A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at St Columba’s-by-the-Castle Scottish Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, February 18th 2018
O God of our salvation,
Just as the bow in the clouds proclaims your covenant with every living creature, may this sermon speak of your love for all the earth. Amen
God said, ‘I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’ (9:13) You don’t need me to tell you that this is the first Sunday in Lent. Today and in the coming days, along with millions of others, we are asked to think and to ponder, to consider and to examine our relationship with God, which is a good thing to do. And even better, we are invited to take some action related to that.
Today, three readings from scripture take us further into this Lenten enterprise. In the first, Noah and his family emerge from the waters of the flood. In the Gospel reading Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters of the River Jordan. In the epistle, images of the journey through the flood waters and the waters of baptism are combined to proclaim God’s salvation ‘through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers made subject to him.’ (3:21, 22)
Responding to these three readings I would like to make three points for us to bear in mind on our journey through Lent, and the first of these is that pondering our relationship with God requires us to ponder our relationship with the rest of creation.
There is a widespread human tendency to think that it is “all about us”, to believe that creation is here for our benefit rather than God’s glory. The American Lutheran theologian, Eric Fretheim responds tellingly to such an understanding, when he says, “Certainly human praise to God means more to God than the clatter of hail on tin roofs or the clapping of musically inclined leaves of the aspen trees! Perhaps, but not as much as human beings would like to think.”
Yes, God makes his covenant commitment to Noah and the few other remaining human beings, as the story of the flood and ark heads towards its conclusion: ‘I am establishing my covenant with and with your descendants after you,’ (9:8) says God, but God’s commitment does not end with humankind. It also includes ‘every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.’ (9:10) And when God then speaks of setting his bow in the clouds, this is as ‘a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’ (9:13)
Aside from the reality that our human existence is totally dependent upon the continuing flourishing of the rest of creation here on earth – a not unimportant point of reasonable self-interest – we do well to remember that the creator God’s commitment is to creation, of which this planet is a tiny speck, and we but one species living upon it. How we treat this part of the creation to which God is committed must then affect the quality of our relationship with God. So, yes, pondering our relationship with God requires us to ponder our relationship with the rest of creation.
And my second point is repairing our fractured relationship with God includes healing our fractured relationship with nature, which involves, but is not limited to, humankind.
Notice that humankind which comes out of the ark is pretty well as bad as the humankind that went into the ark, as the content of subsequent chapters of Genesis, and the other biblical books, and news headlines pretty well any day of the week amply demonstrate. The innocence of Eden continues to elude us, as can be seen in our treatment of fellow human beings and of the rest of the earth.
For example, many of us will have seen and been affected by recent images relating to the impact of discarded plastic upon other creatures; whales, sea turtles and polar bears caught up in packaging and netting; dead fish and birds, their guts filled with bottle tops and the like. No wonder that some groups advocate and some individuals are attempting, as far as is possible, to live a “plastic-free Lent” this year.
Or consider a specific location where humankind, creature-kind, and fabric of the earth are all under threat. This year the annual World Day of Prayer, which falls on March 2nd, features material prepared for us by women in the South American nation of Suriname. There, 90% of the population live on the country’s coastal strip, which is two metres above sea level, and which is enduring more frequent flooding every year.
Meanwhile, although 90% of the population live on the coast, 90% of the land is covered with tropical rain forest which is rich in biodiversity. This land, however, is under pressure from the human desire for more gold mining and oil exploration, which brings with it forest destruction, pollution and poisoning, affecting both the human and the animal population.
So, if pondering our relationship with God requires us to ponder our relationship with the rest of creation. Then repairing our fractured relationship with God includes healing our fractured relationship with nature – humankind included. Since we share in the human flaws and failings that characterised those who come out of the ark this is a challenge so far beyond our capabilities as to make for a thoroughly depressing sermon and general outlook on life.
At least, that would be the case if it was not for my third point. Yes, the quality of our relationship with God is bound up with the quality of our relationship with the rest of nature – with God’s creation. Yes, through our part in shared human failing, there are fractures in both of those relationships – with God and nature. God’s commitment to relationship, however, with us human beings, with our fellow creatures, with the world in which we live and upon which we depend, is the source of our profoundest hope.
For, Mark reminds us in his Gospel, it was ‘in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in Jordan.’ (1:9) Reflecting upon the incarnation it’s more usual to explore what it means for the divine, in Jesus, to have come to us as a human being; and it’s perfectly good to do that. In solidarity with us sinful human beings, Jesus undergoes baptism, and this is the occasion for God’s comment on Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son. Today, however, consider this event from the perspective of God’s commitment to human beings and the other creatures, to the earth itself.
In Genesis God proclaims a covenant commitment with the earth; the bow in the clouds is, ‘a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’. Now, in a specific time and place, and in a specific person, God’s covenant commitment to the earth pays off in Jesus Christ. Yes, by his baptism Jesus demonstrates divine solidarity with humankind. But just in the placing of Jesus’ feet upon the earth, however, God’s commitment to the earth itself, a part of God’s creation, is now being lived out.
At this point in the Church year, such an insight permits us, encourages us, and perhaps requires us, to glance forwards, toward the cross, as seen from the perspective of God’s covenant commitment. Christ coming to save the world is not limited to the matter of God’s saving humankind – you and me – but is an act, a project, reflecting God’s identity and role as creator and saviour of the whole of the earth.
So, the quality of our relationship with God is bound up with the quality of our relationship with the rest of nature – with God’s creation. There are fractures in our relationships, both with God and nature. God’s committed covenant love, however, for the whole earth; us human beings, our fellow creatures, and the ecological systems of the world in which we live, given flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, is the source and cause of our most profound hope for the world.
So may we be given the strength to respond in love to this divine love; God’s love for us, for our fellow creatures, and for the fabric of God’s world, in Jesus’ name, Amen.