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BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship: Archbishop preaches at a Harvest Thanksgiving service

Sunday 4th October 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, preaches at a Harvest Thanksgiving Service in the village church of St Cosmus and St Damian in the Blean near Canterbury.

St Cosmus and St Damian in the BleanThe full text of the sermon is below:

It's so difficult to accept that we're not in charge.  And to be told that we're not in charge usually feels humiliating; it sounds like denying us our right to make the decisions that suit us.  That's why the reading we heard a few minutes ago isn't the easiest to get our minds around.  Here's God telling human beings that they mustn't dare imagine that they can understand the universe he has made: he seems to mock our weakness and to leave us helpless.  Confronted by the terrible suffering of Job, God seems not to care.  All he wants to say is that there is no answer to suffering and that he alone sees how it all fits together. 

We might well feel like protesting.  No: we're not completely helpless; we may not have been around when the pillars of the earth were laid and the stars sang and the heavenly host shouted for joy (what a wonderful picture that is!), but we can shape our environment in some ways and make it more friendly to human beings.  'We plough the fields and scatter/ The good seed on the land'. And surely it's rather important not to think we're helpless just at the moment, when we need to work out the best steps to take so as to avoid environmental disaster.  There really are things we can do, and it doesn't help to think we're all doomed.

But 'we're all doomed' would be to get the meaning of the biblical passage slightly off-key.  God is not telling people to step back from acting and making a difference.  It's more that he's saying you can only make a difference when you give up the idea that you can predict everything and make everything work just for the sake of the decisions that you and people like you want to make.  This world is not there just for you.  It's a wild and diverse world, often threatening, sometimes just baffling; but it's a world that the stars and the angels look at with overflowing joy, a world that is both regular in all sorts of ways that we can grasp by observation and science and also unpredictable, a world where you can work out some of how things work, yet are still left always on the frontiers of deeper and stranger realities.  It's a world you can make some sense of, yet also a world where you'll never finish questioning and exploring.

Much of our environmental crisis comes from the half-hidden assumption that the ideal position for us humans is being completely in control, being able to make nature do whatever we want it to.  Yet if we are ourselves part of nature, not some mysterious extra, standing outside the natural processes of our environment, we can hardly expect that our own plans and desires, which are just one little part of the working of the universe, should be able to dictate what happens in the whole of that universe without upsetting the balance of things.  The hard challenge is acquiring a sort of 'feel' for that balance – which means being able to look long and hard about what we think we want or need, what we take for granted about what makes a good life, so that we don't just expect God's world to reorganise itself entirely around what we happen to think will make us safe or happy.

In a way, this means learning to relate to the world around us in something of the same way we relate to other people.  We know a bit about how they work, we can learn how to work with the grain of someone else's personality, we can make a difference to how a relationship goes, yet there is always a dimension of strangeness and mystery in another person, and we have to approach that with respect, ready to go on learning and exploring.  And I wonder whether this is why St Francis, whose special day it is today, used to refer to the things of the physical creation as members of the family – Brother Sun, Sister Water and so on.  He saw the universe around him as a set of relationships in which he had a share.   The objects he encountered each day were part of a great complex circle of life in which he as a human being had a vital and unique role – but not the role of sole manager and proprietor.

In other words, he wasn't afraid of not being in charge.  And that fearlessness is expressed in so many aspects of his life – in the risks he took in reaching out to outcasts and people with dangerous diseases, in his insistence on living simply and relying only on other people's charity, even in his courageous acceptance of pain and death – 'Sister Death', not a terrifying thing that denied human dignity but just another feature of this astonishing and uncontrollable world.  He had learned the great lesson of Jesus Christ himself, that the biggest difference is made by those who are strong enough and secure enough to let go and to forget the dreams of total power.

We're not going to get very far in responding to the desperate problems of our environment – climate change, deforestation, the limited supplies of fossil fuels and so on – if we can't take at least a small step along the road St Francis took: recognising that we're a part of the whole, not the owners of a property, that we have to think of the life of the world around us as a sort of family life, with all that this means in terms of patience and not trying to control everything or bend it to our own agenda.  Francis found a deep and mysterious joy in accepting all this.  Perhaps he caught an echo of what the poet of the Book of Job imagines – the stars and the angels shouting for joy as God unrolls his endlessly diverse, inexhaustible world.  And without the echo of that joy, we shan't ever make the right kind of difference in the world.  May God help us hear the stars singing – and then perhaps we shall be better able to work out how we live on this extraordinary planet without killing it and killing each other. 

© Rowan Williams

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