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Debt, forgiveness and the climate crisis: a sermon by the Revd Andrew Quigley

An address given at Choral Evensong as part of our series of sermons during Creationtide

Andrew is Vicar of St James the Greater in Leicester and is the Environment Officer for the Diocese of Leicester


Matthew 18:21-35

Today’s Gospel about forgiveness, with the rather florid parable of the unforgiving servant, can be summed up in one line, which we all already know: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We have to forgive people, it has to be unlimited, and it has to be mutual. So that’s it, simple really. Nice short sermon. Except, of course it’s not.

There’s what we might call the practical problems, and the theoretical ones. Practically, forgiving people is really hard. Never mind Peter’s tentative 7 times, I feel like I’m doing well if I give someone a second chance. As for this 77 times? Pfft. The theoretical problems arise once we probe the translation a bit, for instance it doesn’t really say “member of the church”, it says “brother”. Obviously we want to broaden it to at least “brother or sister”, but it’s not talking about siblings, but members of the community of Christ-followers, hence the translator’s decision.

But the larger theoretical question is this – is the forgiveness only for those within the Christian community? I’d say you have to be relationship to someone to forgive them. If I say I forgive Pol Pot, for instance, it is a meaningless, even possibly offensive statement.

The translation issue I really want to talk about isn’t in the reading, but in my summary of it from the Lord’s prayer. Some of you who aren’t fans of the traditional version may have been hissing under your breath, “it’s forgive our sins, not trespasses.” And I agree that trespassing sounds more like something poachers have to worry about more than your average person. Properly though it should be “forgive us our debts” – and significantly this fits well with the content of the parable – which is not ostensibly about sins or trespasses, but debt – amounts of money that are owed.

And this fits a large trend in Jesus’ teaching. He spends far more time talking about money, its uses and abuses than he does about sex. Not that you’d know that from the preoccupations of the modern church. We get frightfully shy talking about money, preferring to use codewords like “stewardship” or “generosity”. Yet the Church remains depressing un-shy in telling people what they can and can’t do in their bedrooms, things which Jesus didn’t seem to think were important enough to talk about.

But I am going to talk about money, specifically debt, in the context of the environmental crisis. We don’t necessarily think about money when we think about global heating, instead we think about ice bergs and polar bears, and polar bears on ice bergs. It should be clear from the slew of floods and infernos around the world this year that it is not just arctic wildlife that is in danger now.

Part of the problem is that eco-freaks like me like polar bears. We like the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, and don’t like to sully them by putting a price on them. And how do you put a price on clean air, seas free of sewage and plastic, good soil that will feed the world, and the world of wonder and beauty God has entrusted to us? How do you put a price on the fabric of life itself and its ability to sustain future generations?

Well, people are trying. At one level there are the variety of rather dubious schemes where you can pay a few quid to “offset” your flight to some sunny island, assuming that island isn’t on fire at the moment… Slightly further up the scale are things like set-aside payments made to landowners or farmers to use less pesticide or preserve a few hedgerows. And at the other end of the scale are concepts like Earth overshoot day – the day of the year on which we’ve used – spent if you like – a whole year’s worth of the resources of the world – this year it was by August the 2nd. That means that since them we’ve be running up a debt, spending the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished. And this is not just a notional debt to “the world”, it is a real deficit to the quality, even liveability of the existence of future generations.

Perhaps if we thought more fiscally we’d get a better handle on the crisis. The idea that in burning fossil fuels we’re burning millions of years of accumulated energy every year might give us an idea of how unsustainable this is. And we might think about how future generations will view the enormous deficit we hand to them. Will they forgive us our debts?

More prosaically, in heating our homes, and dare I say it churches, would we rather be spending ever increasing amounts to burn gas and line the pockets of charming folk like Mr Putin? Or would we rather take in free energy from the sun, the wind, the warmth of air and soil?

When money does come into environmental matters it is normally portrayed as rather like a fatal flaw – “well”, say the politicians – “of course it would be nice to save the planet, but the burden on the economy would be just to much.” That famous Native American saying, “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money” seems to cut no ice with chancellors of the exchequer.

I could also talk at length about “loss and damage” – the fund established as one of the most significant achievements of the COP in Glasgow. This is designed to compensate those nations most damaged by the climate catastrophe, to enable rebuilding and adaptation. It can be framed as a paying of the debt owed by developed nations, who prospered and profited on the burning of fossil fuels, to the poorer nations who are suffering most as a consequence. Money has been called “the sacrament of seriousness”, and it is well past time we got serious about climate change.

Finally a word about the nature of forgiveness. Both that clause in the Lord’s prayer and parable in the Gospel can be read as saying that forgiveness of our sins is dependent on our forgiveness of others. Forgiveness then becomes just a transaction – there’s no benevolence in it, just self-interest. But I prefer to see this as a way of explaining the integrity of forgiveness, its eco-system if you will. You can’t truly receive forgiveness if you’re grimly holding on to your own pet grudges and slights.

Environmental action is sometimes portrayed in this transactional way, as if looking after the planet were purely self-interested. But in facing up to our debts, and paying them off, it may be that we find our way to a new freedom in living, in the fullness of creation given by God as pure gift. Amen.