Homily of patriarch Bartholomeow 13.6.2010



By His All Holiness
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
at the Divine Liturgy

in Joensuu June 13, 2010

“Consider the lilies of the field: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matt. 6.28-9)

Even the humblest manifestations of God’s created world, “the lilies of the field,” reveal precious elements of natural and divine beauty. Yet, by overgrazing or deforestation, we have disturbed the balance of our world. Whether through excessive irrigation or urban construction, our selfish ways have led us to ignore plants and undervalue their importance.

Still, plants are the source of life. They help us breathe. This beautiful building is proof that a world without trees is a world without beauty. A world without plants and trees is unimaginable. It is the contradiction of life itself. Plants are also wise teachers and good models. They always turn to the light. They yearn for water. They are sustained with so little. They transform everything they draw from nature, including what appears useless. So what do plants have to do with our faith?

In the symbol of our faith, our Church confesses “one God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Our perspective of the natural environment derives from the fundamental belief that the world was created by a loving God, who “saw everything that was created and, indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1.31) The entire world contains seeds and traces of the living God. All of creation is an invitation to communion with God, who commanded us to “serve and preserve the earth.” (Gen. 2.15)

And if the earth is sacred, then our relationship with the environment is sacramental. In many ways, sin is precisely our refusal to receive the world as a gift from God. In light of this, St. Isaac the Syrian, claims that the aim of the spiritual life is to acquire “a merciful heart, one which burns with love for the whole of creation … for all of God’s creatures.” This is echoed by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov:

Love all God’s creation, every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery.

However, Orthodox theology takes a further step and recognizes that every human action leaves a lasting imprint on the earth. We were recently reminded of this by the devastating oil spill on the Gulf Coast in America. As we have repeatedly emphasized, sins against nature are sins against God.

This is why today’s Gospel reading underlines that, while we should remember “the lilies of the field,” we should “seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness.” (Matt. 6.33) For, human attitudes and behavior toward creation directly reflect human attitudes and behavior toward other people. Ecological consciousness is integrally related to economic justice. Our global economy is outgrowing the capacity of our planet to support it. At stake is not just our ability to sustain life, but to survive.

According to scientists, those most hurt by climate change in years to come will be those who can least afford it. Therefore, the environmental problem of pollution is connected to the social problem of poverty. All ecological activity is ultimately measured by its effect upon the poor. In this light, “seeking the kingdom of God and its righteousness” is inseparably linked to the fundamental criterion of judgment, which we hear in Matthew 25: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of these, the least of my brothers [and sisters], you did it to me.”

In our efforts, then, to preserve the environment, how prepared are we to sacrifice our greed? When will we learn to say: “Enough!”? Will we direct our focus away from what we want to what the world needs? When will we work toward a world with no hunger? How can we leave a lighter footprint on this planet for the sake of future generations? We must choose to care. Otherwise, we do not really care.

This is where Orthodox spirituality differs from contemporary ecology. The difference lies not so much in the desire to protect the natural resources of the world, which should be the priority of all human beings – from political leaders to individual citizens, and surely all believers. The difference lies in how we perceive the end result, namely “the kingdom of God and its righteousness,” which is the starting-point of all our actions.

This means that all creation is properly perceived and preserved through the eyes of the kingdom, which for us Orthodox Christians is revealed in the liturgy. Each believer is called to celebrate life in a way that reflects the words of the Divine Liturgy: “Your own from Your own we offer to You, in all and for all.” The Orthodox Church proclaims a world profoundly imbued by God and a God personally involved in this world. At a time when we have polluted the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, we must restore a sense of liturgical wonder, to respond to matter as to a mystery of ever-increasing sacramental connections.

Such thanksgiving – or eucharist – is a distinctive and definitive characteristic of human beings, who are not merely logical or political beings. We are capable of gratitude and endowed with the power to glorify God for the gift of creation. As eucharistic beings, we can learn to “consider the lilies of the field,” to care for plants and animals, for trees and rivers, for mountains and seas, for all humankind and the whole natural environment. Then, we shall no longer inflict suffering or sorrow, but instead promote hope, peace and life. Then, everything is perceived in the light of the kingdom and assumes its original purpose, as God intended it from creation.

This is why Orthodox Christians are committed environmentalists. For we await not simply a new heaven but also a new earth. This is not a utopian dream; for us, this reality begins from now. It is a pledge that we make to God that we shall embrace all of creation. It is what Orthodox theology calls “inaugurated eschatology,” or the final state already established in the present. “Behold, the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matt. 3.2) The transformation of this world is a living reality for those who “seek first the kingdom of God” and work toward justice and righteousness among human beings and toward protection and preservation of the natural environment.