Sermon October 31st ~ Mark 12:28-34 Love and COP26 Rev. Betsy Hogan
Here's a thing I enjoy. Sometimes, when Jesus is asked a question, say by a bystanding scribe, who expects him to ante up in response with some original material – a take or an insight or even a way of putting things into words that's never been heard before --
Sometimes, Jesus doesn't do anything of the sort. Sometimes, in fact, Jesus just casts around in his mind for words he's already read somewhere. Words already written down. Someone else's material, in fact, and clearly identified as such.
Often with a tiny bit of adaptation, to be sure... Just enough to count as evidence of effort and acknowledgement of accountability for what's usually expected of him. Which is original material. And not just using someone else's words.
He doesn't point that that's what he's doing here, Jesus, just using someone else's words, in the passage we just heard from Mark's gospel – but that might just be because he really didn't need to.
Because when that bystanding scribe asked him "Teacher, what is the first commandment" he must surely have known that when the scribe heard his answer, he'd have recognized immediately that it wasn't original material.
Adapted slightly, yes – these words of Moses quoted verbatim from the book of Deuteronomy, Jesus DOES adapt them a tiny bit – "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength AND MIND" –
But it's not original material. And every Jewish person, quite apart from an educated scribe, would recognize it as essentially a direct quote. But obviously Jesus is okay with that! Because sometimes it doesn't NEED to be original material. Adapt it for context or style, sure, if you want to. But when what's needed has already been said, already been written, already exists, why not just use it?
It's exactly what Jesus does here with the bystanding scribe and his question. Which I kind of enjoy. Not only because it emphasizes the degree to which the teachings of Christianity are already all found in the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures that long preceded them...
But also because there are times when what I want to say and what I think's needed has actually already been said. And heard, and written down, and read.
And although I too might feel compelled to exercise a bit of artistic adaptation here and there, with a nod to Jesus and his evocative addition of the notion of loving God with all our mind as well, intellectual beings that we are... the fact is, I appreciate the implicit permission offered in this passage to say, now and then, when beginning a sermon, that here instead are some pieces of a sermon that someone else wrote.
Because they already said all the things I'd say. And without necessarily even meaning to, they EVEN did so in a way that arises out of this very same Love God and Love Your Neighbour gospel passage that I would have.
And besides all that, they're also a bishop! Which I know we're not meant to be automatically impressed by bishops particularly, in the United Church...
But just as Jesus is wise enough bytimes to cede the field to Moses on the basis that he's Moses, I'm quite prepared in this particular instance to take as a given the extra helping of insightful gravitas that generally seems to be expected, when someone gets to be a bishop.
And to say, when beginning a sermon, that here instead are some pieces of a sermon that this bishop wrote. Because I think she already said what's needed.
The bishop in question is Bishop Olivia Graham, Anglican bishop of Reading in the diocese of Oxford in the UK. And she preached this sermon at a service of the Young Christian Climate Network this past summer, as the youth were preparing for Christian witness at the COP26 meeting that begins today in Glasgow.
She called her sermon "All This Must Change". And she begins like this:
My generation (she was born in 1956) has mucked this up badly. In sorrow we stand alongside the younger ones to witness together to the damage done, and to work for climate justice and a more sustainable way of living.
We stand alongside those who are already bearing the cost of climate change, whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed, while they contributed very little to the root causes. And we're motivated by love – for God, for our brothers and sisters across the world, and for creation.
We know, with greater clarity every day, that we are heading for more than 1.5 degrees of planetary warming. We know, without a shadow of doubt, that this is part and parcel of a more vast biodiversity crisis. The numbers tell their own story:
In the last half century, about 50% the world’s animals have been lost. Of all the mammals left on Earth, only 4% are wild mammals, 36% are humans, and a whopping 60% now are livestock. 70% of all birds on the planet are now poultry. Insects have declined by 75%. Three quarters of the crop types we grow rely on insect pollination.
These numbers present a stark picture of the effect we are having on the web of life which sustains us and provides for our needs. Ecosystem collapse and climate change are a real and present threat to our continuation as a species.
So we know the crucial importance of the COP26. It simply can't afford to fail. And yet one of the greatest stumbling blocks to getting global agreement is the turning of ambition into firm commitment.
The issue of climate action financing is crucial. Financing for impoverished countries, not only so that they can meet the costs of mitigation and adaptation, but also to pay for the loss and damage they're already experiencing as a result of climate change.
Because these countries didn't develop their economies as we did, using vast quantities of fossil fuels. And so they're now still trying to develop their economies and raise the standards of living for their populations, but they simply don’t have the economic resources to pay for green development, or for the loss and damage caused by decades of inaction.
So without firm commitments to this financing, not only will the losses mount up, the damage get worse, and the costs rise, but there'll be no political goodwill from these countries when it comes to international agreements on carbon emissions. How can there be, when alternatives are out of reach? So it's essential that funding come from countries like ours that have accumulated wealth through polluting activities, not from those already struggling.
Because our Bible paints a picture of a God who is very very keen on our love for God and our love for neighbour being firstly, vividly, explicitly expressed in justice for the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable, the stranger and the refugee.
And the repercussions of climate change simply aren't evenly spread. According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the repercussions of heat and drought and flash flooding and pollution aren't just affecting different regions of the world differently, but are disproportionally worse for those who are poor, for those who are disabled, and for women and the elderly and children.
(And I would just add here that the presenting issues aren't just lack of food or lack of fresh water or having to deal with weather catastrophes. The presenting issues are also things like the mass migration of refugees that's already putting pressure on a lot of places, and the simple misery and desperation of unbearable heat that's already exacerbating violence and terrorism and civil unrest.)
So Bishop Olivia continues: Only if we build bridges of human solidarity based in love expressed as justice can we survive as a species. As people of faith, we're called by God into a love of neighbour that simply IS a responsibility to speak up for those who can't and to show their well-being matters in our decisions and our actions and the example we set.
Because at their heart, these are spiritual issues. As Professor Gus Speth, a senior academic UN climate advisor recently said, “I used to think that the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environment problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
But we people of faith DO know how to do that. This is the greatest physical and spiritual challenge humanity has ever faced. But we have the tools and the understanding to go right to heart of it.
Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbour. Be good stewards of the earth and all that is in it. This is the challenge we face, because we recognise in ourselves our own greed, envy, laziness, indifference, and our insatiable desire for more and more stuff.
But it's not just about faithfulness and faithful living. It's about spiritual witness. It's about understanding the need to appeal not just to minds but to souls – where the change, the conversion even, is needed.
Because all this must change. And that, Bishop Olivia concludes, will take a spiritual and cultural transformation. As Christians we can make choices which are good and not bad for the environment; we can consume in moderation. We can ask ourselves, don't we have enough? We can set an example; we can pray and bear witness, we can spread the word and the message and make our voices heard.
And she's right. All this must change. And as Christians, we can do these things. But what I'd add, just picking up on her theme of witness, is that for Christians it's also about more.
It's also about speaking to the urgent need for a deep conversion of our cultural soul – a reorientation of our default to preserving our own self-interest toward instead a love of neighbour so active and passionate that it's ready to give things up. That it's ready to make sacrifices. That it's willing to do the things that are hard – leave the oil in the ground, shell out for the green technology, go through the terrifying shift, buy locally and waste less – simply because that's what loving our neighbour looks like right now.
Our culture needs this conversion. Desperately. WE need this conversion desperately. But the good news is, it's not original material. It's material already in our bones. It's material as old and far older and at the heart of faith expression far more diverse than the faithfulness we ourselves profess.
Love God and Love Your Neighbour. As the great Jewish scholar Hillel put it, everything else is commentary. Amen.