There’s a nice play on words in our reading from the Old Testament. The Lord asks Jeremiah, “What do you see?” Poor lad (for he is only a boy)! Is it a trick question? He peers up at the sky, then across to the hills, then down at the ground, then up again at the object he’s standing right underneath to shelter from the sun. “I see a branch of an almond tree” he says, feeling a trifle foolish, for what kind of answer is that? “You have seen well” comes the response, “for I am watching over my word to perform it”. In Hebrew, shaqed is the almond and shoqed is watching over. So whenever the young man sees an almond tree it will trigger the association of God being vigilant for his word, watching over it. The boy sees what is there, and sees well. Like God who watches. Whether you are divine or human, seeing, looking, watching, the optics of God come into things.
You have seen well. Lincoln has an honoured place in the history of seeing. The great thirteenth century Bishop Robert Grosseteste is now regarded as one of the medieval pioneers of modern scientific method. His preoccupation was the science and art of seeing. He believed that light was the essence of creation, the “first form” of the universe. Everything else derived from it. This made the cosmos intelligible. It could be scanned, contemplated and understood. And because Grosseteste was a theologian, he saw the faculty of sight as a spiritual virtue, a God-given tool with which to read the world around him, read human life itself and at the heart of it all, discern the living God.
Seeing well - scanning, contemplating, understanding - lies at the heart of good ministry. Today we pray for and accompany these seven good ordinands as they offer themselves as ordained ministers of the church. Maybe they've been asking themselves, maybe you're wondering, What does it mean to be “clergy”? Many things, of course; impossibly many, some may say, for the expectations on the clergy have never been higher. But one of the qualities we might look for in the ordained is that they are learning to see well.
In our retreat during the last few days, we have been studying the hymn we shall sing at the start of the ordination prayer, Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. We've reflected on some of the big themes in these verses: vocation, protection, resilience, worship, and how we learn to live out of thankfulness. We've explored what it means to know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity whose love moves the sun and the stars and who breathes life into all creation. And we've spoken about faith as illumination that enables us to see in new ways. When the Spirit comes, says the hymn, there is comfort, life and fire of love. And with God’s fire there is light to see by: enable with perpetual light / the dullness of our blinded sight.
I suggested to the ordinands that they should cultivate this gift of seeing well. Like Jeremiah, it’s a case of paying attention, noticing, looking around you. That’s how you learn to recognise what God is doing in the world and in the lives of others. That’s how you see the joy or the pain, the happiness or need in your parishioners and neighbours. In one of his poems, Thomas Hardy imagines the epitaph on his own gravestone. He wants to be remembered as “a man who used to notice such things”. He’s speaking of the natural world and how easy it is to pass by its wonders without so much as a thought. It points to the all-important emotional and spiritual way of looking which you could call awareness, discernment or insight. These are gifts we should covet in life and in ministry. They would help us become more contemplative and see what is there. One of the words used of Hebrew prophets is the “one who sees”. That is what we are called to be in ministry.
To learn to see well is a lifelong task, especially for those entrusted with public roles in church or society. For Jeremiah under his almond tree it all comes down to this. In that moment, his life is changed forever. God summons him and with the voice comes the opening of his eyes so that he can see. And he is overcome with consternation. How can he speak in God’s name? He is only a boy! To find his voice he must learn to see well. He needs to see the world as it really is, see it as God sees. He needs to see into the issues that face the people of his time, understand their questions, have insight into their anxieties and longings. The eye of faith must teach him what God is doing in the world and in human lives, how he moves in the tides of history where “behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face”. He needs to discern God’s promise that a future is coming where pain and terror are past and the world is reconciled and healed, where there is a new covenant of peace that makes the human family one again. If he can only see well, he can bring the hope that God’s reign is coming.
So much enclosed in an almond branch! Was I talking just now about a Hebrew prophet or about ministers in the world of today? Is there a difference when it comes to seeing and understanding and becoming part of love’s work? I don’t know what the equivalent of the almond branch is for each of you on your ordination day. But I do believe that the question “what do you see?” goes on being asked of us not just today but for as long as we are serving God in ministry.
And it's not only God who asks us “what do we see”, but many of those to whom we go. How can it be that in these secular, often cynical times, people still welcome the presence of clergy in local communities, still value the thought that we say our prayers and care for our parishioners, still look to us to help make sense of life in the light of our faith? There are a surprising number who are genuinely curious about what we see and why it makes a difference. If you have been watching the TV series Broken you'll know what I mean. It’s making the connections so that the penny that dropped for us can drop for others. It’s to allow us to say, in the daily tasks of ministry, “I am here in the name of Christ the Servant. This is how I see things. Maybe you can see them like that too?” Which is why we need to pray constantly to the Holy Spirit in the words of our hymn: enable with perpetual light / the dullness of our blinded sight.
The poet David Scott has a beautiful line in one of his poems. Eyes take in the light for hearts to see by. So look around you with your heart as well as your head. See well. Serve well. Love well. And may the God of peace be with you as you go out from here in his name as deacons in his church, and ministers in the world he loves to the end.
Lincoln Cathedral, 2 July 2017
Lincoln Cathedral, 2 July 2017