Rev David Coleman, Environmental Chaplain for the Church of Scotland, came to Greenbank to give the third of four Creationtide Sermons on Sunday 23rd September 2018

Sermon Notes:

Awesome. Language used more by my children than me, but the right language for the glowing colours of a rainbow, or the ferocious Cuillins of Skye. Language also evolves. The ancestor of todays’s ‘awesomewas the more ambiguous aw-ful, which has come to mean something quite different.

We also prefer to trust and love God, rather than, with clan Munro, ‘dread’ God, as the other creatures dread us.

Now, Love made complete [1 John 4:18 ] drives out fear, though in the meantime, it is Jesus as remembered in the Gospels, who counsels respectful wariness of a loving God as part of that relationship.

[Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in the rubbish tip [Gehenna]

What I would like to suggest, given the theme Martin tossed me, of ‘Finding God in Creation’, is that only in respectful and considerate partnership with fellow parties to the Rainbow covenant, do we gain a fuller and more beneficial picture of who God is.

Some years ago, my local church followed a study course called ‘the God Question’.

Which was fine. Except that it was more concerned with ‘is God there or not’ than the more important Question for churches: What sort of God is God, and how might that help us?

Does attending to the created order have much to offer here?

We could always ask Calvin about the rainbow:

As often as we look upon it, we read this promise of God ..., that the earth will never be destroyed by a flood. Therefore, if any philosophiser, to mock the simplicity of our faith, contends that such a variety of colours naturally arises from rays reflected upon a cloud opposite, let us agree, ...but laugh at his stupidity in failing to recognise God as lord and governor of nature, who according to his will uses all the elements to serve his glory"

A rainbow happens because of laws and principles that human beings have found to be common to the whole universe, going back infinitely far to the very beginning of everything. None of that insight in any way undermines our faith.

Nor indeed, does the disciplined and peer-reviewed work of climate scientists. These witnesses to signs of the times, who glimpse something not seen by others. Even if their honest and unreflective reports, like those of the resurrection, strain credibility.

The danger to faith, and therefore the danger to the world deprived of the good news that faith is given us to convey, is that peculiarly bovine pig-ignorance, common to fundamentalist believers and atheists alike, which disregards  the mystery of the connection between God Unseen and the observable life of the world. By contrast, Jesus himself compels us to ‘read the signs of the times’ in creation, which, I believe, places scientific observation very high up in the stakes for spiritual reflection.

To the rainbow...

Perhaps a rainbow of sorts was cast by the refraction of vapour at the Big Bang. The fleeting rainbow is in that sense, nonetheless, eternal. And yet in humanity’s encounter with creation, something different happens. We see, we ponder, we are inspired. The momentary encounter with eternal reality is a context for communion, for communication. The world is interactive; the Covenant, open-ended.

And God?  Both in the wonderful and the terrible things of creation, God is not ... saying ... nothing.

Though God’s message to one creature may differ from that for another.

The rainbow is not only for us, but for every creature.

And in these neglected final verses of Mark’s Gospel, dating, perhaps from the second century of the church, it is the Good News of Christ which is also for every creature, all Creation.

In the Genesis story, God looks to a pre-existent permanent aspect of Creation ( the rainbow) to remind Godself of God’s open-ended relationship and commitment to the safety of the world. Safe enough? it might look that way. But complacency is not an appropriate response to grace.

I have a colleague in ministry who regards warnings of climate chaos as betrayal of faith in God’s promise not, by means of rising water, to bring to an end the world as we know it. Perhaps that is a failure or refusal to distinguish between the given laws of Creation, and the guidelines of our open-ended relationship with it.

On that note, I would like to correct an impression I was given as a child: The story whose conclusion begins in the reading we heard from Genesis is not the origin of the rainbow. God does not sneak off to the workshop with wood and string and unveil a new artifact, but rather relocates what is already in the divine armoury, with awe, with wonder, and not without implications. With the awesome rainbow experience come laws, and possibilities.

In 2004, after some years of a faith supported by a cuddly view of the inspiring beauties of creation, and not particularly mindful of the everyday truth that Creation wants to kill me, I was due to preach in a local church when the tsunami in the Indian Ocean brutally wiped out , perhaps 8000 people and made many more homeless. Their world had come to an end by rising waters. It happens. Promise notwithstanding.

At that time, perhaps the people around the world who contributed twelve billion dollars in the relief effort heard God’s voice on behalf of those affected. They heard not an explanation, nor an answer, nor a wiping away of terrible things, but an appeal to play your part.

In climate crisis today, as the voice of the earth cries out to God, God is neither saying nothing, nor speaking just to us. To the extent that we are addressed, we won’t get the whole story, but something ‘through a glass darkly. Something. If we but take notice.

In a smaller scale story of floods and destruction, the key difference between the owners of the houses on sand and on rock, is that the one who survived the unavoidable flood was the one who took notice of the conditions, and acted accordingly. In the teaching of Jesus, taking notice of Creation and of Christ, are associated.

Set that twelve billion of tsunami aid alongside the at least 600 billion ( possibly 3 trillion) that the United States alone [Reuters figures] has since spent on war in Iraq, and you might wonder what human beings are saying to God. Or what’s being said on your behalf.

If God looks to Creation to be re-minded of the Covenant, what does God see?

What is the environmental cost of war, that most exponentially wasteful of all human activities, to our fellow creatures?

Back to the rainbow:

A rainbow is a phenomenon of the refraction of light, and its curving is due to different vibrations of light particles

A rainbow leaves behind it no trace, no mark, other than in the memories of the creatures who see it. A rainbow is not a living creature, though it exists according to the same laws which enable life to be.

But from the beginning of life -creatures do make their mark on the world around them. Creatures like us impact the fragility of the otherwise open-ended covenant

Most of the time, as with footprints in the sand, these marks are temporary. Footprints show us where we have been. And what we were doing when we were there. Environmentalists have co-opted the idea of carbon footprint. For our footsteps lie heavy on the earth. Do we take notice? Is God part of this conversation?

And yet, perhaps the mark of an encounter with the divine in Creation is that something changes. That your path and your direction evolve. Whether it’s a matter of ‘getting high’ on the mountains, or coming face to face with a desperate need for climate justice. “After is not the same as “before”.  On the pulpit in Iona Abbey:

“My Word shall not return to me empty” [Isaiah 55:11]

It may be fear, it may be rapture, it may be intellectual insight. But an encounter with God will not be unproductive, and I believe I could argue with anyone who maintains it is.

“I will lift up my eyes to the hills”, sings the Psalmist.

And it’s a point of contention between scholars and preachers as to whether the hills in question are the scary domain of demons, because in those days no one in their right mind would have wasted their time going up there... or as for us, almost self-evidently a blessing.

When I have the chance, I myself seek out the mountains for spiritual refreshment. National parks and wilderness areas are preserved, in our world, primarily because of their utility to human beings.

 How do we get across that they have a worth, a holiness, which makes measurable human value all but irrelevant.

If you’ve been up high, you get to that point where you realise your perspective, in every sense of the word, has been transformed. It isn’t just that things look different from a different angle. At a different altitude, you think differently.

I will lift up my eyes to the hills, ..

In Psalm 121, the next line is this:

.. where shall my help come from?

The awe - and I think the awe is indisputable - the awe is not experienced in isolation to the context of those it inspires.

Even the fly on the wall is part of the picture.

Nor does the double-take experience have to be on a mountainous scale.

Last week on Aberlady beach, just north of here, I was watching a curlew, which had just been poking into the sand looking for food, and there was something really odd about its beak. it seemed to be curling upwards, like beaks don’t do. Now, if I had a bit of fun with photoshop, I could mess round with the rather rigid beak of the oystercatcher.

[And note in passing, that for me, the oystercatcher argument for the existence of God is quite as convincing as the ontological, the teleological and the cosmological of classical theology and philosophy.]

But back to the curlew. And my double take . Looking through the long lens of my camera, something was not quite as it ought to be. I was able to examine my photographs. They didn’t make sense. Was it an optical illusion?

I needed another authority; luckily ornithologists publish plenty online. And apparently curlews are indeed specially gifted with flexible maxillae. Distal rhynchokinesis”... it said in the website!.

Look to the birds..Said Jesus.... how much more....

The Church of Scotland, in its eagerness to avoid the use of crosses, long ago adopted a logo symbolic of just such a double-take: namely the bush that burned without being consumed. There have been some ridiculous attempts over the years to explain this way. Random bursts of natural gas, and goodness knows what! Moses was the one who notices something different, and turned aside. And in that willingness to re examine what he thought he saw, he became the one to meet God in Creation. the Ultimate Second Opinion.

I began to think about this sermon during the recent and widespread wildfires, which have been widely identified as a sign of climate change. I imagined Moses looking into a raging bush fire, where just one bush in the midst of it all, was not being burned up.

A totally unexpected sign of hope, as we need hope, without complacency, that God will choose to be God-with-us, guiding and guarding, in the challenging years now ahead of us. That we may indeed be bringers of Good. News. To. Every. Creature.

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