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Sunday 28 July 2019 – Evensong
Anthem: Let this Mind be in you
Words: Philippians 2:5-11 Music: Lee Hoiby
Where, if anywhere, do you find God? For some of you that in itself might be a rather perplexing question. Who or what is God anyway, you might ask. It might seem that you constantly struggle with this notion of God and you just can’t get your head around it.
Others of you might readily identify places, events or occasions when you’ve sensed the presence of God. Often people suggest it’s in those times when we’re withdrawn from and relieved of the everyday conflicts, tensions and demands of life that we’re taken out of and beyond ourselves and experience something other. For some, discovering God has been in a place of natural beauty, which takes our breath away, giving us a sense of our smallness on the one hand, or our profound interconnectedness with everything and everyone, on the other: a stunning mountain range, for example, the vastness of the ocean or the intricate delicacy of a flower. Some become aware of God in and through music, which has the capacity to touch and move us at a very deep level beyond words. And then there’s falling in love, of course, when the whole world comes alive in our beloved. No longer is there any sense of separation or division but unity and communion with all.
I could go on but let me return to the question and ask it once again: where, if anywhere, do you find God? And let me venture what might seem a bold answer as to where you might look: God is to be found exactly where you are right now. I don’t mean that just because we’re sitting in a church, and in a very beautiful, awe-inspiring, historic church at that. Thankfully some people do find God in church. No, I mean that God’s to be found wherever you are and whatever’s going on in your life. God is right where you and I and are at every single moment of every day.
We tend to think that God must always be somewhere else. ‘If only I can get my marriage sorted out,’ we might say, ‘then perhaps I’ll find God.’ Conversely, we might think: ‘I never had any cause to question the presence of God until the doctor told me I’d got three months left to live. Since then, God’s disappeared.’ It’s easy to think that God’s with us when all’s going well; when life’s tough it seems all the more difficult and unlikely.
The words set to music in today’s anthem confront and encourage us with the claim that God is wherever we are, whatever the circumstances and whatever may be going on in our lives. Thought, perhaps, to be an early Christian hymn or creed, which Paul incorporates into his letter to the Christians in Philippi, it speaks in metaphorical language of how, in the person of Jesus Christ, God comes down to our level, so to speak, and experiences not just the seemingly good things of life, but also what we consider to be the worst: suffering, humiliation and death. Paul invites us to see that it’s in this person that we find and see God, for it’s in his self-emptying that Jesus shows us God. In him the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of humanity meet and are perfectly at one, and Paul sees this supremely on the cross: ‘Jesus…being in the form of God…was made in the likeness of men, and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’
Hanging on a cross, suffering the most awful of deaths, is the last place we’d look and expect to find God. The gospels of Matthew and Mark recount that it was on the cross that even Jesus himself felt abandoned by God: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And yet the paradox is that it’s precisely in the most Godforsaken place that God’s most fully present – supremely as love, compassion and forgiveness. From the human point of view, Jesus is empty of all that’s not God, and from a divine perspective, God’s empty of everything that can’t be embodied and lived in a human being.
This is why we can affirm on the basis of the cross that there’s no place or person where God is not. Sometimes, often perhaps, God’s presence is obscured and hard to see or find, but that doesn’t mean that God’s not there. The cross reveals that God’s present where God seems most absent. Despite the fact that human beings seek to banish God, God’s incapable of being banished, because it’s in the nature of God to be the most down-trodden, humiliated and rejected of all. This is what we call love: to become absolutely nothing for the sake of the other, and it’s this nothingness, this emptiness, which is the very presence of God. Which is why Paul speaks of Jesus being exalted. To be the lowest of the low is, from the divine perspective, to be the highest of the high. This is the real nature of things, the real nature of God and the real nature of humanity.
So, let me say once again: God is to be found right where you are now, in whatever’s going on in your life right now. Easy to say, you might retort, but harder to see and harder still to accept. Which is why the search begins when we acknowledge that we might need to see in a different way. Our vision needs to be trained, clarified and sharpened. The message Jesus proclaims as he begins his Galilean ministry is quite simply, ‘Repent’: look in another direction for what you’re truly looking for. For me, this is exactly what happens in and through meditation. Meditation can be understood as an extended exercise in repentance. In meditation we try to see things as they really are and this requires maintaining a constant attitude of attentiveness. Meditation’s about paying attention, looking, contemplating. In the early Church, contemplation was described as theoria, which simply means looking. So contemplative prayer or meditation is primarily about looking and seeing.
What anyone who begins to meditate discovers early on is that what we see first is ourselves and, more often than not, what we see isn’t very pleasant. We see all sorts of things that we realise sooner or later serve to colour, cloud and distort our vision in a self-centred way, so we begin a process of letting go, of being emptied of our distortions, prejudices and resistances. This can feel like a humiliation but little by little we begin to see more clearly. Our awareness expands and becomes capable of taking more in, not just those things it’s easy to include, but also those things to which we have an aversion. Gradually our seeing is able to embrace more and more without feeling the need to exclude or split off. Our field of vision is enlarged infinitely. It’s a slow and often painful process and we fall back into our old habits and ways of seeing on numerous occasions, but this expanded awareness is characterised by compassion and acceptance, which embraces others as well as those parts of ourselves from which we’d rather run away.
This is the mind of Christ of which Paul speaks, the mind which was able to embrace everything and everyone on the cross with love and compassion. As we’re emptied, we begin to see with this mind. We see the presence of God in the most Godforsaken people and places. More than that, though; we begin to see the possibility of embodying this mind, we hear the call to live it and be it. As we begin to see that God’s to be found everywhere and in everyone, including the darkest of places, we also begin to sense that the universal human vocation is to be that presence in all its fullness in our own lives, too. ‘Let this mind be in you,’ Paul says. When that happens, it’s not only Jesus who’s exalted but the whole creation, including you and me, for everything will be seen and found in him, the embodiment of love and compassion.
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