Saturday, 24 September 2011

Harvest Thanksgiving - The wrong perspective on humanity's place in creation

Psalm 104:10-24
You make springs flow in the valleys, and rivers run between the hills. They provide water for the wild animals; there the wild donkeys quench their thirst. In the trees near by, the birds make their nests and sing. From the sky you send rain on the hills, and the earth is filled with your blessings. You make grass grow for the cattle and plants for us to use, so that we can grow our crops and produce wine to make us happy, olive oil to make us cheerful, and bread to give us strength. The cedars of Lebanon get plenty of rain - the Lord's own trees, which he planted. There the birds build their nests; the storks nest in the fir trees. The wild goats live in the high mountains, and the rock badgers hide in the cliffs. You created the moon to mark the months; the sun knows the time to set. You made the night, and in the darkness all the wild animals come out. The young lions roar while they hunt, looking for the food that God provides. When the sun rises, they go back and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to do their work and keep working until evening. Lord, you have made so many things! How wisely you made them all! The earth is filled with your creatures.

John 1:1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Sometimes I get very frustrated with the church. We preach about a life of service and about how special we all are to God, and we act on what we believe by looking out for the needs of other people, and at harvest time we give great thanks to God for the food that we have and for the work of the farmers in harvesting it. But I can’t help thinking we’re not seeing the whole picture.

You see the Christian religion, just like Judaism and Islam, has its primary focus on humanity. Now that in itself is not a problem, because as humans we are of course bound up with our own story. The problem I think that we have is that we have also assumed that everything else on the earth should also be bound up with our story. We have an arrogance that perpetually puts us at the centre of all creation in our own minds.

The church has gone so far with this idea that it made a point of actively persecuting scientists like Copernicus and Galileo who recognised from their observations that actually the earth wasn’t at the centre of the universe with everything else revolving around it. Their observations led them to the conclusion that the sun was at the centre which outraged the church.

We now know that not only is the sun not at the centre of the universe, it’s not even in any prominent place in our galaxy, just slung off in one of the spiral arms. And even our galaxy is nothing special; our nearest neighbour, Andromeda, is a far more spectacular and much larger galaxy.

Yet this arrogant belief that we are somehow far more important than any other species persists. One of our new Eucharistic prayers includes this line:
‘In the fullness of time you made us in your image,
the crown of all creation.’

How do we know we’re ‘The crown of all creation.’ Of course we’re created in God’s image, but we’re not very good at living up to that are we. Who is to say that amongst the billions upon billions of other planets in the universe there aren’t other species also created in God’s image who do a much better job of living up to their nature.

There is a label for this mentality and it’s ‘anthropocentric’, which is the belief that humanity is meant to be at the centre of everything, the most important thing that God has ever created, and it’s that belief that allows us to recklessly savage the planet without thinking of what we’re doing. We often blame big business and greed for the way in which earth’s resources are consumed, but our religion, so long as it keeps this attitude, is culpable because we’re excusing others by agreeing that what we want as a species is what is most important.

Yet in the two readings today we get a clear picture of the whole of creation and its importance to God. Psalm 104 echoes loud and long with its praises to God for all that he has created, and the beginning of John’s Gospel makes it clear that everything was created through Jesus, the Word of God. But there are plenty of other readings we could have had.

Genesis Chapter 1 is not meant to be a literal scientific account of creation, but it’s noteworthy that God decided that what he had created was good, every part of it, not just the human bits. Or we could have had a verse from the end of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus tells the disciples to go into the whole world and take the good news to all creation. That’s quite a pointed use of the word creation.

The word kosmos is the word translated as ‘the whole world’ but Mark uses a different world for all creation, ktisei, which doesn’t come up in scripture all that often, but refers to the created order. When we add plenty of other passages in here I think that we need to be thinking quite carefully about the responsibilities we have in terms of our harvesting.

We should not be taking from the earth that which we cannot replace. But we are, and so long as we have this idea that humanity is the only really important thing God has ever created, and that we are at the centre of everything, then we will go on ignoring the damage that we are doing, when really we should be in the thick of the eco-movement.

For instance, did you know that our rainforests cover just 2% of the earth’s surface, but they are home to over 65% of all the different species on earth. Yet we destroy more than an acre and a half of rainforest every second, every second! By 2025 we will have lost half of them and by 2060, they will all be gone, with all the animals that live in them.

We have to get away from this belief that the universe revolves around us and start to recognise that we are a part of the ecosystem. We give thanks to God for the harvest that he has given us, but we should also be thanking God for the harvest that he gives to other creatures.

There is such a thing as eco-spirituality, but at the moment it is dominated by paganism and eastern new-age style spirituality in this country, and Christians are labelled as being as bad as the rest of the world when it comes to not caring about the planet, and I think they may have a point. There is a branch of theology that believes that, if God is going to create a new heaven and new earth, then who cares if we destroy this one.

But is that anyway to think about one of the most precious gifts God has given us? It’s about time we began to recognise that we have a responsibility, as the current stewards of this planet, to ensure that all creatures get the harvest God desires for them, and that we shouldn’t be the ones who get to have it all. We always think in terms of mission as saving our fellow human beings, but the Church of England recognises that another important mark of mission is to the planet and it’s other inhabitants.

So at this harvest, as we give thanks to God for the food he has given to us, may we also begin to think long and hard about the responsibility we bear for the needs of all of the inhabitants of this planet. Whether or not we are the most important thing in creation is open to debate, but it is absolutely clear from scripture that God gave us this planet into our care and intends for us to be good stewards of it, and that’s one job that we are certainly not living up to.

The earth is the Lord’s and he has entrusted us with it. As Christians we have a responsibility to look after it with deep spiritual care and affection. Amen

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