A sermon for Eco Church, Sunday 5 February (4th before Lent) by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Reading Matthew 5: 13–20
No-one, says Jesus, lights a lamp then hides it. Nevertheless, the image of a dark house where no-one can find the light is an image for our confused and perplexed times. According to ‘the law and the prophets’ that Jesus says he has come to fulfil, God wanted the benighted peoples of the world to see that light in Israel: to look at them, and their society, and see, bright lit, what human life was meant to be. Too often, however (as the prophets also said), this chosen people would choose to share the darkness of the nations instead. So who would make them that beacon for the world?
On Thursday we celebrated the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, where an unofficial prophet called Simeon called baby Jesus the light for the nations. Today, an adult Jesus tells his followers, you are the light of world, who reflect Jesus’ light and so show the world what true humanity is. This rather scary statement is this morning addressed to us. How to respond? This could lead us in any one of a number of directions but today we look at just one - albeit a big one.
Today we celebrate the first anniversary of Eco Church. This is an initiative of A Rocha (Portuguese for ‘the rock’), a Christian charity working for the protection and restoration of the natural world. A Rocha seeks to respond to the call from God to care for the earth, and one way it does this is through the Eco Church initiative: churches are invited to see how they are caring for God’s earth in different areas of their life and work.
We did the survey in the Autumn. If you visit our loos - our TripAdvisor-acclaimed loos - in the Cloister you will see on the plaque that we have received the Eco Church Bronze award. In its various categories we were Gold for worship and teaching - so we talk and sing a good game - and Silver for community and global engagement. This was thanks in part to two things. First, our Refectory runs an excellent regime for ethically sourced food and reducing energy consumption; and, second, as a Christmas charity project the Cathedral staff raised nearly £300 for Toilet-Twinning: each of our four loos is now linked with a new toilet and health education sessions we have helped fund in Africa or South America - check the plaques in the cubicle of your choice to see where.
On buildings and land we were Bronze; and Bronze for lifestyle. Our staff are keen to get us to Silver in our care of land and buildings, but the lifestyle questions are for you and me. So how do you feel about encouraging one another to do some of these: cycle or walk to church, or share a car; do a personal carbon footprint audit; look at whatever savings you may have to see how they are invested. How about practical lifestyle tips and advice on caring for God’s earth in our newsletters?
It would be good to hear your response to these ideas. ‘Mind our own business.’ might be your headline response. Or perhaps a question: ‘Why does any of this matter?’ or ‘What difference can it possibly make?’
You will expect me to talk about climate change here, and I won’t disappoint. 2016 has beaten 2015 as the warmest year on record. We can’t be sure that human activity is having a decisive effect, but the evidence suggests that the likelihood is sufficiently high and the consequences of even a couple of degrees temperature rise so severe, that this should be at the top of our risk register.
Over the last decade, big and urgent things - the financial crash, the Middle East, the EU referendum - have taken our eye off this gathering storm. But the latest big thing, a president who has said (among other remarks) that climate change is a Chinese hoax, puts it back before our immediate gaze. We are, however, a tiny group of people in a small country. If the boat is sinking, we have only a teaspoon to help bale out, so what’s the point?
Even if the climate figures turn out to be wrong, and though our part is necessarily small, this stuff is still the stuff of life and death. Global warming or not, the populations of some well-known UK birds have still halved since 1995; two schools near Sheffield are to close because of traffic pollution; and the evidence is quite persuasive that our style of living - whether or not it is cooking the earth - is not making us too happy.
In a lecture for another climate-conscious organisation, Operation Noah, Rowan Williams listed some sources of unhappiness in a world that equates success with consumption: an erosion of our rhythms of work and leisure; an impatience with the passing of time which makes speed of communication a good in itself, and makes it harder for us acknowledge the passage of time in our own lives and celebrate ageing); an addiction to fantasies about prosperity and growth, dreams of wealth without risk and profit without cost (the lecture was a while ago, and we seem to be walking up from those dreams); all of which leads to the loss of a sense of what life is.
If he is even mostly right, then here you see the power of small changes. Why bother to do my recycling properly, or scale down my air travel? Not because this will on its own save the planet but because each is a little step towards liberation from compulsions that are not good for me, or for any of us.
Bishop Rowan found inspiration in Noah, whose story is part of the Law and prophets that Jesus fulfils: Noah, who takes practical action despite the climate sceptics of his day; Noah who gathers and cares for a whole ecosystem, of which he and his family are a part. At the Candlemas service the Dean spoke about how we need to see our dependence on each other not as a thing to be escaped but as good news: and Noah’s tale tells us that that dependence goes wider and deeper still; that ‘humanity is meaningless seen independently of the world of diverse life-forms in which it is embedded’. Before that, the story of Adam and Eve tells us that this responsibility for the non-human world is part of what we were made for.
At the end of this service there is an Act of Commitment, part of the texts for Eco Church Sunday, for which we are grateful to the Precentor of Canterbury. It begins with Noah, and invites us to own our responsibilities towards God’s creation and the poorest and most vulnerable within it. It ends with the tree of righteousness - and Sunday Club’s collage of a tree rising from rubbish is an icon of that: the tree of life absorbs the polluting rubbish of the earth - yet it lives; and the rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant with Noah and the promise that life will prevail.
God promised Noah that he would not destroy the world, however alienated it might become. In Jesus God was embedded in that world, embodied in a human life, so great was his love for it. Jesus is the light of that world, and this is a light we can reflect, so that we shine, modestly but distinctly, that others may see what human life is meant to be, and how the saving of the human future is bound up with securing a future for all living things.