Signs of Hope: Season of Creation

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 80:7-15, Exodus 22:21-23:9, Romans 16:1-16

On a cold winter’s day in 1966 a class of eleven year old’s piled onto a flat-bed trailer pulled by a tractor. After winding along the farm tracks for a kilometre or so – dust billowing up and covering the children – everyone was ordered off and invited to ‘follow me’! The farmer, along with teacher and conservation field officer, led the procession along a narrow sheep path, crossing through a number of deep steep-sided gulleys to a spot where a pile of rocks had been dumped. ‘These rocks’, explained the officer, ‘have been collected from the farm and will form part of a wall, or dam, we are building across this gulley. The gulley itself, as you can see, is very deep. Every time it rains the water rushes down taking more of the precious top soil with it. Look over here and you can see the different coloured layers of soil. The top dark layer, only 20 or so centimetres deep, is the one that concerns us most. That is where the grass grows. As you know the grass grows, the sheep and cattle eat, they are processed and we eat our dinner, drink our milk and get our jumpers to wear. But if there is no top layer – there is no grass, no sheep, no meat, no milk, no jumper!’ 

I’ve never forgotten that field lesson. By the end of a couple of hours that bunch of eleven year olds had a pretty good understanding of the problems of overstocking, of drought followed by floods, and – perhaps most importantly of all, that unless we, yes, even eleven year olds, did something about it, life as we know it will eventually disappear. We went home at the end of that day, filthy dirty, hands blistered from carrying rocks – but satisfied that we had done our bit to build a small dam which would, over time, begin to trap topsoil and eventually build-up and allow grass, reeds and even trees to grow again. 

It’s very easy when talking about creation, global warming, the catastrophic situation facing the world’s oceans, the fast disappearing natural resources, the ever-growing number of extinct species, to become despondent. It’s too big a problem. There’s nothing I can do. As we come to the end of this special time of focus on the world we Christians profess was created by God, and which we share with every single form of life – human and otherwise – I thought I’d drop in a few ‘feel good’ ideas. Not that ‘feel good’ on its own is enough, but it is important to be empowered, to realise that I, even I, can do something to care for this wonderful world and its rich and beautiful diversity. In doing so I offer a quote from Augustine of Hippo who lived way back in the 4th century. “Hope”, he said, “has two beautiful daughters, their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” 

The modern Algerian city of Annaba used to be known as Hippo, an ancient and important city for the Phoenicians, Berbers, Romans, and Vandals, and home to Augustine, one of Christianity’s greatest ever thinkers and theologians. Far to the south is the Sahel, a vast semi-arid swathe spreading right across Africa from east to west. For decades now it has been the subject of various attempts to revegetate and so stop the relentless spread south of the Sahara desert. High population, overgrazing, deforestation, erratic rainfall – all contribute to the problem. Soil and water conservation is high on the agenda and is beginning to have an impact. There is now a measurable difference in tree-density between those areas that practice soil and water conservation, and those that don’t. Of course, much more needs to be done, but it’s happening.  

Go to the very tip of Africa and drive through the valleys of the Great Kei River. One of the direct legacies of colonisation followed by Apartheid was the over-crowding of fragile rural areas. Where wild native animals used to roam, and herders had to take good care of their cattle or see them taken by lion and other predators, a new ‘flower’ sprang up twenty or thirty years ago – plastic shopping bags that adorned the four or five strands of barbed wire fencing along the roadside. But then a remarkable change. As in Australia and elsewhere, a small charge was introduced for each bag and almost overnight the ‘flowers’ disappeared. 

Jump continents and travel with me down the Yorke Peninsula. Driving along the main road there are kilometres of roadside flanked by rejuvenating native bush. These strips, perhaps twenty-five metres width either side of the road, are alive with native birds and, presumably, all the critters that contribute to the food chain. On several occasions we stopped to read the plaques and signs that stated that in 1975, or 82, or 2001 this little community, this school, this service group, adopted a patch of highway and began planting and caring for trees. Beautiful as the spring-green barley and wheat is, with the promise of a fine harvest and food for so many, these ‘highways’ of revegetation form corridors for birds up and down the country. Last week the ABC featured a story on Charles Massey and the extraordinary success he has had in regenerating the farm held by his family for generations – well worth seeking out. A walk there today reveals swamp wallabies, frogs and reed warblers – none of them there in his childhood.  

Go on to the South Australian Government website and find stories about the rejuvenation programmes on the Yorke Peninsula, or the work to monitor the recovery of the emu-wren following last summer’s devastating bushfires on Kangaroo Island. If ever there are signs of hope the green emerging after fire is one of them. Nature has its own ability to recover – given half a chance. And I guess that is where you and I can come in. In our own way, in our own gardens, our reducing and reusing of plastic, our changed shopping or travel habits, our seeking out, championing and making known the good news stories that are around. Each little bit adds to the whole – each little bit helps the emu-wren, the reed warbler, the yellow-footed rock wallaby.  

We don’t have to get the blisters of an eleven year old from building a makeshift dam, but we should celebrate the milestone reached in the UK in May this year – the first coal free month since the beginning of the power grid back in 1882. We should celebrate India’s remarkable moves towards building solar capacity; the 121 countries that are signed up to the Paris climate goals; the fact that all eight Australian states and territories have net zero emissions targets in place and that jobs in renewables are on the increase.  

One of the hymns we sing in this Cathedral begins, “We have a Gospel to proclaim” – as we draw to a close this year’s Season of Creation we need to find those ecological gospel stories of good news for our earth, shout them from the mountain tops and live them in our daily lives.  

Let me finish with two verses from one of Shirley Murray’s hymns and then words of an Australian blessing. Shirley Murray, who died earlier this year, wrote many hymns reflecting the rich diversity of her native New Zealand. She writes:  

Touch the earth lightly use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care: gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, trust for the children tomorrow will bear.  

Let there be greening, birth from the burning, water that blesses and air that is sweet, health in God’s garden, hope in God’s children, regeneration that peace will complete. 

Go in strong and growing faith.  

Trust in the tenderness of Christ to heal a bruised and broken world.  

Go in eager and refreshing hope.  

Work with Christ risen from the dead, to fulfil the promise of a new creation.  

Go in costly and courageous love.  

Proclaim the power of Christ to cleanse a defiled and disfigured world.  

Go in peace, to treasure and to tend the world God made and loves.