Greening the Lectionary

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

Look below to find reflections for this Sunday.

17th November 2nd Sunday before Advent, Luke 21:5-19

 

When looking this week’s Gospel against a background of climate volatility, floods and fires, there is a temptation to imagine that the apocalyptic predictions it contains are coming true. However, it is a temptation to be resisted, since every generation has been able to map the events of its era onto passages such as this, imagining the end of days to be imminent only to be disappointed. Whilst Christians are called to be in a state of constant readiness for the return of Jesus Christ, guessing when that will be is a fool’s errand. Jesus himself tells us that the day and the hour cannot be known. (Matthew 25:13).

Furthermore, it is important when seeking to engender environmental responsibility that there is no hint that climate disaster is a curtain raiser to the last judgement. Already there is a small minority, on the more extreme fringes of our faith, who are trying to accelerate the climate disaster in order to ‘speed the Lord’s return’, but even amongst more moderate Christians, such an understanding would breed apathy and ambivalence.

If we are not to interpret the passage as a timetable for the parousia, what then are we to make of it? With its prediction of persecution and calamity the passage can seem frightening, but I would suggest that its purpose is quite the opposite and it was written to instill confidence in the face of difficulties. There is a sense of realism inherent in the passage. It is about managing expectations. Just because God, in Jesus Christ, is acting decisively in history, we should not assume that life will be easy ever after. Bad things will still happen. The world will continue to seem unfair and life will still be tough, and following Christ might even make it tougher, nevertheless God is not absent and evil and chaos will not overwhelm us. Inevitably the coming of the Kingdom will involve a severe struggle, which St Paul likens to the pains of child birth ( 2 Cor 22). In the midst of this we are urged not to despair or give into fear, but to hold fast to our hope that at the final reckoning God will emerge victorious whilst, in the meantime, giving an account of our faith.

Although I would argue that the climate crisis does not necessarily herald the second coming, much of the discourse surrounding it can be described as apocalyptic in that it raises the terrifying possibility of a planet unable to sustain human life. It seems that even the most fortunate of us face a challenging future. For some the challenges have already begun. But experiencing the consequences of climate change does not mean that God has deserted us. As we face up to new realities, it will be important to remember that God is present with us, not only in the good times but in the darkest of times as well. 

10th November 2019 Remembrance Sunday Micah 4:1-5 Romans 8:31-end

There will be those who feel that it is inappropriate to preach about Green issues on Remembrance Sunday and that it should entirely focus on those who have given their lives in the service of their country. Nevertheless the themes of sacrifice, learning from the past, remembering the horror of war and committing ourselves to work for peace have considerable relevence. 

Reflection on the resilience, self -sacrifice and ingenuity of the generation who experienced the Second World War has much to teach us about dealing with crisis by taking communitarian approach to resisting evil. This is why many advocate moving to what they term a “war footing” to tackle our ecological challenge. Now as then, desperate times call for desperate measures, a hiatus in the usual way of doing things and determination to prioritise the common good above personal convenience.

In our present context any commitment to peace must include environmental justice. Already the ecological crisis is putting pressure on resources and this is only predicted to increase. Competition for increasingly scarce supplies of water, fuel, minerals and even land will inevitably lead to tensions which could erupt into war. Avoiding conflict will require detailed and sensitive husbandry on the part of the global community and international cooperation on an unprecedented scale.

The vision outlined in the Micah 4:1-5 which is one of the four readings suggested for this Sunday, speaks into this. Offering an image of nations with a common purpose and direction. There is enough for all, as each will sit under their own fig tree or vine. No-one will be oppressed or fearful and war is a thing of the past as swords are beaten into ploughshares. When the possibility of war is removed then the effort and energy expended on it can be channelled into other more productive endeavours. How wonderful if the resources spent on the weapons of today could instead be turned towards tackling hunger, drought and flood.  

Another suggested reading is Roman 8:31-end. This text reminds us that such is the tenacity, persistence and dependability of the love of God. that there is nothing than can separate us from it. It is a bedrock for troubled times, utterly trustworthy, utterly constant, and indestructible. As we face up to the gravity of our ecological situation, we will be tempted towards despair and hopelessness, but this passage urges us to keep faith and know that whatever disasters befall us, God remains the same. That which destroys and diminishes us, cannot destroy and diminish him. It is a passage that has comforted and strengthened those who faced dark times in the past and which will continue to sustain us in the future. No matter what fate humanity chooses to inflict upon itself, the love of God remains. 

November 3rd 2019 All Saints Sunday Luke 6:20-31

 

Although there are enough similarities to suggest a common source, "the Blessings and the Woes" in Luke's Gospel stand in marked contrast to Matthew's more familiar Beatitudes. Both articulate a vision of the "upside down" nature of the Kingdom of God/Heaven where those who are currently overlooked and undervalued will be recognised and rewarded, but Matthew frames this in terms of character and spiritual values, whilst Luke's version is far more concrete. He is speaking not of attitudes but of the promise of a new world order - a literal reversal of fortunes where those who at present find themselves at the bottom of the heap will be raised up, echoing, the words of the Magnificat.

"He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty."

Poverty, privilege, justice and equity are intimately bound up with the ecological crisis. The same factors that have so oppressed the planet, also oppress the world's poorest. Both the integrity of nature and well-being of vulnerable people are considered collateral damage in the pursuit of unlimited economic growth. It is the global poor who are at present bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and it will be the poor who are least resilient to the climate change in the longer term. Both ecological irresponsibility and vast inequality are symptoms of dis-ease - disordered relationships with God, with the created world, with each other and with the self.

This passage illustrates explicitly the axiom of Liberation Theology, that God has a preferential option for the poor. God takes sides and it is the side of the oppressed that he chooses. Working to mitigate climate change whilst not tackling issues of poverty and injustice is not a possibility open to Christians. They are all of a piece. Despite this we should be cautious in interpreting the passage as suggesting that God will punish those who have plenty yet have ignored the needs of the poor, although there is ample Biblical justification for such a view - think Dives and Lazarus, or even the Sheep and the Goats. I prefer to think in terms of levelling. Achieving a more equitable world where the hungry are fed and the poor lifted from their poverty would come at a cost to the rich. In order for no-one to go without, some will have to have less.

Such a re-ordering will be as painful to those with privilege as it is joyful to those who will be liberated. One only needs to consider the outcry in this country which met the suggestion that the demands of feeding the world’s population might necessitate a shift to a plant-based diet, to see the reluctance of those who have much, to sacrifice in order that all may have some. Historically however, such a levelling is not without precedence when circumstances warrant it. During the Second World War and the years following, rationing ensured that limited food supplies were sufficient for the entiry of the population and the poorest benefitted, accessing a better diet than in the pre-war years. Thus, infant mortality declined and life expectancy increased.

It is often said that opportunity is the flip side of crisis and it may be that the deepening climate crisis presents us with opportunities to rethink the way that our global society works and to engage in some much-needed “levelling”, but this will not happen automatically and we will need to choose whether to stand with God, on the side on the poor, or woefully, on the sidelines.

 

October 20th Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity Luke 18:1-8

Justice is the point at which the ‘Green’ agenda, which seeks ecological and social justice, and Christianity most closely intersect. The Christian God is a God of justice, an emphasis which is particularly explicit in the Gospel of Luke, which presents the coming kingdom as involving a ‘levelling’ with the proud being brought low, the humble exalted, the hungry fed and the rich doing without. (Luke 1:51-53).

It is therefore surprising, in this week’s Gospel to find a parable which compares God to an unjust judge. The parable describes a corrupt judge who neither values God or respects people but who is persuaded to do the right thing, through the ‘pester power’ of a widow who keeps pursuing her claim for justice.

The implication is not that God is himself an unjust judge, but rather that if even an unprincipled judge can be forced to deliver justice through persistence, then how much more will God deliver justice to those who ask. The take home message seems to be persevere in praying for justice and God will supply it. However, such an interpretation does not stand the test of experience. Too many people are daily subjected to the reality of oppression and injustice, many of whom have prayed and prayed seemingly to no avail.

What does it do to one’s image of God to believe that God promises justice in response to prayer but does not deliver in your life? Thus, it is vital to understand this parable in the context of an expected Parousia, noting that the parable is set against Christ's expected return and it is at this point that God’s justice will prevail. Prayer for justice is bound up with prayer for the Lord’s return. Until that time injustice, like the poor, will be with us always.

But this does not mean that we must accept it. The parable contains within it a strong sense that travesties of justice must be resisted with all the resources available to us. The widow who challenges the unjust judge has little in the way of power or wealth and yet her determination, passion and persistence result in her vindication. Surely a lesson for how we approach the injustices inherent in the ecological crisis. The voice of justice which does not allow itself to be silenced may well prevail.

This is not to say that prayer has no place in the struggle, for where is this hunger for justice, this passion, this persistence and courage in the face of opposition to come from? The struggle for justice is not one that we face alone and as await the day when God’s Kingdom and justice come in all their fulness, we must remain persistent in both our prayer and our protest.

October 13th 2019 Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 17:11-19

Remembering to say "thank you," is the simple message which lies at the  heart of this week's Gospel reading. Jesus is approached by ten lepers who request mercy  from him. As ever in Luke's Gospel, Jesus notices and listens to those whom others deem unworthy of consideration and does indeed show mercy. This takes the form of a miraculous healing, somewhat reminicient of Namaan's,  where the lepers are healed at a distance as they  follow Jesus' instructions to show themselves to the priests. 

Although all ten are healed, and, one assumes, are pretty pleased about this, we are only told about the response of one of the lepers, who might warrant the designation 'the thankful one'. His reaction upon receiving the gift of healing is to praise God and to return to Jesus, prostrating himself in gratitude and thanking him. Clearly Jesus considers his response to be appropriate because he queries why the others have not responsed in a similar fashion. "Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?" The lack of gratitude is suprising to him and to the reader. Why wouldn't someone receiving such a liberative gift want to thank the giver?

The surprise is made even greater by the discovery that 'the thankful one' is in fact a Samaritan, who Jesus' audience and the early readers of Luke might have considered to be somewhat uncouth and ill-mannered, such was the contemporary prejudice.  However it may have been this very fact which rendered him so grateful in the first place as he struggled under the burden of what we would now term "double discrimination' or 'dual oppression' -  being a both a Samaritan and a leper. Jesus had unexpectedly treated him as one deserving of mercy and this alone might have warranted his thanks.  

Jesus then commends the faith of 'the thankful one' stating that it was this that had made him well. Since all of the lepers were healed of their illness, it seems likely that this 'wellness' or 'wholeness' extends beyond physical recovery and forms part of what it means to be in a right relationship with God. Those who are truly well are those who show gratitude. 

As we work to transform humanity's attitudes towards the natural world from the abusive patterns which have resulted in the ecological crisis into something more constructive, encouraging gratitude will have a significant part to play. If we view the natural world, which sustains us, as a gift from God  for which we are thankful, then we can not simultaneously imagine it to be a resource to be exploited, polluted and desecrated. Gratitude for a gift leads to cherishing the gift.

How we have treated the world suggests we have been ungrateful towards the Creator and taken his gift for granted. Pope Francis hopes that returning to practices  which used to be commonplace such as saying grace before meals and couting our blessings may go some way towards countering this. Our task then, is to cultivate an 'attitude of gratitude' which may revolutionize not only our relationship with creation but also the creator, as we strive to bring healing to the planet and become 'well' ourselves.  

 

 

October 6th 16th Sunday after Trinity

Luke 17: 5-10

If only I had more faith….as a parish priest, it’s a refrain I hear often. Nobody imagines that they have enough faith - they worry, they doubt, they struggle, they lionise others who they imagine to have far more faith than they could ever have, they look around at what needs to be done and think “I’m not up to this, the resources I have at my disposal are insufficient for the task. In some, this sense of inadequacy leads to prayer, whilst others use it as an excuse not to engage at all.

It would appear that my 21st Century parishioners are not alone in this. As even the first disciples felt that their levels of faith could do with a boost. They demand that Jesus increase their faith. It sounds such a holy request, doesn’t it? How could Jesus possibly respond with anything other than an indulgent smile and some reassurance? But Jesus is far from predictable and his response is more challenging than comforting. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you.” Thus, implying that the disciple’s faith is even smaller than they imagined. Smaller even than a mustard seed, which for the record is 1-2mm in diameter. Whether this is a rebuke or not is hotly contested, but either way, it seems that even the tiniest amount of faith goes along way.

Perhaps what the disciples are really asking isn’t for more faith at all but rather more confidence and more certainty, but the Christian journey isn’t that easy is it? We must make do with the amount of faith we have and trust that it will be sufficient.

The sense in which we have too few resources for the task in hand will be a familiar one to those concerned about the ecological crisis and seeking to respond to it in the light of faith. Individuals have comparatively little power whilst the governments and businesses who do are failing to take the lead required. It is often argued that there is little point in doing anything if others are doing nothing, but there is power in the small action. Greta Thunberg has famously said “No-one is too small to make a difference” and many small yet faithful actions consistently repeated by a growing number of people may yet have a large cumulative effect.

This week’s reading has two paragraphs and trying to understand the second paragraph in the light of the first can lead to all kind of torturous mental gymnastics so I prefer to understand the connection between the two as tangential, both paragraphs dealing with misunderstandings about the nature of being a disciple.

The first, tackles the idea that we must be spiritual giants in order to be effective for God, whilst the second stands as a stark reminder that in seeking to serve God we earn no favours. We might find the analogy of a slave and slave-owner a problematic analogy but the message remains pertinent today.  God owes us nothing, whilst we owe him everything. Obedience and service are nothing more than his due, and we should not be looking for any kind of quid pro quo, be that material rewards, or conviction that our efforts will lead others to admire us. Anyone asking “what’s in it for me?” is asking the wrong question. Yet if God’s love and grace are infinite, we can expect that our efforts, however small, weak, and lacking in faith will have a place in God’s economy of salvation.

Archived Reflections

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About the author: Revd Ruth Newton

Ruth is parish priest of St John's Sharow, and 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.

 

 

 

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