Treating others as enemies goes against God

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ,
27th February 2022

Relations with neighbours aren’t always straight-forward. It’s great when you get on well with your neighbours, but I know some people whose neighbour is very difficult to get on with, and that must be hard to live with. My neighbours include one who tends to yell at us through the fence. It’s not easy to ignore her, so the best thing is to give her some attention, although even that’s not enough usually. When I say that she yells at us, it would be more accurate to say barks really, as she’s a dog. I’m referring to our neighbour’s dog, Lucy. The reason she barks at us is because De commenced neighbourly relations by giving her a dog treat through the fence, and so if Lucy sees we are around, she barks, hoping that a dog treat may be delivered through the fence.

Lucy could respond to us as a threat and be aggressive towards us, but by approaching the fence between us as an opportunity for something good, Lucy demonstrates a degree of spiritual intelligence. Spiritual intelligence is the ability to produce something life-enhancing out of the options available. For Lucy that means a dog treat. For us it means another friend.

There’s some spiritual insight from an encounter with a dog, part-way up a mountain (Mt Lofty). In today’s gospel, we hear of 3 of Jesus closest disciples gaining some spiritual insight from an encounter with God, at the top of a mountain. Although the insight didn’t fully click in at the time, hence, they kept it to themselves. Only later, in the light of Jesus’ death, did they really understand what it was about, which is because it was about the same thing.

When it comes to neighbours, the people of Ukraine are suffering greatly at the hand of their neighbour, Mr. Putin, whose spiritual intelligence seems to be much lower than our neighbour’s dog. There we are witnessing the antithesis of Jesus. Putin’s actions are what Jesus taught and died to undo and lead us away from. While we witness the horror of his actions, reasonably powerless as ordinary people to do anything about it, we can at least honour those who suffer, by noticing the impact of his actions upon people, and committing ourselves to not act that way ourselves – because what Putin is doing is what we all do, in some ways, although he’s doing it with much greater weapons.

Let’s turn to what happened on the mountain for Peter, James and John. Jesus prayed and then became dazzling white. It was a revelation of who he really was: God in all his glory. Then he’s joined by two prophets, who were considered spiritual giants. The gospel writer describes them as also appearing glory. Because of what the word for glory can mean in Greek, the gospel-writer is placing the truth about God in Jesus, and the truth about the two ancient prophets, at centre stage.

Then Peter suggests building a house for each of them. He wants to preserve them, make a container for them, something which will retain their significance. A bit like the replica of Captain Cook’s cottage in Sydney, where you can get a bit of insight into the man by seeing what sort of house he lived in. Perhaps down the track, the houses for Jesus, Moses and Elijah might become tourist attractions. But God interrupts Peter’s plan, kind of telling him to shut up and forget preserving them, and just listen to Jesus, because he is God’s chosen one.

Being ‘Chosen’ means being special, beloved. Like when a mother tells her daughter she’s the best daughter in the world, she’s not stating a fact, but conveying how much she loves her. It’s is an expression of unconditional love. It’s also a divine giant tick of approval for Jesus and all he stands for. God is saying to Peter, let go of Moses and Elijah, and instead pay attention to my love: what it is and where it’s to be found.

What this highlights, is that Peter has the wrong idea about God. He thinks that Moses and Elijah show us what God is like. But as we heard from St Paul, in our second reading this morning, Moses won’t give you a full revelation of God. He was close, but flawed, for example, when he received the second set of the Ten Commandments and came down from the mountain and to see his people worshipping a golden calf, he got the priests to kill them all. Not the right thing to do. Low spiritual intelligence. Similarly, Elijah, not only did he organise a competition with the prophets of Baal worshippers for who’s God was best, which showed low spiritual intelligence, but he had them all killed when he won the competition. Also, not the right thing to do. And then just to makes things clear for us, in Luke’s gospel, shortly after Jesus dazzled his disciples on the mountain, when people of a village weren’t receptive to Jesus’ message, two of those disciples, who should have learnt from their experience on the mountain, ask whether they should call down fire from heaven to consume the villagers (following the example of Elijah). Jesus’ response to them was along the lines of that now famous Australian saying ‘Not happy, Jan!!’. In other words, that sort of attitude, that sort of behaviour, is far from God.

God doesn’t even want a little plaque placed on the mountain to acknowledge Moses an Elijah’s presence on the mountain that day. Love is what matters. Only love. For that is what God wants, because that’s what God is. What is love? The experience on the mountain explains it more by saying what it isn’t: love is not being against others, not competing with them.

Loving others doesn’t mean avoiding conflict. I can understand Moses being angry when he’d climbed all the way up the mountain for a new set of Ten Commandments, only to find his people worshipping their own creation. And I can understand Elijah having a problem with a religion that practiced child sacrifice. Similarly, I can understand Putin having a problem with Ukraine joining NATO. Probably feeling as threatened as the USA was, when the Soviet Union tried to park missiles in Cuba.

Those are big problems, but we all have our own smaller versions of them, such as my cousin, who works in the area of land rights, once had his own ‘land rights’ issue concerning the fence between him and his neighbour. We all find ourselves in situations where we differ from others, even growing into conflict.

The spiritual intelligence on offer in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is to correct a wrong understanding of God. If we think God is in some way against those who differ to God, even those who are violent towards what is good, we are wrong. What we call God’s greatness, of God’s almightiness, doesn’t mean God gets what God wants. Instead, God’s greatness, God’s almightiness, is to love. If the ultimate authority over everything is like that, then there are no grounds for oppressing others, putting others down, or even belittling others.

The people of Ukraine are suffering. People in Russia are suffering too – those who don’t want war. In the suffering, especially of the people of Ukraine, God, who is being crucified again, is calling for this war to stop, but also, as for the last two thousand years, God has been calling for all of us to stop treating others as enemies, even if we’re in conflict with each other. There’s something we could give up for Lent.