Sermon – Creation Sunday, Oxford

Second Sunday before Lent

Genesis 1.1-2.3; Psalm 136; Romans 8,18-25; Matthew 6.25-34

Look at the birds of the air;
they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.

+ In the name of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Being asked to preach today was, you will come to realize, for me a real gift, one I could not pass by. My only real quandry lay in selecting a verse from either the reading from the Hebrew Bible or from the Gospel but in my joy at the dawn chorus augmented by the chirping of the sparrows nesting outside my window, I settled on my favourite verse in St Matthew’s Gospel. This verse is so simple and yet it has huge implications. But all our readings today concern God’s care for Creation, all of Creation.

So often the two accounts in Genesis I and II are read in a pathetically literalist manner, pitting Creationists against Rationalists and Darwinians. That is to seriously to miss the point: as both are myths of a type common to other cultures, providing a backdrop to the record of human life on earth which we call history. But note the beginning of Genesis I: ‘In the beginning God…’ God was not created; and, in that, He is different in kind from the Sun and the Moon, the seas and the dry land, He is different from every plant and every animal including the human animal. They are simply the Creation, the products of God’s creative act, ultimately produced ex nihilo, from nothing. In our Psalm (136) and even more lyrically in Psalm 104, God is extolled as the sole ruler of all. The end of Creation is not mankind but the Sabbath on which God rested, the goal of Creation is the seventh day!

A grave error too often perpetrated in reading these accounts is the Instrumentalist fallacy that everything, all plants and animals were made for human use. That is palpably not so. Although in Genesis humankind was made on the same day as the land animals, they precede him while fish and birds were made on the previous day. And of course the fossil record shows that many types of now extinct creature lived millions of years before the ancestors of modern humans emerged. Indeed, if we don’t blow ourselves up in the meantime or even if we do, some life forms will succeed us. Admittedly human-beings in the Genesis text was made in some way ‘in the image of God’ , as God’s deputy in that he was given ‘dominion’ (radah) over other creatures, but note that ‘dominion’ is the authority a monarch (such as our own queen) has over her or his subjects…it is much more a question of stewardship rather than power. As a former Bishop of Salisbury, John Austin Baker, writes, this ‘is poles apart from the right to egotistical exploitation which it suggests to our ears’. We were meant to protect and conserve Creation rather than exploit it . And, as if to emphasise that, both animals and their human protectors are given ‘every green plant for food’. All creatures therefore were assumed to have a vegan diet. Death, killing and meat-eating are all the result of the introduction of sin into the world, with the Fall.

Of course historically the pastoralist Hebrews ate meat and indeed offered animals often in appalling numbers as sacrifices to God, but there always remained the ideal of the Peaceable Kingdom, the paradise garden which existed before the Fall and will be restored again. It is enshrined for instance in Isaiah 11, in which all creatures will live in harmony, and of course it is the time beyond time of which the Epistle to the Romans speaks when ‘the creation will be set free from the bondage of decay’. It is the ‘new heaven and the new earth of Revelation (chs.21 and 22)with its river and tree of life bearing twelve kinds of fruit.

Human beings, in their short sightedness, in their sin are for ever putting themselves first. That applied to the writers of scripture as much as to the ‘men behaving badly’ often very badly (well they are mainly men!) who fill so much of the narrative of both Testaments! And so it continues. When you listen to or watch the News you hear about ‘development’ (for human beings, not for animals, certainly not for God!); you hear of wars (between human beings; not between animals) and last week’s atrocities in Libya come to mind) ; and all too often, blasphemously, God is invoked by those who fight wars in patent breach of at least two Commandments). Human beings feel that they have a right to manipulate Creation , arrogating to themselves the prerogative of God almighty. What other creature would dare to do so?

Our Lord, who was there from the beginning and was incarnate so that we might be saved, speaks for the Creator God because he IS the Creator God. God cares about the birds he has made, just as he cares about mice and cattle, pigs and sheep, chicken and ducks and all the life on this planet.. Last week I read Laura Hobgood-Oster’s The friends we keep, Unleashing Christianity’s compassion for animals (2010), to which I had been directed by a splendid review by the Bishop of Monmouth in the Church Times. It is often a disturbing read and I continue to be haunted by her account of the appalling treatment of chicks destined to become battery hens or broilers. It is a long way from stewardship, a long way from God’s care for the sparrows. Have we forgotten that we are part of the same Creation as the chicks? We do well to ponder what happened to the unjust slave who believed he had the right to exploit his fellow (Matthew 19, 23-34).

I have been giving a great deal of thought to the way human beings have come to treat Creation as mere Commodity; we as a species do it more and more. Calculate the suffering caused by the mass slaughter of factory-farmed animals (mainly chickens) in the restaurants and fast-food outlets of George Street alone. There are comparisons between ‘speciesism’ ( a term coined by Dr Richard Ryder) and sexism, and racism. How far have we come since the 19th century? As a member of Voice for Ethical Research in Oxford I have been saddened at the lack of any reasoned debate about animal experimentation in Oxford. By contrast in his Good Friday sermon in 1842 the Blessed John Henry Newman as Vicar of St Mary’s made a telling comparison between the practice of vivisection which he described as ‘satanic’ and the suffering of Our Lord on the Cross. The powerlessness of the victims and the patent lack of consent led him to conclude that ‘none but very hardened persons can endure the thought of it’. This is very much the line followed by the best animal ethicists today notably by Father Andrew Linzey in his brilliant book Why Animal Suffering Matters. Where is that Biblical ‘stewardship’ in the practice of inflicting pain and killing animals in this way? In what way do such practices entitle us to claim we bear the image of Almighty God?

We need to rebalance our priorities in the way the so-called Celtic saints and St Francis did, live frugally without excess, live lightly on the earth and centre our love on God. In our Gospel reading Jesus reminds us that not even the most beautiful works of human craftsmanship compare with the beauty of the ‘lilies of the field’, God’s creation. Some people think these are crocuses and observing the beauty of the crocuses and other spring flowers I can well believe it.

As we approach Lent all of us wonder what to give up and (far more productively) what to take on. One suggestion is that we might follow the ancient custom of the Church and giving up meat, but with a particular aim in mind. There are 40 days in which to live with Jesus in the desert amongst his companions, the wild beasts, 40 days in which to meditate on the pain and cruelty inherent in the mass rearing and killing of animals in Factory Farms and laboratories, 40 days in which to realign ourselves with Creation. And of course we can always join the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, whose latest patron is Bishop John as well as looking after the animals and birds in your garden, if you have one, and in our churchyard., where events will be taking place later in the year to make our surroundings more wildlife friendly.

I realize that this may be a challenging sermon, but it does concern a topic which I believe should be of burning concern to the Church and is indeed at the heart of my own mission within the Anglican Church. Being made vice-president of ASWA has presented me with the most daunting task of witness I have ever been asked to undertake. This is the sermon I felt I had to deliver on this day and at this time, and maybe could be amongst the themes which, as a community, we might discuss together over Lent.

If we are prepared to trust God, if we do not worry about ourselves, if we do not worry about the Economy of the country, if we do not worry about being ‘successful’ in our lives (and what is human success after all?), maybe we will find God in what he has provided for us in the beauty of the flowers, the blue tits and great tits in the branches and the rustle of fieldmice in the undergrowth. If we do so we will be treading in the footsteps of St Francis and other great saints in relocating ourselves as creatures and not as gods. If we always try to see the Creator in his Creation, then we too can perhaps learn that walking humbly with our God, walking humbly with Christ, is the pathway to that Love which fills the Universe with Glory and Praise.

+ In the name of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in whom alone be Praise and Glory. Amen.