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Sermon 26 September 2021 Creation 4

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Praying for Creation James 5.13-20, Mark 9.38-50

The picture on the screen shows Växjö cathedral in Småland Sweden.  As you know, Oxford diocese is twinned with Växjö diocese.  This time last week we were there visiting our daughter.  Like us the cathedral is marking the season of creation and its newsletter encourages members to risk taking more steps to cherish the earth, our common home, as we face a climate emergency.  The city of Växjö itself has a huge power plant generating electricity from waste wood (Sweden is a country of forests) and we noticed our daughter’s food waste bag says that the food waste contributes to biofuel for Växjö’s buses. The cathedral is open every day for prayer and sitting there in that very green city seemed a good place to start thinking about this particular Sunday when the focus is on praying for the earth and its inhabitants.

The reading from the letter of James describes the power of prayer, especially in Jesus’ name, and refers back to Elijah’s prayer for rain.  This is a good enough place to start considering praying for creation.  It’s a reminder of our dependence on the earth for the food grown on it and of our dependence on rain for that growth.  We are encouraged to pray for what we need. There are several prayers for rain or good weather in the BCP, and then prayers of thanks when these happen. We might feel called to pray for rain in those countries where there is drought.  Here, too, we need rain, and we might also want to pray for more wind so that our wind turbines generate more of the energy we seem to be short of at present.  However, in a situation of climate crisis, perhaps something deeper is also required.

For that I want to turn to today’s gospel reading. It includes some strange and difficult statements by Jesus.  In reading Jesus’ words about chopping off a foot etc I was reminded of a favourite aunt who used to babysit for my sister and myself when we were little. She would sometimes look at us and say, ‘You’re so lovely I could eat you!’  I don’t remember either of us ever worrying that she might serve us up for dinner.  What we experienced was a sort of passionate wave of affection directed at us.

Jesus’ words here express some passion.  They are not to be taken literally, just as we didn’t take my auntie’s words literally.  However, we have to take note of what was so important that he would use such violent language.  He’s talking to his disciples.  What does he want them to understand?

A couple of Sundays ago we reached a sort of hinge point in Mark’s gospel – Peter’s confession of who Jesus is and then Jesus explaining that in order to bring in God’s kingdom his path would involve suffering and death and that his followers needed to be ready to lose their life in order to save it – an off the wall idea which none of them understood. Instead, immediately before this they are arguing about who is to be the greatest in the kingdom, and then here we see James and John trying to define who is in and who is out in their group.  Time is running out for Jesus.  He and the disciples will soon be on that final journey towards Jerusalem.  He has to get them to grasp the infinite value of entering God’s kingdom.  Nothing must get in the way, nor must they let anything get in the way of others entering.

The kingdom can perhaps be summed up as everything to do with human flourishing – relationship with God, with one another and with the whole of creation (as Jeremy highlighted in his sermon last week).  Shalom might be a Hebrew word we could use – peace, wholeness, justice.  This is worth surrendering everything for (remember the pearl of great price and the treasure in the field – parables recorded in Matthew’s gospel).

The focus here is on the disciples’ relationship with one another.  If we were to use more contemporary language we might say that Jesus is saying that choosing the kingdom is so important that its worth surrendering their ego. That’s the means by which in losing their life they will save it – ie be free to enter the kingdom, to enter fully into human flourishing, to be free to enable others to do the same.  It’s not about who is the greatest, or who might have a VIP ticket, nor about who gets the best seats; it’s about ‘giving ourselves in love and service to one another’ to quote one of the prayers in our communion service. The letter from James makes it clear that a natural part of this loving and serving is about praying for one another, for our sisters and brothers.

I’d like to extend this to our relationship with the earth.  St Francis does this beautifully when he addresses aspects of creation as brother sun and sister moon for example.  He encourages us to view our existence on earth in a similar way to our relationship with a human sister or brother.  We pray for our sisters and brothers out of a sense of relatedness to them (Cf Alan Denny and Susan Bicknell).  In the same way, our deepest prayer for the earth comes out of relatedness. If we are simply observers, looking at creation rather like an interesting object, but not as something with which we are intimately connected, it’s harder to pray for the earth itself, rather than for what we can get out of it. Just as relating to each other involves surrendering our ego, so too does relating to the earth.

How do we do this?  For this I’d like us to consider that somewhat enigmatic statement at the end of our gospel reading. ‘Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.’  Salt flavours things and also preserves them.  In ancient times it was a valuable commodity (it’s where we get the word ‘salary’ from).  Jesus is saying that his followers will add a valuable seasoning and preservative wherever they are.  It’s a kingdom of God seasoning and preservative that nurtures peace – shalom – peace with justice, human flourishing.  James shows us what that can mean in the life of a church – having the kind of relatedness that means we truly care for one another – eg praying for the sick, or searching for those who have lost their way.  The same kind of connectedness enables us to pray for creation.  If we are to give ourselves in love and service to the earth we have to develop a loving relationship with it.  So, praying for the earth involves practising, developing this  connectedness; actually loving the earth in the way we love those closest to us.

 

Essentially this is about attentiveness to whatever nature we have around us – sights, sounds, smells.  Being fully present in nature, rather than focussing on what we need to get out of it.  I find that spending time looking at the Kennet that runs through our parish does this for me.  Sooner or later as we do this we hear that call running through Mark’s gospel, ‘Repent, (followed by the bit we so often leave out) and believe the good news’.  Repent is what can happen when confronted by some awesome aspect of God we hadn’t fully noticed before.  Suddenly we see our own littleness, our meanness, or whatever (think Peter confronted by Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish – Depart from me, for I am a sinful man).  We’re both drawn towards whatever is this aspect of the divine and repelled at the same time by our own inadequacy, unworthiness; hardly daring to look at the splendour we have glimpsed.  This is what Jesus wants his followers to grasp – look at what the Kingdom is, look at what the invitation to enter offers, be drawn towards it, allow yourselves to repent, to surrender your ego, to let go into God’s shalom. Doing that we are like the salt that adds flavour, zest to creation and, most importantly at present, the salt that preserves it for future generations. Our prayer for the earth and our sisters and brothers inhabiting it comes through a relatedness nurtured in the good news of the kingdom of God; accepting Christ’s invitation to dwell there, light and free, our egos surrendered.

Christine Bainbridge