. They stand for the thousands, even millions of faithful Christians who have worked to bring in the Kingdom of God throughout history and continue to do so now.

Jesus also gives them a script to follow. He tells them what to say: “Peace be on this house. The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”  It’s a very simple slogan – short, to the point, affirming. It would even fit into a Tweet!

Modern evangelism courses often try to equip ordinary Christians with a script; but they are rarely as simple and affirming as that. How often have Christians gone into situations speaking words of peace and affirmation? If you look at the media today, the impression given is that Christians are against things and people, and condemn rather than affirm. Perhaps we would do better at bringing in the Kingdom if we went back to Jesus’s script!

These instructions are easy to follow. It is the rest of the manual that goes against our instincts. Every mission initiative that I’ve heard about has involved lots of preparation, lots of expenditure and lots of equipment. But Jesus says: take nothing with you, not even any money, rely on strangers for food and accommodation, accept whatever you’re offered without complaint – in short, travel light!

That might have seemed less strange in Jesus’s time than it does now. Hospitality to strangers was a social obligation in Biblical society in a way it is not for ours. To mistreat visitors brought condemnation of the harshest kind. Later, in a continuation of the passage that we don’t get in the lectionary, Jesus says that it will be better for the town of Sodom on judgement day than for any town that rejects his disciples, reminding us that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality – it was mistreatment of strangers and abuse of hospitality that brought punishment and destruction upon them, not gay sex.

What was Jesus really saying to the disciples with these instructions? I think he was asking them to rely on God, and not on themselves. In our Old Testament reading, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s promise that he will nurture those who serve him as a mother nurtures her children, and protect them as they would be protected in a walled city like Jerusalem. It is that sort of total trust that Jesus asked of his disciples and asks of us. He asks them to make themselves vulnerable when they are engaged in evangelism – and he asks the same of us.  He tells them to eat whatever is put in front of them; that would have been a much harder instruction for observant Jews, with their complex food laws, to accept than it is for us, but it reminds us that we are instructed to rely not just on those who are like us, but also, perhaps on those from a very different culture and with very different tastes from those which the Church has traditionally endorsed.

So how do we interpret these instructions for mission in today’s world? I don’t think it is really telling us to be unprepared in the sense of not spending money or using modern equipment with us when we engage in mission. But it is telling us to keep things simple and to concentrate on the essential of the Christian message and not get sidelined onto peripheral things. It reminds us that often it is the small things, not the grand gestures that advance the Kingdom – things like speaking words of peace and comfort, bringing healing into a tense situation, accepting the hospitality of those different from us, and not making a fuss when things are not done as we think they ought to be done. And things like helping at a foodbank, buying Fairtrade goods, twinning your toilet, or demonstrating for peace and justice.

It reminds us that we must be prepared to work with all sorts of different people to build the Kingdom; in our society that might include government agencies, atheists and humanists and even people of other faiths.

Above all it reminds us that the only equipment we need for mission is trust in the grace of God revealed through the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the message that Paul gives to the Galatian Christians in the letter from which our Epistle reading came. He is advising them to rely on the Holy Spirit, and to live a life based on mutual love and service, rather than relying on the keeping of the Jewish law to bring them salvation. He acknowledges that this path will not be easy: it led Christ to the cross, and may well lead his followers to the same place, but it is the only way to serve God faithfully. What Christ’s followers must trust in is not their own individual talents, or earthly power-structures or miraculous demonstrations, but in God’s commitment to peace and justice, which will ultimately prevail.

So, however little it may seem we have available to us to fulfil the missionary task that Jesus gave us, we are not really unprepared. As Paul assures us, doing what is right, working for the good of all, trusting in the way of the cross will bring the harvest and bring in the new creation for which we hope.

2 Peter, 1, 16-21; Matthew 17, 1-9

Everest

I read an article once about a man who had been the youngest member of the team that climbed Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. He had high hopes of being part of the group that made the final assault on the summit; but just as he was ordered to lead a team of Sherpas to beyond  Camp 4, the final jumping off place for the attempt on the summit, he contracted ‘flu, and was sent back to lower altitudes to recuperate. However, he recovered in time to be back up on the mountain as Hillary and Tenzing returned from the summit; and in later years, he went on to climb other unconquered peaks like Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, technically a harder climb than Everest.

 


Apart from the exhilaration of being so high, these climbs engendered a tremendous sense of comradeship between the members of the climbing teams – and every year, the surviving climbers met up  to relive the experience in a Victorian hotel at the foot of Mount Snowdon in Wales. We are doing something similar here today, remembering the Transfiguration.

Snowdon

I don’t go in for mountain climbing, but I have taken many holidays in  mountainous regions, especially the Alps.  We usually go up to the peaks by railway, with lots of other people, but almost everywhere we have been, it is possible to get away from the crowds, to enjoy the silence and the glorious views. I remember one very special moment, when we were on the top of a peak near Luzern on August 1st, the Swiss National Day. As we stood looking over the snow capped peaks, and the green mountain side going down to the lake, we heard a group begin to play music on Alpenhorns – haunting harmonies that re-echoed around the peaks – heavenly music indeed!

 

Mountains in the Old Testament were very often places of encounter with God. Moses went to the top of a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, and Elijah was on Mount Horeb when God spoke to him in the ‘still small voice’. These were two major figures of the Jewish faith, representing the self-disclosure of God through the Law and the Prophets, and they were expected to appear again on earth at the end of time.

 

 

And in the New Testament, the high points in Jesus’ ministry – the great sermon, the Transfiguration and the Ascension  – all take place on mountains.

 

We can see why people who believed in a ‘three-decker universe’ – heaven above, the earth in the middle, and hell or the abode of spirits beneath – would feel closer to God at the top of a mountain. There is also the fact that mountain tops are often covered in cloud; to be within the cloud makes you feel small and lost and vulnerable – and the cloud or shekinah was a sign of the presence of God in the mind of the Jews. And all of us who have been up mountains can appreciate that the view from a mountain, of creation spread out before you, is a  powerful illustration of the glory of God. What’s more the silence and the thinness of the air there are conducive to religious ecstasy.

 

So it is not surprising that three of the Gospel writers set the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus from his earthly form into the glory of heaven on a mountain top. In this experience, witnessed by his three closest companions among the disciples, Jesus is shown conversing with Moses and Elijah, and is acknowledged, as at his baptism, by a voice from the cloud, as ‘My beloved Son’. It must have been a thrilling moment for Jesus, and for those who witnessed it. No wonder Peter suggested that they should build some shelters on the mountain, and stay there.

Transfiguration

 

But human beings cannot live on the top of mountains. The air is too thin, and there is not enough food or water there to support life. Human beings always have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life at ground level.

 

And that is just what happened to Jesus and his disciples. All three Gospel writers  put the story of the Transfiguration at the turning point of their Gospels. From this moment, literally and spiritually, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. From this time onwards, his teaching is about the suffering and opposition the Messiah must suffer, and the certain death that is to come.

 

The disciples resist this process of being brought down to earth with a bump. They argue against Jesus’ interpretation of his Messiahship. They have seen his glory; surely, they only have to tell others of their experience for them to believe.  Or perhaps they think, the transfiguration can be repeated at ground level, to force people to believe.

 

Only later, perhaps, will they look back and see that the mountain top experience was what gave them the strength to carry on through the agony of the trial and the cross  to the experience of resurrection.

 

Many of us will have had ‘mountain top experiences’ in our religious life – though not necessarily at the top of a mountain. There are, for most of us, times when our faith is strengthened, and we are encouraged to carry on by an overwhelming experience.

 

Perhaps it is the experience of worship, in a large crowd as at Taize; or in a quiet spot imbued with  centuries of prayer, like Holy Island or Iona; or supported by glorious music, such as you find in Kings College Cambridge. Or perhaps a course of teaching prompts us to see our faith in a completely new and exciting way. Perhaps we may have experienced an unexpected healing of body or mind; or perhaps a kind act by someone, or an encounter with  a person of spiritual depth brings revelation and a deepening of faith.

 

But few of these experiences last for long. Sooner or later, we all have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life in the valley , life in all its ordinariness, and with all its problems. Most of us, like Peter, would much rather stay on the mountain, where the glory of God is right in front of our eyes, and there is no room for doubt. However, the voice of God from the cloud will not allow us to stay there. It tells us to listen to Jesus; and Jesus is leading us down again, and along another path to glory, one which goes through the depths, through failure and death, rather than along the heights.

 

We cannot stay on the mountain top. But we can carry the mountain top experiences with us, to inspire us when the going is tough, and to give us a goal to work towards.

 

In our New Testament Reading, we heard how the Christians of the Apostolic Age were sustained in their faith through times of darkness and challenge by the memories of those who experienced the vision of the glorified Jesus, drawing on the mountain top experience as a light shining in the dark places of life.

Those of you who have visited the fjords or Norway may have been told that, during the winter months, the sun doesn’t reach the settlements at the base of the mountains for months at a time. Sometimes, living the Christian faith can feel like living in one of those settlements on the edge of the floor, in perpetual gloom.

 

When we feel like that, we need to treasure our memories of the peaks of faith to give us hope that the glory is there, though hidden from our sight.

 

And we need to build into our lives opportunities to visit the spiritual mountain top on a regular basis, either through reading the Scriptures, through prayer, through using seasons like Lent to strengthen our faith, through being part of the Church’s campaigns or through contact with people through whom the glory of God shines, so that our belief in the possibility of Transfiguration is maintained when we come down from the mountain – as we must.

 

Listen to Him

February 14, 2010

(Exodus 34.29-35; Luke 9, 28-36)

“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, the chosen one; listen to him!”

In our readings today we have two accounts of people listening to God’s voice. Moses went up onto Mount Sinai, and came back with the commandments of God written on two tablets. He told the leaders of the Hebrews, and then all the people, what God had said to him on the mountain. When he had listened to God, his face shone, though he was unaware of it at first.

In the Gospel reading we have Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus. As he speaks to Moses and Elijah, his face shines, and his clothing becomes dazzling white. Then out of a cloud comes the voice of God, telling the awed disciples to listen to Jesus.

In the Old Testament, the voice of God is heard through the Law and the Prophets. Moses and Elijah are a sort of shorthand for these two collections of writings.

In the New Testament, the word of God is heard through Jesus, both in what he does and in what he says. But, as the three Synoptic Gospel writers all emphasise, the disciples find it much easier to listen to the message of God through what they see of Jesus than through what they hear him say. They rejoice to see the power of God at work in the healing miracles; they want to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus shines with the glory of the spiritual world; but they argue with him when he says that the way to that glory goes through suffering, persecution and death on the cross. They heard the words – but they could not accept their true meaning.

The first disciples were able to listen to Jesus directly. But how do we 21st century disciples listen to him? Our main channel is through the written word – especially in the Bible. But the written word has severe limitations. In particular, we cannot hear the tone of voice in which something was spoken, or see the body language that accompanies it. This means that we may get quite the wrong idea about what the speaker really means.

I can illustrate this by telling you about an essay I wrote when I was a teenager at school. We had been asked to write about ‘The Youth of Today’, which I obviously thought was a very boring title, so I amused myself by writing it in the style of ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, saying how undisciplined  young people were and how a spell in the army would do them all a lot of good, etc. When the essay was commented on, and bits of it read out in class, I was horrified to realise that my teacher had taken it all seriously, and thought this was what I really thought. The written word had not conveyed the irony I had intended.

So, when we read the words of Jesus in the Bible we need to ask ourselves how Jesus intended us to hear it. Was he telling a joke when he said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Was he really being as rude as he sounds when he told the Syro-Phonecian woman that the children had to be fed first before the dogs? How serious was he when he said ‘if your eye offends you, pluck it out’? We need to be aware of the possibilities of these different ways of speaking when we read the Bible, and not treat everything Jesus says as if it is a direct command.

The second thing we need to keep in mind is that we don’t have any words of Jesus written by him. What we have are accounts of his words and actions, mediated through writers  and editors, who all have their own agendas, with different understandings of who Jesus is and what his coming means for the Jews and for the world. They also have a different understanding from us of what it means to record the teaching of a person. In New Testament times it was considered perfectly proper to put words into the mouth of a person, if it fitted with the general drift of their teaching. It’s like the sort of thing we get nowadays in ‘faction’ television programmes.

So, we need to listen to those Biblical scholars who try to tease out what are likely to be the authentic words of Jesus, from those which are teachings of the later Christian Church. It is fairly obvious from the differences between the Gospels that their writers added interpretations and explanations to the  teaching they recorded, in order to make it understood by their readers.

Scholars also use various ‘tests’ to make their judgements, such as distinctiveness, teaching that goes against the current religious and social practice, and the use of humour and paradox to try to sift what Jesus said from the common wisdom of the time which was included in the gospels. Using such tests, people like the Jesus Seminar – a group of over 70 New Testament Scholars in America – come out with a much slimmer body of words of Jesus than we get in our four Gospels.

But even if you were to accept all the teaching attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels as genuine, we still have the problem of the editorial bias of the four Gospel writers. Each of them had a subtly different picture of Jesus to convey when they selected and arranged their material, so each only gives a partial picture of his teaching. Mark presents a Jesus who is a suffering saviour and a miracle worker, with very little teaching material apart from a few parables. Mark is also, according to Michael Goulder, a follower of Paul, so he presents a Jesus who sits light to the Jewish Law.

Matthew on the other hand, presents a Jesus who is a teacher, and a faithful son of the Law. He, according to Goulder, was a follower of the Jewish Christian Church led by Peter and James, so he places much more emphasis on Jesus’ teaching, and on the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and on the times that Jesus kept the Jewish Law. Luke’s Jesus is a man of prayer, a friend of women, and an advocate of the poor. So, he chooses to record those parables and those parts of Jesus’ teaching that emphasise these aspects.

The Jesus that the Gospel of John presents is radically different from the other three Gospels. His Jesus is the risen, glorified second person of the Trinity.He tells no parables and does not teach about the Kingdom of Heaven at all. He speaks mainly about himself, in long discourses which use symbols such as light, water and shepherd to convey his message. Almost all of what Jesus says in John’s Gospel is likely to be the words of the writer, not of the historical Jesus.

Most of us are likely to be more attracted to one of these presentations of Jesus than the others, and we will tend to ‘listen’ to the Jesus in our favourite Gospels more readily than to the Jesus of the other three. This is fine, so long as we realise that we are getting only a partial picture of what Jesus is saying to us through the Bible. We need to be aware of all four to get a more rounded picture. We also need to remember that, through his Spirit, Jesus also speaks to us through the rest of the New Testament, through the book of  Acts, and the Epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John, and through the writings called Hebrews and Revelation. All of those present to us the  message of  God which came through the Incarnation, filtered through the minds of other people, but Jesus speaking to us just the same.

Some people, of course, will not hear the voice of Jesus chiefly through the written word. They encounter God as the Spirit speaks to them through art, or music, through their encounters with other people, through solitude and contemplation, or through the glories of nature. For them, the Bible will simply provide a canon – a measure against which to judge the authenticity of their experience of Jesus speaking to them.

We can none of us escape the human bias of the writers who conveyed Jesus’ words to us – nor our own characters and inclinations which provide the filter through which we ‘hear’ God. But if we are truly open to the Spirit, truthful about our own prejudices, humble about our own capabilities and tolerant of the views of others who hear different things – then we are more likely to be able to respond to God’s command to ‘listen to him’.

And how will we know if we are succeeding. Well, surely, the mark of the authentic listener to the Son, is that, like Moses, our faces, indeed our whole lives, will shine with the reflected glory of God.


February 14, 2010

Address for Family Communion + Baptism .Sunday before Lent Reading: The Transfiguration (Luke 9 28-36)

I have here a Russian soldier’s hat that my son brought back from a trip to Moscow many years ago.

Would anyone like to wear it?

Does this transform you  into a Russian soldier. No, you need to be born or live in Russia and to undergo years of training to be a Russian soldier.

Here is a small cassock and surplice, chorister’s robes. Anyone put them on? Are you now a chorister? No. Need to train and practice – wearing cassock & surplice doesn’t transform you into a chorister.

My blue scarf is sign of being a Reader. If I put it on someone else, will that transform them into a Reader? No; you need to have a call to be a Reader and train and be authorised by a Bishop to become one.

It is what is on the inside that makes a person what they are, not what they are wearing on the outside.

In our story today the disciples saw Jesus being changed on the outside. His clothes became shining white. We call it The Transfiguration. The disciples saw Jesus in his glory as the beloved Son of God.

What they saw wasn’t just on the outside. It wasn’t just a change of clothes. It reflected what Jesus was like on the inside. He was filled with the Holy Spirt and glowed with the love and the glory of God. The Transfiguration also showed what Jesus would become like after the Resurrection, when he was raised from death to be with God for ever.

On Wednesday Lent begins. The traditional name for this day is Ash Wednesday, because the ancient tradition of the church is that Christians are marked with ash in some way. In the Bible ash signifies  frailty, mourning, sorrow and repentence.  Ash Wednesday marks  a new start on the road of faith that leads to Passiontide and Easter. Here we will have a quiet service of prayer and reflection, and, if people wish, they can be marked with ash on their forehead or their hands. It is a good way to begin our Lenten devotions – but only if what is done on the outside is mirrored by a change of heart, a renewal of faith, and a determination to live better lives – a change on the inside.

In a few moments we are going to baptise Emma Louise. Some things will happen on the outside.

A cross will be made on her forehead with oil that has been blessed by the bishop; a small amount of water which has been blessed will be poured over her head. She will be handed a candle. And we will say prayers and ask God to send his Holy Spirit on her.

This will make her a Christian, a member of God’s Church and a child of our heavenly Father.

But Emma’s baptism, with its outward and visible signs, is only the beginning of the process. Over the years it will be the responsibility of her parents, her godparents, her family, and all of us as members of God’s Church, to help her to live as a  child of God; to learn to imitate and follow Christ; to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.

We will pray that all these things are done to help Emma to be transformed ( on the inside) by God’s inward and spiritual grace into one of those people who are so full of faith and of the love of God that their whole being is transformed and transfigured by the light of our Saviour Jesus Christ.