On Monday we hosted an event to celebrate and support the contribution that people who have come here from other countries have made and do make to the life of this city. Called ‘One day with us’ it was organized because after the Brexit vote many of them are feeling vulnerable and uncertain about how welcome they are. Some spoke of the abuse that they have received from people telling them to go home. It was reported on local news and there was a prominent feature on it in this week’s Peterborough Telegraph. I was struck by the comments of one woman who talked about the rhetoric and slogans from people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage and how she saw these as being very similar to comments she heard in Bosnia during the 1990s when she lived there as a child. That led to genocidal violence. Her words are a salutary warning.
Words matter and we need to guard our tongues. We do not want to become a people of hatred and division. And the story we tell ourselves and allow others to get away with telling, over time, shapes how we see the world and those who share it with us. The rhetoric around ‘fake news’ is invidious. Clearly all news comes from a particular perspective and events are interpreted in the telling, but to lie and make up what is not true is dangerous. There is an old adage that a lie repeated often enough becomes normalized and accepted as being the truth. That is how propaganda works and it is how advertising works, so it all depends what the message is. It is also how sharing good news works, for our purposes the good news of Jesus Christ. If we say it often enough, not least to ourselves, it shapes us and becomes the story we use to view everyone and everything around us. That is why regular worship, daily praying, is so important in Christian living and spiritual formation. Just like I’m not fit to face the world before at least 2 mugs of coffee in the morning, I’m not ready either before I have begun with prayer. The morning praying resets the calibration in my outlook and hope, it restores in grace.
The reading from the second letter of Peter (2 Peter 1:16-21) was a reminder of the importance of repeated messages. The passage actually begins a few verses before the section we heard, at verse 12, where the writer says that he is going to go on and on reminding them of the hope they have, even though they know it already. He will do this to refresh their memory. They need to keep this hope, this story of grace, refreshed in their minds so that it provides the lens through which the world is viewed. It is based in real events, real encounter with God. This is not cleverly devised myths, but has eyewitness encounter behind it.
That eyewitness encounter is difficult for us to assess. We may believe it, we may wonder, we may discount it as ancient texts that we can’t assess. And that cloud of not knowing, at best, and scepticism or even hostility, at worst, is the background noise we have to contend with in how Christianity is viewed by a population who do not share the story. So it is important for us to be renewed in the story because it is not reinforced or sustained anywhere else. While the church often fits the model of its host culture, it is also to stand outside it and bring something fresh into the mix. We have a gospel of hope, of love, of redemption and new life. That gospel is not the default setting of the stories we meet everywhere else. We are to be people of that hope, love, redemption and new life. There is a purpose to the life we have and that purpose lies with God. Purpose and point are not concepts western, consumer culture models beyond enjoyment and satiating desires. ‘Eat, drink and shop because that is where purpose lies.’ That is shallow and we are called to point to more, to the love at the foundation of everything.
Into this renewing and restoring in hope, the Transfiguration, which we heard in the gospel reading (Matthew 17:1-9), is a story of a profound religious experience. In it the three disciples are given a vision or are onlookers to a moment when the glory within Jesus was made known. It is difficult to know exactly what happened or lies behind this. Was it something for Jesus to strengthen him for what was to come? This event is placed just before the final journey to Jerusalem and the crucifixion in Matthew’s gospel. We need moments of deep revelation and insight to see us through the hard times and struggle. Moments of profound seeing can be formative and something we call back on when we need to be reminded that the hope is grounded and has a basis in reality. So it might be that the disciples see a private moment and that gift of intimacy enables them to be able to recall it later when they try to make sense of all that has been. Peter clearly draws on it in his letter, written many years later. And if we have to stand up to protect the vulnerable or those feeling threatened and unwanted, then it is important to have a clear sense of what hope, love, redemption and new life look like when they are lived.
Peter’s desire to capture the experience and to build a shed to hold the moment in is very believable. In fact the Christian church has spent 2,000 years building structures to capture the vision of holiness and contain the sacred. That makes it safer to deal with because you know where to find it and where to leave it. Church buildings are substantial aid memoirs for a story that is known, places to meet in and shelter in. But there is a warning here: the encounter, the experience is not to be contained like that. God always refuses to be boxed in. To go back to the epistle, our challenge is to keep the story alive in sharing it and living it, until the morning star rises in our hearts. The Morning Star is Christ, and the rising in our hearts is him so infusing us that we don’t need outside reminders. That may well not be achieved until the end of time, but in the meantime the challenge is for the Transfiguration to be something that takes place inside us. The encounter touches us deeply within and the hope that springs through Christ and from him works on us.
If the encounter takes place inside us, rather than outside us, then we are able to recreate it, connect with it, wherever we are. Sacred space becomes not just in the booth built where something once happened, but on the hillside where there is no booth, in the city square, not just in the church standing next to it. We connect with it when we meet the stranger, the vulnerable foreigner, looking not to be tolerated but accepted and appreciated, as the woman put it on Monday at the ‘One day with us’ event.
On Wednesday we will enter Lent. It is a time to be renewed in the story of hope and daily praying. Take one of the leaflets from Christian Aid home with you. Use it each day to provide a moment wherever you are for prayer and refocus on the gospel of hope, love, redemption and new life. Feel free to make a contribution counting blessings each day, but above all, use the sheet as a prayer aid. That will then become for you a moment of Transfiguration within and that will refresh faith and hope and love, and in turn how we are with those we know and those we don’t know.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th February 2017