Greening the Lectionary

A Theological Response to the Ecological Crisis: Reflections, Liturgy, Reviews, Comment.

Romans 7 15-25a

How familiar Paul’s lament “ I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” seems. Anyone who has tried to lose weight, take up an exercise regime, or commit to a schedule of daily Bible reading knows this feeling well. It is one thing deciding to change, even desiring it with our whole heart, it is another doing the actual changing.

Let’s make no mistake about it when it comes to the climate crisis. Change is required. We, as individuals, as a society and as the human race cannot continue as we are. Someone put it like this, “if current trends continue, we won’t.” Radical changes are needed to prevent global disaster and they need to be happening now. 

For anyone trying to change their personal lifestyle Paul’s experience will be familiar. Trying to build sustainable habits isn’t easy. We may well find ourselves struggling to maintain momentum and fall back into our old ways. Change requires effort and energy on our part that sometimes we just don’t have. New habits and patterns of behaviour don’t become second nature overnight, they need to be practiced. Sometimes we will get it wrong, make mistakes or just simply give in to temptation, but this doesn't mean we should stop trying. 

 

Paul, like all Christians, stands between the now and the not yet - a world where Jesus is risen but when God’s kingdom has not been realised in all its fullness. What is true for the world is also true for our lives, the Holy Spirit dwells within us, changing us, pushing us to be Christlike, sometimes we feel we are making progress, but at the same time we are imperfect, fallible people who often get things wrong, sometimes very wrong indeed.

Paul’s life changed beyond all measure on the road to Damascus when he met the Lord Jesus Christ. He is now the apostle to the gentiles, founder of churches, bearer of the good news, but he, like all of us, remains a long way from perfect. Perfectionists please note, we can achieve great things without being perfect. Torn between his desire to live the perfect life pleasing to God and his inability to achieve it, Paul might be tempted to despair except he has the assurance of forgiveness in Christ. No wonder he gives thanks to God.

It is often said that the distinctive contribution Christians make to debate around the climate crisis is hope, but I think forgiveness has its place too. People who are constantly guilty are paralysed into inaction. Expecting individuals or ourselves to adopt the perfect ‘green’ lifestyle is unrealistic. Insisting on perfection is a recipe for giving up or not even trying in the first place.

Part of the reason why 'greening' our lifestyles is so difficult is because we live in a society which still remains predicated on fossil fuel usage. This is why for me being 'Green' isn’t all about individual lifestyle but also campaigning for action at governmental and corporate level. We can’t expect perfection from them either, but we should expect something.

As people who so often “do what we don’t want and do the very thing we hate”, we inevitably walk a very fine line between letting ourselves off the hook and beating ourselves up unnecessarily. There are no easy answers, but celebrate our small successes, be patient with ourselves and each other, work together and pray, opening ourselves and our world to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Trinity 2 Matthew 10.24-39

For those seeking a 'green' perspective on the Gospels, Jesus’ comments about sparrows are fascinating. When Jesus says “Do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows” he is clearly suggesting a hierarchy within creation, and that the human creation is more important to God than the non-human. Those who accuse Christianity of anthropocentrism, of focussing on humanity at the expense of other species, will find plenty of ammunition in these few verses. People matter more than animals. This is will come as challenge to those Christian environmentalists who focus solely on animal welfare issues whilst neglecting social justice. However, I confess to rather liking the idea that as a person I’m more valuable than a sparrow. I’ll leave it up to you to judge whether that’s my arrogance or my common sense talking.

Yet, even the most anthropocentric of us will struggle to use this passage to suggest that the non-human creation doesn’t matter to God - of course it matters to him - after all he made it and he delights in it. Jesus is not saying that sparrows aren’t important to God, in fact, he is suggesting that God values the sparrows far more than people do. God doesn’t ignore them, he doesn’t let their death go unremarked. People may be more valuable to God than other creatures, but that doesn’t mean that other creatures aren’t precious. We can’t read this passage and imagine that God doesn’t know or care when yet another species is rendered extinct or an elephant killed for its ivory, or a lion shot as a trophy. God cares about this and grieves over it.

Nevertheless, the thrust of the passage is not about animal suffering but about human suffering. Specifically, Christians suffering as a consequence of following Jesus. Discipleship is not easy, it may involve persecution, ridicule, physical harm, or painful disagreements with those we love. In the face of this, we may feel God is looking the other way, but the God who knows the number of hairs on our heads and notices the death of a sparrow, remains intimately involved in his creation; we are never alone, never forgotten.

Preachers looking for a green angle might prefer to focus on the costliness of following Jesus, rather than the relative importance of sparrows. Congregations could be urged to pray for those who, even today, are persecuted for their faith, reminded that conversion remains costly even for those who have freedom of religion, (because conversion involves change and change is painful), and asked what costs might be entailed in bearing a faithful witness to the God who values both people and sparrows. 

 

Sunday 14th June Matthew 9:35-10.8

Much has been written following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the fury about the nature of his murder shows no signs of abating. His death has become totemic of the injustices imposed by systemic racism and the fear and indignities that Black people live with on a daily basis, which I, as a white woman can only try to appreciate. There may be those who think that there is no room for addressing such questions of race in what is after all a “Green” blog, but my definition of “Green” has always combined ecological with social justice. Even if this were not the case, racism, and indeed all forms of oppression, are connected with our attitudes towards the planet we share.

The concept of “Environmental Racism” highlights the intersection between ecological devastation and race, as evidenced through such practices as locating hazardous waste dumps near African American neighbourhoods, rather than white ones, or the exporting of waste from developed to developing countries. You may remember Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, highlighting mountains of UK plastic waste dumped in Malaysa. 

Furthermore, systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, such as that that experienced by disabled or LGBTI people or those with the simple misfortune to be born poor, stems from the same system which is systematically destroying the ecological balance of the world.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, James Cone, wrote

“The logic that led to segregation in the Americas, colonization and apartheid in Africa, and the rule of white supremacy throughout the world is the same one that leads to the exploitation of animals and the ravaging of nature. It is a mechanistic and instrumental logic that defines everything and everybody in terms of contribution to the development and defence of white world supremacy.... The fight for justice cannot be segregated but must be integrated with the fight for life in all its forms.”

A system which considers environmental devastation and human lives as collateral damage in the relentless pursuit of power and wealth, which zealously guards a status quo that only delivers for the privileged few, that worships the market and somehow expects it to deliver a moral framework, and that pretends life is a meritocracy in the face of fundamentally unequal chances, is a system in need of radical reform. It is a system which has resulted in a serious and sometimes fatal dis-ease in the world. The symptoms are manifold, from species extinction, to mass migration, to human trafficking, to violent and unnecessary deaths. Focussing only on environmental issues in isolation from other issues of justice is merely triage, and does not even begin to offer the possibility of healing.

In this week’s Gospel, we read of Jesus “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness” before commissioning the twelve to do the same. Although Jesus‘ society was not faced with problems of climate change, it too, was beset by dis-ease: unequal life chances, the wealth of the many at the expense of the few, life held lightly and death justified as collateral damage to maintain the status quo. The words of Caiphas that it was better one man die than the nation perish, show the human cost of maintaining power bases.

In the face of this, when Jesus healed the sick and diseased, he was showing how much those who society disregarded mattered to God. When Jesus and his disciples preached that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” they weren’t preaching about going to Heaven after death, they were preaching another kingdom, an alternative to Rome. They were in effect saying  “Another world is possible”. This was a political message, too challenging for the vested interests to allow. It is a message for which Jesus and many others have died, but the dream of a better world has not. 

That possibility of another world was good news then, and it is good news now, because the world we have, or should I say the system we have, isn’t working. It is the job of Christians to embody this other world, another system, where life is received as a gift from God and valued as such, where the world is seen not as a utility to exploit but as God’s creation, a common home for everyone, and where the suffering of one is the suffering of all - a world where everyone can breathe.

 

To find out more about environmental racisim click here.

Trinity Sunday/Environmental Sunday by Christine Jack

World Environment Day 5th June is the United Nations day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action to protect our environment. Since it began in 1974, the event has grown to become a global platform for public outreach that is widely celebrated in over 100 countries. This year, 2020, the theme is biodiversity, or the web of life as it is sometimes called. Christians are called to remember our dependence on this web of life through a special Sunday, set apart each year on the Sunday closest to June 5th- Environment Sunday.

Genesis 9. 12-13: ‘12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’ The Christian scriptures begin with God’s affirmation that all of creation is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.30). Humans exist within a web of life. This web is a complex, interconnected system in which each part plays an important role. We are part of a complex, delicate and interdependent web of life which we believe is created, sustained and redeemed by God. Humanity is called to reflect the image of God through godly leadership within the community of fellow creatures (Genesis 1. 26-28). Basic facts about global problems are well known. Few deny that there are serious concerns. There is less agreement, however, about the exact nature of the crisis. Is it essentially political, economic, or technological? Where do the roots of the crisis lie?

Although we understand our human responsibility to care and to act, the problems go beyond managerial failings. They are tied up with our relationship with our surroundings. There is a multitude of interrelated environmental crises, but the essential problem is an inner human crisis. Solutions require a profound shift in people’s feelings and attitudes towards the environment. Biodiversity matters because human wellbeing depends on stable and thriving ecosystems and the services they give us, from clean water and food, to oxygen, clothing and climate regulation and all the other ‘resources’ we use from nature. But if we value nature only for its usefulness to human beings we do not value it highly enough. Our view of nature is distorted. Today human action and behaviour has reduced biodiversity and modified wildlife populations structures at an unprecedented rate. There are multiple causes, from deforestation, habitat destruction, climate change and pollution of soil, water and air, including the tide of plastic pollution filling the oceans. In the last 50 years, the human population has doubled; the global economy has almost quadrupled and global trade has increased approximately ten times (www.worldenvironmentday/global). We are told that it would take 1.6 Earths to meet the demands that humans make on nature each year; and more species are on the risk of extinction than ever before.

In recent years, zoonotic diseases – those transferred from animals to humans – have gained international attention. The recent Covd-19 crisis is one of these. In 2016 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) flagged a worldwide increase in zoonotic epidemics as an issue of concern. Specifically it pointed out that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic and that these are closely linked with the health of ecosystems. Ecosystems are various – woodland, forest, tundra, burning desert, icy polar and city/urban, for example. The solution is nature. Nature purifies the air we breathe, cleans the water we drink and produces the variety of foods we require to stay healthy and resist disease. It helps medical researchers to understand the causes in humans and provides the substance in developing medicines. It also helps to mitigate the impact of climate change by absorbing carbon, reducing air pollution and helping to cool cities.

For Christians too, and those who believe that all God’s creatures have value in themselves, there is also an issue of justice. It is often the poor and the marginalised who depend most immediately on the health of ecosystems and are affected seriously by the loss of productive soils, clean water, forests, fish and coral reefs. Biodiversity loss is a major factor in human migration. In developed and urban areas, again it is often the poorest who suffer the effect of carbon emissions from busy roads and motorways. ‘It’s time to revisit our relationship with nature and to build a more environmentally responsible world. It is time to better understand the web of life in which we live and appreciate that it functions as a whole system. It is time to reimagine our relationship with nature and put nature at the heart of our decision making’.

Pentecost

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life

At Pentecost we are remembering the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples and the presence of the Holy Spirit with us now. Although Jesus is known as Emmanuel - God with us, it is a title equally applicable to the Holy Spirit, who we can think of as God-at-work-in-the world, and indeed God-at work-in-us.

The Holy Spirit, challenges, inspires, equips, and leads, sometimes in the most unexpected directions. Like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, who was not a tame lion, the Holy Spirit cannot be contained or domesticated. Although described as the Comforter, an encounter with the Holy Spirit is often the opposite of comfortable, and biblically the word comfort leans more heavily in the direction of strengthening for service than of pacifying. The Holy Spirit is not a comfort blanket and doesn't appear to be that keen on the status quo.  People are led in directions they would rather not go, and yet are supported and blessed on the journey.

The Holy Spirit is involved in both creation and recreation. She is depicted as hovering over the water in the creation, as a bird hovers and broods over her eggs and giving life to the people created from dust and breathing new life into the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision. Moving the metaphor from breath to water, the Holy Spirit quenches thirst and turns desert into oasis. New possibilities are suggested as the Holy Spirit causes “visions” and “dreams” of God’s Kingdom and God’s power to act and transform.

The vision that the Holy Spirit gives is one of unity, of diverse languages and cultures in dialogue, communicating and working together to renew the world. A vision of life and not destruction, of prosperity for many and not just the few. It is a vision of healing and wholeness for the whole earth not just people. The vision of the one who is the bringer of life must stand in contrast to the suicide machine which places profit above people and planet.

The one who is at work in the world and at work in us, invites us to join in the prophetic task of bringing Shalom and proclaiming the kingdom. The Holy Spirit chooses not only to work in us, but with us, but how prepared are we to meet the challenge?

Ernst Conradie, suggests that when every-one knows there’s a problem and knows the right thing to do, but no one can summon up the moral will to do it then the problem is a spiritual one. We need to the presence of the Holy Spirit now more than ever, and so we must continue to pray

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful And kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created And you will renew the face of the earth”.

Ascensiontide

Following the death of my grandmother, my mother discovered that “only people who have been there can help".  She was only able to receive comfort and consolation from people who had been similarly bereaved and understood her feelings. Those who had not experienced profound bereavement, no matter how well-intentioned, simply didn’t know what she was going through, so how could they possibly help? This speaks to me of the Incarnation. God is someone who is able to help because God understands;  in Jesus, God became human, and experienced the joys and the sorrow of the human condition. Jurgen Moltmann says something similar when he asserts that “Sometimes only the Crucified God will do”.

The Ascension reminds us that a human being stands at the heart of the Godhead. It has always been important to me to think of the ascended Jesus in his human form and frailties, with the wounds from his crucifixion still there. The ascension is a celebration and of victory, where the human Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of God the Father, ruling and reigning alongside him, a judge who has earned his right to judge us by walking a mile in our shoes.

Yet, having written Greeningthelectionary.net for the last eighteen months. I am struck by just how anthropocentric this all is. It’s all about God saving human beings, it’s about humanity being incorporated into the Godhead, it’s about God understanding what it’s like to be a person.

If we broaden our thinking to include the rest of creation, we lose none of this, whilst rediscovering the idea of a Christ who lifts not only humanity, but the entire world to God. ‘Deep Incarnation’ does not interpret the Word becoming flesh in exclusively human terms but as the Creator entering the Creation. Thus, the crucified God, and the risen ascended one, stand in solidary with and ennoble the whole of the Earth, not just the human part of it. Thus, we can think of Heaven and Earth united in the heart of God.

Thinking this way, may require us to change the way we view the non-human creation; it might challenge the arrogance that sees salvation solely as a human prerogative, and may even cause us to reappraise our most cherished beliefs, but it can only enhance our appreciation of the value of the natural world , the wonder of the incarnation, the triumph of the ascension and the majesty of Christ.

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During the suspension of public worship Revd Ruth Newton will be streaming worship, preaching and messages on:

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Archived Reflections

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Book Review of Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book

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About the author: Revd Ruth Newton

Ruth is parish priest of St John's Sharow, a Silver Eco-Church, whose award winning Churchyard has been awarded County Wildlife Status.

She is a member of the Church of England General Synod. Ordained for 17 years, Ruth has ministered in three multi-parish benefices, as a Cathedral Canon and as a Lay Training Officer. 

Ruth has a Masters in Theology, a PGCE and an an associate fellowship with the Higher Education Academy. She is undertaking a doctorate in the intersection between environmental activism and church.

Presently working on a portfolio basis she is available for freelance writing, lectures or retreats. 

 

 

 

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