The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof

A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Readings: Exodus 18:5-24; Psalm 25:1-9; Romans 15:14-33]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This is the penultimate Sunday of Creation Care month, a month established by Synod in 2017 ‘to encourage and promote actions towards the care of God’s Creation’; and so each Sunday of this month we have been challenging ourselves from an environmental perspective. As I looked at our readings tonight, I wondered if they might guide me as to how I might continue that theme through my sermon tonight. Three lines seemed to stand out.

Firstly, from Exodus:

Teach them the statutes and instructions and make them known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. [Exodus 18:20]

Then from our Psalm:

Show me your ways, O Lord and teach me your paths. Lead me in the ways of your truth, and teach me: for you are the God of my salvation. [Psalm 26:3-4]

Finally, from our Epistle reading:

Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints in Jerusalem [Romans 15:26]

The first two readings invite us to be open to God’s instruction as to how we might care for our environment, they find us capable of being taught so that our doings may be from comprehension  not just mere obedience. The third, echoing a frequent Biblical theme of care for those in need, also has an environmental aspect in its fulfillment, but one that is focussed on doing.

This evening I want to consider how we may discern environmental teachings from God through Scripture.  Depending on how you might wish to interpret them, there are an amazing number of passages in Scripture that have great environmental relevance.

Take these words from Exodus for example:

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. [23:10-11]

They speak to us about the importance of land management and of social justice in consequence. Then there are these words from Ezekiel about caring for soil and water:

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? [34:18]

These are just two of many more such verses. These two are instructive, but there are also verses that speak of how humanity has failed in following such instructions. Jeremiah for example:

And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things. But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination. [2:7]

In the limited time I have this evening, I thought I would focus on three Issues of environmental significance from which we can discern divine instruction. The first relates to animal husbandry. In her recent book The Reality Bubble: Blind spots, hidden truths and the dangerous illusions that shape our world, Ziya Tong quotes the author George Monbiot:

While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering. The hypocrisy is so rank that future generations will marvel at how we could have failed to see it. [p130]

These are harsh words; Ziya Tong quotes them in a chapter where she deals with the increasing industrialisation of animal husbandry which, she writes, sees ‘over 70bn animals a year meet the grim reaper in an industrialised setting. [p129] Her book indeed details in a harrowing manner the levels which this industrialised slaughtering has reached.

I doubt Ziya Tong is a Christian, nothing in her book suggests so, yet her words brought to mind these words of Jesus from Luke’s gospel:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. [Luke 12:6]

These beautiful words highlight a point so easily lost by us as human beings, namely that God has breathed life into all living beings. It is true that a pre-eminence has been given to humans; indeed, as we read from Genesis:

God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to man to see what he would call them … the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field. [Genesis 2:19-20]

The gift God gave in these words to ‘name’ every animal was much more than just the power of taxonomy but was a call for humanity to recognise the identity of each created life. The five sparrows above may have been sold for two pennies to become a meal – but ‘not one of them’ was forgotten by God. Do we appreciate the import of that?

There is an Inuit saying, ‘The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.’ This is not to say that we should all become vegetarians; while that is the decision which many have made, many of us, like the Inuit, are carnivores. The significance is to ask of us that we not only give thanks to God for the animals we eat, but acknowledge in our thanks those very lives which have become our meals; in other words to consume sacramentally rather than industrially as the mere end of a food consumption chain.

Caritas Australia has a prayer on its website two lines of which seem very apt at this point:

You gave life to all living creatures and saw that it was good.
Help us to reconnect with the majesty of your creation.

Now let me turn to another issue – the right sharing of God’s bounty, for it is truly an issue of environmental consequence. Our reading from Romans tonight talked about the Macedonians and Achaians ‘sharing their resources with the poor’ – it is one of many such verses which should always motivate us. And motivate us they do as we reach into our pockets to give money to causes which work with poor communities. But it is not only the gift of money which we are called to give; there is an environmental gift as well. I quoted earlier from Exodus about good land management; these words stood out:

the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat.

In other words, an environmental action had much more than an environmental consequence. The reading anticipated an appropriate level of exploitation of a resource along with a broader degree of sharing the fruits of that exploitation – a right sharing of the bounty of God’s creation. The significance for us is to consider whether we, in the environmental steps we take in our daily living, understand that environmental and social benefits should meld together inextricably.

Coming back to Ziya Tong, she quotes from a private study commissioned by Nestle which calculated that if everyone on Earth ate like the average American, the planet would have run out of fresh water fifteen years ago. [p120] And later she also identifies that the booming fishmeal industry which grinds up ‘colourful reef fish, sea horses and endangered baby sharks, among other things’ has diverted much food away from poorer local communities near where this seafood lived by becoming feedstock for farmed Norwegian salmon with 1kg of farmed salmon requiring two to five times that much in fishmeal. [p123] While Americans and Norwegians are the focus of Tong’s writing in the two examples I have quoted; all of us in the Western world are no less implicated – our environmental impact is socially devastating as well.

Do we think about how there can be more equitable access to the Earth’s finite natural resources including food? More words come to mind from the Caritas Australia prayer:

Breathe into us solidarity with all who suffer now
and the future generations who will suffer
because of our environmental irresponsibility.

The third example of Biblical relevance for an environmental consequence starts with these words from Matthew:

And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. [14:20]

This reference from the feeding of the five thousand gives us an interesting additional insight – the disciples tidied up after the meal rather than just leaving the leftovers where they lay. Ziya Tong has a great deal to say about humanity’s addiction not only to consumption but to disposal as well; she writes that we are not only ‘a tool-making species but, as a consequence, we are also a trash-making species.’ [p164] She quotes Edward Humes (author of Garbology) who has estimated that in the Western world, the average person will generate 90 metric tons of garbage in a lifetime – putting it another, perhaps macabre way, while each person will need only one grave for themselves, they will need 1,100 graves for their rubbish. [p165]

That is an astounding figure but not necessarily important; it only becomes significant if that 90 metric tons of our life’s detritus finds itself at odds with the timeless cycle of birth, growth, death and then renewal of the many systems in our beautiful complex, God-given biosphere. Unlike previous generations, our addiction to consumption has led us to overload all those systems and they are breaking – plastics in our ocean, toxic chemicals in our soils, greenhouse gases in our atmosphere have become our gifts to the earth.

Which brings me once again to an extract from the Caritas Australia prayer:

Inspire us to live simply and in harmony with creation.
Help us to be good stewards, caring for all creation with self-sacrificing and nurturing love.

In our prayers, I am sure we all say the Lord’s Prayer frequently – we do so because this prayer was an answer to the disciples’ request of Jesus to ‘teach us how to pray’. A phrase often highlighted from this prayer is ‘Thy Kingdom come’ implying an external solution alone to this groaning creation; but those three words are an introduction not a completion. The rest of that sentence goes:

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I emphasise the word ‘done’ – who is operative in this word? It is us. God’s will is to be done on earth by us. God promised never to destroy the earth again [Gen 8:21-22] – that is God’s will. Our part in God’s covenant is to do likewise – that is not to ‘curse the ground’ or ‘destroy every living creature’.

The Caritas prayer, near its end, has these words for us:

Empower us to work together as one global community, 
To find creative and just solutions to protect those most vulnerable in our world, and all of creation for future generations.

Amen – so be it.


Ziya Tong, The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths & the Dangerous Illusions that Shape Our World, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2019

Caritas prayer appears on: