A sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere, at St. Saviour's, St. Albans, 25th February 2001.
What have I got in my pockets?
We could have a guessing game, a sort of riddle competition like Bilbo Baggins has with Gollum in the Hobbit. Handkerchief? Coins? Pocket knife?
In this case it’s a matter of up my sleeve, a bit like a very amateur conjuror.
Not a rabbit, but an apple – no you wouldn’t have guessed, because normally I don’t go around with an apple in my pocket.
But here it is – an ordinary English supermarket apple, and I want you to look at it very carefully.
Because this might possibly be the most beautiful thing in the world.
In London at the moment there is an exhibition at the Royal Academy called the Genius of Rome, featuring paintings by Caravaggio and other painters who worked in Rome around 1600.
There are the many interesting things about Caravaggio, who lived a riotous life, got drunk all the time, got into fights and brawls, and finally murdered someone. Then he went on the run all over the Mediterranean, knocking off an altarpiece or two before he had to flee to the next place, and dying three days before the Pope’s pardon got to him. Along the way managed some spectacular paintings. He also invented the still life painting, that is: the painting of ordinary things by themselves. Up until Caravaggio, paintings had to be about something or someone – Hercules killing a monster, Jesus on the cross, a Pope in all his velvet glory. Caravaggio, almost by accident, painted a bowl of fruit by itself, and he saw that it was beautiful, and suddenly all the painters in Rome saw that a bowl of fruit could be beautiful too.
All by itself, without a goddess to hold it or a Latin tag to give it meaning, an apple was a lovely thing.
In the exhibition in London you will see lots of fruit painted by the Caravaggio’s fans and imitators. Grapes so purple and plump you want to reach out over the barrier and pluck one out of the canvas. and pop it into your mouth. Pears so firm you can hear the sound your knife would make when you cut off a slice, and so perfectly mottled green you can see the grainy ivory of the flesh. Apples, unlike this one, wizened into all the reds and golds of the sunset, smelling of old lofts and sunlight.
You don’t have to go to special exhibitions to see Caravaggio’s fruit. Any time you are in London you pop into the National Gallery and enjoy a few minutes of joy in front of his famous painting of the Supper at Emmaus – in the middle of which there is a similarly edible bowl of fruit.
Just by seeing fruit properly and painting it lovingly, the painter made us see beauty where no-one had seen it before.
But this apple, which is real, is just as beautiful as the painted version, but you wouldn’t usually go around the supermarket exclaiming at the veggie counter. You might get some funny looks.
We wouldn’t see that an apple was beautiful unless someone had helped us to see it that way. But once you’ve seen that it can be, you never really forget, and so it becomes part of the landscape of your life.
Seeing things as beautiful is part of being a Christian.
In today’s gospel we heard the story of the Transfiguration. Peter and John and James went up a mountain with Jesus, and just a for a short time, they saw the glory of God revealed in the person of Jesus. They might have known that he was a person in whom God was completely realised, but they hadn’t seen it before. You can be sure that they would never forget the experience. They would never look at Jesus the same way again.
But one of the interesting things about this experience for the disciples was that although it was deeply spiritual and fairly overwhelming, it was also quite homely. Peter liked being up on the mountain so much he thought it would be nice to stay there, putting up some little houses to keep the prophets comfortable. He wanted to bring ordinary life up to the mountain, with the transfigured Jesus.
But instead he had to take the transfiguration experience back down off the mountain top, back into life.
And that’s what Christians have to do. We are told about the glory and the love of God, every week we are told about it. And we sometimes, just sometimes, we see it and experience it – a moment when real life is transfigured in front of our eyes, and we can see the wonder of creation, and the lavishness of God. A moment when we experience genuine, selfish love, God’s love, through another person. A moment when someone’s face is transfused with grace.
Once seen never forgotten. It is our job as Christians to take those moments of experience - our special moment of revelation – back into our everyday life. It is our job to treat every conversation – chatting to the shopkeeper, technical discussions on which important decisions may rest, gossip over the coffee break, every conversation - and every act of every day – empting the dishwasher, sitting down to do homework or the accounts, feeding the cat – as transfiguration experiences.
As this apple is beautiful, so the woman next to me at work with her worries, is Jesus Christ.
He told us so - the good asked him: Lord when did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? And when did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you? And the Lord answered: In so far as you did this to the least of my brothers and sisters you did it to me.
The person next door is Jesus Christ, and the apple is beautiful.
Lent’s almost upon us, the time when people give up things like chocolate, alcohol, cigarettes, or biscuits. Funny how the things people choose to give up are usually fattening or expensive.
Now I’m not against giving things up, but I’m more interested in enjoying things properly. If giving things up makes you enjoy them more later, then that’s doubly good.
But here’s a different sort of Lenten exercise.
Take this apple – now just imagine you gave up apples for Lent.
No-one ever would, of course, because they’re healthy and cheap. But imagine that instead of giving up apples for Lent, every morning at breakfast time you took an apple from the bowl and looked at, saw it was lovely, and bit into it and really noticed how delicious it was, and thought about the wonderful goodness of God that we are surrounded with such grace. Even a humble apple participates in the love of God.
So instead of simply denying pleasures, try instead to enjoy them. If you cut down on wine, try sipping the single glass and relishing in it as if it were a sacrament, for indeed it is sacramental. Instead of cutting out chocolate, why not limit yourself to a little tiny amount and make sure you savour every last bit, thinking how wonderful it is. How good of God to give us chocolate!
That way you carry the sacrament of the transfigured and resurrected Christ into your life and the life of everyone you meet.
And you’d be amazed how nice it makes an apple taste!