Creation-time – John Conway, Provost – 8th September 2019

(Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Philemon; Luke 14.25-33)

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

Those opening words from our Old Testament reading this morning resonate through our celebration of Creation-time. A season instituted by churches in recent years to focus our worship of God the Creator, and to aid our collective response to the climate emergency that imperils that creation. Creation-time helps us to reflect on what faith in a Creator God actually means, what it might demand of us – not just to believe, but to feelthe earth as God’s creation.

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

That stark choice, offered by Moses to the people of Israel as they enter the Promised Land, are there to remind them what is at stake. In our own time, in this season of Creation-time, they focus our thinking about the choices that lie before us. Such  choices are more fundamental, I would suggest, than those we appear to have before us with Brexit. In the face of the sobering and increasing warnings of scientists that we are imperilling life on earth, we have stark choices about whether the ways we respond to the current climate emergency will bring life and prosperity or death and adversity.

Our Gospel reading is also stark, and in ways that, to our ears, are hard to take. Jesus speaks, in the context of following him, of ‘hating’ father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself. It’s one of those passages where commentaries attempt, not always convincingly, to persuade you that Jesus didn’t mean what he appears to say: so it is argued, we need to understand such language as ‘hyperbole’ – over the top language to make a point. Or that we really need to understand the verb translated as ‘hate’ as being a way of describing the practise of detachment: a putting into proper perspective the things that bind you most closely, such as family. The call of Jesus to discipleship overrides all else, puts everything into that proper perspective. So all our relationships, including those that often bind us most closely, have to be understood and worked out in the context of responding to that creative activity of God encountered in Christ, and in the costly love he evokes. It’s also suggested that this language is Jesus attempting to shake out of apathy the large crowd that is travelling with him – to wake them up and ask: are you listening, do you know what this is all about? See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

Those ways of reading our gospel all seem to me to raise as many questions as answers. But there is something in the stark language about being clear eyed. That is what connects Jesus’ words to the short parables which follow, about the tower builder being honest about the costs involved; and the king plotting to wage war being clear-eyed about his chances. There is a demand for refreshing honesty which runs through our Gospel. In the context of our climate emergency, what we are doing to our planet, our home, the good creation we have been gifted, it is easy to be constantly in denial, or at least to think we will deal with it at some future point. The International Panel on Climate Change could not be clearer about the risks and consequences of climate change, a rise in average global temperature which seems inexorable, unstoppable, without concerted action. And yet, unlike the tower builder, or the king, we are not willing to be realistic, to be honest about the likely future and its cost – we appear to prefer to rush on blindly.

Perhaps some of the rhetoric around our climate emergency seems over the top to us, unnecessarily gloomy and doom laden. But perhaps that is because we refuse to be clear eyed, to be honest about the future. And there is no point celebrating the gift of God’s creation, and worshipping a Creator God, if at the same moment we are desecrating that creation.

It is perhaps the last sentence of our Gospel which is the key to enable us to re-read the rest: none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Possessions as we usually understand them have not been mentioned up until now. The talk has been about relationships, family and close relationships. So why do possessions suddenly get mentioned?

In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we infer from the text that this is a letter that accompanies a returning slave. A slave that has escaped his master, and that Paul has now decided to send back. Crucially not on the same terms, but asking Philemon to recognise that the fellowship of God overrides all that history. That something new is re-created here. The language of faith is being relied on here, to do the work of re-creating; of turning another human from a possession into a gift, a brother, in the true and proper sense.

And perhaps that takes us to heart of what Jesus is addressing: our propensity to treat others as our possessions. Possessions are what we own, what are at our disposal; they are things that are useful to us. It is all to easy, when we are centered on self, rather than in Christ, for others to become like possessions, things useful to us. People are not, or should not be, however, our possessions, a source of utility. And neither is our good earth.

In Creation-time, we recognise God as our Creator, the giver of all good things. To worship God is to recognise life – in all its fullness – as gift. Gifts are not earned, but celebrated; they are evidence of a living relationship; you enjoy a gift, and our reminded of the giver by it. And gifts encourage us to be gift-givers, to hand on that generosity and joy that a gift brings.

Our climate emergency will not be solved by technological change alone; or by government action divorced from a growing realisation from all of us that life as we have known it is unsustainable. It requires a costly conversion from seeing the earth, and our neighbours not simply as utilities for our benefit, but also, like us, as gifts of the good Creator. To worship God the Creator demands us to be clear-eyed and to act. I’m delighted that within the life of the Cathedral, the Eco-congregation are helping us find the ways to respond. This week the Cathedral Board took the decision that the Cathedral’s investments should be divested from companies that support the fossil fuel industry. But worship of God the Creator leads us all to re-examine how we respond.

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. To know how to recognise what that stark choice might mean, requires, our Gospel suggests, a re-orientation of so much of our understanding of what a good life, of what prosperity means. For prosperity is not about the accumulation of more and more possessions – our climate emergency reveals that that way has more to do with death and adversity, for our neighbours and our selves. Life and prosperity is found rather in the recognition and worship of the God who gives life to all. Amen.

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