Sunday 12 February 2023

Care for Creation

The Pillars of Creation are set off in a kaleidoscope of color in NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s near-infrared-light view. The pillars look like arches and spires rising out of a desert landscape, but are filled with semi-transparent gas and dust, and ever changing. This is a region where young stars are forming – or have barely burst from their dusty cocoons as they continue to form.

An address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Creation Sunday 12th February 2023, the 2nd before Lent.

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. The universe began in an explosion of energy some 13 billion years ago. Our planet Earth was formed from the dust of exploding stars some 4 billion years ago, and the first life appeared soon after. There are at least 10 million distinct life forms 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.

Today’s 1st Reading from the first chapter of Genesis (1:1-2:3) is obsolete as a description of creation – it is a myth.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 chapter 1 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? We are told that ‘God saw everything that he had made and … it was very good’. 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.

Yet the 1st chapter of Genesis also contains something more problematical.

Humankind is told, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’.

Well, the human race has certainly been fruitful and multiplied - there are now more than 8 billion people on planet Earth, and still increasing, though the annual rate is slowing. As a species we have subdued the Earth - human beings are consuming more resources than Earth can provide. By some estimates we are using today the resources of 1.8 Earths. The result is the ecological crises we are facing now - climate change, the degradation of natural ecosystems, and species extinction.

Too often people understand the command to ‘have dominion’ over Earth’s resources as a licence to exploit them greedily, to take as much as they can, without thought for the future. But this is wrong. It is wrong and it is sinful.

Wise farmers know they hold their land on a repairing lease for their successors. They know not to take more from the land than its fertility allows, and not to overstock their farm. Wise rulers protect their dominions in order that they may continue to flourish.

The second creation myth in the 2nd chapter of Genesis forbids over-exploitation of the Earth. God takes Adam, the archetypal human being, and places him in the Garden of Eden ‘to till it and keep it’, in other words, to care for it.

We human beings have a special responsibility to care for God’s creation.

The ecological crises we face have brought the importance of this into sharp focus. In response our different Christian traditions recognise that care for creation is a Christian imperative.

Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew challenges us, calling out human destruction of the natural world as a sin. Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato ‘Si, on Care for Our Common Home”, 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’. And our Church of Ireland, along with the rest of the Anglican Communion, commits itself ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’, as a mark of its mission.

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 3rd reading (Matt 6:24-33) speak to me.

Jesus says, ‘No one can serve two masters; 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. 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 is faithful. If we ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’, he will give us all that we need – just perhaps a little less than our greedy desires, but all we need. Part of our striving must be to care for and cherish the good Earth God has given us, and at the same time to care for and cherish our fellow human beings.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word.

God of the living,
with all your creatures great and small
we sing your bounty and your goodness,
for in the harvest of land and ocean,
in the cycles of the seasons,
and the wonders of each creature,
you reveal your generosity.
Teach us the gratitude that dispels envy,
that we may honour each gift,
cherish your creation,
and praise you in all times and places. Amen

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