St John's congregation includes a number of priests whose ministry is based elsewhere, including the chaplain of Queen Anne's School in Caversham. Consequently I was asked to give a talk for their harvest service this year. The chapel was wonderfully decorated so that even the tins had been arranged in colour-co-ordinated pyramids and fruits were balanced everywhere. I added a few conkers to my lectern before beginning:
5th October 2007 – Queen Anne’s School, Harvest service
My driveway is littered with conkers, spiky cases split open, gorgeous chestnut skins shining and rather a lot of squished creamy pulp where the car has driven over them. Conkers are one of the great emblems of autumn, abundant and gleaming. They aren’t particularly useful – not like blackberries or elderberries or all the cultivated harvests we celebrate, or even the scarlet hips and haws that the birds are stocking up on for winter – indeed, conkers are mildly toxic, but they are beautiful, they make life feel richer – conkers are a reminder that God’s creations do not have to be obviously useful to be valuable and treasured.
But the horse chestnut trees along my road have been looking sick all summer - leaf miner beetles which used die off in the winter are weakening the trees. Our conkers are falling victim to climate change.
Of course they’re not the only ones. Let me tell you about Risolat Muradova. She is 18 years old and a member of Tajikistan’s national basketball team. This summer she came over to the UK to start Christian Aid’s 1,000 mile Cut the Carbon march. The march ended in London last Tuesday when they petitioned the government to commit British businesses and government to a radical reduction in our carbon emissions. Risolat made the journey here from Tajikistan because she can see the devastation climate change is already causing – so many poor harvests are driving the farmers of Tajikistan to abandon their homes and become builders in Russia. Ironically the average inhabitant of Tajikistan only produces just over half a tonne of carbon each year, whereas here in Britain we produce about 10 tonnes. Risolat’s fellow marcher, Mohammed Adow comes from Kenya – his neighbours only produce one fifth of a tonne of carbon each, but droughts are destroying their land – it’s not uncommon for women and girls to have to walk 30km in a day to find water – that’s like having to walk from here to Wokingham and back for water - it always is the women and girls who are hit hardest in such crises.
And yet, my latest post from Friends of the Earth began – ‘climate change could life better for you’. The need to act on climate change could be the catalyst we need to build a cleaner, fairer future with stronger local communities and a healthier relationship with the land. What I’d like you to take away this evening is a conviction that we can do this – that God has given us all that we need, and that we are the Noahs of this day with an ark to build.
On some levels the Christian response to the climate crisis must be the same as that of any person with a conscience. Christ called us to love our neighbour, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to do all we can for those girls walking 30km a day to fetch water.
But there’s more to it than that – the God who made us and loves us takes delight in this whole planet. There’s a great passage in the otherwise rather depressing book of Job where God demands
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . .
‘Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? . . .
‘From whose womb did the ice come forth and who has given birth to the hoar-frost of heaven? . . .
‘Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer? . . .
‘Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will it spend the night at your crib?’
Here God reveals a passionate continuing involvement in Creation, a care even for the mountain goats giving birth. If we can see our efforts to look after our planet as working alongside God’s continual creating it becomes a good deal more hopeful, even joyful, sharing in this task.
That’s why I chose the first reading this evening from Proverbs – God’s Wisdom speaking of her childhood participating joyfully and playfully in God’s act of creation. We don’t tend to think of God as a child very often, but God is all ages of man and woman. Wisdom tells us that she was ‘At play everywhere on this earth, delighting to be with the children of men’. ‘Delighting to be with the children of men’– this is so important.
So often in environmentalism humans seem to be simply the bad guys – inevitably destructive, by our very nature at odds with the needs of the rest of the planet.
Yet Christianity’s most famous ‘green hero’, St Francis, had a rather different take on it. He wrote that
‘We bless the earth with each step we take.
And the firmament too needs our touch’
Passages like that in Proverbs or even the Genesis Creation story had convinced St Francis that human beings were designed to be good for the Earth, to work in a positive relationship with life on Earth. And we know we can be – just look up into the skies above Caversham or along the road to Oxford – and almost invariably you will find somewhere en route a beautiful bird of prey with russet red feathers and a distinctive forked tail – it’s the red kite – once extinct in England, but now flourishing thanks to human effort.
A few months ago a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my door and asked me what worried me – I told them climate change and they said ‘Ah yes, it is such a great problem that we cannot possibly do anything about it, we must just trust in God to sort it out’. I was so surprised I couldn’t think of a response at the time. I wish I’d remembered the story of Joseph and Pharoah – you know how Joseph was the favourite younger son, sold to passing camel traders by his jealous brothers so he ended up in Egypt interpreting the Pharoah’s mysterious dream about skinny cows eating healthy cows. God had sent the dream to warn Pharoah that after seven years of good harvests there would be seven years of famine – forewarned with this knowledge Joseph and Pharoah carefully looked after Egypt’s harvests and saved enough to feed the people through the famine. If Pharoah had just said ‘Oh dear, we’ll have a famine, never mind I’m sure God will sort it out’ the people would have starved. Today we’ve got scientific predictions instead of dreams, but the situation is the same, we know what we’ve got to do and we can do it.
On a smaller scale we have done it before – when I was at school the environmental crisis of the day was the hole in the ozone layer – this was a thinning of the ozone in the earth’s atmosphere caused by gases used in fridges and aerosols that was likely to give us all skin cancer. Environmental campaigning led to political action to stop the use of these gases. Scientists say the hole is now in the process of mending as a consequence of these actions.
It is easy to imagine as individuals that we cannot achieve much – so I take heart from one of my great heroes – Anita Roddick, who died last month. She started the Body Shop simply because she needed a way to earn money for herself and her daughters while her husband cleared off for two years to ride a horse from Buenos Aires to New York. But her passion for the environment and for social justice shaped a new way of doing business that has influenced so many high street shops. Of course while Anita Roddick was the visionary her family and all those who worked for the Body Shop were what made it happen. We don’t all have to be the visionaries at the front, indeed it won’t work at all if we all try to be that – it’s the working together that achieves most.
That’s why development agencies like Christian Aid are trying to get us all on board with their Cut the Carbon campaign. Thousands of people are petitioning the government to commit to drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions – Anita Roddick added her name to Friends of the Earth’s part of the campaign just two months before she died. Jude Law, James Blunt, Thom Yorke and Darcy Bussel are among other famous figures you’ll find talking about it on Friends of the Earth’s website. If you would like to join them, you can pick up one of the Christian Aid postcards at the back of chapel and fill it out – we can post them off together.
Achieving change at a political level is part of building the ark. The other is how we live our own lives – did you know that a tonne of your carbon emissions is a result of the manufacture and care of your clothes? Buying fewer clothes and buying them second hand or organic makes a big difference – yes I did say organic – manufacturing pesticides produces extra greenhouse gases and a quarter of all the pesticides in the world are used in cotton growing. Making sure washing temperatures are as low as possible helps too. Buying organic food and food that hasn’t travelled miles is another basic step. Farmers’ markets and farm shops are a beautiful way to shop. One of the biggest but easiest changes you can make is to get your family to switch to a green energy supplier like Ecotricity – the ones with that magnificent windmill near junction 11 of the M4 – check Christian Aid’s website to see how you can get Ecotricity to give Christian Aid a donation when you sign up. Another biggie is cutting down on your meat and dairy foods because cattle emit an awful lot of greenhouse gases, not to mention the vast destruction of precious, precious rainforests for their grazing - and for growing chicken feed.
Once upon a time harvest festivals were primarily a time to pray for our farmers and their care of the land. Now they need our prayers more than ever. But also we know we all have a responsibility to care for this beautiful, precious, fragile earth and its inhabitants, our neighbours. We have been told just as clearly as Noah was – if we join Risolat from Tajikistan and the thousands of others campaigning and changing their lifestyles – we can build that ark with God.