A sermon preached on 17th October as part of our series during Creationtide.
Jeremy is the Dean of Emmanuel College Cambridge who are the Patrons of the Parish of All Saints with Holy Trinity.
Texts for the day:
Sometime in the next year (or 15 months at the most) we will have a general election. In the last general election in 2019 I was standing as the Green Party candidate in Cambridge where I live. (We’ll come back to why I thought that was the right thing to do in a minute).
The campaign, if you remember, took place in the run up to Christmas and one of the events that I visited with my green rosette on was an action by Extinction Rebellion. As a protest against the excesses of consumer society and the over-the-top consumption represented by contemporary Christmas, they were picketing the main car park in the centre of Cambridge. They were having conversations with motorists about why they were doing this – explaining that our current levels of consuming the earth’s resources are not sustainable and unchecked, will lead to environmental disaster and societal collapse. Reactions varied. Some motorists were very receptive. They basically agreed with the protesters point and were content either to go an park somewhere else or go home. Others weren’t so happy and this is where I was particularly impressed by the training of the XR protestors who engaged calmly and politely with the drivers who objected, some of whom at times could become quite aggressive. The thing that surprised me most was that the most vocal objecter was not the owner of some gas guzzling SUV, but the driver of a Tesla, an electric car. ‘But you don’t understand,’ he expostulated as he threateningly nudged his car forward through the protesters ‘this is an electric car.’ To which the response is ‘No, you don’t understand what we are protesting about. Human abuse of the planet is destroying us. Your purchase of a (very expensive) electric car may be a small step in the right direction, but if we are honest, it barely begins to address the underlying problem.’
My reading of this exchange is that it is an example of a very common distortion of the environmental debate, a distortion that re-frames it as a discussion about being good. ‘I’ve done my bit because I have spent money on an electric car, so I should be immune to your protest. I’m good, unlike all those benighted souls who are still driving around in petrol cars or even worse, diesel ones.’ The point is that when it comes to the environment none of us are good because the problem is not one that can be solved on an individual level. And that is on top of the theological point that as Christians we believe that no one can be good by their own efforts. We stand before God as justified sinners only because of the life-saving sacrifice of Christ, the sacrifice we are celebrating in bread and wine this morning.
Because of that, none of us is entitled to look down on those we regard as our weaker sisters and brothers. As Paul writes in this morning’s extract from Romans, Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or why do you despise your brother or sister?
A particularly pernicious example of this can be found in the concept of our carbon footprint. Concentrating on the size of our carbon footprint serves to shift the focus onto us as individuals and away from the fossil fuel lobby and the forces that are actually driving the climate catastrophe. The idea was, believe it or not, invented by an advertising agency working for BP. It dangles before us the possibility that we might find a way to be good. Christians of all people should be able to recognise that for what it is – a death dealing untruth.
In this morning’s gospel we hear the parable of the unforgiving servant. The servant owes his master an unpayable amount of money. Out of pity the master releases him from his debt. The servant however immediately goes out and insists on the payment of a much smaller debt from one of his fellow servants. On hearing of it, the master is angry and throws him into prison. ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And the parable concludes with Jesus saying ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Forgiveness, reconciliation and the re-making of relationships is central to the Christian message. We know that because we know that we cannot make ourselves good by our own efforts. We live by forgiveness because there is no other way to live.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us we pray in the Lord’s prayer. ‘Sins’ is an update of the more traditional ‘trespasses’, but a more accurate translation of what it says in the original is ‘debts’. … forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors is what it says in Matthew chapter 6, where the text of the Lord’s Prayer comes from.
Forgiveness and reconciliation overcome alienation and re-make relationships. The language of debt represents alienation, a separating of people from one another, a reducing of someone who should be a fellow member of our community to a number on a balance sheet. Such alienation results in the moral blindness of the servant in the parable, but it also results in the moral blindness of the Tesla driver.
The society we have constructed for ourselves, and the economic system in which we live, alienate us from one another and, crucially, from God’s creation. By concentrating on what we own and what we buy, consumer society pushes all our relationships that aren’t economic into the shadows. What place love? What place community?
And what drives all this is a gruesomely extractive economic system that lives by taking more and more out of the earth. Along with that goes an obsession with economic growth. Our politicians seem incapable of letting the subject drop. We are told that this is just how things are and that there is no alternative. (There is and there has to be. Humans lived for thousands of years before modern capitalism was invented. And GDP has only been used as measure of a country’s wealth since the second world war. It will involve completely re-thinking our view of economics. It will be a massive task.) As the philosopher Edward Abbey once declared ‘growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.’ We simply cannot go on like this.
If an obsession with growth and with what we own (rather than who we relate to) alienates us from one another and from creation, forgiveness re-creates relationships by acknowledging connection. We need a massive reconciliation with the world around us founded on an acknowledgement that the natural world is not just there to serve our desires. We need to re-make the whole community of creation.
And so we come back to politics and the election. I hope that it will be clear, given what I have said why I think that standing as a candidate is an appropriate thing to do. We need to change the system and not just to reform individual lives. There are different strategies for doing that and not everyone will come to the same conclusions about how to vote as I have, but everyone will have to come up with an answer as to how their vote helps in the process of reconciliation and change.
One of the things that has struck me since becoming politically active is a difference between green politics and other kinds. Where other politicians may be trying to persuade the electorate to embrace policies and the change that they are arguing for, green politicians have the rather different job of pointing out that change is inevitable. The world will look very different in a very few years, however you vote. And we don’t have a choice. Either we will have changed things ourselves so that the economic system is unrecognizably different and we find a way of living sustainably with all the other life forms with which we share our planet, or the climate collapse, that is already unfolding, will have changed things for us in ways that are almost unimaginably terrible.
‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?’ Peter asks Jesus. We are a community founded on forgiveness. Reconciliation is at the heart of who we are as a people. In the urgent process of reconciliation, of remaking the community of creation, that is a unique gift and a unique perspective that we have to offer to our fellow humans, whatever their beliefs.
You can see that in what we have come here to do together this morning. In the Eucharist we set out in bread and wine the reconciliation that Jesus has won for us in his cross and resurrection. He becomes the victim of all the violence that is the product of our anger and greed and hurt and fear. Remaking our relationship with God’s creation will require us to let go of the fearful acquisitiveness that drives the destruction of the natural word. The cross shows us how we can do that.