A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Exodus 14:19-31

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato SiOn Care for our Common Home writes:

“Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material world speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”

As we gather in our Cathedral to ponder, in this Season of Creation, how we might better care for our common home we will be inspired by the scriptures to hear and know what creation means to God. That it is not only human beings who are dearly loved by God. But, as Pope Francis beautifully says,

Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.

We will, this morning, explore some hints in the scriptures, of God’s love of the earth before we look at reading our passage from Exodus with creation in mind.

Any search for God’s view of creation must, of course begin with Genesis. In the first creation account in the Book Genesis the words are repeated verse by verse: God said “Let there be” as God created, and then the writer comments, “And God saw that it was good”. God’s creates earth and heaven, lands and seas, sun and moon, plants and fish and birds and animals, human beings and God sees that all of this is very good.

Pope Francis writes “The creation accounts in the Book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour, and with the earth itself. …these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our assuming the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it (Gen 2:15).As a result the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual.” (LS 66) Laudato Si  continues exploring these terms that have so damaged our relationship with the earth. “The term ““dominion” has [wrongly] encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature … “Tilling” refers cultivation, ploughing and working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. …

Jesus’ own relationship with nature gives further insight. Pope Francis concludes his reflection on a scriptural basis for “our care of our common home”, by writing of Jesus: “With moving tenderness [Jesus] would remind them that each one of them is important in God’s eyes: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. … The Lord was able to invite others to be attentive to the beauty that there is in the world because he himself was in constant touch with nature, lending it attention full of fondness and wonder.” (LS 96, 97)

It is in one of the New Testament letters that we read of God’s redemption of not only human beings but of all of creation. A hymn that would have been sung in the liturgies of the early church is found in the first Chapter of the Letter to the Colossians. The Colossians Hymn has the following words, words that are echoed in the statement of faith that we will say in place of our creed this morning.

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. … 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

One scholar wrote that the words “all things” ring like a bell through the Colossians Hymn, ring like a bell reminding us beyond all doubt that God creates and loves and redeems all things in creation.

Or as Pope Francis put it,

Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.

The theologian Elizabeth Johnson, well known for her ground breaking book She Who Is, in which she explored female images for God, recently wrote Creation and Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. Elizabeth Johnson beautifully articulates the problem for us as we struggle with the need for us to care for this planet in peril.

I know many people who believe in God’s mercy in Christ but find it difficult to connect this faith with the ecological world, … You can spell out the implications of creation, cross, resurrection, and incarnation all you want, but it feels like a giant seismic shift to rearrange the faith furniture in their head to see that all creatures are embraced by God’s mercy.

Elizabeth Johnson encourages us in reflecting on scripture with the earth in mind in a fascinating way: she asks us to re-imagine the word “us”. In this Year of Matthew, we remember Jesus named as Emmanuel, “God with us”. The Prologue of St. John’s Gospel says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Elizabeth Johnson invites us to re-imagine the word “us”, to broaden this word, to wonder if it includes not only human beings but all of creation. That God, in Christ intentionally came to be with “us”, with “all things”, as the Colossians Hymn puts it. Elizabeth Johnson writes that we might imagine:

The round blue earth with humans and all creatures together as a community of creation, and bring this kinship relation to expression in pronouns. …our human selves as part of the community of creation, come down from the pinnacle of privilege to rejoin the circle of life, acknowledge the intrinsic value of other creatures, and see their interaction with the living God, then we should be able to include them with ourselves at appropriate moments. So reimagine “us.” Try to expand the boundaries of “us” when you think, speak, pray, teach, preach, read, or propose actions, in order to include other creatures along with our human selves in relation to God. [1]

So how might this idea help us when we read the story of the Exodus, the story that we heard this morning of the parting of the Red Sea?

The people of Israel told stories, around campfires, in family groups, eventually writing them down. When they wondered what God is like, one word is all that is needed. Exodus, the reply would have been. The story of the Exodus. There is no better way of shedding light on what God is like. The story of a people enslaved, a people, by God, set free.

But what if, encouraged by Elizabeth Johnson, we think not of a people set free but a planet. What if we imagine the planet enslaved, the planet trapped in a relationship with those who would exploit and neglect her. What if we imagine not a people but a species threatened with extinction. What if we imagine that the story of God, hearing, knowing, coming down to save is not only about the people Israel in Egypt all those years ago, but the planet today, the threatened species today. What if God who creates and loves and longs to set free would part the Red Sea to set the planet free, to lead threatened species to the Promised Land? What if we know that the God of Exodus is at our side as we face this challenge?

Only the trouble is that if we imagine the story in such a way we cannot help but realize that Pharoah, the one who enslaves, is, at least, in part, us. When we say that the planet is trapped in a relationship with those who would exploit and neglect her, that relationship is with humanity, with us.

It will not help, though, if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with guilt and anxiety and despair about this. It will not help the planet and the species threatened with extinction if we are frozen into inaction. So how do we spend a little more time treasuring the earth that is our home, spend a little more time praying for its wellbeing; how do we wonder together how we might better care for it.

Let us allow, again, Pope Francis to be our guide:

“We see,” he writes, in Laudato Si “increasing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet. Let us review … those questions that are troubling us today and which we can no longer sweep under the carpet. Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening in the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it”. (LS 19) Accompanied by the creating, loving, forgiving God may we dare to turn what is happening in the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about bringing healing to the earth.

[1] Ibid. P216.