Set Your Mind on Things Above
A Sermon on Colossians 3.1-11 and Luke 12.13-21 by Garry Deverell, 5 August 2001
The Latrobe sociologist, David Tacey, recently argued for an Australian spirituality from below: from the earth, from the feminine, from the sensuality of bodily experience. If religious experience is to mean anything at all in our Australian future, he says, then we must attend to the immanent presence of God in the earth, sea and sky; and in the non-hierarchical imagination of women; and in a new appreciation of sensual experience in our bodies. This he contrasts with the more transcendent spirituality favoured by the Australian churches, which, he says, is otherworldly, masculine, and favours a fascination with disembodied spirits over an encounter with God through the senses. This is all very interesting stuff, and occasionally compelling. But Im wondering what Tacey and his followers would make of this statement of Paul from the letter to the Colossians:
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God . . . Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
On the face of it, doesnt this read like the kind of thing Tacey wants to oppose? Its all about the heavens rather than the earth. About suppressing the natural desires we experience as human beings in favour of some kind of hidden life with God, who, along with Jesus, doesnt seem to be around much anymore. Now, to my mind, that raises a whole heap of difficult questions. Questions like: is the kind of spirituality promoted by Tacey Christian or non-Christian? If its non-Christian, what do we Christians do with it? Should we ignore it and stick with the plain meaning of Scripture, even at the cost of losing our cred in spiritual market-place? Or should we abandon our Christianity instead, tossing it away because it no longer suits our modern sentiments or values? Instead of sailing straight into these questions head on, Id like to tack across their considerable force at an angle. Why? Partly because one could never pretend to adequately explore them all in a single homily! But also because Ive watched many a storm destroy and embitter those who take their positions too early in such a controversy, so that the substantial truths offered from both sides are effectively lost, submerged under egos and doctrines, only to be recovered by someone else, often centuries later. So let me take you in another direction all together. And perhaps, from that vantage point, misunderstandings will be avoided and some of the truth may come to light.
I want to take you back to the 14th century, to a German theologian and priest named Johannes Eckhart, known to later centuries simply by his academic title Meister or master Eckhart. Eckhart is one of the beloved saints of that movement known as Creation Spirituality. Creation Spirituality, through its major contemporary protagonist, Matthew Fox, reads Meister Eckhart as one of the early precursors of creation-centred theology, a way of thinking which emphasises the presence of God not beyond, but within the creation as its very being and substance. Fox translates a saying of Eckhart like this:
"People think God has only become a human being there - in his historical incarnation - but that is not so; for God is here - in this very place - just as much incarnate as in a human being long ago. And this is why God has become a human being: that God might give birth to you as the only begotten Son, and no less."
For David Tacey, the implication of this apparently imminantist theology is clear. Because the creation, and especially the souls of human beings, are an emanation of Gods own being, then we should love the whole wonderful kaleidoscope we encounter there madly, intensely, erotically, deeply. We should revel in all the experiences of life as fundamental and irrevocable revelations of divinity, filled with all the fullness of God. As creatures of the earth, our spiritual future lies in a new love affair with the creation itself, because that is where God may be found.
Now all of this sounds quite wonderful to earth lovers like myself and yourselves . . . perhaps too wonderful? What Tacey and others like him forget, you see, is that there is an eschatological dimension to authentic religious experience. Which means: hang on a minute! - the God-filled creation is not yet as full of God as wed like it to be; and neither is the human heart! There is a fundamental problem, you see, a problem and a fact that all of us need to contend with, and the problem is this: God has been given his marching orders. You and I and countless others - sometimes politely, sometimes less so - told God to bugger off. And God, not being a bully, did so and does so. Not without anguish, not without sorrow, but bugger off God does. Now, this tendency in human beings is given a name in the New Testament. Its name is sin. And sin is something that David Tacey does not deal with at all well. But it is a fact about the creation and about ourselves which ought to be dealt with. Because it is the biggest problem we have.
When Paul told the Corinthians to set their minds on heavenly things rather than on earthly things, he wasnt talking about heaven and earth in the literal way we still, despite all our sophistication, tend to think of them. He was simply saying this: Look mate. That space in your heart where God used to be is not longer vacant. You filled it up with other stuff. Stuff which has nothing to do with God and everything to do with your own selfish whims. Thats sin, mate. Sin. The stuff that keeps you from God. Get it? The earthly is everything that pushes God out of the frame. The heavenly is where God has been evicted to. Now, Jesus spoke a little more specifically. He told his disciples this: Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for ones life does not consist in the abundance of ones possessions. Now I reckon that pretty well sums it up. Because what gets between us and God is simply the desire for every bloody thing under the sun but God. More money. More street cred. More security. A bigger house. A surgically styled body. A bigger orgasm. A bigger PhD. Or whatever. Do you see where Jesus was heading there? Theres nothing wrong with desire: but its just pretty damn fruitless chasing shadows rather than the real thing. Cause every craving for every advertisable whatever is just that: a shadowy displacement of the loss we feel deep in our souls. The loss of God. And if we keep on chasing shadows, says Jesus, one day were going to wake up dead. Dead meaning that the pizzazz has gone out of life. Its happening, but it aint fun. Well have gained the world, maybe, but lost our soul in the process. So it is with anyone who stores up wealth for themselves, but is not rich toward God. So says Jesus.
Now its time to return to Meister Eckhart, because Eckhart understood Paul and Jesus and took this teaching of theirs very seriously indeed. You see, when Eckhart described the world and the human soul and everything as being full of God, he did so in precisely the same way as did Paul and Jesus. Eschatologically, that is. With a profound sense that the promised divinisation is not yet the reality in which we most of us live and move and have our being. Thats why he spent a considerable percentage of his time speaking not about the love of creation or the unfettered celebration of material reality as divine revelation, but rather about the importance of detaching oneself from the created order altogether. Yes. Detaching. Detachment from created things, he said in a famous sermon, is the one thing necessary . . . detachment leads me to where I am receptive to nothing but God. Eckhart, like Jesus and Paul, could see that our human hearts and minds are full to the brim with things. Things. Things which are shadows, illusions, idols. Things to which we make obeisance. Things which have nothing of God in them. At least, not in the way that we see or relate to them. And the only way to be rid of their poison, says the Master, is to detach. Let go. Cease to long for or desire. Glassenheit was the word he used. Let be. Because if we could just . . . cease . . . be still . . . empty ourselves . . . then there would be room for God once more. And by his grace, God would come. He would come.
You see, the only wealth we need is God. Im serious about that. The only thing we need is not a thing at all. It is God. And when we detach, God comes to fill us up with himself. And suddenly the world is full of life once more. Not the life which we put there ourselves, through complex psychological processes of projection and displacement, or the virtual life that we long for apart from God. But the life which God himself is within our hearts and our world. Thats why Paul said to his readers. You have died with Christ and now your life is hidden with Christ in God. Detachment is the death of the ego and its will, so that the personality of God and Gods desires should take their place. Only then says Paul, will Christ will be all in all. And not before.
And so we come full circle. We are back to where we began. I do believe, you see, in an earthy, imminent, sensual spirituality. And I believe it is what God has in store for us. But none of this is magically ours. We are called to place ourselves in the way of Gods grace. To confess and deal with our sin. Eckhart said that if we want God to write his word and will in our hearts, then we have to become like empty tablets, ready for that writing to begin. God calls us to detach, to empty ourselves of desire, to die with Christ, so that we may truly welcome Christ when he returns to his appointed home in our hearts and souls . . . Now all of that is very easy, and very difficult! If youre interested in exploring these things further, then come to the Duck tonight, where well listen to this wisdom some more. But, for now, it is appropriate that Meister Eckhart should have the last word, a word of paradox which lies, I believe, at the crux of our faith:
"Detachment is the best of all, for it purifies the soul and cleanses the conscience and enkindles the heart and awakens the spirit and stimulates our longings and shows us where God is and separates us from created things and unites itself with God."
In the name of God - Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver - as in the beginning, so now and for ever, world without end. Amen.