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Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2020

by Michael Ford last modified 27 Feb, 2020 12:00 PM

The Bishop preached a sermon at Salisbury Cathedral on Ash Wednesday, 26 February 2020.

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; John 8.1-11

I used to know a Roman Catholic nun who is an expert in Christian-Jewish relations. She asked me what I will say to God when I meet my maker. Quick as a flash, and being more of a good Protestant than I realised, I said, “I will say Sorry”. She looked shocked and said, “Don’t you know that the Rabbis teach that when we meet God face to face God will ask us whether we enjoyed this wonderful creation.”

Last night at Poole and North Bournemouth Deanery Synod 120 people gathered to consider ‘Why Christians care about creation’. They could have been at home eating pancakes or out on the town at some sort of Mardi Gras, but the care of creation brought them to a church hall for 2 hours. Lydia Reese from A’Rocha said that we will not care well for the environment out of fear – the world’s getting warmer, sea levels are rising and we’re terrified. We will do it best out of love. She suggested we think about how we enjoy, nurture and defend God’s creation because they are what will motivate us best to care for God’s creation.

There is a climate emergency. It is a crisis for God’s creation, and a fundamental injustice. It has raised big questions from young people about whether we really care and about intergenerational fairness. It raises big questions about climate justice because the poorest of the earth, who have had least benefit from the industrial revolution, are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. That is why the development agencies like Christian Aid, CAFOD and TearFund, have climate justice as a top priority.

Because we human beings have organised life around our own needs, the destruction of species is also increasing. What we know is that we need a diverse and healthy ecology for our own health and wellbeing.

In other words, that which has benefited human kind so much through the industrial revolution and by the creation of people-centred world is now threatening our very existence.

There are scientific, economic and political dimensions to the problems of how we care for the earth and some Christians will be involved in working in those areas and seeking solutions. But Gus Speth, a scientist who used to the Director of the National Research Defence Council in the US, said:

I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, eco system collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 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.

The contribution of faith, and for us of Christianity, is spirituality and morality.

In one of my favourite meditations, the 17th century poet and priest 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.
- Thomas Traherne, Meditation 28, set to music by James Whitbourn for my enthronement

Pope Francis ‘got it’ in his encyclical on the environment published in 2015, five months before the UN Climate Change summit in Paris: Laudato Si', mi Signore, “Praise be to you, my Lord”, the opening words of the beautiful canticle by St Francis of Assisi.

The Pope’s letter was subtitled: ‘On Care For Our Common Home’. It was a letter written not just to Roman Catholics, not just to Christians, not just to people of faith but to everyone because we live together in the world, our common home. There is a wonderful play of the eco words: ecology, the creative word of the home, economy, the law of the home, and ecumenism, the resting place or room we inhabit in our common home. In caring for creation we will do it together or we will not do it all.

Global warming is happening at the rate of approximately 1 to 1.1 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. We human beings are a major cause of it. Sea levels are rising. The Arctic ice is melting. In Greenland ice is melting at the rate of three Olympic size swimming pools every second. Sea levels have risen by approximately 25 cms. We are experiencing more extreme weather events.

In the Foreword to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book, ‘Saying Yes to Life’ by Ruth Valerio (SPCK 2020, £9.99), Archbishop Justin quotes one of the Anglican Communion’s Primates: “For you Europeans, climate change is a problem for the future. For us, it is a problem of everyday survival.”

I quoted that in a speech at General Synod the week before last the Archdeacon of Calderdale said afterwards that it’s a problem where she lives now. Our former Dean, Bishop June, must be thinking the same from the Diocese of Llandaff in South Wales.

On Ash Wednesday we face our mortality. In a moment we will receive the sign of the cross in ash on our foreheads: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” - and begin the annual opportunity given by Lent to, “Turn again from sin and be faithful to Christ”. It’s a time to re-establish for ourselves the patterns of prayer, study and Christian life that sustain us. Lent is less a burden than a time of joyful simplicity seeking to renew our relationships with God, one another and the whole of creation. Giving up or taking on things are not the purpose of Lent. As St Augustine said, “We come to God by love and not by navigation.”

#LiveLent Care for God’s Creation. This year’s focus on the care of creation could not be more timely as we seek to use aright the gifts of God’s creation. Prayer begins with us consciously putting ourselves in the presence of God. Not that God is absent when we are not conscious but something different happens when we are. It earths us in what is real and helps ground us to live what we believe. Prayer makes the inner connections between belief and action, brings us back to live in love and gives us hope.

At General Synod one of the visitors from the Anglican Communion, an Archbishop said in a Bible study on 1 Peter, “It’s easy to get lost in a crisis”. In this tonight’s readings are very helpful. What makes for a proper understanding of sin and real repentance? How do we turn again to God? How do we discern real sin? In the Gospel, why did no one throw the first stone? Because they knew that in one way or another lived in the same house. Sin is our common home and so is repentance.

Lent is an opportunity to renew our relationships with God and one another and the planet; less about what we give up and more about what we take on, renewed by the disciplines and joys of Christian life. I hope we will have a holy and joyful Lent, Renewing Hope as we Pray, Serve, Grow.

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