Notes from the sermon given by Dr Jan Betts on Pentecost Sunday
The blessing of things
1 Kings 5: 15-21 and 8: 22-29
Luke 15: 11-32
Today we are going to do something which Heston suggested is ‘God detection’ in our daily lives. How do we spot God in the everyday? How does the Spirit driven energy of Pentecost, the fire of God in our lives, work in our material every day lives?
On this songs of praise day, I want to think about praising God for things, material things. I was brought up as a young Christian to feel a fair amount of guilt around ‘stuff’, ‘material things’ which were made by people for people, bought in shops and just part of everyday living. I felt I shouldn’t be enjoying things perhaps because we had too much and there were poor people in the world, that sort of eat your greens because the starving children of Africa would like them business, , or you shouldn’t be pleased with your new shoes because you should be thinking about God, especially if you were wearing them to church. Comfort was OK, fashion was something else. There was a strange mix in it, and quite honestly I’m not sure at this distance what it was all about but it tied into a feeling that the things of the mind and the rather abstract spirit were good and bodily, sensual things were bad in some way. That’s an old mind body division which has been around for centuries, since the enlightenment somewhere in the eighteenth century. I suspect that I belonged to a particular generation, or a particularly Puritanical way of seeing the Gospel.
I’ve been rethinking this recently, because it seems to me that this attitude, of – roughly – material bad and spiritual good is wrong for all sorts of reasons, but not totally wrong.
Firstly God made us as material beings and so our materiality must be part of the blessing we were given – as well as being part of our fallen world which needs redeeming. Jesus himself shared in that materiality. In my effort to decipher the sacredness of the world I need to explore all of it, including my material resources and how I relate to them and bring them into my Christian understanding.
Now one of the material things that it was always OK to give thanks for in my growing up days was what we loosely call ‘nature’. Most of the time when we think of ‘nature’ we think of the world of living things: trees, hills, waterfalls, tigers and weather of all sorts. And as Pope Francis says ‘the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning and revisiting those places does us much good.’
Praising God for this bit of the created world is great but when you live in an urban environment we’re not too close to that living world on a daily basis. Street lights and buses don’t do it for us quite like foxes and apple blossom. But what that ignores is that really everything is part of creation. We really are star dust. And it may be that the church carpet was once part of a supernova, or even a stegosaurus. The atoms in it are just configured this way now! I think we need to widen our ideas about what nature is and how we can be thankful for more than the occasional flash of a kingfisher or red kite.
Not only are we stardust – or possibly volcano fall out – we are also beings created in the image of God and one of our gifts is that we too can create and make things and relate to the things which we, as children of God, have made as well as the things which God has made directly. We can’t quite yet make people, but we make many other things out of the materiality which God has given us as a gift to be responsible for.
What is there about these things which we have made, which we call ‘our possessions’ but which are gifts from God, which can speak to us of God in our own little lives? I think there is quite a lot.
Let’s go to our readings. In the Old Testament we have the story of Solomon building the temple. The Temple wasn’t God and Solomon was clear about that but he wanted to build a beautiful place to honour God in, and give God a sort of ‘earthly house’ in line with all other gods around, in Lebanon and Syria. It was beautiful, gleaming with gold and other precious furnishings which everyone contributed to. It was something to wonder at in itself, but Solomon in his prayer of dedication, is very clear that it is an offering to bring the people of Israel closer to God, to emphasise God’s special love for and dwelling with her people. I’ll pick this up in a minute. Material things were used to honour God and to recognize a proper relationship with God.
What about the story of the prodigal son. How does materiality play out in this story?
The younger son seems to have seen things as being about exploiting his world, about buying friends, about appearing rich through the things he bought and valued. He exploited his father, his brother and himself. He used things as a resource to gain status, to please himself. He didn’t make them himself, or think much about what they could do except to give pleasure. He encouraged the divide which material things can create between the rich and the poor, which God wants us to break down. And it did him little good. I ask myself how I recognise any of this in me?
The older son, on the other hand seems to be indifferent to the value of the things he worked with. He was angry because his father never offered them to him specifically – he didn’t take on board that as a loved son he only had to ask and he seemed to take no pleasure in the things themselves. They seem to be expressions of a relationship which feels a bit sour, and heavy and dutiful. Is there anything of our relationship with God which feels like this?
The Father had a very different relationship with his material goods. He took the things he had and used them joyously to express his love and his happiness at the son’s return. He wasn’t afraid of celebrating with rings and cloaks and other lovely goods, and shared them as an expression of warm relationship, of total love for someone.
So what are the principles here about how we look at the things we have?
They are to be enjoyed. I love Hannah’s joy in her new bike! We are blessed through it. We’re not to use it to exploit others, ourselves or the earth, nor should we be indifferent to it. We can use it to make both beautiful and useful things. My Franciscan principles suggest this – not to exploit through materiality, and not to live with luxury or waste but to make sure there is enough for all. But I think we can go farther than this in saying that what we make, when we think about it, can point us to God, as Solomon indicates.
In my research recently I was looking at how things are more than exploiters for people at work and I found that things do a great deal, mostly around relationships. I think these relationships are part of our God given joy in material stuff.
Firstly I think we can create things which give us and others joy. It may be a beautiful felt hanging. It may be a home made sweater. It may be a tool or a musical instrument or even a model train which we enjoy. It may be a cartoon or a bike. And it may be that as we look more closely at our things it can change our attitude. As I was preparing this I looked at my singing bowls and really saw them. I have three – but I realised thata I only need one to appreciate them. We don’t need a lot, we only need eyes to see and to honour. When we look properly we need less. Burj told me once about how in his Indian community, there is a day when tools are honoured, when people don’t work but celebrate and care for their tools. I thought that was fascinating.
Created things can give us joy. But they can do more. They can comfort us, not by their multitude, or by the way they mark us off as special but by the way they remind us of our value to others and to God. When I was talking to people at work they spoke of how they had small things – someone used her mother’s hand cream at bad times at work, someone had a beermat from a brother, someone had a cartoon pinned up in out of sight of others which lifted her. When they were feeling devalued, these things and many others reminded them that they were of value to someone. We are of value to other people and to God – as we look at special things, things we may have loved for a long time, we remember that these are gifts from our creator THROUGH OUR OWN CREATIVITY and they show us that there is love and respect for us in the world when we are being oppressed. They are not Gad but they point us to God, as the temple pointed the people of Israel to God. Some things point away from God: Daniel Berrigan, an American priest, who has died recently, founded the Plowshares movement to remind us to turn our swords into ploughshares, to use our materiality to bring peace not war, as the Father in the parable used his possessions to bring reconciliation.
And sometimes objects may hold secrets which we can only share with God, because only God knows what they mean.
Think for yourselves of your special things which point youto God, to your neighbour, which show you that you are of value.
Material things can work to remind us and show us the love of God, the love of others, the delightful skills he has given us to work in the material world and how we can enjoy them .
Nowhere is material stuff more closely linked to God than in the body of Jesus, broken for us and in the practical homely bread and wine which Jesus chose as the symbol for us to remember his love. These are not God but they work to show us that God loves us and provides for us. As we approach them can we look to see how bread and wine, material things, sustain us and feed us in every sense, literal and metaphorical.