Saturday, 15 March 2014
Be not afraid
SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT (16th March) 2014
Readings: Genesis 12.1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Those who design the lectionary (by which in the mainline churches we set our readings, so that yours truly’s faves don’t dominate the narratives of faith) can take us on some interesting and sometimes unexpected journeys, not least during Lent. A week ago, as we entered Lent, we were standing as it were with Jesus in a narrative of temptation. we were recognizing perhaps that there are times we too have been tempted, but unlike the Jesus of the gospels we tend not to be perfect, tend not to resist, tend more to emulate Oscar Wilde and his infamous “I can resist anything except temptation” than Jesus and his dismissal of the Tempter.
Yet this week we are in a surreal environment, one of those moments in the text where the author (Matthew, but also Luke and Mark) appears to have chewed too many sacred mushrooms and engaged with the inner recesses of a chemically affected mind rather than focussing on the narration of a straightforward story line. All three gospel writers see this as an important incident, so what are they on about (rather than what are they on!)?
If Paul can hang fast and loose in his application of the Abraham story, and I think within some basic boundaries he pretty much does in order to contrast faith, certainty, hope and promise, then we can I think reach deep into the text to find sense-for-us in these biblical glimpses. Do we merely have in the Transfiguration scene a narrative about a mountain-top experience shared by four young Hebrew men, or are we being told something else here? Obviously you can guess my response! But let us not entirely explain away the inexplicable: first century readers were no less intelligent than twenty first century readers, and they too heard the strangeness of this scene.
One of my favourite literary and biblical critics, Frank Kermode, says that is something about a passage strikes us as strange, then it probably is, and we should look more closely. This whole passage of Transfiguration strikes me as strange, but rather than dismiss it we need to dig deep in its entrails. And as I begin to find that I find a sudden, unexpected dimension that, if I have noticed at all before, I suspect I’ve never really reflected on. For, while the passage clearly depicts Jesus as an unparalleled god-figure who can chin-wag amicably with the great fathers of faith, and who seems to be a participant in a unique relationship with the Creator-God, his humanity takes on a powerful new flavour. While I don’t think Christianity is about Jesus as the example of how to live, neither do I think it is about ignoring the remarkable example (I sometimes use the arguably more emphatic ancient word “ensample”) of justice, compassion, love and God-attunedness that he embodies. And here Jesus responds not (or not only) to the awe and the mystery of chatting with the Greats, but to the needs of the terrified, bewildered disciples.
Many years ago I attended a Joan Baez concert in Melbourne. Baez opened the concert by asking how many people present had been dragged along by aging hippie parents who had told them they had to hear the iconic folk-singer. Many put their hands up. At the end of the concert she ushered one young girl up on to the stage, put her hand around her shoulders and led her off the stage to chat and to give her an autograph. Whoever that pre-teen kid was, and whatever her music taste today, I bet she will not have forgotten the moment in which a folk icon knelt in the dirt, as I called it last week, of her human experience, and led her back stage to chat.
Joan Baez may be to some the Madonna, but she is not Jesus. The two moments are only comparable, far from identical. Yet in their moment of probable abject terror Jesus reaches out to Peter, James and John and echoes those same words attributed to the angels when they frightened the shepherds in the fields of Christmas. “Be not afraid.” It is a recurring phrase in the gospels: Jesus to the frightened disciples in the storm-tossed boat. The angel to the shepherds. The angel-figure at the resurrection scene in Mark, telling the frightened women to overcome their fears as they see death transformed at the first Empty Tomb appearance. Be not afraid. It is perhaps the words we need most to represent and speak – by actions more than words – in a world facing the bewilderments of nuclear potential, global warming, rising sea levels, economic fragility, the death marches of the frogs and the bees and the polar ice caps. Be not afraid, not even for your children’s-children’s (your mokopuna’s) future, for the God of Transfiguration is the God who is revealed in the Incarnate Jesus, who will be the one who, as the angel later puts it, “goes before you into Galilee,” the Galilees of our own lives and deaths. Indeed, in a world that barely even voice the words “died”, “death” and “dead” these days we are perhaps especially called to know and embody the knowledge that Jesus is the one who goes before us into death and resurrection.
Jesus remembers and turns to the frightened disciples. Though it was an anathema to the religious intellectuals of his day, this was not the only time the compassion of God breaks through human experience and expectation. To the “Greeks”, the religious intellectuals scorned by Paul, the idea of a compassionate God was ridiculous. To be God, a god had to be dispassionate, unmoved, remote, unconcerned with the trivia of human experience. Yet the Hebrews, as we noted last week, worshipped a God who, having expelled Adam and Eve from the garden for their own punitive protection, then kneels in the dirt to knot their clothes. The Hebrew Scriptures, especially the psalms and prophets, speak of a God moved to the core with emotions, and moved to the core by the plight of humans. The God of the Hebrews weeps and the people of Flight MH370 – and even where there in in human experience no longer any hope, even there breathes the hope of New Heavens and New Earth.
Jesus will come down from the mountain top and turn, as it says, resolutely to his own abandonment and death. He will ask us, empowered by his Spirit, his now unlimited being, to embody compassion and hope, even hate-transforming, even death-overshadowing hope to those he has called us to live amongst … and perhaps if we forget when our times of suffering come he will quietly engineer other bearers of Christ-light to cross our paths. Perhaps – it’s not actually guaranteed: the guarantee, the promise of which Paul half-speaks, is that even if we don’t experience hope the hope is still there, and is there because where we go the footsteps of Jesus are still warm.
No guarantees for us, for we are called to suffer, but we can pray God that we might be bearers of Christ-hope to those around us. That is at least one part of the Lenten journey – stripping off the clutter and recharging our ability to be as Christ to those around us. Let us continue the journey, down from Transfiguration and on into the heart of darkness in which Christlight finally bursts unambiguously.