Sunday, 31 March 2019

Scary Mamas: Mothering Sunday

Audio version here 

Exodus 1.8-10,13-22, Luke 1.39-56


On this Mothering Sunday I’ve put some pictures in our service sheets of a very famous mother, probably the mother who has been painted, drawn and sculpted more often than any other mother in history. It’s Mary, the mother of Jesus.



 ‘Taymouth Hours’,c.1325–40: 

But the images I’ve included aren’t , perhaps, the ones we’re most used to. We expect to see Mary humbly receiving the news that she will bear the Son of God from the Angel Gabriel, or tenderly cradling her child in the stable in Bethlehem. We expect her to look serene, gentle, loving, tender. But these images are very different!

In the one on the front of your service sheet, Mary has handed baby Jesus to a convenient angel while she wrestles the devil to the ground. In the one inside the sheet she’s landing a well-aimed punch on his nose. This is one scary mama.



c. 1240
The pictures come from Medieval Books of Hours, ancient collections of prayers which people used for their personal devotions.  Books of Hours were especially popular with women, and maybe that’s why the illustrators have included these particular images – the women who used these books knew how tough mothering was. They wouldn’t be convinced by a Mary who was all sweetness and light!

The reality of motherhood is that is isn’t all about cuddles and kisses. It’s also about protecting your children, standing up for them, being strong for them. Mothering is a demanding job and often quite scary. Often new mothers (and fathers too, of course) will say that having children has woken them up to the dangers of the world, and the fragility of life, not just for their own children, but for other people’s children too. It’s an alarming business, bringing up children, and you soon discover that you need to be strong, fierce, brave, stubborn and cunning, as well as kind and gentle. It often unlocks in people a hunger for justice and for peace in the world, because they know that this is the world their children will have to live in. Of course there are plenty of people who don’t have children who also care passionately about the world, and mothers and fathers who don’t care, but holding a child in your arms, a child that is utterly dependent on you, is often a powerful wake-up call not just to care for your own flesh and blood, but for all those who are vulnerable.


These images of Mary aren’t just about her fighting for her own son. The Bible tells us that her vision was much broader than this, as we heard in our Gospel reading today. In it, Mary sings of the child she is carrying in her womb. It’s a song that is often called the Magnificat, from the Latin version of its opening words “Magnificat anima mea dominum” My soul magnifies the Lord!

She sings about her child, who is going to bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. He will bring in a kingdom of justice – good news for those who have been oppressed, but challenging for those who have been doing the oppressing. She rejoices not just in what her child will do for her, but in what he will do for others. That’s what inspired these images of Mary the warrior, Mary giving Satan what for.

You don’t have to believe in an actual physical devil, with horns and a tail, to get the message these images convey. The demons she wrestles with stand for all that is wrong in the world – greed, prejudice, injustice, hatred…all the things that sour and twist life, making it less than it ought to be. In saying yes to God when Gabriel asks her to bear God’s son, Mary lands the first punch on those forces of evil, announces the beginning of the end of their power.


Of course, I’m not advocating actual violence, and as far as we know Mary never actually struck anyone in anger, but these images remind us that she faced very real struggles throughout her life - it wasn’t a play-fight . She faced suspicion when she got pregnant. She, Joseph and Jesus became refugees in Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. The Gospels tell us that she agonised as she watched him court danger and controversy in his ministry, longed for him to shut up and stay safe. Eventually she watched as her son was arrested, beaten and killed, helpless to do anything to protect him. But she stuck with him, and with his rag-tag bunch of followers – she is present with the disciples when the Holy Spirit comes down on them on the Day of Pentecost, after Jesus has ascended into heaven. Everything was against her, but, as the slogan puts it, “nevertheless, she persisted.” The forces of evil weren’t  going to get the better of her! She was a woman with guts and passion.


She stands in a long line of mothers who have been equally strong through the ages, mothers like those who have turned up every week in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires  to protest against the regime that took away their grown up sons and daughters because of their political views – the mothers of the disappeared. The military dictatorship of the 1970s made it illegal for people to gather in groups of more than three, so they marched in pairs, wearing distinctive white headscarves, calling for the government to tell them where their children were. And they kept on marching, week after week after week until the regime fell, and still they march, to expose the injustice that has gone on since then. The ruling elite had military power on their side, but that was no match for bunch of determined, angry middle-aged mothers. Their fierce love for their children was stronger than the evil of the regime.  They found a way.


So did the women we met in our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Genesis. The Egyptian Pharaoh was jealous of the Israelites living in his land, migrants who’d come to Egypt during a famine many generations before. He wanted to get rid of them, so he ordered the midwives who delivered their babies to kill any baby boys as soon as they were born. But those midwives – we have their names, Shiprah and Puah - weren’t having it. How could anyone ask women who had devoted themselves to bringing life into the world, to do that?


Pharaoh seemed all-powerful, but these women were fuelled with righteous anger, and sharp wits. They looked Pharaoh in the eye and told him a barefaced falsehood, that the Hebrew women were stronger than Egyptian women, and had their babies too quickly. By the time they got there, it was too late, they said, shrugging their shoulders. Pharaoh appears to have been stumped by this, at least for a while. They couldn’t save every child, but for those they did save it meant life rather than death. We don’t know if they were mothers themselves, but we see in them the same fierce love and courage that Mary had. And one of those baby boys who escaped death, perhaps because of them, eventually grew up to become the man who delivered the Israelites from slavery, Moses. He owed his life to a bunch of women who decided they were fed up with being oppressed, and weren’t going to stand for it any more. 


Anger can be a bad thing, fuelling violence and hatred. But it can also be the energy that gives us strength to do what is right, to defend those who can’t defend themselves. In the Bible God is often portrayed as fierce in her love, like a mother defending her children, angry at injustice and oppression, like those brave midwives, like Mary. It may not be a comfortable image, but it’s just the image we need when we’re struggling to make the world a better place for our children, and for everyone else’s children too.


So this Mothering Sunday, of course we give thanks for the gentle and tender mothering we receive, from whoever mothers us – female or male, biologically related or not. But we also give thanks for those who stand up for us, fight for us, support us when the going is tough, for the fierce mothers in our lives, whoever they are or have been.


And we pray for the courage to be fierce in our own mothering too when we need to be, that we will stand up for those who are vulnerable, that we will wrestle with evil, and not give up, just as our fiercely loving, passionately tender God does not give up on us.

Amen




More about the origins of Mothering Sunday and about these images here.

https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2017/03/the-medieval-origins-of-mothering-sunday.html

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Lent 3


Luke 13.1-9, Isaiah 55.1-9, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13

Respond, Repent, Renew

I’ve got a cherry tree in my garden which is at least 10 years old. Hopefully it will soon be in beautiful white blossom which is most welcome of course, but the total amount of fruit is has produced since it was planted would be enough to fill, well, a couple of coffee mugs. A bit like the fig tree in the parable, I have thought about cutting it down but live in hope that if I give it one more year there will at least be enough for one cherry pie.

One interpretation of the Fig Tree Parable could be to see God as the landowner, Jesus as the gardener and us as the fig tree. Despite failing to reach fruition Jesus wants to nourish us and give us more time. But like many of Jesus parables people it offers a lot more potential than the obvious.

When I took a moment it occurred to me that actually I have unrealistic expectations for my cherry tree, I just hope as each year passes that the tree will yield a decent crop but I haven’t actually got off my backside to do anything about it. I haven’t given it any fertilizer, any nourishment.

The parable of the fig tree is a great one for us to consider in lent. It’s a time to think deeply about our relationships, with each other and with the wider world community. The best starting point is to consider our relationship with God through Christ. Is it less than it could be because we are guilty of failing to nourish and nurture our faith, or maybe it’s time to try something new in the service of each other. We are reminded that doing nothing will change nothing.

If we take time to reflect on our own lives this lent, we should find encouragement in our gospel reading. After all who can honestly recite the lines of Edith Piaf , singing ‘Non je ne regrette rien’, I regret nothing? Most of us have some ‘baggage’ which we ‘haul around’ sometimes holding us back from achieving our full potential and at its worst mistakenly leading us to believe that life’s great sadnesses and challenges are somehow deserved.

Let’s resolve to be kinder to ourselves as well as each other this lent, God isn’t looking for opportunities to punish us he wants us to thrive and live abundant productive lives in whatever setting we find ourselves.

Many people are distinctly uncomfortable with the suggestion that for many things there simply is no logical explanation. They like to believe that mankind has conquered all, understands all, can explain all when the truth is that our world has layers of complexity which we may never penetrate.

Perhaps we’d be better to consider whether God would prefer us to react emotionally rather than trying to explain away the reason when sad things happen. Perhaps some use attempts at explanation as a barrier to the fact that our turn to suffer will also inevitably come and for them fear is still more real than God’s grace.

Yet most of us know from personal experience that when we do find the courage to sit with the suffering and dying, particularly those known and loved by us, very few regret having done so, however painful the experience may be.  

The question of whether God sends down punishment upon sinners was aired when in 1984 when a fire occurred at York Minster. It happened just two nights after David Jenkins was consecrated as Bishop of Durham there. He had previously caused a stir when he questioned the virgin birth among other things.

Clearly God was annoyed about this and thought to himself ‘How shall I punish such impunity? Mmmm I know I won’t totally destroy one the finest Cathedrals in England, and I don’t feel like killing him, I think I’ll just take out the South Transept roof, that should be enough to teach him a lesson’ so a lightening bolt was suitably despatched. I paraphrase but that’s virtually what some people implied at the time.

The then Archbishop of York, (John Habgood), wrote to the Times as follows: -

Sir,
I read with astonishment some of the letters in today’s Times (July 11), the first copy I have been able to obtain since reluctantly leaving York Minster at 5am on Monday morning after hearing the reassuring words that the fire was out…
I feel I must point out the disturbing implications of those letters which somehow seek to link the fire with some remarks made by a bishop-elect on a TV discussion programme. What kind of a god do your correspondents believe in?
I grant that if we still lived in biblical times, and if it was customary to treat thunderstorms as some kind of messengers from God, then the connection might seem inevitable…
But to interpret the effect of a thunderstorm as a direct divine punishment pushes us straight back into the kind of world from which the Christian Gospel rescued us. Is illness a divine punishment? Ought we to ask after a car crash whether the car was carrying some outstanding sinner?


It's a more recent update on Jesus reference to the Galileans brutally executed by Pilate or the 18 killed in a freak accident when the tower of Siloam fell on them, or today people killed in the Grenfell fire, people with cancer, those who find themselves as refugees. Whilst we may not be able to explain such tragedies Jesus tells us that these people are mostly just like us with sins and regrets but this isn’t God punishing them, this isn’t how God works, he wants to forgive us, he wants to give us another chance.

It can be a natural reaction to say ‘what have I done to deserve this’ when sadness and tragedy strikes. It’s not always possible to immediately turn to God in strength and faith yet if we will let God travel with us, show his love for us we can begin a journey where his forgiving love and offer of eternal salvation is evident to the point that the question ‘what have I done to deserve this’ shifts from a bewildered cry to one of thankful recognition.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians includes a note of caution, ‘ so if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.’ Really this links with the earlier need to nourish and nurture our faith. To understand the difference between accepting that we are loved and forgiven versus being lazy and complacent to the extent that we no longer want to foster the relationship through prayer, no longer bother involving God in both our happy times and our struggles, and no longer want to learn more of God’s nature through scripture which has more to reveal to us than we have days on earth.

In our reading from Isaiah as we hear of God’s invitation to the banquet, making it clear that we don’t need money to join in, it’s free to share in wine and milk to delight ourselves in rich food. Perhaps some find God’s generosity to be so far from anything they have ever experienced that they think it’s just too good to be true, there must be some catch, though not now those who attended the lunch provided this week by members of our church community. There are those who still insist on buying food when God offers a place at his table without cost where all are welcome without exception.

It seems that there is such a thing as a free lunch after all. Again the sceptical may ask ‘what have I done to deserve this’ and feel unworthy to accept even when it pleases God for us to do so. It’s a sign of trust in him and his love for us.

Sometimes we over complicate God’s invitation, there’s no dress code to worry about, no fiddly cutlery or awkward conversation. Try comparing it to the unconditional love of parents when the relationship with their child is at it’s best. As a hungry child when my mum would call out ‘dinners ready’ I didn’t try to rationalise the situation, I instinctively heard it as good news and came running. When you grow up in a house with 5 kids, 2 parents and 3 dogs I also quickly worked out it was best not to hang around! Grown up children invited back home for a Sunday roast probably don’t think to themselves what’s the catch, they just accept that they are loved and are happy to be nourished, for free, as often as possible.

When the people told Jesus of the Galileans being slaughtered in the temple they didn’t spare him the gory detail of how the blood of those killed mingled with that of sacrificial animals. Perhaps they hoped to rile Jesus to the extent that he would endorse some violent act of retribution against Pilate and his forces. Instead he reminded them of their own mortality and their need to accept God’s love for them while they still had time. In doing this he reinforced the sometimes difficult to hear truth that true change begins with us.

Amen

Kevin Bright

24th March 2019

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Lent 1: If...

Audio version here 

Luke 4.1-13

“If you are the Son of God…” says Satan to Jesus in the wilderness. He says it twice, tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread and throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, but that little word “if” is there in the second temptation too, when Satan promises him all the kingdoms of the world “if” Jesus will worship him.

“If”: it’s such a small word, but it opens up alternative universes, different futures. “If” says that things could be different from the way they are – for better or worse. It opens the doors to new possibilities. If we turn right instead of carrying straight on we might find ourselves in a place we never expected to be.  If we decide to stay at a party instead of going home early, we might meet someone who changes our lives. If we say yes to that job opportunity, instead of no, our lives might change completely. That little word “if” implies that we’ve got a choice to make, that things could turn out differently from the way we thought they would. Nothing is written in stone as long as there’s an “if” around.

Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness is all about confronting the “ifs” in his future. If I do this, believe this, act in this way, then what? He has to make choices between alternative visions of how his ministry might be, which will lead him in very different directions. Satan’s questions force him to weigh up those options, to decide what it might mean for him, and for the world, if he truly is the Son of God.

He’d spent thirty years growing up in Nazareth, playing among the wood shavings in Joseph’s workshop, learning the skills of a carpenter. He’d learned the customs and attitudes of the people around him, their way of life, their assumptions. Most people then, and many now, would have expected that their lives would be much the same as the lives of those who’d gone before them. They didn’t expect to have many choices.  Life was precarious if you were an ordinary first century Jewish person man, living in an occupied country; it was enough  just to get by, to avoid trouble, to  scrape a living. There were no careers advisers telling you that you could “be anything you wanted to be”. A carpenter’s son would become a carpenter. A fisherman’s son would become a fisherman. If you were lucky, you’d get married, have children and begin the whole cycle all over again.

But something was niggling at Jesus, the sense that things could be different, that he was different, called to follow a different path. At the age of twelve, his anxious parent, realising they’ve lost him on the return journey from Jerusalem, find him in the Temple, debating with the religious leaders. “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” he asks. He’s realised that, however much he loves and respects Joseph and Mary, there’s a world opening up before him which his parents could never have imagined. His future isn’t going to be about making furniture in Nazareth. 

That’s confirmed dramatically when John baptises him, just before this story we’ve heard today, and a voice from heaven tells him “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. But what does this mean? That’s what the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to find out.  “If you are the Son of God…” Satan says to him, as he offers him some versions of the future that probably look quite appealing. Turning stones into bread – what’s wrong with that? Being kept safe from disaster by God - that sounds fine too! Surely these are the kind of superpowers that any self-respecting God would give to his son. But Satan gives himself away in the second of his temptations. His version of the Jesus’ future depends on Jesus worshipping him. The kingdoms of the world can be his, “if” he worships him.

The future is up for grabs as Jesus struggles with temptation in the wilderness. That what all the “ifs” in it suggest.  His ministry could go in any number of directions. He could create a kingdom like all the other kingdoms of his time, a kingdom where might is right and the weak are left to fend for themselves, where leaders are in it for their own power and glory. That would be the easy way, the way of all the other kingdoms he saw around him. But Jesus, in that wild place, has wild thoughts, “ifs” of his own to counter Satan’s.

What if the poor and the marginalised were given pride of place? What if they came first in the queue instead of last? What if children’s voices were listened to as carefully as adults? What if women were treated with respect, as equals, not as property? What if success wasn’t judged by how much money people had, or how famous they were, but by how much they loved others, how easily they spotted God’s likeness in them, how little they needed, and how thankful they were?

“What if” life was like that? Jesus thought to himself as he sat in the desert. It would probably be painful and costly and frightening, but wouldn’t it be wonderful too? Could he bear that pain? Could he choose this future over the one that Satan offered him?

We who say we follow Jesus are often tempted, as he was, to take the easy route too, to follow the train tracks of the world, trundling along looking for all the usual trappings of power and glory, as if we had no choice. But, praise God, there have been people in every generation ready to as those “what if” questions afresh, uncovering once again the vision of Jesus’ kingdom. St Francis wondered “what if I gave up all the riches I have and lived out Jesus’ message alongside the poorest of the poor? Campaigners for the abolition of slavery like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce – asked “what if” people of every colour believed that they were sisters and brothers? In this week when we have celebrated  International Women’s Day, we might ask “what if” women throughout the world could be who they are called to be, offer their talents in every field of life, without having to face discrimination, trolling and outright abuse? On a personal level we might ask “what if I could change and grow, think differently about myself, live more simply, more lovingly? What sort of future might that open up for me?

Out in the wilderness, Jesus asks wild questions just like these, as he struggles to choose between alternative futures, alternative visions of who he could be and what he could do.  It all hangs in the balance as Satan tries to convince him to choose the future he offers, but in the end Satan shoots himself in the foot, because he doesn’t seem to realise that Jesus’s relationship with his Father is so close that it’s completely obvious to him that Satan’s suggestions bear no trace of the family likeness, no hint of God’s voice.  He suggests ways forward that are all about self-enrichment, self-aggrandisement, self-protection.  “If you are the Son of God… choose these”, he says to Jesus. But the God whom Jesus has grown up listening to would never call him in this direction, and Jesus knows that too well to be taken in.

My daughter – an inveterate traveller - once told me that she had been about to get on a night bus in some dangerous corner of Central America when she suddenly heard my voice in her head telling her it wasn’t a good idea, so she didn’t. Phew! We know the voices of those we are close to, the way they think, the things they are likely to do. Their voices echo in us, and if we respect them we pay attention to them. Jesus knew his Father’s voice, his Father’s priorities. His ability to resist Satan is rooted in his relationship with his Father.

If we are going to be able to choose life-giving futures for ourselves and for our world, it will be because we have nurtured our relationship with God, our life-giver too. In this season of Lent, we’re also invited out into the desert, into the place where there is space - and provocation - to think, to ask “what if?”, to dare to imagine that the future can be different from the past, different from the way others tell us it will be, different from the way we have convinced ourselves it will be. But to do that safely and wisely, we need to have learned to recognise God’s voice amidst all the clamour of the world, to have nurtured that relationship with him, through prayer, through Bible reading, through service of others, through coming together for worship. It’s not something that happens in an instant. It takes time – the theme of our Lent studies this year. It takes steady commitment day by day if we want to “know him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly” as the prayer of St Richard, which the choir will sing later, puts it.

Jesus was given a choice. If he was the Son of God, what would that Sonship look like? We are given a similar decision to make.  If we are children of God, as God says we are, what does that mean for us, how will people know, what difference will it make, how will it shape us and the world we are part of?

Amen

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday can be a bit of a hard sell. It’s easy to attract people to a lovely Christmas carol service, or a joyful Easter service all full of chocolate eggs and spring flowers. Ash Wednesday doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it though. “Come along and remember all the stuff you’ve done wrong, and by the way, we are all going to die! Dust you are and to dust you shall return!”

But here we are. Something draws us here. Perhaps we are the kind of people who are never happy unless we are miserable, the kind of people who like giving ourselves and others a hard time? But no. I know you, and you know me, and that’s not how I would describe us at all.

The truth is that for those who “get” it, Ash Wednesday is rather a relief, because it’s the moment when we remind ourselves that it’s ok to be human, to be mortal, frail and fallible. We don’t have to be superheroes. God loves us as we are. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to grow, to heal, to be transformed.  But we don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to look happy and shiny if we aren’t.

Ash Wednesday  is a serious day, a day when we can take ourselves seriously, and know God takes us seriously too – we matter to him, and the way we live our lives matters to him – but there is, or ought to be a joy in that seriousness. We can be honest about our failings because we know that God loves us, failings and all. We don’t have to earn his love, and nothing we can do will destroy it. In a world where so many people, so often, feel they have to put on a face, sell themselves, talk themselves up, it is really good news when we can find a place where we can just be as we are.

And if we begin Lent with joyful seriousness, with the real conviction that we are absolutely loved, then when we get to the resurrection morning, Easter Day, we will find that the new life it promises is also more real. If we live Lent with joyful seriousness, when Easter comes we will find in it serious joyfulness, joyfulness which reaches down into the depths of our being.

So it may sound odd to rejoice on Ash Wednesday, but I always find that I do, and I hope that you will too. It’s good news that we are dust, because that dust is beloved dust, precious dust, dust which God in Jesus inhabited and blessed, and blesses still.
Amen

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Beloved Sons: Sunday before Lent



In today’s Gospel reading we meet two pairs of fathers and sons.

“This is my son, the Chosen; listen to him” – there’s the first pair. God speaks from heaven to Jesus’ baffled disciples.  They don’t get it. They haven’t got a clue what has been going on as they have seen Jesus shining with glory, and Moses and Elijah, figures from Israel’s ancient history, talking with him.

Peter has thoroughly embarrassed himself in his confusion by opening his mouth before his brain is in gear. “Shall I build you some tents?” he blurts out. We’ve probably all been there – not at the Transfiguration, of course, but in some other situation where we didn’t know what to say or do, so we just said or did the first thing that occurred to us, something banal and, on reflection, rather stupid. Faced with the spectacle of heaven breaking through to earth, Peter reaches for something, anything, that is familiar; in his case, a bit of DIY. But as soon as the words are out of his mouth, it’s obvious that he has got it wrong.
I mean… how does he plan to do this anyway? They’re up a mountain. Did he bring a pile of 2 by 4 and a tarpaulin, just in case?

But who can blame him?
Jesus doesn’t appear to. There is no rebuke, no “Now look what you’ve gone and done, Peter”. Although the vision vanishes and the cloud comes down, there’s no sense that this is a punishment, or that it is because of what he has said.  It is just that this was never meant to be an experience that was permanent. It is a spectacular moment, to be wondered at rather than clung to. Peter may feel he’s made a fool of himself. We may wince at his rather crass suggestion, but Jesus doesn’t seem to mind.

There are words of rebuke in the Gospel reading, but they come later, when we meet the second father and son in it. A man has brought his child to Jesus’ disciples to be healed. He’s probably one of many sick children in this needy crowd – sick children and desperate parents were two a penny in this pre-modern society as they still are in many parts of the world. There was very little anyone could do to cure or treat illness.  The child has what would probably be diagnosed as epilepsy today. But, in Jesus’ absence, the disciples haven’t been able to heal him, and they seem to have washed their hands of the situation. Notice that they don’t come to Jesus themselves and say, “we couldn’t help this poor family. Can you do something for them?”  It is left to the man himself to call out from the crowd.

The rebuke Jesus issues is really aimed at his disciples, who have failed this family. “You faithless and perverse generation,” cries Jesus, “how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”  It is a cry of frustration and pain as much as of anger. It didn’t bother him that Peter, John and James didn’t get what the Transfiguration meant; it does bother him, though, that after all they have seen, his disciples don’t get what  his ministry among the  poor and the sick is about.  

To understand  his rebuke, we need to remember that people at the time of Jesus didn’t have the same problem we would about the possibility of miraculous healing. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have a problem; it was just that their problem was different from ours. We struggle with the biological, scientific possibility of miracles.  They assumed that all healing came from God anyway, and that if he wanted to he could heal anyone he liked – they had no issue with that. The question for them was whether God wanted to heal, and who he wanted to heal. If this boy was sick or demon-possessed, according to their way of thinking, it was because either he or his parents had done something wrong, which had let the demons in. If he wasn’t healed, it must be because God didn’t want him to be. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust God’s ability to heal; they just assumed that if he didn’t it was because the child or his family had deserved their fate . So, when their prayers for this child hadn’t worked, they gave this father and son the brush off. God obviously didn’t want this child to be healed, so why should they waste time on him either?  

But to this child’s father, that wouldn’t do. On the mountain, God had cried out from heaven “This my Son, my Chosen” – this is someone special, someone beloved – “listen to him”; but to this desperate father, his son was just as beloved, just as special, just as precious, and he knew it was just as important that his voice, the voice that shrieked out in his convulsions, was also listened to. He wasn’t having it that there was no hope, and neither was Jesus.

Jesus is angry with his disciples because they were not only saying that they didn’t care about this boy, they were behaving as if God didn’t care either. They were saying that God had rejected him, handed him over to the demons that tormented him.

As you may have noticed, if you followed the reading on your pew leaflet, there was actually an option to leave out this second story this morning. It’s in square brackets. I didn’t because it seems to me that they are meant to go together.

Two fathers, two sons. The first set are famous. Everyone’s heard of them.  . God Almighty and the Word made Flesh, the Saviour of the world, the Messiah, the Chosen One. This Father and Son are enthroned in glory, celebrated in music and art, prayed to, sung about. The other father and son were anonymous, unknown, slipping back into the crowd after this miraculous healing, with no hint about what happened to them next, and yet, if you had been them, this event would have changed your life. Joy had been restored to them. They had been given back their lives and their future, and all because Jesus had seen the beloved child within the cruel distortion of the illness that had held him in its grip for so long.

It is very easy for us to be impressed by the wonder and the glory of the Transfiguration. It’s a big shiny story, quite literally. It’s amazing, stupendous. And yet, on its own, what difference does it make? The disciples who were there didn’t understand it.  “They kept silent, and in those days told no one of any of the things they had seen”, we are told. Much later, they came to see it as evidence for Jesus’ divinity, but at the time, it just baffled them. It was as if the light of God’s glory was so bright that they really couldn’t see it at all, as if the cloud that surrounded them was so thick that they couldn’t find any way of comprehending what it meant. On its own, it is a great story, but it can leave us saying “so what?”

It’s when we see it next to this other story, of this other father and son, that it challenges us as it should. What does the glory of God really look like, it asks us? What does it really mean? Can we see it when it isn’t big and shiny, when it isn’t giving us an emotional high? Do we have the faith to look for God’s glory in the mundane, daily stuff of life, in the plains and the valleys as well as on the mountains? Can we see it in the insistent demands of this troubling father who won’t take no for an answer, in the people and situations that are inconvenient for us? Can we see it in the longing of ordinary people like this pair simply to live with ordinary dignity;  the family that come to the foodbank because they can’t make ends meet, the refugee who just wants his children to be safe, the addict struggling to stay sober and clean, the homeless person who is just trying to get through another night on the streets?  Can we see God’s glory in mess and muddle and pain? Do we have the faith to look for it in failure, in despair, in darkness, in death, in a man executed shamefully on a cross, or lying lifeless in a stone-sealed tomb?

Jesus saw God’s glory in this convulsing child. He saw him as someone made in God’s image, a beloved son, a chosen one, like him, someone who deserved to be valued not only by his father but by everyone else too, a child worth saving, worth helping. His anger was for those who refused even to contemplate the possibility that God might be present and at work in him, the people who took one look, made one failed attempt to heal him, and wrote him off.

The story of the Transfiguration is always the set reading for the Sunday before Lent, at the point when we are about to set out on a journey that should challenge us, if we make it properly. We travel from the hill where Jesus is transfigured, shining, acclaimed by God, to the hill outside Jerusalem where he will die apparently forsake by his father, in shame and agony, overwhelmed by evil, just as this child has been overwhelmed by his illness. But Jesus looks again at him, and sees God at work where no one else but his devoted father has done. Lent invites us to look again - at Christ, at ourselves, at the world around us - to look for God’s glory, to trust in his fatherly love, not only in the bright lights and the sunny uplands, but everywhere, in everything, and everyone.
Amen