This week’s Sunday Worship from BBC Radio 4 was a live broadcast of the Harvest Thanksgiving service at Holy Trinity Church in Westbury on Trym, Bristol, led by Father André Hart.
The service included a sermon from the Revd Canon Dr Martin Gainsborough on the climate crisis and the mystery of God’s creation, ahead of the UN climate change conference – COP26 – in Glasgow this November.
The Holy Trinity choir sang a collection of hymns, as well as an anthem with words by Christopher Idle especially written for the broadcast by the church’s director of music, David Ogden.
You can listen back to the service here, and read Revd Dr Martin Gainsborough’s sermon below.
May the words of my lips and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable to you Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
At the beginning of the service, Father André shared with us a wonderful image of the monks from Worcester abbey making their way down the river Trym, so beginning the witness of God’s Church in this place, all those years ago.
During the Covid pandemic, one of my favourite things to do has been to take my bicycle down to the river Avon to the towpath that leads from Bristol to the village of Pill. I pass the place where the river Trym, now mainly buried beneath the city, flows into the Avon. It’s a truly beautiful spot.
Sitting by the river watching the birds swooping and diving above the muddy banks, I have often felt a deep sense of connectedness and peace, catching a glimpse of how humanity is not set apart from the natural world but that our future is intimately bound up with it.
And yet we’re reminded at this harvest time – when we give thanks for all God’s gifts – how all isn’t right in the world. How populations and eco-systems are suffering, and how, contrary to God’s purposes, we are making the planet uninhabitable.
As the prayer of confession says: ‘We have wounded your love, Lord, and marred God’s image in us’. It’s not how it’s meant to be.
The book of the prophet Joel, which we heard read, paints a terrifying picture of a devastated world in the wake of a plague – in this case a plague of locusts. The devastation is total. There’s no pasture. Flames have burned all the trees. The watercourses have dried up. Even the ground mourns. But in the extract we heard read, we suddenly hear the command ‘Do not fear’ – addressed to all creation.
Do not fear, o soil, Joel says. Do not fear, you animals. Be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God, o children of Zion.
But the call not to be afraid doesn’t appear to make sense. Surely there’s much to be afraid of?
And yet, read on and it does make sense. But only in relation to a radical turning again to God. A call to repentance and prayer. ‘Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and mourning’, God says. ‘Rend your hearts not your clothing’. That is, don’t tear your clothing in your distress. Let your heart be broken Find compassion. Mourn what should not be. So it is all about a transformation of the heart.
And we might say, drawing on the book of Joel, that it’s the absence of such a transformation, continued indifference or hardness of heart in our world, that stands between us and the restoration of God’s beautiful planet. Creation restored, humanity reconciled. But there’s more to say.
And in a moment I will explore further what such a transformation of the heart might entail.
In my previous address, we explored with the help of the prophet Joel how in the face of a suffering and devastated world, God calls us to repentance. To a transformation of the heart. And the injunction not to be afraid because God will not forget God’s faithful people. It’s striking that Jesus also urges us not to be afraid – in those beautiful words from Matthew’s gospel.
‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.’
‘Consider the lilies of the field, 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.’
And yet, this is not a casual ‘head in the sand’ urging us not to worry, telling us to turn our back on the needs of the world. Jesus is much more specific than that.
‘Strive first,’ he says, for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ So it is on this basis, striving for what God wants for all creation, that we’re encouraged not to be afraid.
But I wonder what this means for us in practice as we give thanks for God’s harvest in the full knowledge that creation is groaning. The climate crisis will not be averted simply by the actions of governments and international actors – important though they are. The climate crisis will not be averted by new technologies and entrepreneurs – important though they are And the climate and ecological crisis will not be averted by the actions of activists and individuals – eating less meat and choosing green energy, for instance – important though these things are.
Rather, what I take from our bible readings is that the climate crisis will be averted when our hearts are melted. When we mourn the loss of natural habitats. When we feel compassion for our suffering neighbour – near or far. And when, by God’s grace, we act in love. As the celebrated American writer, Wendell Berry, said more than fifty years ago.
“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world”
“We have been wrong”
“We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world is good for us”
And he goes on: “We must learn to cooperate in [creation’s] processes, and to yield to its limits”
And he continues: “But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that creation is full of mystery…We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence.”
Then, I believe, we will see the climate and ecological crisis averted, humanity reconciled, creation restored. As we look to the UN climate change conference – COP26 – in Glasgow in November, when so much is at stake, join with me in praying for a rich harvest.
For a sense of urgency.
For compassion and love.
In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.