All Saints 2011 ~ The Big Perspective
Revelation 7.9-17; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12
Tomorrow - October 31st - will see the birth of the 7 billionth person on this planet - most likely it seems, in Utar Pradesh in India. It is perhaps ironic - or apt - however you see it - that as we commemorate the consecutive festivals of All Saints and All Souls - the festivals of the heavenly living and the worldly dead - as we celebrate these - the numerical magnitude of the earthly living reaches a number we cannot sensibly imagine. 10,000 new souls are born each hour. 10,000 more mouths to feed - ten-thousand-fold more waste. Although demographers tell us not to panic - the world can cope with this, and if you put everyone in the world in the same place, they would only occupy Texas. Between 1820, at the dawn of the industrial age, and 2008, when the world economy entered recession, economic output per person increased elevenfold. The average number of children per woman is now about 2.5 but it was 5 in 1950. The world's population is growing at 11% a year, which is actually half what it was in the 1960’s. However, a billion people - a seventh of the world’s population - go hungry: not because the planet can’t yield enough food. Indeed not - about half of the food produced worldwide ends up wasted, either rotting in the fields, the markets or the fridge. We could feed 7, 8 or 9 billion, if we chose to do so.
And yet, as our numbers increase, other species decrease. It is widely accepted that there have been five major extinction periods in planetary history and that we are perhaps bringing about the sixth - a humanly-induced mass extinction. First there was the Ordovician-Silurian extinction of about 440 million years ago, probably linked to an ice age. Then around 364 million years ago the late Devonian extinction took place. We can’t be sure, but again, glaciation looks like the culprit. 251 million years ago, known as the Great Dying, ninety per cent of the world's species died out in the Permian-Triassic extinction. The fourth mass extinction is known as the Triassic-Jurassic extinction, which, 200 million years ago, wiped out half of the species of the world, but actually allowed the dinosaurs to thrive, and preceded the breaking up of what was then a single land mass on the planet, known to us as Pangea. And then, the most recent catastrophe, the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction of 65 million years ago, did both for the dinosaurs and for ammonites. The most likely theory is that earth was hit by a meteorite causing repercussions that cleared a way for mammals like us to begin to flourish.
And now, we live in the Holocene period, the period of humanity, and it may well be that a Holocene mass extinction is already occurring (these things take a few million years at a time, of course). In our Holocene period we have presided over the extinction not only of woolly mammoths, but of dodos and auks. If one adds up all of this, it is not hard to see how it is now thought that 99% of all documented species are now extinct.
Clearly, with 7 billion of us, we are the dominant species. But we are big animals and we consume huge resources and command, destroy and reshape our environment drastically.
33% - a third of the world’s population are Christian. And we are all saints. That’s a lot of us. 50.4% of people are men - there are slightly more men than women alive today. But it is nevertheless a remarkable biological miracle that this should be so over such a vast sample. 19% of the world’s population lives in China, and the average age of the average world citizen is 29 years old. Half of us live in cities, although three quarters of us do not have access to the internet. The average income per capita in the world is £6377. Yet a third of city dwellers live in slums, 1 in 8 is undernourished, and a third of the people in the world do not have a toilet to go to.
It all puts a pretty weird perspective on the catalogue of ideological, theological, political and practical mistakes that have been made inside and outside of St Paul’s Cathedral this week, I can tell you!
For I think that we need to view both what Lord Carey rightly called the ‘debacle’ at St Paul’s, and the idea of Christian sainthood, from the wider, deeper, eternal and earthly perspective of the fact that we are now 7 billion souls on earth, and many many more in heaven. 7 billion is 6.5% of all the 108 billion people that have ever lived. So perspective is what we need - more specifically, a saintly perspective - and it is something we easily forget.
And yet, it is a trite truism to say that world looks very different to a Canon of St Paul’s than to a slum dweller in India. Although both loathe and benefit from capitalism or whatever you want to call it. The first ever Indian Grand Prix is taking place right now - a supreme irony that for many in India the idea of hosting a Grand Prix - of celebrating speed and petrol should be a mark of entry into a civilized capitalist arena. Yet Formula One racing epitomes the excesses of greed and of planetary carelessness. Meanwhile, down the road the seven billionth person is born. That’s where the protesters should be.
Meanwhille anti-capitalist protesters with their ipads standing in the queue in Starbucks, get maligned for having iphones and cappuccinos, by people who are so close to them in outlook, culture and wealth. Such spats are so far off the reality scale that a nonsense is made of everyone involved. What does St Paul’s Cathedral and its campsite look like from outer space I wonder?
And the making of iPhones and coffee production have far bigger an impact on the world’s economy than a few bonuses. 4 million iPhones were sold on the most recent launch day, and the world coffee market is worth $19 billion in the USA alone. About 20 million people are employed - some fairer than others to be sure - in the world's coffee economy. Only oil exceeds the world’s coffee market in size and scale. We drink 22 gallons of it each, a year. Remember that in the Hall afterwards: it’s a drop in the Ocean - the Ocean of coffee!
And remember that much as we might like coffee and playing with Apple products - I don’t need either - and nor do you. But the world would literally be a poorer place with them.
Perspective is hard to achieve, especially if you are within the system that you are seeking to criticize or protest about. That’s why any engagement between our National Cathedral and cappucino-swigging protesters was doomed to be a debacle from which no-one can emerge gracefully or respectably. If the seven billionth person to be born, or the man displaced from his home by the arrival of the Grand Prix had turned up to protest outside a location where the people inside actually had some power, then it might have been different. Perhaps. Maybe. Hardly.
It all makes us all feel like very small players in the great rumbling world economy, of which we, the inhabitants of the British Isles are some of the greatest beneficiaries. Even if China is going to bale out Europe. And yet, I do not stand here, and you do not sit there, first and foremost as inhabitants of the British Isles. Nor as citizens of London, the UK or Europe. No we sit and stand here as Christians.
We sit and stand here as citizens of the heavenly city. The City of God, where saints and angels worship constantly before the throne. The everlasting city that is our hope and our home here and hereafter. We are part of that great multitude that no-one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. And whatever happens, the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be our shepherd, guiding us to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Whatever we have seen, whatever we have tried to achieve - it all has to be viewed - to be understood - in the perspective of the divine realm - the realm of saints and angels and of Christ himself. Otherwise it is meaningless: sound and fury signifying nothing: a tale told by an idiot, as Shakespeare would say.
Certainly the peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, and will take their place in the heavenly throng. And our readings remind us that however insignificant we may feel, either in our very existence as human beings out of 108 billion and still counting; or as campaigners for justice, mercy and truth, here, there or everywhere - how little we may feel - we are not insignificant to God and our efforts are not inconsequential. Far from it - and on this All Saints’ Day we remind ourselves of our place and role in the heavenly city. And this is the perspective from which to view not only this week’s shenanigans at St Paul’s, but the whole of creation and the history of our rather small, rocky planet. This is the perspective we need. The perspective our nation and world needs to remember not to forget.
For we are not a drop in the ocean, of coffee or of anything else, no matter how it may seem. No, we are citizens of heaven, the limitless realm of heaven, and we know that as children of God, when all things are revealed, we shall see him as he is, and in this hope we must continue to love, and pray and protest - to live and move and have our being.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 30/10/11