Isaiah 35.4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37
In the name of God, Creating, Redeeming and Regenerating. Amen.
One of the more unusual pictures to hang in our Cathedral is a depiction of the second half of our Gospel reading this morning, of the healing of the deaf man who has an impediment in his speech. The picture hangs there in the North Aisle. It is an unusual subject matter, depicting a strange story. The man has been taken aside in private, by Jesus, away from the crowd; the picture depicts the intense encounter that occurs, as Jesus reaches out to touch his tongue and bid it to be opened. This is the moment when the man is about to be liberated into speech. A man who has been living in silence, who has been silenced, is about to burst forth in speech. The picture depicts that moment of regeneration, of rebirth.
In the picture, the man has not been taken very far away from the crowd, they are there in the margins of the painting, hanging about, wondering what is about to happen. They are clearly part of the drama of this moment too. The regeneration, the rebirth that is about to happen will ask questions of them too.
As you arrived this morning, you were given a leaflet to mark this Creation Sunday, the start of Creation-time. For those of you online, it can be found on our website, in the section devoted to Creation-time under worship. The leaflet describes St Mary’s as a Regenerative Cathedral – a place of rebirth, through our encounter with Christ. At the end of our service today, in our post-communion prayer, we will pray: We thank you for these gifts in which we are made one in Christ, and drawn into that new creation which is your will for all.
The language of re-birth into a new creation has deep roots in the Christian tradition, but today that regeneration, that finding of a new voice, is in the context of our climate crisis, of the need to find new ways of living that sustain, nourish and enliven the earth.
“It is unequivocal.” Those stark three words are the first in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report. The climate crisis is unequivocally caused by human activities and is unequivocally affecting every corner of the planet’s land, air and sea. The report, produced by hundreds of the world’s top scientists and signed off by all the world’s governments, concludes that it could get far worse if the slim chance remaining to avert heating above 1.5C is not immediately grasped. This is the report that forms the background, the stark and urgent agenda to COP26, the Intergovernmental meeting to be held in Glasgow in November.
It is in the midst of our now old ways of doing things, our forms of life that are crippling our planet, that a re-birth, a new creation, is needed. A re-generation.
I think that language of new creation is important because, as I’ve argued before, this is a spiritual crisis. It’s a crisis because of the urgency needed now to respond, and it’s a spiritual crisis because all the evidence suggests that we are not going to ‘solve’ the crisis simply by instrumental means: that the response can’t simply be about technological fixes. We will certainly need all the powers of human ingenuity and scientific know-how to help move us beyond our carbon- based economy, but that alone is not enough, particularly if we imagine our lifestyle and way of structuring society can remain untouched. I don’t want to be alarmist, but read the predictions of climate scientists on how our weather systems, and ocean levels, and agriculture might be affected as the average temperature rises. And the knock on effects that will have in different parts of the world, and the potential for conflict, and mass migration, and water shortage, that that might lead to. The challenges are huge, and if we are going to rise to them, we are going to need deep resources of courage and wisdom to respond.
And so this is going to ask a lot of us, individually and corporately. The pandemic has shown – and let us not forget this in the drift back to business as before – that that collective will is possible. And we need to learn the habits of self-discipline, wisdom, concern for others, simplicity of life, generosity of spirit; the gifts that faith seeks to cultivate, and nurture and grow.
Now that may make it all sound a bit earnest. I hope that the season of Creation-time that begins today reminds us that faith begins in something far more simple, and joyful; that faith is rooted in daily thanksgiving for the gift of creation. The gift of life given this day, this moment. Thanksgiving liberates us to recognise the joy of this moment, and the giftedness of it. We often talk about the gift of creation as something for us to look after – the model depicted is that God creates, and then hands over creation to us, that we then steward it. I’m not convinced that that language and way of understanding our role is up to the task of this present moment: it sets us up as managers of something outside (beneath?) us. An instrumental relationship is established from the start. Thanksgiving recognises rather that we are within creation, the daily gift includes and sustains us. We need to feel and imagine the world as God’s gift, the possibility of new creation born ever again in the midst of the old.
If you get the chance, go and look at the picture that hangs in the North Aisle sometime. And ask yourself what you imagine are the first words the man utters? Words of praise, surely, or at least words that tell of his re-birth, of the moment when his tongue was loosened and his speech came back, and he could communicate directly. And look too at the figures who lurk on the margins of the painting, the remnants of the crowd, from whom Jesus has removed the man. They are wondering what is going on; no doubt some are cynical, doubting, wanting the man to be kept in his place, things to remain as they are; others are wondering what is about to happen, are intrigued. How will they react to the moment when he suddenly speaks and addresses them, and the world is changed?
Our gospel this morning, the painting, this season of Creation-time, invite us into imagining and inhabiting the moment when something new is happening. Where do we place ourselves – in the crowd, looking on? Interested perhaps, but unconvinced, uncommitted? Or in the shoes of the man about to be re-born, to discover his voice, to praise his maker, his liberator, the one who draws him into that new creation, which is your will for all? Amen.