Sunday, August 06, 2006

Fire Extinguishers and Tea-Trays.

My first sermon at a church I've been familiar with for years.
It's amazing how each church has a natural rhythm for preaching, and I don't think this one really fitted that rhythm too well. Still, it made the point I hope.

Sermon preached at Holy Trinity Church, Dartford on the Feast of the Transfiguration, Sunday 6th August 2006 based on St Luke ix.28-36.

The phone rings.

Professor Pangnosis
of the University Theology faculty
answers it to a warm invitation
from the physics faculty
to see the new experiment
conducted by Professor Dold.

"We think you will find this rather interesting."

Accepting the invitation gracefully,
Professor Pangnosis moves
from his comfortable wood-panelled room
covered in bookshelves
to the plexi-glass and white-walled
surroundings of the physics department
and its vague odour
of burning rubber.

He is shown into a large room
with a complicated mechanism
occupying the far wall.

Professor Dold shakes him eagerly by the hand
and shows him a seat
- not the comfortable armchair
that he’s used to,
but a grimy metal-and-fabric chair.

"Okay, Clarissa, are you ready?"
Professor Dold’s assistant,
gingerly climbs into the apparatus
and clings on to two handles.

Professor Dold
types something into the computer,
turns a dial and flips a switch,
and the machine suddenly comes to life.

As the Professors and other research folk watch,
the appearance of Clarissa’s face alters,
and her clothes become dazzling white.

Beside her,
two ghostly forms appear
in the same dazzling whiteness.

The whine of the machine changes pitch
and the motor starts to slow down.

The ghosts disappear
and Clarissa returns to normal.


"Well, Pangnosis,
you’ve seen that we’ve replicated
the Transfiguration of Christ in the Laboratory
and shown it to be a certain form
of St Elmo’s fire in which the subject
is reflected twice
producing those two ghosts,
rather like a bad
television picture.

I guess this explains it all away."

"Indeed," says Pangnosis,
"you have replicated
the transfiguration of a human being
in accordance with the description
in the Gospels.

The only things missing
are the cloud and the voice of God."

"Ah, well these are easily explained
as the low-lying thunderclouds
common to a mountain,
which would be necessary
to produce the St Elmo’s fire,"
says Dold,
"If you want,
we can easily replicate that
by setting off a couple of fire extinguishers,
and I’ll rattle a tea-tray for the thunder."

Professor Pangnosis sits silently a while.
"I have two questions,"
he says finally,
"My first is:
how do you know that the Transfiguration of
Christ happened exactly like this?


Professor Dold is irritated by Pangnosis' question.

"But don’t you see, Pangnosis?

We’ve explained that
the Transfiguration can occur quite naturally:
there is no longer any mystery
about how this was done."

"But it doesn’t answer my first question,
Professor Dold.

I certainly agree with you that,
according to St Luke,
you have replicated something extraordinary.

And St Luke is the perfect man
to use to build your device:
he is a scientist.

See how he writes the account scientifically
- all facts, no dressing up with drama
or unnecessary emotion.

Francis Ford Coppola would be throwing a fit
trying to direct this according to St Luke’s account.

But my question still stands.

How do you know that this is
precisely how the Transfiguration occurred?

Were you there when it happened?"

"I believe that it’s the most likely explanation," says Dold.

"Ah, then you don’t know for sure," says Pangnosis.

"This brings me on to my second question:
what’s the point of all this?

What have you got out of your experiment
that Peter, James and John haven’t?"


Professor Dold has missed
a vital part of the experiment.

Do you remember
that he did not fulfil all the elements
of the account of the Transfiguration?

If you remember,
he misses out the cloud
that descends and throws
Peter, James and John into a blind panic.

Although Professor Dold
dismisses the cloud,
he is actually dismissing
the big part of the situation.

What is the point of the Transfiguration?


Along with Peter and James and John,
we stand on the mountainside
and see something quite wonderful.

Jesus’ appearance changes,
Dazzling bright,
he’s met by Moses and Elijah.

The veil between this world,
the reality that we observe around us
and the universe that is usually
beyond our observation,
that veil becomes transparent
and both natures of Jesus,
the human and Divine
become visible at the same time.

Infinity breaks through into a finite world.

And then the cloud comes down
and takes it all away from us.

Does that bother you?

Most Modern Scientists look
to prove conclusively either way
whether God exists
without realising that getting close to God
necessarily means getting into the cloud.
Once in the cloud, we can see nothing.

Science is useless in the cloud
because all its instruments get fogged up
its RADAR snags
and its Infra-red gets clouded
and obscured
and so Science has to make guesses.

Of course,
in Science,
they are not called guesses,
they are called theories.

In America,
the Big Bang theory is in constant battle
with the idea that the world was created
on a dark October morning in 4004 BC.

Both are theories,
and indeed many of us believe
that the Big Bang theory is most plausible,
but unless we were standing next to God
when Creation began,
we cannot know for sure
whether either theory is true.

All that we Christians do know for sure
is that somehow
God created the heavens and the earth.

as Christians,
we seek something more nourishing
than explanations.

We seek God,
and to gain God is to gain love
and to gain love is to gain God.

St Paul reminds us that
"knowledge puffs up, love builds up."

What does this say
to people with doctorates?

What Professor Dold has is a machine
that can change a person’s appearance,
only offering a partial explanation
for what could have happened.

Peter, James and John,
in experiencing the Transfiguration
are left without any understanding
of what has actually happened,
but they have met more deeply with God.

Who has gained more from the Transfiguration?

Professor Dold, or the disciples?


If we truly wish to come close to God,
then we must come into the cloud
where we can be sure that
we will know nothing
save that the Lord is present in love.

If we are to receive
Communion with God in this Mass then,
as we walk up to the altar,
we too must be enveloped in that
cloud of unknowing.

Any liturgy,
or sermon,
or prayer
which offers us an understanding
of what is going on
can only take us further away
from the cloud,
and from a deeper experience
of God in our Eucharist.


We live in a world in which facts are important,
and in which Science seeks
further understanding of the Universe around us.

But Christians
believe in an existence beyond science,
beyond test-tubes,
and tea-trays.

We believe in a God
whose existence is unprovable.

if it were provable
by human means,
He wouldn’t really be God.

How much do you really want
to understand about God, anyway?

Will building a machine help you?

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