FRIENDS ANNUAL SERVICE: Oct. 25. 2021
Is. 55.1-13, Ps 24, 2Cor 9:6-12 Revd Canon Alan Strange
Not long ago, I had a day out at the Diocesan Office. Andrew Caspari had recommended a lunch shop just along from the office, so I went. As I sat in the autumn sunshine I realised that the street had changed name, and I was now on Marsham Street, where my father used to work many years ago, for the Department of the Environment. I could see his old office building.
We had a discussion some while ago in a Staff Meeting about what we were to call this theme that draws us together today. Climate justice / Environmental care? We have a network of “Environment” officers, and Elizabeth Bussman leads them, who is with us today. We decided to stick with the term “Creation”, because it already speaks of a Creator and is thus distinctively a term from the church. The Environment department was created by a merger of others in 1970, and it embodied a term that had been around for a long time. We mean it well, but it is a term about which we might be cautious: maybe we might re-think what we call our officers? Because what does it mean? It says a lot about what the World has allowed the Creation to become. Because it means that sphere that “environs” me, you, us, humanity. To speak of the environment is really to put ourselves already at the centre. (Of course, the problem is that finding alternatives is horribly difficult! And just because of that, we may choose to keep the term for those who champion the cause of the creation.)
And here comes Psalm 24, proclaiming, “The earth is the Lord’s”. Not mine, not yours, not ours. And there’s more: “The earth is the Lord’s” and so are “all that dwell therein”. We ourselves are not the centre, but we are in the environment of God; he is the centre. This one verse sets out that there is a creation that belongs to God, and that we are ordered within it, to serve him. Not surprising, then, that we in the church of God, can sing, “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing.” We are not the centre of the creation, but the conductors of creation’s symphony, tending it, renewing it, and ordering its song towards its Creator.
This is how it was meant to be, and that is worth remembering when we are so occupied, understandably at the moment, not with the song of creation, but with its groanings, creaks and stresses, so many of them imposed by ourselves. Yet even when so many try to help, the direction can tend to go awry, because of the nature of the human heart. We are called probably to care for the planet for the sake of succeeding generations, but we are called to care for the planet primarily to care for it for the sake of Christ. The letter to the Colossians reminds us that the creation is in him, through him and even for him. The great American preacher and philosopher Jonathan Edwards claimed 300 years ago that the whole created order was brought into being in order that the Son of God might be complete in a bride. Creation is for Christ. What else would we expect if we have heard Isaiah tell us, as he does today, that the richest of food is the Word of God, that the most basic feeding is upon God’s covenant with his people.
That’s why our service carries the reminder, as its theme, that the creation is very good. We face the summons to care for the creation in ways that we have ignored for too long, but we can only do so when we believe that there is goodness behind it all. Perhaps, we need, too, to know that there is goodness ahead. There is much to repent of, but repentance leads to forgiveness and new determination. The worst reaction to the ills of our world, grave as they are, is to give up, and to despair. Despair disables action. It’s no coincidence that it was among the deadly sins. An unrelieved fog of guilt and shame is crippling to the soul: “What can I do – it will make no difference”. So let us fix our eyes on the one for whom the Creation is made, who alone can forgive, who alone can usher in a new, renewed creation. He it is who reminds us that it is in the nature of good soil to bring forth 30, 60 or a hundred-fold. He meant the preaching of the disciples, but he drew his point from something everyone knew, in a world that lived closer to that soil.
Like me, you will have watched, appalled, at the disasters that unfolded in Europe this summer. Some, of course, have nothing to do with human change, as far as we know: the volcano
of Cumbre Vieja exploded on the island of La Palma (where we have a chaplaincy), and we should not forget their suffering. But much was to do with human change to the climate: floods in Germany, and Benelux; fires in Greece, Turkey and Spain.
If despair is a deadly sin for God’s people, the opposite, to which we are called, is hope. And I have found inspiring two stories of hope that come from the east of our Diocese. Local Christians have faced the disasters, and they have thought, “What can we do?”
In Turkey, a single Protestant church has generated “First Hope”, a non-governmental organisation that goes into zones affected by disasters with water trucks. Families affected often have no access to clean water, and they provide trailers with showers, toilets and facilities to wash clothes. They could have said, “What can we do?” But they listened to the needs of the people, and they went. In Greece, the Archdiocese of Athens has for years helped with the schooling of refugees and migrants. But this year, they have felt called to add to that support by helping Greek children whose schools were affected by the fires. What I loved about their proposal was a line that said they would start with a flat-rate grant, in order to cut out the bureaucracy that inhibits swift action from government bodies. Again, they were on the ground; they know what it’s like, and they acted. I find these stories from our Advent appeal inspiring because they speak of the church doing what it should always do. Listen. Look. See what is going on. Hear what God is saying through it. And go, make a difference.
Of course, for me, and perhaps for you, getting ready for all that COP26 will bring, it’s almost easier to send money to an appeal than to remember to turn the lights off day after day, because it just might contribute to keeping the Maldives above water. It’s hard to do the ordinary things that might make a difference. I hope that, next term, we’ll run an audit on the energy use of the Bishop’s Office. Frankly, I expect it will be quite tedious. There’s a terrific slide I could have shown you of a very joyful little Turkish girl washing her hands in clean water in a trailer of First Hope. But the chances are very low that I’d be able to show you a joyful person calculating the energy use of our fridge! It’s hard to do the ordinary things. But both are needed, the corrective work and the preventive work. Why? Because the whole created order was brought into being in order that the Son of God might be complete in a bride. We care for what God has made. We care about what God will complete. Not just for the sake of succeeding generations. But for the sake of the one for whom it was made. And it was made to be – it is meant to be – very good.