Greening the Lectionary

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

Lent 1 Year B

The beginning of Lent is here : a new beginning with new possibilities for a renewed life. We are awakened from our English winter hibernation to the voice of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, get ready, make way, wake up – there’s a change on the way. 

This year, with all the pandemic restrictions, we could do with a change. And we might wonder what God has on offer - where is God in all this? 

The four gospels were written to tell us just that . We begin with Mark’s gospel, the shortest and the first to be written (we believe). It literally changed the world into which it came 2000 plus years ago, telling a story through pictures, vignettes, snapshots of moments in time.

 

The story bursts in with’ in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. We can hardly believe our ears! Surely it should be the other way around? But no, Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan. Make way, make way, for the king of kings: make way, make way and let his kingdom in – go the words of the popular worship sing.

At Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan river, there is no doubt of his call from God through the Holy Spirit, to act as his agent to right all wrongs and make his rule clear , with all. The heavens open and a new dimension of reality, a new relationship, is recognised; the loving Fatherhood of God, with powerful words of affirmation for his Beloved Son, encouraging him to take the reins. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall have eternal life. As the river flows through the Jordan, so God’s love flows through his creation.

The Holy Spirit continues to work through Jesus, as he is driven into the hot and sandy wilderness to test and strengthen his resolve. The tempter suggests the if he is God’s Son, he would be able to use and show miraculous powers to stun the people into awe and wonder; to take control of the centres of power in Jerusalem ; to do daring acts of bravery knowing that God would save him from disaster. Or simply to turn back and change his mind. The wild beasts were there; Satan was there; but so were the angels, affirming God’s presence watching over him, loving him as he rejects the temptations to personal power. God begins to pour out his Spirit and with his Son begins the journey.

 

All this takes place, not in a place of worship, but outdoors, in the great outdoors, in the midst of a rather hostile creation, a desert. This mission is for the whole world, both political and natural, and includes both humans and nonhumans, the creatures, the animals and birds, and the Spirits. Wouldn’t you be a little daunted? As usual, Jesus way of coping is then to withdraw to pray for a while before starting his journey and his work. A moment of stillness.

Meanwhile, John the Baptist is arrested, and it’s time now for Jesus to go up to Galilee and proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom - the long awaited messiah is here; the kingdom is near; repent; turn to Christ; believe the gospel.

The Old Testament story comes from, not Isaiah, but Genesis. It’s the story of the first covenant made between God and his people; it’s a generational covenant with promises on both sides, made with ‘ all flesh’ , all creatures and humankind, and powerfully sealed with the rainbow. The spectrum of the rainbow covers a wide diversity of people and nations as it bows across the sky.

As long as we are obedient to God’s way of life, there will be no more floods such as the flood of the Noah’s Ark story. Apostle Paul spells this out more clearly in one of his many letters, reminding us that the new way of life, which can be learned in our church communities, includes good behaviour and gentleness in our daily witness; and a good conscience, good moral behaviour as befitting children of God. This is how we must use the freedom purchased for us by Jesus on the cross. If we read Paul’s letters carefully , we find that this includes taking care of creation as well as taking care of each other. In fact, we know today how one is so closely linked with the other. 

We do need to face the threat of flood. It is actually very real. In our warming world, arctic melt is causing the sea levels to rise. People in the Pacific Islands are already losing their homes. Coastal regions across the world are being threatened, cliff faces crumbling – yes, even in our northern seaside resorts such as Scarborough. Makes us think! 

Deforestation is a major cause; will all our forests gradually be cut down, and the land become wilderness and savannah? Deforestation is a cause of increased chance of disease too; as we reduce the habitat and spaces reserved for animals, so we facilitate the spread of disease. As we reduce the opportunities given by the forest canopies to clean up our polluted air, to regulate and balance the atmosphere, so we facilitate the spread of disease.

Much of what happens next is up to us humans. Our life choices matter. During Lent, we remember that Jesus was tempted to use his powers for selfish gain and self glorification. We know that we must repent, turn around , say no to the tempter; turn back with commitment to our commission as people of God, to heal, to bind up and to comfort; our commitment to combat global warming and to seek better ways forward.

We will remember that nature is an essential tool for addressing the threats of climate change , of biodiversity loss, of deforestation and polluted waters. The call for all is for ambitious action to put nature into recovery and embrace natural solutions. We will remember nature as well as people in our prayers this Lent. We can renew our promises to God; and put the two great commandments at the heart of our Lent; put the ‘Lord our God’ at the centre of our lives and tlove our neighbours, both here and abroad , as ourselves.

Amen

‘The Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth ‘(12.38-42) An ecological and environmental reflection on the lectionary readings from Matthew’s Gospel for Advent 2019

 

At the time of writing, vast swathes of South Yorkshire are covered in the waters of the overflowing course of the River Don, after weeks of heavy rain – and as an outworking of the climate crisis in our own lives. Globally, the waters of the oceans are rising and small low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean are disappearing gradually beneath waves. This is no longer a dystopian dream, or rather nightmare, but a reality. In the beginning is our end. 

From time to time Christians set aside time to reflect on their spiritual life, to concentrate on awareness and the presence of God and perhaps make changes in their lifestyle. The four weeks of advent offer this opportunity. We believe that God has given us this planet earth, to provide a home for all God’s people. We have a responsibility to treat it wisely, acting as caring stewards of God’s creation. In today’s world of extreme weather events, drought, flooding and the loss of species, it appears that we are abusing this responsibility. We are creating a world where some are consuming too much of the earth’s resources and many are vulnerable. The climate crisis is not an easy topic to think about, but we can find guidance from scriptures. Dr Emily Colgan from Trinity Methodist Theological College when discussing an article published in 1967 by a scientist named Lynn White, argues that a causal relationship exists between Christianity and the contemporary ecological crisis. Dr Colgan said: “I believe that the ecological crisis is a religious crisis. Alongside what scientists are telling us, there is a need as Christians for us to rediscover our place in the world. We need to rethink who we are in a theological sense. We are not going to act differently until we think differently. We are not superior to other-than-human communities, we are all interconnected and we need to make different moral and ethical choices that respect that.”

Matthew’s gospel is the lectionary focus for the coming liturgical year. At Advent, this gospel builds up the picture slowly and patiently, reminding us not only of the importance of waiting, but how long God’s people had been waiting for this moment, in the preparation for the coming of the Son of Man, of the Christ Child into this world. Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy and historical focus on Jesus’ roots. Jesus is presented first and foremost as the long-awaited Messiah, who was expected to be a descendant and heir of King David. Abraham, the father of a nation, heads the genealogy in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ forebears. Abraham is followed by David, a royal king , an exemplar ruler and peace builder with subsequent royal kings coming after him. Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus as a new Moses, and possibly the Gospel itself as a new Torah. There are parallels between Jesus’ birth and that of Moses ; parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the giving of a new law to the followers of Jesus , and the story of Exodus, of Mount Sinai, and the giving of the law to Moses, the great builder of the Israelite nation. 

This portrayal as the new Moses, points his followers to a radical way of being Jewish which centres not on the Temple nor on the Torah but on Jesus Christ, as a radical new leader; with Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, which begins not with himself but with creation. The Son of Man is coming, is already here , and life as we know it will be swept away. Here the cosmic and the ordinary belong in the same sentence. Jesus, speaking to his disciples of cataclysmic and cosmic events when the Son of Man comes, puts his warning in very domestic terms – working in the fields, grinding meal, securing the house against a thief. This is down to earth stuff. Jesus is the Son of Man: Ben Adam, the one hewn from the earth. He has come for the restoration of the earth. ‘The Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth ‘(12.38-42) Matthew’s gospel has many earthquakes, and we could include the storm on the lake here (8; 24.3,8; 24.7,8) and thus connect with the passage from Romans 8.22 , where the whole of creation goes into labour, seeking release from its bondage to decay. Decay, degradation, pollution and human neglect abound. War too is the most ecologically destructive of all human activities. We need to wake up to what is going on around us; wake up to our responsibilities.

How should we interpret this in our own context? How to discern the Word of the Lord this advent? How can we find our story in God’s story? John the Baptist calls us to discipleship. He calls from the wilderness of our empty places, the wilderness of today’s complex world and challenging life. He calls us to repent: the Kingdom of God has come near, bringing a new citizenship, a distinctive way of life. There is an urgency in this call; we now have to speed up, to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’. But with a jolt, we slow down again as John the Baptist is taken from the freedom of the wilderness into prison for going against Herod. It must have been a hard jolt for someone used to the wide open spaces to be now shackled in a dungeon. He was learning patience again, the hard way. It’s the same for all of us.

Encouraged to keep our eyes fixed on hope, our job like that of John the Baptist, is to draw out people from where they are so that they, and we, can truly prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Let’s return to the flooded valleys of South Yorkshire. Signs of hope appear in the gathering of the village communities in the flooded valleys as they work together to provide shelter, food, comfort and eventually the restoration of their homes. This is still ongoing, this will take time. The usual busy daily routines are disrupted, time slows down, everyday essentials come full focus – food, warmth, shelter, friends and family take over. Here the ‘fruits of repentance’ are expressed as we live in harmony with one another, welcoming each another. The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (9.2-8). Advent’s promise will enlarge our hearts , so that more and more we can delight in the way of walking, in the way of running in the paths of God’ s commandments. Christians are those who believe that the flourishing of individuals and of communities, the possibility of neighbour loving neighbour, and of peace between humans and other species in their dwelling on the planet is possible. The advent readings end with a new beginning. The advent readings end with the birth of the Messiah. In Matthew’s gospel, the focus is on Joseph, from the royal lineage of David, and a carpenter, woodworker and guardian of the baby Jesus. Joseph was given his task in a dream, in a vision. Revelation, dream and vision still play their part. ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’(1 21). Joseph’s line provides a place in a nation and a place in history, with its promises of land and promises of future generations. Mary provides the future: her conception is of the Holy Spirit, and it is through the Holy Spirit that the good news of Jesus Christ will grow from a particular nation and history to the Gentiles and into the whole world ’to the ends of the earth’.

Just how Jesus saves is a theme throughout much post Gospel writings and if there is a definitive New Testament understanding of salvation Ephesians 2 8-10 is probably the strongest contender. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life ‘(Ephesians 2 8-10). We need to be a people who do energy and ecological audits of their buildings, lands and investments, engage groups of children and adults in conservation projects and wilderness experiences, and encourage others to insulate their homes, drive smaller cars, walk or cycle or take the bus when they can, recycle whatever they can and source as much of their food locally as they are able. ‘The Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth ‘(12.38-42) Perhaps each Advent God is doing something new in all our lives; in times of awkward questions and times of silence, we need that faithful trust in what God is doing. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of God; a renewal of his presence with us; a time to pay attention to the clues that God is active, to notice the meaning of things we might take for granted, a time to practice that faithful trust, so that we too can ‘ play the new music; ’ even as ’ the Son of Man ( is) at the heart of the earth’, so as the angels appear unexpectedly in the night sky, we say: ‘Emmanuel, God with us’. We need to get used to his continual coming each year, a little further into our lives until that great Second Coming, the Parousia, actually occurs.

Christine Jack

Seasonal Introduction Lent 2020

Lent is traditionally a six-week period when, as churches and Christians, we are reminded of the foundations of our discipleship, of how we are called to live and to love in today’s world. Lent itself comes before Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection life, working to bring life and hope into many situations and reflect on the actions we can take ourselves.

We are living in a world, where we in the West have a freedom to make choices; we prize our individual liberty often asserting that we are free to do what we want as long as this does not cause harm to others. Why does our reflection this Lent begin with the theme of ‘freedom of choice’? Because in the biblical texts for the first Sunday in Lent, choices are being made. In the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and in the story of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, each are being asked to make choices which will have consequences. From the very beginning, we are both individuals with a personal liberty and a part of wider environmental and societal context, part of creation, part of both society and the natural world.** As we make our choices, there are many voices to listen to – the question becomes ‘ what kind of world do we want to survive? What kind of world do we want to sustain? In the readings for Lent 2, Abraham and Nicodemus listen to the voice of God speaking to them, calling them onwards, calling them to action. We too hear the voices of scientists, economists, campaigners, theologians and future generations. We find more answers as we listen to the voices of communities from all across the world. They tell us how their loves are affected by climate change and environmental destruction, as they face issues of deforestation, water crisis, air pollution, food waste loss of biodiversity, of animal species.

Genesis 1-3 risks being read either in isolation from the rest of the Bible or alternatively in a too dominant role. This can make our understanding of creation backward-looking if not static. Looking back to ‘ what we might have been’ if we had made different choices; the ideal human being defined at the very beginning of the story. The problem is that if we define human nature, and the image of God, at the act of origination, our vision can become narrow. A major issue in current biblical thought is that these opening chapters are part of a broader dynamic of the faith of Israel; a living faith which actually is in continuing encounter with God. We need to remind ourselves that the theology of creation is distributed more widely , more extensively, through the Hebrew Scriptures; into the Wisdom literature and the Psalms, now considered to be valuable readings of creation and creatureliness.

Could we widen our perspective to allow a broader context of God’s interaction with the world? How we might best do this will unfold as develop our themes for the Lenten programme. Here we will move from the ‘static man-centred individualism’ of the past 500 years, to a ‘resource-centred global relationship’ context in the new era of the 21st century.

Christine Jack

A Theodicy for the Environmental Crisis.

People blame God for their suffering, but  so much of it is caused by human beings.

Breast cancer, testicular & prostate cancers have all risen several fold in recent years. This is believed may be due to the over-use of man-made chemicals such as pesticides which can cause oestrogen-mimic chemicals which disrupt the human hormone & defence system.

There are over 100,000 man-made chemicals in use today & the EU say many of them have not been properly safety tested. When Israel banned the pesticide Lindane their cancer rate dropped significantly. Lindane is mainly banned now in developed countries but it was used for decades in garden products etc. & for treating insect infestations in humans, such as scabies. Quite a few people died from leukaemia when the timbers inside their house were treated for woodworm etc with Lindane. Benzene is a proven cause of cancer but is still used by industry.

The WWF found a cocktail of toxic chemicals in the blood of almost all the 155 blood samples that they took from volunteers. The chemicals came from pesticides, plastics, non-stick fluoride coatings & pollution. Almost all the blood in the world is now said by officials to contain fluoride (PFOA) chemicals from non-stick coatings.

Often scientists test a chemical on its own to find out if it’s safe for humans, but they have not tested for the synergistic (working-together) effect. Chemicals can be much more powerful when combined.

Much suffering & tragedy is caused by corporate greed & laziness. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate reported that Britain's nuclear waste tips were leaking & were "an accident waiting to happen." Radiation from the nuclear industry & from x-rays can cause cancer, birth defects & genetic damage. CT scans can give off very high levels of radiation. The Royal College of Radiologists Working Party concluded that around seven million x-rays a year in UK may be unnecessary. For this reason doctors & dentists have been recommended to share a patient's x-rays if possible, instead of duplicating them. This is more inconvenient & so is still often not done.

The government say 24,000 early deaths a year in Britain, from respiratory problems etc., are caused by air pollution. Many of UK floods in recent years, which damaged people’s homes, were caused because Britain’s flood defences were not attended to, in order to save money. Rivers were often no longer dredged. New houses are built on flood plains, where fields used to be left empty to soak up flood water.

Many diseases can be prevented or helped by good nutrition. But much manufactured food is low in vitamins, minerals & fibre but high in saturated fat, salt & artificial additives which are cheap ingredients. No incentives are given for the food industry to use healthier ingredients. Cheap ingredients save the companies money but costs the NHS dear.

Hydrogenated fats were added to our food for decades until the Consumers’ Association reported in October 2003 that hydrogenated fats cause higher rates of heart attacks and strokes. Good vegetable oils were treated at high temperature with hydrogen, to turn them into hard fats. This gave food a longer shelf-life but it blocks arteries. Hydrogenated fat was added to many snacks & to healthy-looking ready-meals, including vegetarian, from supermarkets. It was in margarine & vegetarian sausages etc. Most responsible manufacturers have now stopped using hydrogenated fats, but read the ingredients.

Water companies now report that they are not able to remove all the medical drugs such as Prozac & the perfumes, fabric softeners, shampoos & bath products from drinking water. Around 10,000 hospital beds a year in UK are occupied by people damaged by prescribed medical drugs. The NHS spends billions treating patients suffering adverse reactions to medical drugs prescribed for them by doctors, according to figures from the think-tank Compass.

Factory farming is causing human suffering, as well an animal suffering. Intensive farmers feed farm animals antibiotics to keeping them healthy in the cramped, over-crowded unhealthy conditions. Humans then consume the antibiotics in small quantities in meat. This is one cause of drug-resistant bacteria & many antibiotics now fail to work on humans in hospital. The other main cause was the over-prescribing of antibiotics by GPs for colds. New guidelines on this have now been issued to doctors but is still being ignored by some doctors.

This is not the full answer as there will always be some suffering that we can't understand, but the more we know, the it seems that human arrogance, or greed or simple mistakes have a significant part to play. 

It's hard when individuals suffer for something which is not their fault. But God gave mankind free will. Edmund Burke said "Evil triumphs when good people do nothing." So we should inform our MPs & companies that we consider health & safety to be important.

Looking at the details of disasters you can often see they were caused by greed, because financial considerations were put first & many were caused by laziness & complacency. Listening to the news you will often hear that warnings given of future disasters were ignored by those in authority. 

It's food for thought - next time you hear that something is an act of God ask is it really?

 

Blessings, Ann Wills