Climate Sunday - Wild and Precious Life (The Telos Talk)
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Good evening. It's great to be with you this evening.
Let's start with some good news...I’m delighted we have just been awarded the Bronze Eco Church Standard and I look forward to achieving Gold as soon as we can….because of course there is so much that needs to be done...and the situation is so serious.
This is a service of lamentation and call to action…..and Borrowing a quote from Janelle Monae…. I’d like to say at the start of this talk that ‘whilst I come in peace - I also mean business’.
When I was a student studying Environmental Sciences I was also a regular chapel attender. We had the most beautiful chapel at Whitelands College - designed by Giles Gilbert Scott with extraordinary windows by Burn Jones and a stunning reredos by William Morris. It was sublime.
One evening service, with a very similar format to this one, I heard a very simple sermon that has always stayed with me. The priest told a story about an old wise and beloved Rabbi who, after many years of serving his community, was coming to the end of his life. He was on his deathbed and turned to his wife and family and friends who were waiting with him and said that he was ‘terrified’. They asked him…. ‘Why are you terrified’? He responded, ‘I'm scared about meeting God and if I am worthy enough’?
Confused and looking at one another they said to him ‘You are a man of such faith and such goodness ….why on earth should you be worried about meeting God’? He replied ‘Yes I have had faith and yes I have done good - but have I also truly been and become the person God created me to be?’
That has always stayed with me...and has in many ways shaped and drivin my life.
Aristotle I think would have talked about telos….The word telos means something like purpose, or goal, or final end. According to Aristotle, everything has a purpose or final end. If we want to understand what something is, it must be understood in terms of that end, which we can discover through careful study. He understood that our individual telos were linked to shared, common and larger goals. That there was a telos beyond ourselves.
Mary Oliver, that extraordinary poet of nature….human and otherwise….in her poem the Summer Day undertakes that study and she finds her place, her peace, her purpose in nature and asks us….
….Who made the world?.....
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I talked at this morning's service about how I had studied environmental science in my teens and twenties...I worked in environmental charities - I was for three years the CEO of a Nature Conservation Charity in London before moving to corporate policy …….but I got to the point with the environment where I just kind of gave up. I became weary by the scale of the problems and the lack of care by just so many people….... I carried on doing my bit but I really had not been speaking out...calling out…..in short I’ve not been fully doing my bit. I started to forget who I was.
You see, nature conservation has been my life since I can remember….shaped and formed by my early love of St Francis, Jacques Cousteau, Born Free, David Bellamy and in my teenage years reading the phenomenal Ursula Le Guin.
For quite a while I forgot this….I forgot my name….who I am ...what my telos was.
As soon as I started my training for public ministry I’m pleased to say I experienced a massive resurgence of vocational calling and this has stayed with me. My calling to become a Third Order Franciscan is part of this.
After I left Cambridge where I was encouraged in this work and even started lecturing in creation theology and ethics, I found myself in parish settings where creation and climate change wasn’t discussed and it was made clear to me that this wasn't a priority. I was required to discontinue my connections with Cambridge.
After about 3 years of ministry in this context I recalled that sermon I had heard at beautiful Whitelands College...I asked myself, have I truly been true to myself, become the unique person God created me to be….have I fulfilled my telos?
I imagined meeting God and being asked…..’So when climate change became critical what did you do’ ….and I would say ’Well….I did church rotas and said the Mass’...and God would go on…’When species were becoming extinct, forests cut down, oceans and rivers poisoned - what do you do’….and I would say ‘I watched a lot of Netflix but I did say the Mass’...and God would say…’And when people were starving, wars were breaking out….land was being flooded ...and millions of people were becoming refugees what did you do’ and I would say ‘I bought lots of things on Amazon but I did say the mass’...
Now lets be clear a) I loved the churches and parishioners I had been called to serve b) saying the Holy Mass or if you prefer the language of Celebrating the Eucharist - is absolutely central to my life....but our participation in this Sacrament is, I passionately believe, supposed to be linked to the Good News...to a new way of living....to actively and passionately joining with God in the care of creation...to work with God in establishing the Kingdom of God.
You don't have to be Aristotle or Mary Oliver I believe therefore to wonder if God would raise more than an eyebrow at all of this and question what exactly had I done with my life, my God given talents...and ask why had I not become fully the person I was created to be? Why hadn't I been and done more?
There are always reasons - sometimes good ones… but often they are just excuses…..often it is because we have chosen another path. We have fixed our eyes and hearts elsewhere and lost our way and forgotten the person we are called to be. But we can always change our path.
A few years ago, listening to Greta Thunberg, Pope Francis and just so many others - once again I heard my name called….I went back to work for a council that was really committed to sustainability and meant it and I joined this wonderful Church...a place where creation is cherished and we take climate change and nature conservation seriously.
A few months ago in Ovingdean News and in a sermon I talked about that beloved poem Footprints where it is revealed to us that when we are experiencing the most difficult times in our lives, Jesus is not just there, he is carrying us. I wholeheartedly believe this to be the case but I was moved by a recent retake of this teaching.
In this version we see a single track of footprints in the sand ….and the person says ‘ Oh Lord what was happening when I only saw one set of footprints on the beach and then the Lord says ‘it was then that I lapped you’.
This image helps me wonder, what if God is walking, even running ahead of us...we are asked to follow and God is trying to set both direction and the pace….saying ‘Come on, I’m asking you to understand new things, to move into new things, to leave the place you are …...I want you to be transformed and healed. To become the person you were created to be. Come on, follow me and let's make a better world; don’t let me lap you’.
The Feast of St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, was last week and her prayer and guidance seems pertinent to all of this - that we have to both change and act. She says:
‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours’.
The world is in our hands, the question is what are we going to do? Ahead of the COP 26 climate change summit, Her Majesty the Queen was overheard saying that she was irritated by people who "talk" but "don't do". Pope Francis, a champion of the environment, I think would agree with these sentiments and has reflected that ‘Many things have to change of course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change’.
The situation is serious. The World Council of Churches has stated that the ecological crisis, including the climate emergency is ‘bringing us to the brink of mass suffering and destruction’. In February the Church of England General Synod passed a resolution recognising that ‘the global climate emergency is a crisis for God’s creation, and a fundamental injustice’. The resolution included the following quote from Archbishop Justin Welby: “It becomes ever clearer that climate change is the greatest challenge that we and future generations face. It’s our sacred duty to protect the natural world we’ve so generously been given, as well as our neighbours around the world who will be first and worst affected. Without swift decisive action the consequences of climate change will be devastating.”
Greta Thunberg in one of her amazing speeches said “Our house is on fire… We have to stop our greenhouse gas emissions. Either we do that or we don’t… Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t… Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t… We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.”
Jesus speaks in similar passion and truth in Luke’s Gospel...Chapter 12….
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Jesus in this passage holds nothing back….refers strongly and directly to his listeners as ‘hypocrites’ for interpreting the signs of weather correctly but totally ignoring another glaringly obvious matter, that of their response to God Himself, and doing what is right.
We are asked how do I care for God’s creation? How do we look out for the poorest communities? Do our daily choices make a difference?
The world is in our hands….our lives, the lives of our family and friends, our neighbours, communities, our country and the world. All creation is at risk - that precious gift from God entrusted to us to treasure, delight in and care for.
In responding to this situation I believe we are asked…what would we say to God when asked ‘Did we become the person we created us to be’? Did we really fulfill our telos? What did we do in the face of such catastrophe and suffering? And what possible reason or excuse could there have been not to act?
I invite you this evening, if like me you have at times got lost in all of this and stopped doing your bit. To start again, know the grace of God, to become the person God created you to be, the person God needs you to be if we safeguard creation and prevent global suffering.
To see those footprints in the sand, to pick up the pace, change direction and help create a better, fairer and safer world.