George Harris, ex-convener of our Green Ginger Group, was invited to preach at St James’, Goldenacre on Sunday 11 September. This is what he had to say:
Now may the words of my lips and the thoughts of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and redeemer.
Good morning. It is very flattering to have been invited to talk to you this morning. I used to be convener of the Eco-group at St John’s, Princes Street, and Anne Pankhurst is also a member of the group. So I have been asked to reflect on the readings in relation to Creationtide, which we celebrate every September.
But, of course, many of our thoughts this morning are on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. I was born before she came to the throne, but I have no memory of any other monarch. She was a very remarkable person indeed and we have been extraordinarily fortunate to live under such a head of state. I think the best short tribute I have seen was the one by Keir Starmer, in the House of Commons. The best longer tribute – very good indeed – was an article by Simon Schama in the Financial Times. If you can get hold of a copy, or find it on-line, I do recommend it.
What about those readings? They certainly hang together as a group. They all deal with things going badly wrong, but then, thanks to the way God has fashioned Creation, they turn out right.
One of the things I like about Christianity is its optimism. Hope is, of course, listed by St Paul as one of the three things that abides for ever. But I do not mean at all facile optimism. Take the first reading: The various foundation myths in the Book of Exodus have often been misinterpreted to justify appalling slaughters by both Jews and Christians – starting, of course, with the massacre of all the children, women and men in Jericho, except for Rahab the harlot, and her household. As for St Paul’s experience, and he was later executed, there have been many people, since the Reformation at least, who thought that only those who had had a similar conversion experience were members of the elect, and so were entitled to rule very strictly over everyone else. And Jesus himself, source of those two wonderful parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, was tortured to death. Let us not learn facile optimism from these readings, nor indulge in any sort of narrow interpretation. Rather let us learn hope, reinforced by faith and by love.
It does seem to me, in the light of these readings, that we should approach the present ecological crisis – I am thinking both of climate and of biodiversity – with hope, faith and love.
I expect we all know the sorts of things we ought to be doing, and if we are already doing them, we ought to do them more, and more thoroughly.
Insulation of all sorts in our homes; using buses and trains rather than aeroplanes and cars when at all possible; reducing our consumption of red meat; putting on a jumper before we turn on the heating; not using pesticides in our gardens; maybe giving some of our money to the right charities; using less plastic. I could give a very long list, and I guess they are all points you have heard before. Very important, by the way, is putting ecological issues high on our list of priorities when we decide how to cast our votes at elections. Today’s readings surely give us hope that if we really do our best, things may get better – not necessarily, though, in a facile, simplistic way.
Something else we could usefully do more of is think when we shop for food and prepare meals. This is a theme of Creationtide this year for the Edinburgh Churches Together – three city-centre churches of which St John’s is one. On the evening of Sunday 25th we are hosting a free meal and a book launch – eco-friendly recipes. There should even be a free glass of wine. I do hope some of you can be there. I’ve given your rector a poster about it.
This month is Creationtide. We should be thinking about, and celebrating and giving thanks for Creation. The good news is that, as I learn from looking it up yesterday, there are an awful lot of galaxies. “The acceptable range is between 100 billion and 200 billion”. It is also estimated that the average number of stars in a galaxy is 100 million. So there is no reason to suppose that Creation is in a bad way, even if our own planet is.
As far as our own planet is concerned, I would strongly argue that the tendency of mankind to arrange Creation into a hierarchy of more important and less important things – good things and bad things – is not the point. Beautiful landscapes, pretty flowers, colourful birds, cute furry pets, animals we find useful get put at the top – under humans, of course. This way of thinking has been around for centuries. No, no. We give thanks for the whole of Creation. I once wrote a hymn which includes the line “The wonder of Creation includes the ticks and fleas.”
This is not, by the way a new idea, though it has undoubtedly been obscured all too often by humans who think they know better. It is still obscured by a great deal of thinking and marketing and politics. But have a look at that wonderful story of Job. After Job has had to submit to chapters and chapters of advice from his unhelpful comforters, in Chapter 38 this happens:
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
There is no time to read the whole chapter, but you might like to look it up later. Job is reminded that he must be humble in the face of Creation.
One of the most attractive characters in Eighteenth Century literature is Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby. Here is an anecdote to illustrate his character:
“Go – says he, one day at dinner, to an overgrown fly which had buzzed about his nose and tormented him cruelly all dinner tie, – and which after infinite attempts, he had caught at last as it flew by him; – I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair and going across the room, with the fly in his hand, – I’ll not I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head – Go, he says, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape; go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me.”
What a moving example of love for Creation in action.
I guess the best ever hymn to Creation was by St Francis of Assisi – “Cantico delle creature”. We know it in translation as “All creatures of our God and King”. St Francis ends with a verse which is usually left out of our singing – “Omit verse 6”. It gives thanks for death “Laudato si’, mi Signore, per sora nostra morte corporale”, or, in translation, “And thou most kind and gentle death”.
We are all mourning today, and reflecting on one particular death. Surely we must agree with St Francis that death is indeed a complete part of that creation that we are celebrating this month.
Here is one sentence about death that one of the greatest ever preachers in English, John Donne, wrote:
“The dust of great persons’ graves is speechless too, it says nothing, it distinguishes nothing: as soon the dust of a wretch whom thou wouldest not, as of a prince thou couldest not look upon will trouble thine eyes if the wind blow it thither; and when a whirlwind hath blown the dust of the churchyard into the church, and the man sweeps out the dust of the church into the churchyard, who will undertake to sift those dusts again, and to pronounce, This is the patrician, this is the noble flower, and this is the yeomanly, this the plebeian bran”
I cannot add to John Donne, or to Uncle Toby, or to Saint Francis, or to the author of the Book of Job. Please think deeply about creation and our place in it. Thank you for listening.