Sermon preached at St. Mark's and Putnoe Heights by
The Reverend Patience Purchas—Bishop's Officer
for Women's and Non-Stipendiary Ministry, Diocese of St. Albans
14 February 1999
One of the great joys of my work is that I listen to people telling me the story of their faith. How they came to know Jesus—who told them—who taught them—what circumstances helped them—what challenged them. Let me tell you Bill's story (name changed) Bill never went to church, his wife, Jane, went occasionally, often on Mothering Sunday. One year on Mothering Sunday Jane was seriously ill in hospital, so Bill took his daughter to church. Whilst he was there he felt something inside saying 'Its going to be alright'. His wife Jane had exactly the same feeling the same day whilst she was watching the morning service in the day room of the hospital. Some time later all three of them were confirmed.
Let me tell you another story Last year at a service in Stevenage a woman came up to me whom I'd known 18 years earlier. She'd been talking to me about prayer and when she'd got home she decided to try it. So whilst she was preparing supper, with a potato in one hand and a peeler in the other she'd prayed 'God, if you're there—I'm here'. She too then became aware of His presence and her faith had seen her through many difficult times in the intervening years.
Such moments happen perhaps once in a lifetime—but they are more common then we think. People find them hard to talk about. They think that they are the only one's with such experiences and are shy to share them. We should encourage more sharing. It's very important. David was in a lay-by one night after his father's death, wanting some peace and space to think. He experienced God in his car in the quiet and stillness. Children will also sometimes tell us amazing things—'Daddy, I don't see angels very often'. We should treasure and reflect on such experiences, partly because there is so much negative stuff around.
Not so long ago the University of Leeds surveyed 8,000 adults to find out what their attitudes and beliefs were: 67% believed there was something in astrology 55% believed in second sight 15% believe that abduction by aliens is possible 10.8% have a strong belief in horoscopes. It makes Glenn Hoddle's views much less remarkable. We live in an age of pick and mix religion—a bit of this and a bit of that, whatever appeals to you at the moment. Give a good stir and consume in private. But at least people like Glenn Hoddle are reaching out for something greater than themselves—searching for something to believe in. I am concerned by the loud voices in the media who dismiss belief altogether. The secular humanists are a small minority—but a very noisy one. It can be depressing to hear your faith, your church derided and scorned.
May be it was that kind of cynical dismissiveness that sparked the strong words in the second letter of Peter.
"We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ—we were eye witnesses of His majesty"
Peter is remembering the extraordinary spiritual experience he shared with James and John when Jesus took them alone with Him up a high mountain and they saw Him—just for a moment—shining with glory. "We saw it —we heard the voice". Recognising the truth about such experiences help us not to be depressed by the cynics.
The accounts of the Transfiguration are puzzling—it's hard to understand what actually happened. Peter did not understand at the time— why else did he make the silly suggestion about shelters, as if he could box up Jesus and the prophets. Perhaps there are just no words to describe something as powerful as that. We have such a partial understanding of God —such a limited vision. Like the boy who kept asking where God was. "Is He in this room? Yes. Is He on the table? Yes. Is He in the salt cellar? Yes. Got Him!" Be distrustful of people who think they have God in their pocket. God is not to be caught and used for our convenience. We see only "through a glass darkly" as Paul wrote. We do not have the whole picture—just little glimpses from time to time. And they are very precious. We should value our glimpses and enjoy what others have to tell us about because we shall grow in our understanding.
We heard just recently about the death of Iris Murdoch, the great philosopher and novelist. Twenty years ago a writer went to interview her. He asked if he was right in thinking that she was coming closer to God. "I think", she answered, "God is coming closer to me". We need to recall such insights, such moments, because they help us get through the dark times in our lives—the times we have to face when hard things happen to us and those we love or when our faith is hard to hold on to.
The account of Jesus at His Transfiguration says "His face shone like the sun and His colour became as white as light". The letter of Peter speaks of "a light shining in a dark place". Our glimpses of glory remind us that the light o Christ has never been put out. I was privileged to be at the meeting of General Synod at Church House, Westminster, in February 1992 when we welcomed Terry Waite back home from his terrible years of captivity in Beirut. This is what he said.
"In the days of solitary confinement, in the days when one
was confined in a dark room, chained to the wall, with no one to speak to
for years, one thought kept me alive. That the light of Christ continues to
shine in the darkest and most desolate places of this world. And even if at
times when suffering and pain grips one's soul, it is still possible to hold
on to the light. After four years I was given a small radio and then I heard
of Churches around the world where candles had been lit and kept burning;
here in London, across the United Kingdom, across the Commonwealth and
across the whole world. And you can imagine that the symbolism meant so much
to me in that dark and difficult place.
… Suffering so common in our world, so painful and somehow in itself hardly eased by our faith but made possible to be transformed and to be changed and to be enhancing rather than life and soul destroying. To those who suffer I would say: 'Take heart and have courage and hold fast to the light."
When the disciples heard God speaking on the mountain they fell face down onto the ground terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up", He said, "Don't be afraid". When they looked up they saw no-one except Jesus. Many people have been helped by the writings of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Roman Catholic Priest. He said,
"To see Christ is to see God and all of humanity. This mystery has evolved into the burning desire to see the face Jesus"
Like Peter, we can look forward to the eternity that awaits us—the day when we shall see the face of Jesus in all its glory and forever. For now, we treasure the glimpses until the days dawns and the morning star arises in our hearts.
A poem for reflection
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small
field for a while,
And gone my way and forgotten it.
But that was the pearl of great price,
The one field that had the treasure in it.
I realise now that I must give all that I have to possess it.
Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,
Nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush,
To a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once,
But it is the eternity that awaits.
R S Thomas 1975