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On Visions and Relativity

Transfiguration: 6th August, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps 97; 2 Pet 1:16-19; Matt 17:1-9

My father is a physicist; a retired crystallographer to be more specific. As well as the classic children's stories at bedtime, my father would tell me stories from his world of experimentation and discovery. One of these amazing stories is the Michelson-Morley experiment. Among physicists it is known as the most famous failed experiment ever. It took place in 1887, some 40 years after our church here was dedicated. Albert Michelson and Edward Morley were working at what is now known as Case Western University in Ohio, USA; they were testing a hypothesis concerning the way light travels through space.

We all know and experience the fact that energy travels in waves through water; a walk on the beach will tell us that. Sound waves travel in a similar way; you see a lightening flash, and then hear the sound of thunder seconds later as the sound waves travel towards you at around 1,225 km/h.

Michelson and Morley were testing a hypothesis that light waves travel through space in a similar way. Rather than water or air, it was thought that light travels through a medium known as the 'luminiferous aether'. It was argued that this substance fills the universe, and so enables light to travel through the vacuum of space.

Their experiment was an attempt to measure differences in the speed of light between an observer moving in the direction of the light's emission and one moving away. In theory there should have been a slight difference between the speed of light measured when approaching the light source, and the speed of light when going away from it. In fact there was no measurable difference. Michelson and Morley, and many others after them who repeated the experiment, managed to improve the accuracy and precision of the measurements - but the result was always the same. This made no sense. It seemed to run counter to the most basic laws of Newtonian physics.

A few decades later a young professor at the University of Berlin turned his mind to the problem. Albert Einstein decided not to try and improve the measurements, but rather to take this observation as a fact. If this is the way that light is, what does that tell us about the universe?

In 1920 he famously published his results, "Relativity: The Special and General Theory." It was a moment in physics as revolutionary as the apple falling on Newton's head. Einstein had made a paradigm shift. As he conducted experiments and thought long and hard, he came to see the universe in a completely different way than it had ever been seen before.

The readings this morning tell the story of two spiritual paradigm-shifts. The book of Daniel is a work of faith-fiction, an early religious novel if you like, designed to evoke faith and hope in the reader. It was probably written in the second century BC, but is set four centuries earlier when the Jewish people were in Babylonian exile. The Book is full of stories of deliverance, such as Shadrach, Meschach and Aben-nego being miraculously saved from the fiery furnace, and Daniel himself surviving the lion's den.

As well as being miraculously saved from persecution and certain death, Daniel is a visionary. Through dreams and visions, he sees things that others cannot see. Daniel is a Jew in exile, he is living in a culture that does not acknowledge the God he believes in. It is an oppressive culture that persecutes those who are different, and yet in his dreams and visions he sees a different reality, a different truth.

In his vision, it is Daniel's God who reigns, not the mighty Babylonian Emperor. The God of the Jews is much more powerful than any earthly ruler; he sits on a fiery throne, dressed in brilliant white, served by ten thousand times ten thousand worshippers. It is a very different reality from day-to-day Jewish exile in Babylon; but it is true; it is a vision of reality for those with faith.

Similarly, when Peter, James and John accompany Jesus up the mountain to pray, they experience a vision. Jesus himself is transformed into the enthroned 'Ancient One' of Daniel's narrative. As he sits there praying, his face is transfigured and his clothes become dazzling white. The ancient prophets suddenly appear and talk with him. There are clear, and very intentional parallels that Matthew draws here — Jesus is the deliverer, the Ancient One. Like Moses and Elijah, like Daniel, Jesus brings hope and salvation to the down trodden and oppressed. We are drawn into the narrative, and challenged to make the same paradigm shift ourselves. Jesus is more than just a good man of history; he is transfigured before our very eyes, and God speaks to us from the heavens: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

The challenge of these scriptures, for each of us here today, is to be like the young Albert Einstein. The evidence is in front of our eyes. Countless others before us have conducted the experiment, and written it up. We can read about their experience in our scriptures and works of theology. It might not always make sense to us, but it is true, it is reality. The Biblical scholar Marcus Borg sums it up beautifully: "I know that God is real. On a good day I can see that God is more real than I am" (from the course Living the Questions). Our task is to make the paradigm shift, to explore this spiritual reality, and to write our own theories of relativity, in our lives.

Yesterday our church was full, as Andrew and Rhys and the chamber orchestra and the soloists and the choir took us into that place of vision and spiritual truth. As they performed Fauré's Requiem I shed a tear for my sister who died 20 years ago, and was then lifted into an assurance of God's love and grace "In Paradisium":

May the Angels lead you into paradise:
may the martyrs receive you at your coming,
and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.
May the choir of Angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor,
may you have everlasting rest.

This morning before Mass a number of parishioners were volunteering at the Lazarus Centre, serving breakfast to those who are homeless, as they do each week. It is another expression of the reality of God's love at work in the world.

On this transfiguration Sunday, I encourage you to be open to the transforming presence of God that is at work among us. It sometimes comes in powerful dreams and visions, but more often than not it comes through the everyday experiences of life and faith. May we all catch a glimpse this day of the Spirit of love, hope and forgiveness that is at work in the world.

The Lord be with you ...


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