Greening the Lectionary

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

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Jonah 3:1-5, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

“For the present form of this world is passing away.”

When St Paul wrote these words, he was not imagining a climate crisis inflicting mass extinctions and damaging civilisation beyond repair, but of something altogether more positive. St Paul understood the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to have initiated a whole new era. The early church expected Jesus to return soon, and therefore the normal rules don't apply. The end of the old era, and the beginning of the new was something to be longed for and prepared for but not dreaded, but the things that mattered before: getting married, mourning a loved one, buying possessions, were no longer important, because the end was coming. When Jesus did not return as expected this kind of teaching became problematic, life had to go on, but Christians still expect Jesus to return even if they get on with life while they wait. But read against the background of ecological breakdown, St Paul’s words take on a new resonance. The climate crisis is urgent, it requires action. The old rules can't apply.

Jonah says as much to the people of Ninevah in the Old Testament reading, issuing a warning that if things carry on as they are, destruction will befall them. The only solution is to change and repent and they do, averting disaster. Is this the message we must now adopt and proclaim? Michael Northcott suggests that the scientific predications of climate crisis function in the same way as the apocalyptic passages in the Bible, “indicating the imminence of a moment of judgment on the present form of civilisation”. That moment of judgement, when we are brought face to face with the consequences of living without reference to planetary limits, is coming soon, if it is not here already and we cannot continue to structure our society and our lives as we always have. Like the people of Ninevah, we must repent and change our ways if we are to avoid disaster. Tackling climate change must be our first and maybe our only priority. We have seen in the pandemic that desperate times call for desperate measures. We have seen the consequence of being unwilling to take them. As we long to come out of lockdown and get back to normal we have to remember than normal wasn’t working and unless we suspend our usual rules of engagement, the future we face will be as far from normal as it is possible to be. 

As Christians, we can never be without hope, and whatever happens God  remain faithful, but perhaps it is time, motivated by love, to proclaim some uncomfortable truths.  

 

John 1.43 -52 Nathaniel and the fig tree by Christine Jack

 Looking through a ‘green lens’, and with a reflection on trees in the Bible (Sunday 17th January 2021: 2nd Sunday of Epiphany)

God gives good gifts. Many of you will have given and received good gifts this Christmas from family and friends; this year the gift of good health was probably uppermost and as we move on into the new year, the gift of the promise of a vaccine is also uppermost in our minds.

God gives good gifts. Thousands of years ago, God gave the gift of land to the Jewish people, the Promised Land of Israel.

It was not just any old piece of land… God says in Deuteronomy 8, 

“The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land… a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey”.

God gave then five fruits and two grains. There is so much richness in what God created and placed in this land for his people – not just in taste and nutrition, but in their meaning too. And the fig is a fruit that crops up again and again in the scriptures, from Genesis to Revelations, and often symbolises the health of the nation, both spiritually and physically. 

In many ways, trees are like Jesus. They give, and they keep giving. They give life and beauty. They give shade and rest. They clean the air. They hold back erosion. They offer shelter, food, and protection.

Hosea 9:10 says “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.” Later, the Bible tells us of the glorious time when “Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.” (1 Kings 4:25). Later still, following the minor prophets we can see warnings to the nation of how God would bring destruction and failure of crops as part of his judgement against them, specifying empty fig trees that were stripped bare and fruitless. (Joel, Habakkuk and Haggai).

In the New Testament we can also see the symbolic fig tree – firstly in the calling of Nathanael who was “sitting under a fig tree” like a “true Israelite” in John 1:48-50. Later he curses the fruitless fig tree, representing unfruitfulness (Mark 11:12-21), and then uses the fig as a metaphor of how we should recognise the signs of the times (Matthew 24:32). This end-times warning system with the fig analogy is picked up again in Revelation 6:13, where ‘the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale’. It’s almost as if the fig was something of a barometer of the health of the nation – taken away as punishment, and flourishing in times of restoration. 

Sitting under a tree to think and reflect has links more widely too. The Buddha, Siddartha Goutama, sat under a magnificent peepul , a Bo, Ficus religiosa; whose blossom turns to figs. But that story of his enlightenment , his recognition of the intrinsic value of the earth for all our physical needs, is for another time.

In this story, it is the fig tree which becomes a meeting place for Jesus and his disciples, as they join with the newest recruit Nathaniel. Jesus had a special gift of picking people just right for his purpose, to spread the good news of God’s kingdom through their actions and deeds, through their lives and stories, and this is a story which tells of the salvation of the whole of creation. Somehow, people with the same purpose do recognise each other. We all do , we recognise like-minded people. It might be the way they dress, the way they talk, what they write, or the things they do. Some people simply become ‘ one of us’. 

In the biblical story of Jesus, this was a special time. Jesus has been recognised by John the Baptist as he walked by the river Jordan, and was baptised by him. Jesus was recognised at a wedding feast as the one who turned water into wine in a time of want and need. He was recognised as the Son of God, even as he himself recognised Peter, the first disciple, as the rock upon which he would build his church, that special place of meeting for the children of God. Nathaniel recognised him as the Son of God, the King of Israel.

Jesus said earlier that he came, from God, for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Many of the ‘ house of Israel’, especially its men of law the Pharisees, and the Sadducees the men of the upper classes of Jewish society, rejected Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God, the Messiah prophesied in the Scriptures. Jesus knew however that Nathaniel was a ‘ true Israelite’, who understood that this prophecy was now coming true.

Nathaniel in his turn recognised Jesus as the Son of God, the King of Israel -the promised Messiah who will bring in a new kingdom of God’s reign, renewing worn out structures and moribund doctrines.

Jesus had seen into the very depths of Nathaniel’s heart. Nathaniel said, here is a man who understands my dreams, who knows my prayers. This must be the one whom God has promised to send .

Jesus confirmed all this with the vision from Jacob’s ladder, stretching from earth to heaven, and Nathaniel knew that here was someone who could draw him closer to God. He can still draw us too, if we trust and dwell in him.

If you want to see how trees today in our environmental crises can clean the air, cool the temperature, quieten the noise and lighten your mood, go to the website of The Northern Forest. More trees mean better health. 

Our land and our trees are a gift from God; let’s ensure we are grateful for these gifts, let’s continue to meet in the shade and shelter of their leaves and branches. Trees have an incredibly important role to play. From the tallest tree to the smallest organism, biodiversity encompasses the variety of plant and animal life on our planet. If we lose biodiversity, we lose food, water and fresh air. We need to conserve and enhance our natural environment, so it can deliver the essential ‘life support’ systems that we need in the ‘new creation’, both now and into the future. 

Advent 4 : Reflection and Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2020 - reflections by contributor Christine Jack 

Some of the most mysterious parts of the Bible are powerful descriptions of direct encounters with God or angels as messengers of God. Who can forget those ringing words of Isaiah (6.1-5), and the incredible impact of angel voices, wings beating, the smoke swirling and the pillars trembling. Similarly, the shepherds in the account of Jesus’ birth are amazed and overcome by the dazzling sight of angels ( Luke 2. 8-14).

Mary, as Mother of God, knew about angels. She had been also overcome with awe and indeed fear at the sight and sound of an angel voice, telling her that she would have a child, the Son of God. Somehow both a spiritual birth and a natural birth.

God needed to renew his creation, and what better way to make his presence felt on earth through the birth of his son. All new ideas and renewal begin in a small way: an oak tree from an acorn, a house from a brick. Yet without moisture, food and warmth the acorn would die and never become an oak tree; without firm foundations the bricks would collapse and the house fall down; we need safe places of nurture and growth. Safe places to live, safe places in which to dwell.

 

So Mary’s womb , Mary’s body, became the safe place to nurture the unborn child .The home in Nazareth become the safe dwelling where the boy Jesus was nurtured and schooled into manhood. But what became of his story, his new people , his message when he, as is the way of all people, when he died. We know that the story lived on. We are still those people of God, bearing anew each Christmas that message of hope; we watch and wait with God’s people around the world for the promises of God to come true. Each year we look forward to Christmas because of the life and hope that it promises. But every year we discover that peace on all the earth still has not come. So we celebrate- that we along with many others, are a people who refuse to give up hope. And that kind of hope is stronger than anything else in the world.

From time to time many Christians set aside time to reflect on their lives with God; to concentrate on awareness of the presence of God and perhaps make changes, perhaps make a new commitment. We know that poverty is still with us; we know that environmental pollution is all around us. We believe that God has given us this earth to provide a dwelling place, a home, a place of nurture for all God’s people. We have a responsibility to treat it wisely, acting as caring stewards of God’s creation, God the life giver – perhaps the greatest gift.

 

In today’s world of extreme weather events, drought, flooding and the loss of species, it appears that we are not meeting this responsibility. We have created a world where some are relying too much on fossil fuels and many are vulnerable. We know that it is the women and children, especially in the poverty of the developing world, who are bearing the heaviest social and economic burden. And it is this week in advent, when we remember the life of Mary Mother of God, and who brings this to the foreground.

 

When she was told that she was going to be the mother of Jesus, she knew it would be hard because she was just a young girl. She has some difficult journeys to make in her life – to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, to Egypt to escape the soldiers, and to Jerusalem, where she watched her son die. She couldn’t have known how hard it would be, but she still said ‘yes’ to God’s call, because, ultimately, it was a call to life.

This week we remember that all over the world, women still take on hardship because they want to create a life that is worth living for their children.Mary is much more than the passive woman dressed in blue; though this image is still pervasive. She had her dreams, but she was a woman of her time. 

The Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a beautiful poem about Mary: he focused on her ‘ wondrous robe.. which mantles the guilty globe’. And helps us to understand both her spiritual and natural nature:

 

Christ our Saviour still.

Of her flesh he took flesh:

He does take fresh and fresh,

Though much the mystery how,

Not flesh but spirit now And makes,

O marvellous!

New Nazareths in us,

Where she shall yet conceive Him,

morning, noon, and eve;

New Bethlems, and he born

There, evening, noon, and morn

 

In this lovely poem – which is called ‘ the virgin Mary compared with the air we breathe’ - Hopkins contends that just as the atmosphere sustains our physical life and regulates the power of the sun’s radiation, so Mary sustains our spiritual life and mediates our relationship to God. 

So we light our candles; we watch and wait; we pray that old prayer, maranatha, come Lord Jesus. Into our hopes and our fears, into our loves and our world; come Lord Jesus, bless us and surprise us as we look forward to your coming. 

Advent 1 Year B Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-37

Happy New Church Year.

On this, the first Sunday in Advent, our thoughts turn to Christ’s second coming. Such an emphasis can be helpful in adopting a “Green” perspective or exceedingly troublesome. After all, if the world is going to end at the point of Christ’s return, why do we need to look after it?

When James Watt, former secretary of the interior was questioned about protecting the environment of the grounds of intergenerational justice he replied that he did not know how many generations he could count on before the Lord returned, whilst it has been suggested that President Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement was based on his understanding that creation was transitory and would inevitably be destroyed. However, Mark 13 need not be interpreted as speaking of the annihilation of the world, but rather in terms of cataclysmic change resulting in judgement and the beginning of a new era, particularly when read against the background of the destruction of the temple.  

Anticipating Christ’s coming can motivate us positively to engage in the safeguarding of creation. The prophet Isaiah interlaces desperate pleas for God’ intervention and forgiveness, such as we encounter in this week’s Old Testament reading, with the promises of a future of peace and harmony, where God is sovereign and social and ecological justice are very much in evidence, suggesting a return to the idyllic world God intended prior to the fall.

Can we understand Christ’s coming, not in terms of the end of creation, but of a coming Kingdom and a renewed creation, which we as members of the Church of Christ are intended to prefigure? If so, then a focus on eschatology can be a positive resource for environmental activism. It also means that what we do now matters in the world to come. If we  have a role in building Christ's Kingdom then our acts of love and justice toward each other and towards creation have an eternal significance. They will remain in the Kingdom to come.

Perhaps now, as we face the dual crisis of Climate and Covid, we can identify with Isaiah’s desperate call for God’s reign to come soon. We are at a loss, our present and our future on this planet are very different from what we have known before. But our ultimate future is the reign of God and as Christians we can live as if this is already here; as if the Kingdom has already come on Earth as in Heaven. This will include living out and indeed insisting upon, in the name of Christ, social and ecological justice. At the beginning of a new church year, how does that sound for a resolution? .

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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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