Sermon for Whitsun preached at St Michael and All Saints, Sunday 4 June 2017
Today I‘m in a poetic mood. I blame it on Whitsun. Did you do Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings at school?
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone….
Which puts me in mind of train journeys:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June…
And Adlestrop reminds me of another fabulous name to conjour with, Ozymandias. Picture the scene. A desert. A broken statue. A notice:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
But why am I starting this sermon by regaling you with poetry? Because poets tell us truths that we sometimes struggle to grasp in any other format.
The Bible preserves for us the ancient poetry of Israel. The book of Lamentations is in its entirety an acrostic poem; and the book of Psalms is a collection of poems: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is: the compass of the world and they that dwell therein…” (Ps 24). As I sat in chapel on Thursday, these words rang in my ears. I was in Windsor attending a consultation on Faith, Belief and Nation-Building. That evening, we were to discuss the environment. And later that evening, Donald Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.
It‘s not an accident that I chose these poems. They’re about heat. And like me you’ve probably been basking in some deliciously hot days of late. “How lovely!”, we all agree. “What a nice surprise!” Now maybe the weather was in the past something that God made. But we are making it now. And the hot weather should really be making us weep. Even with the target of a 2 degree cap on the increase in global warming, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai may be submerged by the year 2100. St Michael’s will be ok, because we’re on both the moral and the actual high ground here. If the Pooles are still living in Edinburgh then, Lizzie and Anna’s families will have had to move into my house up the hill on Bellevue Place, because their houses may be under water. And because vast parts of the world will either be flooded or rendered too hot for habitation, world populations will be on the move. So if you think migration’s an issue now, imagine geopolitics then, when perhaps Scotland will be a particularly attractive destination with all our space, fresh water and wind power.
I lived with some monks once. They read to us at mealtimes, and the book they read while I was there was a book about Krakatoa. In it, there was a hypothesis about the increase in volcanic activity – which creates tsunamis too – that it is the earth self-mining to correct imbalances we’ve created, by spewing up the elements necessary to adjust the earth’s biosphere. The idea that the earth is responsive is far older than James Lovelock’s famous Gaia theory from the 1970s. In the Bible, we first hear from the earth in Genesis (4:9-11), when Cain has murdered Abel:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”
Then on Palm Sunday we hear the disciples say these words in Luke (19: 37-40): “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees ask Jesus to rebuke them. His answer? “I tell you…if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.”
Christianity has often written off those religions that take creation too seriously. Clearly these pagans are far less sophisticated than we grown-up monotheistic religions! So it’s interesting to see that modern eco-theologians are re-discovering the latent sanctity of the earth in order to tempt anthropocentric believers into taking its claims more seriously. The Psalms often use the form ‘Let all the earth…’ in the context of the whole creation worshipping God. In the Apocrypha, the Benedicite includes these lines:
O let the Earth bless the Lord: yea, let it praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O ye Mountains and Hills, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever….
And this very earth, which God created before he created us, will just convert us back into raw ingredients again if we don’t play our cards right. Ozymandias – whether he be Trump or just a trope – reminds us that we – here today – will soon be history. Time is running out for us to bequeath a healthy planet to our children. So what can we do?
I imagine many of you are already well and truly on the case. You probably slave away over the recycling bins and sign lots of online petitions, and I know we dragged the twins down to Holyrood this week to protest against fracking. Of course you turn off unwanted lights, boil only the water you need, and bath with a friend…! Probably you also plague your employer or pension fund about their green credentials, and will be voting wisely on Thursday.
But may I ask about your clothes? I’m sure you re-cycle these too, or donate them to charity shops. Because the landfill stats on these are sobering. You’re ok if you bin a cotton t-shirt or a woolly jumper – they’ll be gone in about 5 years. But those Church’s shoes? It takes between 25 and 40 years for them to biodegrade, and if you’ve had the temerity to re-sole them with rubber that will have added a further 40 years. 40 years is also how long it takes for nylon to biodegrade in landfill.
And may I come shopping with you? I hesitate to say this, because it binds me as well as you, but the bottom line is this. If you can’t reuse it or recycle it, why are you buying it? When you throw something ‘away’, do you ever think about where ‘away’ actually is? On land, that place is China. We sell our rubbish to them. China is importing more than 3 million tonnes of plastic and 15 million tonnes of paper and board a year from the wasteful West. And we send them our landfill too, because it’s cheaper to poison their water table than to poison ours. In the oceans, there are so-called ‘trash vortices’ in each of the five major oceanic gyres, each estimated to be the size of Texas. They reckon that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. And we already know what our pollutants have done to the atmosphere, because we’re enjoying such sunny spells these days that they help us to forget all those catastrophic floods.
Also at evensong this week I heard the story of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5). You may recall that his demons – who were Legion – were cast out into the pigs, who ran into the sea and drowned. Today we celebrate Pentecost, where something quite the opposite happened. It wasn’t demons into pigs, it was tongues of fire on to people. And through your baptism God has anointed you with the holy spirit to go out into the world and spread the good news. You’re already on that journey, we all are. So next time you look out of the window to admire the scenery, be mindful of this sacred trust. Good news for the planet, as well as for the people living on it. We’re supposed to be the stewards of creation, not the final consumers of it.