Sunday 12 September 2010

Love casts out fear

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams preached a thoughtful and challenging sermon at an ecumenical service in Copenhagen Cathedral during the Climate Change talks last December. This is a slightly adapted version. I am very much indebted to him for his insight. And I hope he will forgive me the sin of plagiarism!

‘Perfect love casts out fear’, says St John in his 1st Epistle, as we heard in our opening sentence from scripture.
John is talking about how Christian confidence in God’s love and forgiveness leads us to be fearless. Our confidence, our fearlessness, is built on seeing love at work through us – not just warm feelings or positive emotions or even kind actions, but the love that really sets people free and brings something new into the world: God’s love, reaching into the deepest tangles and knots of our human condition, the love that was the essence of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection.

As Christians, we must be fearless in protecting God’s creation, because when God looks at all he has made he finds it good, as we read in Genesis. We must show in our lives some echo of God’s delight in his creation.We are called to be, God enables us to be, a channel through which God expresses his love for all creation.

Love casts out fear.
If our starting point is the belief that God wants us to rejoice and delight in creation, our whole attitude to the environment will not be anxiety, or a desparate search for ways to control it. It will be an excited and hopeful search to understand it, and to honour its complex interdependent beauty.

If we have any fear, it should be fear of spoiling the heritage God has given us, fear of forgetting the overwhelming scale and depth of his gift and of our responsibility to care for it, fear of forgetting that we are called to show the same consistent and sacrificial love for creation that we must show towards our fellow human beings.

And the truth is that we cannot show the right kind of love for our fellow human beings unless we work to keep the earth a secure home for all people and future generations.

At the present moment, the human species is faced with the consequences of generations of failure to love the earth as we should. Human beings have been polluting the atmosphere and waters, living on the pigs back on non-renewable resources, causing the extinction of other species, causing our planet to warm dangerously – ultimately risking the collapse of the web of life which sustains all species, including ours.

We are not doomed to carry on in the downward spiral of the greedy, addictive behaviour that has brought us to this point. But fear still rules our hearts and imaginations. We are afraid because we can’t imagine how to survive without the comforts of our existing lifestyle. We in the rich world are afraid that the rapidly growing developing economies will take advantage of us. Those in the poor world are afraid that our older, richer economies will use the excuse of ecological responsibility to deny them proper and just development.

So long as this fear dominates our thinking, we are stepping back from love – love for creation itself, which we must look at as God looks at it – love for one another and for the generations still unborn, who need us to do whatever we can to guarantee a stable, productive and balanced world to live in – not a world of chaotic and disruptive change, of devastation and desertification, of biological impoverishment and degradation.

Love casts out fear.
The truth is that what is most likely to get us to take the right decisions for our global future is love.

There is a temptation to underline fear to persuade one another of the urgency of the situation: to say things are so bad, so threatening that we simply must do something.

It would be all too easy, for instance, to enlist Jeremiah’s terrifying vision of the destruction of creation in our 1st reading (Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28) as a stick to wave at doubters. ‘I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins.’ But that would be wrong, I think. Jeremiah’s words relate to his own time and place – the precarious position of the Kingdom of Judah and its people, faced by the rising imperial power of Babylon. Scholars tell us that most likely Jeremiah’s words were remembered, collected together and no doubt edited after the disaster he foresaw had already taken place, after the leaders of Judah had been carried off in captivity to Babylon, where they reflected on what had happened to them, and where as survivors they took comfort from God’s promise not to make a full end of them.

Our situation is quite different. We may be tempted to think bitterly that the human race is still not frightened enough by what is in store for us if we don’t change our ways. But that kind of fear could simply paralyse us, as we all know. It could make us feel that the problem is so great, so insoluble, that we might just as well pull the bedclothes up over our head and wait for disaster to strike. What’s more it could make us just blame one another or just wait for someone else to make the first move because we don’t trust them. We need more than that for lifegiving change to happen.

Love casts out fear.
As we respond to the global environmental crisis as Christians, there are two simple things we can say to ourselves, our neighbours and our governments.

1st: Don’t be afraid – but ask questions.

  • Ask how the lifestyle you live looks in the light of God’s command to love God and your neighbour. Ask how Government policy looks in the same context. Ask what would be a healthy and sustainable relationship with this world, a relationship that manifests both joy in and respect for the earth.
  • If we really love God’s creation, each one of us will repent of any greed and excess in the way we live – and as Jesus teaches us in today’s 2nd reading (Luke 15:1-10), ‘there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’. We will start to make changes to tread more lightly on God’s world ourselves. Our families, friends and neighbours – even Governments - will notice the changes we make and our joy in and care for God’s world. By God’s grace they will be led to do the same themselves
2nd: Don’t separate environmental concerns from trust for one another.

  • In a world like ours with limited resources there can be no trust without justice, without the assurance of knowing that my neighbour is there for me when I face insecurity or risk.
  • We must work for justice and strive to build up trust. If we allow God to teach us trust and if we learn to live in trust and seek justice, the whole of creation will feel the effects. Selfishness will give way to liberation, human beings will flourish alongside a flourishing creation, and the result will be to God’s glory.
Let us not be afraid – let us act for the sake of love, not out of fear.