The Great Preservers - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Great Preservers

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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Many years ago, I read a fascinating book by the travel writer Dervla Murphy entitled Where the Indus is Young.  Set in the 1970s, it is an account of the three-month journey she made with her then six-year old daughter, Rachel, through a region in the extreme west of Tibet that is sometimes called Baltistan - a place that is about as remote as you can get.

In an appendix at the back of the book, the author provides a list of all the equipment that she and her daughter took with them on their epic journey.  Obviously, they had to travel light, and carry as few possessions with them as possible.  So for me, the really interesting items were not the obvious essentials (the lightweight high-altitude tent, kerosene stove, and water purifying tablets), as the inessential things: those items that were of no practical usefulness at all, but would have a different kind of importance for the two travellers.

For example, both Dervla Murphy and her daughter chose novels or story books to take with them.  (One of Rachel's choices was Dr Doolittle on the Moon).   And at the very bottom of Rachel's packing list came the splendid entry: '1 toy squirrel.'

I suspect that for all of us, when we are entering very unfamiliar territory - whether literally or metaphorically, there are certain things that we find comforting to have around us; things that may not be absolutely essential in practical terms, but which sustain us in other ways, or simply enhance our quality of life.  I can remember the singer Elton John being asked at interview once which things he always ensured that he took with him when he was away on an overseas tour.  To which he replied simply, 'Marmite'.  (Clearly a man after my own heart!)

And, of course, the kinds of things that sustain us may not actually take a physical form at all.   The poet Elizabeth Jennings, preparing for a particularly bleak kind of wilderness experience - in her case, major surgery- observed in her poem entitled 'Sequence in hospital' how the patients in her ward surrounded themselves with things that were of symbolic and spiritual significance for them, some of which were objects; others simply memories.  She refers to these things in her poem as 'the great preservers'.  Paradoxically, these are things that previously may well have been taken for granted by the individuals who now treasured them; yet they have come to represent, as she puts it, 'a past they never honoured at the time.'  In one section of the poem Elizabeth Jennings describes each of her fellow patients and the different things that sustain them, with these words:

One with photographs of grandchildren,
Another with discussion of disease,

Another with the memory of her garden,
Another with her marriage - all of these

Keep death at bay by building round their illnesses
A past they never honoured at the time.

The sun streams through the window, the earth heaves
Gently for this new season.  Blossoms climb

Out on the healthy world where no one thinks
Of pain.  Nor would these patients wish them to.

The great preservers here are little things -
The dream last night, a photograph, a view.

The great preservers here are little things.  And how true it is that things we may previously have taken completely for granted can suddenly gain a whole new significance - perhaps a life-changing significance - when we find ourselves well out of our comfort zone; or facing a wilderness experience of some kind; or feeling anxious, or fearful for the future.

Today, on the final Sunday before the start of Lent, we stand on the threshold of a very particular kind of spiritual wilderness.  Because in three days' time, on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to accept the challenge to follow Christ into the desert, and experience with him, throughout a period of forty days, its extraordinary, searing, and transforming power.  The desert is a place apart; a place where we can discover afresh who and what we are, by leaving aside - or setting aside - some of the things that normally cushion us, or distract us, from the hard truths about ourselves and how we live.  And what do we need to help sustain us on that journey?  What for us will be the 'great preserver'?  Perhaps an answer to this question can be found in this morning's Gospel reading.

At first sight, our reading from Luke might seem rather an odd choice for the final Sunday before the start of Lent.  It is, as you will have heard, the story of the Transfiguration of Christ, which the Church commemorates as a festival in its own right on 6th August.  So why do we have the same reading set for today, of all Sundays?  What is its connection with our preparation for Lent?  Let me briefly remind you of the story.

Jesus, taking three of the disciples with him, goes up a mountain to pray.  While he is praying, the disciples, to their astonishment, observe his appearance change before them: his clothes become dazzling white; and two mysterious figures are seen talking with him: Moses and Elijah.  Peter, eager to capture the moment and preserve it permanently, wants to build booths, or dwellings, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah -  but in so doing he has misunderstood the nature and purpose of that extraordinary vision, and the words of divine revelation that come from the cloud that accompany it: 'This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him.'

You see, it seems to me that this particular vision is important in several different ways - including its very fleetingness.  Let me explain.  The first thing that this incident does is to connect Jesus directly with the figure of Moses - hence its connection with our Old Testament reading this morning. 

As you will remember, Moses was called to lead the Israelites on a journey though the wilderness, a journey that was full of challenges and dangers, and in which the Israelites themselves repeatedly prove themselves weak and faithless.  But throughout that journey, the Lord gives to Moses a series of glimpses of his power and grace, that are just enough to remind him to keep heart.  And our reading tells how, when he encountered the Lord who was guiding him, Moses' face shone.  In the same way, Christ is transfigured before the eyes of the disciples: they are left in no doubt of his divine connectedness, and of his divinely granted authority even before the voice from above makes it explicit: 'This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.'

So the Transfiguration points us back to the story of Moses.  But it also points us forward, to the end of the journey that we are invited to share with Christ: a journey that begins for us on Ash Wednesday, and takes us through the wilderness, through the dramatic events of Holy Week, and the betrayal, and trial, and desolation of the Cross - and beyond that to the glory of the Resurrection, when we see Christ in glory.  In that sense the Transfiguration is a glimpse - a foretaste - of the wonderful, earthshattering revelation; the extraordinary life-changing gift that awaits those who are ready to travel with him that most difficult and costly of journeys.

And so in pointing us both back and forward, the Transfiguration provides us with the comfort and the encouragement that we shall need to sustain us on our travels.  It is a reminder of why it is that we are embarking upon that journey into the wilderness.  It is one of the 'great preservers' we can carry with us, to sustain us during the darkest and most difficult of times - just as the hospital patients in Elizabeth Jennings' poem surround themselves with their own 'great preservers': photographs of grandchildren, memories of a garden, a marriage, a dream.

The great preservers here are little things -
The dream last night, a photograph, a view.

Our Collect this morning - the special prayer for today - asks that we might be given the grace to perceive Christ's glory, and so be strengthened to suffer with him, and so be changed into his likeness.  That is, in essence, what the journey of Lent is for.  But the order in which these things appear in the prayer is significant: we glimpse the glory, in order to have the strength to face the wilderness; just as the disciples glimpsed the glory of Christ before their own darkest journey could begin.

Almighty Father,
whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross:
give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. 

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