Anglican Church of Canada
September 17, 2017 Proper 24 – Creation Season
Romans 8:18-27 Joint Message of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the World Day of Prayer for Creation (https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2017/documents/papa-francesco_20170901_messaggio-giornata-cura-creato.html)
At the beginning of this month, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Eastern Orthodox churches, issued a joint statement calling for prayer for the care of creation. Now as Anglicans we don’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to what the Pope says; but this Pope is definitely worth listening to. And the fact that the statement was issued cojointly with Bartholomew is significant. The division between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western churches goes back over a thousand years, and has often been bitter; so to have the senior leaders of both the East and the West speaking with one voice is historically important.At the beginning of this month, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Eastern Orthodox churches, issued a joint statement calling for prayer for the care of creation. Now as Anglicans we don’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to what the Pope says; but this Pope is definitely worth listening to. And the fact that the statement was issued conjointly with Bartholomew is significant. The division between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western churches goes back over a thousand years, and has often been bitter; so to have the senior leaders of both the East and the West speaking with one voice is historically important.
The timing could not have been better. We seem to have moved into a new phase in our relationship to the earth – at some point we have drifted into a time when the catastrophic effects of climate change are no longer a theory to be debated or a dire prediction for the future; they have become a present reality to be dealt with as best as we can. We have seen, within just over a week, Hurricane Harvey, the most destructive and expensive hurricane in history, and Hurricane Irma, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded. Two storms of the century in a single week! And all this while BC continues to burn, in the worst wildfire season ever – just a year after Fort McMurray was burned. And while our attention has been focussed on the Caribbean, over a thousand people have been killed by floods in Bangladesh. Storms and fire, flood and drought: there are some very big and very scary chickens coming home to roost.
The events of the last few weeks make the Pope’s and the Patriarch’s letter seem almost prophetic. But of course the phenomenon of climate change, and its terrible cost both for the environment and for human civilization, has been evident for a long time for those with eyes to see. Harvey and Irma have just brought it to the top of the cable news cycle.
The Joint Message of the Pope and the Patriarch speak of the problem not just as a political or economic or technological problem, but also as a spiritual one. Perhaps what is most powerful about the statement is the reminder that we cannot separate out these different levels of the human reality: our politics and our economy and our technology are rooted in spiritual attitudes which we must make explicit and accountable if we are to change.
The message begins by repeating the fundamental Christian doctrine that this world is God’s creation, and so it does not belong to us as a possession to do what we like with; it has been entrusted to us as a responsibility.“The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.” Note what they have done here: they have moved from the specifically Jewish and Christian faith in creation as entrusted to us by our Creator God, to a general spiritual truth that can be accepted by people of every faith: “Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.”
This is the truth of our relationship to creation. But the reality is that our civilization has placed us in a very different pattern of behaviour: “Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.” There is perhaps nothing surprising in this, nothing we haven’t heard before. But it is helpful, I find, to be reminded that all that is wrong with our relationship with nature stems, at its root, from a spiritual attitude. What we need to confront and address as the human race is not just this or that technology or behaviour that is causing climate change, but our fundamental attitude of ownership and exploitation that makes all these technologies and behaviours possible.
The Pope and the Patriarch make one other important connection, the connection between the exploitation of the earth and the exploitation of the poor: “The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe.”
There is a practical side to this connection: the disasters that we are seeing impact the poor more than the well-to-do. For the middle-class to lose a home is a terrible loss; but they are likely to have resources (insurance, a stable job or pension, savings) to help them through. What about the thousands in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean without these resources, who have been left with nothing? Where will they go?
But beyond this fact, there is another, deeper connection between the natural world and the poor: that they are both the victims of the same attitude of ownership and exploitation that characterizes our civilization. Both the poor and the natural world have been left behind as roadkill on the highway of our modern capitalist economy. The Joint Message calls on world leaders to “to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized”. In other words, the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same. They both call us back to our spiritual foundations as stewards – not exploiters – of God’s creation.
It was this connection, this identification of the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, that led me to choose the reading from Romans 8 we just heard. We read this together just a couple of months back, as part of the regular lectionary cycle; and we have used it in creation season in other years. But there is a wisdom in this passage that I feel we have not got to the bottom of.
Paul writes of the whole creation as subjected to futility, as in bondage to decay – not of its own will, but because of us. Whatever he meant by this two thousand years ago, this image has to jump off the page for us today. He speaks of the groaning of a creation in agony – the cry of the earth we hear so clearly today. The earth is groaning, is crying out: sometimes in fury, as with Irma, but more often in quiet sorrow, as the forests are slashed and burned, the wetlands dry up, the oceans are choked with our garbage.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly”. We too groan inwardly: because if we are paying attention, it will break our heart. It is the same groaning, the same cry: the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor – and the cry of men and women of good will, people who accept the helplessness and vulnerability of continuing to care – they are one and the same cry. Because, Paul tells us, it is the Spirit of God that groans and cries out within us.
The Joint Statement is a call to prayer; the Pope and the Patriarch fervently invite all people of goodwill to devote themselves to prayer for the environment. Some people might find this weak; after all, surely it is action that is called for, not just prayer. Some might even call it a cop-out, as though we are just asking God to fix the mess that we have made. But that is to misunderstand the nature and the power of prayer.
Prayer isn’t about asking God to patch things up for us so we don’t have to worry about them. It is about tuning in to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, about allowing that cry to echo within our deepest selves, and find an answering echo. That is not being lazy or copping out of our responsibilities. It is hard work, and it takes courage and strength. After all, the problems seem so hopeless sometimes, we can feel so overwhelmed. And everything around us is telling us to forget about the problems and find something to distract ourselves. But it is our calling not to be lulled into forgetfulness, but to continue to practice prayer, to practice hearing the cry of the eartha nd the cry of the poor, and joining our voices with them.
Paul writes: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” This is the secret we Christians know: that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to keep on caring, when we allow ourselves to find within ourselves the deep sighs that answer the groaning of creation, then we are not left alone with it. Because what we find, whenever we go to that place in prayer, is that the Spirit of God is already there.
The God we believe in as Christians is the God who we find on the cross, in the midst of human suffering, as a caring presence. Just as God was on the cross, so too we find God in the sufferings of creation, in the sufferings of the marginalized and oppressed. And it is the same living presence of God we find in our own hearts when we continue to care and pray about these things.
You and I, we can’t solve the climate crisis. We can’t change the technology – although we can support those who are doing that work, and help make it a priority. We can’t change our economy or our politics – though we can call those in power to account. But what we can change is the spiritual attitude that lies behind these things. We can change our own spiritual attitude, by continuing to practice caring for God’s world in our prayers and our witness. And as we do that, we can influence those around us. We are not alone with this. The church of God, in fact all people of good will, are a huge army throughout the world that can change the whole human race to listen to the cry of the earth and the poor, and to care for God’s creation. And underneath it all, at the root of all our caring and groaning, is the spirit of God, the very power that gave birth to the universe and continues to uphold it in love. That is the secret we Christians share. So let us never be discouraged.