On Stewardship

Sunday 23rd February 2014
Year A, The Second Sunday before Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Genesis 1:1-2.3
Matthew 6:25-34

Perhaps the critical symbols of the world's loss of innocence are William Blake's "dark satanic mills"; yes, of course before they were built there was mining for metal and later on for coal, there were factories and attendant squalor; there was, too, in the 18th Century, a massive canal construction programme; but it was the use of coal to generate steam that put Blake in mind of the satanic in a way that the water-driven mills would not have. It would, too, be quite wrong to think that there were not plutocrats before the industrial revolution but it is easier to control land holding than industry as we all now know, more or less to our cost, as we live at the mercy of global corporations which national governments find it difficult to control and tax.

I start here because, whether or not we believe that our recent spell of dreadful weather is the result of climate change, there is surely a sense that we have tarnished what was once beautiful. We have to travel to remote parts of our world to enjoy silence, to avoid man-made excrescences, and to see the stars.

This is not to say that we should hanker after a primitive state but we should recognise the trade-off between economic development and the integrity of God's creation: we just know that God did not intend us to poison the oceans, melt the glaciers, generate perpetual smog over some of our cities, eat mechanically reclaimed meat and six times as much sugar as is good for us. Yes, there was a great deal of squalor in the shadow of the dark satanic mills but they promised plenty, they smoked the notion of ever increasing prosperity into our DNA. Which is why we are going through something of an existential crisis, worrying that our children may be the first generation to be worse off than their parents since the great agricultural depression of the mid-19th Century.

Against this background of ever increasing wealth, how are we to confront the lilies of the field? I think that there are three fundamental responses:

Stewardship, then, requires these three things: a proper appreciation of the consequences of what we do, a deep understanding of the value of what we have, given to us in creation as gift, and the obligation to promote beauty, to put something back.

But underlying these virtues of stewardship there is a deeper point which is that the gift of creation was given to all humanity, not just to those who have the good fortune to become rich and powerful. We can, to a certain extent, buy ourselves out of the damage we cause. No doubt we will find extra taxation for flood defence but that won't be true for Bangladesh; we will almost certainly develop fish production technology that no longer relies on our ever more poisonous oceans but that won't be true for the fishermen the Pacific; and we will be able to use our wealth to buy some silence and privacy, and maybe even a view of the stars in some remote place, but that won't be true for hundreds of millions of slum dwellers.

Some of us no doubt hanker for the days of the rose-clad cottage; and many of us work out our relationship with nature in our gardens; some of us long for the challenge of the mountain climb; while others enjoy the challenge of sailing boats. But if we are to be good stewards we will have to do more than see nature as yet another commodity to be enjoyed. We need to confront our duties as stewards both personally and collectively. We will never completely rid creation of the human tarnish - that is in the nature of being created imperfect - but we should behave with creation, not as if it is ours to do as we like, but as God's precious gift to us, our means of living our human lives for his glory.