Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden
The words we have today from Matthew’s Gospel are taken from the Sermon on the Mount.
Gospel Reading - Matthew Chapter 6:25-33
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life ? "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
These words are beautiful for us at harvest time because they show Jesus recognising God as work in creation. Harvest is one of the easiest festivals to explain because it is about ordinary life, getting in the stuff that we need to live and thanking God for it. God can seem very near to us when we are in nature, when we walk up a big mountain, or look out across the sea. If we are in peril on a rough sea then we will automatically God to God to help us.
The Celtic Church was very much at home in nature and very affirming of God’s presence there. In using the term `Celtic Church’ I want to describe almost the earliest native form of Christianity in the islands of Britain and Ireland, it dates from around 400. The Celtic Church established itself as the most successful evangelistic movement Britain has ever seen with people like Ninian, the first known evangelist in Scotland
- David, who had such an influence on Wales
- Patrick, a Scot who evangelised Ireland
- Columba, an Irishman who led many in Scotland to Christ
We have much to learn from Celtic Christianity. In the Celtic tradition the Holy Spirit is represented as a bird, but not the peaceful and serene dove landing on Jesus at his baptism. For their symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Celtic church people chose the Wild Gose, (An Geadh-Glas). This has become, the logo and name for the worship branch of the Iona Community. Why did the Wild Goose speak to those ancient Celtic Christians? To begin with, wild geese aren’t controllable. You can’t restrain a wild goose and bend it to your will. They’re raucous and loud. Unlike the sweet and calming cooing of a dove, a goose’s honk is strong, challenging, strident and unnerving – and just a bit scary. In much the same way the Spirit of God can be, demanding and unsettling. Think about the story of Pentecost, and the impression the disciples made on the crowd. People thought they were drunk and disorderly! Its one thing for a gentle dove to descend peacefully on Jesus – it’s something all together different when the Spirit descends like a wild, noisy goose!
I digress ! To come back to nature and creation, early Christianity in Celtic lands had a very natural feel with a strong sense of God’s presence in creation and in everyday life. God was celebrated through all the senses, there was poetry in prayer and a vivid sense of saints, angels and the unseen world. There was a positive approach to humanity, which owed much to the theology of Pelagius, the first prominent British theologian of the fourth century. He refused to bow to the dominant ideas of Augustine who taught that the first sin of Adam was passed from one generation to another through the sinful act of sex. He believed that what is deepest in us is the image of God. Sin has distorted but not erased it, although the struggle against evil in the human and the spirit world is real. For Celtic Christians there was much prayer and it followed the natural rhythm of the sun and the seasons. The early Celtic churches were communities of work, prayer and hospitality at the heart of local life.
Creation as Sacrament
The Celtic Church had this positive attitude towards creation, they did not see matter as evil, nor the spiritual world as divorced from the material. Thus, they looked on Creation around them as one great hymn of praise to its Creator, reflecting his nature and character, whilst not actually being God itself. Because the Celtic believers lived in a rural world, life was lived in rhythm with creation. Thus, many Celtic prayers are associated with simple events such as rising in the morning, lying down at night, cleaning a hearth or baking bread.
They saw the creatures around them as fellow servants of God. Columba instructed a brother on Iona to give shelter to an injured bird which had fallen on the shore on its flight across the water, as an expression of God’s love for His creatures. And there is the famous story of Cuthbert being warmed at Coldingham by sea-otters after he had come out of the cold North Sea where he had been singing psalms during the night.
Creation is therefore seen as an outward expression of God’s nature and character, sustained by his upholding Word, and declaring his visible glory. It is not seen as a decaying, disposable utility to be exploited by man, which came with the later dualistic thinking.
Celtic Christianity saw God in creation, indeed God was everywhere surrounding us. Celtic Christianity was a down to earth spirituality which saw an awareness of God in all of the basic things of life.
John Scotus Eriugena, a 9th century Irish Celtic theologian, spoke of the 'little book' and the 'big book'. Through these two books it was possible to discover or ‘read' God. The little book was the Bible, the Big Book was creation. The Christian church in the English-speaking world has had access to the Bible in English for over 500 years, in many different forms. But Celtic Christianity, as it blossomed into the British Isles via the Celtic monks over a thousand years ago, acknowledged that God speaks in other ways too.
If we are seeking God then one of the ways in which we must see God is not 'away from creation' but rather, 'deep within all that has been created.' Didn’t Jesus do this himself when he drew so much of his teaching from nature around him. His parables and the stories he told were so often from farming or about animals. God’s love for us as his children was illustrated from the care which he has for sparrows.
This is not to be naive about what has gone wrong in creation. It is not to pretend that creation, like the human soul, has not been infected by sin. It is to affirm, however, that creation is like a sacred text that we can learn to read in our journey of knowing God. It is also to say that what we do to matter is a spiritual issue, whether that be the matter of our human bodies, the matter of the body of creation, or... how we handle the resources of the earth.
This is a harvest message and we see God blesses us in the ordinary ways and days of our lives as we live out our faith and show our faith is real in the daily tasks.
In our Bible reading today, Jesus calls us to look at the flowers and see how God has clothed them. To meditate on the sparrows and how they are cared for and fed by God. So we are to enter a way of life in which we are reassured of God’s providence and so set free for his service and to enjoy fulfilling lives.
I want to conclude by reading to you some words of Pelagius. He was the first important theologian from Britain and he provided a foundation for Celtic Christianity. He lived in the fourth century when Britain was under Roman rule. Remember the Roman Emperor Constantine had become a Christian in 312 and so Christianity was the faith of the Roman Empire. Pelagius went to Rome and taught his ideas which emphasised the good in people and in creation. Augustine was the dominant theologian at the time and he opposed Pelagius as a heretic who had not considered how enslaved humanity was to sin. Augustine managed to win more powerful people over to his side and in 418 a council of bishops at Carthage condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagius fled to the desert and died two years later. Pelagius is not mentioned by name in the later Celtic literature but his theology is seen strongly in the Celtic Church which flourished in the sixth and seventh centuries. The following reading is entirely suitable for Harvest and reminds us of God’s presence with us in the daily tasks as we toil and build and seek to do our duties in God’s service.
God is present in all things, great and small. God's power
is manifest in all events, great and small. So you do not
need to involve yourself in great matters in order to serve
God. You can serve him in small matters, in the
mundane concerns of daily life. So if you plough the soil
in a spirit of love, you are serving God. If you care for
your cattle and sheep in a spirit of love, you are serving
God. If you treat your servants with generosity, you are
serving God. If you build a house for your family, you
are serving God. If you speak at a public forum with
words of wisdom, you are serving God. If you cherish
your wife and your children, you are serving God.
Perhaps in the fullness of time God will call you to some
great act: he may require you to be leader of a Christian
congregation; he may ask you to suffer and even to die
for your faith. And if such a call comes, you must be
ready to hear it and respond. But in the meantime obey
God in the ordinary things of life.
To a new Christian