Our Achillies Heel
A sermon for Pentecost and World Environment Day (Feb 1999)
'Opposite the down trodden heel, the toe also had left an imprint....... Whoever the man was, he trod from the left of the heel clean to the right toe with this left foot. His spring from the ground had forced the print in deep, but his foot had left the soil cleanly, and the wet earth, gradually drying, had preserved the perfect mould.
'A little warm wax,' said Cadfael, half to himself, intently staring, 'a little warm wax and a steady hand, and we have him by the heel!' pp50
.... Sooner or later boots come into the hands of the cobbler, they are far too precious to be discarded until they are completely worn out and can be no longer mended. Often they are handed down through three generations before being thrown away. (So, reflected Cadfael, this boot would some day need attention from the boot maker.) How soon there was no telling, but justice has learned to wait, and not to forget.
The Rose Rent, The Thirteenth Brother Cadfael Chronicle, pp50 and 54 Ellis Peters
As always, Brother Cadfael solved the mystery, and it all hinged on the cast he took from the boot print the murderer left by the body. But imagine- boots being passed through three generations! I took my favourite sandals to the shoe repairer recently. He looked at them doubtfully: 'They're not really made to be repaired, you know.' But he offered to try, at a cost more than double the purchase price!
Brother Cadfael, in the story, lived in the twelfth century. It was a time when you didn't waste, or throw out anything. It was an age like that of St Francis, who once prayed:
Praised be you my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us....
It was a culture not unlike that of the Indian, Chief Seattle, said to have writtent to the President of the United States late last century:
The earth is our mother,
she feeds and she'll clothe us,
and gives our feet a place to stand.
The ground is the ashes of all our grandparents,
so tread with respect on this land.
This do we know:
the earth does not belong to us,
it's we who belong to the earth,
All things are connected,
like blood in one family,
for better or for worse, we are one.
Versified by Sr Cecily Annette Sheehy OP (Inspired by Chief Seattle 1898) Copyright Auckland Religious Education Centre
It was a culture soaked in the knowledge that we are daughters and sons of Adam and Eve. Adahm and Eve mean in the Hebrew, dust and life. We are the dust of Earth with God's Spirit or Breath, (it is the same word,) breathed into us to give us life. We are of the Earth.
But since the time of Cadfael and St Francis, there has been a change. With (so called) the Enlightenment of western civilisation there has been a change from living in and with Earth, to control. There has been a move to rule Earth. Not to subdue and have dominion in God's name as stewards of the Earth for God, but to rule, control, dominate, exploit, and own for us. Whatever the sins of Cadfael's time, and there were many, our besetting sin has been to wrest rule and ownership of our sister, Mother Earth from God.
The result is a growing hole in the ozone layer, and all its dangers. Environmental disaster spreads like the once rare cancers we now so fear. Everything is contaminated by pesticide, even the ice of Antarctica. I suspect acid rain falls even in our town ; you can smell the sulphur in the air. Climate change and global warming may make human life on some pacific islands impossible within sixty years, because of the rising seas.
Once it used to be thought we are waiting for Christ to bring the end. Now the end may well be brought by us. We humans may die by the multi-millions just like the pilchards in our polluted seas, by our own polluting hands.
If we are not to destroy our own species, along with the so many others we have already wiped out, there needs to be a fundamental change in human attitudes. There needs to be a conversion, a repentance, a return to being part of Earth, rather than our heresy of pretending to be rulers separate and above, and owning it.
Our society is locked into photocopiers, cars, electricity, and air-conditioners- not bad things in themselves perhaps. But we have used them like there is no tomorrow. (And if we are not careful, one day there will be no tomorrow.) Today it is almost impossible to get out of the car- in many cases, we need to have one to work effectively in our society. We feel trapped. Printing our orders of service today, on the back of used paper, is good. It's a beginning. But tomorrow we must ask, 'Can Earth afford such things as orders of service we use once, and throw away?'
Yet how can we change? How can we get free of the claws of consumerism which hold us so closely? We can begin by washing our tins and bottles and using them again, and taking them to the recycling depots. And the newspaper and plastic. We can walk to the deli, instead of driving. Many of us could wear a jumper instead of turning on the radiator. But such things are only a beginning.
More fundamental than these things, we need to be serious about the worship of our God. Today is the Sunday the churches celebrate World Environment Day with The Environmental Sabbath. Today is also Pentecost. Today at Pentecost we celebrate the God who is not only Father and Son, but also is Holy Spirit.
Pentecost celebrates the energy and strength which comes from being enlivened today, by God's Spirit. Pentecost is about freedom from fear, and the mentality which says our environmental crisis, (or other things,) is all too hard, and that we cannot change. It is about the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about profound changes of heart and to turn those into action. That is, the Holy Spirit, if we are serious about seeking and worshipping and following God,..... the Holy Spirit will change us. The Holy Spirit will convert us to a new way of seeing the world, so that dropping litter, or pouring oil down the drain, or leaving all the lights on, will become as unthinkable and offensive to us, as stealing now is. (Or should be!)
But also, added to that, the Holy Spirit, will enable us to act effectively. We will not only see the illness of Earth and be distressed by it. We will be enabled to begin to live in ways which make us Earth-healers- ways which will inspire other people, and evangelise them to living a Jesus-kind of life that has at least two strands to it. Firstly a Jesus-kind of life that heals people's relationship with God- and that's a people saving and healing life- and secondly a Jesus-kind of life that is healing of our relationship with Earth.
Pentecost is about the coming again of the same Holy Spirit who has always come into the creation. It is about the coming of the Spirit with power. Power for the healing of people, and for the healing of Earth. Perhaps the great lesson for our age to learn, is that if Earth is not healed, then neither will be her people. Pentecost reverses the tower of Babel. It heals our disunity and warring and envy. But we will never be fully healed unless we realise we cannot build a tall and violent tower, to live high and separate, lording it over Earth. It is with Earth that we must live.
So to sum up: The Christian faith says we are called to steward the earth, to live in it so that all may live. We are called to live with our sister-mother earth, to use St Francis words. Instead we have lived as those who rape and pillage earth for our short term gain. We have gained a measure of control over Earth, and sought to enslave her. And now we are paying for our sins in an ecological crisis we may not survive.
We need a new spirit. We must be converted again to the mindset which sees the earth as our sister-mother. Or we will all die. Without the Spirit of God, we are lost. There are some mystical traditions who would say that when we treat Earth ill, you may hear its spirit cry out in pain. Surely and truly, when we do treat Earth ill, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who made both Earth and ourselves, must weep.
Let us pray that as we hear the stories of Creation and Babel, and Pentecost again today, and sing the songs to the Holy Spirit- let us pray that we will be converted to action to live gently upon Earth. I do not know how this can happen. But I believe that the Spirit of God can and will convert even us- you and me- if we seek and pray to live like Jesus and tread upon Earth lightly. AMEN.