The Revd Margaret Legg
I thought I was going to die. The little Volkswagon in which I was a passenger careered off the road and rolled over and over, finally coming to a stop upside down. Shaken, but unscathed, the driver (a nun) and I managed to get out, roll the car back on to its wheels and continue our journey. An elephant, I remember, was standing in the distance, watching. We had been driving down to Rwanda and had been blown off course in the back draft of a large lorry speeding along in the opposite direction. I was spending a year as a VSO in Uganda.
I did lose my life that year, though, because the experience was life changing. It was a combination of many things:
I was, of course, home sick – I missed familiar surroundings and routine. The nature – the avocado tree outside my bedroom window (I had never tasted one and now I could pick them and eat them), the lioness and her cubs having a siesta in the middle of the road – we did a huge detour.
My housemates: an exceptionally warm hearted, buxom Afro-American girl and a beautiful, slender, blonde Danish girl and I remember what they got up to: the evenings around the fireside smoking- well, not cigarettes; the succession of handsome young locals who came to visit (not me!) Then there was the congregation at the local church. Every Sunday crowds came streaming out of the banana plantations, cheerful, animated, heading for morning worship. Poor by our standards, with really no prospect of advancement – in those far off days (the early 70’s) it was the Asians who ran the shops and banks and drove around in big Mercedes, while the native Ugandans walked. But the worship was something else: joyful, alive, buzzing with energy – I blame Uganda for my love of hymns like ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine', which I came across for the first time that year. So different from the rather staid and stiff services back at home.
I lost my life, in a way, because my sense of values changed. Particularly because I saw that people lived contentedly without things I had always taken for granted: plenty of material possessions, shops, cinemas, transport. What took on a new value were friends and family, good health, enough to eat and faith as a joy as well as a duty. It was a point of transition for me. These points crop up in our lives from time to time and Lent is a season to reflect on transition points we may be at in our lives.
The disciples in our Gospel today are at a transition point. Peter has just recognised Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus’ response is to go ‘off piste, off-message’! Jesus has re-interpreted Messiah-ship as a way of suffering and death – an unimaginable outcome - for the Messiah was understood to be the victor, not the victim, the winner not the loser. So Peter, like a modern day press officer, takes Jesus to one side to talk some sense into him. He gets very short shrift. Jesus challenges Peter and all the disciples to think the unthinkable, the death of the Messiah, and to think of it as a blessing, as life giving. Like Abraham, their trust and commitment to God is being stretched. If they follow faithfully, even though it means carrying with them what they really don’t want to take on board, even though it means denying what they have always understood to be life-giving, they will find it the way of the cross, the way of death, is, ultimately, the way of life; of empowerment not disempowerment.
It is at these transition points that we are most open to change in the direction of our lives, because we can feel particularly vulnerable and exposed, as I did in Uganda. And we have a choice. Either to view what is happening to us as a burden, a heavy cross to bear, or to embrace it as a blessing. Places of transition in our lives can be welcome: for instance the move from singleness to marriage, the first job, a new baby. They can be unwelcome too: like ill-health, loss of work, a breakdown in family relationships. It’s the unwelcome experiences, the ones in which we have to ‘deny’ ourselves, because it’s not what we would have chosen, that are the ones we have to welcome, to pick up and run with, if we would follow Jesus. And they are the very ones we would gladly do without, thank you very much! Yet we follow in the footsteps of one who brought life, in an unimagined way, through what was, to all intents and purposes, life destroying.
The lives of Malcom Rifkind and Ed Straw, the MP’s in the most recent ‘cash for access’ scandal are, I suggest, at transition points. Pillars of the establishment, they have been caught in a sting and their lives have irrevocably changed. Not, I think, in a way they would have chosen. And yet, they could find it is the path to saving their lives.
The first political scandal I remember was back in 1963. The first item on the 1pm Home Service news was the resignation of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, John Profumo over his liaison with the model Christine Keeler. His life of power and privilege disappeared. It was a point of transition for him. He began work as a volunteer with the East End charity Toynbee Hall, cleaning toilets, ending up as Chief Executive and receiving a CBE.
Whatever we are carrying in our lives just now, quite possibly things we do not welcome, circumstances not of our own choosing, Lent invites us to open ourselves to them so that we may come to see them as gateways into a new way of living. They may well not be what we would have chosen for ourselves, but that’s how things are.
As disciples of the one who re-interpreted Messiah-ship, for whom the way of death became the way of life, and trusting in him, they may not be disempowering. They may empower us, with a new and richer life.