Sermon - Sunday, 7 October 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 7 October 2018.

Scripture:  Esther 5: 1-8 / Matthew 5: 13-16

Text: Jesus said, You are the salt of the earth………… are the light of the world………….let your light shine before other people that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven                                                       (Matthew 5: 13, 15, 16)


Laudato si: the Italian can be translated Praise be to you.

Laudato si: the title is taken from Canticle of the Sun¸ a 13th century prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi in which God is praised for the elements of the universe.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day and You gave light through him.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord through Brother Wind and through the air cloudy and serene.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

And so the Canticle continues as image upon image is drawn from the world of nature and given a human face as it is introduced to us as Brother Fire or Mother Earth.

If the Canticle sounds strangely familiar, it is because it provided William Draper with the inspiration for this morning’s opening hymn – All creatures of our God and King -  its celebration of bright brother sun with golden beam, clear sister moon with softer gleam.

Laudato si: and given he has taken so much of his inspiration from Assisi’s most famous saint, it is no surprise Laudato si – Praise be to you was the title Pope Francis chose for his major encyclical on the environment.

Sub-titled On care for our common home’, the encyclical explores a variety of environmental questions including the vexed question of global warming and ends with the Pope calling for dialogue and discussion as well as urging the peoples of the world to take swift and unified global action.

The Pope’s call for dialogue and action is very much to be welcomed, so too his recognition that questions about climate change are difficult and don’t always lead to a broad international consensus on what to do and how to do it.

Whatever else we do, we should be humble enough to acknowledge the Christian church and Christian theology does not have all the answers to some of the world’s big problems.

And whatever its opinion on questions of the environment, nuclear arms or migration, we should be realistic enough to admit it is never the church’s aim to settle scientific questions or replace politics.

However, given its core belief that the earth is the creation of God, a belief so beautifully expressed by the Psalmist The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell within, the church believes it has something important to say on environmental matters and something worthwhile to contribute to the wider discussion.

Francis pulls no punches when lamenting pollution, climate change, a lack of clean water and the loss of biodiversity and he argues human beings have never so mistreated their common home as they have done in the last two hundred years.

The encyclical accepts the prevailing scientific opinion that changes in the climate are largely man-made and it highlights the highly polluting role of fossil fuels in bringing about climate change.

Calling for greater investment in renewable sources of energy, the encyclical suggests climate change represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity today and it warns a failure to take it seriously, and a failure to work together to mitigate its impact, will lead to serious social, economic and political consequences.

This brings Francis to one of the conclusions of his encyclical, namely, the warming of the planet is a symptom of a greater problem, the developed world’s indifference to the destruction of the planet in its pursuit of short term economic gains.

And he suggests one of the signs of this indifference is a throw-away culture in which unwanted items and unwanted people – the unborn, the elderly, the poor – are discarded as waste.

A throw-away culture – here is something which resonates, something with which we can immediately identify.

Although he has been speaking about it for many years, it was David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series on BBC television which finally drew the public’s attention to the dangers of discarded plastic.

The images of plastic polluted waters or of wildlife entangled were truly awful, so too the scientific research revealing the levels of microscopic plastic being ingested by fish - and subsequently by us.

The result has been impressive.

Many supermarkets no longer provide single use plastic bags, the coffee chains have removed plastic from their coffee cups and, for all its many benefits, all of us have become much more aware of the dangers of throw-away plastic.

A disposable culture, a throw-away society; the paradox of Laudato Si is although it appears to be an environmental document, it isn’t - it is really about people, our attitudes, our priorities, the way we think about and treat one another, the way we think about and treat the earth, our common home.

And it is this paradox which leads Francis to what I think is the most important insight of his encyclical, namely, that far from being something optional, a concern for the natural world is at the very heart of the Christian church’s concern for social justice.

You are the salt of the earth…………………you are the light of the world

Esther is one of the women in Biblical tradition in whom we glimpse something of what it means to be salt and light.

Set in the Persian city of Susa, married to King Xerxes, a Jewish woman living in a Gentile world, the book of Esther wonders if it is possible for the exiled Jewish community to remain true to their faith in a foreign environment.

The book considers different possibilities including the community cutting themselves off from mainstream society and so protecting themselves from the contamination of another faith and culture.

Queen Esther offers a different perspective.

She contends Jewish people should become active participants in every aspect of public life and challenges them to recognise the good elements of the society in which they live and to co-operate wherever possible.

At the same time the Jewish community is encouraged to take responsibility, to use their God-given skills and talents to tackle the problems faced rather than wait for God to produce a miraculous solution.

All of this is demonstrated in the actions of Queen Esther who works with others in the royal household to protect her fellow Jews, to facilitate their return from exile, and she does so with considerable imagination, determination and diplomacy.

Esther’s story provides us with a model for engagement.

It is a model inviting us to recognise what is good in society.

It is a model asking us what it means to keep faith in the goodness of God’s creation in a throw-away society.

And it is a model challenging us to engage and work alongside those from different faith traditions and none who share with us a desire to care and protect our common home.

The proposal by the Cromarty Firth Port Authority to transfer oil from ship to ship in the Moray Firth is an example of what this looks like in practice.

As you know the Moray Firth is famous for its wildlife, especially its blue nosed dolphins, and the area is subject to high levels of protection under both UK and EU legislation.

Any oil spill would have a potentially catastrophic impact on the marine environment yet when in 2017 permission was sought for the transfer of oil from ship to ship, neither the local community, Highland Council or the Scottish Government were formally part of the decision making process.

Through the Church and Society Council, my colleague and friend Alan McDonald was able to bring all these interested parties together, the result being the Marine and Coastguard Agency, the body responsible for making a decision, rejected the oil company’s application.

Alan remains vigilant to see if a second application emerges, but his efforts are a contemporary example of the church and its people working with others to protect the integrity of the environment.

Salt and light, letting our light shine before other people so they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven - on this our harvest thanksgiving it is our privilege to acknowledge all the good things around us are sent from heaven above as we join with brother sun and sister moon, brother wind and sister water, brother fire and sister mother earth in praising the continuing goodness of the Creator.

And what better way to do so than to take the closing petition of St Francis’ Canticle of the Sun and make it our own.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility.

God our Creator                                                                                                                           

You have made us one with this earth                                                                                         

to tend it and bring forth its fruit.                                                                                              

Teach us to respect all that has life from You                                                                            

 that we might share in the labour of all creation                                                                           

to give birth to Your hidden glory                                                                                         

through Jesus Christ our Lord.