By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.
This Sunday marks the beginning of what the World Council of Churches has designated as ‘Creation Time’. It is a month not only to give thanks for what the earth produces, but also to consider the needs of the earth – and to consider the ways in which the needs of the earth and our needs are connected, the ways in which justice for the earth is tied up with justice for human beings, the ways in which the way we treat one another and the ways in which we treat the creation more generally are linked.
Because you may have noticed in our reading from Isaiah how those two aspects are woven into one. You may have noticed how the seeing of the blind, the hearing of the deaf, the fitness of the lame, the speech of the dumb, are all spoken of in the context of water in the wilderness, streams in the desert, burning sand transformed into a place of refreshment, parched earth into the source of life. The prophet sets alongside one another four human afflictions and their healing, with four images of a lifeless environment and its resurrection.
For Isaiah, and for his listeners, the image of the desert was the image that brought most clearly and most easily to mind the idea of what happens when nothing much moves, nothing much breathes, and nothing much flows. And so it is the image of water that is the image of life, the image of the entry into life of everything that makes life possible.
And it is the appearance of water, the breaking in to the life of the world of this joyful, overflowing refreshment, that is for the prophet the symbol of the breaking in to the life of the world of the force of, the source of, life itself – the God without whom life cannot be sustained. It is all connected, all interdependent, all flowing from the same source.
And it’s that joined-up thinking that for a long time most of Christianity managed to forget. For a long time we became almost completely anthropocentric; humanity, and particularly our bit of it, became all that we thought our faith was about. We lost touch with the inter-connectedness of things; we lost touch with the inter-connectedness of people.
And so Creation Time aims to help us make the connections again, or re-affirm the connections we are already aware of; it aims to help us tie together in our minds the condition of humanity and the condition of the creation of which humanity is a part. It gives us the chance, or maybe the excuse, to remind ourselves of those who, even in the most forgetful of times, did their best to bring to our minds the ways in which healing for humanity is inseparable from healing for the earth.
The centenary of the death of John Muir has been being celebrated in the past year, with ways being found of remembering and continuing the legacy of a man, born in East Lothian, who has been described as ‘one of the patron saints of twentieth-century American environmental activity’. Muir grew up reading the bible every day, and could recite most of it; but he came to believe that God was also revealed in the world of nature. He came to believe not only that nature was a revelation of God, but that God was what held nature in place. Nature therefore, he believed, revealed the mind of God. Nature, particularly the wildness of it, was what he described as ‘home’ – home for so many living things (trees, plant, animals, birds), but also where he felt most at home, the place for which he pined when he wasn’t there.
Believing however, as James tells us, is not in itself enough; from the belief must flow the action. From his experience, sometimes ecstatic, of God in nature, came the desire for conservation – for the preservation of the possibility for others of this same divine revelation. He argued for, and eventually persuaded the authorities to act on, the creation of Yosemite as a National Park; he campaigned against, eventually unsuccessfully, the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to create a reservoir to provide San Francisco with water.
And this unsuccessful campaign perhaps summed up his understanding of the place of humanity in the midst of the natural world. Muir held that humanity was an integral part of the natural world: part of it, not superior to it – and he was scathing about the propensity of humanity to see the rest of nature as there simply for humanity’s enjoyment and profit. He wrote this:
‘The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts. A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything, living or dead, in all God’s universe, which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves. They have precise dogmatic insight into the intentions of the Creator, and it is hardly possible to be guilty of irreverence in speaking of their God any more than of heathen idols. He is regarded as a civilized, law-abiding gentlemen in favour either of a republican form of government or of a limited monarchy; believes in the literature and language of England; is a warm supporter of the English constitution and Sunday schools and missionary societies; and is as purely a manufactured article as any puppet at a half- penny theatre.
‘With such views of the Creator it is, of course, not surprising that erroneous views should be entertained of the creation. To such properly trimmed people, the sheep, for example, is an easy problem – food and clothing “for us,” eating grass and daisies, white by divine appointment for this predestined purpose, on perceiving the demand for wool that would be occasioned by the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden.
‘In the same pleasant plan, whales are storehouses of oil for us, to help out the stars in lighting our dark ways until the discovery of the Pennsylvania oil wells. Among plants, hemp, to say nothing of the cereals, is a case of evident destination for ships’ rigging, wrapping packages, and hanging the wicked. Cotton is another plain case of clothing. Iron was made for hammers and ploughs, and lead for bullets; all intended for us.’
If we honour John Muir for his work and his understanding, for his introduction of the idea of national parks, for his reminder to us that we are every bit as much a part of nature as the eagle or the thistle, what then does that mean? How do we take it in to the way we are today?
Perhaps it might mean that we cease seeing our role in the world as being one that takes, but also one that gives. Perhaps it might mean that we cease to come to life thinking of ‘number one’, or thinking of life always as a competition for scarce resources. Perhaps it might mean seeing the source of the healing of the world as our source of healing too.
The passage from the gospel that we read today is renowned as the only place in the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth where he is argued into a change of position. The only one to accomplish this feat is a foreign woman – and both of those categories ought not only to have prevented the argument from being won, they ought to have prevented it happening in the first place. And the argument is about connectedness.
The story is presented as Jesus adopting the traditional position that the people of Israel were the chosen people of God, and that their needs had to come first, because they came first in the heart of God. It’s not as simple as that, was basically the point made to him; we are connected, the woman argues – just because you think of us as dogs does not mean we can be ignored.
And perhaps it’s because Jesus realises that what he has said has given the impression that he thinks of the Syro-Phoenicians as dogs that he quickly backs away from the traditional position he has taken. The healing of God is for the world and everyone in it – because the world and everyone in it belong to God, because they were all created by God.
Healing is central to how we understand God’s relationship with creation – the healing of what restricts us, the healing of what separates us, the healing of what holds us down or holds us back. John Muir understood that that healing was just as much true for the non-human as for the human, and sought to persuade us that what we do to damage the natural world, and what we do to damage our relationship with that world, must also be healed.
And in the meal we gather around this table to celebrate we seek that healing – healing for our divisions, healing for our presumptions, healing for our corruption of ourselves, of one another, and of the world in which we live. In this meal we take into ourselves the food and drink that the world provides, symbols – said Jesus – of the life of God, the life that Jesus lived and displayed and summoned. In this unification of bread and wine, humanity and divinity, we proclaim the will of God that all division should be healed. We are then commissioned to go from here to live that healing, and to work for it.