Transfiguration

This is the text of a sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration), in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture text it references is Matthew 17:1-9.

How are we to make sense of the transfiguration?  What does this encounter of the disciples with a changed Jesus, with light and a voice from heaven, with Moses and Elijah, have to say to us in our own context today?

In the Christian East, the transfiguration has come to be understood in quite mystical terms, and their theologians insist that we cannot fully grasp or dissect an event like this, limited creatures of a much greater God that we are.  If that seems like a cop out, let me quote an Orthodox author who wrote that:

“The only driver of an always-dynamic intelligence is the moment one finds oneself in the face of an object which brings one to a stop in the life of love.  Intelligence does not result in adoration but before infinity.”

If we here are a community of quite dynamic intelligence (as I have come to know that we are!), saying that the transfiguration is in some sense beyond us is not at all denying the need to press into it with vigour, but an encouragement to do so, since here we have something which can continue to fuel that dynamism.

So, consider that light is an important symbol in Matthew’s gospel, beginning with the star in the east followed by the Magi; also later in Jesus’ first proclamation of his ministry, that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  Matthew later develops that idea to say that the same light is to be displayed in the life of believers, and the faces of the righteous in heaven shine with light at the end time.  Therefore, in this gospel, light is an essential attribute of God and points to God’s final salvation dawning already in the darkness of the world, through the splendor of Christ.

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.  It really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them the foundations for their own understanding and proclamation of the good news later on, after the resurrection.  This event then is a potent reminder that God’s last word in Christ is one of life and joy, even if what we experience in the interim is otherwise.

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.

In order to make sense of the vision of restoration and 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, Matthew 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.  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.

As Gregory of Nyssa put it, “It is not the sky which has become the image of God, nor the moon, nor the sun, nor the beauty of the stars, nor any other visible creature.  You alone have become the image of the nature which surpasses all intelligence, the impression of true divinity, the receptacle of the blessed life: become, in regarding that light, what it is.”

It is the same light of love which overflowed from the inner life of God in creation, and again at the incarnation, which should draw each of us out of an enclosed individualism into the beauty and luminosity of Godly relationship; with God, with each other, and with all of creation.

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

May we be faithful stewards of it.

The oppression of inconvenience

Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.  So goes the dictum.  But what has put an awful lot of noses out of joint recently has been the actions of this pharmacist, despite him not actually taking a swing at anybody.

In short, the story goes like this.  The pharmacist, a devout Roman Catholic, feels that he cannot in good conscience sell or dispense contraceptives.  Since the oral contraceptive pill can be described for a variety of reasons besides contraception, he does stock and dispense it.  But when he does, he gives his customers a note explaining his stance and asking them, if they are using it for contraception, to please go to another pharmacist to fill their next script.

This has provoked an outraged response from many, who claim that if he cannot just shut up and fill the script he is denying women bodily autonomy and control over their own fertility, contributing to unwanted pregnancies and related health and social issues, and failing in his professional duty of care.

All of which I might concede, if he were the only pharmacy within reasonable distance.  As it is, with a competitor not five kilometres up the road (I am told, I haven’t checked the precise distance myself), I can’t see how he is actually denying anybody anything.

Sure, he could have perhaps managed his communication better.  Not everyone will understand the painstaking scruples of a Catholic and the way he has worded his note could be unhelpful.

But let’s be clear.  A Catholic in this situation has three basic options.  One is to go against his conscience and sense of ethics.  I hope we can all be agreed that this is a violation of a person’s sense of self which we would do well as a society to avoid.  He could retire from the profession and no longer work as a pharmacist.  (Although he has a legally protected right to act within the dictates of his conscience without breaching relevant professional code of ethics).   Or he can seek to find a middle ground in which his customers’ needs are not denied, but nor is his conscience violated.

So why is it so outrageous to so many people that he has sought to find this middle path with sensitivity and integrity?

I suspect that at the end of the day it’s not really about access to contraceptives, or professional medical care.  And although there’s a good deal of hatred of the church being vented in the discussion (one particularly choice comment I saw yesterday suggested that Catholics disapproved of contraception so that they could have more children to abuse), I suspect it’s not just that either.

Beyond that, there seems to be outrage at the inconvenience of this man’s approach to running his business.  But, I might have to travel further down the road.  But, I might have to plan ahead to get a script filled.  But, I might not be able to get exactly what I want, when and how and from whom I want it, on demand.

That’s not oppression of women.  It is, at worst, a slight inconvenience.  When a script for the pill lasts several months, it gives you plenty of time to figure out how to work around it, if you have the good will and respect for your fellow human being to do so.

Of course, if you don’t see your pharmacist as a fellow human being, but as a functionary to do your bidding, you might be upset.  But as a fellow human being, he is deserving of consideration and a willingness to come alongside him as he defines his place in the community.  Rather than demand a withdrawal of all religious and ethical conviction from any arena in which it might affect interactions between two people, how about this:

Let’s imagine a world in which we are each prepared to be inconvenienced, for the sake of one another.  Where we place the integrity of another person above our demand for instant satisfaction.  Where we uphold one another and attempt to work together in building community.

That is far more likely to break down systems of oppression than forcing all pharmacists to dispense the pill ever will.

Look again

This is day two of my ordained ministry.  The events of the last week or so have been momentous, and no doubt I will be reflecting on them for years to come.

It struck me, though, that on the pre-ordination retreat, one of the things which seemed to be causing the ordinands most angst was the question of clerical dress.  Should I wear a clerical collar?  All the time?  Just some of the time?  In what situations?  All of us were assessing our individual ministry contexts, and wondering how to present ourselves in ways which fostered connections rather than unhelpful barriers in our pastoral relationships.

The retreat conductor encouraged us to wear a clerical collar.  He spoke of ordained ministers as a “living sacrament,” an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which is God’s presence in the Church.  I am not particularly comfortable with the language of “living sacrament,” but I am comfortable with the idea of being a visible prompt to consider the possibility of God.  I am reminded of the words of a bishop once, who told me that the job of the Church is to “keep the rumour of God alive.”

The ordinands discussed amongst ourselves the response that clergy often get from the public for presenting themselves visibly as clergy.  Especially for men, it is not unusual to be verbally abused, spat on, physically intimidated or even assaulted while out in public.  (Women seem to receive a less harsh reaction, perhaps because for many people a woman in clerical dress is still a surprising or even puzzling sight, or perhaps because people are still more inhibited about abusing women in public).

But why do clergy get this response?  The biggest, most obvious, most gut-wrenching factor is the clergy sexual abuse scandals around the world.  A man in clerical collar, even if he has never abused a child, abhors abuse of all kinds, and is committed in his ministry to everything which is the antithesis of abuse, is still a visual representative of institutions which have utterly failed so many precious and vulnerable people.  It is little wonder that that provokes a negative response.

But beyond that, I think there is something slightly deeper and more subtle at work.  As I talk to people outside the church, I regularly discover that the most common non-Christian perception of churches is that they are institutions which aim to control people; that they are oppressive of their members and seek to use their political influence to extend that oppression beyond their membership to the general public.  That oppression is seen to be an institutional expression of misogyny, homophobia, and narrow-mindedness and cold-heartedness in general.  Small wonder, then, that clergy are viewed with hostility!

It leaves me wondering, though.  To an outside observer, what does a woman in a clerical collar stand for?  Is she a collaborator within an oppressive system, exchanging compliance for special privileges?

I wonder if it is possible to be something else, to be a visible witness to a God who relativises and subverts all human systems of control and oppression, even those in the church?  To be something of a sign of contradiction, which points beneath the surface of the church to a deeper reality?

I hope, if nothing else, that as I learn to manage how I present myself as an ordained person and deal with the responses – both positive and negative – that that receives, I can at least be a prompt to people to look again, think twice and question whether things – whether the reality of God or the nature of the Church – are really entirely as they might seem.