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Climate, Catastrophe and Uncertain Hope

Luke 14:25-33, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Jeremiah 18:1-11

So a few weeks ago, I gave a sermon riffing on two readings; one from Luke with a very angry-sounding Jesus, and the other, a challenging part of Jeremiah, speaking of false prophets. And afterwards I thought to myself.. “thank goodness I won’t have to do anything like that for a while”…. hmm!

So today with an angry judgement-heralding Jeremiah, and an equally angry-sounding Jesus resounding in our ears – it’s tempting to feel gloom. But I want to talk about HOPE.

And even more so, as we begin our Creation Season, and think about the gift and beauty of the earth, and our inevitable sense of unease at environmental destruction… HOPE seems to be a good territory to explore..

But to speak of Hope, I need to speak honestly and realistically… and to do that I need to name the uncertainty I’m sure many of us feel.. Beyond the personal and political uncertainty we are facing of course, we are facing an even deeper existential uncertainty over our actual existence; the planet, children and grandchildren… We have to ask what does Hope actually look like? Or a phrase I use, ‘what are the contours of hope?’

Certainly it feels like we are at a point where there might be no hope… When I speak with young people, ( ) there is a growing sense of hopelessness, of no future… and the effects are devastating; anxiety, depression, suicide. But how can anyone live without hope? We shudder and lament over these stories, (and hear the echo in our own hearts).

And as we are called upon by the folks of Extinction Rebellion and Dark Mountain to face the most uncomfortable truths about our future… It really is quite terrifying… we need to truly shed tears – like Jeremiah – to feel in our own flesh the wounds of the planet. To find words of hope seems to be increasingly difficult.

As Christians we may speak of hope in Christ.. but again, what does that actually mean? What is the shape of such a hope, what are the contours? We know within ourselves that a simple notion that ‘God is in control’, therefore all will somehow be ok is not good enough. In fact, as we witness in American Fundamentalism; (false) hope has become part of the problem, a denial of reality which only hastens environmental disaster.

In the last sermon I spoke of the prophetic tradition present in both Jeremiah and Jesus. And how Jesus is accessing and re-issuing the same kinds of challenges as Jeremiah did almost 600 years earlier. And in the same way, using bold outrageous, almost absurd, language to illustrate the kingdom of God, false priorities and misplaced dreams…

Jesus and Jeremiah convey their message in forms of Art.. Jeremiah in poetry; Jesus in parable – and both in actions.

So let’s begin by looking at some art…

800px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

This is ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th C. German romantic landscape painter.

The romantic era emerged from a growing disillusionment with an increasingly materialistic society. A widespread idea was a strong belief and interest in the importance of nature. This is particularly felt in the effect of nature upon the artist when surrounded by it – and preferably alone. Romanticism correlated with a new spirituality – particularly a mystical relationship with nature – revealing the grandeur and awe of the natural world.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1817) shows a solitary figure (not Boris Johnson!) standing on a rocky outcrop gazing out over a vista of hills and mountains veiled in a sea of fog. The fog stretches out beyond the mountains eventually mingling with the cloudy sky. Writer Ron Dembo says that the Wanderer is a metaphor for the unknown ‘future full of risks; indistinct, hazy and obscured by fog. ‘How should we travel in this mysterious landscape?’ We – like the wanderer – yearn for the same vista where we can see a future beyond the waves of cloudy uncertainty and mystery..
That uncertain future seems to be where hope stumbles.

We often think of God like this too; Jeremiah implies that the potter is in control; defining history, shaping events, moulding us, making everything fit in some elusive plan..

But doesn’t such an attitude render us powerless? If God is in control, then is there anything we can do to affect the future? (that question challenges how we understand God to be..)

So dare I make an alternative suggestion…

When a potter works with clay, or a sculptor works with wood or stone, or when an artist picks up a brush, they never simply impress their idea onto the clay, the canvas, the wood or the stone… (I might dare to say something about music!).

Although there is an intention – there is also something of a negotiation; artists tell of how the developing work speaks to them, how they take care to listen and engage with their chosen material..

At St Ives, I read Barbara Hepworth’s words ‘One must be entirely sensitive to the structure of the material that one is handling. One must yield to it in tiny details of execution, perhaps the handling of the surface or grain, and one must master it as a whole.’  (A bit like this preacher daring to speak of God!)

This understanding changes how we see the potter in Jeremiah… and therefore suggests an alternative way of thinking about God.. the potter works with the clay, yielding, feeling, intuiting, tactile feedback evokes form.

Similarly, some (Process) theologians now speak of God as almost ‘ahead of time’ not ‘above time’.. evoking possibilities from us, inviting and discovering with us, working out ways of being… (Let that idea settle for a moment..)

God adapts, responds, and invites possible futures to emerge.. Calls us (from the future) to become more fully ourselves, more human, working with our possibilities and potentials. Is this the living fountain?

We began the service (deliberately) with the reading from Deuteronomy, as YHVH – dressed in cloud and fire – opens such possibilities to the fledgling Israel.. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse – now choose life..”
The potter responds with the clay to discover an unknown potential – It’s open, its invitational, its relational…

Its maybe a radically different perspective – and it might be helpful!

Charles Causley’s (Cornish) poem ‘I am the Song’ points to this inversion; reflects a deeper entwined relationship…

I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

(Which is nice Gary – but I thought you were going to speak about Hope?!)

And that’s the problem.. though I want to speak of hope – I cannot speak of hope in any concrete way.. when we are thinking about the fragility of the planet and our eco-system – how can we speak with hope which doesn’t sound delusional; or even worse, complacent, when the world is already suffering?

We do need to be truly careful and truthfully realistic… yet somehow we find ourselves held by a holy story which draws us towards hope. An elusive, hard to grasp, possibly weak, yet insistent hope in the future.

Which maybe is what Jesus is echoing under the shock of his inflammatory ‘family-busting’ words; He seems to be suggesting… hold on to nothing that you normally would. Hold on to no thing at all, even the things you hold most dear. Could that include our ideas of ‘hope’ – if such ‘hope’ is merely a denial of reality?

Jesus is once again the shibboleth, the dividing line; his way challenges us to our core.. and inspires us to look again with a new understanding towards God. It’s like he’s saying hold on to nothing you can make or contain – because God is beyond anything you can make or contain. So too Hope is beyond anything we can make and contain…

But hope is something we can still discover, encounter and live with…

We’ve heard a lot from Jeremiah these past weeks; but a few chapters later (Jer.32) comes the odd detail of Jeremiah buying a field from his cousin.. (Babylonian troops were already well across the border…. All hope was lost, but suddenly every things seems to pause as Jeremiah buys this field in occupied land, and honours a Levitical law).
What’s going on? Like our looming environmental catastrophe, the world was already ending for Jeremiah and for Judah… but he enacts an ordinary, straightforward transaction…

Maybe what we fear the most is not the end of the world – but changes to our world. The writer Rebecca Solnit says that, “people have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.”

So … I’m sculpting too; trying to piece themes together in a way that makes sense for us, and maybe – just maybe – reveals some of the contours of hope in the face of devastating uncertainty…let’s conclude;

Jeremiah’s vision of the potter working with the clay offers the suggestion that God working in creative partnership with people and creation; For example, for one moment imagine the idea that regeneration emerges even from fire-scorched forests… nature adapts. God’s life insists with and within nature and even the cycles of destruction and new life (Is.45:1-8).

I’m not saying we don’t fight climate change – on the contrary; But maybe the fight we begin with is to hunger and embody hope… even as we face reality.

Jesus seems to be challenging his listeners that the cost involved in following him is everything.. ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions... (Lk. 14.33) (our security and comfort mechanisms)

Instead Jesus invites us to participate in an evolving and unfolding future.. a future full of uncertainty. We cannot guess what the future might be – and we cannot view a future from some high vantage point …

Instead we find hope by living in hope, living as if hope is already with us.. and hope finds us – maybe in the smallest of acts, (as Richard said last week), even as small as waking up in the morning to face a new day – to choose life.

It makes no sense – and maybe that’s the point. Jeremiah buying a field makes no sense.. it’s utterly absurd. But he chooses to; he chooses life – not death;  and so affirms hope in the future, in humanity, in God.

I cannot tell you what hope looks like for you, (or me!).. we cannot name or point to hope. The contours only make sense when we walk them and feel them under our feet.

But we must come off the mountaintop vantage point.. (we cannot see the future). Instead we descend into the misty valleys; we must face our world, (not rise above it). We are invited to roll up our sleeves with the potter, to enter the uncertainty and to co-create a new emerging reality; one of compassion, humanity and (hope).
GS Collins. 8th Sept 2019

The Poor invited to the feast - Luke 14:15-24

The fountain of living waters

Jeremiah 2:2-13, Luke 14:1,7-14

There can be few more painful experiences than that of a broken marriage. I am very aware that there are people sitting here today who have had exactly that experience. Those of us who are still married, or who are single, can imagine the grief and heartbreak, or have seen it at first hand from our friends. That is exactly the place which our OT reading in Jeremiah 2 takes us. The passage invites us to feel the pain of the breakdown in relationship, in effect the marriage, between YHWH, the God of Israel, and his chosen people. We’re talking several hundred years BC. Listen to some of the language again, God speaking in the first person: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness…What wrong did your ancestors find in me, that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?…my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord…my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’.

 

Although these words are nearly 3000 years old (that’s the iron age) written to the ancient people of Israel at a time way before cars or airplanes or mobile phones, there is a strong resonance with the world today. The ancient Israelites abandoned YHWH, The Lord – fell out of love with him, if you like, and begun worshipping and serving other gods – gods of war, fertility, wealth, national pride – and then wondered why it all went so wrong. The problem was that the values they then honoured, the things they aimed for, worked for, hoped for, began to change. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’, said Jesus (Matthew 6:21). No longer sharing, but keeping; no longer taking just what is needed, but more than that to satisfy greed; no longer welcoming the alien, but rejecting him; no longer justice, but injustice. Does that have a contemporary ring? The people who should have been showing the world what its Creator is like – loving, caring, sharing, forgiving – became just like everyone else. In this painful passage from Jeremiah, I am drawn especially to the last verse: ‘for my people have committed two evils: (firstly) they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and (secondly) dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’(13). A ‘fountain of living water’ – what a beautiful image that God chooses to describe himself! Let that image of what it could be like soak you, fill you, refresh you. This is what God is like! Not a stuffy old man with a long beard, not a policeman in the sky, not a killjoy but like a fountain of cold water on a steaming hot day. Something to plunge into, to play in, to drink deeply of. And living water – water that gives life, that sustains life, that is alive itself. We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves too far, but a few hundred years later a Jewish carpenter turned preacher met a foreign woman at a well and told her, ‘…those who drink the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Alas, that wasn’t what happened. Instead of accepting the offer of divine grace like a fountain, flowing and bubbling, they turned to the worship of other things instead – like looking for another source of water to keep them alive – but instead of the flowing, clear water that YHWH offered, they built stagnant cisterns, water tanks – but even then, they leaked. They could not satisfy.

Last week, as some of you know, I once again visited Taizé, in the company of Ben and Dan Harwood and Alison Peyton. What can I say? It’s a corner of the world where the ‘fountain of living waters’ is flowing. It’s partly the loveliness of the community of people that gathers there. I led a group of young people  from Germany and the Netherlands in Bible discussion each day, and asked them at the end what impression of Taizé they will take away with them – most of them just enjoyed the openness and unconditional friendliness – the way you can talk to anyone about anything, enjoy each other’s company in the way you can’t necessarily back home. Then the beauty of the times of prayer which takes place three times a day in the huge church, the singing, the silence. Young people staying long after the prayer had ended in the evening, often to the early hours, singing, praying and maintaining silence. Added to that is simplicity of living – there is certainly no luxury at Taizé, but who cares? Suddenly you’re not distracted by stuff. There is for me, and for many, a deep sense of the presence of God in that place. It is, simply put, how it should be.

Many people, myself included, are finding the current state of affairs in our country and the world deeply depressing. Beyond all the shenanigans over Brexit – and that’s bad enough – is the stark and undeniable reality of climate change that we are now actually experiencing with too-hot summers, and alternating drought and torrential rainfall. The reasons for climate change are easy to understand – our over-reliance on fossil fuels on the one hand and deforestation on the other. How has all this come about? The reasons are many and complex, but human greed, the desire for more stuff is at its root. Where did we get the idea that the only home we know, that is, planet earth, could be plundered? By using the word ‘greed’ we actually frame it in spiritual terms by using the word ‘greed’. Greed is a form of idolatry, of serving and loving a false god. You might remember from a sermon I preached in Lent that it’s also one of the 7 deadly sins. And it turns out to be a cracked cistern, a water-tank with a hole in it. In the end, it doesn’t work.

At the beginning of the Jeremiah passage, God, through the prophet, speaks of Israel’s ‘love as a bride’. The whole picture of marriage – of YHWH as the husband and his chosen people as the bride – is wrapped around the mutual love of one for the other and the promises made – the covenant between them, in biblical terms. Once Israel let go of that, it was downhill for them. Let’s come back to love. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in the law he replied without hesitation, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27). He was quoting the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the OT (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18). We tend, I think, to focus on the ‘love your neighbour’ bit, perhaps because it’s easier to get hold of. It’s something I think that our church is pretty good at, on the whole. But loving God? This is where I want to land this sermon, for it is the first and greatest commandment and its loss was at the heart of the Jeremiah passage. Placing the love of God first in our lives will orient us in the right direction. Before Rosemary and I start on a walk or cycle ride, we always try and make sure that we start in the right direction! Doesn’t always work, but we’re so much less likely to get lost!

When we love a person, it involves all of us. It certainly involves our hearts – the warmth we feel for him or her, the desire to be with them, to spend time with them. It will involve our bodies, too: we may actually feel love as a warmth in our body, we will want to touch and be touched, to embrace. We will also want to do things for that person, sometimes even putting ourselves in harm’s way or at personal cost for them. It involves our minds as we talk and exchange ideas, share experiences and think about ways our love is expressed: ‘with all your hearts and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’. It’s easier to understand those words when we put them in human terms. Loving God is very, very close to this. In fact, any expression of love comes from God, since as we are told, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). But, like human love, we will need to give this time. If our relationship with God has become a bit mechanical and dry – do this, believe that – then we may need to refresh. The last time I preached I talked about the need for silence, and silence is a good place to start: the clearing out of our preoccupations and anxieties and giving space for God. Taking a walk in nature – forests, mountains, rivers is a good place to meditate and pray: to be still, to watch and see. There is something called ‘seeing again’, when you look at something and then really see it. Again, this is a bit like falling in love: you see someone and then you really see them and love them. In a way, that kind of seeing actually is love. So to see perhaps a flower, and then to ‘see again’ – to see its beauty, its colours, its frailty and to allow yourself even to love it – and then to realise that this is an expression of the Creator who fills and sustains all things and to love him – now we’re getting there. The love of the natural world, to each other, is very close to the love of God simply because the natural world is an expression of God. We won’t want to trash or plunder what we love.

It is said that the principal Christian virtues are faith, hope and love (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). Personally, I’m finding myself a bit short on hope these days so I’m trying to focus on love – which St Paul tells us is the greatest of these anyway. Brother Roger of Taizé said that in the face of huge problems which it looks as if you can’t do anything about, you should do something even if it’s very small. If our love of God and of all he has made leads us to do something then maybe there is a particle of hope there too.

I’ll finish by mentioning other ways of deepening your experience of knowing and loving God. A retreat is a good place to start, you can have a look at the Retreat Association website. Pilgrimage is another way: the reduction of your life to its bare essentials, just what you can carry on your back; spending time at holy places like Taizé, Iona, Lindisfarne; and engaging with spiritual direction. If you would like to know more about that, please speak to me, or Rosemary or Cathy Rowan after the service.

So, let us be a people of love.

 

Image Credit – The poor invited to the feast, 1973, Jesus Mafa, Cameroon

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The fire & the passion

Jeremiah 23:23-29 Luke 12:49-56

This week, amid the many depressing items on the news, came the rather bizarre (though no longer surprising) story of a much older man publicly bullying a much younger woman, (almost still a girl). Arron Bank’s ‘joke’ about Greta Thunberg having a “freak yachting accident” as she sailed the Atlantic to raise consciousness of climate change was neither funny, no palatable. Greta has inadvertently become a prophet of our time. I’m not sure how I feel about such a pressurised role upon a single young person, but her stark warnings confront and divide our sensibilities… call us to uncomfortable realities…

In this church, we may generally find ourselves on the side of the climate change movement…
So let’s think about this topic for a moment too;

Fifty years ago the Stonewall movement began to bring solidarity and strength to the LGBTQI+ community. And for fifty years the church has prevaricated, judged, resisted and floundered.. so that in many respects the church has totally lost its place in the discussion. Whilst Bishops still deliberate on wording of placating documents; the rest of the world has all but given up on the church… we can recall Jesus saying the prophet is no longer welcome in her/his own town and shaking the dust off their feet. And if this prophet is gay? No wonder!

Maybe the church has neglected to hear the gospel of love, inclusion, diversity, acceptance and solidarity which has emerged loud and clear from the gay community.
Has the church not listened to God?

So do we really need a gospel reading which seems to encourage the very divisions we are struggling with in society which feels the tension of division very acutely right now?

Well let’s think – The reading today tells of a purifying fire which cleanses the world of injustice and oppression – it supports all that Jesus ministry has been about.

It tells us also that to follow Jesus into the way of love will cause division, much like the gay son or daughter who realises – and fears – that ‘coming out’ means dividing people’s opinions and loyalties, (and maybe me speaking like this?).

And finally a warning about only believing what we want to believe.. (that could be my reading, it may be a more conservative reading); resisting change, denying reality.

So where truly is the voice of God in the prophets? Where are the prophets today? (as Hamish asks).

Jesus language sounds terrifying… it might be better to simply skip over them. They can put us in fear.. give us a religion of uncertainty. But actually, his words are similar to the words of Jeremiah.

The prophets, Jesus & Jeremiah, both ask ‘do you really see what’s going on?’

For Jeremiah it is a world about to collapse.. and false prophets are saying, “no everything will be ok”… (SPOILER – but they wont). Jeremiah also uses fire imagery to reveal a difficult reality.

The whole section of readings around this in Luke are about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of justice and liberation; The kingdom demands and is impatient.. The reading has three parts;

1. Fire cleanses the world of abuse and oppression, it purifies.
in Luke – a manifesto of liberation…. The Magnificat & the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’

God’s fire is prophetic in that it calls the world back to a different reality, it reveals God’s kingdom as one in which people “act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor … the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Jer 22:3).

Fire is the presence of God where evil cannot exist. No wonder Jesus wants to start the fire;

2. It does divide. are you against injustice, are you for love?

Do you really stand with the refugee and the orphan, with the vulnerable and the abused?

(words of consolation to the early church which would have felt the pain of this, and to us today)

3. And finally Jesus – like Jeremiah- warns against hypocrisy from the mouths of false prophets…

Hypocrisy is about deceiving ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be complacent and comfortable…

Hananiah, the false prophet whom Jertemiah challenged… emboldening complacency and hubris; ‘the royal consciousness’.

Jesus; “you may see tomorrow’s weather, but do you see the times?” Are you ready to really hear? Climate change, shifting ideas of sexuality and gender, the rising tide of far-right… voices from the margins – -some are healthy some are life-giving, others we ignore at our peril. The time is short.

Whats also worth recognising is that Jesus see the hypocrisy in all of us… it’s the way we all live, we are hypocritical in many ways.. that’s part of the purifying work of this fire.. it’s not there to shame or to point; instead it recognises that we are all conflicted, complex and messy.

So rather than fear, this reading suggests love; “thy kingdom come” is about the worlds well-being!

We often privatise and personalize our spirituality… when there is a wider vision at hand…

Christianity limits itself when interpreted only as personal piety, good behavior, keeping pure from the taint of… (you name it). This kind of passage is liable to cause paranoia, confusion, self-doubt, dualism and a ‘retreat mentality’ from the world and its bad ways. It promotes what Estella calls a ‘transaction mindset’ in the church “if I do ‘the good thing’ then maybe God will like me, but if I don’t….?”

But the OT and NT have a different take.. The gospel is radical in its vision. It is sociological and communitarian; about households and communities. For teachers like Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus ultimately about the whole world! “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?  Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23). The radical Hebrew vision of a God both ‘near and far’.

It speaks with people outside the church.. injustice, oppression, racism, inequality.

And, the good news is free; like Gods Holy Wisdom it calls from the streets. We need prophets, we always do – but they often come from unexpected places..

Such a perspective makes a place of common life-affirming humanity – we find solidarity with our neighbours and those concerned about the worlds and its creature.
God’s fire is woven through all these.

Jesus is the passion of God. Representing humanity and holding the fullness of humanity as he draws all to God’s desire for a kingdom of love. Whether humanity knows this – I’ll leave for you to ponder…

And what for the church?

Well, as the flame of Jeremiah’s frustration grew, so also did a hope;

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel […]  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jer. 31)

The Eucharist recalls this new covenant; the anticipated hope in Jeremiah, of divine love which both causes division and overcomes division. Jesus recalls that covenant, (Lk. 22) the unexpected/impossible hope. In the last supper, he becomes that hope, pointing to both death and new life. The fire and passion of God is given for all the world; – So that all may know the freedom of God written in their hearts.

GS Collins 18aug 2019

Image Credit – Asilah, Morocco. Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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Simplicity

Simplicity

St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, 23rd October 2016, Creation 8

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Luke 18:18-30

This morning’s reading, the rich young ruler who was invited by Jesus to ‘sell all that you have and distribute the money to the poor’ is one of those readings that doesn’t leave us feeling great. Most of us probably ignore it. A few days ago I mentioned I would be preaching on this to a couple of good friends. Steve said he felt utterly condemned by the words of Jesus and had no idea what to do with them. Is this what we are supposed to do? Give everything away? Or just sit there and feel condemned? Or ignore the words? Some people have actually taken Jesus at his literal word – most famously of course, St Francis of Assisi, but actually many, many monks and nuns who have taken vows of poverty through the ages have done the same. St Francis heard the words as if directly spoken to him and took them completely literally. And it would be safe to say that it worked for him! So what do we do with it? The story appears in all 3 synoptic gospels so it can’t be ignored. The Bible has over 800 references to money and possessions in it – far more than it does about sex but look at the song and dance we make about that! Speaking very broadly, on the one hand there’s a message that wealth is a blessing (particularly an OT idea); but on the other hand, that wealth – or more accurately the love of it can become a false god, a block to our relationship with God. ‘…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Tim 6:10) wrote Paul to his young apprentice, Timothy. Perhaps for the rich young ruler, the love of money was his problem and that was why the solution was so radical. But we should remember that Jesus words were spoken to him and we are only overhearing them.

But let’s not distance ourselves from this text too much. I want to link it with the last time I spoke, back in August when I reflected on my recent visit to Taizé and the message from Brother John about our faith being embodied in ‘the life we live’. That our faith takes on flesh, in the way we actually conduct our lives. This struck me as profoundly true. What other Christianity is there apart from the one that people see? Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, wrote this in his Rule of life to the brothers in the community: ‘Be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy’. So I would like to interpret the story of the rich young ruler through the lens of simplicity. Though the young man sought to obey the commandments (‘All these I have kept from my youth’ he replied to Jesus), in fact he was bogged down, hampered by love of his possessions and Jesus’ words to him were calling him to a radical simplicity – something he would need if he truly wanted to follow the ‘Good Teacher’, as he called him.

Some of you know that a few years ago Rosemary and I had the privilege of being able to walk the Camino de Santiago, a distance of 500 miles from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. It was a pilgrimage. One of the things you learn very early on is that less is more. That if you are carrying all you need on your back, the lighter it is, the better. Twice we stopped and offloaded stuff and posted it on to Santiago so that our rucksacks would be lighter and the journey easier. A very common topic of conversation with fellow pilgrims was the weight of our packs, what we had brought with us. Because what do you need? Really? It boiled down to these essentials: a sleeping bag, 3 pairs of underpants, 2 pairs of trousers, 3 shirts, a fleece, a waterproof, boots and a pair of crocs, 3 pairs of socks, a towel, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, a water bottle, and of course money to buy food and pay for lodging. The unnecessary luxuries included a mobile phone, a Kindle (actually mine bust after 3 days) and a camera. Bang. That’s it. Less is more. Because what really counted, what gave joy, was meeting fellow pilgrims, sharing food, the beauty of the walk, the moments when the unexpected happened and was often rich with a sense of giftedness. None of us carried much on the Way, so it equalised us – ‘all in the same boat’.

Pilgrimage is a kind of lived parable. You deliberately put yourself – literally, your body (to connect with Vince’s sermon last week) in a particular situation where you cannot have everything you are used to and then go on a physical, literal journey to a destination. This is not a ‘mind’ journey – not something we do in our heads – it’s something we do with all of us. And something happens in the doing of it. But my point here is that you have to be unencumbered, you have to embody simplicity otherwise you just cannot do it. Well, you don’t have to be a genius to get the point I am making. The journey itself is a metaphor for the journey of our life with pain as well as joy, rain and sunshine, good and bad companions, disappointments and joys. The rucksack you carry is a metaphor for what you take with you on that journey. And it’s a very literal metaphor, because it has real stuff in it. And the more you think about it, the more you reflect on what you actually need to live contentedly, the more you realise the answer is ‘not that much’. Here are some words from a Spanish nun we met on the Way, printed on a leaflet she kindly passed to us: ‘The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter your backpack, the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive’

So what do we do with this? The story of the rich young ruler, challenged by Jesus to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor is almost certainly unrealistic for us in that literal sense. It was a message from Jesus to one man in a particular situation at a particular time that few have been able to follow in that literal way – although worth saying again, that men and women who are called into monastic orders, to become monks and nuns, do exactly that. And that can have profound effects – we can think not only of St Francis but also Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her order, Franciscans today like Richard Rohr and Jesuits like Pope Francis, and the community of Taizé. We have been thinking of the powerful experience of pilgrimage which tells us how little we actually need, and of the joy of not having too much in your backpack. So we have these voices speaking about a different way of living that runs counter-culturally, against the tide of advertising that tells us we must have this or that, that we can’t be happy without it; against the common assumptions that we live to accumulate. We should remember too that at least a billion people in the world today live in abject poverty – for them ‘simplicity’ is not a life choice they make. And also, that it is greed and consumption in the West which in large measure has driven so many of them into poverty – through our dark history of imperialism, slavery and greed which has devastated natural resources; through the excessive burning of fossil fuels leading to climate change, which always affects the poor more than the rich; and through unfair trade agreements which disadvantage further the already disadvantaged. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India, was a man who took to heart the message of simplicity and by it, made a huge impact. It was he who said this: ‘Live simply, that others may simply live’.

But we live in a world where we have to have somewhere to live, where most of us have or need a car (but by no means all!), where we have become used to lots of nice things – good food, international travel, technology, the odd bottle of wine and so on. None of these are bad in themselves. It is not my intention to make us feel guilty, but simply to begin to question, in the light of Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler and the experience of pilgrimage: what do I really need? How could I embody simplicity, to unencumber my life somewhat, to free myself? To let simplicity become more part of ‘the life I live’? To ‘travel light’? Interestingly, we were talking about exactly this in our home group this week. Let me give you some suggestions by drawing on the Quaker teacher Richard Foster. I think each of these suggestions is possible for each of us and takes us in the direction of simplicity of life. The suggestions go beyond possessions to our attitude towards other people, our relationships

 

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status or prestige.
  • Learn the difference between a real need and an addiction. Then find support and accountability to regain “sobriety,” freedom from addiction.
  • Develop a habit of giving things away.
  • Avoid unnecessary and short-lived technological gadgets that promise to “save time.”
  • Enjoy things without owning them. For example, take advantage of public libraries and parks.
  • Nurture awe and appreciation for nature. Spend more time outdoors!
  • Get out—and stay out—of debt.
  • Use plain, honest speech. Say what you mean and keep your commitments.
  • Reject anything that oppresses others. For example, buy Fair Trade products.

Seek God’s kingdom of love and justice foremost. If anything distracts you from that purpose, let it go.

I’m not going to labour the point any more but to leave you with those thoughts. I have printed out those 9 suggestions of Richard Foster and I will leave them on the table on the back, take one if you like.

Finally, think about going on a pilgrimage! It is a fantastic opportunity to feel this for yourself – actually know it in your body. Of course there is the Camino de Santiago but many others too – Iona, Taizé, Lindisfarne and Greenbelt are places that many of us have been to but may not have seen the experience as a pilgrimage – but they are places of pilgrimage, and going to each of those places will mean a lightening of the load in a physical way. A holiday can be a pilgrimage too – think of the word ‘holy day’ but only if it means a leaving-behind of stuff rather than a grabbing of more.

So I challenge us to see the words of Jesus to the rich young man as a call to declutter, to simplify life, to cut away what is getting in the way of following Jesus. And to interpret that for us as the vocation to embrace simplicity in our lives. To come back to these words, ‘it’s the life we live’.

 

Richard Croft