Revd Judith Walker-Hutchinson - 30 July 2017
Romans 8:26-end & Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
How do you see God?
I don’t mean how do you see him visually, actually here and now standing in front of you in this space, but rather how do you imagine Gods-self?
Human imagination is a product of the mind and to grow the imagination we need to feed the mind. From St. Matthew’s Gospel today we hear Jesus growing the imagination of his disciples with the parable of the Pearl of Great Value; with stories of angels and of treasure. Throughout the Gospels we hear how Jesus uses the creative imagination of parables, stories, to expand the mind of the disciples - stories are surely the food of an expanding imagination.
In our house we love books – we love books to a fault and I know it’s a fault which many of you share. Mostly we read serious books, not just theology but good literature, challenging literature – books that take you to places and situations you could not, perhaps would not, want to otherwise imagine, thereby hopefully expanding our minds. But like all diets the diet of the mind needs variety, light and shade and so we do read for fun too.
When the children were young that was easy, children’s books are generally great fun to read to and with them but this year we celebrate (and that is the right word considering how many young people have been brought to the written page by J.K.Rowling), we celebrate, the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first of the Harry Potter novels.
Last month to mark that anniversary, the Rev Prof David Wilkinson, double PhD, theologian and physicist, spoke on BBC radio 4s ‘Thought for the Day’, not of some new discovery relating to string theory, the multiverse or quantum physics as you might expect but rather of how the Harry Potter novels had been a central part of his family life, helping his children to learn to read, bringing fun and enjoyment and survival of many a long car journey.
He also spoke of how many Christians had condemned the novels because of the witchcraft and wizardry. But this eminent theologian spoke of how if you stick with the novels there are deep themes of the complexity of choices, choices between good and evil, life and death, and of the resonances he sees with the writing of St Paul and Christian faith in general, the pointing towards hope in a higher power, and if you make it right through to the final story, the revelation that love and self-sacrifice are the ultimate way to overcome evil.
What Prof Wilkinson was talking about was that imaginative writing can be both fun escapism and an encounter with truth.
You might have noticed at the start of my mention of the Harry Potter novels I put a ‘but’ in there, because rather like the guy who missed out on signing up the Beatles I snobbily chose not to read Harry Potter to my son as I thought it was poor literature and so I missed the fun and imagination and possible truth of the stories which have gone on to sell over 500 million copies in 79 different languages - so much for my imagination!
I do however have my own adult version of the literary world of magical imagination and it’s Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels, in which the imagination is taken to a place as weird and wonderful as the quantum physics of David Wilkinson. His (David’s) is a world which to me seems fantastic beyond almost anything I’ve read.
In my limited understanding of physics there were the 3 dimensions of space - up/down; left/right; forward/backwards (i.e. space) and time the fourth dimension. This much we observe and experience. Now, physicists like David Wilkinson and Prof Brian Cox speak matter-of-factly of 10 or 11 potential dimensions and the bending and warping of time, all of which bends and warps my understanding of what is real.
Sometimes things Terry Pratchett writes strike you as immensely, surreally, funny but also at the same time immensely profound - fun and truth as in the Harry Potter novels. In Pyramids the 7th book in the series, the one that I have recently finished reading, the pyramid builders have accidentally discovered a way to loop time, thereby not only enabling them to move the immense blocks of marble from the quarry where they are now to where they are going to be in a future pyramid without any human intervention at all, but also – and stay with me – a way of making multiples of their highly skilled workers by bringing forward future versions of each of them, in order that this expanded, skilled, workforce can complete the work in super-quick time thereby meeting the impossible deadlines they have been set. They do incidentally, and this is one is for Robert (our treasurer), have to invent ‘quantum accountancy’ to deal with the inflated wage bill.
The real problem however is that these multiple individuals do not know their own future selves and disputes and even fights break out among persons and their own future person when old selves make decisions future selves don’t like.
“But that’s ridiculous” says the builder when his son advises him of these rather tricky labour disputes
“they’re not different people, they’re just doing it to themselves.”…
the builder’s son replies
“that’s never stopped anyone, father, how many men have stopped drinking themselves stupid at the age of 20 to save a stranger dying of liver failure at 40?
There was silence while they try to work this out
“a stranger –?” asks the builder
“I mean himself, when older.”
As mind-bendingly silly as this scenario seems it set me thinking about how little we know ourselves other than in the present moment, the here and now, in spite of the fact that we now know we live in a world of so many unseen as yet unknown dimensions, a world in which this Terry Pratchett time loop fun may not be so far from the truth.
I, like I suspect most of you, can sometimes look back at my past self in disbelief at some of the choices I made in life and the consequences they have had. Sometimes I feel I barely know the person who made those choices and I wonder how I would deal with her if I were to meet her now.
If I barely know my past self, the person I have already experienced in space and time, how can I possibly know the Judith of the future, let alone the Judith of the multiverse?
But what has all of this fun, imagination and philosophising got to do with the Scripture we heard today, or with my opening question
“How do you see God?” even “How should we see God?”
We feed our minds and grow our imagination about God from the greatest set of books ever to exist – the Bible. We may seek the help of others to interpret it, in church, by study, by discussion, but all of us, individuals, preachers and even brilliant theologians like David Wilkinson can only think about God to the limits of our imagination. Here, now in these dimensions of time and space we box God in to be a god like us, to a god who does things only in our sphere of experience and observation. But how many times in Scripture do we hear that God is so much more than this?
Today in our first reading, if we hear St Paul’s message with an open heart and mind, willing to stretch our imagination, we can get a glimpse of the real magnitude of the answer to that question - “How should we see God?”
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
No dimension, the ones we know, think we know, the ones that scientists are blowing our minds with, nor the ones we’ve not yet even tentatively discovered - no dimension is where God is not yet.
No dimension is where God is not yet.
This ought not to surprise us – yet it is beyond our imagining.
How then to describe God? If none of these dimensions can separate us from God then surely there is only one conclusion - and it’s an imaginative conclusion that no theology book nor preacher can ever describe, but like the best of creative writing can only point us towards
“How do you see God?”
God is not somewhere up there, out there, beyond the here and now. God is not someone or something we may meet at some point in the future, most likely not until we die and then only if we are among the fortunate few.
No this God, the God described in this fantastically creative, mind-blowingly imaginative set of books, we can see, if we are willing to look beyond our silly human limitations, is closer than our heartbeat, nearer than our next breath.
Closer than your heartbeat, nearer than your next breath
- and nothing, nothing can separate you from God but your choices and the limits of your own imagination.