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Sermon for The Transfiguration and memories of Evensong at Church Church Cathedral

If you have never heard Christ Church Cathedral choir sing Purcell’s Magnificat in G Minor, why not try it now?

It’s sublime and here is the you-tube link: : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoEn-e2zKzU

In this version, it is conduced by Simon Preston who was organist at Christ Church when I was a youngster enjoying Evensong there myself… as you will discover should you wish to read the sermon I preached at Buckden last night.

We sang the Purcell in G  ( Mag and Nunc) and it was a huge privilege to be asked to sing with the choir under the direction of Chris Dell.

                                 Transfiguration  – February 2012.

                           A sermon preached at St Mary’s Buckden.

Thank you for inviting me to be with you at your splendid choral evensong.  Such a service takes me back to a time in the late 1960’s when as a young girl I would attend evensong at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford after school. Quite voluntarily I would add.  I fell in love with English choral music from an early age; the otherworldliness of it all fascinated me.  Why I was so attracted to it, I’m not sure. But I know I felt at home there and wanted one day  to be a priest like the Precentor who sang  “ Oh Lord, open thou our lips” I can still hear him sing. And the reply from the choir “ And our hearts shall show forth thy praise” .

I would leave and go to the old Brew House in Christ Church where we lived as my father was a lodge porter at the college.

Often when I got home he was still on duty and maybe my Mum was there  tired having worked all day up in the college Great Hall, the dining hall. I would go up to my big bedroom and get on with my homework. But the sounds, the atmosphere, the simplicity yet grandeur of the evensong lingered,  It was a glimpse into another world. A glimpse beyond the routine stuff of being at school and in a family home where life wasn’t always easy.

It was, incidentally, at Christ Church college that Charles Dodgson, known by his pseudonym of Lewis Carroll lived and worked for most of his adult life from 1850 until he died in 1898.

He was a mathematician but had many other skills, including story telling. His famous “ Alice’s Adventures Underground” began life  in 1864 – better known to us as “ Alice in wonderland” . This story were inspired by the hours he would spend with the Dean Liddell’s children, one of them being Alice Liddell. He would tell them stories as he took them out on rowing expeditions and one such story, about a little girl who escaped into a fantasy world found much favour. It was published in 1865.

As I gazed up at the portrait of Charles Dodgson in the Great Hall at Christ Church  as a youngster, I would think about Alice and how she slipped  into a colourful world of mystery. These early experiences in a somewhat unusual environment for a young person made a deep impression on me.

No wonder when I was a bit older I loved ‘The Lion the witch and the wardrobe.’  by C.S. Lewis, another Oxford man. A wonderful story of three children and their adventure in the magical land of Narnia. It is a children’s book but also very grown up. It causes us to question whether or not there is another world beyond this material world.

From time to time newspapers come up with surveys about peoples’ religious beliefs and invariably they show that in European countries there is a good  proportion of people believing in a world beyond this one but who don’t latch onto organized faith and ritual as most Christian groups offer it.

 In 2004 a survey was carried out by James Beckford Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and his results published under “ Why Britain doesn’t go to church”

 He wrote that   “Fewer and fewer Britons go to church but interest in spirituality appears to be growing – whether it is in astrology or yoga, New Age thinking or native religions. (Medieval churches used to dominated the landscape just as Christian ideas used to dominate our lives.

In today’s world – in everything from economic affairs and personal morality to political, legal and cultural ideas – modern liberal Britain has new inspirations and new icons. And traditional religion, it seems, is only for the few)

A large and growing number of people profess very few beliefs conforming to Christian orthodoxy in Britain. Even fewer participate in the activities of Christian  organisations.

Does this herald the end of religion or the death of God? No, it means that the major Christian churches are losing their former power – more rapidly in some places than others – and that competition is intensifying among the suppliers of would-be alternatives and replacements.

The race is on to re-package ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ for a generation of consumers who do not see themselves as church members; and if organised religion continues to fail to meet their needs, then others will provide.

(Even though religion is not the most important institution or factor in social life it continues to be ‘used’ in many forms.

At the time of Princess Diana’s death, millions wanted to lay flowers or sign books of condolences. In tragedy and disaster, religion is still a major source of symbols, sentiments and ceremonies.)

I would back up this view from my ministerial wanderings week by week. I meet many people, not least through visiting at key times of transition – birth, marriages and death – who genuinely want some God input at these precious times but don’t feel linked into churchiness for what ever reason.

Recently on a funeral visit, I talked with the husband of the lady who had died and he was clear from the  outset that although he and his wife had been baptised when young,  he didn’t go to church and didn’t want a religious service. And yet, a little later on in the meeting, he was just as clear that he wanted the Lords Prayer and The Lords My Shepherd in the service.

Here is a huge challenge for us – to offer symbols, sentiments and ceremonies that people can relate to and feel part of without compromising the essentials of what we believe and the traditions of Church which have served us well in past centuries.

Many people are keen to find something which speaks to them of a window into a different world, something that gives purpose and perspective to their lives and makes sense of the bad things that happen to good people.

Something which places our earthly pilgrimage in time and space within a wider context of meaning which both affirms this world and invites us to look beyond it for ultimate truth and salvation.

What does our gospel reading, Jesus’ transfiguration, have to tell us today in this quest for meaning and assurance?  The event has indeed been described ‘a window into a different world.’

This episode can remind us that there is a spiritual realm, a place beyond our own finite time. It reminds us that when we die we go to meet with God and exist in his presence.

It is interesting to note that in this story of the transfiguration, we hear of Moses and Elijah, figures from the ancient history of the Jewish people presented as very much alive to God and in God.

Jesus had spoken to his disciples of impending death and suffering and they were afraid.

Initially, when the disciples saw Moses and Elijah we can imagine their amazement and disbelief at what they were seeing ;  two great pillars of the Jewish faith, men who it was believed had been spared death in the normal way now talking with Jesus on a mountain top.

Although this transfiguration moment wasn’t something they could prolong, something which they could  hold onto in time, they could hold it in their hearts and draw courage  from it. How they would need that courage and conviction that God was with them as they journeyed with Jesus towards his final confrontations  in Jerusalem.

I love this Transfiguration story.

For a moment the cloak which divides our material world from the spiritual realm is drawn back for the disciples and they are able to receive a glimpse of  eternity.

Such moments appear in Old Testament stories: Moses on the mountain top receiving the 10 commandments from God ; Moses and the burning bush. Jacob and his vision of a stairway to heaven – angels ascending and descending  between heaven and earth. And the OT reading tonight of  Elijah and the chariot of fire which  swept him up to heaven.

The NT is full of the reality of another world touching earth, not least in appearances of  angels and ultimately of course in the person of Jesus, God with us, Emmanuel, we sing at Christmas.

Throughout the ages many Christians have spoken of having experienced the reality of God’s presence is a manner which is extraordinary and convincing.

Whether such experiences come to people who are very much into church or people who have nothing to do with organized religion – it is good to listen and be prepared to accept that God may be working his purposes out in ways that don’t always fit our notions of what it means to be religious.

And so to finish with a mention of the new initiative which our two bishops are sharing with us these coming months of “  Imagining the future”.  It’s not an exercise in fantasy or an attempt to boost morale as stats keep coming at us telling us less and less people are coming to church. It’s a wish to promote conversations.

Conversations between God and ourselves, a seeking of his will and calling. Conversations in prayer which can lead us to be more open to God reaching out to touch our lives at the deepest places.

Conversations between people in their parishes and between parishes and within Deaneries.  Conversations with our bishops and archdeacons.

Most of all, conversations with the ordinary people, men women and children with whom we spend our days. Children as many of you will agree, sometimes have the most wise and profound things to tell us.

Our bishops encourage us to listen in Lent… listen with our ears and hearts and minds to the movement of God in our lives.

May we listen to other people’s stories for they will have much to teach us as we respond to the glory of God shining from them

May we listen out for ideas about how the church can become more relevant and meaningful in ways that gently lead people to open new windows of experience which let God’s light into their lives.

May God bless you all in your Lenten listening and Lenten conversations as you together imagine the future for St Marys,  Buckden and the people who live in this delightful village. May all of our listening and talking be done against the backdrop of the revealed glory of God and the glorious hope of the Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

February 20, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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