Season of Creation

A Sermon by the Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

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

Archbishop Justin Welby said the following:

“The issues of climate change have been more and more clearly felt. They have a huge impact on economics, they generate conflict, they increase inequality to destabilizing levels. The outlook of climate change is not potentially bad, it is potentially fatal, for the most fragile countries and regions on earth and for the billions of people who live in them.”

During this Season of Creation from the 1st of September until St Francis’ Day on the 4th of October, in St Peter’s Cathedral, we are exploring ways of being inspired to care for the planet. We have on our website a beautiful banner designed by John Hamilton with links to talks, a poem, photographs, scripture quotes, an Ignatian way of praying for the earth called “Earth Sessions” and videos, one of which shows Justin Welby speaking the words we have just heard.

This evening at Choral Evensong we will spend a little time exploring a way of praying for the earth inspired by the theologian Elizabeth Johnson in her recent book Creation and the Cross; The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. This book is a wonderful exploration of the nature of God, God whose love for creation extends well beyond God’s love for humanity. She opens with a chapter entitled “Wrestling with Anselm” where she challenges the idea that God required the death of Jesus to avenge God’s honour damaged by humanity’s sin. The point of the argument is that redemption is not just for sinful humanity but for all creation. Johnson then works through the scriptures exploring “The creating God who saves” in the Old Testament and the life of Jesus and interpretations of that life in the New. The book ends with a chapter entitled “Conversion of Heart and Mind: Us”.

The way the book is presented is unique in itself. The entire book is written as a conversation between the author Elizabeth and Clara. Clara, Johnson writes “With a name derived from the Latin word for clear and bright, Clara is a composite of the multitude of inquiring, insightful women and men students I have had the privilege of teaching for over half a century”. In the final chapter Clara asks why it is so difficult for us to take on the love of God for the planet and how a conversion of mind and heart to care for the planet might take place for us

Elizabeth says the following in their “conversation”:. We have already discussed a major reason for this, namely, the Western philosophy that holds humans are superior to the material world which, in turn, is made for our use. The problem resides in a tyrannical anthropology. We loom so large in our own minds that we block out the others around us.”

Elizabeth proposes a series of imaginative exercises: … “small stepping stones that fitted together can move us toward conversion not only by thinking more inclusively but also by feeling kinship with other creatures. The goal is to live in the spirit of the burning bush, to see, hear, and “know” the world in a godly sense. Toward that end,” she writes, “I propose that we engage in five thought experiments. Together their cumulative effect may rejuvenate our imagination so that faith convictions of mind and heart can flow to practical ecological commitments.”[1]

And so this evening I thought we would work through the exercises together, that we might take a few steps along this path of conversion about which Elizabeth Johnson writes.

Firstly we are invited to…bring to mind the picture of our planet taken from the moon. There it is, a beautiful blue marble spinning against the vast black background of space. Now imagine that under its shielding atmosphere there exists an network of living creatures ranging in size from wee microorganisms to giant sequoias and massive blue whales, including humans toward the larger end of the scale, all interacting with the land, water, and air of their different ecosystems. In scientific terms this enveloping skein of life is called the biosphere. In faith terms it is called the community of creation. Picture yourself as an indigenous member of this community.[2]

With this image in mind the second thought experiment invites us to let go of what Elizabeth Johnson describes as a pyramid view of creation with human beings at the top:

This exercise, Elizabeth writes, aims to remove a key obstruction that prevents us from taking the community of creation seriously. So imagine yourself stepping down from the tip of a pyramid of privilege and rejoining other creatures as their kin in the circle of life on earth. … biblical authors consistently place human beings within, not over, the magnificent interdependent circle of life, whose center and encompassing horizon is the generous creating God. Ponder Psalm 104. Here one does not find the duality of humans and nature or the grant of dominion over creation typical of Western tradition. Rather, in cascades of ecologically-attuned poetry this prayer puts all creatures including human beings on a plane of equality in the wonderful order of God’s creation.[3]

Johnson goes on in the third thought experiment to ask us to imagine seeing creation as God sees it, quoting Pope Francis, “we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes” (LS69)…. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of God’s love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with affection” (LS77). [4] He writes so that we will 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” (LS19).[5]

The chapter continues with the reader reimagining the word “us” in the scriptures. When in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is called “Emmanuel – God with us” who is the “us”? When in the Prologue of John’s Gospel we read “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” again, who is the “us”. Johnson writes:

With this imaginative move we come full circle, back to the round blue earth with humans and all creatures together as a community of creation, and bring this kinship relation to expression in pronouns. If the previous experiments have succeeded,  if we imagine 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. [6]

Listening in on Clara and Elizabeth’s conversation we have begun the imaginative process that will help us begin to make what Clara called a “giant seismic shift to rearrange the faith furniture in our head to see that all creatures are embraced by God’s mercy.”

As we leave Choral Evensong, wandering out into a world woven with beauty, how might we engage with these imaginative stepping stones that Elizabeth Johnson has laid out before us. Perhaps we might think of a creature or a plant or a place that we hold very dear and consider it as our companion in creation, a brother or sister as St Francis might have put it. And then perhaps we might imagine God gazing at this creature or plant or place with love as God gazes at us with love. And perhaps we might remember an image or a place or a species that is damaged or under threat or even extinct and then we might imagine God gazing at this image or place or species with tears in God’s eyes. And perhaps we might know a little more deeply God’s love for these things and our belonging with these things. And perhaps in just a little way these imaginings might be a prayer, a prayer for the healing of the earth.

[1] Elizabeth A. Johnson Creation and Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril p 198.

[2] Ibid. p199.

[3] Ibid. p203, 205

[4] Ibid. p209

[5] Ibid. P210

[6] Ibid. P216.