Sunday, 26 February 2017

Encounter & Transformation

First preached as a sermon on the Sunday before Lent 2017 at Guildford Cathedral.
Readings: Exodus 24.12-18;  2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9

‘”This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain’. (2 Peter 1.18)

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want to invite you to mountaineering with me. You don’t have to be supremely fit or nimble, and you won’t require oxygen. All you need is openness of heart to an encounter, and a readiness to go back down the mountain changed.

View of Guildford Cathedral from the south east
The first mountain, well, hill. Morning by morning I ascend Stag Hill and up here at its summit I meet the Lord in word and sacrament as I come to Morning Prayer and the Eucharist. I then descend the hill into the University bearing, I trust, the life and light of Jesus Christ. And in the evening I repeat the ascent and descent through the sublime worship of Evensong.

It may not be Mount Sinai, Mount Zion or the Mount of Transfiguration, but it is my place of ascent and encounter, one I share with you. This holy place is a place where we meet the Living God, where the Holy Spirit draws us Sunday by Sunday, day by day. In coming here we open ourselves afresh in word and sacrament to the transforming, igniting, inspiring possibilities of God.

The Bible is replete with times and places of encounter with God, and transformation through God, and more often than not, but not exclusively, they happen on high places.

The Transfiguration of Jesus as described in our gospel reading, our second mountain, is one such moment.

Icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ
Jesus takes with him three disciples - Peter, James and John – and is joined on the mountain by the figures of Moses and Elijah. Moses embodies the teaching and guidance of Torah and is the representative figure of the Exodus: liberation and freedom. Elijah encapsulates the prophetic tradition of the radical call to turn afresh to God.

In Jesus’ presence Moses and Elijah are recast as the pillars on which the people of the New Covenant will be shaped. Jesus is not another person amongst them but is the very presence of God, not superseding but shot through the first covenant which Moses and Elijah represent.

The transfiguration accounts of the three synoptic gospels, and testified to in the Second Letter of Peter, are emphatic that something quite decisive and remarkable happened on that mountain on that day. They ascended a mountain, encounter Jesus and through his transfiguration they are transformed themselves, ready to descend as new creations in Christ.

This rich and powerful moment of encounter and transformation on the mountain gives shape to all our encounters with God. It tells us that encountering God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is not a matter that can leave us indifferent. As St Paul writes, in a different context, ‘we shall all be changed!’ (1 Corinthians 15)

The transfiguration of Jesus conjures up an image of the surging vision of people streaming up our third mountain to God’s dwelling place as described by the prophet Isaiah, ‘Many peoples will say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’ (Isaiah 2.3).

The transfiguration also evokes the picture too of the water flowing down from our fourth mountain, the Temple Mount described by the prophet Ezekiel: surging water flows and meets the stagnant waters to transform them and make them fresh (Ezekiel 47.8). It shapes what the action of dismissal at the Eucharist is meant to be: as transformed people we go to be living water to a stagnant world.

Ascent and flowing down; encounter and transformation; God’s ways of life.

Christianity is a religion of enduring encounter and transformation. It is a religion of intensity and extensity, in other words intense moments of encounter that then spread out without being thinned down.

We call this sacramentality: intense moments when the divine presence breaks in. The pouring of water in baptism, the breaking of bread at the Eucharist, the words of absolution following confession,  the pledge of the husband and the wife, the soothing oil of gladness in anointing, the empowering Spirit given at confirmation and ordination: in all these intense moments God’s transformative grace breaks into human experience.

Churches and cathedrals are places of encounter with and transformation by God, and are themselves sacramental. That is at the heart of why this is a precious and holy place and not just a big brick hall.

The great Christian quest is to see the light of Christ breaking through in all places, all moments and all people. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit which is open to us all. In this light we see things afresh and differently; when we have seen the light of Christ shining out then our eyes focus in a new way.

If we will allow it – and God works with us, not against us - this transforms how we see the world and how we are seen in the world. It means we see the Kingdom of God in our midst and we are seen as signs of that Kingdom.

So what will a transfigured you or I look like now, and when we’re out and about in daily life? Perhaps to modify the words of St Benedict, we will be ‘striving to live by God’s commandments every day. Treasur[ing] chastity, harbour[ing] neither hatred not jealousy of anyone and do[ing] nothing out of envy… not seek[ing] to quarrel; shunning arrogance. Honouring the elderly and loving the young. [When having] a dispute with someone mak[ing] peace with them before the sun goes down. And never los[ing] hope in God’s mercy’ (RB 4). That’s not a bad application of being a Christian.

But it’s not just about us: this also about who Jesus Christ, our Saviour, is.

In the gospels Pilate declared ‘behold the man’ and the centurion declared, ‘truly this is God son’: both were right, because Jesus Christ in his body is truly human and truly God. The reading of the transfiguration gospel today tells us of what will be accomplished in Jerusalem in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Our journey to Easter takes us to see Jesus exalted on another hill; the hill of Golgotha. There, as St John Chrysostom said, ‘I see him crucified; I call him King’.

In a dying and dead man on the cross – flanked not by Moses and Elijah but by two criminals - we see the exalted glory of the God who loves us.

The season of Lent, of careful, prayerful preparation that we will begin on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, is a time of deepening encounter and transformation as we are exalted in the heights and walk the way of the cross. It is not too late to prepare for Lent!

As you prepare for Lent you can ask yourself two questions: how and where do I encounter Jesus Christ? What does my life transformed look like?

You have ascended the mountain of the Lord; you meet Christ in word and sacrament: then go from here and be bearers of his light and life.

‘”This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain’. (2 Peter 1.18)

© Andrew Bishop, 2017

Friday, 27 January 2017

How can life go on? Reflections for HMD 2017

Personal reflections following a first visit to Auschwitz in January 2017

Archbishop Justin Welby at Birkenau, January 2017
Two weeks ago I flew out of Cracow having been in Poland visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time. It was my first visit to Auschwitz and I was there as part of a group of Anglican clergy led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

That question: ‘how can life go on?’ is addressed to all humanity. The implications of the question are huge. How can life go on in the face of crimes against humanity, genocide and pernicious, virulent anti-Semitism? How can life go on after the Nazi’s brutal, systematic attempt at exterminating a whole people?

But I want briefly to give a very personal, rather unformed response in the wake of my visit to Auschwitz.

I have woken today with a heavy heart and, as I knelt to say my prayers this morning, tears that filled my eyes, just as when I was there, remembering that this day marks the ‘liberation’ of Auschwitz.

Those tears were prompted as I walked around Auschwitz 1 and the site of beatings, hangings, shootings, starvation, torture, gassing and sadistic brutality.

Those tears were prompted as I stood by the railway line at Auschwitz 2, Birkenau, where families - men, women and children - were separated and sent to die by gas or by hard labour, starvation or random acts of malice.

The railway at Birkenau and 'Death Gate'
I stood there considering what would happen if I and my family had been taken there: would I be judged fit to work? What of my fit, sporty 17 year son? Would he be assigned to the Sonderkommando to the work of removing bodies from the gas chamber and putting them in the crematorium, after extracting gold teeth and cutting off women’s hair? What of my skinny 14 year old son, the right age to be spared the gas but would he be judged strong enough? What of my 12 year old son, could he be passed off as 14 and thus not go straight to the gas chamber? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What of my 8 year old daughter? What of my wife? The chances they would live beyond their first day at Birkenau would be limited, and I would never see them again and not be able to say goodbye. How can life go on?

The entrance to Auschwitz 1 - 'Works Makes Free'
Images and thoughts assaulted me throughout my visit. I know others in my group were

struck by the same things as me: walking under the Arbeit Macht Frei gates; through the death gate at Birkenau; the close proximity of the Camp Kommandant’s house where he lived a normal family life next to his murderous day job and where he was hanged after the war because of his crimes.

And there were other images that will stay with me. Being January there was snow on the ground and the landscape looked beautiful and innocent as snow does. But the dissonance between the beauty of the snow and the sunsets over Birkenau with what happened there was acute.

I was astonished not to see any walls, but just thin strands of barbed wire meaning that the prisoners could see out and the locals see in. I was revolted, almost physically, to learn more about the programmatic degradation of human beings so that they felt disgusting to one another and to themselves. I simply stood in silence by the pits into which the ashes of the dead were dumped, and where they still remain. How can life go on?

But life did go on for some. And, thanks be to God, the Jewish people were not eradicated, but are here and contribute to the diversity of society and our world.

The liberation of Auschwitz came 72 years ago tomorrow.

What sort of liberation was it? Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s accounts as survivors of Auschwitz remind us that the liberation for them was not a joyous time for a party like VE Day 1945 here. Rather, it initially meant being force marched in appalling weather to other camps.

But following the end of the war and the uncovering of all that the Holocaust was, the question ‘how can life go on?’ is a haunting one. Perhaps after my visit my first response is that it does: life does go on.

One of the great contributions of the Jewish tradition to humanity is the priority of life. One of the great sayings of wisdom in the Jewish tradition, if not a direct quote from the Scriptures, is the toast ‘l’chaim’, which means, so I am reliably informed, ‘to life’ or ‘for life’.

Life goes on but never to be the same.

With the Archbishop and fellow clergy we reflected on deep and painful themes such as the Church’s relationship with God’s ancient people the Jews; deeply aware given where we were, of the inglorious part played by the Christian churches in fostering antisemitism in Europe over centuries and the almost total silence of the Church in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power.

How does life go on? It goes on in never letting the memory of Auschwitz fade or be denied. Life goes on in all the times we speak out about genocide, in all places where it happens. Life goes on in an uncertain world if we can name and expose anything which snuffs out life, or fosters hatred and death, for example, where people are identified in groups as somehow less than the ideal or norm, whether based on their faith, ethnicity, sexuality, gender or physical abilities.

Returning from Auschwitz my life does go on, but never to be the same again.

 © Andrew Bishop 2017

Thursday, 19 January 2017

What can be said? Reflections on Auschwitz

These reflections come following a visit to Auschwitz with the Archbishop of Canterbury and a group of fellow Anglican clergy earlier this month. On Thursday 26th January 2017 I will join with my Jewish colleague and others from around Surrey at the University of Surrey to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. I have been asked to speak at the event having so recently visited Auschwitz. What follows is my beginning to work through what it means to speak about something unspeakable. As Archbishop Justin Welby has said elsewhere, “I’ve come away with too much to write, and no words to write it.” 

But here are some initial thoughts of mine.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent' Ecclesiastes 3.7b

There is a profound silence at Auschwitz.[1] That silence emanates from the deathly hush of the gas chamber after people have been killed - murdered - and before their mortal remains are turned to dust and ashes in the ovens. 

It is said that the birds do not sing at Auschwitz. In my first visit there earlier this month I don't recall birdsong, but that may just have been me being unable to hear sounds of beauty and unrestrained joy in a place that represents the polar opposite of all that is good. What I do remember, whilst walking around Birkenau, was hearing the barking of a dog quite clearly. That bark pierced the freezing air as an inarticulate cry that spoke more deeply than I knew at the time.

The people who were killed at Auschwitz had not always been silent or silenced: they spoke, laughed, cried, had dreams, aspirations and hopes. They prayed: praise, lament, supplication and thanksgiving. They spoke eloquently and passionately; they gossiped and slandered. Some had not even learned how to speak beyond the primeval cry for their mother's breast. In short, they were human beings, ordinary and living their lives. 

The humanity of those killed, in all its ordinariness and prosaic detail, is the first thing that the Nazis sought to deny. Their strategy was one of, first, identification (the Nuremberg laws and the wearing of the yellow star), second, isolation (the ghetto) and, third, eradication (Auschwitz). They predicated all this on the less than humanness of the Jewish people, and because of that they had no right to speak, be heard, or to breathe. Human rights only apply to human beings.

Witnesses to the killing testify that those people who were killed at Auschwitz both sang psalms to God and screamed out in terror: they were not silent lambs led to the slaughter.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent'

Anything that one writes or says about Auschwitz has to be properly reticent. It can never be casual or cheap. Auschwitz demands that we pay attention to our silences and our speaking. It's not simply about the choice of words but whether or not we deploy words at all.

Why so? In the face the industrialised and systematised processing of death there is little that can be said that is not trite, hollow or over earnest. Anything we might seek to say about Auschwitz has to pass a high burden of authenticity.

In The Edge of Words Rowan Williams points out that choosing to keep silent can operate in more than one way.[2] Silence can be a way of honouring those people and situations about which we cannot properly speak. However the Nazi project was dependent on German society keeping silence about the violence and death at its heart: colleagues, neighbours and friends of Jewish people did not speak out. For every Oskar Schindler and Maximilian Kolbe there are countless stories of people betraying Jewish people and effectively condemning them to Auschwitz and all that that held.

Silence can also manipulate and betray. Not to speak out about Auschwitz, even 72 years since its 'liberation', is an abdication of responsibility. Failure to speak about, and speak out about, Auschwitz will mean a failure to speak out about pernicious anti-Semitism, crimes against humanity and genocide in our own times.

In the wake of Auschwitz we also need to guard against 'over speaking' that is, naming things evil that may be distasteful, so that when that which is truly evil is present it can be identified, isolated and defeated.

Auschwitz puts me, as someone who always wants to speak, or at least talk, in a difficult position. To speak means I might say too much or not enough, to remain silent, whilst honouring the dead, also can collude with the silence about their fate and what led and leads to it. All I can do is make that judgement in the hope that I speak well: if nothing more, Auschwitz makes me all the more aware of the power and 'edge' of words and silence. May Auschwitz, the place and the idea, never be forgotten or the memory of those who died there fall silent.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent'

I want to conclude with the words of Elie Weisel an Auschwitz survivor, the author of Night, with words from his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:

The world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and woman are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center [sic] of the universe.[3]

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

[1] When I am referring to Auschwitz, I am referring to both a place and an idea: the concentration camp and death camp - Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2, at Birkenau - and also using 'Auschwitz' as representing the whole Nazi eradication programme of God's ancient people, the Jews, intentional, brutal and evil as it was, and the others - amongst them Poles, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviets, catholic priests and religious - who were also murdered.
[2] Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), Especially on silence as a moral choice, 48-51.
[3] Elie Wiesel, trans. Marion Wiesel. Night. (London: Penguin Books. 2006), 118.