Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday 22 February 2009 - Transfiguration and Transformation

This sermon is based on the story of the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-9



When the television show 'Grumpy Old Men' first made an appearance, my husband and I enjoyed watching it immensely. We'd sit there, laughing, and we both agreed that - yes - my husband is a grumpy old man.

But then, one Christmas season, I got my comeuppance, didn't I?

Because there was a new show on television called 'Grumpy Old Women'. And my husband laughed at me and said 'You're a grumpy old woman!' And I had to laugh and agree with him.

The gist of all the comments of the grumpy old men and women, of course, is that things were better 20, 30, 50 or even 100 years ago.

They say that when most people yearn for the 'Good Old Days', that they yearn for a mythical Golden Age that they most likely didn't live through. That era is part of the story of 'When we were a great society'. And it may not be a real era at all.

I'm not sure about exactly when the British golden era was, but I have a fair idea of what it looks like: A farming village in mid-summer that Constable could have painted, with happy obedient children in their Sunday best walking to church with their plump, rosy-cheeked parents.

And we hear the British Christian media harking back to that golden age a lot. Whenever it was, that age was 'When we were a Christian society'.

Transfiguration and Transformation

I think Mark's Gospel gives us some hints that when Peter, James and John went up to the mountain-top with Jesus that they were yearning for a Golden Era of Israel.

Just before his excursion up the mountain, Jesus has told the twelve that the Messiah must suffer and die and Peter has rebuked Jesus for saying such things.

But the experience on the mountain-top, now that's more like it! I reckon this experience is a lot more like what Peter, James and John had in mind. The three of them, alone with Jesus and two great immortal - literally - figures of Israel's Golden Age: Moses and Elijah.

The Transfiguration is a divine manifestation of God on earth.

Peter wants to stay here. In his mind, this is why he became a disciple of Jesus. This is what he's been waiting for. As far as Peter is concerned, this place on the mountain is the Real Deal. The goal has been obtained.


But the Transfiguration is also a transformation.

The Transfiguration doesn't bless the past or the idea that God's people need to go back to a Golden Age. As with all supposed Golden Ages, that Golden Age of Israel never actually existed.

And the Transfiguration certainly doesn't call us to stay in the present.

When the disciples look like wanting to bask in the glow of this fantastical other-worldy moment, Jesus moves them all smartly down from the mountaintop back into the everyday world.

The Transfiguration is about moving into the future, but it's not a future that will look like that Golden Age that we are imagining.

It's not the future where the Messiah cannot die, as Peter imagines. And it's not a future where Jesus is going to be a supernatural conquering king, as James and John imagine when they ask him, just a few verses from now, to sit at his right and left when he reigns in glory.

The Transfiguration is a transformation: not only of the world but also a transformation of our way of thinking about God and his Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God, and God himself, are not to be found only on the mountain-top and only in the Spiritual Realms, they are also to be found in the nitty-gritty of everyday life.

In Matthew's Gospel, this story stands right at the transition-point between the first part of the Gospel in which we hear about Jesus' ministry and teaching. And the second part of the Gospel in which we hear that the Messiah must suffer and die.

This glorious manifestation of God doesn't come at some triumphant point in the life of Jesus. It comes at the point when the disciples and the readers are only just beginning to come to terms with the idea that Jesus' glorious divine mission on earth is not to be a supernatural superhero but it is, in fact, to die a very human death.

How appropriate, therefore, that we should read this story today, in the Sunday before Lent.


The story of the Transfiguration is a story of transformation and it is also a
revelation of Jesus' glory.

The glory of Jesus that is revealed in the Transfiguration is the glory of the cross.

Jesus will destroy sin, death and the power of evil not by obliterating them, but by submitting himself to their full fury.

But Jesus has to come down off the mountain in order to accomplish this mission.

And human notions of 'spirituality' and of what it means to encounter God need to come down off the mountain too.

To be a Christian is not to seek to live always on the mountain-top. To be a Christian is not to put God in a box labelled 'spirit' or 'prayer' and to ignore his presence in the physical world. To be a Christian is not to yearn for a Golden Past nor is it even to believe that salvation will only happen in the future.

Our God is a God whose salvation centres in the very fact that he became human, took on our sins, suffered and died.

Christianity properly understood says that God is in the here and now. Where-ever we go, when we encounter joy and sadness or health or pain, God is there. In fact, God was there before we ever got there ourselves.

The Christian God is to be found in the here and now and God's presence is to be found in suffering and death as much as in health and life.

My prayer for us this morning is that the Transfiguration will transform our hearts so that we can become ever more open to the presence of God in our world. As we come to encounter our Lord present in the Eucharist, may the Spirit of Christ grow in our hearts so that we may see the presence of God in the people and the world around us. Amen

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sunday 8 February 2009 - Healer of the World

This sermon is based on Mark 1:29-39 and Isaiah 40:21-31



This past July, the BBC ran a special documentary programme celebrating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the NHS. Whilst I expect that there might be people in the congregation this morning who can remember the creation of the NHS (but, of course, only as very small children!) I found the programme fascinating. Particularly as a lover of history and as a foreigner.

I was by no means surprised to learn that the British Medical Association initially opposed the formation of the NHS. But I was surprised to find out that the NHS was actually conceived of and implemented within what seemed like a very short space of time. (18 months?)

One of the stories I found interesting was the account of the number of people who flocked to their local doctor's office on the day the NHS began. If I remember the programme correctly, the number of people with untreated medical conditions who presented themselves at doctors' surgeries far exceeded the NHS's pre-opening estimates.

There were far more people than anyone had previously imagined living with chronic medical conditions that they could not afford to have treated. For example, there were people living with enormous hernias. One of the most heart-breaking accounts was the large estimate of the number of children who had previously died with appendicitis whilst their parents treated their bad tummy aches with castor oil because there was no question of being able to afford to take their child to the doctor.

One of the most heart-warming accounts was that of a receptionist in a doctors' surgery who told stories of patients bringing presents to the surgery for the first few years of the NHS - so amazed and delighted were people to finally have access to health treatment.

Everyone was yearning for healing.

Jesus - Healer of the World

In this morning's Gospel reading, we are being put on notice that Jesus is the healer of the world.

This is is the second miracle story in the Gospel of Mark.

We heard the first story last week - the story of the casting out of the demon in the Synagogue. Last week, you might say we had a healing of the mind. This week, we have a healing of the body. And a little bit further on in the Gospel of Mark, we will have a healing of the spirit when Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic.

But Jesus' ministry is not going to be settling down in Capernaum and setting up shop as a healer and a wise man, even though the presence of the crowds indicates that Jesus could make quite a pleasant living that way.

Jesus takes time out from the demands of the crowd to pray and he comes back convinced that travelling and preaching are also part of his calling and his ministry. His calling is not just the healing of individuals, but also the healing of the world.

And his ministry is going to be an unconventional one.

Ultimately, it will be a scandal, because the healing of the world will come not through the creation of world peace and harmony. Rather the healing of the world will come through a death on a cross.

God the Redeemer

The good news of Jesus Christ that Mark proclaims in his Gospel is the same good news that the Church has proclaimed since the first Easter Sunday. It is the same good news that helped the people of Israel to keep the faith in exile in Babylon: The Good News is that God is our healer and our Redeemer as well as our Creator.

This has been the witness of the people of God down through the ages: that God will save and heal his people and his creation.

Sometimes stories of miraculous healings like that of Simon's mother-in-law can be difficult to hear, particularly for those of us - and I expect we're the majority rather than the minority - who know someone who could do with a miraculous healing right now.

And I don't have any easy answers for us about the problem of pain and suffering or why some people recover from illness and others do not.

What I can do, however, is point us all to this morning's reading from Isaiah and say: 'These people knew what it meant to suffer. They knew what it meant to be homeless, rootless, without inheritance and without hope. They knew what it meant to feel abandoned by God but still they professed their trust in God's faithfulness.'

If Mark's story sounds a bit too much to modern ears like it is asking us to believe in a God who waves a magic wand and makes all pain and suffering go away, then the story of the exile in Isaiah should reassure us that the core of our faith is not based on magic tricks.

The faith professed in Isaiah is not the faith of a people whose God has magically made everything better. Rather it is the faith of a suffering people who nonetheless believe that the Lord will renew their strength until they are no longer weary.

Ultimately, Mark will reveal that the unconventional thing about Jesus' story is that he will not save Israel by healing everyone. He will not save Israel by putting peace in the hearts of humanity nor will he save Israel by making it immortal.

What is unconventional and unexpected about the story of Jesus is that he is going to save the world by dying himself. This is at the heart of the scandal of the cross: that Jesus heals us from sin, death and the power of evil not by obliterating them but by entering into them himself.

Our hope lies in Jesus not because he makes suffering go away, but because he enters into human suffering.


Everyone yearns for healing.

Some of us here may be praying for a kind of healing for ourselves or our loved ones and the answers to our prayers will not be as we hope.

But I believe that God nonetheless offers a kind of healing that is appropriate for each person. And I believe that God has promised that, ultimately, his kingdom will come and that his whole creation will be healed.

My prayer for each of us this morning is that we may be given the eyes to see the healing that God makes available for each of us and our loved ones. And I pray that, like Israel in exile, we will be given the strength to wait with joy and expectation for the coming of God's Kingdom. Amen

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sunday 1 February 2009 - Power and Authority

This sermon is based on Mark 1:21-28



One of the big news items this week has been on the subject of bonuses that financial institutions on Wall Street have recently paid to their employees.

Collectively, it seems that bonuses of $18.4 billion (about £13 billion) were paid to the employees of Wall Street firms during 2008 by financial institutions which also asked for government assistance during the year.

The American financial company Merrill Lynch - whose parent company was rescued by the Federal government - paid out $4 billion in staff bonuses in 2008. The recently-sacked boss of Merrill Lynch - John Thain - justified the payment of these bonuses on the basis that the company had to give out these bonuses or it would loose it's best people.

The American Comedian Steve Colbert expressed the outrage of the person on the street on one of his recent shows when he said: 'Newsflash! You haven't got any “best people”. They drove the country into a financial crisis. These are not “best people”!'

Comedy can sometimes speak truths more powerfully than any other mode of communication.

So, on the one hand, we have former Merrill Lynch boss John Thain seeking to use the alleged authority of Wall Street to justify the company's actions. And, on the other hand, we have the comedian Steve Colbert, whose observations are humorous (and authoritative) precisely because they go straight to the truth.

The Authority of Jesus

This morning's Gospel reading is actually about the authority of Jesus.

And it's about the quality of his authority rather than about the quantity of his authority. The story is not trying to ask the question 'How much power does Jesus' authority have?' But rather 'What kind of authority is it that Jesus' wields?'

21st century readers might be distracted by the question of whether or not such a healing exorcism took place at all. But Mark's audience would not have found the miracle in today's reading remarkable in any way. Their question would not have been 'Did Jesus have the gifts of healing and exorcism' but rather, 'Why did Jesus have these gifts? How did he use them? What purpose did they serve?'

One of the over-arching themes of Mark's Gospel is Jesus' miracles. This particular miracle is the first one that Jesus performs and so this story sets the scene for all the other miracles that come after it. The story is also a commentary on Jesus' character.

Mark indicates to us that Jesus has his own authority which he uses for the purposes of healing.

The Use of Power

This is an interesting image: Jesus, Messiah. Possessed of his own divine authority and power, using his power for the sake of healing others.

It's even more interesting when you consider the fact that, just a few verses earlier the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has rejected the temptation by Satan to use his power in a more conventional way. Jesus has just rejected the use of his divine authority and power to set himself up in role that we would normally consider to be one of power.

In fact, I'd venture to say that the phrase of 'a person of great power' would more conventionally conjure up the image of the boss of Merrill Lynch or the Prime Minister or perhaps even the members of The House of Lords.

By all conventional definitions, a person with a powerful position holds the welfare, health or happiness of many people in his or her hands simply by virtue of his or her position.

We have had so many examples in the last few weeks of positions of power being used for both good and for evil that there is no shortage of illustrations. I'll leave you to consider all these recent news events so that I'm not seen to be taking sides in one direction or another.

My point is that power can be used in a number of ways.

It can be used selfishly, without taking others into consideration at all. But as I use my power to maximise my own advantage I may unintentionally end up hurting others.
More negatively, power can also be used to take revenge and to actively try to hurt others. Or, we can follow Jesus' example and use power for the purposes of healing - which can include forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration of good relationships.

And before we decide that none of this applies to us personally because we are not powerful enough, we would do well to remember that each one of us probably does in fact hold power over someone in our life, even if we ourselves often feel powerless. Christians are called to follow the example of Jesus and to use the power that we have over others for the purposes of healing and reconciliation rather than for the purposes of selfish gain.


Power and authority go hand in hand and with them come responsibility.

We know to our cost that authority and power can be used in ways that hurt society and that tear it apart. But God's view of the uses of authority and power is very different from this.

God's view of the use of power and author is diametrically opposite to the way that financial institutions have been behaving in recent years.

God's view of the use of power and authority is often different from the way that governments behave.

And God's view of the use of power and authority is different from the way that individuals behave when we act only in our own self-interest.

The good news for this morning is that Jesus used his power and authority for the purposes of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus chose to use his authority for the benefit of humankind and he did not succumb to the temptation to use his power for his own self-promotion.

The good news is that, in Jesus, we know the Father and we know that his intention is for wholeness and restoration. The good news is that God uses his power for the benefit of his creation and for the good of humankind.

My prayer this morning is not only that we may grow in a deeper awareness of God's good purposes for our own lives, but that we may take seriously the challenge that this implies for us as his disciples. As we come to his table I pray that we will find wholeness and spiritual healing for ourselves.

And as we go from this place, I pray that we will employ the power of the Holy Spirit given to us in our baptism in order to touch the lives of others with God's healing and wholeness. Amen