From time to time, it is important for us to remember that God creates the Universe before creating the Earth. God creates the Earth before creating the creatures on the Earth. God creates the creatures on the Earth before creating human beings. And God creates human beings before creating the Church.
Therefore, the purposes of God lie deep in pre-history. They do not begin with us or even with our ancient churches like this one!
“And God saw that it was good, and it was very good.” These are the familiar words from Genesis 1, expressed by the Creator at the end of the days of Creation. It is as if God admires his handiwork and it all seems pleasant and perfect.
But actually these words say something more profound.
If we consider that the word ‘good’ in English derives from the same root as ‘God’ we can repeat this sentence in a different way. “And God saw that it was godly, and it was very godly.”
In other words, we understand that the Earth is not only lovely – it is also holy. The Planet we live on is sacred and reveals the glory of the God who makes it. And this is something we need to remember in our churches – the world is God’s place, and it is in this world that the incarnation of Jesus Christ takes place.
The biblical tradition affirms that God is ‘earthy’ and that our faith is inspired by a Saviour who is ‘down to earth’.
Jesus himself reminds us of the wonder of nature – God clothes the grass of the fields and the birds of the air. The mountains and trees stand glorious as part of the divine plan.
God is the Maker and Sustainer of all that is; and all that is speaks to us of God…
Another element of this tradition recognises that we human beings may be special, but we are also part of the interconnectedness or web of all life. We cannot live without air or water or food. We need to continually relate to the land, to the seas, to the plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and microbes.
Indeed, the Bible has a special word to describe this – ‘Covenant’. This word covenant actually means a partnership or deep relationship. So, for example, the Covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 refers to God, and to people and to the living Earth. We are all interwoven in to a wondrous tapestry of life.
However, as we may be aware, that life across the world is now under threat in many ways. We have lost around 40% of our nature in the past 50 years. As habitats have become destroyed or contaminated, so populations of animal life have plummeted. This is true globally as it is here in Devon – including our endangered bees!
The quality of the air we breathe has become polluted. An estimated 50,000 people in the UK die prematurely every year due to poor air. Especially vulnerable are those with respiratory illness or who live in poor housing.
The planet’s finite resources are running out. Scientists and businesses acknowledge the concepts of ‘peak oil’, ‘peak water’, ‘peak soil’. We are consuming natural materials more rapidly than they can be replaced. We know about the ongoing loss of rainforests, lakes and wetlands. Now even rivers are disappearing in this year’s unprecedented drought around the northern hemisphere.
We also know – thanks to Blue Planet 2 – if we didn’t before than we are filling our communities and countries with plastic. And plastic is only one oil-derived product which seems to saturate our world.
Whether it’s litter in the streets or oil slicks at sea, we can see only too visibly that we live in a disposable society. We throw away 30% of our food every day. Our turnover of gadgets, appliances, mobile phones and computers is at ever increasing rates. Our desire to have the next novelty is all too enticing. But we forgot what happens to our old ‘goods’; we ignore the environmental and human costs to produce them. We dangerously break the natural cycles of absorption by our excessive greed.
And I have not yet mentioned Climate Change! Extreme weather events are not the only consequence of increasing global temperatures. Growing health problems, environmental refugees and threatened marginal communities are key international concerns. Two years ago a Melanesian woman called Louisa visited my office and told us of how her family and 500 others had been evacuated from their Pacific island because of rising sea levels. They will never return.
This list of depressing challenges could go on, but the point I wish to make is that together they constitute a major environmental or ecological crisis – and one that seems to contradict the claim that the Earth is good and of God.
In the reading from Ephesians this morning we heard how, “All beings (families) in heaven and earth receive their life from the Father or Creator.” Let us not be dismissive of the role of all creatures in God’s wider creation. Without the earthworms, we would not be here. Without all the bacteria we carry in and on our own bodies, we would not be able to live and breathe.
We are called to ‘conserve creation’ – to take care of the Earth for future generations, and to care about injustice and desecration. We are especially called to express care for the vulnerable – including those (human and non-human) exposed to pollution and waste.
This morning’s Gospel reading is set in the context of the whole created order: a mountain, a lake, bread and food, a child, some fish, green grass on the ground, a strong wind, a crowd of people… Maybe the miracle here is not just that Jesus can turn a little into a lot, as much as, together, the whole ecology of the land provides for the generosity of God. Without the different components that complete this whole picture, there can be no miracle.
It is in relationship with the Earth and her elements that amazing things can and do happen. Human activity cooperates within divine hospitality to produce a world of plenty in which all can receive equally and respectfully not waste God’s goodness.
Here too is a strong story about food surplus and a call to recycle. Here are words from Jesus about gathering up the leftovers, and to discard nothing. There should be no waste. Goodness in a poorer environment is limited and always we are to be concerned about the consequences of a greedy, wasteful world. Perhaps today we would also be encouraged to pick up our plastic bags as well as the uneaten food!
As Christians, we are people of the Resurrection and we are called to offer hope. Not only in what we expect but in things as yet unseen or unknown.
This is why Exeter is an eco-Diocese and taking action to reduce our carbon, to promote more resilient communities, and encourage less-demanding lifestyles.
Across the Diocese, we are improving the energy conservation and efficiency of our vicarages and schools. Around Devon, forty churches have carried out energy surveys of their buildings. A recent project has implemented LED floodlights at four Dartmoor churches, including some in your Benefice.
More than 400 solar panel schemes have been installed in church owned properties in the South West. We have encouraged more than a hundred churches in Devon to switch to a renewable energy supply. The Diocese has promoted electric bikes, and now electric cars, to its clergy and staff.
We have organised Lent Carbon Fasts and produced worship materials for Creationtide – the Season of Creation we mark in Church every autumn. We are developing a Living Churchyards initiative to encourage biodiversity with nesting boxes, tree planting, and even beehives. Last month we launched a Living Churchyards display available for local parishes. In October, we have a conference of eco-churches in Plymouth. And so on…
In our diocese and our county, local churches are taking action to protect the environment – with food, energy, wildlife and water projects. These are the tools of hope, and we can all use them if we will.
We can examine our lives at home to reduce our carbon footprint – cut our energy use, decrease our waste, travel in less damaging ways, support local growers and suppliers. We can continue to purchase Fairtrade products. And I am sure most of us do this in many ways.
You might like to investigate the possibility of becoming an eco-church with A Rocha and I would encourage you to pursue this and register for an award as part of your whole ministry here. Someone may like to look online as to what this entails and additionally attend our autumn Plymouth gathering.
In conclusion: Our God is earthy – the maker of all that is visible and invisible; the redeemer of us all; and the reconciler of the world. This has implications for us as people of faith. We can live differently, and in hope, and in ways that contribute to healing and replenishing a broken planet. Conserving Creation nourishes life for the future…
In the light of our faith. we can reconnect with the holiness of the Earth; we can reconnect with one another; and in doing these, reconnect with God as Creator, Son and Spirit.