Sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk on the Sunday next before Lent
Theology books…an occupational hazard – often a joy…sometimes hard work. One theologian I found difficult is Jurgen Moltmann. Then one day I read his personal story.
It tells of his idyllic German childhood; but then of chaos as the war ended: manning anti-aircraft guns as a teenager; seeing friends killed; of conscription into the German army and surrender before firing a shot.
At 18 he was in a Scottish prisoner of war camp. With no news of his family or hope for the future, all he could do was dwell on his experiences. Then came photos of what had happened in German Concentration camps.
In his own words… “Slowly and inexorably the truth seeped into our consciousness, and we saw ourselves through the eyes of the Nazi victims. Was this what we had fought for? Depression over the wartime destruction and a captivity with no end in sight was compounded by a feeling of profound shame at having to share in shouldering the disgrace of one’s own people…”
Obviously you’re hoping for a happy ending – and for Moltmann it came through two things – Scottish families who befriended the prisoners without reproach or blame, allowing them to feel human again – and a bible, which at first he read only out of boredom.
His words again… “Then I read Mark’s gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now. I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew he understood me. I summoned the courage to live again and I was slowly but surely seized by a great hope for the resurrection…”
So began a journey that at 92 still continues. Thanks to British prisoner of war camps he finished his education, becoming a theologian. His first book?…the theology of hope. I will try his theology again, but I doubt it will speak more powerfully than his story of encounter.
Today’s readings reminded me of that story. There’s Moses, descending the mountain a second time with the ‘tablets of the covenant’…the stones containing the laws that bind the people to God. So we might expect a discussion of laws, some theology if you like…but Moses’ face somehow steals the show.
His face ‘shone’. It’s hard to imagine what that looked like…but he must have been physically transformed in some way by his encounter with God. That’s what people remembered…evidence that an encounter with God changes us.
But here’s the odd part…they couldn’t cope with Moses’ glowing face. He had to put a veil over it. Here’s a story saying that being God’s people is about encounter, about relationship…but they don’t want to know.
Perhaps they were scared– didn’t want to risk that sort of dramatic change. It seems they were happier with the predictability of laws and rules and letting Moses do the encountering.
Richard Rohr, writing about this story, suggests churches have often done the same…that we’ve somehow ended up with the impression that other people can know God for us. That we can have second hand knowledge of God, letting theologians, the bible, or maybe our clergy do the encountering for us while we concentrate on rules, or on what it is we’re supposed to believe.
What of today’s other story…the transfiguration? Here the disciples see Jesus, their friend, teacher, healer…but so transformed he’s ‘dazzling white’. A pretty big hint that in meeting Jesus they were encountering God.
But again we have that odd thing…’they kept silent, and in those days told no one what they had seen’. Why? Did they think no one would believe them? Did they hardly believe it themselves? Could they just make no sense of it?
In the end, of course, they must have told someone…did they realise this odd story said something important about Jesus? Or once Jesus was no longer there did they just realise how important it was to share their stories? That each encounter taught something different about God – and theirs was an important bit of the bigger picture of faith?
There is some complicated theology in the New Testament – John’s gospel and Paul’s letters… But mostly it’s stories…stories of encounters with Christ.
Why? Not because they explain God, or give us answers. But because it’s stories of meeting Christ that make faith real…that make other people interested…That put together, make sense of each other.
And we all have faith stories to share – otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Of course most of our stories are not as dramatic as the ones we’ve heard today – but that doesn’t matter. Every faith story is a story of encountering Christ. Every faith story tells us something about the one we follow. Put together, they tell us much more.
It’s a belief in the power of stories that’s behind our Lent course this year. You regularly hear bits of my story, Matthew’s story…but there’s nothing special about our stories. The Lent course is about sharing the stories of the people you sit beside each week.
Some people are going to stand up at the front and tell their stories. Don’t worry, we’re not asking the rest of you to do that. But we hope you will come and support them…perhaps comment…perhaps share your story in a small group…perhaps just listen and see whether the story resonates with something in your life.
We’re not expecting rehearsed theology, neat explanations – we’re just going to think about people, places, music, anything that’s revealed something of God to us…and we hope that by sharing these stories, all our journeys of faith might be enriched.
I can hear some of you thinking…’I’ve not got much of a story to tell’…really? What could be more exciting than an encounter with the living God?