The Last Sunday after Trinity - Choral Eucharist
The Rev'd Michael Rawson, Sub Dean and Canon Pastor
I wonder what your reaction has been to the arrival of Gaia at the Cathedral? Although I had heard the experiences of other cathedrals and individuals I don’t think I was quite ready for the profound effect it has had on me or the vast majority of those coming to experience her.
At the launch event to welcome Gaia to the Cathedral there was a video message from the artist and creator, Luke Jerram. He talked about the ‘overview effect’ which is a common experience of astronauts seeing our planet, our fragile island home, from this perspective for the first time. It gave them a sense of awe for the earth, the insignificance of humanity and a feeling of the interconnectedness of all life, urging them to take care of our wonderful environment. Since the pandemic and the social and economic effects emanating from it, together with the war in Ukraine humanity has rediscovered afresh our interdependence and need for one another; that events in one part of the globe can radically affect people throughout the world. We are not a self-sufficient island.
Psalm 84 which has just been sung exclaims, ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.’ Sitting here in the Cathedral and watching the world gently revolving on its axis calls to mind the magnificence of God’s creation and this world that God has entrusted to us to steward for future generations. I don’t know about you but there is something awe inspiring about the vastness of the globe and yet the fragility of our eco system. And yet we have inflicted so much damage on it through our greed to exploit the world’s resources which makes me feel utterly insignificant and calls out of me repentance and a need to amend and renew my relationship with the earth.
It’s been a real joy to speak with visitors, perhaps coming into the Cathedral for the first time and to hear their experiences and reaction to Gaia. Someone told me they were ‘a proper heathen’ and Christianity made no sense to her. I replied that everyone is welcome here at the Cathedral whatever their beliefs and way of life. And so we got talking about the feelings of awe and wonder that Gaia inspired, as well as the need for sorrow and amendment of life for the wrongs we have inflicted on our planet. My companion was really taken by this idea of turning around, of repentance and making amends. She felt that it was something that we have lost as a nation and there was a real need to reclaim it. Perhaps what has been going on down the river at the Palace of Westminster over recent weeks points to a similar experience and the need for an acknowledgement of sorrow for past wrongs and the desire for a fresh start.
We hear of this in this morning’s gospel reading. Here are two men, two stereotypes of humanity if you like. There is the Pharisee, the religious person who acknowledges the sovereignty of God over the world. He is generous in his giving to others and is faithful in following God’s law. This is all undermined though because he is unable to recognise his dependence upon God and benchmarks himself against others. He lacks self-knowledge, relies on his own sufficiency and doesn’t need God or anyone else for that matter. Contrast him with the tax collector who is despised by his neighbours and everyone in his town for he is a collaborator with the hated occupying Roman forces. No one has any time for him for he is crooked and enforces the tax on the local population. He stands in the shadows of the temple and cannot even raise his eyes to heaven. He throws himself on the mercy of God, for he is both candid and aware of his own faults and failings. He cannot rely on himself and needs the mercy and forgiveness of God.
I wonder where you see yourself in the story, with whom do you identify? I suspect that many of us will see traits of ourselves in both characters at some periods in our lives for each of us is made up of light and shadow. We might imagine that because we come to worship here week by week and day by day, giving generously to charities and to the church, of looking after the needs of others that we somehow are earning our place in heaven and we have something to boast about. Surely we will be ahead of those who walk the dog or wash the car on a Sunday morning or feel that another person’s problems are precisely that? Sometimes it is a crisis, a moment of decision and judgment which brings us to our senses and we respond with humility and an openness to change and turn around. This tells us much about our God of mercy, hope and healing, incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ than it does about ourselves. It is not so much about what we can do, as throwing ourselves into the everlasting arms of divine mercy. Our society and culture prides itself on the status and achievements of the individual, placing it on the pedestal of celebrity status which we then seek to destroy with the pointing finger. We expect standards of behaviour in others that we would not practise ourselves. In this morning’s parable Jesus gives us an alternative way of living which is not self-reliant or centred on human achievement but rather on our dependence upon God and one another. He points us away from trusting in ourselves towards trust in the creator of the universe.
Going back to my conversation under Gaia earlier this week with ‘the proper heathen’. We have been warned about climate change for many years but as a human race we have believed that we know better and that we have all the time in the world to do whatever we want, plundering the resources of the earth for our own benefit. The events of recent years with soaring temperatures in this country, of wildfires here and across the globe, of devastating droughts and flooding, of oceans polluted with plastics and waste all point to a need for repentance and turning around, of acknowledging our own share in the despoiling of our planet and the need for action now, today, for tomorrow will be too late.
The presence of Gaia in our midst reminds us both of the magnificence of God’s good creation but also our need to cherish, safeguard and share the bounty that God has bestowed upon us.
I wonder what our response will be?