Sermon for Lent 1 2017 – St George’s, by Martin Carr
Sermon for Lent 1 2017 – St George’s
Genesis 2.15-17,3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The cheetah is the fastest mammal on land, reaching speeds close to 70 miles per hour in short bursts as it hunts. It is a graceful and much-loved beast, prized as a domestic animal by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, and a much-desired sighting for visitors today to Africa’s national parks. It is also critically endangered. From a population of about 100,000 in 1900, there are now only 7,000 cheetahs in the wild, the majority in Namibia and southern Africa. Habitat loss, poaching, and conflict with agriculturalists have left the cheetah fighting for a future. I recently had the privilege of meeting a cheetah close-up at Cheetah Outreach in Somerset West, near Capetown. At Cheetah Outreach the public can encounter and touch cheetahs which have grown up around humans. The cheetahs are ambassadors for their species, and visit local schools to inspire the next generation. Cheetah Outreach also funds projects to protect the cheetah in its natural habitat, such as through providing dogs for farmers to reduce the conflict between cheetahs and farm animals. The cheetah’s future is far from certain, but without conservation projects such as Cheetah Outreach, the outlook would be far worse.
Today, at the beginning of Lent, I want to think a little about the environment and our responsibility as Christians towards it. Why should the environment be of specific concern to people of faith? The cheetah is just one example of a species on the brink. In the Cape region of South Africa, the most diverse area for flora on the planet, the rate of species loss is also the highest on Earth. Expanding cities, the loss of habitats to agriculture, and pollution from human activities have totally unbalanced natural ecosystems, putting species which have adapted over thousands of years to their environments under immediate and sustained threat. Many will not survive. And of course the biggest environmental threat of all, that of climate change, poses even greater perils. 2014 became the hottest year ever recorded. 2015 was hotter. Then 2016 hotter still. The landmark climate deal reached in Paris aims to cap global temperature increases at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. We are already one degree above.
The Methodist and environmentalist Bill McKibben paints a bleak picture. Writing in New Republic he issues a call to arms. The world is at war with climate change, he argues, and our leaders – like Neville Chamberlain at Munich thinking he had done enough to keep trouble at bay – are failing to see the urgency of the times. McKibben writes: World War Three is well and truly underway, and we are losing. This is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal; carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties and destabilising governments.’ And McKibben’s prognosis for the future is equally bleak. What we need is a mighty Manhattan Project for our era, the creation of half a billion solar panels within four years to break our carbon addiction and avert disaster. Will this happen? McKinnen writes: What we have now is the biggest boom in personal consumption the world has ever seen, a very thin sense of social solidarity, and President Trump.
McKinnen comes from a US perspective, but the urgency for action in the UK is no less. The bishop and environmental activist David Atkinson, writing in Church Times, says this: In the UK we need a commitment to putting a price on our consumption of fossil fuels and working for renewable energy as a matter of urgency. But from the perspective of Christian discipleship we need more. The call to stewardship of God’s earth, to love of our neighbour, and to justice requires among other things a rethinking of our economy in terms not of unrestrained consumption but in terms of the common good, greater social equality and the sustainability of the earth system.
It is this call to stewardship of God’s earth which gives us as Christians the impetus to become leaders in the war against climate change and environmental loss. In the book of Genesis, using rich poetic metaphor, God plants a garden and fills it with creatures, presumably including the cheetah. As his last act of creation, humans are introduced. They are charged with the care of creation. And yet, as we heard in our first reading today, it is not long before it all goes wrong, and humans turn against their environment, eating from the forbidden tree, and at conflict with God’s creatures. But in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome, a note of hope emerges. Yes indeed through one man, Adam, death and sin have come into the world. But the restoration of our right relationship with God is made possible also through one man, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, And that restoration includes rebuilding right relationships on earth with all God’s creation. We are called not to despoil and exploit our environment, but to live in harmony with it.
The Christian environmental charity A Rocha UK has recently launched a new scheme, EcoChurch, helping Christian communities take this leadership in caring for the environment. My own church, All Hallows by the Tower, has endorsed this vision, and over the coming months and years as a community we will do all we can to reduce our environmental impact on Tower Hill, to support others in our area and beyond in advocating for environmental protection, and facilitating individuals and families to take personal responsibility for our planet. When I worked here in the United Benefice, I was conscious that many of you too have concerns for our planet, and I was encouraged to hear from Fr James that you now have LED lighting and a renewable energy supplier, not to mention a haven of biodiversity in the church grounds. As a diocese, London is at the forefront of efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of our buildings and mission activities. But we mustn’t be complacent – the task of restoring balance to the global ecosystem is one which needs to include each of us, individually, as families, and as communities. If the Church doesn’t lead the fight against the sin of environmental degradation, who will?
Lent is a time of repentance, and so it is right that we should confess the neglect we have inflicted on God’s creation. But Lent must also be a time of action, when the beauty of the blossoming spring inspires us to redouble our care for each other, our fellow creatures, and in so doing, reconnect with the God who sustains all life.
The consequences of runaway climate change and species loss are potentially terrifying. But those consequences are not inevitable. There is time to save the earth, though that time is short. God has given us one earth - as the saying goes, there is no Planet B. Our choices will determine whether future generations are the heirs to an abundant earth, or an arid and lifeless wilderness.
Let me conclude with a verse from Percy Dearmer’s carol White Lent. Dearmer was known for his love of beauty, in which he believed God was revealed. For me it is in nature, the beauty of God’s world, that we have access to the one who creates and sustains all life.
To bow the head, in sackcloth or in ashes, or rend the soul,
such grief is not Lent’s goal;
but to be led to where God’s glory flashes,
but to be led to where God’s glory flashes,
his beauty to come nigh,
to fly where truth and light do lie.
to fly where truth and light do lie.
It is possible to glimpse God’s beauty in the subtle sinews of the cheetah, the abundant flora of the Cape, even in the blossoming bulbs of our own city which tell us that Easter is near. But this beauty is fragile Let us strive then to cherish and preserve the beauty of the natural world that God has, in his love, placed into our care, and let us recreate an Eden into which God, in his grace, can lead us back. Amen.