Monday, 25 February 2013

Is "Fundamentalist" the best word to use?

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. If Mr. Emerson was right, I’m about to demonstrate the size of my mind because I’m also going to demonstrate a lot of inconsistency.

It began a few years ago at a Rotary meeting. One of my fellow-Rotarians asked me what I thought of a TV documentary in which Professor Richard Dawkins made an aggressive attack on religion in all forms. My response was that the documentary only proved “you don’t have to be religious to be a fundamentalist”.

My little one-liner later found its way into the “letters” page of the Melbourne Age’s “Green Guide” and launched a debate in the "letters" page that lasted a few weeks.

But, in a real sense, I think that “fundamentalist” is the wrong word to use to describe the sort of narrow-minded religious ultra-conservative that most of us have encountered at least once in our lives.

The word “fundamentalist” has been around since 1910, when a series of books called “The Fundamentals” was published in the United States.  As a result of these books, the word “fundamentalist” was used to describe a religious ultra-conservative in the specific context of the "Protestant" stream of Christianity.  From 1910 until the late 1970s, the word “fundamentalist” was only used to describe a ultra-conservative religious person in a "Protestant" context.

In the late 1970s, at the time of the Iranian revolution, the media started to use the word “fundamentalist” to refer to religious ultra-conservatives in an Islamic context. This was the first time the term “fundamentalist” was consistently used to describe people outside the context of the "Protestant" stream of Christianity.

By the late 1980s, “fundamentalist” was used to describe any person in any religious context who combined an ultra-conservative approach to their faith, a puritanical approach to personal conduct, a sympathy for authoritarian political movements, and a contempt for people of other faiths, non-religious viewpoints, and less “intense” versions of their own faith.

By the beginning of the 2000s, “fundamentalist” was used to describe anyone who had a particularly one-eyed approach to reality. People were speaking of “secular fundamentalists”, “scientific fundamentalists”, “economic fundamentalists” (a far better term than “economic rationalists”), and even “Carlton fundamentalists” and “Collingwood fundamentalists”.     (Note, for readers outside Australia, Carlton and Collingwood are two Australian football clubs whose fans are regarded as particularly aggressive in their support for their teams.  Think of the fans of the New York Yankees or Manchester United, and you have the idea.)

However, I believe “fundamentalist” is really the wrong word to describe a narrow-minded religious ultra-conservative in any faith tradition. “Fundamental” comes from the Latin word for a building’s foundation. “Fundamental” means “basic”. The “fundamentals” of mathematics, for example, are basic addition and subtraction. When we use the term “fundamentalist”, we imply that the people we so describe are concerned with the bedrock “basics” of their faith. 

But if you look at the “basics” of any faith tradition, we come to values such as forgiveness, compassion, mercy, generosity, and hospitality. These values are not exclusive to those whom we call “fundamentalists”, are often found in abundance among people whom we would never call “fundamentalists”, and are frequently in short supply among those whom we call "fundamentalists".

So, in a real sense, I believe “fundamentalist” is the wrong word. But still, please excuse me if I occasionally refer to fundamentalists of the secular, scientific, economic, Carlton, or Collingwood varieties.

Double standards

Yes, there are many ethical double standards that operate in our world today.

Most of us expect higher ethical standards from people in professions with a tradition of community service than we do from people in occupations governed mainly by the profit motive.

Most of us expect higher standards of human rights from democracies than we do from nations that make no pretence at democracy.

Most of us judge ethical lapses by politicians and media figures to the left of centre with far greater severity than we do those by politicians and media figures to the right of centre.

Most of us expect a higher commitment to accurate and fair news reporting from "newspapers-of-record" than we do from the tabloids; and a higher commitment to accuracy and fairness from the news services of public broadcasters than we do from those of commercial broadcasters.  We're generally far more disappointed by errors in the "quality" end of the media than we are by errors in the "popular" end of the media. 

Most of us expect that all religious organisations – and the individuals, lay and ordained, within them – will at least try to live by the ethical standards of their faith.  Most of us will judge the ethical failings of the particularly pious with particular harshness. 

Among "religious" people, we have higher ethical expectations of members of the religious mainstream than we have of those on the fundamentalist fringe of any faith. 

As a community we have higher expectations from:
  • some professions,
  • some nations,
  • some politicians,
  • some news outlets,
  • some philosophies of life
than we do from others.   

Yes, these are double standards, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. 

Without such double standards, we may find ourselves becoming a community with no ethical standards at all. 

Thursday, 21 February 2013

An assortment of opinionated one-liners

No unifying theme this time ... just a collection of a few unrelated, miscellaneous, opinionated, and (I hope) provocative one-liners.


Looking at Australia's political parties, there's a right-wing party called Liberal, a regional party called National, a middle-class party called Labor, and an occasionally "Orange" party called Green. Could the misleading names of the parties be one of the reasons why many Australians are cynical about politics?


Yes, it takes a village to raise a child; but why do so many villages seem to leave the job to their village idiots?


The cost of a wedding varies in inverse proportion to the combined intelligence of the couple.


When a couple refers to each other as their "partners", I feel sorry for them.  They're not married yet, and the relationship has already stopped being sexy.


Richard Wagner is the "gangsta rap" of the classical music repertoire.


There's really very little "fun" in "fundamentalism".

Sunday, 17 February 2013

“What are the old people coming to these days?”: a sermon by Bob Faser (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18)

These days, it’s not all that spectacular for people in their seventies to embark on great adventures.  Many older people from the temperate zones, from Tasmania, Victoria, the ACT, or southern NSW … many people in their seventies – or older - people frequently spend much of the winter driving around the warmer regions of Australia, or touring around various historic or scenic regions of the Northern Hemisphere.  It’s not all that spectacular these days for people in their seventies to embark on great adventures.  It’s even expected.

People in their seventies – and older – still have their health and vitality, for the most part.  (Those of you in this age range can make approving noises if you want.)  You’ve got more time to travel than you did when you were employed.  Most of you have more financial resources to travel than you did when you had children at home.  And for some, it may even be a deliberate decision to do some skiing.  (Skiing as in the acronym S-K-I, which stands for “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”.)

And, to tell the truth, you’re probably a lot more mentally adventurous, much more culturally tolerant, and generally far less conservative now than you were in your thirties and forties.  You probably even find yourself much more mentally adventurous, more culturally tolerant, and generally less conservative than many of the younger people you know.

And this is the case with older people around the world.  If the 1960s were a great time to be young, the twenty-teens are a great time to be old.  For a person in their seventies or older to embark on a great adventure is not all that spectacular these days. It’s become the done thing. 

This was not the case in Abram’s day.  In those days, old was old.  Abram was seventy-five and his wife Sarai was close to it.  They weren’t expected to go chasing off into the desert at the command of some new-fangled Big-G God.  They were expected to ease into their dotage in the safe, old-fashioned way, worshipping their full quota of petty little small-g gods, just as their parents did ... and their parents before them ... and their parents before them ... and so on.

The neighbours probably shook their heads in a combination of amusement and annoyance.  “He’s doing what?  ... Travelling across the desert?  ... At his age?  ... Surely Sarai will talk some sense into him.  ... What?  She’s going too?  ... Both of them should act their age! ... I told you no good would ever come out of this one-God business.  ... What are the old people coming to these days? ...” ... and so on.

And so, as Abraham and Sarai, the world’s first monotheists, left their hometown of Haran ... with their nephew ... and their servants ... and their animals ... and their household goods ..., they must have heard the sarcastic comments of their neighbours.

But somehow, it was in this event, when Abram and Sarai left the comforts of home in service to finding God’s future for them and for the world, that we see a key moment in the religious and ethical development of humanity. For three great faiths:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – each traces its heritage back to Abram’s desert journey into the unknown.

This is appropriate.  A few chapters before today’s lesson from Genesis, God told Abram, just before he and his family set off:  “... in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”  And, in a real sense, this has been the case.  In the three Abrahamic faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, whatever their differences, there are some profound common themes:
·           One God who is love at the very heart of God’s being;
·           One God, whose love is extended to all humanity;
·           One God, who calls all people to practice justice, peace, and mercy;
·           One God, whom we worship through our ethical deeds as much as in our religious activities.

For his role in introducing humanity to this One God, “...all the families of the earth ... [were surely] ... blessed” by Abram’s journey into the unknown. 

And so, in the simple reality of an old couple who challenged the expectations of their culture, we see a source of profound hope for all people, for “all the families of the earth”.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A hymn about Pontius Pilate (for Holy Week)

Pilate (man of force and power)
Caesar’s man in Palestine,
sent his troops to kill the people
while they worshipped at their shrine.
God of justice, grant our leaders
mercy and humanity.
Guide the people of all nations
into true community.

Pilate (man of pedant’s question),
bully in philosopher’s mask,
toyed and bantered with his captive,
“What is truth?” he’d glibly ask.
God of justice, grant our leaders
mercy and humanity.
Guide the people of all nations
into true community.

Pilate (man of cynic’s symbol),
washed his hands in public place,
shifting blame for Jesus’ murder
to the elders of Christ’s race.
God of justice, grant our leaders
mercy and humanity.
Guide the people of all nations
into true community.

Pilate (man of law and order),
no “bleeding-heart”, a tough judge he,
coolly gave the cruel sentence:
“Send this Jew to Calvary!”
God of justice, grant our leaders
mercy and humanity.
Guide the people of all nations
into true community.

Pilate (man of fearful nightmares,
guilty spirit, troubled brain)
plunged into the Alpine waters,
seeking silence thus to gain.
God of justice, grant our leaders
mercy and humanity.
Guide the people of all nations
into true community.

Copyright, Robert J. Faser, 2002
Tune:  “Ebenezer”


This hymn reflects on a number of references to Pontius Pilate in the Gospels, as well as an ancient Christian legend about Pilate’s suicide.  There is a refrain at the end of each verse in which we pray for those who govern us and for the nations of the world.

Vs. 1:  Luke 13:1.  I base much of my assessment of Pilate’s character on this single, rather unguarded, comment in Luke’s Gospel, as opposed to the (in my opinion) more deliberately nuanced accounts in the passion narratives.  

Vs. 2    John 18:33-38.  My assessment of Pilate’s character makes his question “What is truth?” not a comment of an honest searcher, but one of an intellectual thug. 

Vs. 3:  Matthew 27:24.  It would not take a very radical interpretation of the New Testament to realise that, by the time the Gospels were written, the Gospel writers were under strong pressure both to minimise the Roman involvement and to maximise the Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death.

Vs. 4:  Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19.  The inscription on Jesus’ cross about him being “the King of the Jews” gives support to the idea that Jesus was condemned by a Gentile governor as “a dangerous Jew”.      

Vs. 5:  There was an early Christian legend that Pontius Pilate committed suicide by drowning himself in Lake Lucerne in what is now Switzerland.

Preferred tune:                       This hymn is written in the metre of  Looking at some of the available tunes, many are inappropriate for the subject matter: 
  • “Abbots Leigh” and “Hyfrydol” are both far too “pretty” for Pilate.
  • “Austria” and “Ode to Joy” are too celebrative.  (As well, the historical link of “Austria” with “Deutschland Über Alles” makes the use of this tune rather forced, given the subject matter.)
  • “Converse” and “Blaenwern” are too sentimental.  
  • “Ebenezer” seems to be an appropriately solemn (and “hairy-chested”) tune for a hymn about Pilate.



Monday, 11 February 2013

"Lincoln", a film review.

I just saw Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln", and it was a great flick.

Now, let me say, I'm into history and I'm into historical movies.  The period of the US Civil War is an era in which I'm particularly interested.  Nevertheless, even given all this, in my opinion, "Lincoln" was particularly good.

It's a verbose movie.  Most of the "action" of the film consists of people sitting around talking; talking in offices, sitting rooms, bedrooms, hospital wards, and the US House of Representatives.  The talk, however, isn't idle chatter.  The talk is the crisp interplay of serious ideas, ideas about peace, justice, government, and life.  (And the scenes in the House of Representatives are well-and-truly in the same league as the parliamentary scenes in "Amazing Grace".)

The film is set in 1865, in the last few months both of the US Civil War and of the life of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States.  Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) was engaged in negotiations both over ending the long war, and over an consitutional amendment giving final abolition to slavery.  Lincoln was also coping with the frail emotional state (the result of the death of their middle son William) of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field).

In balancing the three needs to end the war quickly, to abolish slavery permanently, and to pay attention to the needs of his wife and his two surviving sons, Spielberg's/Day-Lewis's Lincoln is a study of a good individual torn between three conflicting (but all good) goals.

Lincoln's tension is illustrated by the conflicting influences brought to bear on him by two of his colleagues.  On the one hand is his suave and somewhat cynical Secretary of State William Seward (played by David Strathairn), Lincoln's eminence grise and an expert practitioner of realpolitik, for whom a speedy end to the war was a higher priority than a permanent end to slavery.  On the other hand is the idealistic Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones), who was seeking a permanent end to slavery.  Lincoln, Seward, and Stevens forged a coalition that led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery.

In the process, political wheeling and dealing needed to take place, and the misadventures of the trio of political operatives engaged by Seward to wheel the deals provide a few moments of comic relief  in this serious film.  In many ways, they function as a cross between the Drunken Porter in Macbeth and Moe, Larry, and Curly.

For those unfamiliar with American history, there is a need to know that the two major parties shifted their ideological position in the century-and-a-half between Lincoln's day and ours.  In Lincoln's day, in contrast to ours, the Republicans were the progressives while the Democrats were the reactionaries.

The character of Lincoln remained the moral centre of the film.  Juggling the demands of making peace, freeing the slaves, and caring for his family, the strong sense of Lincoln's own humanity shines through (even in his lengthy and folksy stories - which always had a relevant point - and which always raised the ethical stakes in the conversation).  This humanity was seen in his determination to pardon a teenage soldier sentenced to death, even when his staffers were advising him against it.

This film is worth seeing about two or three times at least to get a good idea of the ethical struggle that was going on both among Lincoln's colleagues and within Lincoln's mind.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The end of "reactionary chic" (I hope)

Recently I saw a comment on a US-based website that led me to do some serious political thinking.

The comment was from an American journalist named Michael Tomasky.  He indicated a major shift in American political thinking that took place very recently, perhaps even in the past few weeks.  The main thrust of Tomasky’s article was that centre-left politicians are now considered the “regular guys” in the minds of the average American, while right-wing politicians are now considered the “weirdos”.  (link to Tomasky article)

This is very significant.  One part of me wants to sing a Te Deum, while another part of me wants to scream “and it’s about time!”

For those outside the US, the American concept of a “regular guy” may need some clarification.  It refers to a basically good – but not flawless - person (of either gender) who, in the Australian vernacular, “doesn’t have tickets on himself”.  If you follow British TV, think of any character in The Bill with a Yorkshire or Lancashire accent.  If you follow Australian TV, think of any character played by Geoff Morrell.

This change of perception is such a relief, particularly to those of us who are Baby Boomers.  In the late ‘70s / early ‘80s, when we Boomers were making our transition from youth to adulthood, what I call “Reactionary Chic” was beginning to exert its iron grip on the minds of many people.  In many western democracies, the main qualification for a career in public life was the inability to get over the fact of having read Ayn Rand in high school.

During that period, those of us with a concern for such things as social justice and social responsibility were called all sorts of names:  “do-gooders”, “bleeding hearts”, advocates of the “nanny state”, members of the “chattering classes”, “politically correct”, and so on.

As a Boomer, I’m glad that the natural equilibrium of the political system is beginning to re-assert itself at a time when we’re still young enough to enjoy it.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Why Lent?

Some of us may remember a time back in our childhood when Lent was seen as something that only Catholics and the more full-on sort of Episcopalians / Anglicans did.  In recent decades, things have changed so that Lent is now something that is part of the life of almost all Christian churches

Why Lent?

In the early centuries of the Christian Church, most Baptisms took place at Easter.  Most candidates for Baptism would have been preparing for their Baptism for a few years, in terms of learning about the life and teachings of Jesus, and the beliefs and practices of the Christian church.

The candidates for Baptism entered a far more intense period of preparation for a number of weeks immediately prior to their Baptism at Easter.  This preparation included sessions of more deliberate study, prayer, and meditation, as well as abstinence from some foods and periods of fasting from all food.  This period of intense spiritual preparation was the beginning of what we now call the season of Lent.

After a while, it was not only the candidates for Baptism who wished to participate in this time of preparation.  Other Christians chose to observe this period of preparation as well, both to support those preparing for Baptism and in the interest of their own spirituality.

But, … as this was happening, the practice of Christian baptism was changing.  Christian parents increasingly chose to present their children for Baptism, even children as young as babies.  There were a number of reasons for this change in practice.  Some reasons were good, and some were not-so-good.
  • A good reason for this change in practice was that parents who identified with the Christian faith wanted to decisively identify their children with the same faith as they had embraced.  This is still the main reason why most mainstream churches baptise babies to his day.
  • A less positive reason for this change was the (in my opinion, unfortunate) development of the theology of “original sin” through the influence of St. Augustine.  Because of this doctrine, there was a growing belief among Christians that unbaptised babies were somehow “damned”.  Thus there was increasing pressure for churches to baptise babies as soon as possible after their birth.
After a while, the majority of Christian baptisms involved the children of people who were already Christians themselves, rather than adult converts.  The baptisms took place throughout the year, as the children were born.  Fewer and fewer Baptisms took place at Easter.

But, … even though the weeks leading up to Easter were no longer a time of pre-baptismal preparation, most Christians still continued to observe the pre-Easter time of study, prayer, meditation, abstinence, and fasting.  By this stage, Christians were beginning to observe Lent, in the way we think of Lent today. 

In medieval times, Lent was a time when people became far more austere in their diet, abstaining not only from meat and alcohol, but also from dairy products and from eggs. 
  • The observance of “Pancake Day” on the day before the beginning of Lent was a way of using up the items that couldn’t be eaten during Lent. 
  • The idea that fish could be eaten during times of abstinence from meat developed in the late Middle Ages, at a time when the nations of Europe were trying to assist their fishing industries and asked the church to encourage people to eat more fish.  So the Church “eased” the rules of abstinence and kept fish on the menu on days when the eating of meat was discouraged.
As well as abstaining from some foods, the Lenten practice in the Middle Ages also included days of complete fasting from all food (unless you were very young, very old, very sick, or very pregnant).  As well, the time-honoured custom of “giving … [something] … up for Lent” began in the Middle Ages and has continued until the present day.

As well as a greater austerity in people’s lifestyles, Lent also involved a greater austerity in the church’s worship.  The more joyous aspects of worship were minimized.  The more solemn and sombre aspects of worship were magnified.  To give one example, the word “alleluia” was omitted from use in worship during Lent (and still is in many churches).  Thus, so many Easter hymns are dominated by the word “alleluia”, a word that was silent and unused in the church for the previous forty days. Essentially, Christian worship became much more “minimalist” during Lent. 

After the Protestant Reformation, most of the "Protestant" churches kept Lent in some form or other, but for the most part, Lent soon became a non-event in many "Protestant" churches, other than the Anglicans or Lutherans, until fairly recently.  (I’ll say now that I believe that this neglect of Lent in many "Protestant" churches was to the spiritual detriment of the worshippers.)  I have two theories as to why Lent was neglected for so long in many "Protestant" churches. 

First of all, as I said earlier, traditionally, “Lent … involved a greater austerity in the church’s worship.  The more joyous aspects of worship were minimized.  The more solemn and sombre aspects of worship were magnified.”  This creates an extra problem when we consider the worship during Lent within the "Protestant" churches.  For most of the centuries since the Reformation, "Protestant" worship was fairly “minimalist” throughout the year, with very infrequent communion, and with a lengthy sermon being the central point of the worship.  Even on the great days of celebration such as Christmas and Easter, "Protestant" worship had become so generally austere, solemn, and sombre that an observance of Lent as such was redundant.  In the typical "Protestant" church (including the Uniting Church’s three parent churches), as far as the style of worship was concerned, Lent lasted the whole year long.

Similarly, in terms of lifestyle matters, traditionally, Lent was a time of greater austerity in people’s personal lives.  This became a problem from about the middle of the nineteenth century when many of the "Protestant" churches in the English-speaking countries began to be associated with the more extreme wing of the temperance movement.

From about the middle of the eighteenth century, temperance societies originally developed to encourage moderation and intelligence in people’s consumption of alcohol.  During the nineteenth century, more extreme temperance groups were founded which promoted abstinence from alcohol – rather than moderation in the use of alcohol.  From the nineteenth century, a growing number of church leaders were promoting abstinence – rather than moderation – as the preferred Christian stance toward alcohol.  Beginning with the Quakers, but also including Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists (in particular), and others, many of the "Protestant" churches were associated with this more extreme stance toward temperance in the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries.

This led to a problem re the observance of Lent.  If people assumed that their churches were expecting them to abstain from alcohol as part of being a member in good standing, it would be very difficult then to add, “Oh, and in addition to giving up the booze year-round, would you also cut down your meat consumption during Lent and possibly think of giving up chocolate for Lent?”  For many, that would really be stretching the friendship.  And anyway, the expectations re refraining from alcohol gave a Lenten character to the whole year.  As I said earlier in terms of worship, in the typical "Protestant" church (including at least two of the Uniting Church’s three parent churches), as far as lifestyle expectations were concerned, Lent lasted the whole year long.

Please note:  these comments about the relationship of the de-emphasis upon Lent in some churches with the worship styles and with the influence of the temperance movement in these churches are only my theories, but they’re theories I’m sticking with until proven otherwise.

In any event, times have changed.

In terms of worship, we today are heirs of the ecumenical movement.  "Protestants" and Catholics have influenced each other’s styles of worship.  Catholics today worship in the language of their local community rather than in Latin, and sing hymns as part of their worship.  "Protestants" today celebrate Holy Communion more often than in the past (not as often as we should, but more often than we did), have far shorter sermons than in the past, and have a far less “gloomy” style of worship generally than in the past. 

In terms of lifestyle, the temperance movement no longer has the influence on the "Protestant" churches it once had.  There is no longer the expectation that a practicing member of a church would automatically abstain from alcohol.  I know some teetotalers who are members of the Uniting Church, but not many.  Most of them are non-imbibers for predominantly non-religious reasons.  The link between church membership and year-round personal austerity is no longer there.  

Given these two changes, it is no longer the case now in "Protestant" churches (as it was a few decades ago) that people feel that “We don’t really need Lent in our church;" or that, “For us, it’s Lent all year round.”

Thus, thankfully, churches such as the Uniting Church have been re-discovering Lent in recent decades.

And, for those who’d like to “give something up for Lent”, I have two suggestions.
  • The first is to take something essentially innocent, and give it up for Lent, with the intention being that (when Lent is over) we can enjoy what we gave up with a greater sense of thanksgiving to God.  Many Christians choose to do this with some favourite treat, such as chocolate.  This is a classic way for some Christians to “do” Lent.  Can I say, please, if you know someone else doing this for Lent, be supportive.  It really isn’t funny to wave a chocolate bar under the nose of someone giving up chocolate for Lent.  This is not how to be Christ’s person to your neighbour.
  • The second idea is to take something harmful, and to give it up permanently … beginning with Lent.  Perhaps this Lent can be your time to give up smoking.  Perhaps this Lent can be your time to seriously challenge some long-standing racial, religious, or cultural prejudice, such as your prejudices against Indigenous people, or other people of colour, or Jews, or Muslims, or Catholics, or LGBT+ people.
During Lent, we all have opportunities to renew our lifestyle in the light of our faith and, by so doing, to prepare ourselves to enter more fully into the experience of Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Transfiguring the Church: a sermon by Bob Faser

(10 February 2013, Transfiguration of Jesus:  Luke 9:28-36)

Each year, just before we enter into the season of Lent, we encounter this amazing, mysterious passage about the event in the gospels called the Transfiguration. 

Jesus and three of his disciples climb a mountain to pray.  While they were up there, Jesus’ appearance changed.  He began to shine.  While he was shining, Moses and Elijah appeared, speaking with Jesus.  The disciples dithered for a while.  Peter suggested making shelters for Jesus and his visitors.  And then . . . a voice came out of the clouds, “This is my Son, my Chosen.  Listen to him.”  After the voice, there was a silence.  And the mysterious visitors were no longer there.

What are some of the things this passage can say to the church for its life and work today?  How can this event of the Transfiguration assist in transfiguring the church today?  I’ll suggest four possibilities from our gospel lesson:
  1. A transfigured church is a church that embraces its history.
  2. A transfigured church is church that practices generosity.
  3. A transfigured church is a church in which we’re all free to make mistakes.
  4. A transfigured church is a church that moves on into God’s future.

1.  A transfigured church is a church that embraces its history. 

Moses and Elijah were important historical figures for Jesus the Jew, and for the three disciples, also Jewish, who joined him on the mountain.  Moses was the great liberator and lawgiver.   Elijah was regarded as the greatest of the prophets who confronted kings with the demands of God’s justice.  As Peter, James, and John saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah, they saw Jesus with the great figures of the community’s history.  They embraced their history.  And God calls the church today to embrace its history. 

But let me qualify that a bit.  Often, in churches here in Australia, when someone says “history”, you get a few people who think “old buildings”.  When I speak about the church embracing its history, I’m not talking about the church embracing old buildings and squandering its resources on bricks and mortar.  Far from it.

When I speak about the church embracing its history, I’m speaking about the church today seeing itself as part of the on-going story of the people of God throughout the ages.  Peter, James, and John, up there on the mountain with Jesus, saw themselves as being part of the continuing story of the people of God, knowing that this on-going story - as seen in the figures of Moses and Elijah - was part of them.  We, too, can know that the story of the people of God is part of us.
  • Patrick using something as simple as the clover of the meadow to teach profound truths of the nature of God.  Somehow, that’s part of us.
  • Francis of Assisi renouncing his family wealth to share the gospel by a life of profound simplicity.  Somehow, that’s part of us.
  • John Wesley leaving a comfortabe academic career to share the good news with the poor and forgotten of England’s Industrial Revolution.  Somehow, that’s part of us.
  • Mother Theresa working among the poor and the dying in the slums of Calcutta.   Somehow, that’s part of us.
  • Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Schweitzer, Father Damian, Caroline Chisholm, Mary MacKillop, John Flynn, Robert Knopwood:  Somehow, their stories are part of us.
A transfigured church is a church that embraces its history

2.  A transfigured church is a church that practices generosity.       

Peter came up with the idea of making three shelters:  one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  Often, when people preach on this passage, the idea comes up that Peter was just being thick, that he was trying to build some shrines so that the mountaintop experience could be repeated almost on demand. 

Perhaps . . . but then again perhaps Peter was merely exercising a bit of hospitality.  Moses and Elijah were their guests.  They lived in a culture that valued hospitality.  Visitors needed to be properly provided for.  Perhaps Peter’s comments could be seen in this light, rather than in the light of Peter dropping another massive clanger.

And Christ calls the church today to be a church that practices generosity in its life together.  A phrase that is frequently used is that the church is called to live as “a culture of generosity”.  It’s often the poorest of the poor who understand this culture of generosity most fully.  In my four visits to Bangladesh for the Christmas Bowl in the 1990s, I learned that it’s often the people of the poorest villages who go the most “over the top” in expressing hospitality to a visitor.  The church today is also called to live as “a culture of generosity”.  

A transfigured church is a church that practices generosity.

3.  A transfigured church is a church in which we’re all free to make mistakes.

But, then again, let’s assume that Peter did drop a massive clanger.  What happened?  Did Jesus chew him out?  No.  Did the other disciples bite his head off?  No.  Peter was free to drop his clangers, to make his mistakes. 

We worship God of an incredible patience and generosity.  God gives us the freedom to b e wrong. God gives us the freedom to make mistakes.  God does not hold our mistakes against us.  I realise that there are some Christians who believe in a much scarier sort of god.  But we know the real God who revealed Godself to humanity in Jesus, as self-sacrificing love.  God gives us the freedom to make mistakes.   God calls us to give one another that same freedom.

A transfigured church is a church in which we’re all free to make mistakes.

4.  A transfigured church is a church that moves on into God’s future.

The fact that we even have this story tells us one thing:  Peter, James and John did not stay up there on the mountain, seeking to make their “mountaintop experience” a permanent thing. 

Rather, they followed Jesus off the mountain.  They sought to move on, while taking the fruits of their experience with them as they sought to live their lives.  They chose to move on into God’s future.  God calls us, as well, to move on into God’s future, whatever that future might be.

This congregation will probably never be in a position where we have kids swinging from the rafters Sunday after Sunday.  Very few congregations are.  But that’s OK.  We can have a strong ministry with mature adults.  This may well be the future God leads us to.   (But let us also make sure that we provide good quality nurture both to the children and young people we can work with, and to the adults that they will become.)

In all ways, let us be open to the future to which God leads us.

A transfigured church is a church that moves on into God’s future.

And so …
  • A transfigured church is a church that embraces its history.
  • A transfigured church is a church that practices generosity.
  • A transfigured church is a church in which we’re all free to make mistakes.
  • A transfigured church is a church that moves on into God’s future
On the mountain, the disciples encountered God’s glory revealed in Jesus.  Despite the temptation to do so, they did not remain “stuck” in their experience of awe, but they were empowered to come down from the mountain to be God’s people in the midst of God’s world. 

So may it be for us.


A eucharistic hymn

Bread sustains our human bodies,
keeps our mortal flesh alive.
Sharing bread, we can empow’r our
global neighbours to survive.
Round your table, God, we gather
your new life to recognise.
Teach us always how to view your
world with eucharistic eyes.

Wine enables celebration,
calling us to jubilee,
changing eating into dining,
building close community.
Round your table, God, we gather
your new life to recognise.
Teach us always how to view your
world with eucharistic eyes.

Jesus calls us, as his people,
eucharistic folk to be:
sharing both the bread of struggle
and the wine of unity.
Round your table, God, we gather
your new life to recognise.
Teach us always how to view your
world with eucharistic eyes.

Copyright Ó Robert J. Faser, 2001 (Permission is granted to use this hymn during worship in a local congregation / worshipping group, provided that acknowledgement is made.)

Tunes:        Ode to Joy (TiS 152), Abbot’s Leigh (TiS 153)

In this eucharistic hymn, I begin with the everyday uses of bread and of wine as the starting-point for my reflection on the eucharist, noting that (at the holiest moment of our worship) the Christian church is a community of people who shares food.

For most of us, bread, as a staple food, is a sign of survival.  Sharing bread is a sign of sharing the basics of survival.  Sharing bread in the context of worship declares that we are a community that affirms an intimate connection between our worship of God and our sharing with our neighbour; whether the neighbours are nearby or far away.

For many of us, wine is associated with our times of celebration, and with the occasions in which we build community.  Sharing wine in the context of worship declares that we are a community that affirms an intimate connection between our worship of God and our life together.