SUNDAY next before Lent 2017 (Matt. 17:1-9)
On the Sunday next before Lent, the Gospel reading is the Transfiguration of Christ. This year we hear Matthew’s account. Jesus takes three of his closest disciples up the high mountain and there they witness the mystical and terrifying moment when he is clothed in his divinity .
Even without this great vision of Transfiguration, mountains have their own mystery and can be terrifying. Go up a mountain and you find different weather, different vegetation – maybe none at all , just boulders – and your view is surely spectacularly different or maybe you will be clothed in mist. In Scotland we have many opportunities to experience these differences and to feel the spiritual strength of these great places.
The story of the Transfiguration of Christ holds a strong echo of that moment in the Old Testament when Moses goes up Mount Sinai and receives the Commandments from God. We have the enveloping mist combined with the dazzling fire and a strong sense of God. And yet there are also some important differences. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus brings his close friends to be witnesses. This vision, it seems, is something for us humans to be part of – even if it is too challenging, too overwhelming for us to bear. God’s presence in the Transfiguration story is also different. Here God is not a silent unknown presence, but a live voice, affirming Jesus as the Son, the Beloved and adding that powerful commandment: ‘Listen to him’.
For the disciples this is all too much. They collapse to the ground, ‘overcome by fear’. And then a very human moment. Jesus comes to them and touches them. ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
In the story of this mountain top experience, there are, I think, some particular riches for us to take forward into our Lenten journey this Ash Wednesday.
Firstly, there is the reminder of our call to be WITNESSES – we are invited – trusted – to go up the mountain and face the challenge as best we can.
Secondly, we are commanded to be good LISTENERS – to attend and be open to unexpected things in our spiritual journey.
And thirdly, there is the assurance that when it is all too much , when we get stuck or overwhelmed, then we have the image of the solitary Jesus TOUCHING the disciples and helping them to their feet. ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
Three treasures to put in the rucksack as we take the Lenten road.
Advent marks the start of the Church’s New Year and is traditionally a time of preparation as we journey towards Christmas – the great Christian celebration that marks the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem. Unlike the hectic pre Christmas preparations that go on in the secular world, the Advent preparation is all about quietness, watching, waiting and being present and alive to the signs of the Spirit. This year’s readings for the 4 Advent Sundays give us some sign posts in our Advent preparation.
ADVENT 1 – LEARNING TO BE GOOD WAITERS
(1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
Modern life makes us increasingly impatient. We expect things to respond at the touch of a button: lights to come on, text messages to go, wheels to turn . Even waiting for a bus has been more or less eliminated thanks to a helpful app on our smart phones. It seems we don’t have time for waiting any more.
Our fore fathers and mothers had to cope with a lot of waiting. News travelled slowly, transport likewise. Every aspect of life took time and still does for people living in rural parts of the undeveloped world. It is certainly good to get rid of time consuming drudgery when there is a helpful short cut but, waiting is surely not all bad. There is an art to waiting and we may be in danger of losing it.
The Bible is full of people who had to wait – wait on the Lord. Abraham was a very old man before he and Sarah were given the gift of a son. Simeon too had to wait until his old age before he saw ‘the Lord’s Messiah’. But Simeon was a good waiter. He trusted in what ‘had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit’ and when he finally held the child in his arms, there was no grumbling about the wait. He praised God. ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.’
Writing to the people of Thessalonica, Paul offers some tips for good waiting – how to wait positively, actively, spiritually. First, he says, ‘restore whatever is lacking in your faith, then ‘increase and abound in love for one another and for all’ and lastly ‘strengthen your hearts in holiness’.
I think it is a good recipe.
Begin with yourself – do a sort of spiritual health check. What do I need to put right or let go of? What do I need to forgive. Then, think of other people – maybe a bit less of my needs, my hurts and maybe notice other peoples’ situations. How can I help? And, thirdly, strengthening the heart in holiness’ Perhaps that will follow on once we have made some progress on the first two.
Learning how to be good waiters. A task for Advent. Something to rejoice in.
ADVENT 2 TIME TO GET GOING (Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6)
Today’s readings seem to be telling us that it is not all about being still. Everything is waking up. We also have to get going and be part of the change.
The verses in Malachi are full of movement and activity: God is sending his messenger to prepare the way, the Lord is coming to his temple and then there is that powerful image of the refiners fire and fuller’s soap – purifying, refining, cleansing. There is a climate of expectancy and urgency as John the Baptist strides through the wilderness areas near the river Jordan, ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance’.
You can’t just sit about and watch the spectacle. It is time to get going and be part of the action. It is up to us to share in the important process of making the paths straight, getting rid of those crooked bits and smoothing out the rough areas.
So many people will be feeling the rough ways this year – in our own country and abroad. Some people will be grieving the loss of loved ones, some will be sleeping rough, some people after fleeing from war zone, and some caught up in the sickness of fear. The words of our prayers for them needs to be spoken through our actions.
Advent 3 The Lord is near (Philippians 4:4-7 , Luke 3:7-18)
Advent 3 brings a bit of a pause in this season of darkness. There is a glimpse of light. The candle for today changes from purple to pink and there are some words to encourage us on our journey:- ‘The Lord is near’ . We are getting closer to our goal. Good news for everyone surely! But the way John the Baptist describes the situation makes it sound like anything but good news. He gives us the image of the axe poised to chop down all those trees that haven’t produced the expected fruit in due season and then there is that figure holding the winnowing fork, ready to gather in the wheat into his barn and destroy the rest, throwing it into the ‘unquenchable fire’. Is this good news or bad news. Where are we?
Well, the choice is ours it seems – we can look the other way, do our own thing, hunker down into our own selfish ways. Or, we can risk a little; shift the focus of our lives away from ourselves and begin to notice the needs of those around us. We can choose the light rather than the darkness and even though we stumble and fall short of our expectations, trust that the Lord is near and if we hang in there, the truth of Paul’s words to the Philippians will be there for us too ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds’.
St SALVADOR’S 75th ANNIVERSARY
Advent Sunday 1st Dec 2013
I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. Matthew 25:31-46
Words from today’s Gospel which was also the reading at St. Salvador’s 60th anniversary back in 1998. This passage has always been important to the life and faith of this church just as it was for that group of people back in the 1930s who came together as a church community in the name of Jesus the Saviour Saint – St Salvador. Important because it offers a vision of Jesus in the heavenly kingdom. He has endured terrible death on the cross. He has saved God’s people and is now risen and ascended to the throne of heaven. He is Christ the King. And, now like a shepherd sorting out his flock: sheep here, goats over there, he sifts the peoples of the world and opens the gate of heaven to the righteous.
And who are the righteous? Who are the people who make it into heaven. Well curiously it is not the religious types who never miss church or forget their prayers. No, the people who find the road into heaven are the ones who throughout their lives noticed the needs of others. The people who bothered – bothered to cross the road, go the extra mile to help someone – a stranger perhaps – and bring food, water, words of kindness, whatever was needed.
This sorting process, it seems to me, is not so much a judgement as a remembering. Jesus does not question or interrogate those who come before him, he just remembers – remembers how it was for him when he was in distress. Who dared to get involved – come close and attend to his need and the need of those around him? He remembers, but those who did the kindness have totally forgotten. When was that? ‘When was it that we saw you hungry?’ Jesus replies ‘Truly, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. What we learn here is not just that Jesus is present – right there – wherever and whenever people are in distress but also that the folk who did the caring (the righteous) have a real humility. They don’t keep a record of what they do, hoping for a pat on the back or a reward at the end of the day. Attending to others – meeting their needs, showing kindness and love – is just what they do. I was hungry and you gave me food.
Churches down the years have sought to follow this way of bringing help and healing to people in distress – just as Jesus did in his earthly life. And here at St Salvador’s, we too in our modest way, have tried to do the same through the Food Initiative. But when we set it up, a year ago now, we too had to learn a bit of humility because… no body came. Then gradually, one or two brave folk turned up, accepted a cup of coffee and a bag of food, shared a bit of their story, and become part of the project. And these, surely, are the people who have given this initiative meaning and purpose. We, with the help of our sister churches and others are able to offer the food – but they made the journey. They dared to come into the unfamiliar and maybe scary interior of a church, meet strangers like ourselves, ask for food, take home a bag, maybe share it with a neighbour or friend, make a meal for the family and transform it into a gift of love. Our Food Initiative is a shared enterprise – a community involving lots of different people – but it is the people who take the food home, share it and prepare it who have brought it to fullness. And let’s not forget the chat, the uplifting conversations, the laughter, and the moments of feeling humbled by people’s courage, strength and ingenuity.
I was hungry and you gave me food
Food – the shared meal – is also the central focus of our Sunday worship. Every week we celebrate and share the bread and wine, symbols of Christ’s self giving love. And the words we hear at the heart of this Communion Service (sacrament) are : ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ Do this in remembrance of me is not so much about repeating the ritual in church (though that is important) but about doing the business. Doing something real – meeting a need –welcoming a stranger –sharing a cup of tea and enabling humanity and love to flourish. And it is not only about individual acts of kindness (important though they are) but about coming together as a community where something bigger that the individual parts is created. And in a way, our Food Initiative – from the donated bag of pasta to the prepared meal in someone’s home and all the stages and people in between is a kind of community of love – a sacramental venture: I was hungry and you gave me food. .
So 75 years – what now for the way forward
In the orders of service for service of celebration there are some photos about where this church has been in the past and where we are now. There is a sign going back to war time and a picture of donations of food at the Pentecost service earlier this year. And then: the final photo – man and duck
So what is that about? Am I having a laugh – a bit wacky perhaps.
Well, perhaps, but let’s look a bit closer. Maybe there’s a bit more going on. Have you noticed that the man is kneeling – making himself the same height as the duck – not trying to dominate or shoo it away. He has humbled himself. And can you see how man and duck are really attending to each other. There is real respect, communion, love – actually they look quite similar. And the man’s hands are folded in prayer. Maybe he is praying for the duck, maybe listening to the duck’s prayer, thanking the duck for not flying away and leaving him alone, or maybe they are both praying for the needs of the world and even for us; that this church may always reach out to others and witness to the love of Christ. Amen.
Cartoon by Michael Leunig from ‘A Common Prayer; A Cartoonist Talks to God’ 1997 Lion Publishing
2013 Thoughts on Lent – February reflection by Rev Nicola Moll based on Matthew 6, 1-21