Time's Up for Creation!

Sunday 15th September 2019
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Genesis 1.26-31; 2.15
Matthew 25.31-45

I have very bad news. Time's up in the Comfy Cafe. After decades of never having it so good, we have come to the crunch; and we all have to make some very painful decisions.

Let's start with our Reading from Matthew. Since the Second World War, the condition of the poor has been steadily improved by three factors: cheap credit, economic growth and state redistribution. All of these are about to come to an end: the indebtedness of the poor is unsustainable with sharp benefit cuts and as other aspects of state support and redistribution are cut back in favour of tax breaks for the rich; and even the most ardent Brexiteers now admit that even with an exit deal the economy will shrink or, to use their language, there will be bumps in the road but not, I think, for the rich!

This situation calls for profound Christian heart searching. WE can no longer rely on gut feeling, or family tradition, or economic self-interest to influence the way we vote: we have an unequivocal Christian obligation to study the evidence, pray and vote for politicians who are most likely to benefit the poor. There was a time, as I said, when economic growth was a fig leaf for our selfish belief that somehow the poor would become better off as long as the rich became better off, but there are two factors which we need to take into account: first, the Laffer Curve which proposed that lower taxes for the rich would increase tax revenue has been totally discredited; secondly, Thomas Picketty has shown that all the economic growth in the West since the economic crash of 2008 has gone to the top 1%.

This national, lazy thinking, this easy comfort, is a microcosm of our attitude to the world. Since the Paris Climate Accord came into operation in November 2016 our Parliament has passed no significant environmental protection legislation but only aspirational targets; and one of the chief motives of many financial backers of Brexit, by their own admission, is to take the UK out of EU environmental laws.

So while the world melts and floods and burns, what are we to do? First of all, we must not give in to the argument that we cannot do anything until we can do everything. While politicians lack the courage to do the right thing, we must do everything we can: eat less meat and fish, use less detergent, buy fewer goods and keep them for longer, use less water and petrol, use less plastic and re-cycle everything we can. But we must also campaign to make all these things easier and simpler, lobbying supermarkets and politicians to get on with it. Meanwhile, poor people all over the world are threatened with disaster: submerged islands; inundated deltas; flooded plains; expanding deserts and new predators. This is where our stewardship of the planet and our obligation to promote social justice come into alignment.

And here's another piece of difficult owning up that we have to do. There is a long Christian tradition, based on our first Reading from Genesis, which says that, as we were given dominion over the resources of the earth we can plunder them all we like because God gave us permission. This is where we have to separate the idea of Biblical timelessness from Christian response: what was right and proper for the authors of Genesis is not right and proper for us. I can think of nothing which appals me quite so much as a grandparent professing love for a grandchild by giving it Coca-Cola in a plastic bottle!

But past the painful politics and the personal dilemmas we have to get the theology straight: Matthew's interpretation of what Jesus said about our obligation to the poor is as important as anything Saint Paul said about our being saved only by the faithfulness of Jesus. These ideas, country to inter Denominational bickering for 500 years, are not in conflict but fit together. We do not do good in order to attain salvation; we do good because we were created as God's stewards to do good. We do good because it is in our nature to do good. So we should get on with it quite independently of any Salvific implications.

Now none of this is easy for us but we can see that it is eminently more difficult for the poor at home and abroad. There are disagreements about timing and degree but very few people are in doubt about two fundamental propositions: first, that the planet is heating up with enormous consequences for all of us, but for the poor in particular; and, secondly, that almost everywhere in the West power is shifting to the Right, to parties which reject a role for the state in redistributing from the rich to the poor or regulating to protect the poor from fierce economic competition. And what when the terrible consequences of climate change drive millions of immigrants to our door, what shall we do then, when it is too late to improve matters such that people can stay in their own countries and lead a dignified life? I fear the worst because recent history shows us to have been hostile to the poor and needy, blaming them for their own plight. The shift towards a harsher attitude to the poor is made up of two components: those who vote for harsher politicians and those who sit by and hope it will all go away. The signs are that it won't.

There are some people who think that people like me should avoid controversial political matters in sermons; I understand the point but whereas Jesus was calling on his followers to realise social justice, there and then, not at some future heavenly banquet, we mediate our social action through democratic politics; we can do our personal bit for social justice but, unavoidably, the chief engine of change is the political sector; and so I say, in the name of Jesus, it is our duty, as God's earthly stewards, to organise the world for the benefit of the least advantaged.