Well in this second week of Sustainable September another two news articles that caught my attention - both from New South Wales. The Berejiklian coalition government this week came within a hair’s breadth of collapse because the National Party rebelled over the plan to strengthen land clearing laws in areas that are habitat for the embattled and fast-disappeared koala. Remarkably the koala won this round! And the other was about plans by the NSW government to raise the level of Waragambah Dam outside Sydney by 17 metres - a move that will inundate 6000 hectares of undisturbed habitat that is a refuge for 55 endangered and federally listed plant and animal species including the clumsy but postage-stamp cute greater glider - the moral high ground certainly blurs rapidly when it comes to doing the right thing by the environment. Incidentally if you are able to access BBC TV Sir David Attenborough’s latest offering "Extinction: The Facts" is airing at 8pm this evening UK time - Attenborough warns that since 1970 the total population of vertebrates on the planet - apart from us - has declined by 60% and over one million of the estimated 8 million species on Earth are under threat in what scientists are now calling the Second Great Dying.
Well, Exodus is playing goodies and baddies today, and it’s clear who the baddies are because they are the ones joining the painted honey-eaters and greater gliders at the bottom of the incoming water-flood. It’s a bit more complex in the Bible because although we know the people of Israel are the goodies, a lot of the time they don’t behave like it, and that’s when they get told off by the prophets who regularly pronounce God’s judgement on them. They are an unruly lot, and the unruliness is nowhere more on display than when Moses leads them through the wilderness on the long trek to the land of promise. They grumble and complain and argue, they are ungrateful and selfish, they resent Moses’ leadership and they won’t play by the rules Moses gives them from God. The history of God’s people, in short, is a chequered one - at best, perhaps you could say we’ve always known we were supposed to be the goodies - supposed to be living by God’s laws whether we understand that as the Torah or the rule of love that Jesus tells us is the perfect summary of the Law. We’ve always known we were supposed to be a people of compassion and hospitality and mercy - but we don’t always live like that. Because this is real life, and sometimes goodies are also baddies. Our priorities get blurred and we lose our moral perspective.
Today is the second Sunday in Sustainable September and one of the questions I posed last week was: which side are we on? Are we Israelites who read the signs of the times, who eat the hurried travellers’ meal and walk out on everything they have ever known, carrying nothing, prepared for a radical change in how they live and opting to trust that the one who created them in love can also lead them through the wilderness and sustain them as they learn to live in harmony with its arid and awful beauty? Or are we Egyptians, desperate to keep the economic dominance they have enjoyed for hundreds of years, driving their heavy vehicles into the soft sand of the ocean as they give chase to their fleeing slaves, bogging down because of the weight of their equipment and falling victim to rising sea-levels? Or, as I suggested last week - are we a little bit of both? Are we, as God’s people have ever been, a mixed bag? People who desire to be on the side of the angels, but who sometimes in ways we don’t even notice, subvert our own best intentions?
What would it mean for us, like the Israelites in this story, to travel light and trust the future to God - rather than, like the Egyptians, to get bogged down by the baggage of our past and the need to preserve what we have? In the context of Sustainable September, and living in harmony with God’s creation that is at risk as a result of generations and centuries of human exploitation, this is a difficult and disturbing question, and I confess I don’t have the answer. The problem for us is that as God’s people we are also citizens of the 21st century - with all of the habits of mind and all of the lifestyle choices and the responsibilities and expectations that implies. We drive and fly and watch big-screen TVs and live in modern houses. We expect all the civic amenities of electricity and roads and garbage collections. A recent poll showed no less than 70% of Australians thought we should have a price on carbon and that we should be doing more to protect the environment. But there’s a cost in doing that and the polls also show we Aussies are fairly clear we don’t want to be the ones paying it. And that makes it harder for governments to do the right thing.
I suggested last week the first step as Christians who care about the future and who care about God’s creation is to recognise that our own Christian spirituality is embedded in the logic of Incarnation. Which is to say our spirituality is not one of withdrawal, we don’t separate the spiritual from the physical because God doesn’t either. In the very beginning, the Bible tells us, it is the Word and the breath of God that creates the Earth and all its creatures, the Psalms tells us that God’s spirit gives life and sustenance to every living thing. St John’s Gospel tells us the Word of God becomes flesh and lives among us - just as the Hebrew Bible tells us that the Wisdom of God makes her home among mortals and pitches her tent among us. The Book of Revelation, at the very end of the Bible declares, ‘See, God’s home is among mortals, God will dwell with them’. The consistent message is that God’s own life is immersed in the life of creation, and that means Christian spirituality is a creation spirituality. As the Franciscan theologian Bonaventure puts it, every created thing bears the likeness or similitude or image of God, and so we are led to God by meditating on the goodness and beauty of creation.
Seeing the whole of creation, not just human life, as an expression of God’s beauty gives us a sense of wonder and leads us to see our own life not as separate from, but as interconnected with that of every other living creature. Which is what ecological science also tells us. We begin to notice and to delight in the rhythms of life around us and we learn to show practical care in ways that may seem small and insignificant - until we notice that the rhythms of life itself are meant to be small and humble. If we recycle a bit more and waste a little less, if we learn to use a little less water or electricity, if we drive a bit less and walk a bit more - we gradually change not only our own outlook but in small but powerful ways, the world around us. If as a parish we were to install energy efficient light globes and solar panels, if we put in a few rainwater tanks and planted a water-wise garden, if we planted a few more trees to provide food for native birds - then it might not seem like much but what would change for sure - is us.
The reading from Exodus gets us thinking about who we are and how much baggage we are carrying - and it reminds us that the stakes are high for those who find themselves struggling in a trap of their own making. We need to think what God’s priorities are, and take the small steps that bring our own lives into harmony with that. As St Paul puts it in our reading from the letter to the Romans, the criteria for action needs to be the effect our example has on others, and actually the ways in which our actions model an ethic of care for creation can be way more powerful than we imagine. Conversely, if as Christians - or as the Church - we model ways that are careless of God’s creation that can give offence to others who may look to the Church for moral leadership. But Paul cautions us that the way we live and the decisions we make must all come from a heart that is centred in God. And Paul cautions us against the temptation to be judgmental, which is a real danger whenever we try to change the way we live. He reminds us that whatever we do and whatever the choices we make, we are God’s people - ‘whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s’ - how we live, in other words, needs to have a connection with our eternal destination, which is the heart of God.
The Gospel makes the very same point. If we live in a way that is loving and forgiving, then we are able to breathe the air of God’s love and forgiveness. If we live in a way that is selfish and closed off - then we disconnect ourselves from the life-giving stream of God’s love and forgiveness. God’s nature doesn’t change - the Spirit of God all around us is nothing but love and forgiveness - but if we live in a way that denies that then we soon find we can no longer breathe the fresh air of God’s Spirit. In order to live well - in order to live lives that are whole and healthy and in tune with God’s purposes for us, then we need to live in a way that is in tune with God’s love for the whole of creation.
What baggage do we need to put down, this Sustainable September? We need to travel together - and to travel light.