Transfiguration - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons


Luke 9: 28-36

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28 And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.

29 And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.

30 And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias:

31 Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.

32 But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.

33 And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.

34 While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud.

35 And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.

36 And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.

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Now, here's an interesting question for you: what do the following three places have in common?  First, Mount Sinai; second, the Mount of the Transfiguration (which featured in our Gospel reading this morning); and third, the garden of Lincoln's Inn, just off Chancery Lane, round the corner from here?

Now, I would hazard a guess that you would find it relatively straightforward to find a link between the first two of those places - after all, to state the glaringly obvious, they are both mountains, and they are both mountains that feature in the Bible.  But what on earth connects them to the garden of one of the Inns of Court in Central London? 

The answer is that all three places were settings in which specific individuals had life-changing encounters with the living God.  Mount Sinai was the place where Moses communed with the Lord, as a result of which the skin of his face shone with the reflected glory of God.  The so-called Mount of the Transfiguration - variously identified as either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon depending on which ancient tradition you believe - was the place where, as we heard in our Gospel reading, the disciples Peter, James and John watched in astonishment as Jesus was transfigured before them - his appearance changed, his robes became dazzling white, and he was seen conversing with Moses and Elijah.  An astonishing, earth-shattering moment when, suddenly and unexpectedly, they were granted a glimpse of his true identity, and his true divinity, and his future glory, as a voice from the heavens declared: 'This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.'

And where exactly does the garden of Lincoln's Inn fit into all this?  Here I need to tell you a story.  And appropriately enough, since we are the journalists' church, the story I am about to tell you involves a journalist; indeed, Fleet Street itself gets a mention in it.  And the journalist in question?

She was the religious correspondent for the Spectator between 1958 and 1960; she wrote for the Daily Mail for eight years.  As a freelancer she worked for the Guardian, and she was later was employed by the BBC as a religious programmes producer.  Alongside all of that she wrote novels for both adults and children, as well as publishing biographies of, amongst other people, John Bunyan and Thomas Merton.  She was a Christian who was decidedly radical in her views, which led to her having a distinctly love-hate relationship with the Anglican Church. 

And she was a passionate advocate of women's ordination, which was how I first got to know her, back in the early 1980s, when she was Moderator of MOW - the Movement for the Ordination of Women.  Indeed, I always felt an odd kind of affinity with her, because although she was a generation older than I was, we happened to share a birthday, and we were born eight miles apart.  She was a complex and sometimes quite a challenging individual, but extraordinarily courageous, highly principled, and immensely gifted.  She died in 2003, at the age of 72.  Her name was Monica Furlong. 

And her relevance to our theme this morning?   In her autobiography she recounted the following extraordinary experience, which took place during her days working as a journalist in Fleet Street.  She wrote this:

I left my office at lunchtime, stopped at a small Greek café in Fleet Street to buy some rolls and fruit, and walked up Chancery Lane.  It was an August day, quite warm but cloudy, with the sun, glaringly, painfully bright behind the clouds.  I had a strong sense that something was about to happen.  I sat on a seat in the garden of Lincoln's Inn waiting for whatever it was to occur.  The sun behind the clouds grew brighter and brighter, the clouds assumed a shape which fascinated me, and between one moment and the next, although no word had been uttered. I felt myself spoken to.  I was aware of being regarded by love, of being wholly accepted, accused, forgiven, all at once.  The joy of it was the greatest I had ever known in my life.  I felt I had been born for this moment and had marked time till it occurred.

Now, Monica Furlong was no dewy-eyed mystic, prone to wild flights of fancy.  On the contrary she was a hard-nosed working journalist, employed in a highly competitive industry.  Which makes her testimony the more remarkable, because the currency is high.  And the story that she tells is the more interesting precisely because it can be very easy to regard some of the stories we read in Scripture as being very remote from reality, and the experiences of ordinary life - the description of the Transfiguration of Jesus being one of them.

Whereas, interestingly enough, once you start inviting people to share their own stories of glimpsing the divine; of feeling a powerful sense of God's presence; of hearing a voice speaking to them with absolute clarity, deep within their souls; of seeing the world around them suddenly ablaze with the glory of God - you would be astonished to find that they happen to the most surprising of people in the most unexpected of circumstances: glimpses of the extraordinary in the heart of the utterly ordinary.

And how should we respond to such moments of sudden insight and revelation - whatever form they happen to take?  Understandably there is a very human response that wants to cling onto them, to seize that moment and hang onto it for grim death.   Which is precisely what Peter wants to do in our Gospel reading: 'Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.' 

But Peter is, of course, missing the point.  Because the reason for such fleeting revelations is not to offer us an escape route away from the ordinary - but rather to enable us to view the ordinary in a very different kind of way: to re-engage with the world in the full knowledge that it is God's world, charged with his goodness and grace; to begin see that world through the eyes of Christ; to commit ourselves to searching out and bringing to light, more of God's hidden gifts, and so to become channels of his grace.  Because once your eyes have been opened, suddenly you begin to see that glory all around you.

Rabbi Lionel Blue wrote this:

The gates of the coming world are everywhere, if only one can see them.  When I first went sailing, well-meaning friends tried to show me buoys and beacons in the sea.  I looked and saw nothing, while they saw beacons everywhere.  As I did not know what to look for, I had no foretaste, nor premonition of the sight.  Therefore I could not see what all around me saw.

Then I saw the first one, and suddenly the sea opened out.  Buoys, cones, flashing lights, appeared everywhere.  The empty sea seemed as crowded as Piccadilly Circus.  So it is with [...] life; every oddity, every departure from normal shows the tension, the effect in this world, when another which is far greater approaches it and disturbs it.  It is like the disturbance in two heavenly bodies as they approach each other - marks on the smaller reveal the force which the larger exerts as it comes near.

Today we have welcomed Maisie into the family of Christ through her baptism.  She now begins a journey that will be life-long and life-deep.  What she chooses to make of that journey will, of course, ultimately be up to her.  But it is a journey that will be full of gifts and full of grace - for her, as it is for all of us - if she can be helped and encouraged to learn how to see: to see the world, and the wonderful gift of life, as blessings from God.  Because, by the grace of God, that sense of wonder has the power to transform ... everything.



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