St Margaret’s Church, Binsey Evensong on Sunday 8th September 2019 [Trinity 12]

Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Psalm 121; Isaiah 43:14-44:5; John 5:30-47.

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert…. [Isaiah 43:19-20].

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

As is the case sadly of so much in scripture, our passages all have a decidedly humancentric character, as though creation was all about us. That is a hypothesis which the long, long history of evolution patently disproves, while it nevertheless does not invalidate the firm belief that God is mightily behind all that exists and has ever existed. If we, together with the rest of creation, do right, God will succour and sustain us but only if we listen to him. At least the jackals and ostriches and doubtless other creatures do honour him, but what about we human beings?

The world is in the midst of an unprecedented environmental disaster. We might want to describe prolonged drought and desertification, catastrophic floods, tropical storms in the Bahamas and the raging fires in the Amazon and indeed elsewhere as ‘Acts of God’ but that would be to lie to the Creator and attempt to evade our own clear culpability as a species. When a Swedish schoolgirl hit the headlines by preaching against climate change, she was both hailed and derided, as was Jesus in his own time. The Extinction Rebellion demonstrations have annoyed people because they stop the traffic and prevent people from driving where they want to go, but that traffic, those roads are amongst the many inconsiderate actions that are poisoning the earth: they speak not of any responsibility to future generations but to our laziness and naked greed. They are part, just part, of an endgame, not of God’s choosing but of ours.

You can see it in small things. Those who toss away cans and plastic bottles disfigure the environment and when they are thrown into water courses the results are still more disastrous as they pollute the oceans and destroy wildlife. I have seen the arrogant way in which drivers of smart cars pay scant regard to pedestrians and others, s though they are special because of the expensive vehicles in which they entomb themselves. And such selfish disregard can be magnified many times throughout the human world, as though in deliberate defiance of the divine ordinances.

We have been charged to honour the stranger and the destitute, to be loving to the poor, but our actions have caused environmental degradation and warfare, on a horrific scale, leading to millions of people on the move as refugees. How do our words as peacemakers square with our actions, often aimed at turning away the stranger? Are we not worse than the Priest and the Levite walking on the other side by actively adopting a zero tolerance policy, closing the gates of pity in a nationalistic exclusiveness? We do not seem to remember the clouds of the 1930s, the sadness of the Kindertransport children, having to leave their parents, and the horror of what happened to those parents…And there have of course been other similar offenses against the innocent since the Second World War, suggestive of collective amnesia.

We collectively -in the form of almost all human governments- spend far more on weapons, often instruments of mass destruction than they do on human or indeed environmental welfare. The manufacture of bombs to kill and maim has a far higher priority than feeding and housing the destitute. That cannot possibly be right: it certainly runs counter to the explicit message of Christ in the Gospels!

How have we used or rather misused the animal kingdom causing extinction on a massive scale? Whether it is the deliberate trade in pangolins or rhino horns for superstitious purposes in the far east, or Japanese whaling, or trophy hunting of lions or Japanese whaling we humans have been having an increasingly malign effect on God’s creation. We should couple that with the massive, industrial farming of domestic animals and all the cruelty involved thereby. We invent a figure of personified evil, the ‘devil’ or, as we frequently call him, Sa-tan, but as the Book of Job reminds us , Sa-tan is God’s servant acting as accuser and who is he to accuse but us? How, then, do we as a species propose to approach our Creator God and justify a threadbare cause?

I wrote much of this sermon over a week ago having been on a sort of retreat at my brother’s house in Monmouthshire, gardening and communing with nature but I could not escape the news and it is incumbent on me to say something about our country more politically split than I can recall, in some ways bringing the 17th century to mind when religion was at the centre of the debate. When I was growing up, I have to admit I did not go to many services of any kind, feeling there were other valid ways of worshiping God (as I still do), but I was an avid theatre-goer and the plays of Shakespeare were central, so many of them about societies riven by folly, and overflowing with moral arguments. King Lear in particular comes to mind…We, like the old king, so slenderly know ourselves, that we are in the process of tearing the body politic in pieces, and I am not sure it will ever be quite repaired again. As Christians all we can offer is love, and trust in God’s infinite mercy.

In my gloomiest moods, as now, I can see no way out, no easy escape from folly…but when I see those who protest, often young people full of idealism, I see that there is after all a glimmer of hope, a way back to God, and that somehow God can forgive our tenuous hold on reality which allows us to destroy our environment, other creatures including other humans, and even fracture our own society. God alone can blot out our transgressions and forget our many sins. The only way back is through love; the message of Christ is all about love so why do we turn away? Why do we turn away from the living waters in the parched land of our egotistical desires?

Finally, let us think on the beauty of those ostriches and jackals and their gratitude to God where we humans have simply taken him for granted, spat on his face and nailed him to the cross. They, at least, teach us that our purpose here on earth and in whatever happens to us in the hereafter is to praise God, and if our actions fall short of that, we only condemn ourselves; lacking love, like the tinkling cymbals we too often contrive to be we are simply useless. We, all of us, need to find a way back to that other country which God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has so generously given us.

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