Sunday 14 August 2016

Care for Creation

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.

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Genesis Ch1  is obsolete as a description of creation – it is a myth.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.

Sunday 7 August 2016


Address given at Templederry on Sunday 7th August 2016, the 11th after Trinity, celebrated as the Feast of the Transfiguration, transferred from 6th August.

Today we celebrate the Festival of the Transfiguration.
In the Gospel reading Luke 9:28-36 gives us a short account of how Peter and James and John had a strange spiritual and emotional experience. Jesus brought them high on a mountain to pray. There they saw Jesus transfigured, in dazzling white clothing, his face changed, and alongside him Elijah and Moses. As cloud enveloped them they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him’. The same story is also told in the other synoptic Gospels – scholars believe Luke and Matthew most likely got it from Mark.

Some people interpret the Transfiguration as a miracle story prefiguring Jesus’s Ascension, a sort of artistic device to reinforce the Gospel drama.  This might be all well and good as literary criticism, but I am sure there is a lot more to it than this. The Church has always seen this as an important story, because it reveals Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God.

In reflecting on the Transfiguration, I’m going to look first at the physics that may lie behind it, then at the disciples’ emotional response to it, and lastly at the effect their experience had on them

First to the physics: Luke’s account gives us a clue as to what the disciples actually saw.
They were high on a mountain, with cloud around. These are just the circumstances where we can encounter an optical effect called a ‘Glory’. In this effect sunlight is scattered back from water droplets in a mist, as a glowing halo. The technical term for this is Mie scattering, and there are even software packages to calculate what can be seen for different droplet sizes.

Historically, the most famous example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, so named because of sightings on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. This appears when a low sun is behind a climber who is looking downwards into mist from a ridge or peak. The spectre is the shadow of the observer projected onto the mist, and it is surrounded by the glowing halo of a glory.
The Brocken Spectre

You might be lucky enough to see a Glory yourselves, as I have. I saw it when I looked down from a plane at the shadow it cast on a cloud. The shadow was surrounded with a halo of light – this was the glory.

I hope you don’t feel that this physical explanation takes anything away from the transfiguration story. It helps me to believe that the Transfiguration really did take place, and was not invented by the Gospel writers to serve their own artistic or theological needs. I believe that God is present in and works through the laws of the universe he created. The disciples accurately reported what they saw, even if they could not understand the physics. What matters surely is what this revealed to them about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.

If you are interested in more of the physics, see

Now, let us focus on what the disciples actually experienced, emotionally and spiritually.
I imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus a little bit away, as the clouds swirled around them. Where Jesus had stood, they each suddenly see a glowing figure – it’s their own shadow cast on a cloud, wrapped in a glory - and two other shadows beside it, those of their companions.

They are awed by what they see. Peter was always the impulsive one. Just days before, when Jesus had asked the disciples who people said that he was, Peter had blurted out ‘You are the Messiah’. Now he identifies the three figures with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and as the cloud moves away and the glory fades he calls out to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter didn’t want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them and all three are terrified. And they heard a voice as if from heaven, saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’

This description of their spiritual experience rings very true to me. When people suddenly realise something of vital importance, something which changes everything, they often talk of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. Many people report such deeply emotional religious experiences. This is so in our own Christian tradition, for St Paul or St Francis for instance; and perhaps for some of our ‘born again’ contemporaries. But it is also so in other faith traditions, such as for Gautama, the Buddha, who experienced enlightenment under a Bodh tree, and for Mahomed, peace be upon him, whose ‘night journey’ took him to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. We may not have had such a religious experience ourselves – I haven’t - but we may have felt something similar, for instance at the moment we realise that this very person I am with is the one I want to marry, to spend the rest of my life with.

Finally, what effect did this experience have on Peter, James and John?
The voice the disciples heard told them to listen to Jesus, and this surely is what they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, as if preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

I believe the Transfiguration was the moment on their long road when they realised their complete commitment to Jesus and his teaching. Starting from the call in Galilee, this road led them ultimately to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the Resurrection, to the Ascension, and on to Pentecost, where they started to blossom as the church of Christ.

And they never forgot this moment of insight into Jesus’s relationship with God, for they passed on the story through Mark, to Matthew and Luke, and so to ourselves.

We should value their experience, and other religious experiences, because without them, and without the spiritual commitment that flows from them, there could be no Church, and we would not be here today.