St Margaret’s Church, Binsey – Evensong on Sunday 24th October 2021, The 21st Sunday after Trinity.

St Margaret’s Church, Binsey.

Evensong on Sunday 24th  October 2021, The 21st Sunday after Trinity.

Sermon by the Revd Professor Martin Henig.

This is the only time I have been asked to preach this month, a month especially dedicated to Creation, the traditional month for harvest celebrations, the month which begins with the celebration of the life of St Francis of Assisi  on 4th, the month which this year sees representatives of the nations assembled in Glasgow for COP26, a gesture by the governments of the world towards, at least, ameliorating and perhaps even reversing the inexorable rises in mean temperature and climate change which has taken place as the result of  burning fossil fuels. The main churches, and certainly the leaders of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and our own Anglican Church have been very concerned as have responsible authorities in other world faiths, and there have been many initiatives to lead a reluctant world to engage with the Environment.

Worthy as all of these are, they are merely palliatives and, in any case, they are at bottom all about us, our food supply, our comfort, our climate, and our world. Politicians continue to advocate growing their economies, which mean more building, more infrastructure, more exploitation of vast resources. We  all seem to have forgotten that human beings are but one species amongst very many and we have come to dominate the planet to the detriment of other life forms . If  we had no higher belief than the lex talionis, a doctrine that the strong has every right to dominate the weak, we could stand unblinkingly in our arrogance, at least until another being, or the natural forces of the world rise up to crush us: that perhaps explains the sci-fi obsession with aliens who challenge humans but are (inevitably) defeated. However, Jews and Christians believe, on the contrary, that God created the world, that the world and all that is in it belongs to him, and that we are at best stewards of his Creation. How have we done, how are we doing, as individuals, as nations and as a species?

 The course of human history has indeed been full of marvellous individual humans, women and men of sanctity like Blessed Francis, great artists and writers and musicians, people who have lived and breathed a love of  all their fellow beings in creation. But against that there are amongst us, and possibly in our DNA, the dark forces of violence against other humans and the natural world, leading to  killing, torture and enslavement on an unimaginable scale. We humans constantly invent new and more terrifying weapons to kill our human brothers; we rear animals in their many millions as mere commodity and speak of them simply as objects and not as creatures of the same God.

 What might be demanded of us at this late hour, this very late hour? Surely nothing but a complete change of direction, metanoia, is demanded. St Francis provides a model; he began life as the pampered son of a wealthy merchant, that is he came from a capitalist, family, and he became a soldier of fortune but then in prison and after his release , he was granted a vision of the suffering Christ, giving himself wholly to God, and came to regard the creatures around him, other animals as well as humans as his brothers and sisters. Francis’s imitatio Christi viewed God through the person of his martyred, human son, but avoided seeing him as simply a superior sort of  human being. This is a balance we would do well to bear in mind, remembering how Jesus, as the Christ, rejected power over the nations of the world or even the cosmic power that was part of the divine, instead emptying himself of these capacities.

I have chosen readings for this evening to reflect our place in Creation, the place of all Creatures and, as Psalm 148 proclaims, we are here simply to praise God. In the passage chosen from Job (chapter 39) we can see that the other animals are  God’s not ours  and finally in the lovely hymn from  Colossians  (1:15-20) we see Christ not as a  man, as the Creation but as the image of the Creator. That he was incarnated as a human is far less the point than that he was incarnated, and how we humans needed and continue to need him, though in our actions, in our cruelty to other humans, and to animals we are driving nails into his flesh every day and every moment of the day.

How might we obey the enormous challenge Francis places before us, or indeed–for they are his—those with which Christ himself challenges us? First and foremost, this means eschewing all violence, and treating creation as commodity. It involves, at a personal level, realising that the use of cars and planes damages the planet; at a government level dismantling military complexes and caring more for the fragile and wounded earth.

 If I am honest I see very little sign of that, except on a very limited scale amongst enlightened individuals. My pessimism is prefigured by Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, written around the highpoint of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign in 1588/9 just after the shattering of the Spanish Armada. But here is no buoyant optimism. Faustus is the leading scholar of Wurttemberg, a fount of all human knowledge but a man who wants more and more and sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of  power, ‘of all voluptuousness’. Marlowe shows these powers as merely trivial and   in the end, with a single hour to live, it is too late, too late to call on Christ-‘ See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament’  because by then it is then too late to repent. His last words are ‘Ile burn my bookes’.

Cut is the branch that might have growne ful straight,

And burned is Apolloes Laurel bough…

 Is this to be the epitaph to our species as every human achievement, every human aspiration moulders into dust?  There are a few rays of light that burst through the gloom. One of them is  encapsulated in  Pope Francis’s  great Encyclical, Laudato Si’ whose title is taken from St Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures, and which sees the world as our common home which we have an obligation to respect , as it was made by, and belongs to, God. There are also organisations like Extinction Rebellion, not always popular with Governments, in which many young people are involved, unsurprisingly as the young and their own children are in the front line to feel the effects of climate change but also because there is a special sensitivity to other creatures amongst children and the young in general towards other animals, before the corrupting lure of acquisitiveness and materialism become increasingly tempting.

 With regard to individuals I  am constantly aware of the saints of the past and of our own day, some of whom have paid the penalty of their lives in witnessing for a more God-centred and caring world. I   see that care and love in my own friends, in  the undergraduates and post graduates who gather  at meetings of the Centre for Animal Ethics hosted by Professor Andrew Lindsay  and his daughter Dr Clair Lindsay.

 Care for creation is by no means a Judeo-Christian monopoly. Other faiths see the divine in different ways, and some, for example Hindus and  Jains, have a great deal from their own wisdom to teach us about the unity of all life. They pose questions of overwhelming moral importance every time a human mistreats another creature. When we rear sentient creatures, for example pigs, in their millions for slaughter, is this not a version of genocide? How can we square such acts with our conception of a loving God?  I believe it is not inappropriate to compare our cruelty to other creatures with the genocides humans have perpetrated against fellow humans.

And so, now, before it is too late, there  is still time to change our way of life, our blindness as a species to the rest of creation, to think again, and  to repent. It is ,indeed, the very last opportunity to return to our trust of loving duty before we are cast out of the vineyard as unworthy  stewards. 

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:31) .