Anglican Church of Canada
March 3, 2019 Transfiguration Sunday
The ancient Celts had the idea of sacred times, the four points of the year that marked the earth’s journey around the sun and the transition of the seasons. These times were sacred, because that is when the veil of this world grows thin, and we can see the eternal realities behind them.
Transfiguration Sunday is a time like that in the church year. It is a time of transition. As the last Sunday of Epiphany, it looks back and sums up the theme of Epiphany, the shining forth of God in Christ, incarnate in the midst of our world. At the same time it looks forward through Lent and Holy Week to the suffering and death of Jesus. The story comes in the gospels right after Jesus announces to the disciples for the first time what is awaiting him in Jerusalem. This is the turning point of the gospel story. And Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah were talking about his “departure”. As we prepare to enter the dark road to the cross, we are given this glimpse of glory, a hint of what is to come on Easter morning.
At this turning of the seasons, it is though the veil of the material world has grown thin. The disciples’ eyes are opened to see deeper, and they see another aspect of who this Jesus is: not just the friend and teacher, the good man they love, but also the very presence of the divine energy of God, the light that shone before light was created. They catch this glimpse, then the cloud passes, and they see the familiar Jesus standing there. And then they go back down the mountain, to get about the business of doing the work he came to do: healing, caring, proclaiming hope, stitching back together God’s divided people.
Peter wants to hold onto the moment. “Let’s build three shrines,” he suggests, with his usual thoughtless enthusiasm. Then we can hold onto this moment, then we can start a new religion of the holy mountaintop, and come up here to be close to God. But that is the complete opposite of what Jesus came to do. We don’t have to go up the mountain to be close to God, because Jesus came down to bring God close to us, to bring God into the very fabric of our daily lives. That’s where Jesus wants us to meet God, in the daily tasks of caring for one another, of forgiving, of spreading hope.
Now that’s always the danger with the way we do church: we build ourselves these beautiful buildings, we gather here on Sunday mornings to feel close to God. And sometimes we can slip a bit into Peter’s way of thinking. This place becomes our mountaintop, the place we come to meet God – and we forget that God has already come to be close to us, when he came in Jesus; came to share our daily lives and to teach us to see God at work there, seven days a week, in our homes and in our communities. Really, we come here not because this is where God lives, but to be strengthened and equipped and sent out to serve God throughout the week by serving one another.
Last week Fr. Ed preached a sermon about some of Jesus’s more difficult teachings. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Turn the other cheek. Do not judge, but forgive.” It was a beautiful and powerful sermon, a bit of a mountaintop moment itself. But here’s the thing – and I dare suppose that Fr. Ed would agree – it’s one thing to be touched and moved by these beautiful ideas; it’s quite another to take them down off the mountaintop and into the mess of our daily lives. It’s another thing altogether to try to actually live them, nor heroically in our imagination, but with the tiresome people we actually have to deal with – who probably find us tiresome too. That isn’t as inspiring as staying on the mountaintop; it can be hard work, and frustrating, and doesn’t always give us the warm fuzzies we wish it did.
But that is where Jesus wants to take us. That is where, Jesus tells us, we will really encounter God. Maybe not the God of spiritual highs, but the real God of the hard, unglamorous work of loving people who are every bit as difficult as we are.
I really believe that the world around us needs the gospel that has been entrusted to us. Anxiety levels are through the roof – economic uncertainty, environmental catastrophe, and a general lack of a sense of meaning and purpose is putting people on edge. And when they are on edge, they tend to lash out in inappropriate ways. Just go on the internet and see the way people treat each other: name-calling, blaming, not listening or trying to understand one another, grasping at quick fixes. This kind of thinking is infecting our politicians, putting our democracy at risk. It is leaching out into our schools, our civic life, undermining our sense of common purpose, making people more suspicious and more contemptuous of each other.
The things that Jesus taught us and modelled for us – caring for others, praying for them, forgiving them, trying to understand them, trying to keep their best interest at heart – these things are so badly needed. That’s why I believe in the mission of the church, not as an imperialistic undertaking, but as a public service of caring for others and modelling what caring looks like.
I’m going to get quite specific here. Our parish is going through a very anxious time. In general, it’s not an easy time to be a church, as participation and resources and our sense of relevance is shrinking across the country. Here is Wilmot, we are facing a financial crisis, and until we get a handle on that, we will all be feeling a bit more anxious than usual.
So I suppose it is not surprising that in our anxiety we as a parish are turning back to our bad habits. I mean specifically the habit we have here of suspicion and animosity between the two churches. It seemed to have died down for a few years, but I am hearing it more and more lately: complaints and criticisms of those people at All Saints or those people at Holy Trinity; a sense of grievance and hurt for real or perceived slights that may go back decades; words or actions that show a lack of understanding or caring about the other church.
I don’t mean to single anyone out here. It’s not about one individual or another, this is a problem we all share. It is part of the personality of this parish – and it’s a wonderful parish, but we have our shadow side, a particular spirit of discord that moves among us. And we have the choice to either feed it or resist it. We can so easily slip into this complaining about each other. I don’t think we necessarily mean much by it, it is just a habit we seem to have gotten into, but it can be so destructive, laying the groundwork for further hurt, further grievance. And it has got to stop.
For me it is like (I’ve said this before): imagine you are on the phone with your daughter in Mississauga, and she is going on and on bitterly complaining about your other daughter in Calgary. What do you want to say to her? I love you, I’m sorry you are feeling so hurt. But I love your sister too. Maybe not everything that she said was meant to be as hurtful as you heard it. And even if it was, forgive her. You don’t need to take it on, her hostility. Understand that she too is speaking from a place of hurt and anxiety. She’s your sister. You need her, and she needs you. So let go of your anger and hurt, reach out to her, care about her, take the first steps to heal this quarrel.
In this parish, we need each other. I am completely convinced that there will be no future for either of our churches, unless we can learn to work together joyfully. The task of being messengers of God’s redeeming love in our communities is too big for any one of us. And if we can’t rediscover that calling, then we won’t survive.
Besides, we need to get along because that is what Jesus tells us to: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Turn the other cheek. Do not judge, but forgive.” Those are our matching orders as Christians, and they haven’t changed. And this isn’t just some extreme theory for mostly imaginary times when we are faced with dangerous foes. It is everyday advice as to how to deal with your neighbour, with the person you find difficult, with the person you are stuck with having to get along with. I ask you: if we can’t even try to practise this with our neighbours in the other church, what hope do we have of practising it anywhere?
So please, let us all of us together try to practise what Jesus is telling us.
• Stop talking about “those people at All Saints”, or “those people at Holy Trinity”, this us and them language. It doesn’t even make sense, when you think about it. Neither church is a closed group, but a great variety of different folk. So maybe you have some unpleasant history with a few people at the other church. I can tell you right now that there are other people there whom you probably don’t even know, who are lovely, gifted, warm, faithful people, people you should probably make friends with. This parish is so full of wonderful people, it is pointless to get stuck on the ones we have problems with.
• As for the people you find difficult: forgive them. Forgive them when they say something that you find hurtful. They may not have meant it that way at all; and even if they did, forgive them, let it go. Pray for them. Really. Because if we are honestly praying for someone (not just complaining to God about them), we begin to understand them a bit better. We begin to see that they too are hurting and uncertain and just plain human. And then it is easier to forgive them.
• Let go of the baggage, all the grudges we have carried through the years. What someone did in Fr Eric’s day, or what happened with Andrea, or what someone said when the new church was being built – whether right or wrong, it doesn’t really matter now. We can’t change it or fix it, so let it go. It is keeping us stuck in the past, and sapping the energy we need for right now.
• Seek each other’s good. That is what love is, really – it’s not so much a feeling, it is the commitment to want to see the other flourish. I would hope that we could work towards being a parish where every person cares as much about the flourishing of the other church as they do about their own.
• Show up. Whenever there is a joint service, or parish event, or a study group, or whatever, show up regardless of where it is. If we don’t show up, we won’t get to know each other, we can’t grow as a community.
Love one another. Jesus’s commandment is simple, and he repeats it time and time again. There’s really no way we ignore it and still claim to follow him. You know, we don’t even have to like one another, to enjoy each other’s company – although I think we would be a lot happier if we could. But we do have to love one another. And that’s not really an airy-fairy, abstract thing. It means working to get along with the neighbours we have been given: to care about them, try to get to know and understand them, forgive them when they have offended us, seek their best interests.
And it’s not optional. It is not optional for us as a parish. If we can’t learn to do this, we’re not going to survive. And frankly, if we are not at least trying to do Jesus’s work, why should we survive?
If I have come across as scolding or preachy, I’m sorry. Some things need to be said.