Transfiguration

This is a sermon for the feast of the transfiguration.  The Scripture it references is Mark 9:2-10.

I’d like to invite you, this morning, to pause; to set aside whatever worries and concerns you have brought to church with you, and to come with me, in your imagination, up the mountain path with Peter and James and John, following Jesus. It’s a strange encounter, the transfiguration, out of the round of everyday life and events, and it invites us to stop and see what it might have to say to us.

The gospel account tells us what the disciples saw – that Jesus’ face changed, that his clothes became white, that he spoke with Moses and Elijah. But what do those things mean?

Mark’s account here is brief, but Luke fills in some of the blanks for us, and explains that this is all about glory.   Moses and Elijah appeared in glory; the disciples saw Jesus’ glory.  A quick Google search tells me that today, glory is a word mostly used about sport, and war; both contexts in which it is closely associated with winning; with coming out on top and triumphing over competitors or enemies.  God, who is without peer, has neither competitor nor enemy who is any threat to him; and he exists in a state of eternal glory, which is something which both Mark and Luke come back to, again and again, throughout their gospels.

Glory exists the gospels when people praise God, and when they experience the nearness of heaven (think of the shepherds in the fields at the time of Jesus’ birth, and how “the glory of the Lord shone around them”).  Glory is what we recognize as the power and the presence of God, both in its utterly holy otherness, and its intimate nearness to human life.

And that reality – the power and the presence of God – is what the disciples recognized on the mountain.  So this tells us again who Jesus is.  The power and presence of God shines out of the depths of his very flesh, reminding us that he is God, who, although he has chosen to humble himself and take on flesh, is not limited by it in the way that we are.

In the language and understanding of faith of the time, the events on the mountain claim an unmistakable divine identity for Jesus, which lays the foundation for understanding the events of his suffering and death.

More than that, though, the transfiguration looks beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the future.  The glory which shone out of Jesus on the mountain is the glory which we will most fully know in God’s future; in the banquet at the end of time, and the establishment of perfect peace and harmony.  The glory of Jesus on the mountain is a peek behind the veil of time, a foretaste of the future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, human beings will cease their destruction, and all of creation will flourish in peace and beauty.  Remember the promise in Revelation that at that time, we will no longer need sun or moon, because the glory of God is the light of the new creation – and it is that same perfect and holy light which shone from Jesus’ face on the mountain.

So the light and the glory of the transfiguration aren’t just minor details of the event on the mountain, but really they are the event.  They are a down payment on a future where God’s salvation will triumph definitively over evil and suffering, where God’s glory will be – as Paul put it – “all in all.”

This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation.  Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.  So it really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them another glimpse into deeper understanding of who Jesus was.

In order to make sense of the vision of hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God. This is why, after the bit we read this morning, Mark tells us that immediately after descending the mountain, Jesus is called on to perform an exorcism. It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. The light of God, reflected in the face of Christ who is the source of creation in its original goodness, turns its beams upon human beings at the point of our violence and degradation, our oppression and escapism, our loss and alienation, our fear, pride, anger and despair; choose your poison!  In the end, human beings are saved through the dual revelation of their own disfiguration and the hope of their transfiguration in Christ.

In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship (which really are two different faces of the same coin, which is our total commitment to God), that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us. When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith (if not yet by sight) in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands. These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.

So there is a call to action, here. The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope. We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.

As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, to nurture the tender new shoots of the reign of God wherever we find them. We’re supposed to be on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket; and if we’re on a lampstand, we’ll be effective in bringing light to the spaces we inhabit.

Martin Luther King, Jr., told the story of how, during his struggle for justice, he was strengthened by God’s promises; by his vision of this hope.  One night he woke up to find twelve sticks of dynamite on his front porch with the fuse still smouldering.  The next morning, during his sermon, he told his congregation: “I am not afraid of anybody this morning.  Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them.  Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them.  If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.”

What would it take, my brothers and sisters, for us to be convinced that we have been to the mountaintop, and we have seen the promised land, and it’s going to be here, in Burwood?  What would it take for us to live with that absolute rock-solid certainty, so that we would persevere, unafraid, certain of what God is up to in our midst?  Perhaps, until we reach that point, we will need to keep coming back to the transfiguration and let it speak to us of the hope and glory of God.

The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.

May we be faithful stewards of it.

Looking for a map

This is a sermon for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 119:129-136.

If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that the most recent census data has become available not long ago; and fine minds all over the country are analysing that data for its significance.  In church circles, I’ve heard much comment on the fastest-growing category of religious belief; which is, more accurately, having no belief.  Of course, many of the people in that category aren’t hardcore atheists, but fall more into the camp of being “spiritual but not religious.”  They think there’s probably some sort of God, they’re interested in questions of meaning, they want to make a difference, not just a living; but they’re not convinced about religious institutions providing them with reliable maps or guides.

We can take that on board in various ways, some more optimistic than others.  I suggest that one thing we might give thought to, is actually checking the value of the maps and guidance we offer; because if what we offer has little value, why would anyone want it?

So what I want to think about this morning is really, what do these things – being spiritual or religious – mean?  What does it mean to be spiritual? And if we are religious, what does that imply about spirituality for us? Perhaps spirituality is a smorgasbord of ideas and behaviours and practices from which we can pick and choose to fashionably accessorise our faith? Or indeed is it a matter of fuzzy thinking best ignored by the wise?

Well, I think it is possible to be religious without being spiritual. But I also think it is dangerous; that way lie dogmatism, fundamentalism, legalism, and institutionalism. We’ve all seen the damage that these approaches to a life of faith can do, and I’m sure I don’t need to encourage you to avoid them.

At the same time, though, it is definitely possible to have a spirituality which isn’t firmly anchored in a relationship with God, and that’s just as dangerous in its own way. That way lie the occult practices which the Bible explicitly forbids, as well as pursuit of whatever makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, perhaps at the expense of our emotional maturity and indeed our common sense. That way, too, lies the risk of projecting our own psyche onto the universe and then wondering why the universe seems so muddled!

There might actually be some clues to all of this, in this morning’s psalm.

The psalmist wrote, “Your decrees are wonderful… I long for your commandments… I may keep your precepts… teach me your statutes… your law is not kept.” On the face of it, this psalm can look like an obsessive-compulsive’s hymn to legalism. Over and over the psalmist focuses on God’s law as the heart of his faith.

And yet we should notice amongst the mentions of the “law,” words about grace and light and freedom.  And we might also ask, how it is that the psalmist found these things in the law?

The thing is, the word we translate as “law” – Torah – is not about a legal system. It has at its root the Jewish verb for “to teach” or “to instruct.”  And the word we have as “statutes” originally related to something engraved in stone.  For the psalmist, then, light and grace comes from accepting God’s unchanging (reliable and trustworthy) teaching, rather than living within a set of “rules.” That teaching is not just a set of moral or behavioural precepts; it refers above all to God’s revelation of Godself to Israel. But notice that the psalmist does not treat God’s teaching as fixed or finished; he asks that God continues to teach him. This is a faith which expresses itself in a relationship which is open, trusting and dynamic.

More than that, but this isn’t a psalm from someone who is sitting quietly amongst his scrolls, shut away from the world.  The person who wrote this was facing real life with its challenges and difficulties, and – we can see from the way he writes in places – the questions and criticisms of those who don’t share his belief.

The psalmist’s spirituality has what has been described as a “warm doctrine of God.” The God of this psalm is not withdrawn or neutral; he is present and available to the person who reaches out to Him in times of challenge or perplexity.

The psalmist had a faith very firmly grounded in what he knew of God. His spirituality wasn’t something he made up as he went along, but at every point he turned back to let his life be formed and re-formed according to the word of the Lord. For us, at a point in history after Christ’s incarnation, our knowledge of God has expanded to include what that brought to our understanding; the gospels, the creeds of the early church, and the foundation of the tradition in which we have been nurtured.

A further thing to note about this psalm is that it is not an expression of purely individual faith. Whatever the circumstances in which it was written, it was incorporated into the sung worship of the Jerusalem temple, and has continued to be part of the corporate prayer life of both Jews and Christians to this day. Even our use of it this morning is intended to be as much an exercise of prayer and worship as of intellectual processing. It points us to the fact that we connect with God at times in each other’s company and even through each other, through mutual service and the sharing of our gifts and wisdom. And it points us to the fact that God’s self-revelation impacts the decisions and priorities not just of individuals but of communities.

But let me come back to the questions I started with this morning. Is spirituality a bit of a smorgasbord, something from which we can pick and choose as we wish to enhance our faith? I suggest that the psalm we’ve read this morning offers us a qualified answer which says, “yes and no.” Yes, spirituality, even for Christians, offers us a huge variety of ways to connect with God and discern His will. Even the diversity of Scripture shows us that; we can pray and meditate our way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and encounter a huge variety of genres of writing, of moods, of characters and stories.

At the same time, the psalm also says, no, Christian spirituality – Godly spirituality – isn’t entirely undetermined. It is a response to God’s love and self-revelation in Christ. Christian spirituality includes the imperative to obedience, to trust and faith, to coming back again and again to the touchstones we have in Scripture and in tradition, to ensure that we are firmly anchored in the life of faith. It highlights the necessity of facing up to the things in life of which we are afraid, and points us to the resources we have to do so.

The question of what it means to be faithfully Christian is real and urgent.  It has consequences for our identity and ethos. It is in being faithful to the teaching about God in Christ, that we can have a healthy spirituality which makes our religion a worthwhile endeavour; which gives us a set of resources – map and guidance, as I put it earlier – which we can share with others longing for truth and hope.

The rise of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd need send us neither into panic nor into ideological bunkers; but rather we ought to look to the treasuries of millennia of resources, to enrich first ourselves, and then others around us, as we all seek to make something of the pilgrimage of life.

St. Mary Magdalene

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.

Mary Magdalene stood, weeping, outside the tomb. This was the second time she had stood outside the tomb that morning; the first time, she had run straight from the empty tomb to fetch Peter and the other disciple. But as the men ran to investigate the empty tomb, Mary also made her way back – and I wonder why?

We don’t really know much about Mary’s back story. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in Scripture to say that she was a prostitute. A couple of brief comments say that Jesus had cast demons out of her. I wonder whether, on that morning, standing in the garden in the dark before sunrise, she felt the cold fingers of fear that now that Jesus was gone, the demons might return?

I wonder if Jesus’ death was not just the loss of a teacher, a healer, a leader, a companion… but whether Mary wept because without Jesus, her past might overtake her again, plunging her back into whatever mental chaos and trauma she had known?

For Mary, it had been in her initial encounter with Jesus – which isn’t described for us anywhere, but just referred to – that Jesus had evicted the demons, and recovered the identity of the woman underneath. A woman with a name, a woman whom Jesus embraced and valued, a woman who thus discovered herself as a whole person. For Mary, the empty tomb must have loomed large as a dark threat, leaving her emotionally naked in her vulnerability and need.

And that matters because she’s not the only one to weep.  Like Mary, each of us comes with a back story. Those stories are rich and complex and diverse, and not one-size-fits-all, so I’m not going to generalize about their meaning. But each of those stories has its times of light and shade. There were the seasons in which we were hopeful and energized and it seemed that God had blessed us such that the world was our oyster, in which we could reasonably expect to find pearls. And there were seasons in which we were despondent and the world seemed more like a bed of quicksand in which we were trapped, and the heavens were shut.

We bring all of this personal history with us to the drama of the Christian story.  The cycle we go through, each year, from the annunciation to Mary, right around to Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, gives us opportunities to remember all of the different emotions of our own stories, and to explore the connections between our story, and the big picture story of what God is doing with and in and through creation.

And it seems to me that perhaps Mary weeping at the door of the empty tomb holds up a mirror to the times when we’ve felt frail, vulnerable, afraid of failure or of being found worthless.

But this is all a bit morbid for a feast day, isn’t it? Well, it would be, if we stopped there. But it didn’t stop there for Mary, and it doesn’t for us. The risen Jesus called Mary by name, allowing her to see that the empty tomb was not just a tomb; not a grave for all her hopes and hard-won sense of self; but it was also the place in which Christ had risen. The darkness which threatened to close again around Mary was not a lasting darkness, not the falling of the curtain, but would give way to the dawning of the new day, the day of resurrection, the day in which Mary would discover that there was so much more than she had yet understood in what she had been given.

And by God’s grace, it is similar for us. When we stand in our own moments of darkness, wander through the memories of fear and the shadows of dehumanisation, we too can encounter the risen Lord who calls each of us by name.   Who takes the seeds of hope which we have treasured and gives them the light to burst into something new, something more than we knew them to be.

Being willing to accept this, to take this part of the Christian story on board as part of our story, our identity, is an indispensable part of our relationship with God.  It means that we refuse to accept that diminishment and chaos are unchanging features of our existence to which we must bow.  Instead, it means that Christ’s resurrection impels us against the darkness, to search for light and truth; to search for the relationships where our very being is affirmed and we can live with deep assurance.

Mary doesn’t just find Jesus at the tomb, she finds her self as well, her name and being, re-affirmed.  And her life from this point will have to do with ongoing life and promise, and “calling” in the fuller sense.  She’s given a task to do, and a gift to share with others.  Christ bids her not to cling to him, but to go to her brothers and tell them what she has encountered.

There is a story in the Orthodox tradition, that some time after this, Mary – as a wealthy and influential woman (and we do know she was wealthy; Luke’s gospel tells us that she helped fund Jesus’ ministry) – journeyed to Rome and was granted an audience with the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, during which she shared her experience of the resurrection.  The emperor protested that this is impossible, and gesturing at an egg on his table, said that a man can no more rise from the dead, than his egg was red; whereupon the egg immediately turned red.  (Which is why, as an aside, Orthodox icons of Mary Magdalene often show her holding up a red egg).  And, as a nice end to that story, apparently it’s during this meeting that Mary complained about the harsh government of Pilate, which led to his removal.

Whether or not the story is true, I like it because it shows something of the boldness that came to Mary as a result of having lived through this time of darkness, and the discovery of the light of the resurrection.

But it doesn’t stop with Mary.  The word of hope is given to be passed on, from Mary to the other apostles, from the Ten to Thomas, from Peter to the community, from that community to the whole world.  It’s not just for those people of long ago; here is what our encounter with the risen Jesus, fresh from the tomb, calls us to; to be bearers of hope. To bring light into darkness; to release the bonds of oppression into genuine freedom. To seek out the seeds of hope and value and worth in places where people are trapped and lost, and nurture those seeds into bearing fruit.

Now, to be blunt, this is a calling at which the church has often failed. You know this all too well; I don’t need to tell you. But like Mary Magdalene, we stand in the light of a new morning, the morning of the resurrection, shot through with possibility and hope, and with a chance to begin again. To hear our names and know ourselves as we should be; and to share that gift with others. Let’s not miss the moment.

 

Sowing seeds

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the church where I am now the vicar.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

Jesus’ parables often talk about seeds; wheat seeds, mustard seeds, even weeds; and while that made his parables relatable to country folk who knew about growing things, I suspect the reason for it goes far beyond that.

Seeds are beginnings.  Hold a seed in your hand, and you’re not just holding what you can see; you’re holding the potential for everything it might grow into.  Nestled into that tiny package is all the information required for something much larger and more complex, along with a store of energy to give it all a kick-start.

So these parables of seeds that Jesus tells; they’re all to do with beginnings.

And while, at this point in the life of the parish, you and I might be tempted to focus on the beginnings which have most impact on us personally; new vicar, new relationships and so forth, I think this morning’s parable invites us to think about the new beginnings we might provide – or at least offer – to others.

Suppose we read it as if we – this parish – are the sower.  What would it mean for us to go out to sow?

One way of looking at it, is that it would mean creating opportunities for the word of God to reach its destination in the human heart, there taking root and flourishing as a new, or perhaps renewed, relationship with God.

And I think the parable gives us several things to think about, in that regard.

First is that if we’re talking about connecting human hearts and the word of God, really we’re talking about relationships.  The evangelist haranguing passers-by on the street corner is generally ineffective, not because people don’t hear the word; but because he doesn’t forge any meaningful connection with the people.   He’s yelling at them, but – in terms of this parable – the seed isn’t finding any soil.

Part of our job, then, as sower would be the forging of relationships outside the already existing parish community, and with the wider local community; because it’s in the context of real relationships that we’re going to be able to offer the opportunity of new relationship with God in a meaningful way.

It also strikes me that we don’t know ahead of time which people are going to respond well; just as the sower scatters his seed all over the place, and some lands among thorns, and some on the path, and so on; we need to be prepared to form relationships across the breadth of the people we encounter.  We know some of them will never go any further, but that’s okay; relationship isn’t a limited resource.

This is part of what I meant, in the email that went out with the pew sheet on Friday, when I said that we could even be playful and creative in exploring the potential God has created for us to unfold together.  Sometimes trying new things, or different things, leaves people concerned that if it doesn’t work, it will have been a waste; a waste of our time, energy, and resources.  But when we’re talking about exploring potential it’s the only way to do things; because we can’t know ahead of time which seed will give us nothing, and which will reproduce a hundred-fold.  So we give things a go, and then move on from the things that don’t work without regret.  We tested their potential in the only way we could.  And hopefully we learned something, and maybe even had some fun, along the way!

(It’s worth remembering that Jesus himself didn’t have a great success rate, if by success we mean everyone who heard him teach becoming part of his new community of believers.  Most people heard his teaching and walked away.  So we can hear this parable in part as Jesus saying to his disciples, “The numbers aren’t the point.  What matters is that some people respond, and the only way we can get to that point is giving as many people as possible the opportunity to respond.”)

Now, I only moved into this suburb two weeks ago.  I have, at this point, no particular agenda for what this looks like, in practical terms, for us.  I don’t know you, I don’t know the people around us, and I don’t know what points of connection are already available and just waiting for us to make the most of them.  But over the coming months, as we get to know one another, and as we begin to think about the future, the rest of this year, next year, and beyond, those are the sorts of questions I’ll have in mind; and I encourage you to be thinking about them and reflecting on them with me, as well!

But there are also, I think, some clues in this parable as to how we might do this in a way which ends up with better-than-random results.  Look at the three reasons Jesus gives for the seeds which don’t bear fruit; lack of understanding, trouble or persecution, and other priorities in the life of the person.

Each of those things are realities in life, and they’re realities which we can’t entirely remove.  But they are things which we can cushion a bit.

Here’s what I mean.  Take lack of understanding; that’s overcome by good teaching.  So as we think about how we provide relationships in which people can encounter the possibility of relationship with God, we also need to be thinking about how we can teach those people, so that they can develop some understanding; understanding of how to live as a Christian, how to pray, how to get the most out of the Scriptures, and so forth.  One thing I’ve picked up already is that there are many teachers in this parish; the skills and insights of that profession can be brought to bear, as we think about how to make sure that the people who encounter something of God with us, don’t do so with lack of understanding.

Or take trouble or persecution.  We can never make trouble go away; it’s a feature of human life.  But we can provide a certain amount of resilience.  We can be a resource for practical and emotional support, and we can help people to develop their own network of resources, which will help people to navigate their troubles without falling away.

Or take the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth.”  Here I think the answer is that people need to be presented with a vision of the reign of God which is so compelling, so inspiring, that the cares of the world are exposed as having relatively little worth in comparison.  Here we need to be sure that what we offer people isn’t a watered-down gospel, one with no real power to change their lives; but that what we offer is the fullness of all that God lavishes on us.

So here are the four things that this parable suggests as matters to take into account, in our life together:

  • Authentic relationships with the community around us, in which we can offer the opportunity for relationship with God.
  • Sound teaching which makes sure that what is on offer can be understood and practiced.
  • Personal support which offers resilience in the face of trouble.
  • A compelling vision of the reign of God which inspires and motivates people to commit to the gospel as a way of life.

None of that will mean that every seed will sprout and bear much grain.  But if we want to be effective in sowing, and see as much harvest as is within our scope to bring about, those are the things this parable brings to our attention.

And if we do this, it will be worth it.  We will see a harvest of people who respond to God’s offer of relationship, discovering faith and hope and love as they do.

As I said earlier, seeds are about beginnings.  We don’t need to feel that we have all the answers right now.  It’s enough that we have the attitude of a sower; someone who wants to go out into the world and make a difference; to plant something worthwhile and see it grow to full maturity.  That’s enough of a beginning for God to work with.  And I suspect that for us, it will be enough for us to be thinking and praying about, to start with, too.

The Lord be with you.

Serpents and doves

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:16-23.

“Wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

It’s a strange pair of images, isn’t it?  I’m not sure whether, most days, I feel more like a serpent or a dove, but I’m pretty sure it’s hard to feel like both at the same time.

So what is Jesus saying here?

I suspect that actually he’s talking about power.  Wisdom – or cunning – gives one a certain amount of power.  The ability to see how to influence things, to think through consequences of particular choices, and so forth, it means you can have clout, in whatever circumstances that you’re in.

And we know that power isn’t inherently bad – after all, God is all-good and all-powerful – but it can be easily misused.

So I think what Jesus is saying here is, have power, accept and be comfortable with your own power, be prepared to use it; but don’t use it to do any harm.

This is, I suspect, one of the things that we struggle with most in the church.  Either side of this equation without the other is out of balance.  Being cunning without any concern not to harm leads us to being dominating, manipulative, using people for our own ends rather than serving them.  Being concerned not to do harm without embracing the right use of power leads to passivity, shrinking back from creativity or action, being paralysed with indecision.

And I’m sure that you’ve seen both of those problems in play, at different times.

So being both serpent-like and dove-like is about the balance point, the attitude which holds on to both of these things without neglecting either.  Be enough like a serpent to put your knowledge and insight into effective action.  Be enough like a dove to do so with care and concern for those around you.

It’s worth reflecting on, as we are mindful in our own interactions, whether we manage to get the balance right.

Rebekah the Matriarch

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost.  This morning I was the guest preacher in the Church of Christ where my husband is a member.  The Scripture the sermon is based on is Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 (really the whole passage).  The picture referred to is attached at the end of this post, as well as a bonus stained-glass window of the Matriarch Rebekah (or Rivqa, as her name is better transliterated).  The stained-glass window is one of a series of windows of the matriarchs commissioned for Beth Shaom Synagogue, in the Netherlands. 

Good morning.  I should start by thanking the elders for the opportunity to preach here today; I don’t get to be here very often, and it’s a real privilege, when I do have the chance, to also contribute in some way.

And this morning I want to look a little bit at the reading we had from Genesis.  It’s a stunning piece of text; the great romance of the old testament, and the details of the descriptions of jewellery and camels and veils in the wilderness are supposed to make our hearts thump as we’re swept up in the delicious drama of it all.

(I say it’s the great romance of the old testament, because of all the patriarchs and heroes of ancient Israel, Isaac is the only one shown to have married only once, with no concubines or maidservants or flings on the side.  Apparently Rebekah, even when she didn’t produce children for the first twenty years of their marriage, was the only woman he ever wanted or needed.  And I’ll say some more about that later).

But the part of the story that we heard today is kicked off a little earlier when Abraham, who’s getting old and obviously concerned about the future of his family, and the legacy that God has promised him through Isaac, decides that Isaac needs a wife.  And, more to the point, not a wife from among the people of Canaan, where Abraham’s family are living as foreigners, and where the local population are participants in the local pagan fertility cult, but from among Abraham’s own relatives, who are living some distance away but who worship the same God.

So we get the whole story with the faithful servant being sent off to find a suitable wife from among Abraham’s nieces.  And the servant finds Rebekah, as we heard described this morning, and the rest is history.

But it’s also more than history.  In the unfolding story of Genesis, Rebekah is also presented as something of a feminine archetype.  What I mean by that is, she’s held up as an example or model of what the ideal woman – and in particular, what the ideal wife – is to be, in the community which considers itself the heirs to Abraham’s promise.

But it gets even more heady than that.  As the identity of the Hebrew people developed, they often – and you see this in the writings of the prophets, in particular – understood the whole community to be like a wife to God.  As in, the relationship between God and God’s people was as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage.  And so all the ideas about what an ideal wife looked like, then carried over in some ways to be ideas about what Israel should ideally be, in their relationship with God.

And of course Christians picked up that set of ideas too.  In the new testament, we read in various places about the Church as the “bride of Christ,” and about the wedding of the lamb and the Church as the fulfillment of what we’re supposed to be on about.

So what I’m saying is, when we read the story of a matriarch like Rebekah, who is held up as such an ideal example of wifeliness, we can read it for clues to how the ancient Hebrews understood themselves in their relationship with God; and, following in the same line of thought, how early Christian leaders like Paul thought about the Church in our relationship with God.  There’s a clear line of these ideas being picked up and developed and handed on and reflected on some more, right down to us.

So what I really want to do this morning is look at the story of Rebekah, and see what it might have to say to us about the identity of the Church, as the people who are, collectively, in a relationship as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage, with the God we worship.

And I think the first thing to notice is this reality that Rebekah isn’t one of the local pagan women, but that she is culturally different.  Sometimes – although it’s a little out of fashion now – we talk about the need for the church not to be “worldly,” not to be caught up in the obsessions and deceptions that those who don’t know God get caught up in.  We need to understand those worldly things – at least enough to help others reflect on them in the light of the gospel – but we need to not buy into them.  And that’s what Rebekah’s being already a worshipper of the one true God represents for us.

Next, we see that she’s hard working, and generous.  Abraham’s servant meets her when she’s gone to draw water, heavy labour, but necessary for the household.  And when he interrupts her work, not only does she give him a drink, as he’s requested, but she also offers unprompted to water his camels.  That’s a lot of water!  A thirsty camel can drink over 100 litres of water in one go; and earlier in the text is says that Abraham’s servant set out with ten camels, so for each of those camels Rebekah did the heavy work of raising, carrying and pouring water.  Think about what it would feel like to lug a literal tonne or so of water around, one water-jar at a time, and you’ll see that this was significant physical labour.

Costly generosity and hospitality; absolutely fundamental virtues in the world of the ancient wilderness nomads, where this was how people survived.  I’m hospitable to you today, and you’re hospitable to me tomorrow, and between us we both might make it to see our children grow up.

But again, translate that to the Church, and we can see where this applies to us.  To be generous, to be hospitable.  To provide an oasis in our communities for people who are exhausted, starving, wounded or lost.  To foster relationships of mutual support and encouragement.  To be willing to put ourselves out, with back breaking labour if need be, to make that possible.  And when we realise that what’s at stake is not just survival in the wilderness, but people’s eternal fate, how much more should we be willing to put ourselves out?

The bit about Rebekah being “fair to look upon” is interesting.  Beauty is often a kind of story-tellers’ shorthand for this being a good person, because after all, the heroine is always beautiful, isn’t she?  We might want to question that assumption, in general, because people who are, for whatever reason, not seen as beautiful aren’t actually any less capable or valuable because of that!  But for the purposes of Rebekah’s story as it’s being told here, take it as read that she’s beautiful because she’s the heroine, and that that general idea of being good, desirable, and so forth, applies to her… and therefore, in the extended comparison we’re making, also to the Church.  Our beauty lies in reflecting God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s holiness; and so the more closely our character and attitudes reflect God’s, the more “beautiful” we will become in the sense that it matters here.

Also, Rebekah is, at the point where Abraham’s servant meets her, a virgin.  The virginity is important because it shows that her commitment is serious.  She hasn’t left someone else to be with Isaac, and she hasn’t been frivolous in her relationships to this point.  When she gives herself to her husband, there’s some gravity to her decision.  And it’s also worth noting that – remarkably for the time, and despite negotiations amongst her male relatives – it is her decision.  She’s asked whether she will go to be Isaac’s wife, and she says she will.

And again, we can see how this relates to us as the Church.  God has initiated the offer of relationship, but we each choose – consent, even – to take God up on that offer.  We come each to the waters of baptism of our own free will.  We make that commitment to turn to Christ, ideally with some seriousness and gravity to the decision.  And we can’t be compelled to do it, or sold into doing it, or otherwise forced; our relationship with God, to be what it should be, needs to be entered into freely, responsibly, and joyfully, just as Rebekah did with Isaac.

And the Church as a whole – as a body, even – needs to live out that commitment in the same spirit that we each individually make it.  Seeking to know God’s will so that we can say, in response, “We will,” and then live that out, as a matter of serious commitment, with integrity.

(As an aside, this matter of Rebekah’s consent is relevant for us in another way.  Based on this question put to Rebekah, in Jewish law it is required that a bride freely consent to her marriage.  We have continued this in Christian practice; a marriage is not valid without the free consent of both parties.  And the women of the church might have plenty of reason to be grateful for the custom – built on rabbinic interpretation of this passage – which says we can’t simply be traded as property between our menfolk!)

Anyway.  Let me skip forward a bit in the story, past the passage that we read today, and point out that later on it says that Rebekah was barren, and that it’s only after God intervenes in answer to prayer that she is able to conceive.  Her fertility – her ability to participate in God’s will for the world – only comes about because God enables it.

Our fruitfulness for God is usually less literal and more spiritual than the actual bearing of children, but it’s an important reminder to us that all that we’re able to do, only comes to us because of God’s gracious acts in creating and providing for us (again, what in slightly more old-fashioned terms Christians used to talk about as “divine providence”).  And this ought to be encouraging, because it means it doesn’t depend on us.  The kingdom of God doesn’t depend on our frail strength, our limited intelligence, our wavering steadfastness.  God used a barren woman to be the mother of nations.  What might he bring about in and through us, despite our faults and disadvantages?  We can be open and hopeful and look for the unexpected, because we know that that’s how God works in the world.

Then, it gets even better.  She’s pregnant with twins, and they’re struggling together in the womb.  Wondering what this might mean, she goes to ask God.  And the text says “God said to her…”  She didn’t need an intermediary, her husband, a priest, or whatever.  She went to God and God spoke to her, explaining that the two children in her womb will become two nations, and – more importantly – that God has chosen the one who will be born second.  Again, contrary to all custom of the time, God’s blessing and the dominant role will be given to the younger son.  And later on, after the boys have grown, Rebekah acts to make sure that this is how things turn out.

She sought God, listened to what God had to say, accepted it despite it being shocking, and acted in accordance with it.  This has led to her being seen as the first prophetess, and the first woman since Eve that Scripture says was spoken to directly by God, without an angel or other go-between.

We’re supposed to do that, as a church, too, aren’t we?  Seek God, listen to what God says, accept it – whether it conforms to our expectations or not – and then act in accordance with it.  We are, in fact, supposed to be a prophetic community, receiving God’s despatches to a broken world, living out what we hear so that it becomes real and concrete for those around us.

I could go on, but I think by now you’re getting the point.  This portrait of Rebekah that the author of Genesis offers us is one that the Church ought to be able to look at, seeing a family resemblance to who we are.  But before I finish, I want to show you something which might give you another image for some of the same ideas.

What you’re looking at now is, believe it or not, a wedding ring.  Not one that someone would wear every day, obviously, but a symbolic heirloom, handed down between generations of the same family.  For centuries, Jewish families have made wedding rings like this.  And the whole point is that the ring is given to the bride, and the building – which is a symbol both for the family home, and for the temple in Jerusalem – is built on the foundation of the ring; it stands on the solidness of the marriage.

In much the same way, the future that God is building in our midst stands on the foundation of our relationship with God.  Just as God worked through Rebekah, the ideal Israelite wife, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God had promised, so God works through us, the Church, the bride of Christ, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God has promised.  And – you might remember that earlier I mentioned that Isaac is the one patriarch who never had another woman in his life – in return, God promises God’s presence and love and joy to us, to a unique degree.  The flip side of the Church being for God, is that God is for the Church.

God calls us to be, like Rebekah, a community which is oriented to God rather than the world around us.  God calls us to be hard working, hospitable and generous.  God calls us to reflect God’s beauty to the world, and calls us to be single-minded in our freely chosen commitment to God.  God calls us to be open to God being at work among us, providing a future and hope, letting God bring about fruitfulness in and through our lives.  God calls us to be prophetic; seeking God’s words, listening to them, and living them out.

It’s a high calling.  It’s comforting to me, at least, to know that real men and women have walked in it before us, and have been blessed as they have done so.  But Rebekah the matriarch has long since surrendered her care and gone to her rest.  It’s up to us, now, to be a living portrait – or even, dare I say, an icon – of God’s grace to our world.

And I hope, as you seek to do that, this morning’s exploration of the life of this remarkable woman has given you a helpful resource to draw upon.

Limbo

It’s a time of transitions.  I start a new role in a short while, and I’ve finished the old one.  Today I went to a parish I’ve never been to before, with dim thoughts of sitting anonymously in a pew and being ministered to.  (Too bad the vicar blew my cover…)

It’s a time of evaluations, too.  Nothing makes you consider carefully the value of all your stuff like being faced with the prospect of packing, moving, unpacking, and finding it a functional place in your new home.  Many things that I’ve held onto before were let go, with remarkably little regret.

There’s a more abstract form of this, too.  A re-evaluation of past events and eras in my life; what does each mean to me now?  How might it relate to the era that’s about to begin?  (For example, what actual use is it for a vicar to have a pretty decent – if now slightly dated – working knowledge of immunology, anyway?)

Here the letting go is harder.  Who I was ten, twenty or even thirty years ago, and the things I did over those years, do matter.  I may no longer be that person, but having been that person shapes my values, my way of looking at things, and how I interact with those around me.  It’s not so much about what you keep and what you discard, as about how you find enduring meaning.

And old wounds seem to ache, as they, too, are re-evaluated.  Have they healed enough to be a source of strength and empathy, or are they still vulnerabilities needing careful safeguarding?

There is also, for me, this time, something of a feeling of coming of age, or of coming into my own strength.  Finally the long apprenticeship of curacies is over, and I will be a vicar in my own right.  I am poised at a moment in time where I can decide what sort of vicar I want to be.  I’m free to take the best of what my history offers me, and weave it together into my own best version of myself (with the help of God, of course).  So in that sense, this process of re-evaluation seems to be more than navel-gazing, but to be something that really matters.

This is, I know, all very normal.  In one class on pastoral care, I remember learning that most people go through this sort of process in some way, on average, about every seven years.  It’s something we humans do instinctively when our lives change.  I’m fortunate to be conscious enough of it to approach it intentionally.

But it is still rather strange, to be in this in-between space.  Although the time to tend to my own “stuff” is a luxury, and I’m grateful for it, I will also be glad to get out of limbo and back to work!