Sunday 12 November 2023 Third before Advent, Trinity 23, Thirty-second in Ordinary time, Proper 27
The eleventh hour
Wisdom 6.12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Context: Sunday Mass in the main parish in a country town which is also a commuter hub; a congregation with a wide range of ages
Aim: to help hearers to understand that what governs our lives is not ‘facts’ but the meanings we attach to them and the values we choose to live by
In some cases, the biblical motif of the ‘eleventh hour’ is a benign concept. John Ruskin depicted the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16), with the last comers paid the same as those who worked all day, as economics with a human face. It was Kingdom values, rather than the impersonal economics of laissez-faire. But in our day news summaries of successive Climate Change Conferences of Parties (COPs) have used it to describe where we have got to in the climate crisis, as we approach the ‘tipping point’ of midnight. As each conference largely disappointed expectations, but at the last minute concocted a shred of agreed commitment, we described our situation in terms of seconds before the midnight hour.
It is almost exactly two years since Professor Carmody Grey delivered the Hook lecture in Leeds, with the title ‘What do we want to Sustain? Thinking about Faith and The Climate’. Evidence of her passion for the environment was the fact that she travelled from Switzerland by train. COP26, was due to begin in Glasgow later the same month, November 2021.
‘NOT IN THE STARS BUT IN OURSELVES’
In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Cassius explains: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves.’ Likewise, Professor Grey told her own environmental constituency that they had made a fundamental error. For decades they tried to give the public the facts, the scientific data on climate change. By 1979 we knew substantially what we now know about the situation. Yet since that year, collectively we have done more damage to the planet than in all the rest of human history. Knowledge had not produced motivation to change lifestyle. The root of the problem lies elsewhere. Humans are capable of rational thinking, but it is not their primary mode. They are more creatures of love than truth. So, they will tend to believe what the significant people in their lives believe and simply won’t see the other viewpoint. Facts on their own don’t gain an audience, it is only facts with meanings.
That is what we used to call moral reasoning: weighing up which respective facts have most value. But that forum is weakly represented in culture today. However, faith traditions do understand this. Simply knowing you are suffering will not move me to help you, unless I have been trained to see the suffering of others as an important call on me. This could describe ‘Wisdom’ in the first reading. Faiths exist to train us in values from childhood (and Professor Grey suggested, ‘adults are really just grown children’). They are there to expand our circle of concern. There are vestiges in the Bible of tribal gods, but the thrust of the canon is to tell us there is one God, and we are called to become one community.
So, Professor Grey’s recipe is that we learn to see ourselves as members of the one, human community. And that we learn to value that reality enough to want to sustain it. We don’t lack love for nature and the environment, it is ourselves and our future we don’t care about sufficiently.
CRISES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Life doesn’t always proceed according to our, or the virgins’/bridesmaids’ calculations. The Lord’s coming is delayed. They had all been happy to accept the invitation, but not all of them valued it enough to take extra oil.
With all our technology for predicting events nowadays, from the weather to the stockmarket, we can still be caught out. If 2020 may be remembered as the year of Covid, for 2022 it would be the war in Ukraine. In both cases there was data enough to suggest those outcomes, but many countries were still taken by surprise.
It could be said that these unforeseen events will further distract us from the greater but longer-term issue of climate change. But Pope Francis’ Laudato Si (2015) was clear that these issues are interrelated: how we treat other persons, especially the most vulnerable, will go along with how we treat other creatures and the natural world.
Looking around Leeds Minster at the Remembrance tributes to those who died in the wars of the twentieth century, Professor Grey dwelt on the extraordinary singleness of purpose in the Second World War, by which the United Kingdom harnessed its entire economic effort to one thing: ‘what we stood for as a people.’ What might we be prepared to sacrifice of our lifestyles, as they did their lives, for a truly human future?
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