Sermon at Evensong on the Second Sunday before Lent 2019

Our relationship with creation

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 24th February 2019 at 3.00 PM

The Feast of Candlemas, which the Church observed at the beginning of February, celebrates one of the most symbolically “full” moments of Jesus’ life. Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple, offer the sacrifices prescribed in the Mosaic Law, before old Simeon guided by the Holy Spirit acclaims Jesus as the Light to lighten the gentiles, and the hope in which he may now die. He tells Mary that her child would be the focus of hope and division, and that she would share the sorrow of his passion in a unique and intimate way.  In the liturgical tradition, we see this great feast of light and darkness as a hinge between Christmastide and Lent – the moment when our focus turns from the crib to the cross. The atmosphere is a heady one, with the fulfilment of prophecy, and the partial unveiling of futures yet to be fully disclosed, whilst the infant Jesus is proclaimed as the light to reveal God’s truth to the gentiles, and the glory of Israel.

Over the last few weeks at Evensong, I have been exploring the theme of “seeing God”, taking inspiration from the Candlemas scene. In theological terms, we have been considering the theme of salvation, how we recognise it, how it grasps us, and how we can participate in it. Today, instead of focussing explicitly on salvation, encouraged by our readings we are going to take a step back and think a little about our relationship with creation. One of the background principles of the Candlemas event, in fact the principle reason why Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple is related to the Jewish tradition that “every firstborn male shall be considered holy to the Lord.” The offering of a turtle dove and two young pigeons, made in sacrifice, is a form of exchange for the gift of the child. It is as if this firstborn, or if you like, first-fruit, is laid before the Lord for consecration, offering and fulfilment.

The earthiness of this part of the story, rooted in the economy of Temple sacrifice, reminds us of the material setting of our faith. We may be “in the world but not of it”, or resident aliens whose true native land is in heaven, but the Christian vocation to see God is not a set of matter-negating principles. There are moments in the Church’s history, where it has been essential to speak out against such heresy: even today, some forms of teaching, especially theologies which solely focus on a privatised, personalised heaven for the individual believer, have led some Christians to view the earth as a commodity. But the fact is, the birds of the air and lilies of the field need no further gilding from us – Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these – the natural world has an intrinsic dignity bestowed upon it through God’s gratuitous act of creation. Yet, so frequently human activity has undermined the Biblical command to care for creation, and instead of seeing it as a gift to be cherished and fundamental to our own survival and flourishing – we might even say, fundamental to our own salvation – we have squandered it. In the Temple, on Candlemas, the sacrifice symbolised by the two doves and a young pigeon, the sacrifice of the first-fruits, is an offering which leads to the consummation of the gift rather than its annihilation. In the context of creation, the devastating truth is that in our failure to marvel at the wonder and beauty of the lilies, we have frequently annihilated rather than consummated. Even if fossil fuel emissions were to stop tomorrow, the earth’s climate would continue to change for centuries. For many, seeing is simply believing, and because most of us in the West do not routinely see the effects of climate change it is easy to dismiss or ignore.

The French philosopher Bruno Latour has recently published a book called Down to Earth: Politics in the new Climatic Regime. He articulates links between truth-telling, fake news, climate change denial, and soaring global inequalities. The withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Accord in 2017, Latour argues, has explicitly shown that climate change is right at the heart of “all geopolitical issues, and that it is directly tied to questions of injustice and inequality.”[1] Over the last half-century, during which we have entered this New Climatic Regime, so many features of the political, economic and sociological landscape have been shaped by the issue of environmental degradation and its denial.

Latour writes from the stable of the left-wing public intellectual. His arguments are deeply compelling, as is the overall thrust of the books, which is to direct our political attention towards the earth, and to learn a new way of inhabiting shared space and ground. Even those who do not accept all the connections he makes have a responsibility to ponder the conundrum: we cannot see climate change, merely its effects. As we see and love creation, as we observe God’s action in the natural world, and alongside the psalmist proclaim that the rhythm and brilliance of creation itself proclaims God’s covenant and glory, it is a challenge for us all to seek to make climate change that little less abstract. This is an urgent task, and it is a particular responsibility for those of us who do not see creation as a mere chance happening, but as the result of loving will. Care for creation, and how we live as human animals during the time of the world, is a theological question. In fact, the fifth of the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission, added in 1990, is “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” This is a corporate, ecclesial responsibility, and also a personal one for each Christian; it is also a bond which connects us to other poorer communities, largely in the global south, who see the effects of climate change rather too easily, as islands are washed away, and tsunamis engulf the poor.

The economy of temple sacrifice, and the principle of the offering of the “first fruits” to God, might help us to think rather more directly about this topic. The vergers will be pleased to hear that I’m not suggesting we start offering animals, or grain or oil at altars! But the Temple offering of a “first fruit” to God, represented a kind of restraint on the part of the one making the offering, and a symbol of gratitude for blessings received. Wine could, after all, be drunk, pigeons eaten, grain baked. Critics of the whole system might just consider such sacrifice wasteful, and as we know from Jesus’ own ministry and the prophets it certainly is not unproblematic – but in the broader economy of signs and symbols, and how they relate to human life and practice, both creator and creation were symbolically honoured through such offerings, and the implied restraint and “handing over” of the one making the offering. In other words, not all possessions were to be devoured. This is a delicate ecosystem of belonging, of communion with creation, and with God. We see another version of this in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where the listener is exhorted not to plough to the very edge of the field, or to return for a sheaf of wheat which has been forgotten. Whether such a move is to honour the land, to provide for the alien, or to reverence the creation with which we have been entrusted, each of these examples reminds us that abuse of the earth is a sin of imperfect stewardship, of greed, and of idolatry of the self.

Mary and Joseph, good first century Jews, offered their sacrifice in thanksgiving, because every male firstborn was considered “holy to the Lord.” We can learn much from this theology of fruitfulness. How often, when we receive a gift, a pay cheque, some food, do we respond by immediately giving some of it away? What does our restraint in the way we act, the respect we show to material objects, and to creation itself, tell us about how we see our own place within the delicate ecosystem of God’s universe? We must develop a distinctively Christian ethic in the new Climatic Regime which can be shared with others of different faiths and none. That ethic, of restraint and gracious respect, will be underpinned by wonder and gratitude at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Thankfulness, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar reminds us, is distinctively Christian thankfulness when it becomes fruitfulness. If our lives do not cash-out that thankfulness, if they do not become fruitful as a result, our gratitude rings hollow.

The greatest Christian act of Thanksgiving – the word itself derived from the Greek word for thanksgiving – is the Eucharist. There, we offer the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands in gratitude for God’s mighty work in Christ. That is our Passover, our sacrifice, and it teaches us much. In return, we receive back that which we could never earn or create ourselves. God holds nothing of himself back as we taste the first fruit of our redemption in a wonderful exchange of gifts. Broken bread and outpoured wine become the icons of Christ’s glory; mere fragments of bread and millilitres of wine shared for all promise the ultimate wholeness of creation. If that’s not a manifesto for change in how we treat the natural world, I don’t know what is.

[1] Latour, p. 3