notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Transfiguration - the glory of God is in God's justice
Good Shepherd 6/02/2005 (Communion Service)
Exodus 24.12-18, Matthew 17.1-9
One thing about God - he always puts on a good light show. Whether you're thinking about the spectacular events of creation, or that wonderful rainbow he created for Noah, the thunder and clouds and fire which enfolded Moses on the mountain, the storms and the earthquakes and the fire which passed by Elijah hiding in a mountaintop cave, or today's story - what we call The Transfiguration - with Jesus, Moses, Elijah appearing together in light and cloud and the thunderous voice of God - each of these stories are amazing visual events.
Ordinary mortals witnessing these events, like Peter, James and John witnessing The Transfiguration, couldn't help but be convinced of the glory of God, the glory of Jesus, seeing what they saw.
But it wasn't just the light show which revealed the glory of God that day on the mountain. It was the people who showed up with him, Moses and Elijah, and what they stood for, which said so much about what the glory of God actually means.
The Transfiguration revealed Jesus in his full glory. And it showed Peter, James and John something they would never forget and neither should we - that the glory of God is in God's justice.
Peter, James and John were astonished at the way Jesus was surrounded by light, his face shining like the sun, his clothes dazzling white. But they would have been more impressed by the company they saw him keeping on that awe-inspiring day.
It cannot be an accident that of all the saints of old who Jesus might have met on that mountaintop, it was Moses - Israel's lawgiver, and Elijah - Israel's great prophet.
On one side was Moses who had met God on a mountain, in thunder and lightning, trumpet-sound and smoke. Moses who brought the Ten Commandments down from the mountain to the people, ten words of justice for the people to live their lives by: honour God, not idols; don't misuse God's name, or God's holy day; honour your elders; don't murder, commit adultery, steal, cheat your neighbour or covet their possessions.
When Jesus stood by Moses on the mountaintop that day, he stood by the words of justice that Moses had brought to the people.
And on the other side was Elijah, who had met God on a mountain, a fugitive on the run from enemies whose prophets he had condemned to death because they refused to worship Israel's God. In ancient times when people's justice was measured by the sacrifices they made to God, Elijah's harsh message made perfect sense: if you break your covenant with God then you bring death on yourself.
And when Jesus stood by Elijah on the mountaintop that day, he stood by the words of justice that Elijah had brought to the people.
It probably took a while for Peter, James and John to get over the shock of what they saw on the mountain with Jesus that day, but when they did, and when they thought about it - and I bet they spent a lot of time thinking about it - I suspect they thought the most significance wasn't in the light-show, spectacular though that was; but that the most significance was in the men Jesus had stood with, and what, between the three of them, they stood for.
The Son of God, with whom the Father was well pleased, standing in the glory of God with the lawgiver and the covenant-keeper. Standing for justice and faithful service in the world.
We are quite good at celebrating Jesus our loving friend, and that is how it should be; it is good to keep reminding ourselves just how much we are loved. But we are less good at remembering Jesus the bringer of justice into the world. Jesus who stands for what is true and right in God, who insists with Moses that God's people live just lives, who reminds us with Elijah that just lives mean lives of sacrifice lived for God.
As well as celebrating The Transfiguration today the churches are being asked to remember that this is Poverty Action Sunday. Promoted by an organisation called Church Action on Poverty , today we are invited to open our eyes to the suffering and struggling people of our own land - to consider their situation and consider how we might respond to them in the light of the God of justice.
We might find it harder to open our eyes to poverty in our own country than we do to poverty overseas. Because it is not as extreme, though it is every bit as real to those suffering it.
It is real to those wrapped up in terrible debt because of the massive interest rates the doorstep lenders charge, like Sheila from Newcastle who told Church Action on Poverty,
³I have a fifteen year old daughter and she needs clothes so I have to get a Provi loan or vouchers. It's hard. At the end of my benefit I've nothing left to pay back the loan or vouchers. I can't spend money on shopping or bills.²
Doorstep lenders, or loan sharks, charge in excess of 170% APR interest to people like Sheila, who couldn't get a loan from a high street bank. And on the mountain God told Moses to tell the people, do not cheat your neighbour.
And poverty in our own country is as real to people like Nila from Bristol whose life has been devastated by the consequences of having too little. Married with three young children, Nila told Church Action on Poverty,
³Eventually the building society repossessed the house, and we found ourselves at the mercy of the housing department. On the morning we were due to move I sent my son to school as normal. He asked me where we would be sleeping that night and i had no answer to give. We had been through rough times before. I always had an answer, and explanation. I never lied to him. The look in his eyes as he refused to look into mine haunts me still.²
The policy of repossession and inadequate provision for the homeless throws ordinary families like Nila's into dire straits. I imagine that when you lose your home like this it is like a kind of death. And on the mountain God told Moses to tell the people, don't murder, don't covet your neighbour's possessions.
My prayer today is that we open our eyes to God's justice, as Peter, James and John had their eyes open on the mountainside. I believe God wants us to see what is going on in the world around us, to be aware of the terrible inequalities in our own society, where it is absolutely true that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.
We spend so much time reading in our newspapers about the exploits of the ridiculously rich; we might spend more time reading news from Church Action on Poverty about the concerns which face the terribly poor.
Despite record levels of employment, over 3 million children continue to live in poverty in this country, and over 70% of people in poverty continue to rely on state benefits for their income. Almost half of all women have to live on less than £100 per week. Yet the country is richer than ever.
R.H. Tawney once said, 'What thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call ... the problem of riches.'
A Catholic Bishops' conference recently concluded that, 'A wealthy society, if it is a greedy society, is not a good society.'
And the Church of England report Faith in the City said, 'Poverty is not just about shortage of money. It is about rights and relationships; about how people are treated and how they regard themselves; about powerlessness, exclusion and loss of dignity. Yet the lack of an adequate income is at its heart.'
These are the things which God told Moses to tell the people about. Getting them right is at the heart of the covenant with God which possessed Elijah. Jesus summed up the law and the prophets in a small phrase which we hear in church most Sundays: love God with all your heart; love your neighbour as yourself. The glory of God is in God's justice. This is The Transfiguration message for today.
I've been talking with Fr Philip Inch from Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and Revd David Leslie from St Cuthbert's about starting up a Justice and Peace group for people in our parishes who want to think about these things some more. And see if we can do anything about them together.
We're having a meeting on the 24th February to start to talk about what we might do. Everyone will be invited. And everyone will have the chance to share their ideas with the rest of the group. About poverty overseas and poverty close to home, and other similar things which concern us. It could be the start of something good.
On this Transfiguration day, you might consider whether that's for you. I'm going to close with a prayer from Alan Paton; and as I say this we each might consider whether we could make his words our own.
O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the need of others,
Open my ears that I may hear their cries,
Open my heart so they need not be without food.
Let me not be afraid to defend the weak
because of the anger of the strong,
Nor afraid to defend the poor
because of the anger of the rich.
Use me to bring love and hope and faith where it is needed,
And so open my eyes and my ears
That I may this coming day
Be able to do some work of peace for you.
 Quotes and case-studies following are from the Poverty Action Sunday worship resources.