Ecology and faith

The National Preach-In held the week-end of February 11th/12th.

Some while ago, I signed up for a week-end organised by the Arizona Interfaith Power & Light.  It was part of a national programme inviting faith leaders from across the country to give sermons and reflections on climate change over the weekend of February 10-12, 2012.  My interest was simply to learn more about the week-end.

Then I quickly discovered that Father Dan from our church, St. Paul’s, had also signed up.  In my innocence I offered to help in any way which was quickly met by a response that bowled me over, “Well, you can be the homilist and give the sermon!”  Thus it came about that at yesterday’s 8am and 10am services yours truly rather uncertainly delivered the sermon.  John H., who with my dear wife Jeannie, did so much to turn my rambling thoughts into a coherent theme, encouraged me to publish the sermon as today’s Post on Learning from Dogs.  It now follows.

oooOOOooo

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Payson, Arizona

The 6th Sunday after the Epiphany

Year B

February 12th, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14 X Psalm 30 1:13 X 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 X Mark 1:40-45

It was just a photograph. OK, one taken 43 years ago but, so what! Well, the late Galen Rowell, the famous Californian wilderness photographer called it, “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

We are talking about the photograph called ‘Earthrise’ taken from Apollo 8 on December 24th, 1968 during the first manned mission to the Moon. Each of you should have a copy of that picture close by. Look at it now and let your imagination be carried back to that Apollo 8 capsule and that momentous experience.

As the Earth rose above the horizon of the moon, NASA astronaut Frank Borman uttered the words, “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.” Bill Anders then took the ‘unscheduled’ photograph.

Then recall that evening, Christmas Eve 1968, when the three NASA crew members took turns reading from the book of Genesis to what was probably the biggest audience ever in the history of television, Frank Borman finishing with the words, “God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good.

Our planet is good, and so beautiful, and so precious to life. Life that arose in just a fraction of time after the Solar System formed 3.7 billion years ago; the oldest traces of life have been found in fossils dating back 3.4 billion years. That miracle of life.

Who hasn’t gazed into a clear, Arizonan, night sky and been lost in the beauty above our heads. Or felt the wind, flowing across ancient lands, kiss our face. We stand so mite-like, so insignificant in all this immensity of creation; God’s creation.

Our dreams, our hopes and failures, everything we are, have ever been and ever will be, nothing more than a swirl of dust across a desert track.

Jeremiah was called to be a prophet in 626 BC, some 2,638 years ago. In Jeremiah 12:4 he wrote, “How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it, the animals and the birds are swept away…

Words from so long ago! But Jeremiah would, surely, have gasped with disbelief had he realised how, some 2,600 years later, ‘the land now mourns and the grasses so wither’.

Jeremiah reveals much that we all could learn about ourselves. The other prophets couldn’t be accused of hiding behind their work but Jeremiah, out of all of them, allowed us to see the evidence of his own spiritual condition. He was a man of deep feelings and sensibilities and in his book there are five laments over the serious spiritual and moral condition of God’s people. That’s us, by the way!

In that time of Jeremiah, the world population was 100 million persons; slightly less than the population of Mexico today.

Some 1,350 years later, 1,000 A.D., the global population was 265 million.

But by the year 2,000 A.D., our population had increased to 6,000 millions! Put another way, that’s an increase of 5.7 million people every year for a 1,000 years !

Any guesses on the increase in the last 12 years, since 2,000? Well, the global population has increased by 990 million. About 90 million every year!

It is utterly unsustainable at present levels of Western consumption, let alone with poorer nations trying to ‘catch up’.

Last September, our House of Bishops issued A Pastoral Teaching. Our Bishops believe those ancient words of Jeremiah describe these present times. They call us to repentance, to change.

That Pastoral Teaching, in part, says, “Christians cannot be indifferent to global warming, pollution, natural resource depletion, species extinctions, and habitat destruction, all of which threaten life on our planet. Because so many of these threats are driven by greed, we must also actively seek to create more compassionate and sustainable economies that support the well-being of all God’s creation.

Our bishops refer to The Anglican Communion Environmental Network that calls to mind the dire consequences that our environment faces, again I quote: “We know that we are now demanding more than the earth is able to provide. Science confirms what we already know: our human footprint is changing the face of the earth and because we come from the earth, it is changing us too. We are engaged in the process of destroying our very being. If we cannot live in harmony with the earth, we will not live in harmony with one another.

Let those words enter our souls: “If we cannot live in harmony with the earth, we will not live in harmony with one another.” Planet Earth mirrors our souls! Nothing new about that. In 1975, Berkeley physicist Fritjof Capra wrote in his book The Tao of Physics, “we can never speak of nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves”.

Fr. Dan reflected in his January 22nd sermon on the questions, “Am I really free? Can I really change?” ….. and continued with the words from Jesus, “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near, Repent.” Fr. Dan reminded us that the word ‘repent’ indicates that we can change. We can change, we must, and we will.

Otherwise we will learn the truth of that Cree prophecy, “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.

OK, from out of the mouths of North American Braves to out of the mouths of English babes.

The ‘eat money’ phrase reminds me of a story I heard years ago, back in England. You need to imagine a dilapidated, rural Anglican church with a dwindling congregation. A young boy was given a five pound note to put in the collection plate. When the offering came around, he didn’t put it in. However, after the end of the service, he went up to the vicar, shook his hand and gave him the five pound note. The vicar asked him, “Why are you giving me this money? Why didn’t you put it in the collection plate?”

The young boy answered, “Because my Mummy told me you’re the poorest vicar we’ve ever had!”

Let me stay in Britain. Martin Rees is a British cosmologist and astrophysicist and has been Britain’s Astronomer Royal since 1995.

Sir Martin Rees, indeed Lord Rees as he is now, has been Master of Trinity College, Cambridge since 2004 and was President of the Royal Society between 2005 and 2010.

In a presentation in 2005, he said this, “We can trace things back to the earlier stages of the Big Bang, but we still don’t know what banged and why it banged.

Lord Rees continued, “But the unfinished business for 21st-century science is to link together cosmos and micro-world with a unified theory. And until we have that synthesis, we won’t be able to understand the very beginning of our universe. You want to not only synthesise the very large and the very small, but we want to understand the very complex. And the most complex things are ourselves, midway between atoms and stars.”

Hang on to that word ‘midway’ as I continue reading from Rees’ presentation.

We depend on stars to make the atoms we’re made of. We depend on chemistry to determine our complex structure. We clearly have to be large, compared to atoms, to have layer upon layer of complex structure. We clearly have to be small, compared to stars and planets — otherwise we’d be crushed by gravity.

And in fact, we are midway. It would take as many human bodies to make up the sun as there are atoms in each of us. The geometric mean of the mass of a proton and the mass of the sun is 50 kilogrammes (110 lbs), within a factor of two of the mass of each person here. Well, most of you anyway!

Back to me! Just reflect on the magnificence of that fact! Science and poetry so beautifully woven together. We, as in humankind, the poetic manifestations of God’s unbelievable creation. Our relationship with the atoms perfectly balanced with our relationship with the sun. Brings a whole new meaning to seeing starlight in the eyes of the one you love!

It is all so beautiful, so magical, so spiritual, so God-like. It is also so fragile and vulnerable.

There is a copy of that Pastoral Teaching available for you on your way out of Church. I implore you to read it, nay more than read it, hold it close to your heart. Within that teaching all of us are invited to join our Bishops in a 5-point commitment for the good of our souls and the life of the world, our beautiful planet; the essence of those 5 points being:

That we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, commit ourselves:

  • To repent all acts of greed, over-consumption, and waste;
  • To pray for environmental justice, for sustainable development;
  • To practice environmental stewardship and justice, energy conservation, the use of clean, renewable sources of energy; and wherever we can to reduce, reuse, and recycle;
  • To uproot the political, social, and economic causes of environmental destruction and abuse;
  • To advocate for a “fair, ambitious, and binding” climate treaty, and to work toward climate justice through reducing our own carbon footprint and advocating for those most negatively affected by climate change.

As our Bishops wrote, “May God give us the grace to heed the warnings of Jeremiah and to accept the gracious invitation of the incarnate Word to live, in, with, and through him, a life of grace for the whole world, that thereby all the earth may be restored and humanity filled with hope.”

I started with the taking of a photograph 43 years ago that forever changed our view of our planet. Now is the time to change our relationship with our planet, to love it and cherish it; it’s the only one we have. Otherwise, we may not have another 43 years left.

Or in the words from today’s Psalm, “O LORD my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health.

Amen.

15 thoughts on “Ecology and faith

  1. Very well done, Paul. I prepared and gave quite a few sermons while living and working in the outback of Western Australia in the late 1980s – so I know what you will have gone through to get this to the point of being happy to deliver it.

    I lived in Shrewsbury (the wonderful county town of Shropshire) for 10 years and still keep up with the leader of the Church I attended back then and I was delighted to find out last year that he had, like me, developed an interest in environmental matters. However, he has taken this interest much further than me a theological direction… It is akin to a dissertation for a Masters degree in Theology but well worth reading, downloadable from here:
    Martin Charlesworth’s Towards a Christian Approach to the Environment.

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    1. Martin, Thank you so much for that reply and I will follow up on that link. Never having done that sort of thing before, I had no idea at all how emotionally draining it was going to be. As they say in writing circles, ‘If you can’t feel it, you can’t write it!’ and, in this case, I ‘felt’ it in spades! So your reply, as with Doug’s above, was really appreciated. Paul

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  2. Well, my dear friend, you know you would definitely be receiving a comment from yours truly! I was fortunate enough to sit through the 10:00a.m. sermon and was so impressed, not only by the subject matter, but the delivery. The ability to convey such a very important issue to the congregation with such passion was inspiring and educational, and you hit at the essence of the subject matter with the urgency to act now. I will state here that you had the entire congregation spellbound by your words. As the saying goes, “you could hear a pin drop.”

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  3. Paul…my heartfelt ditto to all the above, We are immensely grateful for you, your talents, your humble sharing of God.s gifts to you.Thank you for so clearly enunciating the urgency of this message. mag

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  4. Excellent sermon. Maybe I become a Christian again, and serve myself with a big juicy slice of Christ for encouragement (or Mary, whoever…)

    Seriously, that was nice. Except fro a detail: the solar system started rather 4.5 billion years ago. Life indeed followed very quickly thereafter…

    Lord Rees may even be deeper than he suspects. the world is made of (Quantum) entanglements, and that is what relates the very small, with the very big (and today’s physics does not have the entanglements right). Entanglemet-wise, we are, indeed, half way, and that’s what defines us, would I say rather obsurely…
    PA

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      1. How about:
        The Little Book of String Theory by Steven Gubser; or
        The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene? 🙂

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  5. Pssttt: I do not esteem Greene (who I personally know, sort of) as a physicist, although he is an excellent businessman. The drawback of string theory, or the multiverse theory, is precisely discarding Quantum entanglements.

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    1. For the record, Patrice, I was attempting to be humorous – linking entanglements with String Theory.

      For the record, also, I do not think much of String Theroy, Multiverses, 22 Dimensions of Space-Time, or Stephen Hawkings attempt to do away with the necessity for a Big Bang… because each and every one of these ideas seems to be trying to obviate the need of a Creator. 🙂

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