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Seeing and Touching God – The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

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Sunday 26 January 2020 – 11.30am Matins

Amos 3:1-8   1 John 1:1-4

I’m holding in my hand a small clay model. Most of you won’t be able to see it, so let me briefly describe it for you. Standing just a little over six inches tall, the figure’s of a woman bending forward slightly. She’s wearing a dark blue blouse and a floor-length turquoise skirt. Positioned at her left foot is a cat, nibbling at her skirt. The features of her face are painted rather than moulded, although her hair has a vaguely realistic shape.

This model’s of little artistic merit at all but it’s of considerable sentimental and emotional value to me personally, because I made it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever modelled in clay and I produced this at school when I was 11 years old. I spent the whole of my first term at senior school making it in art lessons. My intention all along had been to make something to give my Mum as a Christmas present. It’s in my possession now because my Mum returned it to me much later in life. I can remember thinking at the time that it was a little disconcerting to be given it back. Did this mean that it didn’t mean anything to her after all? I’d never had cause to question the matter but when my Mum died just over six years ago, I wondered whether she hadn’t thought all along that it would give me time to value what it represented. My Mum had vascular dementia and so the time came when it was very hard to engage with her in any meaningful way at all. This figure, though, was a tangible reminder of a loving relationship in which there was a genuine exchange of love. It was as if my Mum was giving back to me something in which I’d invested so much of myself as a sign of her love for me.

Over the years here, I’ve convened groups of a dozen or so people over a period of four successive weeks to share their stories with one another. In each case, I’ve invited the participants to bring an object that means something to them and explain its meaning and significance. I’ve used this very model. I speak of my relationship with my Mum and what that meant to me.

The figure also shows an accident of history, which you can’t see, but which is highly significant. Her right arm has been broken. Whereas I might have been inclined to think that this spoilt the model, I explain that it actually enhances it. Brokenness is part of all our lives and I’ve shared with groups something of the brokenness my Mum experienced in childhood and which affected our family. The broken arm draws forth from me not just love for my Mum but also compassion for her and for others.

Without knowing any of that, there’s no way you’d look at this little statue and conclude that it’s a figure of my Mum herself, but I know that was what I wanted to create to give her that Christmas. I invested the whole of myself in making a model in as close a likeness as I could of the one I loved most in my life as a small boy, to show her how much I loved her. I could have told her in words, and that would have meant something and been sincere, but they wouldn’t have conveyed that message as much as my artistically flawed little clay model did. Something tangible, something more than words, more often than not speaks so much more loudly than words. I’d warrant my Mum treasured this naive little present as much as I do myself now, because she could almost touch and feel and hold my love for her in her hand.

In trying to communicate the significance of who Jesus is, the author of the first Letter of John begins the letter – as we heard in the first lesson today – by saying, ‘We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.’ In other words, it’s the author’s conviction and experience that God’s made known supremely not simply in words but in a person, a flesh and blood human being, who experiences and knows life in the same way that you and I do. The life and love of God are revealed in one who’s embodied and immersed from the inside in the joy and delight, the glory and mystery, the suffering and pain of life, just as you and I are. It’s as if God went through the same sort of process I did in making that model for my Mum. ‘How can I convey my love?’, God seems to have asked. ‘How can I show human beings how I see them?’ And the best and only truly authentic answer available to God was this: don’t just tell them in words, show them in something tangible, handle-able.

So when we wonder who and what God is and what God is like, the simplest we can do is to point to Jesus and say: God is as God is in him. But there’s a next step we so often resist, and it’s this: to accept that God is just as much as God truly desires to be in us, and to acknowledge that we are truly who we are as we see and know ourselves to be created in God’s image and likeness in Christ. We, too, embody the life and love of God in ourselves, albeit in the same flawed way that the model of my Mum is flawed, but if God is to be real for us and for others, it can only be as we allow God to be truly embodied in us, so that God can be heard, seen, looked at, touched and handled in us.

On this Generous Giving Sunday, we’re invited to demonstrate our response of love to God not just in words, not even just in the giving of our money, but in the offering of ourselves to be completely and utterly indwelled by God, to be totally transparent to God in all that we are, to be a living embodiment of God as God is in Christ – heard, seen, looked at, touched and handled.

 

 

 

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