You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
When Joni Mitchell wrote that line, and sang it in 1970 in the song Big Yellow Taxi she probably wasn’t thinking of St Andrews University. But it’s a feeling you may be sharing. What just happened? A moment ago you arrived as a fresher, or at the start of a Masters, and now you’re nearly done. Maybe just a dissertation to write. Maybe just a graduation ceremony to go. Suddenly, all the hallmarks of your time as a student here are about to disappear from your life. The cobbled streets, the looming cathedral, buskers outside Nando’s, the statue of Hamish, the sound of the waves on the West Sands, the deep sharing of your soul with a friend, the garlicky aromas from Tanon, making the seminar only 5 minutes late, the all-nighter, the strange febrile aggressively silent atmosphere of the top two floors of the Library, that first kiss in 601, the cherry blossom, wild garlic on the Lade Braes, the queues at Tesco, your clean, spacious, warm flat, the sound of the Chapel Choir lifting your spirit into the presence of God.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
But maybe you’re already thinking not only of leaving St Andrews, but what the world you’re entering is like. Joni Mitchell was thinking about the environment when she wrote the song.
They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.
They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
What I want to explore today, in this final sermon of the semester, is a Christian approach to the environment emergency, to the climate crisis, to the world all of us, including students and graduates, are responsible for.
I don’t think I’ve ever preached on these subjects, nor have I heard a sermon on them in this Chapel. And yet we have known how serious it is for years. We’ve known it, but we haven’t believed it. Joni Mitchell released the song in 1970, the year I was born. About 15 years later, at an assembly at school, I remember learning for the first time about the greenhouse effect and global warming. The speaker was clear. This would change everything. At University in 1990 I read Our Common Future, produced by the UN, which laid out how the only possible way forward was if development was sustainable. I remember being inspired by this and saying to friends that every government department should be part of the Environment Ministry. It was more important than everything. I voted for the Green Party.
Then what happened? I went by plane to work abroad. I bought a car. I spent a month a year travelling. I ate a lot of meat. I lived in a warm house. I bought a lot of plastic. I threw a lot of stuff into landfill. I lived. And so, pretty much, have all of us. We knew our environment was changing fast. But we didn’t believe it.
One place I travelled, by plane, was Jordan. I climbed Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, and saw the view which the Lord showed Moses, as we heard in our Old Testament reading. The Promised Land, plains and palm-trees, city and desert, the ochre land and the blue line of the Mediterranean to the west. The Lord promised the land to the descendants of Abraham. And, Christians believe, God promises the world to us: we human beings have evolved within the eco-systems of the world, we are part of this natural world, of mountains and plains, soil and plants, animals and fish, water and temperature, food and photosynthesis. It’s a wonderful world.
What a promise! What a responsibility! And what a story! Humanity has multiplied, until we are over 7 billion people, and moving towards 11 billion. We have spread throughout the promised land of planet Earth. We have exploited nature’s resources, exhausted its soil, mined its minerals, burnt its carbon, drunk its water, cut down its forests, poured out our waste, polluted its air, plasticked its seas, farmed our fellow-animals in factories, built on the land, and heated everything up.
We know what this means. Melting ice. Rising sea-levels. Rising sea-temperatures. Rising air temperatures. Repeated wildfires. More powerful storms. Longer, deeper droughts. Bigger deserts. Rapid increase of species extinction. Fewer bugs, fewer bees, fewer birds, fewer beasts. Not enough water. Near-constant conflict and war in the margins of the desert in Africa, Arabia and the Middle East.
And, I am afraid, Christianity has been complicit. Bad theology has emphasised human dominion over nature, mastery over creation, assuming the role of the divine. We’ve seen ourselves as distinct from tree-frogs and tigers, cedars and salmon, rather than as sharing a community of creation. We’ve not cared about this world, because we’ve only believed in life after death. If the Christian faith is about escaping the body, escaping the earthly, getting to heaven – who cares about the earth?
The real problem is that we got heaven wrong. Images in scripture and theology of the life of the world to come should not be seen as diminishing the importance of this world. Rather, these visions help to inspire us for this life, this world, these bodies we have. The pictures show us what God’s realm may be like, and so ask us to imagine what it could be like in this world if we took God seriously, if we took this world seriously.
The Book of Revelation, the final book in the Bible, finishes with another view from a mountain-top. It’s a vision of heaven, depicted as a holy city, a new Jerusalem. But this is a city not built on top of the soil, exploiting and polluting it. Instead, in the midst of it is a river – the river of the water of life. Around it are trees, bearing fruit, and with leaves which are for healing. The river flows from God and from the risen Jesus. This is an image of the community of creation, in which human beings with our city, our civilization, is part of nature, in harmony with non-human creation, reconciled with the whole cosmos, fertile, nourishing, unpolluted, healing.
And so this is a vision to inspire us for this world, for our lives in the here and now, for St Andrews and the world we go into from here. God’s promised land is not endlessly delayed into life beyond death. God does not promise the replacement of this world, but its renewal, a renewal already begun in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a renewal ongoing by the work of the Holy Spirit. God invites us, then, to share in this renewal.
I like the word invites. But today, I wonder. Given the power we have as human beings, the power we have used in spreading, extracting, and heating the world, perhaps God does more than invite us to share in its renewal. Perhaps he urges or instructs us. Perhaps he commands us.
If so, it’s a command that we are currently doing all we can to ignore, as individuals, communities, countries and an international society. Of course we are beginning to make adjustments to at least a 1.5C rise in temperatures. But these adjustments are much easier for the wealthy, building our flood defences, ensuring we have adequate water, living far away from Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Ocean.
But are we making decisions at the highest levels to limit the climate change? Are we making sacrifices now for the sake of those who will inherit this promised land? It’s patchy at best. The Scottish Government’s target of Scotland being carbon-neutral by 2050 is significant, but as India, China and others continue to grow, will it be mirrored elsewhere? I confess that I think one reason I haven’t preached on these subjects before is because I find it dispiriting. Like Moses, I look upon the promised land, but I rarely see how we can enter it. All I see is where we are now, a land of greed, selfishness, apathy, indecision and cowardice. After all, I knew the issues 30 years ago – they have not changed. But I changed, and lost that passion. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t preached on this – I was avoiding my disappointment with myself.
So what can we do here? Well, Sam and I have been approached by a student who wants to make a difference. Together we are considering the Chaplaincy becoming an eco-congregation, exploring environmental issues more deeply in our discussion group Thinking Allowed, and putting resources into caring, campaigning and committing ourselves to action. That’s something.
But if you are leaving St Andrews this year, what about you? Will you do more than gaze on a promised land from Pisgah? Will you enter it? Will you take your faith with utter seriousness? Will you be inspired by the vision of a renewed creation, a community we humans share with the rest of nature? Will you make the sacrifices your elders have not? Will you re-wild the parking lots? Will you plant trees outside the tree-museum? Will you renew the Paradise which our Creator made, our Redeemer promised, and to which the Spirit guides us? And if you won’t, who will?
Have a great summer. Have a great future. And I hope that wherever we are, we are able to give thanks for all we have been given, from the loving hand of our Maker.
Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5