Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday before Lent, 7 February 2021
Preacher Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
(scroll to the bottom for a video of this sermon)
David Attenborough is one expert we have never had enough of. He’s not a believer, but I reckon he would find in our first reading some echoes of his latest series, A Perfect Planet. The reading tells the second of the two stories of the creation. The first, in Genesis chapter 1, is measured and stately; today’s is homely and playful. And once the man and the woman are settled in the rich habitat of God’s garden, everything does look, well, perfect.
A fairy-tale ending. But this is not a fairy tale, it is a story to explore why our world is as it is, and this is not the end. Already in the garden is the seed of risk – actually, not a seed but the full-grown tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The humans will eat the fruit of that tree, will see things as they really are and then will begin a harsher life outside the garden.
It will be a struggle to keep fed and warm and sheltered and to give birth; and there will come things unseen in the garden like sickness. Their – our – increasingly successful efforts to grapple with these things are what beat the path from this ancient parable of our origins to the television documentary.
Attenborough begins the last episode in a measured, almost scriptural, tone.
Life flourishes on planet earth (we hear his voice over a gorgeous flock of flamingos) thanks to powerful natural forces. The weather gives us predictable patterns of rainfall. Sunlight delivers energy to all parts of planet earth’s surface. Ocean currents carry nutrients around the globe. Volcanoes create and fertilise the land. Together these forces have helped shape our living planet.
‘But (he continues) it’s a fragile system.’ A baby elephant dying of thirst he describes as ‘the latest casualty of our changing world…likely the victim of a new force, one so powerful it threatens the future of life on earth.’ A satellite picture of the globe aglow with artificial light is overlayed with the title of this last episode: HUMANS.
Attenborough says that world he first reported on sixty years ago ‘has changed beyond recognition. Human activity now so dominant that is disrupting forces of nature and vital habitats that life needs to survive on earth. This is the most important story of our time.’
As is the way with an Attenborough documentary, there is more on offer than visual delight and scariness. We are warned but also given hope; and we are informed. I learned that for every degree our average temperature rises the atmosphere sucks up seven percent more water – which means more storms like the one that nearly drowns the disciples in our second reading. The next time a storm happens there – just think – it may be partly because of us, just as today’s floods in the Midlands may be partly because of gas emissions in Tel Aviv.
What to do? If you are not a believer you will say we are in this on our own, there is no ultimate Presence that cares about our destiny. And if you are a believer? The second reading, in which and Jesus stills a storm and heals a tortured soul, might suggest that the maker of all things may intervene and sort it. There is a whole other sermon her about how we read the miracles of Jesus. Do we see here a momentary suspension of the laws of the universe? Or do you read it some other way?
What we don’t tend to see is Jesus overruling people in those parts of life where there are choices to make. He feeds people who have no food; he does not make opponents go into a deep sleep and wake up as his allies. He teaches, he persuades (or tries to) but they are free to reject him, even if that costs him his life.
We are not on our own. Our Creator is ultimately responsible for all that happens on our dynamic planet, from a volcano to a virus, and is also the deep source (whether we acknowledge it or not) of all human inventiveness.
Are not his making fingers always upon us? (a preacher once asked about God) Do we draw a single breath but by his mercy, has he not given us one another and the world to delight us, and kindled our eyes with a divine intelligence?
God never ceases to be at work among us (recognised or not) inspiring, inviting, enticing – but not overruling.
At the end of the programme, 15 year old Izzy Warren says, ‘We need to think about how we interact with the natural world. We need to see it not as a commodity but as a system that we are part of.’ How we do that is a matter of the human heart, which is the core business of Jesus and his people. But hearts can only be won not overruled.
give us reverence for all creation
and respect for every person,
that we may mirror your likeness
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Are not his making fingers always upon us? The preacher was Austin Farrer in his sermon ‘A Grasp of the Hand’ in Said or Sung