Image: Howard Finster, ‘Other worlds’ (1985).

‘The transfiguration of the given’

Andrew Collis
Epiphany 7, Year A
Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18; Psalm 119:33-40; Matthew 5:38-48

“You’ve heard the commandment … But I tell you … You have heard it said … But I tell you … [B]e perfect, as Abba God in heaven is perfect.” There is a movement in today’s gospel, a movement toward the perfection of godly love. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, which begins in blessing and ends in astonishment, we can hear these words as words of commission.

The movement toward godly love is something of which we are capable. We have this capacity for godly love, Jesus says – there is the possibility of conversion … in relationship, as a people, as a community of equals, a community of priests and poets …

The gospel, most fully, is gift and task … grace and nature, faith and good works, the adoration and imitation of Christ.

One way of thinking the gospel “gift” is to think first on what phenomenologists call the “given” – the given law or scripture, for example – and then the movement toward gift or grace – when the given is made new, made now.

What was merely given becomes (in us, for us) something more, something we no longer take for granted, something that stirs a song of thanks and praise, something that startles, something that saves and makes beautiful.

This is the gift … And the gift commissions – it sets for us a task, a work of love, a life-long project. Dignifying, uplifting, humanising.

The given means the basic reality, the bare fact of existence. There is a church in Waterloo. We are here. Each of us has come into the world by way of biology, genetics, geography, culture, politics. Each of us has a past we cannot change. Each of us has a temperament, a personality … and together we have a history, too. All this is given. The raw material. The world, too, might be viewed this way. It is just there. It just is.

Religion is interesting not least because religion is interested in the transfiguration of the given – the moment the given becomes the gift. And we can appreciate this on multiple levels, from the cosmic to the personal.

When we say that the universe – space, time, air, water, earth – is alive with the presence of God, we are saying that there is more to the universe than the mere fact of its existence. We are pointing to enchantment – or better, we are witnessing our own enchantment, our own place in the universe as priests and poets.

When we look into the eyes of a fellow creature, a neighbour, a friend, and see there the wonder of life and love – mystery as well as possibility – we witness to the beauty of life together – miracle is a word we might use.

How does conversion take place? How does the merely given become the gift?

In personal terms it seems to have something to do with acceptance and forgiveness. My past, my mistakes and gross misjudgements, may become a source of self-awareness, even wisdom and generosity … a gift of compassion for others … in a Spirit of acceptance and forgiveness. This might happen. Though it may entail much work.

A person tells of a traumatic childhood, and a decades-long course in reading and counselling. A most dependable person – vulnerable, self-aware, consistent. The raw data of a life transfigured or transformed into free responsibility, responsible freedom. The person is wary of using the word God to speak of this movement. The word God, for many, connotes crippling abuse of authority and trust – demeaning notions of service and humility.

How does conversion take place? How does the merely given become the gift?

In social or political terms it seems to have something to do with equality and respect. Our passage from Matthew 5 includes illustrations of confrontational equality and respect – respect for the other as well as self-respect. The verses are often read as promoting passivity or self-loathing – as though the only alternative to vengeance was collusion with a bully’s disrespect. Jesus commissions a deeper love.

Roman soldiers were permitted to press into service any citizen or subject for the distance of one mile. To go an extra mile, willingly, would seem a creative and/or disarming gesture. It’s the kind of response to brute authority that just might change perceptions.

Of course, it might not work … it might not be the most effective means of challenging the behaviour or attitude of your assailant or bully. Maybe, in your situation, it inspires some other kind of response.

The point is to accept the reality of the situation (the given circumstances) but look for means of transforming it – do what’s least expected, out of respect for yourself as a creative person, and, as well as you are able, out of respect for the person who, in this moment, mistreats you.

The response, whatever decision you make, will encourage responsible engagement. If it doesn’t foster respectful relations, stop and rethink what you’re doing. Get out of there, or seek the safety of a trustworthy friend.

The gift brings life and laughter, equality and respect. That’s true, whether we’re talking about a difficult situation or relationship, or changes to the layout of a worship space.

While it’s been some time since we made major changes to our worship space, even small changes/improvements can be significant.

Is this a space in which to better express the gift and task of the gospel? Is this a space in which to freely adore Christ and seriously imitate Christ? Might the pews and furniture items we’re given become gifts of hospitality and safety, accessibility and care? Can everybody see and hear comfortably (both in the sanctuary and via online interaction), can everybody gather at the table, is there room to move around, is there space for play, is there space for guests and strangers, is there every chance of meeting face to face, speaking heart to heart? … Is this a change for its own sake or a change for Christ’s sake – stronger community ties and accountability to God and each other?

How does conversion take place? How does the merely given become the gift?

The given, at any moment, may become the gift. In a Spirit of acceptance and forgiveness, the gift commissions. The gift brings life and laughter, equality and respect … Amen.