Thursday, 6 March 2014
Sermon March 2, 2014 Usefulness in Uselessness
Can you think of a wonderful experience in your life? It could be the first time you fell in love. It could be your wedding day – although that is often such a whirl-wind of activity that it is hard to remember. It could be crossing the threshold of your first house. It could be the first day on your first job. It could be the first day of retirement. It could be eating a meal or other activity with people who you know truly love you and who you. It could be the first experience of feeling completely safe after living in an abusive relationship. It can be such a wonderful experience that you wish deep down that you could hold on to that experience forever. Later we often hope that we can recapture that wonderful feeling and there is a sense of loss when we realize that it is just not possible to relive that particular experience again.
Given our reaction to want to hold on and claim wonderful experiences we can certainly understand Peter’s reaction to the wonderful vision before him: “3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then 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.”
Peter’s reaction is to do something – build dwellings so that they could hold on to what he was seeing. To understand this amazing, wonderful vision we have to realize the significance of these two figures to the Jews in Jesus’ time. Moses and Elijah were central - you could say iconic figures in Judaism. They were the personification of the two central components of their religion – the law and the prophets. Moses was the law Giver who had received the Law from God – the Tablets of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Elijah was the quintessential Prophet. In an epic battle Elijah defeated the priest of the foreign god Baal who had been introduced to Israel by King Ahab. His end on this earth is also magnificent as we are told that when he was walking with Elisha, his successor:
11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. (2 Kings 2: 7-8)
Both are unique in Judaism. Moses is the law giver and Elijah does not die on earth but is the taken up to heaven in heavenly chariots. Is there any wonder that having these two people with Jesus affected Peter so strongly? Would we not want to do just what Peter wants – to hold on to that wonderful scene for as long as he could? He must do something – he must act on this impulse – he must build three dwellings to contain them.
Peter’s reaction to do something resonates strongly with our culture. We are very much a world in which we are told and taught that we must act if we are to be successful and if we are to make our mark in the world. Even the church falls into this belief. We are told we must act to build up God’s kingdom. We are told that we must “Renew” our Diocese if we are to survive and thrive in this world. We need to have a mission statement to have a ministry. St. Stephen’s is a Bishop Luxton Church. Bishop Luxton responded to his times by a significant church planting in the midst of where people were – in subdivisions where the church would be part of the community. I suspect that is why there is no parking lot with St. Stephen’s – people would walk to church. Today we are given a new response to our situation – we are to paint the church doors a bright colour. Churches are to be planted on busy intersection.
There is nothing wrong with all this. And I am not suggesting that the church doesn’t need to be in the world and respond to the perceived needs of the culture. However the church also has a tradition of a different kind of response to where we are and where God is calling us. It is a different kind of renewal that is very foreign to our culture today – a spiritual renewal.
One of the great prophets of Spiritual Renewal is Henri Nouwen. In the last part of his life he had a great connection with the L’Arch Daybreak Community in Newmarket living there in the final years of his life. In his book entitled Out of Solitude Nouwen writes:
In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness. We can learn much in this respect from the old tree in the Tao story about a carpenter and his apprentice:
A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: "Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?"
The apprentice looked at his master and said: "No . . . why?"
"Well," the carpenter said, "because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax."
Nouwen goes on:
In solitude we can grow old freely without being preoccupied with our usefulness and we can offer a service which we had not planned on. To the degree that we have lost our dependencies on this world, whatever world means--father, mother, children, career, success or rewards--we can form a community of faith in which there is little to defend but much to share. Because as a community of faith, we take the world seriously but never too seriously. In such a community we can adopt a little of the mentality of Pope John, who could laugh at himself. When a highly decorated official asked him, "Holy father, how many people work in the Vatican?" he paused a moment then replied, "Oh, about half of them I suppose."
We are on the cusp of the season of Lent which begins this Wednesday with our Ash Wednesday service. It is the perfect time to renew our lives in that way which is a special calling of the church in this world – spiritual renewal. Our Gospel lesson closes with a commandment of Jesus as they descended from the mountain top experience, “Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’.” There is a time for action and a time for reflection and renewal. Let take time this lent for reflection and spiritual renewal. Amen.