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Home Who's who Bishops The Bishop of Salisbury Sermons, articles, and media Sermon at the Annual Service for the Corporation of Trinity House, June 2019

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Sermon at the Annual Service for the Corporation of Trinity House, June 2019

by Michael Ford last modified 11 Jun, 2019 09:43 AM

St Olave Hart Street, London, 5 June 2019.

Genesis 1.1-10

Thank you for the invitation to preach. It is good to be here.

A long time ago I was a curate at St Dunstan and All Saints Stepney where the first Master of Trinity House, Sir Thomas Spert, is buried. St Dunstan’s flies the red ensign. Before becoming Bishop of Salisbury I was the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Admiralty’s parish church, which flies the white ensign. Much gratitude to those of you were involved in the £36million Renewal of SMITF. Given the pull of Portsmouth today for the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings of which many of our fathers were part, it’s marvellous so many of you are here.

That there are two creation stories at the beginning of the book Genesis makes it pretty clear that we are dealing with is not history or science but an exploration of what it is to be human. In the first of the stories God creates the heavens and the earth in 6 days, resting on the 7th. In the beginning a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters, the Spirit of God blowing on the face of the earth. Out of chaos, God created order - light and dark, the separation of the waters of the sky and the waters of the sea, plants and all sorts of creatures and on the 6th day human beings made in the image of God. We were given dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and were told to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. And God saw that it was good.

What does it mean for us to have dominion?

We human beings have made such amazing progress, growing in knowledge and understanding if not always in wisdom. We are more prosperous, more populous, more creative than ever before.

But that which has given us mastery over creation is now getting us into trouble. Climate scientists talk about our era as the Anthropocene in which what is happening to the earth is dominated by the actions of human beings.

The use of fossil fuels has benefited us enormously. We have gained such prosperity, health and wealth. But now our use of fossil fuels is damaging life through climate change. In the last 250 years we have burnt resources that took a billion years to lay in the ground. The science is complex but the energy released into the environment is resulting in more extreme weather events and a rise in global warming which threatens our livelihoods. The UN report published just over a month ago on the destruction of species confirms what the World Wildlife Fund has been saying for decades. By successfully organising the planet around people the pace of destruction is quickening. All of this is captured in good journalism like Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. What was the valuable gift of plastics has become symbolic of the destruction of the earth so marvellously gifted to us by God in creation.

By making ourselves the centre of the story we have distorted our God given relationship with creation, consuming the earth rather than creating with it; destroying the God-given diversity of creation which is for our health and wellbeing. Our being given dominion can’t mean being given free range to consume and exploit the earth for selfish purposes. There must be a sense of service as seen in the Lordship, the dominion, of Jesus Christ and the summary of the Law to love God and love neighbour.

The second creation story beginning at Genesis chapter 2 verse 4 is of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is as story of creation and innocence, disobedience and sin. We recognise the man’s failure to take responsibility for eating the apple. He blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent. It is all too familiar. Could even a brilliant scientist give a better account of human failure to take responsibility for our actions, and of guilt and shame? Adam and Eve, we human beings, are consigned to a life of toil in a land east of Eden. Here we have a responsibility to make a living, to serve and conserve the precious earth.

In these two creation stories, the loss of innocence and the desire not to take responsibility are shamefully hand in hand.

Two thirds of Britons agree the planet is in a climate emergency. David Attenborough on Climate Change said, "The scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies." It cannot be business as usual.

Whatever you think of their tactics, the disruption caused by Extinction Rebellion has put the environment on the agenda in a new way and with greater urgency. As Al Gore said, ours is the first generation that cannot say we do not know and probably the last to be able to act meaningfully in response.

It was striking that the 16 years old Greta Thunburg said that, “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.”

A friend who is a Roman Catholic nun and an expert on Christian Jewish relations asked me what I will say to God when we come face to face at the end of my life. Being in part a Protestant I replied without hesitation, “I will say ‘Sorry’”. She looked scandalised and said that the Rabbis teach that God’s question of us will be, “This marvellous creation I gave you, did you enjoy it?”

What would it mean to enjoy creation but to use it well, honourably, for the good of all? To have dominion like Jesus, with wonder, creativity, humility and service.

Most of us do our best not out of fear but out of love and for enjoyment - for the love of God and neighbour defined as broadly as can be; for our children and grandchildren; for the poorest and most vulnerable; for the love of this beautiful blue planet in which we are set for just a moment.

The seventeenth century priest and poet Thomas Traherne wrote:

Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in
Heaven; see yourself in your Father's Palace; and look upon the skies, the
earth, and air as Celestial Joys.
- Meditation 28

Of course in this context we must add the seas which you treasure and enjoy but which we must find new ways to serve and conserve amidst the precious gifts of God’s good creation.

A Prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596)

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little; when we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity, and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, and to guide us into the future in strength, courage, hope and love.

Spirit of God, disturb, renew, encourage and guide us day by day. Amen.

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