Sermon by the Right Revd Dr Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston, on 3 October 2021 for the Harvest Festival service at St Pauls, Wimbledon Parkside as part of the Creationtide season
Readings: Galatians chapter 6 versus 14 to the end; Luke, chapter 12 versus 22 to 34 (as set for Saint Francis’ day)
First of all, I want to say a very warm thank you to our vicar, Susan, for the invitation to preach this morning. I am here not only as the Bishop for this part of the Diocese, but also as a parishioner of this wonderful parish of St Paul’s, so it’s always very special for me to be here. I am also very pleased to be able to preach as part of the Creationtide season of services which have taken place throughout September and into October to think about the importance of living well with all God’s creation and taking proper care of our God-given environment.
Having been laid up for a while following some ankle surgery I’ve had more time than usual to follow the news. It’s certainly true, both nationally and globally, that there is a large amount of anxiety around. We have been living with the huge effects of the pandemic for a long time and there is still a major journey ahead of us. We have also been experiencing severe pressures on some of the supply chains in which we rely and not least for fuel and food. We have a much greater understanding of the importance of HGV drivers and their working conditions, and, amongst other things, we have learnt about the vital place of carbon dioxide in food packaging and processing. Living as we do in an urban context and a global world there is a very complicated connection between the traditional annual cycle of the agricultural year, culminating in a Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving, and our current patterns of food supply in a global and urbanised context. Yet, of course, all of us are totally dependent on good and regular food supplies. All of this is integrally linked with our care of the planet, and the challenges of maintaining a healthy biodiversity, and changing our ways of living to mitigate the damaging effects of human activity on our climate.
In the midst of our current situation in which there is so much fear and anxiety the challenge is how to get the right approach, to find a way of living which is sustainable, fair and life-giving for all God’s creation. In today’s gospel reading from Luke, chapter 12, Jesus spoke of our understandable human anxiety about our material needs. Of course, these are very important, but if we are not careful they can dominate our lives in an unhealthy way. Jesus told his disciples that they should seek first “the kingdom of God”, and all these other things would be given to them as well. I want to explore what that might mean for us in our 21st-century situation.
Over 50 years ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was in my teenage years and trying to make sense of life, I was particularly struck by three books. The first was called “Only one Earth – the care and maintenance of a small planet”, the second was entitled “Small is beautiful - economics as if people mattered.” And the third was “Enough is enough” by Bishop John V Taylor encouraging everyone to a simpler and fairer pattern of consumption. Between them they embodied for me a vital message about how we should strive to live. Since that time the global population has more than doubled and we are seeing the massive impacts of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, so there is no doubt at all in my mind that our response to these things can rightly be seen as the major issue facing us in the 21st-century. Not least there is a question of intergenerational justice. A recent piece of research highlighted the effects of climate change in terms of extreme weather events and the like on the generation born in 2020. Even in a best case scenario, the effect was going to be very significant.
As the Church, and in many parts of society, there is undoubtedly very good progress and much greater awareness of the importance of our care of the environment. But there is still a very long way to go. I have had the privilege of serving on the Church of England’s environmental working group for over 5 years until fairly recently, and it has been good to see the progress in that time. I am very pleased that the Diocese of Southwark has signed up to the eco-diocese programme, and that many of our parishes including St Paul’s, are committed to the Eco-Church journey. These give us a helpful framework to get to grips with what can seem completely overwhelming challenges. They give us a step-by-step process for helping us think practically, morally, spiritually and theologically about how we are to live.
Around the church today there are some excellent display boards on the theme of our care for God’s creation. The introductory board quotes an article which I wrote recently in which I said, “there is a growing and deepening awareness and massive evidence that the environment climate change is one of the biggest issues of our times. For Christians our response to this is not simply a moral one, but it springs out of our whole understanding of how we see our place in the universe – our relatedness to God, the whole world, to each other, and all God’s creation”. Christian faith is not simply about my individual relationship with God, but rather it is about a whole network of relationships within the creative love of God.
The pandemic has given many people are much greater awareness of the importance of nature and our part in it. Tomorrow is St Francis day and he had a strong sense in the 13th century of his relatedness to the planets, the animals around him and all of nature. In the 21st-century with the benefits of modern science we are all aware that we are made from elements created in the stars, that we share DNA with a whole variety of lifeforms and we have common ancestors with many others. This sense of the interconnectedness and relatedness of all God’s creation is fundamental if we are to understand how we should live in a sustainable and fair way.
The key quality in our human relationships is love. Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning reminded us of how the self-giving love of God, made known in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the most powerful and life-giving force of all. So much so that when we are shaped by God’s love Paul could speak of there being a “new creation”. Living in this way can be very hard and we need constant repentance and amendment of life. But it is the key to our humanity.
In the 17th century, the philosopher Descartes put our ability to think and rationality at the centre of what it means to be human in his famous phrase (in Latin) “Cogito ergo sum”, I think therefore I am. In our rather materialistic age it might seem that it is the relentless pursuit of possessions and wealth, which can define us – it might be summed up by saying “Tesco, ergo sum” – I consume therefore I am. However, the Christian perspective on our lives is much better summed up with the phrase “amo ergo sum” – I love therefore I am. And perhaps even more importantly, “amor ergo sum” – I am loved therefore I am. Our humanity at its centre is about being loved by God. And learning to live in the pattern of God’s love towards God, others and all creation. It involves developing a right relationship with God, our planet and all life. The kingdom of God is about God’s reign of love shaping us in all we are and all that we do. Allowing that love to shape us is one of the things we are doing when we come to worship.
In the midst of all the current anxiety and fear, both from the pandemic and from the challenges of climate change, Jesus calls us to seek first this kingdom of God. St Francis sought to do that in relation to all God’s creation in the 13th century. We are called to do that in our own times, and that means lives that are sustainable and fair for all, lives that sustain biodiversity, lives that look out for the poor and marginalised, lives shaped by God’s self-giving love in Christ. If we can learn to do that in the midst of all our current fears and anxieties and challenges, to genuinely seek first God’s kingdom, then, in the words of St Julian of Norwich, all will be well.