Friday, 21 September 2012

Harvest: Is God above and beyond (transcendent) or close (immanent) or...?


Colossians 1:15-23

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

Matthew 6:25-34

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

As you might imagine, the people I’ve spent the last few months with are very drawn to the seasons and cycles of the year, and harvest plays as large a part for them as it does for us, so much so that in many Pagan groups they have two harvest festivals, one at the beginning of August for the first fruits and the other around about now. I want to draw on some of those experiences to give us a fresh perspective on harvest that is more God-centred, one that should be helpful for us given our rural environment.

One of the things that was said to me many times over the summer and which I have read in many Pagan books goes something like this, ‘The Christian God is a long way away; he’s separate from this world. He is the sky-God. The Pagan understanding of deity is that the divine, however he, she or they are perceived, is very close’. The technical words for this would be the transcendent God who is above and beyond, or the immanent God who is present within. I want to talk a little about this and reflect on what it means for our understanding of harvest.

You see as I said many times over the summer in conversations with some of my new found friends, my experience of being a Christian is not one of God being distant. However, I do also have to admit that by the ways in which some Christians behave, and the things that some Christians believe, I suspect that the Pagan interpretation is a valid criticism.

In other words, for many Christians, and perhaps particularly in the more conservative parts of the church, the transcendent image of God, the one who is above and beyond creation, is the one they believe in. So let me introduce three words, only one of which that I feel I can adopt as a Christian, and indeed which really ought to be second nature to us in the country.

The first word is polytheism. This is a Greek compound word which more or less translates as ‘many gods’ and is a belief held by some Pagans and most Hindus. Essentially it is an understanding that there are numerous deities active in the world, and that they may perhaps be gods of different places. I’ve met a number of people whose gods are specific to where they live and who would probably change allegiance to other gods if they were to move to a new area.

As I’ve already said, polytheism is also a belief held by Hindus, although intriguingly some will tell you that these many deities are actually all different faces of the One. I used to work with a Hindu who said that she was philosophically a monotheist even if she was a polytheist in apparent practice. And I’ve also met a number of Pagans who have said similar things, that even though they worship more than one deity, they believe the gods they speak to are the accessible faces of the One, the Ultimate, who transcends all things and is therefore not accessible.

So that’s polytheism. Next comes pantheism, another Greek word which means ‘Everything is God’. Pantheism is an important part of many Pagan practices because if all things are a part of God, then God is very close. In fact it goes beyond that because if you take pantheism seriously then you are be able to say that you are in fact part of God. And indeed some have expressed that to me. If everything is God then each of us is, these flowers are, as is the carpet on which I stand.

The strength of this model is that it should evoke a deep respect for the entire material order, which is what you will find amongst pretty much all Pagan thought where the importance of the earth, usually referred to as mother earth, is vital.

Actually what I tended to find in general was a mixture of the two; polytheism and pantheism, of several or maybe many gods who were worshipped or honoured, which led to a deep respect for each other and the world in which we live because the God and the Goddess, or the many gods, were a part of it, or to use the technical word, they were immanent, a view which most felt Christianity did not share with them.

But then we come to the third word, and this is one that should resonate for us as Christians who live in the country so long as we have our eyes open, and that’s panentheism. This Greek word literally means, ‘All-in-God’, Pan - en - theism. So instead of there being many gods, or the universe itself being divine, panentheism says that the whole universe is in God. Or as St. Paul put it in the reading from Colossians,

‘He (Jesus) himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

If you know anything about particle physics you will know that at the quantum level the whole universe is a seething mass of particles that come into being and disappear again, or as someone recently said, it is as if God is so present that he is continually creating the world, and if he were to stop then it would all disappear, ‘...and in him all things hold together.’

Now to me this model of panentheism resonates because it means that whatever we see in the world tells us something about God because the world is in God. On one level it creates a separation between the created order and God, which most Christians would want, but on another level it means that God is revealed through what we see in the created order, or as some would put it, before God inspired the Jewish and Christian testaments he wrote about himself in the universe he created; that this is his first testament.

If we adopt this way of thinking, which is very popular both in Celtic and Eastern Christian traditions, then it changes our approach to the world, and that, I think, is something vital for us. I have heard many times the charge levelled against us that we have no respect for the world, that we use it, that we place ourselves above it, and I think that’s a valid criticism of Western Christianity because we have become consumers.

But what if instead of being consumers we looked at the created order as revealing the nature of God to us. Wouldn’t that then change our attitude to it immensely? If instead of being consumers of nature we realised that we are a part of it and that it reveals the nature of God, that will have a massive effect on how we treat it, because it should induce a much greater respect since the world reveals something about God. It also offers a fundamental challenge to some in the farming community.

Instead of being consumers of nature we will instead become participants with nature. In other words we will recognise with respect that we are a part of nature, not above and beyond it, not allowed to consume and destroy it, and we will do that because we recognise that God reveals something of God’s nature through the world he is continuously creating. That also gives us an answer to the charge that our God is distant. Instead God becomes immensely present to us because everywhere we look we see nature telling us something, if only we can learn to read the text, and we see the presence of God amongst us.

But, and most importantly for today, it tells us something very special about harvest. If God is present within the harvest, and if God is revealing something about God’s self within the harvest, then the wheat and the barley, the apples and the pears, the very animals themselves all become more sacred, more worthy of our honour and respect because they are ways in which God speaks to us.

And the main message of the harvest is this, God saying, ‘Look, once again I have provided for you.’ In a little while we will share bread and wine together in the communion and we will give thanks to God for the fruit of the vine and the bread we have baked, but let us go deeper with it and recognise that God is present in a deeper way and is saying something to us in the world of which we are a part and in which we should be participants, not consumers.

I have had times, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, when I have watched the clear starry night and been carried into near breathless wonder at the immensity of it all. And that tells me something about God. And I have sat on the rocks and watched the crashing ocean, and its power echoes with the sound of God’s voice. And I have felt the gentle kiss of a spring breeze, like a mother gently ruffling the hair on her child’s head, and that tells me something about God.

And going beyond the joy of it, in this model we also have to consider those who are burned by exposure to the sun, lost at sea in a torrential storm or swept up in a hurricane, because all of these things tell us about God too, and maybe that’s another sermon, but I mention this just so that we don’t become overly dewy-eyed and romantic about this model.

But I have walked these fields in our parish more times than I can count watching the brown barren earth become littered with green shoots which have become green fields which, with the movement of the season, become a deep gold, and the message throughout the year is, ‘Look at what I am providing for you.’

The world around is, according to the panentheistic model, full of the words of God. Or as the poet Elizabeth Barret-Browning put it, ‘Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush is afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes.’

And I think this type of natural theology is how Jesus often taught, seeing something of God’s truth revealed in the world around him. What I am suggesting is that God is both immanent, close and within his creation, and transcendent, unbounded, uncreated and beyond his creation.

If we can begin to recognise this as Christians then not only will we be lifted in our worship because we will see and sense so much more of the presence of God, but we will also treat his gifts, this world, and his harvest for us with a much greater respect.

Friday, 14 September 2012

15th Sunday after Trinity : Self denial first requires self-acceptance

I really had to wrestle with this passage.  I hope you'll understand why when you read the Gospel section below! 


Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


I find it really quite hard to spend money on myself to buy something really decent. For most of my adult life it’s been a sense of buying something that’ll make do. It’s been the norm for us to have old cars and an old caravan to go away on holiday in, and I found it really difficult, back in early May, to actually buy a decent caravan, knowing that we’d be living and studying in it for more than three months.

The same goes for clothes. I’ve never bought expensive suits, or even expensive jeans or shoes, but I have to admit to myself that even though I might wish it was for some sacred reason, it’s not, not really. Buying cheap stuff for myself, if I’m honest, is symptomatic of not wanting to spend too much on me simply because my self-image is not brilliant. I tell you this not because it’s public confession time but because I think that in the Church of England there are plenty of us who are like this and maybe inside you know exactly what I mean.

We don’t think much of ourselves, but then we dress that up in self-denial and pretend that what we’re doing is carrying our own cross and being like Jesus. We make a virtue out of our own self-dislike, and the problem with that is that it blinds us to the many layers that we can learn and apply from what Jesus is saying here in what sometimes feels like a very difficult passage.

So the first thing that you need to take away from this is that God places a huge value on you. You are temples to the Holy Spirit and so She lives within you. Jesus’s second commandment is that you love others as you love yourself. Self-denial in the Jesus movement is not an excuse for having a poor self-opinion. I think you actually have to start from recognising your own value.

After all, what is there to be gained by denying something that you don’t value at all? That’s easy. How is that a worthy gift to God? So before we can even begin to deny ourselves, we have to value ourselves. Now the truth is that the best way to see yourself is not through your own eyes. Most of us see ourselves as insignificant and unimportant, excepting of course the one or two narcissists who might not like what they actually see if they were to look through another’s eyes at themselves!

But if you allow someone who loves you to show you what they see, and trust their image of you, that’s a good place to start. So before trying to deny yourself and pretending that’s holy, learn to value yourself, then you have something worthwhile denying. But of course there’s more since this is not about self-flagellation.

When we move on a little in the text, Jesus says this:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Before we look at the Gospel application of this, consider this. If you do value your life, there is a very real reason not to then try and save it, to hang on to it, and it is summarised in one word; transience. Everything is transient. Someone who is trying to save their own life is a little like the child on the beach who is piling more and more sand on to his sandcastle in an attempt to beat the power of the tide.

Life changes. What you have is yours only for a while, but more importantly, who you are should change to. And we shouldn’t be afraid of that change. One of the things I learned about while I was away was that in some Pagan communities they have rituals for what they call saging and croning. These are ways of recognising the transition into older age and valuing the wisdom you have grown and can impart to others.

Compare that with the ways in which we try hard to hang on to our youth. Consider the lengths that we will go to in our western culture to not change, to not grow old. If we are forever trying to stay the same then the one thing that can be guaranteed is dissatisfaction. We all grow older. With the growing older should come a welcoming of who we are becoming.

Unfortunately western culture doesn’t like that. It can’t sell beauty products, hair dyes, six-pack exercise routines and slimming plans to people who are comfortable in who they are becoming. Consumerism depends on us fighting change, fighting to stay the same, fighting not to get old. And Jesus says, “ For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

If we will accept ourselves and value ourselves for who we are now, and if we can continue to accept ourselves in who we are becoming, then imagine the release and the possibilities in what we can offer to our communities. Imagine how much light people would find in their community if they discovered people who were at ease with themselves and therefore able to accept others for exactly who they were, therefore enabling new people to accept themselves.

And so we come to the good news about what is in many ways a piece of scripture that we have to wrestle with. If we accept ourselves, and we accept each other, if we live in mature love, valuing people for who they are rather than dismissing them for being different from us, then the model of being willing to lay down our lives, of following the will of God, begins to make sense.

I firmly believe that we all have numerous callings in our lives, callings that will change as we move from one aspect of who we are to the next, as we age and mature. In accepting ourselves and accepting others, and in seeing the inherent value there, so we become naturally more willing to lay aside our own desires because that’s what spiritually maturing people do.

It is in the giving up of the desire to ‘Be’, to be someone that everyone looks up to, and instead accepting who we are in order that we find the strength and the willingness to lay that aside for the good of others. And if we don’t care what other people think of us, because we are secure in who we are, then we will affirm who Christ is and not deny him, because it simply won’t matter to us what people think of us for being followers of Christ.

Some of the critics of true Christianity see us as people who perpetually have to deny everything that makes us who we are, seeing us as life-denying. Sadly I think many Christians actually do live like that, and many branches of our religion have leaders who spend much of their teaching time telling people what not to do. How quickly we have forgotten that Jesus was criticised by other Rabbis because of the people he associated with and the parties, the feasting and drinking that he was a part of.

I think that following the way of Christ is life-affirming because in him we become who we are meant to be, and in accepting that, so we can lay down our own desires to be important and noticed because we realise that we are important, simply because we exist. Knowing that gives us the strength to lay our own wants to one side. Then we can really make a difference for others.