I came across a video earlier this week, made by an American
comedian and radio presenter called Tommy Edison in which he challenged people –
ordinary passers-by at a conference he happened to be attending - to describe
colours to him. https://youtu.be/91VUFVp1eXk?si=CX1QAY9iEvq4ff_I
The twist in the story is that Tommy Edison was born totally
blind, so he’s never actually seen colours. It wasn’t something he felt he was
missing, because he’d never known it, but he wanted to try to understand what
colour meant to those who could see it, because we so often use the language of
colour metaphorically – we “see red” or “feel blue” or “spot the green shoots
The people he stopped had a good stab at describing the
colours they saw around them.“Red is a colour that stands out,” said one,
“a strong colour, so we use it for things that we want people to notice, like
fire engines…” “Green is the colour of leaves, of growing things, the colour of
spring,” said another.
But it was clearly a struggle, and however hard they tried,
Edison’s interviewees knew, and so did Edison, that they would never be able
fully to convey what “redness” or “blueness” or “greenness” were. Colours are
something that we have to experience, and its not an experience we can pass on
to someone who hasn’t had it.
There’s a word for that sort of thing. It is the word
“ineffable”. Something is ineffable if it is beyond human power to communicate,
to pin down, to explain to someone else. It’s something that can’t be described,
however clever we are, or the person we are talking to is; It can only be
Colour, though it is all around us, is ineffable, but it’s
not the only ineffable thing we encounter on a regular basis. Love is
ineffable. We can talk about the effect it has on us. We can talk about the
people we love and what it is we love about them. But no one has ever really
been able to define love or capture it fully in words. Grief is often ineffable
too. “How do you feel?” says the TV interviewer to just about anyone who is
dealing with some great tragedy. The interviewee stumbles to produce some words,
often cliches, but anyone who has suffered great grief will know that it is
stranger than anything you can put into a soundbite, subtler, more different,
unexpected, and ultimately a mystery.
Jesus’ closest disciples, Peter, James and John, have an experience
which is “ineffable” in today’s Gospel story. They see Jesus shining with the
glory of God, flanked by Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They have absolutely
no idea what is happening or why. “Peter did not know what to say,” the
story tells us.
Unfortunately, though, by this point, he has already said
something. I love that little detail. He speaks first – “Rabbi…let us make
three dwellings…” but it’s only after he’s opened his mouth and the words have
come pouring out that he realises he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We’ve
probably all been there, discovering we’re spouting nonsense, but too late to
stop ourselves. That’s the danger with ineffable things. We try to make them
“effable”, to say something, anything, just to fill the silence, but in doing
so, we usually miss the mark, and reduce that huge and complex experience to
something banal, like that crass question from the TV interviewer about grief.
What is there to say that can ever do justice to the biggest feelings we have? Often,
it’s better just to sit in silence with someone, to sit in silence with
yourself, to acknowledge that you haven’t got words, and that perhaps, words
aren’t all they are cracked up to be anyway, to let the experience be what it
is, something to be pondered, but not pinned down.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus tells the disciples not to tell
anyone about what has happened on the mountain; because he knows that anything
that they can say, at this stage at least, is likely to be so wide of the mark
as to be worthless. The Transfiguration will always mysterious, but it would
have been even harder to understand it at the time it happened, before the
crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The disciples need those events to even
begin to understand this one. They need to discover that God’s glory isn’t just
found in shining light on a mountain top, but in a man dying a humiliating
death on a cross, that God’s Son is beloved then too, because that will help
them to understand that they are beloved as much in suffering and failure as
they are when all is going well.
The story of the Transfiguration is always set as the Gospel
story for this Sunday in the Church’s year, the last Sunday before Lent. Lent is a time when we often try to take
ourselves in hand, try a bit harder in our Christian lives, give something up,
take something up, do something different. But ultimately, it’s not about that.
It is about making space for God to come to us in our need, to acknowledge that
we can’t do this by ourselves.
This Lent we’re going to be looking in our Lent course at a
set of statements called the Five Marks of Mission, devised some forty years ago to help churches ponder whether
they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. It’s just as helpful a list
for us as individuals too. The five
marks can be summarised by five words, conveniently all starting with T.
First: Tell – proclaiming the good news of Jesus
Second: Teach – helping people to understand and deepen
Third: Tend – caring for those around us
Fourth: Transform – challenging injustice
And Fifth: Treasure – caring for God’s gift of creation
We’re going to be unpacking those things together, to see
what they mean to us, and how we see them at work – I am hoping we do – in the
life of Seal Church.
But there’s a danger in these Five Marks of Mission, because
they are all about what we do. They are very active, and unless we are very
careful, they can lead us to think that living God’s way is just a matter of us
endlessly trying harder, doing more. We can end up like Peter, rushing to knock
up shelters for those heavenly visitors, and miss the bit that needs to come
first, listening, pondering, becoming aware that we can’t pin down, control or
manipulate the ineffable love of God. That’s why in the course I’ve written, as
we think about each of those T words, the things we do, we will also be
thinking about the things we first need to receive and to experience in order
to do them.
We can’t tell our stories of faith, if we haven’t first
heard them, and understood what they mean to us, and heard the stories of
others who bring God’s good news to us too.
We can’t teach our faith, if we aren’t also constantly
learning and exploring it.
We can’t tend to others’ needs safely, if we don’t let God,
and those around us, tend to us and care for us.
We can’t transform unjust situations if we aren’t being
transformed and challenged ourselves.
We can’t treasure God’s creation unless we know that we are
part of it, treasured creatures too.
Like all those other ineffable things, God’s love can only
be experienced, never fully captured in words, but we can’t take people to a mountaintop
in Galilee to see Christ shining in glory. All we can do is hope people might
get a glimpse of it in the one “shone in our hearts” as Paul puts it.
“This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him” says God
to these gob-smacked disciples. This Lent, we are called, before we do anything
else, to do the same, to listen, to ponder and to let God be God. Amen