Address given at the Ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving for the Lough Derg Yacht Club Regatta in Killodiernan Church on Sunday 14th August 2016, the 12th after Trinity.
1st Reading - Genesis 1:20-31, 2nd Reading - Matthew 6:24-33.
1st Reading - Genesis 1:20-31, 2nd Reading - Matthew 6:24-33.
It is right today to give thanks for the great gift of the River Shannon we have all been enjoying.
The great river is much more than just a playground in which we compete in our boats and enjoy the company of friends old and new. It is an ecosystem of amazing biodiversity. All the living creatures we can see: the water weeds, the marginal plants, the mayflies and dragonflies, the fish, the waterfowl, the otters – even sea eagles once again, returned from extinction, thanks be to God!
But there’s so much more that we can’t see with the naked eye. Have you ever looked at a drop of lake water through a microscope? If not, you should try it sometime, as I did recently at a summer school, led by John Feehan of Birr. The water teems with microscopic life: the minute plants and animals of the plankton, the water fleas and insect nymphs that eat them. Innumerable species I cannot begin to name, each and every one is endowed with bodies and behaviours as intricate as ours, that enable it to flourish in the world it inhabits, just as we do. They are beautiful, and the larger creatures we see depend on them - including ourselves.
All who love the Shannon know that we must cherish this diversity, and protect it to the best of our abilities. I say protect rather than preserve, because in its nature the Shannon is always changing, and must be allowed to do so. The river changes because it is living, it will die if we try to preserve it unchanged - it is the rich diversity of ever-changing life in it that makes it worth protecting.
I doubt if anyone here today believes that God created the universe in 6 days.
Through the patient work of scientists, studying the natural world and building on their predecessors’ discoveries, we now know so much more about creation than the authors of Genesis could. There are at least 10 million distinct species on earth today. All are related, descending from a common ancestor. And life on earth has been just as diverse for 100s of millions of years.
Genesis Ch1 is obsolete as a description of creation – it is a myth. To be taken seriously today Christians must engage with the language of science to talk about creation. Evolution is the way that God has created the diversity of life we see today. God has been at work creating it over geological aeons, he is doing so now, and he will continue to do so into the distant future.
But like all good myths the creation story in Genesis Ch1 encapsulates deep truths which we should not carelessly discard.
One of these truths is that God loves biodiversity - why should he make it if he doesn’t love it? In the 1st reading we heard that ‘God saw everything that he had made and … it was very good’ - it is a refrain running right through the creation story. If we love God then we must seek to protect the diversity of his creation – anything we do to damage it is an offence against him.
Another of these truths is that human beings are special, made in the image of God: ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them’, says Genesis.
We alone of all the creatures on earth are blessed with intelligence – we can imagine a future, plan how to bring it about, and act to make it happen. And we alone of all the creatures on earth possess a moral sense – we can tell right from wrong, distinguish truth from lies, prefer beauty to ugliness – as God does. We call this capacity conscience. If we follow our conscience we are able to do good, to be as good as God has created us to be, and in a sense we become co-creators with him. This is what it is to be truly human. Of course we know that all too often we fail at this – we sin – but we believe God will forgive us if we truly repent and mend our ways.
We human beings have a special responsibility to care for God’s creation.
The ecological crisis we face - climate change, the degradation of natural ecosystems, and species extinction - has brought the importance of this into sharp focus. In response our different Christian traditions have begun to recognise that care for creation is a Christian imperative.
Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has challenged us saying, ‘For Human beings … to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands, to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land , its air, and its life – these are sins’.
Last year Pope Francis published his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home’. In it he quotes Patriarch Bartholomew approvingly, and he appeals for ‘a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet … a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all’. It is a remarkable document, well worth reading - a gift not just to Catholics but to Christians of all traditions.
My church, the Church of Ireland, along with the rest of the Anglican Communion has committed itself ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’, as the 5th mark of its mission in the world.
The challenge has been laid down, and now it is up to Christians of all traditions to work together, with people of goodwill from other faiths and none, to care for and cherish the Earth, the Garden of Eden that God has given us.
This is the context in which Jesus’s words from the 2nd reading (Matt 6:24-33) speak to me.
‘No one can serve two masters’, says Jesus, ‘for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
Our society’s single-minded pursuit of wealth in a consumer market economy is surely at the heart of the ecological crisis we face, which threatens our very civilisation. We have a choice to make: either we serve wealth – continue business as usual - and face destruction; or we serve God by changing our lifestyles to live simply without waste, protecting the environment, and generously supporting those in need.
Jesus understands very well that fear for the future is the greatest barrier to making lifestyle changes, so he tells his followers not to worry, because God looks after his creatures. ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field … will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?’
Our heavenly Father knows what we need, and if we ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’, he will give us all that we need – though it will be a little less than our greedy desires. Our heavenly Father is trustworthy, and we must not be afraid to make the lifestyle changes he demands of us.