Thoughts on Creation
9 October 2020
The seasons are turning, and Autumn is well-established. Churches at this time of the year often have a harvest service. I imagine when this church was at its heyday, the church would be decked with fruit, vegetables, and flowers for the harvest service.
Anything we could do would look rather miserable in comparison.
Today I want us to focus on creation. There is nothing more topical or urgent. I believe that the church has something very unique and special to contribute to our concern for ecology, for the changing climate and the loss of species.
Our service will draw from different passages of the Bible. We will join the biblical writers first in celebrating creation, then in listening to the mourning of the earth for its destruction, then in the hope for the renewal of heaven and earth.
They say that one of the gains of lockdown has been people taking more pleasure in creation. I confess that hasn’t been my experience and for many the past months will have been a missed summer.
I have to say that the images of queues of people walking to the top of Snowdon took me aback. Whenever I’ve taken that walk, I have gone early in the morning when it is quiet. If you do that, then you have a problem coming down. As you are one of the few people coming down, those going up feel obliged to do the walker’s nod. By the time you get to Steffan’s café at the bottom you have a pain in your neck. Although Steffan’s scones and coffee make the whole enterprise worthwhile.
There is something about the grandeur of mountains, the tranquillity of lakes, the energy of a waterfall, the vastness of the oceans which both uplift and humble our spirits.
I do not have green fingers, but I still find it amazing to watch a plant grow. When I was working, I once had a mentor. One day we were having a cup of coffee in the kitchen and he noticed a shrivelled-up plant on the windowsill.
He said, ‘no wonder you are having problems with fundraising – your money plant is dying.’ So, I re-potted the plant, kept it in my office. Each season it was given a bigger plant pot and it grew. Remarkably, so did our funds – so either it was our mentor’s advice or the miracle of the plant. I really loved that plant.
Plants, of course, provide more than a fascination for us. They provide food which sustains us, feeds our bodies, nourishes us, and keep us healthy.
If you are a social media fanatic, then no doubt you have seen more images of cute cats than is good for you. But they attract our attention, nonetheless. Humanity’s relationship with animals is fascinating. We sometimes arrogantly think of ourselves as domesticating animals. We talk of training our pets.
But it seems that some animals have chosen humans to coexist alongside each other. The relationship between dogs and humans is a reciprocal one. And cats most definitely get the better deal.
And animals and fish are part of a food chain, they are food as well. They work for us. The relationship with people with disabilities and the dogs who help them is very moving to watch. And the empathy between horses and people in distress or with people with physical disabilities is indeed a wonder.
I am not telling you anything you do not already know. But it is right to remind ourselves of this from time to time.
Turning the Switch
The Bible has been described as an outdoor book. It describes the environment in which we are set and should be read outdoors.
However, we are asked to do more than appreciate the beauty and miracle of creation. We are not invited to be observers. National Treasure though he be, our vocation is not to be a David Attenborough hiding in the bushes with that irritating voice. We are to see ourselves within creation, a part of it, an actor.
Again, that may be stating the obvious, but for too many centuries humanity has seen itself as the superior species claiming the right to dominate, to subdue, to manipulate creation for selfish means.
My uncle’s autobiography begins with a question he asked as a child – ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But who created God?’ The answer to the puzzle of the first verse of the Bible really is straightforward. Whoever, whatever we understand as the God of the Bible, God is outside of time and matter.
The Psalmist wrote: ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.’
Everything we see and experience, the spectacular scenery, earth’s plenty, the miracle of life itself is a reflection of God’s glory.
To say that is to turn a switch in our brains and the consciousness of humanity.
To see all of this as a reflection of a higher purpose for the universe is to confirm God’s presence at the heart of everything. The God who has made himself known as love, equity, justice, righteousness, peace.
There is nothing more radical in the whole of the debate about ecology and our future on the planet.
‘The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.’
There is no need for me to state the obvious. However, I will.
When the good folk of Union Chapel, in its prime, celebrated their Harvest Festival, human beings were in the ascendancy. They were able to exploit the rich resources of the earth and expand their wealth and standard of living.
We are still benefiting from their endeavours, but we are also reaping the whirlwind. The mindset of our day is still one of growth and expansion. A successful economy is one that is growing. Part of the art of successful business is to think of things that people don’t need. Then persuade them that they need them and then sell them to them. They then realise they do need them, so they put them in a drawer until a decent interval has elapsed and then they put them in the waste.
So much waste. So much we can do without.
The other side to this coin is that in order that we have those things, some people work in low paid and exploitative work to ensure that we have the commodities we don’t really need at a price we can afford.
This much we know.
Perhaps less obvious is the anxiety it creates. Do you worry because you don’t earn as much as someone else? Do you worry because you don’t have as nice a car as someone else? Do you worry that you don’t eat out as often or have as nice clothes?
When you say these things out loud, they sound ridiculous, but the truth is that we do worry.
Jesus said: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Don’t worry! That is the message of Jesus. Live like the birds – just take what is going? Don’t spend your money on cosmetics or clothes because you are beautiful just as you are.
Enough is Enough
Jesus has this remarkable ability to make nonsense sound obvious. Of course, we can’t live like the birds. Human beings aren’t pigeons. We can’t go scavenging along the ground pecking our way to a full stomach. And neither can we go around naked – at least not in our climate.
We know Jesus loved exaggerating to get his point across. The essential point could not be clearer. Living our lives to possess things is a recipe for stress, anxiety on an individual level. Ordering a society on the basis they we just need more and more, to make more and more and not worry about wasting more and more – and where we put that waste is a recipe for extremities of wealth and poverty, conflict, exploitation and now extremities in our weather.
So just returning to the simple logic of the teaching of Jesus is perhaps the most radical thing you can say in our modern world. Enough is enough.
The things of earth are not commodities to have and to use they are gifts from God. God has given us the earth to provide us with food, minerals, fuel. But the things of earth are there to enrich our wellbeing not our bank balance.
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
Because of this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.
This is an extraordinary little passage from scripture. Jeremiah the prophet is writing at a time of crisis.
There is a political crisis, but he sees it not just as a problem for the people but for creation. His description is not at all unlike the images we have of environmental collapse with which we are becoming all too familiar.
Environmental disasters are taking place. Species are depleting and there is desertification of fertile land. Urban environments are becoming impossible to live in.
I find it really striking that the prophet hears the earth itself in mourning. The sky has gone dark, as indeed it does over so many cities across the world.
There is nothing more urgent in this our time than to hear the grieving and the pain of the earth.
A Matter of Survival
Our natural response to the wonder of creation is to praise God. But our response to the destruction we have brought to it has to be to lament.
Perhaps the most radical prophetic response we can make is to grieve for the earth. We should lament the poison in our atmosphere and our rivers. We should be prepared to shed a tear for the insects, the animals, the birds who are disappearing. We should feel a knot in our stomach when we see the forests burning. We should find a way to comfort those who are bereaved of their livelihoods
Our concern for our planet is a matter of survival for our children and our children’s children. It is not straightforward and requires the collective conscience of human beings to put right what has gone wrong.
It is of course, political, and economic. It involves massive changes to our lifestyles. It requires the best brains around to come up with solutions to all the many issues. It requires brave men and women to put out fires and rescue the drowning. It requires farmers and fishermen, and food manufacturers to reorganise their ways of delivering the things we need.
But I hope this morning you can see that it requires something which goes beyond all of these things. It requires a spirituality. A spirituality which attunes to the creator God who is beyond and behind the whole of creation,
who imbues the universe with goodness,
who renews the face of the earth with the breathing of the Spirit,
who loves the world so much that he gave us the gift of Jesus Christ,
who showed us the Way of simplicity and truth
and who promised us that while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, God’s protection will not cease.
And there is another vital promise given to us in scripture. While the earth is in such distress and we hear the groaning of each creature, plant, forest, sea and diminishing soil, we also hear the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.
For the rich hope deeply engrained in our faith is for renewal. Trusting in God matters.
Saint Paul wrote:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.‹ back