“Chocolate, Change and Other Curious Parts of Our Faith?”
Matthew 17:1-9; Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook; Northwood United Church;
February 26, 2017
I suspect that I am no different than you in having a few non church-going friends. And they remind us of how truly odd our Christian faith might seem. Around this time of year, I regularly get questions like: ‘so what’s up with you Christians giving up chocolate for Lent?’ I sometimes even get questions from well-meaning people within our church ~ ‘Rev. Scott, do are we supposed to give up chocolate for Lent?’ People are wondering about the Lenten journey that lies ahead and this curious prescription to give up chocolate and other delightful delicacies that we might favour. As I get these type of questions each year, I inevitably find myself pulling out my DVD of the Miramax Film entitled “Chocolat”. This adaptation of Joanne Harris’s novel occurs in France towards the end of the 1950’s. The scene is set as the camera pans over the tranquil landscape while the narrator’s voice speaks these words:
“Once upon a time, there was a quiet little village in the French countryside, whose people believed in Tranquilité – Tranquility. If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things. And if you happened to forget, someone would help remind you. In this village, if you saw something you weren’t supposed to see, you learned to look the other way. If perchance your hopes had been disappointed, you learned never to ask for more. So through good times and bad, famine and feast, the villagers held fast to their traditions. Until, one winter day, a sly wind blew in from the North…”
Into this setting blows in the main character, Vianne Rocher – who is anything but traditional. She does not go to church; she has a daughter without a father present, and she has the nerve to open a chocolaterie right in the middle of the season of Lent! Vianne does nothing by the book. She does nothing out of obligation, but ~ as we learn ~ everything she does is done out of love. She comes to have a major influence on the main characters of the story. It is her encouragement that brings a woman out of her abusive marriage; that brings an elderly lady together with her grandson; that brings a widow of 30-some-years out of mourning and into a new relationship. The town is transformed by Vianne’s chocolaterie and Vianne’s grace. In one of my favourite scenes of the film, Père Henri ~ the village Priest, stands in the pulpit preparing to deliver his sermon. In a moment of fitting preparation for the season of Lent, he says:
“I’m not sure what the theme of my homily today ought to be. Do I want to speak of the miracle of Our Lord’s divine transformation? Not really, no. I don’t want to talk about His divinity. I’d rather talk about His humanity. I mean, you know, how He lived His life, here on Earth. His kindness, His tolerance… Listen, here’s what I think. I think that we can’t go around… measuring our goodness by what we don’t do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think… we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create… and who we include.
Now why, you ask, have I gone to great lengths to remind you of this film? Certainly most of us are considering our favourite movies as we come to the weekend of the Oscars. But, for me, it is something much more. For me, this film reflects this Sunday’s gospel reading – as a result of being around Vianne’s transforming presence, everyone is changed ~ liberation from abuse, re-establishment of familial relations, a new love in one’s senior years. There is a tremendous parallel to Vianne’s way transforming the lives of others to our faith story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top which forever changed the lives of the disciples. I would suggest that the story of the transfiguration from Matthew is not an easy one to approach. The point I would like for us to consider as we consider the transfiguration this morning is that it is about change. The foundational message on Transfiguration Sunday is that God wants to irrevocably transform, alter, and forever change how we ‘see’. And for God’s Kin-dom to arrive, this change will not occur in some minimalist way. Our vision will be transfigured.
Jesus’ transfiguration, of course, flows back to an earlier ‘transfiguration’-type story of Moses descending Mt. Sinai with the 10 commandments in his hands. In the Jewish tradition, of course, God was not seen; God’s name was not uttered. The concept of Moses seeing and speaking with God was beyond the people’s very comprehension. Yet Moses was that one man who could speak with God and deliver God’s laws for the people to follow. And, as Moses walked down the mountain with the two stone tablets etched with the Ten Commandments. And as Moses descended the mountain, the people knew there was something special about him. The skin of his face shone as it had never shone before. They knew that he had been talking with God; they knew that he was bearing God’s message; they knew that he was bearing God’s love; they knew he was enlightening them to God’s way. They knew that God’s light had been passed on to Moses. As I developed over the four week focus on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that just concluded last week, Matthew goes to great lengths to show Jesus as somehow being the ‘new Moses’ for his followers. And just like Moses, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is set on a mountain top. Jesus had been speaking with God in prayer. There are differences, though. This time, the followers are a little more bold. This time Jesus’ disciples follow him up the mountain and spy on Jesus as he prays. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become a dazzling white. And the light is revealed. For beside Jesus they see – Moses (the giver of the Law) and Elijah (one of the prophets who spoke God’s word). In the Moses’ story, Moses is transfigured and God’s light shines revealing the Law and God’s Way. In Jesus’ story, Jesus is transfigured and God’s light reveals the incarnation of God’s love who walks among them.
Now here is the question…what would have happened if the disciples did not follow Jesus up to the top of the mountain. What if they did not spy on him praying? What if they did not witness Jesus’ overflowing in light ~ transfigured in light? What would have happened? Jesus’ disciples would never have discovered who HE was! And they never would have discovered who THEY were! And that I would suggest…is the very point of placing transfiguration right before the season of Lent which commences on Wednesday. This Sunday is a deep call for us to consider how it is that we will, ever so sneakily, follow Jesus up the mountain. It is a call for us to spy in on Jesus praying. It is a call for us to bask in the light of Jesus and be forever changed. The individual question for each of us is what will that look like in our individual contexts? How will you prepare yourself to be changed? We are just about to enter a season which was all about preparing the hearts and minds of Jesus’ followers to be changed. The question becomes: how will you enter that season? What will make it deep and meaningful?
So… getting back to the question of should we give up chocolate for Lent? Well…maybe. Certainly give it up if it helps you live a little more simply, a little more unencumbered so that you can be touched by the glory of God. I once heard someone tell me how they looked forward to lent, to giving up chocolate and shedding a few pounds. Oh, how they missed the point of this spiritual discipline. Will giving up chocolate or coffee or any particular thing transform your faith? Only you know the answer. What I would suggest that we MUST give up for Lent is our unwillingness to be transformed by God, our unwillingness to change, our unwillingness to be see freshly in God’s light. We must give up any illusion that we are self-made, whole and complete individuals. We must remember that we are ‘a work in progress’.
When people ask me what they should give up during lent, the answer I always give them is TIME. Chocolate?... Coffee? …Wine?...Those are easy to give up, in my experience of seeing people go through Lent. But, to give up your time ~ time is one of the most precious commodities of our day. And to give up time that you might have spent in other areas ~ and to spend a disciplined amount of time each day with God in prayer, in meditation, in reflection is one of the most transformative things you can possible do in your spiritual life. One way you might spend your time is in scripture reading. In this morning’s bulletin, I have laid out a daily gospel reading that is designed to take you throughout the days of Lent. What if you took a few minutes each day and invited Jesus into your life? You would be transfigured ~ you would be changed ~ you would never be the same when you reach Easter! I promise. You might have noticed that I will be leading a Mindfulness Meditation series throughout Lent. Each week we will gather and learn more about, and actually practice meditation. And each day through the week, participants will be invited to spend time practicing their meditation. In his book The Weight of Glory, CS Lewis wrote: “we live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship”. Daily meditation will transform your life! I promise. I know people who take ‘prayer walks’ each day ~ intentionally focussing on finding God in that walk: being surprised to find God in a bud on a tree, a smiling stranger, or a raindrop hanging on a leaf. I know of people who have turned their morning commute into a spiritual time with various apps for their phones. There are so many ways in which we might ‘do’ Lent ~ that we might follow Jesus up the mountain and prepare ourselves for the transfiguration. The important thing to do is to find the one that works for you. If the Bible reading sheet or the meditation course don’t work for you and you aren’t sure what to do, I would be happy to sit down with you and help you find something that will work.
As we come to the end of our reflection time, I think it is important to be clear in answering that question of what would have happened if the disciples had not followed Jesus up the mountain and witnessed the transfiguration. If the disciples didn’t make the effort to follow Jesus up that mountain peak they would not have witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. If the disciples hadn’t made that trek, they would not have witnessed the divine light. If the disciples didn’t go up the mountain, they never would have been changed.
Chocolate, change and other curious parts of our faith…The mountain lies in front of each of us. How you will you follow Jesus up the mountain and prepare to be forever changed?