Worship: Finding your Life.
Holy Communion Service conducted by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from Psalm 84; Luke 9, verses 28-36
Worship: Finding Your Life
Last Autumn I was listening to an excellent speaker who comes from the Progressive Christian Network. This Network seeks to promote a kind of “religion-less Christianity,” in which the ideals of our faith can be upheld and shared and respected within a secular society but without the “religious” bits. This speaker was talking about the need to set aside all the doctrines and the rules and the rituals of our faith which, it has to be admitted, have caused a lot of pain, anger, confusion, cynicism, even religious wars- set it all aside. What is needed, he said, are compassionate communities. If we shape ourselves into communities which are motivated and inspired purely by compassion, we will transform the world.
He is right of course. I agreed with him 100%. Unlike Frederick Nietzsche who taught that compassion would be the ruin of the human race, I believe it to be our salvation. If the strong would care for the weak; if we could treat one another with respect; if we could show mercy on those who did wrong and work to rehabilitate them; if we could share the world’s resources fairly; if we could even show ourselves a little compassion rather than beating ourselves up every time we feel we have failed- the world would be a wonderful place.
But I still found myself with a problem. Yes, compassion may well be the key to a better world but I, for one, am simply not compassionate enough. By nature, I am shy. I am basically anti-social. In common with most human beings, I have a significant selfish streak. And some people have a way of getting right up my nose. So yes, compassion may be what we need but I cannot manufacture enough of it by myself. And I daresay that I am speaking here for most of us. Has this not always been the human dilemma: knowing what is right and good but being unable quite to achieve it?
In the Bible, God’s people had a wonderful set of rules and regulations for personal and social living. And much of it was based on compassion for the weak and the poor and the unprotected and the stranger. But, as Jesus pointed out, even those who managed to keep most of the rules did not necessarily find themselves becoming more compassionate. They still nurtured a lot of anger, resentment and prejudice deep inside them and this was what was turning their religion sour. Good practice alone will not grow the virtue of compassion.
Austin Farrer, preacher and theologian, once spoke of how we “walk from the womb in pursuit of a utopia which flees us.” In other words, we may have great ideals right from the start of what is good. Like Thomas Moore, we come to dream of a society (Utopia) in which everyone is treated fairly and with compassion. But Utopia flees us. I cannot achieve it because I am not compassionate enough.
Some of you might be wondering, if I am so naturally shy and anti-social, what am I doing in the ministry? Believe me that is a question I have asked myself many times. Indeed, there was a time when I broke off the whole process of exploring a vocation to ministry because I felt that I was simply not the right kind of person. What brought me back? I have to say that it was hearing the voice of God. That is all I can say. It was certainly not a voice I manufactured.
And some of you might have been thinking that maybe I was being rather hard on myself. Is this just some kind of false modesty to say that I am not compassionate enough? After all there have been times (and I know this because the people concerned have told me) when I have been in the right place at the right time; I have said the right thing; I have done the right thing that was exactly what people needed in a difficult situation. And is not that compassion? It is and I know it and I feel deeply privileged to have been there when I was most needed, for someone who was in a dark place. But note the word- privileged. It is precisely at those times when I have been in the right place at the right time that I have been most keenly conscious of a power inspiring me that is not my own. The gift has been given. This is not false modesty. It is truth.
Was it not Shakespeare who said that in showing mercy we become like God? We enter into the heart of God and the spirit of God moves in us. Compassion is the salvation of the world precisely because it is the gift of God to us. It is the very nature of God coming to life in us. When I say that I am not compassionate enough, it does not mean that I do not care about other people. I do care. And, like most caring people, I am racked with guilt and frustration and fear and inadequacy that I cannot care enough or do enough to transform the world.
So, let me finish what Austin Farrer actually said: “It is one thing to walk from the womb in pursuit of a utopia which flees us; another thing, issuing from the hand of God, to walk towards a Mercy who comes to meet us.”
If we are going to create transforming compassionate communities, then we need the revealed presence of God with us. We need a transcendent God who is greater than ourselves. We need the mercy and compassion of that transcendent God to make up for our own human frailties. We need the Holy Habit of worship.
Which brings me to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
In the church calendar, today is the final Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is about the ways in which we experience God, so the Transfiguration story is about as awesome an experience as you can get: dazzling light; thick cloud; a high and lofty place; the voice of God. What does it tell us about worship? I would like to share five things it has told me this week.
First, the dazzling light. In the stories of many ancient religions, catching a glimpse of God was all about seeing a dazzling light. Holy pictures show God surrounded by light. Jesus, we are told, was bathed in this incredible light.
But light was also used in religion as a term for knowledge and direction. If you had “seen the light” then you had understood the truth. And if you “walked in the light,” then you walked in the right direction. So, the light that surrounded God was not something static or purely decorative. It was a light which shone on you and into you. You would go on to walk in that light and to see by that light.
Second: a cloud comes down and covers the worshippers on the mountain. The place becomes intensely private as those men hear the voice of God speaking directly to them. Worship, whether at home on your own or in church with everyone else around you, is about you hearing what God wants to say to you. There will be a place deep within where you will know God. You may well find it impossible ever to explain this fully to anyone else, but it will have a powerful effect on your life.
Third, Peter, James and John see Moses and Elijah standing there with Jesus. Now Moses and Elijah were the great spiritual and political leaders of their own nation’s history. This worship experience then, was speaking to those three men in the place where they were. It was meeting them on their own ground and helping them to understand Jesus through the context of their own lives and their own beliefs. Jesus had a place in their life and in their nation.
Fourth: the transfiguration takes place after some rather painful conversations. Jesus has been telling his disciples that, even as the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, he must suffer and die. His friends found this very hard to come to terms with. Don’t we all? Why should someone so good and so powerful have to suffer at the hands of evil people? And now, this worship experience helps them to re-align their faith. There may still be many things they do not understand but they are told quite plainly that Jesus is the Son of God and that they should trust him and listen to him.
Fifth: Peter wanted to construct three shrines- one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. Why was this not a good idea? Because even when he was standing in the light, Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah about the work he still had to do. He was not there to stand still in light but to walk in the light, work in that light, even suffer and die by that light of truth. He could not be “contained” in any one place or in any one experience.
A light you see and walk by; a deep and secret place where you encounter God for yourself; a new context in which to place the life you know; a re-aligning of life and faith after being in a dark place; an experience which will shape your everyday life. That is what the Transfiguration Story has told me about worship.
Life is not looking too good at the moment, is it? I suspect we are all anxious about our own nation and what will happen with Brexit and whether our Government will ever succeed in being really strong again and having the confidence of its people. The news of so many young lives being lost through knife crime and drugs is heart-breaking and terrifying. Around the world tensions continue to build up and warfare erupt. Climate change increasingly threatens life as we know it. There are no “safe places” left, are there?
And in the face of all this, many demand to know why intelligent, capable people should wish to spend more time in prayer and worship. Surely there are better and more useful things we should be doing?
But in that Psalm we read together, it says that those who worship God will go from strength to strength. They may pass through dry and desolate places, but they will be the people to transform those places into springs of living water. Not just for themselves but for the dry and desolate places of the world. And they will do this not because they are strong enough or compassionate enough of themselves but because they have learned to worship and to trust in One who is.
Day by day, week by week, they come to the One who loves the world and who loves them. And day by day, week by week, through worship and the effect of that worship on their lives, they are transformed into his likeness.
The light in which they see God directs their path;
the secret place where God speaks to them becomes their source of power;
the way in which God has shown them the world in which they live enables them to create communities of compassion and not of despair;
the truth they receive from God gives them hope and comfort even in times of suffering;
the presence of God they experience does not remain in the place of prayer but goes out into the world with them.
Through the Holy Habit of worship we find our very lives for in worship we take on our true identity as children of God.
“It is one thing to walk from the womb in pursuit of a utopia which flees us; another thing, issuing from the hand of God, to walk towards a Mercy who comes to meet us.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.