Posted by: owizblog | February 15, 2015

Sermon: Eggs Benedict and Transfiguration 15 February 2015

Change. That’s what the reading we just heard, about Elisha receiving the mantle from Elijah, and having to go on without his mentor into the future, is all about. Change can be exhilarating – and is always very scary. I was perhaps particularly receptive to thoughts such as this, this week.

I passed one of those stage-of-life moments last week, when it was reported to me that someone who knew me years ago had actually said, when my name was mentioned “Owain Jones – is he still alive?” When you reach this stage of life, it’s important that you seize life’s opportunities, and don’t pass up its experiences.

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I’d long heard of Eggs Benedict, usually in American television programmes, and a couple of years ago I passed a restaurant in Carlisle which offered them on its breakfast menu – but didn’t go in, and had regretted it. I thought I’d had Eggs Benedict last year in Edinburgh, but gourmet friends when, as you do, I posted a photo of my breakfast on Facebook, assured me that what I was offered was not the real thing. So I had an agenda for the next time I visited Carlisle.

As you know, I was down in Wales last week, visiting my father. We set off for home on Monday morning, and broke the journey, as planned, in Carlisle. After all, when people start expressing astonishment that you’re still alive, it’s important not to push it…

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I’ve always loved Carlisle Cathedral, to visit, and to worship. We got to the Travelodge about four, and after a wander around the town, we set off for Choral Evensong.

We arrived at the great church at dusk.

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It’s a fascinating building. Originally in the shape of the cross, with a very long nave, it was reduced to just the choir and the remains of the transepts – but it’s a very long choir, and the ceiling is a magnificent night-sky blue with gilt details.

The nave was dimly, atmospherically lit. In came the choir – and it was the Junior Choir, in the cathedral’s lovely green cassocks, with some of the lay clerks. The music was marvellous, and conduced to worship in the way that Anglican Sung Evensong does uniquely. The prayers were led with simplicity and directness by the two female officiants. The organist was wonderful, and finished with a piece I couldn’t recognize, which turned out to be one of Brahms’s only three full-scale works for organ, his Prelude and Fugue in Ab minor.

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There were only eight of us in the congregation. But the whole point of cathedral worship is that there, at the heart of the community of the city and its surroundings, this worship is offered to God in a great round of praise, day after day, evening after evening. It’s hard not to feel a connection with the centuries, with the very rhythms of the universe, with the worship of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven and all the Great Church through the world.

And then we left, and went off to find our tea.

The last time we’d stayed in Carlisle, we’d eaten at a really good Italian restaurant. It had been September, and the temperature was dropping, but we’d sat defiantly outside at a table, and watched the traffic go by.

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Opposite the restaurant had been a handsome church, a United Reformed Church, in fact, and we’d watched people come and go to something that was happening inside it.

But it’s not a church now. It’s an antique dealer’s.

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I felt a pang of something as I contemplated that. In the cathedral a small congregation and a magnificent musical establishment had kept the worshipping round going, unbroken, a link in a chain intact from past to future. Here, the chain was broken, this link snapped.

We went in for our meal. Which was excellent, by the way.

I was up early the following morning.

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And I had remembered my mission! Carolyn didn’t want breakfast, so I set off on an early morning walk to see if I could find the restaurant I remembered.

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The city was beginning to come to life. I wandered down further than I remembered the place being, and concluded that it was closed. But I did notice something across the road.

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A church! In a shop. I had no idea what sort of church, beyond that they were there, they were clearly looking to attract the community’s attention, and they literally had the Gospel in their window. A church building had closed, and turned into an antique shop, but here, a congregation seemed to have turned a shop into a church.

They have a website, and from that I learned that their roots go back to 1895, and that they “get together: To worship God in a meaningful and relevant way; To care for and encourage each other; To help our world discover and know God.” But presumably if I’d been about on a Sunday, rather than at 7.26 on a dreich Monday morning, I could have discovered that by walking into the shop, just as I’d walked into the cathedral, seen them set out their stall, and been a part of it.

I walked on, up the wonderfully named Botchergate, towards the city centre.There was what looked to be a reasonably swish cinema.

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There was this block of premises to let – which, when I think about it, might have been the place that had offered Eggs Benedict in 2012.

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There was this Indian Restaurant, which might have tempted us the previous evening, but which would hardly be the place to look for Eggs Benedict for breakfast…

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…and then, I realized that I was passing this.

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Some sort of church. In a very new, shared building, was something that was some sort of church, a very different one, I would guess, from the shopfront church down the road. If the buildings were getting swisher and glitzier as I neared the city centre, then this was a church that must feel at home in this swishness and glitz, must feel that some people respond to, need to be ministered to, in a swish, glitzy building. I have no idea what sort of congregation meets here; what sort of experience worship is in this setting, how it compares with the cathedral or the Hebron Evangelical Church. But here is the church, in yet another setting. Or is it?

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It turns out that The Church is actually the name of a nightclub. It’s only been open since the turn of the year, and it’s been very controversial in that time. A local clergyman has attacked it as insulting to Christianity; the owner has insisted that he never meant to offend, and that his nightclub only uses the name because it’s of a piece with his club’s chic and trendy image. And that’s something I find interesting. It’s nice to think of us, the Church, being associated in culture with a trendy image!

I didn’t know this when there I was, on a wintry February morning, imagining a church at the back of a nightclub in Carlisle. And why not? The city centre churches in Edinburgh collaborated in an experiment in nightclub-style worship a few years ago, and whether it appeals to you and me or not, it spoke the Gospel to many, many twentysomethings and thirtysomethings.

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On I went, up the Botchergate, towards the city centre, hrough the magnificent Citadel, keeking up a sidestreet to see a large neo-Gothic church keeking back at me – what everyone expects a church to be. I nearly missed it.

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I didn’t miss this! The Methodist Central Hall.

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And as soon as I saw it, I realized what the blue plaque low in the centre of the façade would commemorate:

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That John Wesley got everywhere! “John Wesley… preached in the Fisher Street Chapel 1788 and 1790.” And I recalled the pride with which Girvan Methodists recalled Wesley’s visit there. And then I recalled all the chapels on Bute, commemorating the arrival, the presence, of those who brought the Gospel here. The Church gathered around its own history in the place, the interpenetration of faith and community, faith and landscape. You could knock down the Methodist Central Hall, and John Wesley’s visits here would still be part of the story on which the present, and the Church of the present, drew.

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I was getting hungry by now, and it was nearly eight. If I could find a breakfast eatery, it would surely now be open. I swung round the corner and, beholding two tall towers, of nineteenth and twenty-first century civic life and pride, thought of the centuries in which, had you seen a tower, or a spire, it could only have belonged to a church. The place of the Church in the life of towns and cities has changed enormously. But we are still here. We still have our place.

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I’d seen this church before, too. The Minister of this congregation in the early nineteenth century had a daughter. She emigrated to the United States, and her son became President. This was – and still is – a Congregational Church, although Woodrow Wilson was a Presbyterian. Here’s the plaque to commemorate his returning here on his “Pilgrimage of the Heart” in 1918.

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Oddly, the plaque doesn’t mention his mother’s name at all, although it gives pride of place to those of her ministerial father and her presidential son. Once again, as so often, the women are just there, taken for granted, with none of the recognition they deserve. It’s also odd that when President Wilson came to the building in 1918, he wasn’t coming to the right place at all. As the plaque says, the congregation he was Minister of worshipped elsewhere, in Annetwell Street, at that time. Only later was this their building. The President would have benefitted from knowing that hymn we sing occasionally: “The church is not a building,the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.”

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And that’s something I was thinking as I headed back to the Botchergate, to the William Rufus, a Wetherspoon hostelry I’d spotted earlier, advertising breakfast from 8. Yes, they were open. And yes, they were serving Eggs Benedict, at a very reasonable £4.19 including a bottomless mug of filter coffee.

I had much to think about as I tucked in, much of it summed up in the words of our next hymn, which is indeed “I am the church! You are the church!”

But first, our Epistle reading.

[Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6]

[Hymn: CH4:204 I am the Church]

[Reading: Mark 9:2-9]

[Slide: Raphael: Transfiguration]

The story of the Transfiguration is the story of the vision of things the way they really are, given to strengthen the disciples, who have just heard what has to happen. In an instant, they’ve gone from the growing sense of marvel and wonder, at the impact of this Jesus, from the very pinnacle of Peter’s affirmation, when Jesus asks “Who do you say I am?” – “You are the Christ, Son of the Living God!” – down into a pit of despair, full of the faith-corroding acids of cold reality. It’s going to be difficult. Difficult to the point where what gives your living, your believing, their coherence is stripped away from you. There will be grief and loss, says Jesus. You will lose me, and have to grieve for me. He tells them of what he has never mentioned before: Jerusalem, Calvary, crucifixion, death. There’s more, too, but they can’t hear that, can’t cope with it yet. Easter will have to be by before that will make any kind of sense to them. All they hear is loss, death, letting go.

And then comes the Transfiguration. A vision of how things really are, beneath and beyond how they really are, if you follow me. The growing influence, and fame of Jesus as they went around with him, as people came to hear him, to encounter him, and came again in their thousands, seemed to them to be what it was all about. It was on that basis that Peter said “You are the Christ…”

But it isn’t what it’s all about. It won’t last. It will fade. Holy Week will come, people will drift away, then flee, or turn on him. This isn’t what it’s all about. And then comes Friday. And then comes Sunday.

We are so like the disciples. Indeed, in the twenty-first century, that’s who we are. We measure things by our criteria of success. By worldly, societal notions of influence, importance, power. We all do. I do!
That’s why I was so disheartened, last Monday, to see that that handsome United Reformed Church building had become an antique dealer’s… I was mourning a death. As, indeed, I had been as we drove down to Aberystwyth through North and Mid-Wales, and I passed now-derelict chapels, Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist, where once I had preached.

My Eggs Benedict did me the world of good. As I wandered Carlisle in search of them, I passed all sorts of evidence that the Church is there, in the world. That Christ is there, worshipped, witnessed to, worked for as his disciples seek ways of serving others, of sharing their lives, of being with them in their realities.

But it was Evensong at the Cathedral, at the end of the Lord’s Day, that had opened my eyes to see what was there on Monday morning. The ancient presence in the Holy Place, which is the ever-new presence in the life of the world. The Mount of Transfiguration, the facing of life and all it brings, which can be done in Christ, because Christ is there, and will be there, and calls us to the courageous faith that insists on being there, where life is lived.

We need to have our eyes opened. We need to see what is really there, which means looking unswervingly at the world the way it is – something it’s hard not to do, on a dreich February wander through the streets of real life. But then, we need to see what’s really there. Christ is really there. And in him, everything is transfigured. ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.’ Paul says this to people immersed in the street life of Corinth. It became very real to me on the chilly early-morning streets of Carlisle. Our job, together, is to find and witness to, the light of Christ in the streets and among the buildings of Rothesay, and the Port, and the Bay, and all over Bute.

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