Which of you, if your child asks for a fish, will give him or her a plastic one?

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’

 A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
  Rose plot,
  Fringed pool,
Fern’d grot—
  The veriest school  
  Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not—
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
  Nay, but I have a sign;
  ‘Tis very sure God walks in mine. [Thomas Edward Brown 1830-97]

I love gardens, not that I am any good at gardening. My mother has sometimes joked that when she gives a plant to my wife and I, she gives it the Last Rites beforehand. Now my wife and I feel that is a little unfair. It is true that we may turn perennials into annuals, and annuals into dried flowers; but succulents and cacti survive almost as long with us as they would do in the desert and our plastic flowers are the pride of the street. But, no, I must admit that we are not very good gardeners.

Returning to Thomas Edward Brown’s poem with which I opened. The idea of God walking in the garden – what a beautiful serene image. But it is also so much more than that. There are two times in the Bible where God is referred to as being in a garden. The first you will all know from Genesis:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. [Genesis 3:8]

But the second? In a Bible Study last week I was astounded to find that the second reference has, in plain view, been hidden from me through all the times that I have ever read John 20:15-16:

Jesus asked Mary: ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’

There in the garden, Mary had encountered God incarnate, Jesus. I have read this verse I know not how many times and had overlooked the reference to Jesus as the gardener. But in our discussion last week, the point was made that this was no happenstance reference to the Son of God being in the garden. G K Chesterton, from his work The Eternal Man, was quoted:

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night.  What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.

Now you may be wondering why I am raising this tonight. Well today is Earth Day, a day when we are encouraged to focus our thinking on the planet and its environmental fragility. It was in the context of today being Earth Day that I found our reading from Ezekiel tonight surprisingly apt to the theme. Listen again to part of that reading:

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep.

On February 11 this year, Jenny Wilson preached a powerful sermon on the ‘leprosy’ of plastic in our world and did this by using the reading from 2 Kings 5, the healing of Naaman the leper and likening this disease of a single person to the disease of all of creation.

Tonight’s reading can likewise be interpreted in a wider way than a superficial reading might suggest – indeed I believe it was meant to be interpreted in a deeper way.

What do shepherds do? Clearly they herd sheep; they are supposed to look after sheep; they are meant to protect them. To abandon them to the prey; to feed themselves while the sheep go hungry would mean the shepherd no longer deserves to be called a shepherd. The shepherd’s role is the very concept of stewardship. Genesis 1 speaks of this concept of stewardship:

Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. [Genesis 1:26]

Don’t misunderstand the word ‘rule’ used here. That word is a translation of the Hebrew  וְיִרְדּוּ֩ wə·yir·dū   which also translates as ‘to have dominion over’.  ‘Dominion’ is a more benign word than ‘rule’, indeed it takes its origin from the word ‘domus’ or house. The concept of house is that of community; of those in the house being in a shared enterprise of living together.

One of my volunteer roles is to be Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Association of Australia with my brief being to promote awareness of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed to by the member states of the UN back in 2015. The seventeen goals are all aimed at seeing transformational and sustainable change achieved globally by 2030.  Recently the Australian Senate invited submissions as part of an inquiry as to how Australia should respond to the SDGs. I have been both pleased and dismayed to note the submission made by the Anglican Creation Care Network of the Diocese of Adelaide. The network is part of the Diocesan Church in Society Ministry Unit, of which I happen to be the convenor. I was pleased because of the submission’s content; but dismayed, because this was the only submission made to the Senate Enquiry from any religious denomination in Australia – I hope this current silence by the majority of the Church proves only to be temporary and that Christians will feel called to respond by future action.

CiSMU’s four-page submission can be accessed on the Diocesan website and contains many worthwhile suggestions for action. There are too many to read out tonight, but, given Jenny’s sermon on February 11, these are the suggestions which are relevant to the ‘leprosy’ of plastic:

  • Support for, and promotion of, industries which reuse or repurpose ‘waste’, such as the reuse of plastics to produce building products and household goods.
  • Replacement of all plastic wrapping or packages for all products sold or distributed in Australia … with rapidly biodegradable packaging.
  • Replacement of all drinks sold in plastic bottles, with rapidly biodegradable packaging or recyclable glass.

The submission finished with these words:

Finally, we care for the wellbeing of our young and future generations. We want a society where they are nurtured and can have the opportunity to reach their full potential … There are many positive things we can do – we can all be part of the solution in a way that can be uplifting, inspiring and rewarding.

‘We care for the wellbeing of our young and future generations’ the submission read – Surely we all do care.

But at a conference on the SDGs which I attended in Melbourne a few weeks ago, one delegate made the chilling point that, within the lives of our grandchildren, fish caught from the ocean will be inedible due to the microplastics that will be in all of them by then.

‘We care for the wellbeing of our young and future generations?’ Maybe the awful truth is that we don’t. Matthew 7:10, the verse about who would feed their child a snake when they ask for a fish, is in danger of becoming:

Which of you, if your child asks for a fish, will give him or her a plastic one?

Just how serious is the situation? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (named after the woman who in 2004, became the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe solo) has estimated that at present the oceans of the planet contain 165 million tonnes of plastic – an amount equal to 20% of the total estimated biomass of  fish in the oceans. However, on humanity’s present production, consumption and disposal patterns, by 2050, the weight of plastic in the oceans is expected to have grown to 937 million tonnes – about equal to the biomass of all the fish in the ocean. And fish consume plastic.

Matthew Savoca, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said:

When plastic floats at sea its surface gets colonised by algae within days or weeks … this algae produces and emits … a compound that certain marine animals use to find food. [the research shows] plastic may be more deceptive to fish than previously thought. If plastic both looks and smells like food, it is more difficult for animals like fish to distinguish it is not food.

The American evangelist, Tony Campolo, has written:

A world without God is not viewed with a sense of awe. A universe in which His presence is not felt is doomed to abuse. Such a world is primarily the creation of science. Priests and rabbis did not create the plastics that clog our rivers and choke the dolphins. [p31]

Maybe so, but how have we, priests, rabbis and parishioners, disposed of the plastic that has passed through our hands? The poet had written:

Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
  Nay, but I have a sign;
  ‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.

But if God is in the garden, where are we? Are we, like Adam and Eve, hiding in our shame? In our case, shame at what we have done to the garden. Or are we like Mary, at first confused but then wondrously amazed that God is there. Mary had not gone into the garden to hide from God; and because of that she found him. How can we, through the detritus of our consumption find Him?

Returning to our reading from Ezekiel this evening. In the verses I read earlier, the shepherds had abandoned their stewardship of the flock; their care had been only for themselves while those in their care had been left to the prey.

But, in the verses that follow, we read that God had come into this garden. This is what God said:

I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season, they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase.

There are some who read such words with a sense of smugness – that God will not let his creation be destroyed and therefore we may do whatever we please, for it is all going to be alright in the end. But to draw this conclusion is to misread the passage. Let me read again some of the verses:

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep.

In this passage who are the problem for the sheep? In our smugness we may easily think that the wild animals are the problem; but they are not – they are the consequence. Listen again:

My sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd.

In this passage, God was quite clear as to where the problem laid and so, notwithstanding his promise of a blessing, it was not given through exonerating the shepherds but condemning them.

The poet William Blake wrote in the vein of God in the garden when he said:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. [from “Fragments from Auguries of Innocence”]

But in the vein of our reading tonight from Ezekiel, Blake followed those beautiful words with these about human abuse of God’s creation:

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage

Puts all Heaven in a Rage.

A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons

Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State.

A Horse misus’d upon the Road

Calls to Heaven for Human blood.

Each outcry of the hunted Hare

A fiber from the Brain does tear.

We have encaged the fish in plastic, we have starved them of their natural food, we have misused them. How then do we encounter God in the garden of His Creation? Are we able to encounter him with the innocent joy that Mary had, or should we hide in shame because of how we have despoiled His garden?


Link to Jenny Wilson’s sermon of 11/02/18