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All Saints Putney - Sermon for the Transfiguration - Eve's Commonplace
All Saints Putney - Sermon for the Transfiguration

It’s Shrove Tuesday next week, so I thought before your minds start to wander I’d let you in to a quick secret about my husband’s pancakes. He’s very keen on American-style pancakes and, given how difficult it is to make them here, he has hit on a rather fabulous plan, which is to combine the principles of French toast with pancake-making. What you do is you cut the crusts off, soak the bread in pancake batter, and fry it for a while. And hey presto – brilliantly fat cakey pancakes! They are yummy. OK, let’s talk about this Gospel reading, and why on earth Nick has asked me here to preach today. You’ll notice that both me and this gospel reading are cunningly positioned on the last Sunday before Lent. Nick may have told you that I am a lecturer in leadership at Ashridge Business School, where I specialise in public leadership and ethics. This makes me somewhat of an improvement junkie, and I am passionate about helping people to become the best they can be. This means I am very keen on Lent, because every year it offers us a chance to try again after the failure of all our New Year Resolutions. What I want to do is spend my 10 minutes talking about Lent and tabernacles, and how you can use the few days’ grace before Ash Wednesday to develop your Lenten Action Plan. Let’s first talk about the lovely Peter and his tabernacles. In this reading he reminds me so much of our own clumsiness, with his fumbling offer of commemoration on the mountain. When Peter saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah he wanted to pin down the experience, to capture the spiritual moment to preserve it for ever. (You’ll be pleased to know he’s had the last laugh, because the Church he founded has now built a fabulous chapel on the site of the Transfiguration, with side chapels for Moses and Elijah). Both this and our own Lenten instincts are really about externalising things. What Peter experienced was so enormous that building tabernacles seemed the only way to cope with it. The whole notion of trying to use Lent to become holy is equally so enormous we respond by giving up puddings. Had Peter been allowed to start building all those years ago, he’d probably have erected his three tabernacles in short order. And if you’re anything like me and frightfully efficient, you probably think the best way to approach Lent is to turn it into a job in a similar way: avoiding booze or chocolate, or reading your Lent book every night. This is extremely cunning as a plan, because you can act busy and measure your success rather precisely. Either you succeed or you fail, and you can eat your Easter egg with just the right amount of guilt or smugness accordingly. So, given it will take me more than a few days to give up my addiction to action plans, how does one get holy anyway? Luckily, for a girl from a business school, we have a guru. St John Climacus (aka John of the Ladder). If you’ve heard of him you deserve extra communion wine. I first came across him when I studied theology at Durham. The extraordinary George Dragas, a Greek Orthodox priest with an inevitable entourage, would sweep into the lecture hall and mutter at us about a cast of equally extraordinary Desert Fathers. I remember rather more about their preoccupation with visions of feisty women than I do about their theology, but I do remember St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent. Written around 600AD, it’s not the 7 Habits but it is the 30 Steps, one for each year of Jesus’ age at the start of his ministry. Like any business school lecturer worth their salt, I have reduced these 30 steps to 3, to help you structure your own ladder through Lent. The first step is about breaking with the world. St John was writing for monks, and this seems at first to be a bit irrelevant to Putneyans. But the point about breaking with the world is to be able to get it into perspective, and to rise above it. This is the first challenge, and I think the best way for us to effect this without donning camel hair and rushing off to the nearest desert is through prayer. My vicar in Scotland used to tell us that prayer was ‘The practice of the presence of God.’ By hanging out with God in our prayer life we are able to re-calibrate what is truly important. This Lent, I would encourage you to commit to closing each day with prayer, so that you fall asleep in God’s presence. The second step is about virtues. This middle step in our ladder accounts for 23 rungs in St John’s, so it is at the heart of our climb. This is what Keats would call the vale of soul-making – how we use every day to make decisions for God and not against him. And this is where ditching pizza can have a place. Giving up treats makes us more aware of our appetites and more able to notice the decisions we make about them, but giving up a vice needs to be balanced with taking up a virtue. However, if you’re anything like me, I want instant holiness. I want to be good at Latin and the harp, but I want Keanu Reeves Matrix-style downloads, not those boring conjugations and scales. St John is reassuring on this point, about taking it gently, but being persistent. Like Jacob and the angel, it is by wrestling with ourselves that we find God. And like the pearl in an oyster, it is the wrestling that gives us our character, transforming the grit into something precious. So start small and build up. Take baby steps, like smiling at rude people or counting to 10 when you’re stuck in a call centre queue. Relish the struggle, for it reminds you of who you really are. At Ashridge, one of my favourite articles about leadership is an article by Goffee and Jones entitled: Why should anyone be led by you? They have a most encouraging solution. Be yourself. More. With skill. You are made in God’s image, and practice makes perfect. The third step is about stillness, right at the top of the ladder, next to God. You’ll remember that before Elijah takes off in the reading we heard today he meets God on the mountain. Not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the stillness, where he hears God’s whisper. This takes us full circle back to prayer, having been sanctified meanwhile by our practice of the virtues. It is also less about talking to God than about listening to God, and being in silent communion with him. It is about letting go and about the dissolution of the ego. This is so hard that few monks are said ever to have made it. You could tell which ones had, because their faces were transfigured so that they shone like the sun. But even St John himself was pleasingly human. While on the one hand he was so impressive that even Moses apparently showed up to dinner once, he was also a great sulker. Tradition has it that he attracted so many visitors he was accused of being a gossip and a chatterbox. In retaliation he refused to speak for a whole year until his accusers begged him to start talking again. So take heart – even the professionals miss the odd rung, but stilling yourself on occasion throughout Lent will leave chinks of light for grace to slip through and bathe you in love. So, our ladder has three rungs: prayer, practice and stillness. But back to Peter and his tabernacles. The only memorial God wants is you. The choir will know of a lovely anthem that sums this up beautifully, by William Harris:


Behold the tabernacle of God is with men,
And the Spirit of God dwelleth within you:
For the temple of God is holy,
Which temple ye are.


So, prayer, practice and stillness. Your ladder for Lent, and I look forward to hearing from Nick about your shining faces on Easter morning.


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From: (Anonymous) Date: April 13th, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC) (Link)

Looking forward to make a contribution

Hey - I am really happy to find this. Good job!
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