What Lifts Me Up? Sermon by The Revd Paul Smedley: Lent 2 2016

Published on Mon, 29 Feb 2016 15:39
Lent 2016 Congregational Sermons

“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12:32

Thank you to Giles, for his invitation to preach - indeed, to all of us to reflect: What lifts us up? I will be inviting you today to use these words of Jesus as a window from which to look in on this. But first, as Nicola and I only moved into our flat in Stamford Street in the summer and are still new St John’s, I thought I would start with a couple of stories about myself.

My first story dates back many years. I was a young manager working out at British Airways by Heathrow Airport, newly promoted and given the chance to be a mentor to others, who were studying on Diploma programme and aspiring to become or develop as managers themselves. One day we went out of the office into a field to help us look at thing in different way - it was common then in management training, but it worked! It can be helpful to take ourselves out of the ordinary if we want to see things afresh. Perhaps an idea in itself for Lent?!

We were asked to walk along this plank in a straight line.
• It was the morning, so no problem there!
• Then it was raised a few inches off the ground - the same movements but we had to concentrate a bit more.
• Then it was raised up about 3 or 4 feet off the ground. Walking along the plank involved just the same physical movements - but didn’t it feel totally different?
• No-one volunteered to go first ... so then we were invited to stand alongside. The person ‘walking the plank’ could touch the heads or hold onto the outstretched hands. Feeling supported, knowing you weren’t on your own, suddenly it felt a totally different task again.
• Nothing had actually changed - it was the same identical movements in walking along the plank, but it felt different. We are not on our own in life; something different is possible because of our connection with others.

“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12:32

The second story comes from just a few weeks ago. As Giles said earlier, I am an ordained priest although you haven’t seen me wearing the clerical ‘uniform’ here before. I was ordained about 24 years ago in St Paul’s Cathedral, the other side of the river. But although I am a priest, I have always felt called to be in ordinary ‘secular’ employment. I believe we can find God in daily activity and share in God’s work to make a difference in the world around us. St Theresa of Avila has a lovely prayer. “Christ has no body on earth now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks, with compassion on the world. Let nothing disturb you ...”

My ‘day job’, really a large part of my purpose in life, is to help make call centres and customer service operations a better place to work and contact. I run a Professional Association for customer professionals and each year we run an award programme for those that are really transforming. Not all centres are like the bad experiences you may have had and, as judges, we get to visit some great places and great people. So, on a Thursday morning last month, I was in the Midlands talking with people whose workplace was being transformed through the vision of some of those working there. And I talked to ‘Laura’ about what this meant for her. “It made me do things I didn't believe I could before”. Some of us spend a lot of time at work - or have done - and it can be a transformative experience in life - for better as well as for worse. Notice especially, that we can be drawn out of ourselves in ways that are unexpected - unimagined even - by circumstances and through the action of the people in our lives. That is truly uplifting to see, to experience, to be a part of. That's where I wanted to start today.

“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12:32
Let’s spend a little time on these words, to see if we can find in them a window into God’s messages for us.

1. When I am lifted up from the earth ... The context for this passage is Jesus talking about his death that is to come. It may mean lifted up to heaven - as when Luke for example talks about Jesus’ ascension. But in this part of St John’s gospel, as in today’s passage from St Luke too, Jesus is talking about his death and ‘lifted up’ is often taken to mean ‘on the cross’. Certainly it is by way of suffering and death that Jesus comes to heaven and our expectation is that this ‘way of the cross’ is the way in which we will be drawn to God.
When we see the good things that come from being with people - as we have in those stories, it can be easy to be idealistic, to wear rose-tinted spectacles. Yet people can be the hardest thing in our lives also, we are all capable of evil as well as good and it’s easy to make life hard for others who are close to us - even without being fully aware.
In Lent and leading up to Good Friday, we talk about following the way of the cross with Jesus, because it is by way of suffering that joy and transformation is so often to be found. Not that we need to want or choose suffering, but that life brings to us experiences, which when transformed, transform us too - in ways often beyond our imagining. This is new life - the life that we look forward to as the Easter People.

“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12:32
2. I ...I ... myself ... our life's story begins and ends with God. And in this phrase we are drawn to God (myself) by Jesus. It is as Jesus is lifted up that we are drawn with him, through the cross into the circle of love which is the nature of God. To talk more about God as Trinity is for a sermon on a different Sunday, but for today notice that it is our connection with Jesus that draws us to himself on a journey far beyond our present realities. I think of it as being drawn into a circle of love, a place where we find ourselves afresh, because we have as it were been refined or purified by that way of the cross. We are taken to places of suffering (the cross) where we find that we can bear as Jesus did what we cannot imagine we could ever have the strength to do. This is what gives glory to God (as in todays NT passage from Philippians). We are raised from glory to glory through this way of the cross. You - me - ALL.

3. I ... will draw all people to myself - God works through others (St Theresa’ prayer reminds us) but to a purpose. So what is the purpose in this extra-ordinary work of God? Sacrificing his (or her) very self for us? for you, me, all people? When we connect with others, when we don’t hold back for the fear, the pain and suffering, from lack of imagination or courage, when we embrace the destiny that is given to us we are transformed by this closeness with God. We find we do things we didn’t believe we could do before. We find we can do things that seem daunting or impossibly hard, because we are no longer on our own, or relying on our own strength.

“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12:32
In the church we sometimes talk of ‘vocation’ - being ‘called’ or (we might say) ’drawn out’ by God into new paths in life. For me, this has led through priesthood to a life that involves making call centres better places to work and call. But no persons life is defined by one single strand of life ... and there are so many pathways of many different kinds for every kind of person and place. It has always seemed to me that ‘daily life’ (whatever this means for us) is the particular starting point for us to experience being transformed by this reality of God’s love, to be drawn out into new ways of living, new pathways of exploration.

This is what I believe to be truly uplifting. Nothing is beyond the reach of God’s love, nothing beyond salvation. And, as we respond and find ourselves transformed, ourselves being God’s hands or feet, we find ourselves becoming someone new, and yet still truly, deeply who we are - more fully in a sense who we have been created to be. Each one of us, loved as a child of God, drawn to God. Not promised protection from the suffering which is so much an experience of life in this world, but drawn through the suffering and beyond it to a new reality a new way of being, that is within the circle of love that is the true nature of God.

“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12:32

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