Harvest Festival Address and Coal
by Revd Peter Grimwood
For a number of years I was a minister in County Durham and the chapels I served were located in what are known even today as “pit villages”. That is to say the entire economy of each place rested on one thing; coal mining. The mines had been closed but the memories lingered. If I had not understood before what an absent presence was I soon learned in Blackhall and Easington.
Every year we celebrated Harvest Festival and the usual displays were organised but with one significant difference. At the centre of every display there was always placed a large lump of coal. For it was coal that had sustained the people, put food on the table and of course the burning of coal had created the electricity that gave them and gives us a good life. So I had no difficulty with this custom, indeed I strongly affirmed it.
But now I wonder. Coal is part of the good earth like oil and gas and like the fruits of the soil it makes our life possible. And that life like the oil, the gas, the coal and the fruits of the earth is a gift of God. All this is part of God’s creation and creation is in its way a community in which each part is connected to every other part. And this is where my disquiet comes in.
If we consume too much of these fossil fuels and fill the atmosphere with carbon dioxide the consequences will be grave. Global warming already a problem will speed up with dreadful consequences for us and our descendants. The science seems clear enough. Whilst we might continue to place coal, oil or even gas on the harvest display we need a emphasis on the community of all created things, their interdependence and our responsibility to this community of which we are a part and to the one who called all these things including ourselves into being.
This is where the thinking and the prayers of Francis of Assisi are so helpful and especially his canticle of the creatures. Here the sun and wind is spoken of as brother, the earth as mother and water as sister. This is not just sentimentality; it’s a powerful reminder that all created things are connected to each other and to their creator-God. We tend to imagine that here we are and over there is the created order given to us to enjoy. Thanksgiving to the creator is always right but never outside the community of all the created.
It is noteworthy that Francis uses the terms brother and sister-that is to say our brothers and sisters. He does not refer to humankind as a universal wise aunt or uncle nor to any dominant father figure. These brothers and sisters wind and sun and the earth our mother have their vocations under the creative direction of God and we have to place our trust in them in joyful and thankful humility. This is a reminder to us of our own vocations: to exercise care towards the material world rather than simply abuse, oppress and exploit it.
Francis didn’t just talk the talk he walked the walk as well. His affirmation of the created order should be seen in the context of the physical suffering he underwent prior to his death at the age of 42. Hard to say what his diseases were: malaria, tuberculosis, various fevers and post traumatic stress disorder have all been mentioned. Although not really a very good patient he welcomed sister death with humility and joy and returned to the earth which had given him birth.
The other aspect of Francis that is important here is his affirmation of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus present in the bread and wine: gifts of God and the work of human hands- is himself the hope of all creation and the sign of the new creation that is coming to be. There is much that is disordered and disarranged about the created order as we know from experience. But through Jesus a new world is coming to be not just for us but for all God’s creatures. Truly Jesus is God’s makeover for the world.
What we are called to do is to follow Jesus. Of course Jesus didn’t know then what we and he know now about the environment. He never saw coal burning in a grate and he didn’t know about the uses to which petroleum and gas might be put. I don’t think that matters. He and we who are his people know now and we know we need to respond. In the risen Jesus we can see that the new creation can renew the whole world. That’s a very exciting and also a very hopeful message but it suggests to me that Christ’s body in the world will have much to do. First things first though and what we need to do first is to do what the New Testament asks us to do. See and bear witness that the Father has sent his son to be the saviour of the world.