8th October 2017, The Village MCC
Tonight, you may be happy to hear, I’m going to talk about very little. About having very little. Needing very little. Being very little – no, wait, that’s just me.
I’m also going to talk about a lot. A huge amount, An infinite amount.
An infinite amount, is what God has given us. Very little, is what we truly need.
Consider the world. All those stars and galaxies out there, each one is a vast ball of fire which would dwarf our planet, every galaxy a little bit different, different shapes and sizes. Think about the planets of just this one solar system. The rings of Saturn, the colours of Jupiter, and all those moons of their own and every one of them is different. What a universe!
Go down to Brighton beach one day, and look at the pebbles. You can do it every week and they’ll be different, because the tide keeps changing them and moving them around. You’ll find every kind of shape and colour imaginable of pebbles on that little stretch of beach down there. Marsha and I love to go down there, and pick them up and show them to each other: ‘look at this one’, ‘look at this one!’ – and that’s just one tiny bit of beach.
I’ve been held mesmerised for half an hour at a time by a little patch of grass and weeds, watching the insects moving about in it; tiny little lives. Sitting listening to a robin sing. And there’s a whole planet of it, and a billion species of insects all different, and each kind of bird with its own kind of song. Did you know robins have regional dialects? A Yorkshire robin has a different song to a Sussex one? What an incredible world. Do I really think God made all this variety and beauty and wealth just so that I could use it as I see fit? No, God made it for itself. For God’s self, to delight in it, to love it, to share it. I think God made it for every grain of sand on it, for every mosquito! – I may not like them, but God made them. And then I think, God gave it to me too, to all of us, too – to look at it, to love it, to care for it, to take delight in it the way God takes delight in it.
God does nothing by halves. When God set out to create, it wasn’t by the allocation of a budget or a calculation of what return God expected from the investment! No, God always overflows the cup! Whenever you think God’s come to the end of all that creativity and generosity, there’s always more!
And what never ceases to amaze me is that in the middle of all this overabundance, we’ve contrived to invent scarcity, poverty, and need. How did we manage it? In the middle of all this beauty, we’ve invented ugliness. In all middle of all this wonder, we’ve invent boredom. In the middle of all this love, we’ve somehow contrived to invent hatred. How? I think we did it, by not trusting. I think we did it, by worrying that God wasn’t going to carry on being that generous.
Matthew 6: 25- 32 : ‘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 Parent feeds them…. 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, ……… will he not much more clothe you…….? do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For……. indeed your heavenly Parent knows that you need all these things. (taken from the NRSV)
Jesus tells us, assures us that God is indeed as generous as creation suggests. Jesus, like I’ve just done, turns our attention to the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air, and says – look. If God can do this, then God can surely look after you as well.
Well, that’s all very well, but it’s hard. It’s hard to stop worrying when you haven’t much and the world seems to be determined to take even that. But the peasants of Galilee weren’t precisely millionaires either! And I’ve been in the fortunate position of having experienced being very very well off and at another time having experienced not being able to afford enough to eat, and turning off the heating all winter because we couldn’t pay the fuel bill. And that taught me something. It taught me that I really don’t need much. And it taught me it doesn’t matter how much you have, if you’re going to worry, you’re going to worry. And if you’re going to trust, you’ll trust. God knows I worry far more than I should. But Jesus’ commands are never impossible. Difficult, yes, but not impossible, because along with the commands, God gives us what we need to follow them.
There are ways of practicing not worrying, and there’s one in Luke’s gospel which on the face of it sounds absolutely bizarre, at least to the modern mind, and only a few holy people have ever taken it completely literally: Luke 14:33 ‘so therefore nobody can be my disciple if you do not give up all possessions’ – can we take this literally? Is this just hyperbole?
There’s one way it can be taken very literally – give up on the whole concept that you own stuff. Who does it belong to really? Who made it? Who can give, or take away? Who will have it back when we’re gone? Only the Creator.
It’s a change of perspective, a change of perception if we can say of everything – it’s not mine but God’s. I’m holding on to it for a little while. I think about my little dog Marmite. God’s given him to me to take care of, to love, feed, entertain, shelter and keep healthy. He in his turn brings love and joy to me. But where in that does it say he’s ‘mine’ and I can do with him entirely as I choose? Can I ever really say I own that life? No more than I can say I own my partner, or the air I breathe.
Reverend Jak Davis of North London once gave a sermon about how we decide what’s ours and what’s God’s, and illustrated it beautifully with a cucumber, which she chopped into sections, to show the division of our money, or time and so on. And apparently, this was a little… uncomfortable for some of the congregation, so I’m not going to do that, tonight. I’ll just ask you to imagine the whole of a day – 24 hours. And you take off 8 hours or so for sleeping. And then you take off the time you spend at work. And then the time you spend on housework, shopping, admin tasks, and then you take off the time you spend on prayer, maybe, and the time you spend with family, and then you say, ‘right, this is the time I’ve got left for God. Or, you could say ‘This 24 hours is God’s. And it’s God’s when I’m at work. And it’s God’s when I’m asleep. It’s God’s when I’m playing with the dog, or when I’m scrubbing the kitchen floor. It’s all God’s. It’s all time in which to worship, in which to serve, in which to remember that this second, this breath, is God’s as well.
It’s very well put in CS Lewis’ book ‘The Screwtape Letters’. If you don’t know it, is a book in which the ‘Screwtape’ writing the letters is a senior demon giving advice to a junior demon on how to tempt humans And he gives this advice to the junior demon: ‘Let him think: ‘My time is my own’: let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties……..the man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time, it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels…….the humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell’
And that’s true of time, it’s true of our money, it’s also true of the whole Earth. It sounds equally funny to the angels when we suggest that we own a patch of it. We can’t create for ourselves a single millimetre of space or second of time, we don’t order our own births or deaths. It’s time to acknowledge I’m just a steward, I’m not an owner. God gave us all we need, and more than we need, but that never gave us the right to smash it up. Or to keep for ourselves what someone else desperately needs?
Once we give up on the idea of owning and keeping, when we recognise that it’s all still in the hands of a very loving, very generous God, who gave us (all of us, equally) the right and freedom to live in it, love it and take care of it, then it’s not a matter of worrying anymore that if we give to God and each other we won’t have enough for ourselves. We don’t give from our surplus. We don’t care for what remains of the planet only when we’ve finished taking our share. It’s all God’s, always was, and always will be. And God loves us.
For each coin, for each loaf, for each minute, for each breath, for everything that exists, my question is not ‘how much of what is mine will I give to God?’ but ‘what will I do with this that is God’s, and was given, for love’s sake, to me?’