Sermon preached 24th February 2019
Back in 1982, the film producer Ridley Scott gave us the science fiction film “Blade Runner” –
which predicts life in 2019.
And, as is always the case, some of those predictions proved more accurate than others.
At the time we were pretty amazed by the idea of computers that you could just talk to and they would instantly work things out for you – today “Alexa” always seems to have an answer for everything.
On the other hand, there is no sign yet of the flying cars which captivated some of us at the time.
There ARE signs that we have messed up the earth’s weather patterns, as the film predicted.
The assumption made that we would all be chain-smoking cigarettes, however, has proved as wide of the mark as the predicted fashion in clothes.
Central to the film’s plot are a number of “Replicants” – highly sophisticated robots or androids which are made to mirror human behaviour very precisely and marketed with the slogan “more human than humans”. In the “real” 2019, that’s something we don’t have, yet, but which are perhaps not so very far away.
Advances in Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) coupled with research aimed at developing robots with more human, physical, traits have led to the anticipation of precisely this kind of “non-human being” not only in more recent films but in the real worlds of science and commerce.
Back to the fictional world of Blade Runner and, as so often when art imitates life, the story-line suggests a deeper reality about our human nature. And that is the ability to “reflect” – to look back over our lives and consider: could we have done things better, is this the way we are meant to live, is there more to life than this?
As far as we know, we are the only species that has this faculty – the others being more concerned with survival and the challenges of the present moment – and, in some ways, it’s a mixed blessing.
The fictional Replicants of Blade Runner, being “more human than humans” also have this ability. And being also more intelligent than humans – are rather better at it.
They also have only a very limited life-span – being designed to function for just 4 years – and so it is that one of them, named Roy Batty, delivers a rather poignant monologue as he senses that his time is drawing to a close: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”, he begins, offering a couple of examples,
and then concludes that “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”.
At that point I have to remind myself that this is just a line from a science fiction movie. Those of us who necessarily find ourselves reflecting on life, death and the meaning of both, will recognise that sense that –
no matter how powerful or challenging our own experiences may seem to us, there WILL come a point when they are “lost in time” – when we and those who knew us are gone – and all that we have seen and felt will simply be absorbed into the vast ocean of human history – “like tears (lost) in the rain”
But then, not all lives are forgotten.
Some people go on to far greater significance after death than ever they achieved in their own lifetime.
That’s certainly true of the composer J.S Bach.
And it’s also true, I think, of the poet/priest George Herbert, whose commemoration falls later this week.
Having achieved some prominence as public orator at Cambridge and as a Member of Parliament, he then came here as Rector of St Peter’s Church and of St Andrew’s at Bemerton and died in relative obscurity. And yet, more than three and a half centuries later, he’s considered one of the giants of English Literature, a celebrated hymn-writer and his writings on pastoral care were still referred to in training clergy well into the 20th Century.
So why should his words and deeds live on in a way which is not true for most people? Why are his tears still visible in the rain?
One thing is certain, it wasn’t due to the length of his life: he ministered here for just 3 years, dying at the age of 40.
And so perhaps it’s more to do with the quality of his life – the way that he lived – which has secured his place among the notables of human history.
Like the best film-makers, and artists of every kind, Herbert took careful note of what life was really like for those around him – the good, the bad and the mundane.
His book “The Country Parson”, records some of the challenges he faced in church – from persuading parishioners not to talk or sleep during services to rebuking the gentry who purposely arrived late for services, so as to avoid their poorer neighbours.
Herbert did not simply pretend that all was well – either in church or in the backbreaking toil of rural life at the time: His hymn “Teach me, my God and king” serves as one example of his attempts to give meaning and purpose to those experiences of daily life.
Herbert was clearly not so caught up with the visions of heavenly glory that he was obsessed with the life to come after this one, or that he saw faith as some escape from it. He used his learning and his Christian faith to engage with that reality and to improve things where he could.
Yes, of course, he must have had some sense or vision of how things could be – and a conviction of how things should be – but underpinning that was a willingness to start with and appreciate what was already there.
Bizarrely then, I’m left wondering if the legacy of George Herbert might be an encouragement to be “less humanoid than the humanoids” (thinking back to Blade Runner’s “Replicants”) and to become more like the rest of the animal kingdom! By which I mean that we should try to live more fully in the present moment – neither allowing ourselves to be hamstrung by disturbing experiences in the past or by anxiety about the future.
Instead, we might allow that animal instinct for survival – to help recognise the things which threaten our well-being and the sustainability of the planet – whether those threats come from other people or from our own patterns of behaviour – and then to act on that instinct to drive us to change the behaviour that threatens us,
and also to sense when we might be interfering in someone else’s territory, and leave well alone.
If our human capacity for reflection can then help us to accept that we will never see all that there is to see in this life; that the world will never be exactly the place that we might wish it to be, and that there will always be others who see things differently, then perhaps we can learn to appreciate all that is around us, and live with gratitude for the good that is already there, and neither regret nor fear what might have been or what might yet be.
To live fully is to live each moment in thankfulness to the God who sees each raindrop – not just the rainstorm – who knows and accepts each one of us more fully than we do ourselves, and to whom we will always be significant and precious, throughout this life and beyond.
May God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.