Seeing things as they really are…transfiguration…Sunday next before Lent – Adel Parish church.

earth frm space

Seeing things as they really are…sermon on the Sunday next before Lent 2021, for Adel Parish Church.

Mark 9: 2 – 9

I’m not quite old enough to remember the first space flights and moon landings, although I’m told my Dad, very uncharacteristically, stayed up all night listening to the radio coverage. It was, after all, an amazing moment in human history. For the first time we were venturing away from our planet, out to new worlds.

We sent astronauts to the moon wondering what they would find…life? little green men? cheese? But strangely, what blew their minds was looking back at earth from space. It seems that travelling out of their ordinary places enabled them to see the earth as it really is.

From Yuri Gagarin onwards, astronauts who see this view have experienced a sudden awareness of the fragility and unity of life on our planet.

Today’s gospel tells of a similar experience for Peter, James and John. They too step outside normal life. Mark is not a great one for descriptive details, but he makes sure we know Jesus led the three up a high mountain…apart, by themselves. Maybe the first century equivalent of going into space.

And they too have an experience which changes their perspective. They’d been with Jesus daily, they’d listened and watched…but, away from the ordinary, for a moment at least, they encountered God. Dazzling whiteness…old testament prophets…the voice of God…combined in the revelation that Jesus is God.

Most of us will only ever see the earth from space in photos and films. But what of transfiguration, an encounter with God? Is that just something to read about?

Not necessarily…but I think we have to be willing to go to the mountain top. I know…’chance would be a fine thing’, but although mountains help, I think it’s more about finding a way to step out of the everyday. And about openness…entertaining the possibility of something more…the possibility of encountering God.

It could happen anywhere, but for me there’s something important about being apart, away from distractions. I’m looking forward to the going on retreat again…but in the meantime I find the space by going to church for morning and evening prayer.

I know, it’s easy for me – I can put it in my diary as work. If you’re juggling home-working and home schooling it may sound like an impossible luxury. But if you do anything this Lent – perhaps try to find a moment each day or even each week, to be somewhere slightly different, even just a different chair, with nothing to do but focus on Jesus.

There’s no promise anything will happen…I’ve not been dazzled, or heard God’s voice…but just occasionally there’s an almost physical sense of encountering God through the person of Jesus. Our modern world doesn’t have much time for things we can’t explain rationally. But perhaps as people who confess, however tentatively, that Jesus is truly God, we should be ready for the mountaintop experience.

Because those experiences are life-giving and life-changing. I don’t think Peter, James and John were taken up that mountain just for their own well-being. I think it shaped them as disciples.

Many astronauts who view our beautiful planet hanging in the vast darkness of space are profoundly changed. Apparently, they experience three things: first, a realisation of the insignificance and fragility of life; then a sense of how we are all connected to, and responsible for, one another and our planet; finally, they’re struck by a desire to fight for the future, to protect our shared home and all its inhabitants.

It’s as though, from space, they see the earth as it really is…a precious home shared by one common humanity…and it makes them want to act.

I think something similar happened to Peter, James and John. Their first desire is to stay in that amazing moment…‘let’s build 3 tents for you’…but Jesus leads them back down. It’s not what they find on the mountaintop that matters, but how it changes their view of what they left.

This glimpse of Jesus’ divinity stays with them as they follow Jesus to Jerusalem, Gethsemane and the cross. It helps them grasp the impossible idea that God chooses, by all human measures, to be a failure.

They didn’t go up the mountain to discover a superhuman Jesus, but to see more clearly the Jesus back in everyday life. Jesus loving the outcast; Jesus praying in sweat and terror in the garden; Jesus mocked and humiliated; Jesus dying as a common criminal, abandoned by his followers.

That mountaintop experience gave them the confidence, in the end, to stop looking for a saviour coming in glory…and recognise that this is where we find God. It gave them confidence to proclaim this new way of living and form the early church.

I think, sometimes, we need to rediscover that perspective. Time and a different culture can make crucifixion look heroic, exotic. It wasn’t – it was commonplace… mundane, a cruel way of getting rid of the troublesome. In a memorable phrase from Herbert McCabe…’Jesus died of being human.’

And in the end, this is perhaps what the dazzling vision prepares us for…God choosing to be utterly, but perfectly human. Someone who got tired and weary as we do, someone tempted as we are, but who refused to exploit power, to hide behind illusions, to meet hatred with hatred. Someone who, whatever happened, trusted in God, forgave and loved.

Jesus who teaches us what being truly human looks like…

In some ways, living through this pandemic has been a kind of transfiguration experience. We’ve been forced out of normal life…and begun to see it as it really is. Like those astronauts, we’ve seen how we are all one, how we all depend on one another. We’ve seen very clearly how unequal society is.

So this Lent, let’s open ourselves to an encounter with God’s mystery. Let’s use it to give us courage to follow Jesus’ example. And as we become more truly human perhaps we will give others the chance to live more fully too.

‘The light shines in the darkness’…but what if we can’t see it? Rediscovering the language of lament. Sermon for Adel Parish church 7th Feb 2021

depression (1)

‘The light shines in the darkness’…but what if we can’t see it? Rediscovering the language of lament. Sermon for Adel Parish church 7th Feb 2021

John 1: 1 – 14

That has to be one of my favourite bible readings. It brings me out in goosebumps; it transports me back to countless carol services or Midnight Masses…candles lit against the darkness…sharing once again in the miracle of incarnation.

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’

It has been with me when times are tough. I’ve offered it to others as comfort – most memorably in the funeral of a teenage suicide victim. I believe it.

But where does it leave us if we can see no sign of the light shining in the darkness, when the darkness does indeed seem to have ‘overcome’?

Depression is something we tend to avoid discussing…although things are improving. Perhaps that might be one good to come out of this pandemic. I hope so, as stress and isolation have probably increased levels of depression.

I suspect churches have been even worse than wider society at making space to discuss it; perhaps because we struggle to bring it in to our faith story.

I’m sure we reject the idea that enough faith should prevent Christians becoming depressed. But even if we’re sure that’s wrong – we’re not sure where it leaves us when the Christian narrative is one of ‘sure and certain hope’.

First, I think we need to listen to those who’ve experienced depression…because it’s so baffling from the outside. We might see a person who has many reasons to feel ok; who appears physically healthy; who is loved. Who may well believe in Christ…the light in the darkness.

And they can probably list these things too; they know what they should do to make things better…but those same things are impossible.

Here are a few descriptions given by people who know:

‘depression is like an ice pit that you cannot escape from; everything is frozen including emotions; it’s too slippery to climb out.’

‘It’s like eternally grieving for something and never quite being sure what that something is.’

‘It’s a kind of active nothingness, and it feels like it’s consuming everything else.’

‘Depression is a sinking feeling every morning that you are still alive and have to somehow get through this day. Utter exhaustion – lack of ANY joy.’

Hopefully, we’re ready to listen with compassion, just to be there when needed; but where do we find the language, when the story of hope seems to fail?

Actually we do have that language in our faith tradition. Read the psalms and you hear the voices of people in utter despair; people who feel utterly abandoned by God.

Psalm 6: ‘Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths where there is no foothold. I am worn out calling for help; my eyes fail looking for my God.’

Psalm 88: ‘You have taken me from friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.’

There are many more; and these are worship songs, written to help us talk to God. Often, they end with a verse saying…’and yet I will trust in God’…but not always. But they are not statements of disbelief, they are cries to the living God.

There are countless stories in scripture of God’s hiddenness: The psalmists, Isaiah, Elijah, Job. It’s a thread running throughout the bible, the paradox of how God can be so present sometimes and yet so absent at others.

Then there’s the ultimate cry of despair, from Jesus himself on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know, of course, that God had not forsaken Jesus. We suppose that Jesus, who is divine, must know that too.

But Jesus’ cry is not that he ‘feels’ abandoned, in that moment the abandonment is real. Because God did not take Jesus off the cross. Jesus cried in utter despair – and heard no answer that he could recognise.

Yet he cried to God. Somehow his statement of God’s complete absence comes with the presumption of God’s presence. This is not about loss of faith.

So we have this language of lament – we’ve just got out of the habit of using it. St Paul tells us one of the fruits of the spirit is joy – have we somehow come to feel this means Christians should be generally cheerful?

Christian joy though, is not happiness. In our Advent course we struggled with Paul’s instruction to ‘rejoice always’, as if we can be joyful on demand. We can’t of course, yet sometimes we find ourselves hoping people suffering depression will somehow do just this. We made sense of it by reframing joy as knowing Jesus loves us.

John Swinton, in his book, ‘Finding Jesus in the storm’, suggests something similar…joy as an act of resistance against the forces of despair. Joy not as feeling better after the struggle – joy as deciding to struggle. Because, he says, Christian joy isn’t a feeling at all, it’s the presence of Jesus.

Perhaps all this gives no help at all to those in the pit of depression. But it reminds us that feeling God’s absence is a normal part of faith. Our scriptures are full of it, even Jesus experienced it.

Faith isn’t always feeling God’s presence, sometimes it’s hanging on to the memory of his presence…the possibility of his presence. The language of lament gives us words for these times…words that shout at God for being absent, words of despair, but not of disbelief.

This doesn’t take away the horror of depression, or suggest it’s just a worse version of a bad day. But it says depression is not outside the experience of God’s people. Christians struggling to see the light in the darkness – but hanging on to their faith – are perhaps living that faith more fully and more faithfully than when they’re well.

It’s part of many faith journeys – we should be able to acknowledge it and talk about it.