Sermon at St Margaret’s, Binsey
St Margaret’s, Binsey
Eucharist on Sunday 28th September 2014 [ 15th Sunday after Trinity]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Ezekiel18: 1-4,25-32; Psalm 25; 1-9; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. [Philippians 2:5-8]
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Like a great many churchgoers in the Oxford diocese, I took part in the Grand Day Out a week ago yesterday. Indeed together with Bishop John, our Rector Clare, and her husband Graham (as Bishop’s chaplain) and about 25 others, I began the day early, in this church for Morning Prayer, a blissful time of silence and contemplation before a hectic programme, and for the Bishop and those accompanying him it was a hopefully welcome break in their pilgrimage along the Thames path. At the end of the service we presented the Bishop with the book on Binsey which has been in progress throughout his time here as our Bishop, and which in various ways explores the sanctity of place, the holiness of sacred space. However, as we are enjoined to humility in our readings today, I am very eager to add that this is not the last word on this special place, and one aspect at which the book mainly merely hints and deserves fuller consideration, should have been immediately apparent as I prayed one particular intercession:
We pray for the world of Nature. As +John inaugurates the Thames Pilgrimage path, we pray for the animals both wild and domestic which inhabit the woods, fields and river banks, as well as the river itself. So we pray for all creatures brought into being by the same God, who are our sisters and brothers. We pray for their habitats, for the plants on which they and we depend, and for the elements on which all life depends.
How do we human beings behave? How might the remainder of the day have looked as viewed by the rest of creation? Our walk along the river was innocuous enough, but walking in groups how observant were we of tree and leaf, of the fish and invertebrates in the river, of the land animals in the bank side foliage and the small birds in the branches? The mid-morning worship provided more noise than enlightenment and would surely have scared off any wildlife ill-advised to venture closer. Are we keener on hearing ourselves than God? I often think we are. Thereafter, however, there were talks, many of them worthy no doubt but almost all simply concerned with our own species as though everything was made for us. But then, I noticed that Andy Gosler and Andrew Lack were leading a short walk in the Parks with the aim of looking at plants and birds as part of the creation. For me this provided the spiritual highlight of the day, and not simply because of what I learned, recognising a few birdsongs and observing the curious structure of a few plants.
As Andy pointed out we are animals and in part our uniqueness arises in seeing ourselves as distinct from (other) animals. And of course such speciesism runs right through the Bible from the ‘dominion’ (albeit duty of care) over all living creatures which in the first creation myth God gave to humans: Much later, even the wise Solomon would speak of the plants and animals as different in kind from the world of humans: only in folklore and in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories does Solomon converse with other animals.
The implication of such an attitude is far from theoretical, for it has led to the attitude that the world was made for, and revolves around, our own species. All other animals are seen as having been provided for humans to use, as sacrifices, as food, as slaves, or as subjects for vivisection. They possess no rights to their habitats on land or in the sea, any more than the plants or the rocks. Such attitudes even permeate the Church. As I have said the programme for The Grand Day Out offered no less than fifteen talks, on a great variety of issues, all of which as far as I could tell were human centred, that is centred on our relationships with God, and only one that shifted the focus to creation as a whole, and that seems to be true of most Christian initiatives, however worthy. Even the recent very welcome environmental concern in response to the threat of climate change have been concerned almost exclusively with the dire consequences for homo sapiens.
However, our text, which is almost certainly a pre-Pauline canticle concerned with the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ, suggests a very different attitude to creation, by God the Creator. He puts himself into creation, admittedly into our species, and in a particular place (Galilee and Judea), a particular time (we would now place it at the turn of the 1st century BC) and amongst a particular people (the Jews). If he was to do what he intended to do, he had to be incarnate as some creature, somewhere and at some time; and he came to earth as a member of our problematic species, at a difficult time, amongst a people who were suffering oppression. And he did so, deliberately in order to suffer himself, in order to suffer the most terrible death, and to release all creation from death. In another great hymn in 1 Colossians we are told:
Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.
Further in his letter to the Romans, Paul declares that:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.
Of course we cannot tell whether Paul had other animals in mind when writing this- very possibly he did not- but the implication of such a theology is that ‘all creation’ in this context means exactly what it says. Humans are not at the centre of the world: God is. And of course that is why St Francis whose life was given to the imitation of Christ to the extreme of receiving the stigmata, the wounds of Christ as a reward,spoke of the animals he encountered his brothers and sisters. Other faiths before and since have stressed humility before God, but mainly because God is all powerful; we have a different take on humility before God, because God actually took ‘the form of a slave’.
This means that we can see Christ, not only in suffering humans – and there is so much human suffering in the world much of it caused by other humans, but also in the suffering of animals, much of it likewise caused by humans. Of course, this vision of Christ’s ministry has recently been emphasised by Archbishop Desmond Tutu who has stated that in both instances we are dealing with discrimination and injustice. As Christians we have to see all injustice as an offense against Christ, a dire offense against the intention of Creation.
I am preaching this sermon today partly because next week, in Francistide, I will be at the annual Eucharist sponsored by the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, and I see today’s celebrations partly as a preparation for it. Like St Francis, I see myself as part of Creation, and if I were asked what Creation is for I would reply with the psalmists, with the writer of the Song of the Three Hebrews and with the implication of so many texts that our raison d’être,like that of every other being, worms, slugs, snakes, rabbits, robins, is simply to praise God. The sacred centre is not, as so many fondly believe, the human species; humans do not stand at any sort of summit; humans do not have some over-riding importance. A great friend recently answered an email of mine with the vision of a post human world, recalling the vision in William Morris’s News from Nowhere, in which the great trees will reclaim the Amazon, ripping through the scars we have made on the landscape by driving roads through these pristine habitats. I too see all that humans have made materially, their arrogant attempt to possess and dominate, crumbling into dust- skyscrapers and factories, and weapons of war. No, the centre of all things is not one species but God, and all that will remain at the end is God, and our eternal salvation (and that of all life) remains where it has always been in his loving hands.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen