Greening the Lectionary

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

Isaiah 55 1-5 Matthew 14. 13-21,

You give them something to eat.

This week's readings from Isaiah and Matthew's Gospel speak of the abundant provision of God. Isaiah tells of God quenching people's thirst with water, wine and milk, available to be purchased without money. Of course, the imagery is spiritual, but it's physical too. Can you imagine being thirsty in the Kingdom of God? In Matthew's Gospel scarcity is transformed into excess as the five loaves and two fishes are miraculously able to feed a crowd which was probably double the five thousand men noted once the women and children are factored in. Throughout scripture we read of a God who provides, often far in excess of what is necessary and who does not demand payment of any kind. We can see this in the beauty and diversity of the created order, the care of the Hebrews in the desert, the turning of water into wine and the superabundance of his unconditional love.

Yet one look at our world shows us that abundance is not a universal experience, particularly as it relates to food. We have accepted a situation where 815 million people are chronically under-nourished and where the situation is getting progressively worse. Staggeringly, even in UK, the seventh richest country in the world, there are 2 million people who are undernourished, whilst Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty estimate 500,000 are dependent on food parcels. In contrast, the UK throws away between 16 and 18% of all food bought and over all sectors wastes food to the value of £19 billion a year, which is associated with more than 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas. Somehow, somewhere the system is broken! This is not only a question of the human population exceeding what the earth can sustain, although difficult questions do need to be addressed in this regard, but about the extreme levels of inequality which are the backdrop to the lives we lead.

The situation is complicated. In societies where food is readily available poverty can manifest as obesity; it is often the cheapest food which has the least nutritional value and is packed full of sugar, fat and salt. Attempts to alleviate food poverty by providing cheap food, rather than tackling poverty itself can result in factory farming, the inhumane treatment of animals and lax environmental protections. It isn't as straight forward as some eating less so others can eat more. But can we really accept the 3.1 million child deaths each year that can be attributed to lack of food worldwide, as 'just the way it is'?

When Jesus asked the disciples to feed the crowd it must have seemed as if he were asking the impossible. They didn't have the resources, they didn't have the answers, but they did have the will. They didn't shrug their shoulders, say "there's nothing I can do" and ignore the problem. They looked at what they could do and played their part. It turns out that Jesus can do great things when his followers act. Jesus asked them to take the initiative, but he does not leave them to flounder on their own; the disciples bring Jesus the loaves and fish, they distribute the loaves and fish, they collect up the scraps, but it is Jesus who does the feeding. They are working with Jesus and not on their own. Even so, the levels of trust and faith involved are substantial.

Attempting to build a world where the abundance of God's provision is distributed fairly, rather than hoarded and zealously guarded by those who already have enough is a challenge we may feel ill equipped to meet.  But it is one we do together with God and others of goodwill. Initiatives including foodbanks, food waste cafes, political lobbying, farm standard schemes and global charities working for the eradication of poverty are already playing their part, communicating that the status quo is simply unacceptable. As the miracle of the loaves and fishes shows us, doing something, however small, is always preferable to doing nothing. So, let's give it a try and see what happens. 

 

 

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The phrase the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven means different things to different people. So before I reflect on this week's Kingdom parables I think it is important to be clear about my understanding. I do not conceive of the Kingdom in terms of the numerical growth of the institutional church, but rather in terms of God's reign of justice and peace, of which the Church, if it is obedient to its Lord will play a significant part. The Kingdom is both now and not yet, announced, or inaugerated, through Jesus' earthly ministry, present wherever justice and peace win out over poverty and despair and brought to fulfilment when Christ returns and Heaven and Earth are recreated. 

This said, what is the Kingdom like? The collection of parables in this week's Gospel gives us some clues. The parable of the mustard seed suggests that the Kingdom will start small, but grow to a substantial size. It seems as if Jesus was anticipating the spread of the Kingdom beyond his immediate hearers. The seeds of the Kingdom that Jesus was sowing through his ministry of teaching and healing would have a far reaching impact. We might say from little acorns mighty oak trees will grow. If we think about this parable in terms of the "now and not yet" of the Kingdom then there is a sense in which we can see the ministry of Jesus as the planting of the seed, the tree where the birds of the air rest, as the fulfilment of the Kingdom and the present as the time when the tree is growing. 

 

The parable of the yeast also suggests that the reach of the Kingdom will be considerable, but this time idea that the yeast will leaven the lump highlights the ability of a small number of people to have a wide-ranging effect. This is reminiscent of Extinction Rebellion's insistance that if only  only 3.5% of the population engage in protests then change will follow. Since Christians number some 29% of the world population, if we work together then our ability to leaven the lump is substantial. We must never imagine ourselves powerless in the face of evil or injustice or ecological destruction. We have the potential to change the world for the better, but the challenge is whether we have the will. 

 

The parables of the treasure in the field, and the pearl of great price, remind of of the value of the Kingdom. It is something precious, something worth having, something desirable. It shouldn't be undersold or made cheap. Being part of the Kingdom is not a bind or a burden - it is a joyous experience. These parables also remind us of the all encompassing nature of the Kingdom. It takes priority over everthing else. It's either all or nothing. We can't be half hearted about our membership of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps this is what the next parable, the parable of the net is making explicit. This parable speaks of judgement and accountability - a separation of those who are welcome in the Kingdom and those who are not. If we are conceiving of the Kingdom in terms of justice and peace then those who are content with the status quo,  who resist a more equitable ordering of the world's resources and who seek their own power at the expense of others, clearly would not welcome the Kingdom or be welcome in it. 

The final parable is full of hope, it relates to the relationship between Jesus' new Kingdom teaching and the teaching of the past. There are treasures old and new: the kingdom is build upon that good which has gone before. Yet Jesus brings new insights, a new urgency, and a reorientation. This suggests that the Kingdom, ever old and ever new, is large enough and flexible enough to encompass our contemporary concerns, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, whilst being firmly rooted in such traditions as the Old Testament prophets. Our task is the same as theirs - to challenge injustice, and to work for peace, yet in our 21st Century context neither can be achieved without reorientating our mission and our Kingdom practice in an ecological direction. 

 

 

 

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

It's easy to find the "green" in this week's lectionary, as Jesus uses the agrarian imagery of sowing seeds to address some perennial questions: why doesn’t everyone embrace the Gospel with enthusiasm? Why do people seem interested but then take it no further? Why do some apparently keen people give up? The parable gives a simple answer, that sometimes the conditions aren’t right and seeds needs good soil to grow. This will come as something of a relief to those whose efforts to share the Gospel often end in disappointment. They must not blame themselves or imagine that they've let God down. Some people rejecting the Christian message is just par for the course. It’s not our fault - it’s just the way it is. Sow abundantly and stop worrying seems to be the message.

For those of us who find ourselves engaged in a kind of dual evangelism, sowing seeds about Jesus and environmental engagement, the insights of the parable of the sower seem doubly relevant. Sow lots of seeds, and some will bear fruit. But the seed of the Gospel and the seeds of change  are one and the same. Our environmental commitment flows from our Christian one and our Christian faith grows through our environment praxis. I am convinced that explaining faith using ecological ideas, thinking through the implications of the climate crisis for what we believe, asking how our faith speaks into our current difficulties, will prove fruitful both for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour and for helping people to understand and engage with Christianity.

 

Whilst it would seem self absorbed to use the tragedy of the climate emergency as a hook for evangelism, if Christianity is to be relevant and attractive it must address the issue. If it cannot provide answers to the questions that people are asking then no matter how many seeds we sow, very few will take root. At the same time, Christianity can provide the wisdom, the moral compass and the equipping of the Spirit needed to chart the course required to prevent ecological Armageddon. The Ecotheologian Ernst Conradie says of the ecological crisis, that when everyone knows what needs to be done, but no-one can summon up the will to do it, then the problem is clearly spiritual. We Christians don't have a monopoly on spiritual resources but we do have plenty to offer. So, let us carry on sowing seeds abundantly, acknowledging that not all will take root, but praying for a fruitful harvest.

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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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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