Sunday, 10 February 2013

Transfigured humanity - glory in weakness

Here’s a verse from today’s Gospel reading (Luke 9.28-36):

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  

It’s only St. Luke who tells us that when the disciples went up a hill for the purpose of prayer, they were really too tired to do the job. But while he is praying, Jesus is transfigured in their midst; the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear to bear witness to the glory of God revealed in Christ.

 What do words like “transfigured” or “transfiguration” and “glory” mean to you? Writing in the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons declared:

The glory of God is a man fully alive.
You can see it in our Gospel reading. Not only Jesus, but Moses and Elijah also, appear before the disciples in “glory.” It’s a dazzling vision which contrasts with the state of the disciples, Peter, James and John. They are “weighed down with sleep.” They try to respond to the vision with that strange offer by Peter to build three dwellings - it’s an inadequate response, an attempt to deal with something beyond their understanding. St. Luke’s Gospel tells us: “Peter did not know what he had said.” It might make us think of our own inadequacy when we say that we are simply lost for words. And then the disciples find themselves reduced to terror as a cloud covers them. The cloud signifies the presence of God - and the disciples hear God speak: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” When the disciples return down the Mount of the Transfiguration they are asked to heal a young boy - and they fail. Where is the effect of God’s glory on them?

We need to go back to those words of St. Irenaeus which I quoted: “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” That’s what we see in Jesus - the Son of God, but at the same time fully human. The glory of his Transfiguration is not something alien coming upon him. The Transfiguration of Christ reveals the true glory, the real nature of a man who some want to write off as “all too human.” Our humanity is a calling to share the glory of God. Our weakness is something to be transfigured. God can use us because we are human.

Glory is not something to escape into from our human condition. Glory is revealed because we are human with all the frailty and frustrations of being what we are. But we wrestle with the frailty and frustration. (Here) at St. Cuthbert’s this morning we can’t help but be conscious of the loss we share by the death of Ian Severs on Friday evening. I wonder what people who didn’t know Ian made of him when they first met him? They’d find him in a wheelchair. With his Parkinson’s the words didn’t always come out right, limbs didn’t always behave properly; and he’d lost a leg - and had an arm that was barely functioning. You needed to get to know Ian a bit to start to know the man - and to recognise just how important he’s been, not only to the members of his family, not only to his friends, but to us as a church, and more widely in showing what it is to be fully alive even in the most extreme conditions of physical weakness and disability. He was with us (here) in church at the Eucharist last Sunday. In the conversations I had with him during the last week he didn’t say that he’d been feeling unwell; he did say he’d had a positive outcome from his last hospital check-up - but mainly he was taken up with tackling problems of fabric we’re having at present in the church and the hall. Problems they are to us - but Ian’s approach was to sort them out.

 There’s much more we need to say about Ian - and to share with one another. His death is a grievous loss. But we see in his approach to prolonged illness an example of how to live. Where should he sit in church, he’d asked, when he couldn’t fit his wheelchair into a pew? For me it’s always been important that he should be at the front. Not just so he could join in the service better - but so he could show us what and who we are.

 “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” That doesn’t mean being fighting fit, intellectually brilliant or the funniest person around. It means being open to what God can do in us.

Today our Diocese of Durham is encouraging us to observe as “Giving Sunday.” It’s up to the parishes as to what they do with the occasion - and it’s not the best time of year, I think, to be trying a stewardship drive… to encourage people to put more money on the plate, or think about increasing  their standing order for the church, or review the Gift Aids they might use to make their giving more tax efficient. Of course we’d be delighted if you do all these things. But perhaps we need first to think of life as a gift - in all that we receive from God, in the extent of God’s mercy, in the generosity to which we are called as Christians to respond, in what we can give back. It’s a time to express gratitude. I and the Church Council need to say thank you to all of you who give to support the work of our church. I don’t need to say how much you should give. I realise that some people get concerned about what they can give. What I’d say now is that our giving is about recognising the gift we have already received. As to the extent of our giving, it’s a strange thing but people who are generous somehow find themselves able to go on being more and more generous. Love itself does not count the cost.

I’m pretty hopeless at thinking of how to conduct so-called “stewardship campaigns” to stimulate giving to the church - I’m not starting a campaign now. But when we’ve had them in the past (at St. Cuthbert’s), I’ve been glad for people who have been practical about what we needed to do and who were ready to take a lead. One of those people was Ian Severs. It was Ian  who was ready to get up in front of other people and tell them what we needed to be doing. He put into practice what we needed as an example. He was down to earth.

And that’s when we see that the “glory of God” is not something unworldly. It’s worked out in the here and now, within the limits of our human capability, but at the same time able to be transformed - transfigured.

For all we have received - in terms of wealth, health (and our weaknesses), material resources, and above all people who show us his grace at work, in whom his glory is revealed, thanks be to God!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Candlemas - light in darkness is more than processions with candles

Here are some words which are perhaps difficult to take in at first hearing, but they bear thinking about:

As we share our lives with the powerless, we are obliged to leave behind our theories about the world, our dreams and our beautiful thoughts about God to become grounded in a reality that can be quite harsh. That is where we meet God, God who is Emmanuel, God-with-us. There God is present, hidden in wounded humanity, hidden in the pain of our own hearts.

The writer of these words is Jean Vanier who founded the community known as L’Arche. He came from a background of privilege. He was born in Geneva while his father was on diplomatic service. His father became Governor General of Canada. He himself served in the Royal Navy for several years from the end of the Second World War, but he left to study philosophy in Paris where he gained his doctorate. Returning to Canada he taught and became a Professor. He had privilege, education, intellect and ability - everything you could want, you might say.

But something was lacking. He became aware of the needs of people with disabilities - especially learning disabilities - people in their thousands who had become institutionalised, the passive recipients of whatever care might be given to them. And he recognised a perception that people with such disabilities had nothing to give - they could only be cared for. It was a perception that Vanier believed needed to be challenged. In 1964 he invited two men with disabilities to join him in sharing his home. In 1969 the first of the communities of L’Arche was established in Canada. The first community in the UK was set up in 1973. And now it exists in over 40 countries. There are 137 communities with over 5,000 members.

L’Arche is more than a success story in terms of its growth and membership. It’s what lies at its heart that is so important: the equal membership of people with and without disabilities; the recognition of what each member might bring; cooperation with individuals and agencies which bring professional expertise; a grounding in Christian faith, but a faith which is respectful of other traditions. And I’m struck by those words with which I began which sum up the whole outlook of its founder: about the sharing of our lives with the powerless; about the need to leave behind our theories of the world; about recognising that faith in God is more than a matter of beautiful thoughts but is grounded in what might often be harsh realities.

The words I’ve quoted come from a book which Jean Vanier has just published. When I checked out his biography I discovered that he was born in September 1928. He’s 84 - just a month older than my mother, 11 months younger than my father. Jean Vanier has dedicated the last 50 years of his life to living and working with people who have disabilities - people who might easily be written off. I think I need to know more of what has sustained him - perhaps to read this latest book and not just the snippet I’ve found and quoted.

I’m encouraged that he’s still going strong at 84. And notice that one of the characters in today’s Gospel reading is 84 - Anna, a “prophet,” who recognises in the child Jesus something special which impels her to praise God and tell everyone about this baby which Mary and Joseph have brought to the Temple. Simeon - another godly man whom we encounter in the same story - is also traditionally thought of as old:

“It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”

That’s what St. Luke tells us - it seems that death could not be far away for Simeon, and having looked upon Jesus he says that he is ready to die. A life’s work has been fulfilled because God has revealed his salvation in the Christ-child, so - “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” as the prayer book translates Simeon’s words.

I’ve wrestled with this reading for today. Here are old Simeon and Anna - and they are fulfilled. They are elderly, but still about their work, still full of hope, still attuned to God and ready to hear what he is saying.

My mother - at the age of 84 - has just managed to get back to services in her church during the last couple of weeks after some months away. She is a person of faith, sustained throughout her life by that faith, putting it into practice, perhaps rather too dogged in her determination to do the things she thinks are right. She’s back in church because she is free to get there now that she’s no longer able to care for my father at home. We’re praying for my father in our church at present amongst those who are in need of healing - but I know that physically it’s not going to happen. And there is life’s cruelty - my mother able to carry on, like old Simeon in the Gospel story, like Anna and Jean Vanier who are also 84. But it takes two people to get my father out of a chair. A stroke, blindness and deafness have taken their toll over the years, an arm is now quite useless, incontinence and depression are a fact of his life. Everything points to a still further deterioration that could drag on for who knows how long. And I have to ask myself, where is the good news in that? - where is he to find hope? - what sort of meaning does this have?

I’m grateful for those who ask me how my parents are managing. I’m sorry that sometimes I can’t say much more than it’s all quite horrible. It’s a rather inarticulate response. T. S. Eliot puts it rather better in his meditation, “A Song for Simeon:”

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Perhaps Simeon knows all too well his frailty and the nearness of death. For Jean Vanier it is an important thing not to live with false illusions, to recognise harsh reality - but there to find God.

“This is where we meet God…” Vanier realised. In lives shared with people who are quite powerless, who might easily be written off, who are dismissed as having nothing to offer. He’s “hidden in wounded humanity… in the pain of our own hearts.”

And he’s called “Emmanuel,” which means God-with-us. That’s why we celebrate today’s Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Because these two old people, Simeon and Anna, so near the end of life encounter this family of Mary, Joseph and a 40-day old child who can do nothing for himself. And in this child they see God’s purpose revealed. Jesus himself comes as one who is quite powerless, entirely dependent on the care of others - “the Word without a word,” but one who speaks to us because he is God sharing the fullness of humanity, declaring it in life and joy, affirming it even in brokenness and death.
This is today's Homily, preached at St. Cuthbert's, Benfieldside and St. John's, Castleside. The Gospel Reading was Luke 2.22-40. The Homily can be found as a download if you click here.