Two pieces of news caught my attention this last week. One was an item that told me - not much of a surprise - that this year with so much on hold because of COVID19, our national and also global greenhouse gas emissions are way down. We could perhaps, the writer commented, adapt a lot faster than we thought, if we set our mind to it. The other? Was the news that the Federal Government is fast-tracking the same one-stop shop environmental legislation the Abbott government failed to pass in 2014. Without any safeguards or even regulations attached to assure protection of vulnerable species and ecosystems, if this Bill passes major projects will only need a single State government sign-off in future.
In September every year we think about the environment. Some Christian churches call this month the season of creation, and the reason is because the first Sunday in September is the beginning of the Orthodox Church year which begins with a commemoration of how God created the world. Way back in 1989 the Orthodox Church proclaimed the first of September as a day of prayer for the environment. And the Western Church celebrates the 4th of October as the Feast day of St Francis, who was proclaimed the same year, 1989, by the Pope John Paul II, as the patron saint of ecology. So September becomes the month of Christian reflection on the environment, on God’s creation and on our role in fulfilling the human vocation given to us in Genesis chapter two, to serve and protect what God has made. And the two pieces of news I just quoted serve as a reminder that God’s creation is in trouble, that the planet that all human life depends on, and the living creatures that are each a unique expression of God’s creative goodness, are vulnerable to our human carelessness and greed. If we don’t demand action, if we don’t make our voices heard, then this is the sort of legislation that will ensure the natural environment in Australia continues to be destroyed in favour of the almighty dollar.
What a wonderful mish-mash of themes in our readings today! Trouble brewing in ancient Egypt as God, no less, stops Pharaoh from showing any compassion to the Israelites and at the same time instructs the Israelites to hide under their beds while divine murder and mayhem is underway. This is part of a longer story about a community in crisis. A community, in fact, that is facing genocide because we have already learned that Pharaoh has introduced a policy of killing every Hebrew boy child. They could put their heads in the sand, they could refuse to believe the predictions they are on a trajectory to oblivion. But Moses speaks God’s word to them which is that the time to act is now. The people who define themselves by their relation to God - Israel, which we learned from the Jacob cycle of stories means "he struggles with God" - Israel can no longer just assume that things will turn out alright if they ignore the problem. Now is the time for open rebellion, now the slaves have to take their freedom in their own hands. The meal they are commanded to eat - the meal incidentally which is the primal template for our own Eucharist - this is a travelling meal, it needs to be eaten hurriedly, sustenance for a risky journey into a future which is going to look very different form the past. Yes, they are called into radical trust, but they are also galvanised into action.
As Christians, we know we are meant to identify with the oppressed people of Israel here. But as a people who live in, let’s face it, a comfortable world, a politically stable and protected corner of the world, and a privileged corner of the world, we find it hard to understand and hard to acknowledge the ways in which the economic and political system that produces our security and our comfort relies on the exploitation of other peoples and the destruction of the environment. Perhaps the real challenge is to see ourselves both as part of the problem and part of the solution - to own up to the ways our lifestyle oppresses God’s creation at the same time as we commit ourselves to doing something about it. To see ourselves, in other words, both as Egyptians and as Israelites.
In the reading from Romans Paul tells us it’s all about love – straight after he’s told us all to behave ourselves and do what the authorities tell us no matter what. Well there seems to be a contradiction here - after all God’s people are commanded to engage in non-violent resistance to the Egyptian authorities. But then we notice that this passage from Paul is a sort of midrash - a rabbinical reflection on Jesus’ own difficult teachings on secular authority. "Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar", Jesus tells us - and then right at the same time as he is being condemned to death by the Roman governor he reminds him, "You wouldn’t have any authority over me at all unless it had come from God". Jesus is reminding Pilate that his authority is not authority at all unless it is grounded in God and enacts God’s priorities for human life. So the role of the Church and the vocation of discipleship is certainly to speak truth to power - the truth of oppressed peoples whose suffering demands compassion and common humanity, and the truth of a suffering creation whose vulnerability demands new priorities and new choices, a lighter footprint on the Earth. But the more fundamental point is that order and limits and mutual obligation are woven into God’s original intention of shalom in creation. Which means God does ordain the authorities that govern the context and limits of our life as a community.
And this suggests another way of looking at these readings, in the light of Sustainable September and the climate and environmental crisis we are facing on what we sometimes ironically refer to as Planet A. Because while we are used to thinking about the earth we live on and all of its life-sustaining natural ecosystems as an uncomplaining and almost limitless natural larder that supplies our needs - and while we are getting used to the idea that the earth that sustains us is also vulnerable and its natural systems way more easily damaged than we ever realised - while we can even think of the earth as being powerless - the reality is that it is actually the authorising environment of our own lives. The earth, in the context of today’s readings from Romans and Matthew, is our real authority, our real government - because if we persist in living beyond its limits then it will not supply our needs and ultimately it will turn against us. The sword is not in our hands, despite our supposed nature-taming technologies, but in the hands of the earth our mother whose natural systems will turn against us in fury if we do not respect their boundaries. In raging bushfires that destroy arable land and communities as well as non-human life. In pandemics that rise up when humans press up against and destroy natural habits. In the melting of polar ice-caps - the Greenland ice sheet alone for example is losing a million metric tonnes every single minute - and the Arctic tundra which as it melts releases the deadliest greenhouse gas of all, methane, as well as viruses and bacteria that have slept in the ice for millennia. In the rising of oceans that will destroy not only cities but huge tracts of arable land, and in the loss of fresh water systems which will affect up to 20% of the earth’s population with three decades. In the words of one writer, Amitav Ghosh, the earth will turn against us in fury like a wounded creature. She sustains us, she is not only our mother but the mother of all that lives, and she sets the limits by which, ultimately, we must live, if we are to continue to live at all.
Render then to Caesar, the unchallengeable limiting context and authority of our lives, what is due to her. Do it, as St Paul reminds us, not only because she will destroy us if we do not, but because she is the authority ordained by God who created us to live within her limits. Do it, because it is right and just to live within our means so that other species and future human beings can also live within the garden that God created for us on Planet A. And because there is no Planet B.
So, where should the Church be on climate change and the environment? I think, deep down, we all know the answer - just by posing the question we know deep down what the answer is. We should love what God loves - and God loves all that God has created. God’s creation is not just a resource to be exploited as though there is no tomorrow, and shallow arguments that the economy will suffer if we take the needs of the environment and its living systems seriously are without exception based in the narrow self-interest of powerful institutions. As the Church we must advocate for the environment because if the damage we are doing to the environment is not reversed - and quickly - then the world we leave to our children and grandchildren will be a very bleak place. And because climate change affects the poor of this world more than it does the rich. And because the Earth and all of its creatures belong to God and not to us.
But what, as a Church, should we be doing? What, as Christians, should we be doing? First and foremost, I think, we should fall in love with God’s creation. If we have stopped noticing the beauty of the Earth and the beauty of wild places then we need to refresh our sense of wonder. And we need to refresh our Christian spirituality that rejoices in the goodness of creation. That’s the first thing. We need to think about how we live, we need to notice and to rethink our use of fossil fuels and non-renewable resources - around our homes, in our private lives, and in our life as a community. Growing in understanding that how we live affects God’s creation, and growing in willingness to live in harmony with God’s creation - a process that continually challenges and calls us to new conversion - is core business for Christians, core business for the Church and for our parish. How well are we doing? Is it time to make a start?