Monday, February 27, 2017

Metamorphosis - A Sermon For The Transfiguration

On January 1st 1985 a passenger jet crashed in Bolivia killing all 29 people on board. No bodies have ever been recovered nor the black box voice recorders, but last year Isaac Stoner and Dan Futrell decided to have an  unusual holiday to see if they could find out more about what happened. So they prepared to climb Mt Illimani and see what they could discover in what became a very beautiful and eerily silent two weeks away.  The first thing they saw when they reached the suspected crash site was a life jacket - "a piece of equipment intended to save somebody's life" as Futrell puts it. "So not only did we know we were in the right spot, but we were instantly reminded that there's tragedy here for 29 families.”

On the final day of searching at the lower site, Stoner unearthed a piece of metal with a label attached to some wires that read "CKPT VO RCRD" an abbreviation of Cockpit Voice Recorder. Fuelled with hope, not far away they discovered a spool of magnetic tape - could this be the evidence needed to explain what finally happened? In short no, but they have more in roads into discovering the truth that previous official investigations.

We talk of mountaintop experiences - moments of joy or clarity. The mountaintop experience we hear as this morning's Gospel reading enables us to gather some evidence about who Jesus is, but also to discover something new about ourselves.

Rev'd. Ally Barrett's artwork of the Transfiguration
(c) Ally Barrett 2017 used with permission.

The Transfiguration features in all 3 of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but with some slight variations to the story. The fact that all 3 record the experience Jesus had on that mountaintop should indicate it’s significance. It full of references to or hints at other biblical stories - Moses encounters God on Mt Sinai, his face shone and clothes changed; dazzling clothes and shining faces are indicative of angels in the book of Daniel and in the Gospels; a cloud on the mountain or in the wilderness symbolised for the people of Israel the presence of God; the voice of God uttering similar words is heard at the beginning of the Epiphany season at Jesus’ baptism; and aside from those, there are some striking parallels between what we hear today and the crucifixion/resurrection story we will hear in a few weeks - Jesus is accompanied by Moses and Elijah today and later by 2 criminals; Moses and Elijah depart leaving Jesus alone in glory and later we hear of someone wondering whether Elijah will come to the crucified Jesus to save him; in both events 3 followers are witnesses and so on. Today’s Gospel I believe is meant to be read referring back  to those Old Testament stories and in the light of Christ’s passion and resurrection to come.

2 quick points. Firstly: Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I* will make three dwellings* here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 

John Cage caused consternation in the music world in 19?? with his 3 movement piece called 4:33. If you’ve heard it you’ll know why. It instructs the musicians to sit in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds. Yet the piece isn't silent - it allows a space to be created by the interaction between musician and the audience to listen and to rediscover the music of the world around and within us - birdsong, traffic noise, our breathing or heartbeat - sounds we so often screen out as background noise - but are still there as we listen. In the Gospel today Jesus is revealed to Peter et al as the glorified beloved Son of God, but this news doesn’t help Peter understand what he should do as a result - he wants to build booths (perhaps to contain the experience) but God wants him to listen - but not as a one off experience. The voice tells us to literally go on listening to and for Jesus’ voice. Our faithful following of Jesus must centre not on our doing but our listening.

Secondly: When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

I am struck on a daily basis at how frightened the Trump presidency is and how fearful it makes us all. The fear is masked by soundbites of power, calls to make America great again, and yet detaining and searching people who just look different at airport security; talk of travel bans and wall building are policies not of might but of fright. The politics of anxiety don't make people feel secure - they breed further suspicion in our streets and schools. We are all looking over our shoulders.

Verses 6 and 7 in today’s Gospel are unique to Matthew’s account. Perhaps this story is more about the transfiguration (literally the metamorphosis) of the disciples - as the glorious experience doesn't bolster their faith but fill them with so much fear that they cower. But notice that it is not the radiant Jesus that comes to them, but the human one as it were. It is He who reaches out and touches them with a hand that has so often provided healing and raised the dead. The disciples are transformed from fearful, anxious, inactive, cowards to brave, confident, active, champions of the faith - perhaps that’s why Jesus tells them to say nothing of the experience. Something in them has changed? Our faithful following of Jesus must also centre on reaching out the divine touch, through our hands to the fearful and anxious in our community.

So often we are human doings - like Peter. Filling our days with activity and noise. When were you last a human being who sat and listened - breaking the curse that our culture burdens us with about a need to be constantly busy as though we gain some worth by that - and just stopped and sat? Disciples of Jesus listen for His voice - not bound in a booth of scripture or tradition - but a voice that speaks through the arts and our culture and each other… but we only hear it if we conciously stop.

Our community is frightened - and it is. The police were visibly present in the village last week after some thefts; some are concerned about their health or that of a family member or friend; HS2 has been given royal assent without any sort of real awareness of it’s impact on not just the green space we enjoy or our views - but on homes and wellbeing locally. Can we be the ones who reach out a hand of friendship and love to the anxious and fearful? Jesus shows us we can.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Letter To Our General Synod Representatives post GS 2055.

To the General Synod representatives from St Albans Diocese (CC The Bishop of St Albans).

Dear all,

As Synod meets this week I wanted to assure you of my prayers as representatives of St Albans Diocese as you discuss, deliberate and listen. I know that this week’s business is not about a single issue, but for many within and outside the church, it is.

Having read the Bishops’ Report (GS 2055) myself I am writing to you to ask you not to ‘take note’ of the report in front of you.

I welcome the desire to change the tone of the discussions of which the report speaks but there are a number of matters that cause me - a happily married heterosexual man - to squirm with embarrassment and shame both emotionally and theologically.

Firstly, we are a denomination which has lived with divergent theology before. I am of course referring to women’s ministry within the three-fold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. There are some who, with good conscience, are unable to accept the will of the church regarding their ministry. I pray that a time will come where this will no longer be the case. Yet, either out of pragmatism or out of a sheer need to stop the church ripping itself apart we reached an 'Anglican compromise' offering pastoral care and episcopal oversight to those of a traditionalist position, allowing for a so called mutual flourishing.  This is not the only example as the Church of England has allowed it’s clergy to remarry divorcees in church under some clear guidelines. This pastoral accommodation has allowed me to minister to those who thought because of certain circumstances they were unwelcome and unwanted before the God of love, to find themselves welcome before God and for their marriages solemnised in Church. We’ve done it before, we can do this again and allow for differing doctrinal positions to be held and for our theology to grow and enlarge in the light of new Biblical understanding, new experience of God and new appreciations of what it means to be human and made in God’s image.

Secondly, I was not part of the Shared Conversations, but talking with those who were, through that process of attentive listening to one another and God, there seems to have been a move of the Spirit at work. People with differing views have come to see those views not as flags to be waved or drums to be banged, but genuine and heartfelt positions based on a interpretation of scripture, tradition, theology and experience. There seems to have been much gained by the Shared Conversations. Whilst opinions and convictions may not have been changed necessarily - those positions and opinions became people and human stories and it has been this incarnational work that seems to have been transforming. It surprises me therefore to find so little reference to the Shared Conversations or their outcomes in this report. Indeed it feels as one reads it, that the Shared Conversations experience has played none or certainly very little part in the writing of it.

Thirdly, I initially welcomed talk in the report of a new teaching document on marriage and of ‘maximum pastoral freedom' in terms of potential pastoral responses, until I realised that both were couched, not in the language of love, but of concession and therefore of fear. This is also perhaps why the appalling and dehumanising short hand ‘same-sex attraction’ is used throughout the report to describe the emotional life of LGBTI people. These people are people who love and laugh and cry and sing just as I do. They have feelings like I do. They experience the love of God as I do. They are invited into a life of discipleship as I am. In this climate, my fear is that any new teaching document on marriage will continue to perpetrate the myth that marriage is about procreation and property as our liturgy still hints at, rather than celebrating the crowning glory of what it means to be human - to be loved by another - into life. And talk of ‘maximum pastoral freedom’ sounds like ‘don’t ask don’t tell.’ As far as the church is concerned marriage is marriage regarding heterosexual couples whether it took place on a beach, in a hotel, on a cruise liner or in a church. 'New pastoral freedom’ makes me as a parish priest feel like I am still having to look over my shoulder to keep an eye out for the Archdeacon or indeed the Bishop. We should be in the business of celebrating love between two people. Anything less, reduces those two lovers, to something sub human and denies the being of God.

Fourthly, LGBTI people continue to be treated by our church as an issue to be solved rather than people that God loves; despite the talk of a new tone in speaking of and relating, GS 2055 fails to model it. I have found myself shocked and breathless at some of the language coming from Trump’s America in these early days of his presidency - partisan language that names people as ‘things' whether they are muslim, Mexican or women.  The report before you similarly objectifies LGBTI people but fails to temper that language by doing what the Shared Conversations did, and that is to allow their voices to be heard and their stories of faith and commitment under God to be told. If the Church were to speak of other social or ethnic groups in a report using the tone and language as this one, we would quite rightly be accused of racism or sexism, which as a national church we rightly speak out against. Why is it therefore somehow ok to use language couched in homophobia in relation to the sex lives of some of our servers, choristers, PCC members, cleaners, youth workers, Sunday School teachers and so on? That’s right, it’s not. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Fifthly, we ask the God of love to bless many things - people, pets, homes, ships, even nuclear submarines and yet we can’t bring ourselves to ask Him to bless all loving relationships. Who is making the distinction?

In my opinion GS 2055 fails to model the Church of England ministering well in England to the people of England. It models the very worst of poor compromises and fails to speak to our nation, to our church or for our church as it it actually is - even in a holding position.

I encourage you not to take note of this report and to vote against it tomorrow and instead call on the Synod and indeed the whole church to be bold, prophetic, inclusive and welcoming - to truly be a church in England for England - and not just certain sections of it.

With every blessing 

Rev'd. Simon Cutmore

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Salt and Light: David Beckham, Corrie Ten Boom & Gram Seed

David Beckham was the guest on the 75th anniversary edition of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. He admitted that he would look forward to the solitude of island life - a contrast to life lived in the media’s gaze - with a cook book as his reading matter and his England caps as his luxury item. The peace and quiet of a desert island is something we might all crave from time-to-time, a much-loved book to read, and a luxury item to enjoy, as we relax alone in the sunshine – idyllic!

However, the reality for most of us is that we live in a world that is fast-paced, full of complexities: Brexit, Trump’s travel ban, and the mosque shooting in Canada – they all point to a world that seems to be changing almost hour-by-hour. Yet, this is the world into which disciples of Christ in 2017 find themselves, and this is the reality into which we are charged to shine.

We meet Jesus this morning having been tempted in the wilderness, then moving into the bustle of ministry. In the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ which we hear some of this morning, Jesus reinterprets the nature of power relationships - blessed are the meek not the powerful - for they shall inherit the earth. But just when the crowd begins to wonder if Jesus is coming to sweep the Law away, He points out that He has to come to fulfiil it - in His life and theirs.

Jesus said: You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who hid Jews during the war. She and her family were caught and taken to Ravensbrook concentration camp. Her father and one of her sisters died there. After the war she went to speak to others about forgiveness. She was speaking at a church one day and at the end a man who was coming up to her. She recognised him as one of the cruelest guards from her time in the camp. She felt cold. He told her that he had become a Christian and had received God’s forgiveness and he had prayed that God would allow him to recieve forgiveness from one of his victims.She talks about what happened next below...

Light shines - but if you shade it - the light is simply directed elsewhere. If you shroud it, even if it cannot somehow seep out from around the edges, the light still burns resolute looking for a way to blaze out into the darkness of our lives, our choices, our hatred, our unforgiveness… It was the light of Christ that shone into the dark heart of that guard, possibly from Corrie Ten Boom and her family even whilst they were in the concentration camp, which in turn shone into her life from him years later - allowing her to forgive him.

Jesus said: You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? Jesus calling us salt is a puzzling and rich image - salt is used to cleanse wounds, its used to season food, it’s historically been used to preserve food, it symbolises the covenant relationship of God and His people a few times in the Old Testament. Salt rapidly changes the chemical composition of ice into water, but in dough it not only seasons but it slowly enables that dough to keep more or the CO2 as it rises and to it strengthens and stabilises the whole loaf. But all of this can only happen when it’s not trapped in the cellar or put through the mill. 

Gram Seed knows what it is to be trapped in the cellar of self loathing and he certainly put others through the mill. Brought up in an abusive and ultimately destructive home - he was thrown out onto the street aged 15, ending up in a special youth detention facility. There he became increasingly angry and aggressively anti authority. After being freed he became the worst sort of football hooligan - his body still bearing the scars of stabbings, being bottled and and other unspeakable violence. By the mid 90s he was on the streets living life on the brink as a drug addict and drunk. Some people came and said to him - do you know that Jesus loves you? He chased the away but they kept coming back week after week with the same message. Months later, Gram collapsed and was taken to the hospital in a coma. On the 6th day in hospital he died and given the Last Rites. People gathered with his family to pay their respects including this small group of Christians who had got to know him. They asked whether they could pray for him - to which his mother replied: what good is that going to do? He’s dead. They prayed and as they did Gram came back to life. But he hadn't just revived - he no longer felt the urge to drink or take drugs - he wanted not longer to maim people but help them. The anger and self loathing had gone.  Those Christians on the street mixed into Gram’s world, got to know him and showed him the love of Christ - a love which ultimately healed his emotional wounds and transformed his very make up - strengthening and stabilising his life for good and for the good of others.

Gram Seed

What is Jesus saying to us? You are salt. You are light. These aren’t conditional things with Jesus - they are imperatives. Jesus is being emphatic - be salt; be light, but if we lose our saltiness we are good for nothing; if we hide our light we become pointless. In a dark world feeling like it’s getting darker we need the light. In a bland world of polarising politics we need the seasoning of God’s love. It may not feel like we can make much difference against the back drop of the muslim travel ban or terrorist attrocities in Canada and France; we may feel despondent at where our own Government or indeed denomination is taking us - but then I realised that it only takes one candle to make a difference to the darkness. It only takes a pinch of salt to season and give structure to the bread. You are salt, you are the light - corporately, but individually too…

St Benedict

The Benedictine moto is laborare est orare - to work is to pray. St Benedict encouraged his monks not to withdraw from the complex and difficult world, but to bring the world to God through their prayers, and by surrounding their entire day in regular prayer - everything that they did became an offering back to God. So we should pray - it only takes a little light; a pinch of salt is needed… But having prayed we should also work where God sets us. We may not be able to confront the politics of hate - but we can welcome the stranger and help them become a friend supporting Together 100 of the Catholic Worker Farm’s work with refugees; we can love those whom the church and others tell us are somehow less lovely - those with dementia, ex cons seeking to reintegrate into society, our gay, bi sexual and trans brothers and sister; we can work alongside others to enact justice and forgiveness. It takes one candle, one pinch of salt is needed. But as followers of Jesus they aren’t optional extras. They are visible signs that we are following.

Like David Beckham, we may crave the solitude of the desert island, how much better to be bearers of hope in this world – particularly in a week full of such chaotic headlines. On a deserted island there are no others to shine for, no life to season and strengthen. In fact, it is by being here, that we have the opportunity to shine here; and in doing so, to share the faith we have, so that those around us may also give glory to God.


If that weren't enough, during the intercessions (where candles were lit and we prayed that we would shine in the darkness), I even snuck in some prog, but it was the only thing we could listen to...