Where your treasure is

The Revd Dr William Lamb
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity


Choral Eucharist

Micah 6.6-8     Luke 12.22-34

I was born in 1970. I mention this not because I am about to descend into a midlife crisis, but because 1970 was the year that British scientists began to collect detailed statistics about the abundance and distribution of different species in the United Kingdom. 

This last Friday, the latest State of Nature report was published. It shows that since 1970, populations of our nations’ most important wildlife have plummeted by 41%. This has happened in the course of my lifetime. 97% of the UK’s wildflower meadows have been lost in the course of the last century. The UK’s biodiversity is declining at a rapid rate: Hedgehogs, disappearing at an alarming rate. The song of the nightingale, barely a wistful memory. Entire species of butterflies and moths, only to be discovered now in the dusty cabinets of natural history museums. In ‘The Lost Words’, Robert Macfarlane lamented the loss of words, like ‘kingfisher, otter, raven, willow and wren’, excised from the vocabulary of children. But we are only beginning to wake up to the reality that many of these creatures no longer populate our hedgerows and rivers. This absence is not simply a matter of vocabulary.

The causes of this decline will be familiar to you: agricultural and woodland management, climate change, pollution, urbanization, the reduction of UK wetlands, and the impact of non-native species. All of these factors have contributed to the gradual erosion of our biodiversity, and yet, you may be wondering why I am taking about this: why should this issue be at the heart of our thinking and reflection as we gather to celebrate the Eucharist this morning?

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them …. Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.'

Environmentalists sometimes profess some anxiety about the impact of religion on the current ecological crisis. In the 1960s, the American historian of science, Lynn White Jr, suggested that Judaism and Christianity had left an ambiguous legacy. He saw in the Genesis account of creation, an emphasis on dominion and domination. The earth is essentially a hostile force that is to be tamed and subdued. It’s a perspective picked up by David Attenborough when he says, ‘Judeo-Christians believe …. people who lived in the desert believed that nature was hostile. You can see in the Old Testament that the natural world was there to exploit – it was there for their benefit. That has cast a long shadow.’ (quoted by Hilary Marlow, Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics, p.5). Many biblical scholars suggest that this is only a partial reading of the Old Testament witness. We do find ideas of dominion and of stewardship, which place human sovereignty centre stage and suggest that the world exists simply for the sake of humanity. It’s a perspective which perhaps provides the ideological foundations for the ‘anthropocene’ age. But at the same time, we find that the Hebrew Bible is full of reflections on the intimate, fragile and sometimes precarious relationship between people and ‘the land’. There is the cycle of the agricultural year, the interplay of work and rest for human beings - and for the land. And when the Psalmist says, ‘the earth is the Lord’s’, that puts you and me firmly in our place.

Friday was not only the day that the State of Nature report was published. It was also the day when we celebrated the Feast of St Francis. Francis himself adopted a simplicity of life, an asceticism, which we might do well to emulate. But he also provides the inspiration for a recent encyclical letter by Pope Francis, entitled Laudato Si’. This document bears thorough study. The words Laudato Si’ are taken from a poem or a song written by St Francis, The Canticle of the Sun. Pope Francis says, ‘In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs’. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.’ Pope Francis goes on to speak of the impact of pollution and climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and the fact that the poorest people on our planet are almost always the most vulnerable to the impact of environmental degradation. He presents a rallying cry to all people of goodwill to make every effort to respond to this crisis.

But there are two observations that it is worth making about the legacy of St Francis: the first is that he views the whole of creation, not through the lens of power and domination, but through the lens of relationship and kinship: mother earth, sister moon, brother Sun, sister water, brother fire. It’s an important insight and a suitable starting point for theological reflection – because it does not view the world as a place of consumption and inherent utility, but as a source of delight and interdependence. There is a recognition of the way in which the complex ecology of lives is held together in tension between ourselves and our environment. 

A 'kinship' model of creation delights in the beauty of the lilies in the field and rejoices at the sight of ravens who neither sow nor reap, because the language of kinship recognises that everything that has been created is a reflection of divine goodness. And that insight has the capacity to transform our relationship with the world around us and to recognise the mutual interdependence of the world we inhabit. We begin to view the world as something to be treasured and never taken for granted. It is simply a gift which inspires in us a sense of awe and wonder as we contemplate the created order in all its beauty and its fragility.

The second observation is to acknowledge the difficulty of hearing the words, ‘Do not worry about your life … Do not be afraid!’ The words of our gospel were an inspiration to St Francis, but in an age of anxiety, these words sound almost complacent when we consider the perils of the current ecological crisis. But whatever our apocalyptic visions of climate change and global disaster, fear and anxiety will not in themselves create the conversion of life that we need in order to address the crisis we face. Instead, Jesus speaks of courage and confidence, of faith and hope: ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms’. As we listen to the gospel, we are invited to begin to simplify our lives, to recognise the mutual interdependence of the whole of creation and to treasure it:: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. As we gather round this table, let us celebrate the treasure which Christ has given us – the truth that bread is broken to be shared.