Sunday, May 01, 2016

'We wish to see Jesus'

A sermon for the eve of St Philip and St James

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”.  Perhaps that is the reason that we are here tonight.  We want to see Jesus.  There is no better reason for coming to church than wanting to encounter Jesus.  And here in the readings from Scripture, in the silence, in the music, in the prayers, in the architecture, in one another, perhaps even in the sermon, there are opportunities and pointers to help us to see Jesus.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. This is why we gather for worship.

But it is not just here that we see Jesus.  It is not just in church or during acts of worship that we can encounter our risen Lord.  We encounter Jesus throughout our lives, in the people, places and moments that make up our days.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, ‘I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand’.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Not just tonight, but each day.  The Christian life is one of meeting Jesus day by day and walking with him.

Perhaps it might help to look back on the last seven days and try to recall where and when we saw Jesus.  Were there moments when your heart sang with recognition?  Where there moments when it was clear to you the way to go?  Were there moments when you were drawn away from what you were doing to investigate the possibility that something important might be found?  Take a moment and just reflect on the past week. 


Let me share with you two moments from my week where I think I saw Jesus.  I think I encountered Jesus in the care of a colleague who helped me to laugh when all I could see was an enduring and awful situation.  In the care and the laughter, I became human again.  The second time that I think that I saw Jesus was in the need of a man who I could have helped, but didn’t.  I was in a hurry; I didn’t want to stop; I recognised Jesus in retrospect.  I have seen Jesus in care and laughter, in need and rejection.

Learning to see Jesus, to recognise him when he crosses our path, is an important spiritual discipline.  The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, taught a means of doing this called the Examen.  The Examen is a simple discipline. It consists of reviewing the day.  One teacher describes it as ‘rummaging for God’.  Go through the stuff of the day, and see where God might be found. Where did you see Jesus in the day?  The key to this is gratitude – be thankful for what God has given you in the day; and gentleness, be kind to yourself as you look back.  Thankfulness and kindness are essential to this spiritual practice.  You could try this in a lengthy way, spending fifteen minutes or so in review.  Or you could simply look through the highlights, so to speak, and say thank you for one moment of encounter in the day that has gone.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  This is one way that might help.

Seeing Jesus is not, however, a guarantee that all will be easy and nice.  It is all too easy to see Jesus in what seems nice and well suited to us, and to take hardship and difficulty as signs that Jesus is not with us.  But that is not true, nor is it the world we live in.  We live in a world with beautiful sunsets, and vicious and brutal wars.  We live in a world in which people are generous to us, and in which people lie and hurt us.  Jesus is present in all of this.  He is present in our weakness and our joy, our pain and our accomplishment.

The people of Israel had been in exile for about fifty years when Isaiah spoke to them in the words of the second lesson.  Jerusalem had been destroyed, and many taken into exile in Babylon.  There they had, almost uniquely, managed to retain and even deepen their identity as a people.  But they felt cut off, apart from God.  ‘My way is hidden from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God’.  This is a common spiritual mistake, and one that I certainly make frequently.  To see that things going well is a sign of the presence of God, and to see things being hard and painful as a sign that God is distant.  But it is a mistake, and one for which Isaiah rebukes the people.  Jesus similarly tells Philip and Andrew that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ 

The truth is that we can see Jesus in our weakness and in our hurting.  Sometimes it is only there that he can be at work, breaking down our false images of ourselves and of God and gently building true ones.  The hard question for each of us, is where we see Jesus in our hurt and our struggle.  So let me suggest that we try to get better at seeing Jesus in our lives.  Over the coming week, try reflecting on the day that is past and asking two questions:  ‘For what moment today am I most grateful?’ and ‘For what moment today am I least grateful?’  Then ask God to show you where he was in those moments.  Remember to be thankful and gentle.  Thankful for the presence of Jesus with you; gentle on yourself for your failings.  Try that this week, and see where it gets you.

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”  It is a good request.  It is what we are about in worship and in life.  As we go through this week, let us try to learn to see him better.  Let me end with the prayer of St Richard of Chichester:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.  Amen.

First given at Derby Cathedral 1.5.16.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: The Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 Shortlist 1

Review of Benigno P. Beltran, Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a Planet in Peril (Orbis, 2012).

If all the books on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist are as good as this, then I’m in for a treat!  It is good to have an author on the shortlist who is not from the UK or the US.  Beltran is from the Philippines.  A Roman Catholic priest, and a teacher of theology, Beltran has also been the chaplain to the most notorious rubbish dump in the world – Smokey Mountain in Manilla.  Here around 25 000 people lived as scavengers, and became a symbol of both poverty and the ecological degradation of the world.

This is a deceptively short book.  It is both moving and challenging.  It also covers several different genres.  Most obviously, it is autobiographical.  Benigno Beltran was a Pilipino priest who was sent to study in Rome.  He returned to the Philippines to train seminarians.  On his return he made Smokey Mountain his home, and ministered to the people there.  He lived with them and offered them his care and his ministry.  Eventually he was part of the ending of the rubbish dump and the resettlement of those who had lived there. On a purely human level, this is a fascinating and poignant story.

There is far more to the book than this story, however.  It is also a stirring and carefully argued plea for justice in the world.  This is a call for justice in the face of the immense poverty that led to people spending their lives scavenging on a rubbish dump.  The interconnection of movements for justice, democracy and solidarity confronting the powerful and rich is another major theme in Beltran’s writing.  He is concerned to emphasise hope in the face of despair and community in the midst of desperation.  The continued need for the provision of basic necessities – clean water, safe food, sanitation and education – in a world that spends billions on weapons is starkly put.  That does not detract from its truth.

Another theme is environmental.  The rubbish dump on which people live is in danger of becoming a metaphor for our planet.  The greed and excess of the consumer world is killing the planet and its people.  It is not sustainable.  Beltran offers a powerful critique, all the more valuable for its origins in the Philippines.  A new relationship with the planet is needed.  There are resources here.

Above all, however, this is a book about God.  Each of the chapters is named for an approach to God.  Beltran offers a powerful apologetic that dismisses the likes of Richard Dawkins easily – none of the so-called ‘new atheists’ have given themselves to the poor in the way that Beltran has.  Faith is clearly central to that commitment.  Armchair atheism, that decries poverty from a safe distance, has nothing to offer here.  The positive case for God that Beltran offers is one rooted in prayer, shaped by the scriptures, expressed in theology and encountered in action with the poor.  This, for me, was the highlight of the book.  It is woven throughout, and beautifully done.

Autobiography, justice, the environment, apologetics and God: not a small list of topics.  Each is as well handled as it is important.  This is a book I would not have encountered were it not for the Michael Ramsey Prize.  I am exceedingly glad that I did, and heartily commend it to others.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Simple and Difficult Gospel

A Sermon for Easter 5.

If you want the Gospel in miniature, then we are offered it this morning.  Jesus says to his disciples ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’  ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’  It really is as simple and as hard as that.  Simple, because that is all that the Gospel is about.  Hard, because loving and being loved is not an easy business.  In the next few minutes, I want to explore the simplicity and difficulty of this, and think a little bit about what we should take with us into our lives.

We start with being loved, because that is where Jesus starts.  ‘Just as I have loved you’ he says.  The foundation of Christianity in all of its forms is that we are loved by God.  God loves us.  That is the message of Christianity from beginning to end.  Beware of anyone who tells you that God doesn’t love you, or that God’s love for us is conditional on us doing something or being a certain way.  God loves us.  No small print; no limitations.  That love starts in the very beginning of creation, where God makes a world where there was nothing there before.  It is seen above all in Jesus, who comes to live with us, dies for us, and lives again to share that love with everyone.  God loves us.  That is the cornerstone of what we are about.

But we find it difficult to be loved.  I certainly do.  It is hard to accept that I am loved no matter what I do, or say, or feel.  I am loved.  That is the starting point for all of my Christian life, but there are days when I find it difficult to get beyond the starting line.  Pope Francis, in his remarkable letter The Gospel of Joy, suggests that every Christian should renew their personal encounter with Jesus each day.  He suggests that we pray this prayer: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace” (Evangelii Gaudium 3).  Whether we use this prayer or another, or find another way of doing it, we need daily to encounter the love of God.  We need daily to accept that God loves us. That is the starting point for all of our Christian lives.  God loves us.

Being loved by God overflows.  ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ says Jesus.  God’s love for us overflows into our love for others.  We know from studies into bringing up children that children who are loved unconditionally are able to love others.  In loving us, God gives himself away to us.  In loving others, we copy God in giving ourselves away to them. God does not run out of love in giving himself away.  It can feel very different for us.  But the miracle is that because we are loved in this inexhaustible way by God, so we don’t run out of love as we give ourselves away in love.  That is why it is so important to be loved by God.  ‘Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.’  This love is seen in practical ways – offering help, care and concern.  It is seen in phone calls, shopping trips, time given to others, words that are spoken and tasks that are done. 

But staggering thing about the love of God overflowing in our love is who is included in it.  Peter knew more than a little about the love of God.  He knew about getting things wrong regularly, and yet still being part of Jesus’ inner circle; he knew Jesus forgiving him after his denial.  Perhaps that is why he was so good at spotting the love of God for the Gentiles in the vision that he had and when he saw the Holy Spirit at work in the Gentiles living in Joppa.  So Peter took a risk.  He broke the rules that said people had to become Jews before they could become Christians, with all that entailed in terms of food laws and circumcision and so on.  He shared the Gospel with them and baptised them.  In doing this he began the first major argument of the Christian Church, which lasted for a generation.  But what Peter saw was that God’s love extended beyond the limits that he thought it had.  This is the nature of the love of God, it overflows and is not exhausted.  It is not exhausted by differences between the people who receive his love.  So who are the surprising people that we are being asked to share the love of God with today here in Mapleton?  I could make suggestions, but you are the people who need to see where the Holy Spirit is at work, and who you are being called to love.

‘Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.’  This is the Gospel in miniature.  It speaks to us of the inexhaustible love of God, that flows out to us, and through us, and that includes surprising people who seem beyond the pale. It is simple and it is difficult.  It leaves us with challenges: the challenge to accept and renew our experience of God’s love for us; the challenge to love others; and the challenge to spot those surprising and different people who God is calling us to love here and now.  ‘Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.’  Amen.

First given at St Mary’s Church, Mapleton. 24.4.16

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Contemplative Minister

Review of Ian Cowley, The Contemplative Minister: Learning to Lead from the Still Centre (Bible Reading Fellowship, 2015).

This excellent little book is for those ‘who are looking for a better way of serving Christ than the relentless busyness and pressure which has become the norm for so many’ (p. 12).  Ian Cowley, who has experience of ministry in South Africa and is now the Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator for the Diocese of Salisbury, calls us to rediscover our still centre in prayer and rooting in God.

Ministry that does not have stillness and prayer at its heart is in danger of losing its relationship to God, of warping a vocation, and not having the counter-cultural edge that should be the mark of all Christian ministry.  Cowley calls us back to silence and simplicity as being of the essence and the heart of ministry, not just extras and ideals.  He draws widely on the traditions of the church, from the contemplative to the charismatic, offering a rich and deep account of ministry.

I confess I found this very challenging.  I am someone for whom doing very easily crowds out being with God.  At times, I wanted a little more about the missionary context that faces the Church today, but I am convinced that Cowley is right that if this is not rooted in prayer and encounter with the living God then all our efforts will be futile.

I heartily recommend this book for all ministers, lay and ordained.  The Foreword by Desmond Tutu is excellent, and the book is potentially transformative.  This is a book to come back to and learn from each time.

First published in Diocese of Derby, Our Diocese, May 2016

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Simeon's Calling

A meditation for Vocations Sunday

I heard the call a long time ago.  Not really sure when it began, but I just began to watch, to look out for where I might find him.  Once I realised I was doing it, I started to listen hard.  My name, Simeon, it means the one who listens.  So I would live up to my name.  I listened for God, and I asked him about this calling.  Was it for me? Why on earth me?  What was I to look for? A new prophet or a holy one?  And from somewhere the answer came – ‘I am calling you.  Look for the Messiah!’

I’ve looked for a long time – I wasn’t always this old – carefully checking and testing.  A few have claimed that they were the one.  But they weren’t.  But just sometimes, there was enough doubt in my mind to leave me confused.  This calling has been a challenge.  Not everyone likes me saying, ‘no, not them.’  And it’s puzzled me why I should be so interested, or so particular.

But then, today. The child in her arms!  I didn’t think it would be a child.  But just suddenly, like a thousand lights suddenly being lit, there was the child, the Messiah.  That it should be him, that I should see him, I couldn’t help it.  I sang.  ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’

That was a while ago.  It changed me.  I no longer look and turn back disappointed.  Now I see him everywhere.  Seeing that child, means I see God at work in all kinds of places.  I see him in the poor, scratching together enough to feed their families.  I see him in those who arrive in the city having fled a home somewhere else.  I see him here at the Temple, in the quiet faithful ones who come each day to pray for someone else.  I see him where old enemies make peace, and where families build bridges to one another.  I see him where I shouldn’t – in the women who ply their trade on the streets.  In the foreigners, who are perplexed by our ways but want to live with us.  In the crippled and the widowed, and those who God seems to have abandoned.  I see him in all these places and more.

And finally, I think I might understand why my song on that day finished the way it did. Because my call continues, no longer in looking but in seeing.  ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’

First given at Derby Cathedral 17.4.16.