A sermon given during the 6pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Peter Balabanski, on the 4th of September 2022.
Cathedral Evensong 4-9-2022 – Jrm 15.15-21 – Ps 1 – Col 3.22–4.9
(Background: In 1989 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Dimitros I proclaimed September 1 as the Orthodox Day of Prayer for Creation. Here in Adelaide, we began to mark the Season of Creation around 2000, from that September 1 day of prayer until October 4, the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. A group based here and led by Prof Norm Habel created and trialled new liturgies and a special lectionary across churches of various denominations around Australia and internationally. This group also founded the scholarly Earth Bible Project, whose writers seek to read and interpret Scripture from the perspective of Earth’s own voice.
The Season of Creation caught on very rapidly here and overseas, and in 2008, the World Council of Churches invited all churches to observe the Season through prayer and action. In 2015 Pope Francis made the Season of Creation official for the Roman Catholic Church. The Season is now resourced by an international Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant advisory committee (which still includes Norm Habel). The resources they’re developing are wonderful.
The committee has given this year’s Season of Creation the theme Listen to the Voice of Creation which is very much in continuity with its co-beginnings with the Earth Bible Project.)
Today is the first Sunday in the Season of Creation. Celebrating this season only had its beginnings about thirty years ago – and Adelaide was a big part of that. I’m astonished by the pace and the magnitude of the change it represents. We’ve put another season into the church’s year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Creation, and Kingdom. Can you believe this of the Roman Catholic Church, the Worldwide Anglican and Lutheran Churches not to mention so many others? In the Church where change is normally measured in 500-yearly increments, this has all happened worldwide – and happened ecumenically – in a mere three decades. I find this very exciting; big change is possible, and because we have shown this can happen, I believe the Church can be a huge force for good in our time of climate crisis.
I’ll come back to that in a few minutes, after looking at one of our readings. But first, I need to check something with the choir.
To the Trebles: What if your choir director, Mr Hunt gave one of those no-exceptions-pencils-always-at-rehearsals lecture, announced a change to a score, then looked sheepishly at the organist and said: ‘Mr Heah, could you lend me a pencil please: I seem to have forgotten mine.’ That’s called ironic: sort of embarrassing-funny.
There’s a delicious irony in our reading from Colossians this evening. If you were at this morning’s Eucharist, you may be able to guess at least something of it. The name ‘Onesimus’ appears in both this morning’s and this evening’s readings: the only two times it occurs in the Bible. Onesimus was a common name for a slave back then. It means ‘Useful’. This morning, in Paul’s letter to Philemon, we met Onesimus when he was a slave who had run away from his master, Philemon. Paul was sending him back home with the request that Philemon release him for missionary service with Paul.
And in this evening’s reading from Colossians, we discover that Philemon did in fact grant Paul’s request. It’s some years later now, and in Colossians Paul calls that erstwhile runaway slave Onesimus the faithful and beloved brother. He’s now a member of Paul’s missionary delegation to the Lycus Valley in Turkey. He’s been entrusted with delivering an important letter to the Christians there; the letter we know as Colossians; and we heard some of it just now.
The delicious irony tonight is that in our reading from Colossians, we begin at part of its household code which, of all things, upholds the social institution of slavery. In fact, it goes so far as to include a warning to disobedient slaves that 25… the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality.
Yet this reading ends with that glowing reference for Onesimus, the runaway slave. No partiality indeed! Given a social order where runaway slaves could be executed for absconding, we’ve witnessed a startling upgrade for Onesimus, and the way the Church can bring about change.
The Christian faith is a force which can change a social order. With this tiny vignette, we see an early stage in a process within the church which ultimately led to the abolition of slavery, and to the bad name slavery now has around the world. The Church also has a lot to say about other evils like racism and the subjugation of peoples and places to any toxic economic or social order flexing its muscles and marking its territory.
Right now, this means the Church also has a lot that we need to say about the current economic and social order and what it’s doing to the world environment. Slavery was for millennia part of the social and economic order; it was inconceivable that the economies of that world could function without slavery. These days, ‘economic growth’ is the thing we say we can’t do without. What if that doctrine were challenged in this finite planet where we live?
Now, each September, we join the World Church of God in this Season of Creation to think and share and learn so we might speak and act with one voice. That voice is named in the 2022 Season’s chosen theme: Listen to the Voice of Creation.
The Voice of Creation. We, the creatures called to serve and protect the Earth, Gen 2.15 we are to Listen to the Voice of Creation, and to speak out against an economic and social order that violates our fellow creatures and silences their voices in death.
Is it hard to Listen to the Voice of Creation? Indigenous people are the ones who have learned the art over thousands of years to listen to Creation. We second people have not tended to listen so attentively. But now it’s pretty clear from virtually every news bulletin over the past years what Creation is saying.
So I name, but needn’t elaborate on habitat and eco-system destruction, biodiversity loss and extinction, soil degradation and loss, pollution of atmosphere, rivers, lakes and oceans, genocide of first-nations peoples. Do I really need to use that word unprecedented? The fires, floods, storms, droughts and heat-waves with billions of wild lives lost, not to mention the human toll – particularly on the poor – and now add to that the multiple food crises, and more than 100 million displaced persons.
Listen to the Voice of Creation: how much louder does Creation need to cry out? The Church is listening – we have been for over thirty years now. But just as when we heard the cries of the slaves and sought to respond, there is fierce opposition from voices of greed and power. We’ve heard plenty of that in the sickening put-downs of our children when they’ve left school to get out and speak with the voice of Creation.
Those cancelling put-downs are the voices of greed for money and influence. And they’re hard at it; large corporations greenwash their public images while they send lobbyists into the halls of power to manipulate our political processes and white-ant environmentally responsible policy initiatives, all the while scaring ordinary, vulnerable people with dire threats of unemployment and economic Armageddon.
Our children are speaking in tune with Creation’s voice and we, the Church, must listen to them; listen and respond with all the protection, support and positive action, and all the influence we can muster to support them.
I want to say tonight that the Church can play a major part today in challenging and changing what might seem like an immutable economic social order – just as slavery once was. For too long, Earth had been treated like Onesimus and millions of other slaves have been – allowed no agency, no voice; just there to be exploited, trashed and abandoned when we, who think we’re Earth’s owners, are finished with her.
We’ve already done a lot to help the world-wide Church Listen to the Voice of Creation. One example, the Earth Bible Project, has its roots here in Adelaide. It’s been publishing and participating in public discourse for thirty years. Its goal has been to teach the Church to Listen to the Voice of Creation by deliberately treating Earth as a conscious, sentient participant in the dialogue; as someONE, not someTHING. The Earth Bible Project teaches us to read scripture from the perspective of an Earth who has her own voice, so others might be able to hear her voice.
Another offshoot of the Earth Bible Project has been its important role in the establishment of this annual Season of Creation. So what is the role of this Season?
Rev’d Dr Rachel Mash is Provincial Canon for the Environment in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. She helps us understand when she quotes Gus Speth, a US scientist and environmental advisor: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with thirty years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
‘For such a spiritual transformation to take place,’ says Dr Mash, ‘we need to awaken the sleeping giant that is faith communities. The Season of Creation is one of the ways to do just that with faith communities.’
Dramatic change is needed, and we’ve shown already that in the Church, dramatic change is possible. So let’s get on board with this Season of Creation – listen to the voice of Creation and sing out loud with all the Church. Amen.