Welcome to Cheltenham Racecourse where the Greenbelt Festival is in full swing. Greenbelt feels such a special place for me and many thousands like me who return year after year, to be creative, and expressive; to catch up with old friends and to make new connections. It’s a place where people seem to accept each other, whatever their style of worship, whatever their politics, whatever they’re thinking - faith or no faith. And for that reason, perhaps above all, this gathering always feels like a little taste of heaven on earth.
MUSIC - Let all the world in every corner sing (Words: George Herbert; Music: Luckington)
MUSIC - Audio montage from the festival
We’ve gathered for our service this morning in what’s called the Gold Cup Room in the main grandstand of Cheltenham Racecourse. You may have heard ‘Any Questions’ from here on Friday evening – and again the room is packed; now with bleary-eyed festival-goers, who have emerged from their tents only an hour or so ago.
We’ll start by focusing our hearts and minds on God the giver of all by saying together a version of the Lord’s Prayer, written by the American Quaker, author and activist Parker Palmer.
PRAYER - Version of the Lord's Prayer written by Parker Palmer.
“Let heaven and earth become one.” That lovely line tees up our theme for this morning, Perspectives on Paradise. Dr Paula Gooder is a regular at Greenbelt and, among many other roles, is Canon Theologian at Birmingham and Guildford Cathedrals. Paula will guide our thoughts later in the service with three short reflections, variations on the theme of paradise. But we continue now with a blend of Bible and music. Our first readings, from chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis are spoken by a familiar Radio 4 voice: the Revd Richard Coles. The readings take us all the way back to the beginning, to a Garden; while our first hymn - Thou Wast O God - evokes “the time before time’s hourglass ran”.
MUSIC - Instrumental
Rev Richard Coles:
(Genesis 2:8-10, 15-17)
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
MUSIC - Thou Wast, O God (Words: John Mason; Music: Thomas Tallis, arr Ewan King)
Rev Richard Coles:
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from God among the trees of the garden. But God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”...
Then God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you...
...By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return...”
And God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Dr Paula Gooder:
Paradise...it’s a wonderfully evocative word. For some it suggests golden sands on sun-kissed beaches, for others, maybe, a beautiful garden, rich with fruits trees and beautiful flowers. Even more important, though, is the feeling suggested by the word Paradise – a sense of happiness, tranquillity, and, perfection. No wonder the word is so well loved by advertisers and brand managers, and used to adorn everything from gastro-pubs to wildlife parks. Paradise represents what many of us yearn for in our lives: beauty, peace and harmony.
According to the reading we’ve just heard, one of the first things that God did when he created the world was to make a garden – the Garden of Eden. In this garden everything was exactly as God wanted it to be: not just beautiful and tranquil but harmonious and perfect too. In this garden, human beings lived in close relationship not only with each other and ‘creation’ but also with God.
Over time the word used for this garden became ‘Paradise’ but the problem is, as the story in Genesis goes on to describe, we no longer live there. After Adam and Eve ate the wrong fruit, they were locked out, never to return.
The Genesis story tries to explain what many of us find so difficult about the world we live in. Why does life - all too often - have to be so hard, full of such pain and hardship? Why are the people of Syria suffering such an agonising civil war? Why do so many people needlessly die from starvation? Why do so many loving relationships crumble and fail?
One answer to these questions is that it’s hard because we no longer live in Paradise. Many of us hope for perfection in the world or in our relationships and struggle when we don’t find it. Genesis reminds us that outside Paradise, we can’t expect perfection; in the words of Marvin Gaye’s song: ‘Mercy me, things ain’t what they used to be’.
MUSIC - Mercy Mercy Me (Marvin Gaye)
Dr Paula Gooder:
The Bible doesn’t leave the story of Paradise outside the locked and barred gates of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve may have been sent out into a world beyond Eden, but they’re not alone. God goes with them and the story of God’s love continues throughout the Bible. But it’s is a story in which the imperfection of the world beyond Eden time and time again fractured the relationship between God and his people.
So it’s fascinating to notice that at Jesus’ death on the cross - when Christians believe that that fracture was healed - Jesus talked about Paradise.
Let’s hear the words from the gospel of Luke chapter 23, read by another Greenbelt regular: John Bell of the Iona Community:
(Luke 23:32, 39-43)
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with [Jesus] to be executed...One of [them] ... hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
MUSIC - Jesus, Remember me when you come into your kingdom (Taize)
Dr Paula Gooder:
With these simple words ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ Jesus promised the thief eternal life but maybe also something more.
The Garden of Eden, or Paradise, was sealed up when Adam and Eve were thrown out, but the belief grew up that one day it would be re-opened and the world would become, once more, what God had intended it to be. Jesus’ words on the cross suggest that at long last that moment had come. If this is true, then his was as much a message for us as it was for the thief. When Jesus died everything changed: Paradise was re-opened and the deep fracture between God and humanity was healed.
Olympic fever, which gripped so many of us a few weeks ago, and will, I hope, soon grip us again when the Paralympics begin this week, shows us what life can be like when we can put aside our cynicism, petty rivalries and disillusionment and wish together for something. For just a few weeks our country – indeed the whole world – came together in harmony and many of us were inspired by the example not only of those who won but of those, like Mark Cavendish in cycling or Stuart Hayes in the Triathlon, who were prepared to sacrifice their own medal chances for the sake of their teammates.
Jesus’ words to the thief challenge us to strive for this kind of harmony - the harmony of Paradise - not just for a few weeks at a time but for the whole of our lives. This, the 18th century writer of the next song believed was only possible with the inspiration of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.
MUSIC - Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (Words: 18th Century anonymous; Music: Elizabeth Poston arr Ewan King)
Elizabeth Poston’s setting of ‘Jesus Christ the apple tree’ arranged by Ewan King - our music director this morning.
Our next reading comes from the final book of the Bible, Revelation, in which the apostle John records a vision he receives of the way the universe will play out. In chapters 21 and 22, he glimpses a paradise to come. Our reader is theologian, author and broadcaster: Vicky Beeching.
(Selected passages from Revelation 21 & 22)
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”...
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing ... down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life ... yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face... and there will be no more night.”
Dr Paula Gooder:
Moving words there from the Book of Revelation. One of the places we often look for paradise is in remote places of outstanding natural beauty. Indeed holiday advertising relies on our desire to find Paradise somewhere out there.
This yearning is not new, history books are littered with accounts of people who have tried to re-create Paradise by going out to the country-side in search of the beauty and peace for which they yearn. But the reading we’ve just heard suggests that this kind of aspiration, however fulfilling, gets hold of the wrong end of the stick.
In the book of Revelation it’s clear that John sees Paradise. But it’s a Paradise that has changed form. In Genesis, Paradise is a garden; in the book of Revelation it’s become a city.
The Paradise of Revelation is not a remote beauty spot but a bustling city. Attractive though it may seem to get away from it all and to seek Paradise in a place far away from the eccentricities and complexity of other people, the reality is that Paradise is not to be found far away from everyday life. Paradise involves people and exists where God lives in the midst of his people.
Paradise is to be found where we’re in deep and true relationship with God and with each other, whatever the place or context. The peace and happiness of Paradise is not something we can win for ourselves, but creeps up on us as we seek to find it for others. When we no longer seek our own pleasure but the welfare of those around us; when we lay down our own rights to fight for the needs of others; when we sacrifice what we want to ensure the well-being of others – then Paradise is present.
With Christian performance poet El Gruer in a work specially written for this service, we need to turn to God, asking him to “baptise our eyes, so that we might see where paradise lies”.
POEM - 'Baptised Eyes' by El Gruer
MUSIC - Seitsenkertainen aurinko (Words and Music: Joose Keskitalo)
Seitsenkertainen aurinko by the Finnish composer Joose Keskitalo; a vision of the heavenly city with Christ at its centre, illuminating its paths. And now the Revd Dr Kate Coleman, Chair of the Evangelical Alliance Council, will lead us in prayer.
God of all, we are grateful that paradise is not lost, in spite of us, our sin against you, each other and our wilful neglect of the world and the resources entrusted to us.
Indeed, we realise that in your great love you secure the promise of paradise because of us.
‘Wherever deep and true relationship exists between people and with God paradise is not lost’.
So, Lord, whenever we are blinded by the pain and turmoil of this broken world and lose sight of the harmony of paradise that was, can now be and is yet to come, remind us once again of the Cross of Jesus and the lengths to which you have gone, to manifest both the power and the possibility of paradise.
Let’s join together in these words of commitment:
We’re grateful for your goodness
And we commit our hearts, souls, minds and strength to restoring relationship with you, with others and with your world.
And when we are am tempted to do otherwise, remind us of your sacrifice.
Holy Spirit anoint us with both wisdom and Grace,
empower us to attempt to realise the promise of paradise in our lives,
expressions of paradise in our families,
the presence of paradise in our neighbourhoods,
principles of paradise in our cities,
the evidence of paradise in our nation,
and the harmony of paradise in your world.
We ask this for the sake of your kingdom and in Jesus’ name
John O’Donohue was an Irish writer, mystic and poet who was a great friend to Greenbelt, until his own sudden passing into paradise four years ago. Here are a few words from one of his blessings:
BLESSING written by John O'Donohue
Words that resonate with St Francis of Assisi’s sentiments in our final, much-loved hymn this morning, All Creatures of Our God and King.
MUSIC - All creatures of our God and king
(Words: St Francis of Assisi; Tune: Lasst uns erfreuen arr Ewan King)
Together, let’s say the grace:
May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all, ever more,