Exodus 12.1-14; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20
The Cathedral soaring around me is a monumental structure. It was very consciously designed and built less than 150 years ago, of course, to look back, and echo, the great gothic medieval Cathedrals of Europe. But it was also built to last, to re-echo long into the future; re-echo a word of praise and beauty, to witness to realities that transcend time. Past, present and future are here all present, in what we might call cathedral time. It is that monumentality, that presence that underpins the Cathedral as a place of prayer: here is the reassurance of permanence; here the immediate cares and anxieties drop away and a sense of perspective is given by that Cathedral time, those realities that transcend time. The Cathedral in its very structure announces that it is here for the long haul.
The date of 2030 is cited by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the last opportunity to avoid global warming above 1.5 degrees centigrade, the maximum ‘safe’ level agreed in the Paris accord of 2015. If we have not drastically curtailed global warming gas emissions by then, then future life on earth is threatened. Threatened not least by the feedback loops established by global warming within nature itself – where change is amplified by the melting of artic sea ice, for example, that it is then very hard to imagine re-freezing. Under the IPCC’s ‘business as usual’ scenario, sea level will increase by 0.84 metres by 2100, but many scientists predict far higher rises given those feedback loops.
As a coastal city this is grave news for Edinburgh. What will the map of Edinburgh look like in the 2070’s, for instance, as this Cathedral approaches its 200th anniversary? And how about for its 300th or 500th year anniversary? It seems increasingly likely that half of Edinburgh will be under water within a century or two. We may all be long gone, but what does that potentially altered map of Edinburgh say about the permanence of this building, a permanence surely offered not just for itself, but as part of our offering to our city. The Cathedral announces that we are in this for the long haul, that the realities that transcend time also will endure through time. Climate change puts a huge question mark against that.
And we live in a part of the world that could be relatively unscathed. If we think Covid in recent months has disrupted our usual patterns, then that is nothing compared to what might be coming. As Paul says in his leter to the Romans, You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.
So how do we hold those two perspectives together – the long term, the unanxious presence of this Cathedral; and the sense of crisis in our relationship to the earth and one another that is our current moment and challenge?
Today is the start of creation-time; a month long celebration and reminder that the world is God’s world, not simply ours; that we are because of God’s good gift of life – a gift of life to all creation, life in all its evolved diversity and splendour; a creation of which we are but one part, and on which we, and all humanity, depend. Creation-time begins in the moment when we stop, and in awe and wonder and praise, contemplate the mystery and beauty of that creation.
But we also enter Creation-time at a moment when we know, more than ever before, that God’s creation as we experience it, as it gives life to generations of humans and a profusion of other life, is under peril. Under peril from an unsustainable way of living that treats the earth not as a gift to cherish and hand on to future generations but a resource to exploit for present purposes and gain. You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Creation-time names our environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis. That doesn’t mean that Christianity has the answer to the crisis in some straight-forward fashion. Rather it is the insight that if we are going to respond to this crisis together then we need to engage with and draw upon the resources and insights that Christianity, and the other great religions, offer, so that we might, together, change. The deep resources represented by the monumentality of this place are desperately needed in the urgent task of responding to a world in peril.
That sense of urgency pervades our first reading from the Book of Exodus. I spoke a fortnight ago about Exodus being the primal narrative of the people of Israel. The heart of that rescue by God, in the story of the Passover, is told in this memorialised form because whatever history lies behind that liberation, it becomes through telling and re-telling, the primordial story of the people of Israel – they are, above all, those whom God has rescued. This is the moment of a new start that can be forever reclaimed as happening now. Our reading tells the people how the Passover meal is to be eaten: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. At the heart of this primal and formational narrative is a perpetual reminder that we are a people on the move, that we are not to get comfortable. The story as old as time, almost, is what brings renewed urgency.
And our Gospel reading, addressing as it does, disputes and dissensions within the church, provides the spiritual resource of honesty. When serious matters are in view – and what could be more serious than the imperilling of life on earth – when disputes arise, work these things out together, says Jesus. The life of mutual forgiveness that Christ calls us into is a life that asks us into costly relationship with others – as we are now realising with all creation, present and future. These are not relationships to be given up on, but worked out in and through the practise of forgiveness. For in this way the God of all creation breaks open our selfish ways with his liberating presence – for where two or three are gathered, I am there, says Christ; where two or three are gathered, I am is there; the God who gave God’s name from the burning bush as I am, is there, is here. Calling us into a different future, so that with urgency and humility we lift our eyes beyond simply our present concerns and needs, and embrace the purposes of the one who holds all life in being, through all time. To God be the glory and the praise. Amen.