Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday before Advent 2021
As the clocks go back and COP26 begins...
The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon Steward and Archdeacon of Westminster
Sunday, 31st October 2021 at 11.15 AM
I hope you enjoyed your extra hour—the time the clocks go back is one of my favourite moments of the year. A magical extra hour. I’ll be less delighted come the spring of course, but for this weekend, time has been on our side. More of that a little later. First, let’s consider the wolves of Yellowstone Park.
Recently, I picked up again a book by Peter Wohlleben, ‘The Secret Network of Nature’. It begins with the salutary tale of the wolves of Yellowstone Park. From the nineteenth century, humans systematically began to eradicate wolves from Yellowstone because local ranchers feared for their livestock. The last wolf pack was destroyed in 1926 and by the 1930s even the few remaining lone wolves were eliminated.
It wasn’t long before the impact of these actions began to be felt. Without their natural predators, the wolves, the numbers of elk began to increase steadily. Eating voraciously, the elk stripped bare large parts of the park, with riverbanks being hit the hardest. There the grass disappeared, along with new saplings, These, now desolate, landscapes no longer provided food, even for birds, and the number of species of wildlife declined drastically.
Beavers were one species who no longer could feed or build there and they too disappeared. Without protective vegetation, grass and saplings and without the beavers’ dams helping to keep the rivers in their steady courses, seasonal flooding washed way ever-increasing quantities of soil, leading to the rivers following ever more meandering paths through the landscape.
Wohlleben says that there is no simple and cause and effect to all this, rather it is a complex web, a network of nature—but the story of the wolves of Yellowstone helps open our eyes to the interweaving connections between all of creation, ourselves included, and the terrible consequences when we fail to honour these connections.
Now, let me to take us to our scripture readings, from Deuteronomy and Mark’s gospel; and in doing so to think more about connectedness—before returning again to take stock of time.
One might ask ‘what is the most significant verse in scripture?’. You may have a view yourself. A scribe came to Jesus, as one scholar might seek the opinion of another on a debated issue; ‘we know all the commandments are important, but which is the most fundamental?’
Jesus responds, quoting a piece of scripture that the Scribe would have known very well, From Deuteronomy, part of what is known as the Shema, after its opening word ‘Hear’. ’Hear O Israel....’. ‘Hear’, which seems to me to be both a command, ’listen up’, and an invitation ‘draw near, you are going to want to know this...’
Then comes the reminder of with what—or whom—everything begins.
‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.’
The LORD is our God.
If the LORD is not our God, then frankly we’ve gathered for nothing. If God is not God then some of us have dressed up in somewhat striking clothes, we’ve enjoyed music and spoken word in a splendid architectural and historic place, but really it doesn’t matter.
But if the LORD is our God. If God is God, then then a response is required, a response worthy of whom God is; a total response from the interconnected aspects of our being: heart, mind soul, strength. The response of loyal and exclusive devotion. The response of love.
Nothing says Jesus is more urgent, more significant than loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. To love God is not simply private devotion but is made real in every aspect of life. It is to be worked out in our close relationships and in the community. In Deuteronomy it is said that the injunction to love God was to be held in the heart whether one is at home or away, whether rising or lying down. It is to be shared with one’s children, carried on one’s person and fixed to one’s doorposts, so that whether going out into the world or returning home the command to love would be uppermost in our thoughts.
Twentieth-century German rabbi, scholar and theologian Leo Baeck wrote that ‘In Judaism, to know God does not imply an understanding of the nature of His Being but a knowledge of his government, a perception of and an effort to follow the right way, the way God has revealed...’
If God is God and if we are to love God then there has to be a coherent connection between our words and actions. A connection that shapes how we live with and love our neighbour.
Few us can be unaware that today sees the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26. There once again we will be reminded that we are indeed connected. Connected to our human neighbour, especially with those who bear the worst impact of the current climate but also our other neighbours, the myriad creatures with whom we share this our home. And this connection extends beyond the present to those who come after us. To those who will inherit the outcomes of the ways we live today.
Science and faith come together to say that our actions, individually and collectively have an impact on our planet, its climate and creatures, for good or ill. To love God involves fulfilling the duty of care divinely entrusted to us. We all have choices ahead of us if we claim to love God and neighbour. Choices which will need to be lived out in action.
Back in Yellowstone, the downward spiral I described at the outset continued until 1995 when wolves caught in Canada were re-introduced, in an attempt to restore the park’s ecological balance. Nobody knew if it would work. But gradually the meandering of the rivers stabilised and blossoming diversity began to return.
For us today, could there be still just enough time for us on a wider scale—if we are prepared to act and to put love into action?
I certainly enjoyed my extra overnight hour. I hope you did too, But, we are being told, ever increasing urgency, that for our planet time is slipping away. It seems the time is now.