Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 17 July 2011
17 July 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
I suppose one of the great concerns of many in our day is what we are doing to our environment. Perhaps more recently it has been obscured by other more immediate concerns, like those regarding the financial crisis facing much of the world or, more locally and recently in this country about the ethical standards of our newspapers and how they conduct themselves. Such matters are a wholly proper concern, but there remains also real and genuine anxiety, certainly among the young but not just the young, about such matters as global warming, or the using up of our natural resources at an alarming rate, or even the extinction of certain forms of animal species. And it is, I believe, significant that the Anglican Communion has commented on such matters in a very key document. One of the five marks of mission of the Anglican Communion, which statement was produced towards the end of the last century and which is a mission statement shared by many other churches in the world today as well, is, and I quote, ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’ It is a bold vision to set at the very heart of Anglican identity.
And what is interesting in our epistle for today is that it is one of the few places in the New Testament where there is some indication of that concern, although it is of course expressed in rather different language. But St. Paul’s words, ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now’ is a powerful and telling image, reflecting not just the damage we human beings might be doing to our world, of which St Paul would certainly not have been aware, but also and more terribly the enormous power of nature when things go wrong as in tsunamis and earthquakes. That picture of ‘the whole creation groaning’ is one that I suspect many can recognise and in some way identify with. And it does lift our sights from simply thinking about human beings and what we can do for them, to thinking on an altogether broader front on what we can do for our environment and care of our planet, and perhaps even more importantly what we should not do.
Now let me confess that I am not a great environmentalist buff, I am not a member of the Green party, and I hope I am not one of those who are so obsessed by what we are doing to our environment that I ignore other very important issues. But I do believe that fifth mark of mission about safeguarding the integrity of creation points us to something of significance and importance for our life today, not least of all because it does lift our eyes beyond the often all too human and mundane concerns of the contemporary church. Preserving the created order so that it can continue to give life to our children and grandchildren seems to me far more important than being obsessed with issues of sexual orientation, or the gender of those in Episcopal orders.
For the terrible fact is that by inadvertence, or by simply labelling something ‘too difficult’, or by concentrating too much on the immediate and not thinking about the long-term, or by what can only be described as sheer intellectual laziness, we can collude with something that our children and our grandchildren will hold us responsible for long after our deaths, namely long-term damage to the world and our environment.
So, what can we do about it?
Well, it might seem a rather pious and simplistic answer, but there is one thing we can do, we can pray. Now if you mean by prayer laying before God a whole lot of our wishes and desires and hoping that he will respond in some miraculous way to our aspirations then I do not think that sort of prayer will help very much. But it has always seemed to me that prayer, rightly understood, is something rather different from that. It is not a mechanism for us seeking to persuade God to do what we want, and nor is it about our listing a set of our wishes and expecting him to act in some magical way; it is something far more fundamental.
For most of us most of the time are often preoccupied with what we want, what our wishes are, what our hopes are, what our longings are about, even in some cases what we think might aggrandise our egos. All too often our thoughts and our hopes and even our actions are about seeing the world with us and our wishes at its centre. But real prayer might be about doing something rather different. It might be a process of as it were moving the centre of gravity in our lives from how we see the world to how God might see the world. It is not about listing our wishes and hopes, but allowing him to show us what he wishes and hopes. And part of that might involve seeing the world as St Paul puts it, ‘groaning in travail’.
And perhaps the first step for any major change is to begin to look at things differently, maybe to recognise that what we were doing will not work in the long run and we have to think and perceive things in another way. And just maybe we all need prayerfully to examine what we do, to recognise the way in which we might abuse the created order, the way we are thoughtless about the effect of our actions, the way in which we use resources without putting anything back, the way we can so easily and yet unthinkingly be greedy and selfish and self-centred. And then possibly through prayer we can hear God saying no, and we can catch Paul’s vision of ‘the whole creation groaning in travail.’ And that might be the start of real change.