Greening the Lectionary

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

Trinity Reflections Year C

 

 Sunday 18th August Trinity 9 Luke 12.49-56 Cowardice or Christianity?

Many people imagine that the job of the Church and of Christians is to be nice and to get along with everyone. This means trying hard not to cause offence and walking a politically neutral tightrope and results in cautious Christianity adopting a softly-softly approach when articulating beliefs and ethics. It seems likely that the temptation to be nice, to avoid conflict and to ‘just get along with everyone’ was one that Jesus faced, but which he firmly rejected, as we can see in our Gospel passage for this week.

Anyone who though that Jesus had come to instigate universal peace and harmony (at least in the short-term) was swiftly disabused. The very presence of Jesus will bring discord, as his demanding ethical teaching, his insistence on absolute commitment and his criticism of the institutional religion of his day, made him a divisive figure. A decision to follow him might seem incomprehensible, ludicrous even dangerous to those who chose not to and he would sow disagreement even amid the closest familial relationships.

Christianity, like all religions is opinionated, it has contentious views about what it means to be human, about how lives should be lived and about right and wrong. Christ, although always loving, was not always ‘nice’. He challenged those whose lives needed to change, he called out evil and sin for when he encountered them and he fraternized with those society had labelled undesirable or ‘unclean’. He read the ‘signs of the times’ and made judgements accordingly, even when these made him unpopular, scandalous or even a wanted man. No wonder he had so little patience with those who wilfully ignored the signs that here among them, in his very person, was the one for whom they had been waiting; the presence of God in their midst.

So, what are the signs of our present time? Many countries in Europe seeing the hottest summer on record, powerful storms which have resulted in flooding, a nation divided over membership of the European Union, a president of the United States who seems to have a tangential relationship with the truth and the United Nations calling for urgent and radical action on climate change to avoid ecological disaster. Yet I sense a reluctance of the part of Churches and of Christians to speak out about these issues. Is this because of a fear of rocking the boat at a time when Christianity’s hold on the public imagination is ever loosening, because we can’t arrive at a common mind amongst ourselves or that we are simply wilfully ignoring the ‘signs of the time’ because the challenges they present are so great? No matter what the reason, failure to speak out on the most pressing issues of the day and in particular an issue where the future of life on this planet is in the balance, seems to be more cowardice rather than authentic Christianity.

August 11th Trinity 8 Luke 12.32-40 Money, Money, Money?

There can be no question that our present ecological crisis has arisen at least in part, as the result of prioritising the acquisition of money and economic growth above all other concerns, as well as our collective desire to hoard possessions to ourselves. So, Jesus’ words in this week’s Gospel “Sell your possessions, and give alms” require serious consideration.

Whether we view ourselves as rich, poor or just about managing, money has a significant hold on our lives. It is impossible to live in the structures we have created without it. However, it has assumed a significance way beyond that of exchanging for things we need or want. Money signifies power, success, respect. A person with a significant amount of money is viewed very differently from someone with very little. I suspect it was ever thus. Jesus words would be as challenging when he uttered them as they are for us today.

He counsels against making the acquisition of money the purpose of life, instead, urging those who follow him, to focus on building up a heavenly bank account, in preparation for the coming Kingdom. Money is not the priority, the Kingdom is. Given that Jesus’ words are set against an expectation of his imminent return, a return for which we still wait, it is tempting to use the changed context to dismiss his uncomfortable teaching in its entirety, but that would be too easy. There have been those, Francis of Assisi and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, for example, who have taken him at his word and sold everything, yet they are so notable as to have been declared saints. Those called to a monastic life also eschew possessions but most Christians tend live out Jesus’ teaching on money, through generous giving, integrity with regard to financial affairs, and a hefty dose of guilt.

Nevertheless, the message that some things are more important than money is one which we can take to heart and which our world very much needs to hear. If we are to avoid ecological disaster then we will need to question all of our assumptions about money, considering not only the financial, but the carbon cost of our actions and those of our governments and the businesses we support.

We will need to think again about what makes for a successful life; is it the accumulation of money really all this life is about? We will need to encourage, reward and value altruism quite as much as we admire wealth creation. Jesus’ challenge about possessions might also give us pause for thought. To what extent does quality of life depend on money and possessions? We need not give everything away to question whether we really need all of our ‘stuff' or to wonder whether we can live more simply and still be happy. We might even try it. As we seek to be in the world but not of it, money will inevitably continue to matter, but somethings some things the Kingdom, the planet, and our Lord himself, matter more.

28th July, Trinity 6 Luke 11:1-13 The Independence Delusion

In our society independence is something highly prized; we try to achieve financial independence, we anticipate our children growing up to be independent adults, and if we were described as independent we certainly wouldn’t consider it an insult, rather viewing ourselves as strong, determined and competent with perhaps a glamorous touch of the maverick. This week’s Gospel however, challenges this notion of independence because of its focus on prayer.

Prayer requires us to set independence aside. Those who pray the Lord’s prayer are reminded of their reliance on a being greater than themselves; the Father, whose name is to be honoured. It is he who gives them their daily bread, not their own cleverness, or hard work, or ability to make money. Prayer is an attitude of complete dependence. In prayer the disciples are encouraged to ask things of God. This point is reinforced by a parable in which one friend asks another for help, and upon encountering an initial reluctance is urged to be persistent. The assumption here is one of interdependence, a community where people unashamedly ask each other for help.

In our society where we find it hard to admit the need help in the first place, the idea of repeatedly asking for help until it is forthcoming is extremely counter cultural. Maybe this is why so many of us find prayer a struggle. We don’t pray because we view asking for help as failure, even if the help we are asking for is from God. The headline message of today’s Gospel is a simple one which can very easily be applied to our present ecological crisis – Pray!

So, are we? Are we regularly bringing our concerns about the perilous state of our world to God? Are we sharing with him our fears that we may be authors of our own destruction? Are we bringing countries already affected by climate volatility before God in prayer? Are we praying for world leaders to act wisely and provide necessarily leadership on the issues? Are we asking God where we ourselves need to change our behaviours or how he would like us to respond to ecological challenges? And if not, why not?

Additionally, it might be worth thinking about the role that the ‘independence mentality’ has had in getting us to this point. The way in which our drive for independence encourages us to hoard money and possessions so that we don’t have to ask for help. We need to ask ourselves why we would prefer to buy something which is costly to ourselves and the environment, rather than borrow the one our neighbour owns and isn’t using at the moment. Even the briefest consideration of nature will lead us to understand that any sense of independence is a delusion. We are part of nexus of many interdependent parts. How humbling it has been for human beings to realise how dependent they are on pollinating insects! What a shame it took their decline to brought that into focus! The unprecidented crisis we face requires an urgent change of mind-set, replacing the veneration of independence with a vision of dependence on God and interdependence; with our neighbours, local and global, and the natural world.

 Sunday 21st July Trinity

5 Col 1:15-28 "Red in tooth and claw"

When Sir David Attenborough was asked why, despite his clear appreciation of the wonders of the natural world, he did not believe in God, he answered with the example of “a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, that is going to make him blind” a notion he could not reconcile with the idea of a merciful creator god. He’s got a point. When we present the natural world as evidence for the existence of God, we need to take care not to articulate a naïve view of it. Nature is beautiful, breathtaking and awesome, it is also cruel, violent, and selfish, 'red in tooth and claw'.

In the first chapter of Genesis, God looks at what he has made and declares it “good”. The Hebrew word used is ‘Tov’ which means in accord with God’s purposes. Yet Attenborough’s example does not seem to be in accord with God’s purposes at all. Has God's original intention for nature been thwarted in some way? Does nature share humanity's need to be reconciled to God? Isaiah's understanding that, in the fullness of God's reign, such violence would be absent and the wolf would lie down with the lamb, might point us towards precisely that conclusion whilst an ecological reading of today's Epistle might move us even further in that direction, referring as it does to the reconciliation of "all things".

The precise interpretation of “all things” has been hotly debated over the centuries because the passage refers not only to the things of earth but the things of heaven. Our question though, is not what are the heavenly things that need to be reconciled in Christ, but what are the earthy ones? Does "all things" encompass animals, plants, even the entire universe as well as humans? I would suggest it does, because when, earlier in the passage, we read “all things” in relation to the act of creation, we understand it to mean everything that is included in the Genesis creation narratives, the stars, the moon, the waters, the animals and the plants as well as human beings. When we encounter the same phase later on, referring to reconciliation, it would seem almost churlish to insist that it refers exclusively to people.

If the phrase "all things" does include the whole of the created order then it is possible to say Christ died, not only for “us men and for our salvation” but for the non-human creation as well. Thus the atonement is far more expansive than we have previously thought. The implications of this might range from a curtailing of humanity’s arrogance to a consideration of how we might share in this process of reconciliation. It might also go some way to answering the question raised by Attenborough's parasitic insect, since the process of reconciliation is ongoing and not yet perfected.

Since the thrust of the passage is to give glory to Christ, by emphasising his pre-eminence in creation and the all-encompassing span of his work of reconciliation, such a reading is far from incongruous and may indeed lead us to worship our Saviour with even greater awe and wonder. It is not uncontroversial however, and those who remain unconvinced might prefer to focus instead on role of Christ's creative power, emphasising that all things were created through him and for him. Human beings are not at liberty to do as they wish with the world, for it does not belong to them, but to Christ.

Sunday 14th July Trinity 4 Bearing Fruit?

Colossians 1.1-14

 

The metaphor of “fruit” employed by St Paul in this week’s Epistle reading is one of his favourites. Only a few weeks ago the Lectionary readings included ‘the fruits of the Spirit”, whilst this week he uses it to describe both numerical growth as the Gospel is spreads throughout the world and spiritual growth amongst the Colossian Christians. The passage describes the life of faith as one of change and development which results in a greater awareness and understanding of who God is and what his purposes are. However, this is not merely a growth of the intellect or piety but has a practical outworking in terms of mutual love for one another and fruit-yielding good works. The nature of this fruit might be numerical or spiritual, probably both.

Although the Colossians are notable for their faith and love for one another, Paul leaves no room for complaisancy, praying unceasingly that their Christian life will continue to evolve and mature. There is no sense here of being a “good enough” Christian or being able to rest upon one’s laurels. There is always scope for more good works, more fruit, for greater wisdom, endurance and patience, always the possibility of appreciating the Gospel with more profound joy and thanksgiving, yet all of this is set within the context of the grace of God who has redeems through the Son, and empowers through the Spirit. We must take care not to hear St Paul’s exhortations as an encouragement to a works-based salvation. Beware the heresy of Pelagius!

For Christians today, this passage may well give us cause to consider our own discipleship and our progress towards “lives worthy of the Lord’. Are we undertaking good works which are bearing fruit in our own lives and the lives of others? Is our attentiveness towards and knowledge of God deepening? Are we joyful in the knowledge of all that God has done for us?

Despite its extended use of a nature metaphor, the degree to which this passage might be considered ‘Green’ is dependent upon our understanding of the interplay between discipleship and creation-care. Is working toward a sustainable world central to the life of faith or peripheral to it? By and large, thinking of our obligations towards the world which is our home has been an under-developed and neglected strand of Christian theology, albeit with some notable exceptions such as St Francis of Assisi, and Gerrard Whinstanley. However, it is one which is becoming ever more relevant amid the environmental challenges we face. Thus, a preacher wishing to “Green” their sermon might wish to pepper it with examples of “good works” which have a positive environmental "fruit", or highlight how growing in the knowledge of God might include considering his perspective on the world he created and our treatment of it.

Sunday 7th July 2019 Trinity 3 Galatians 7-16 Luke 10 1-11, 16-20

"Reaping what you sow?"

The idea of “reaping what you sow” is an appealing one. There’s a certain natural justice about it. Actions have consequences, good actions have good consequences, but selfish, self-indulgent behaviour will have disastrous ones. Anthropogenic climate change seems to be the perfect illustration of this principle, as for generations human beings have sown contempt for the natural world with attitudes of possession, greed and exploitation, and now it’s coming back to bite us. We are reaping what we have sown, and even with immediate and decisive action on carbon emissions, we will have plenty more reaping to do for years to come.

However, reflection on climate change also shows us how the correlation between action and consequences is far more complicated than ‘getting one’s just desserts’. It is frequently those high polluting nations who are best placed to be most resilient and have yet to feel the full extent of climate volatility, whilst countries with less of a ‘carbon debt’ are disproportionately affected. In a case of the 'sins of the parents being visited upon the children' it is our young people and those yet unborn who will face the consequences of previous generations' actions and inaction. Furthermore, if life were simply a case of ‘what goes around comes around’ then our sinless saviour would hardly have ended his life betrayed and deserted on a cross. Christianity is predicated on us not getting what we deserve, because Christ accepted what he did not deserve.

So, as we preach this week’s Epistle, we must take care to avoid any suggestion of a correlation between an individual’s behaviour and the deal they get in life, for in that direction lies the heresy of the prosperity gospel and victim blaming. St Paul's words “you reap whatever you sow." must be interpreted differently. We may choose to read them as referring to a future judgement, particularly as they are preceded by the statement that God will not be mocked. There will have been those who saw the Gospel of grace preached by Paul as a ‘get out of jail free card’ - a licence to act as they please with no consequences, and we can see these words as a corrective to that. Actions still have consequences and we are still accountable to God for what we do. Such an accountability must, I would argue, encompass our treatment of the earth as well as other people.

We may be able to hide our selfishness from each other and we may be fortunate enough to escape the direct consequences of our actions in this life, but nothing is hidden from God. It’s a sobering thought. It is also possible to understand “reaping what you sow” as referring to the perfecting or corrosion of character. The way that our actions small and large change us, each seemingly hidden and inconsequential action shaping who we are for good or for ill. Each lie we tell making it easier to tell the next one, each act of generosity forming us into an ever more generous person.

Understood this way, the passage points us toward the spirituality of 'Virtue Ethics' and the cultivation of disciplined habits of holiness which are practiced until they become second nature. With the context of creation care such ‘holy habits’ might include: recycling, turning off lights, walking or using public transport where possible, reducing or stopping flying, but in the light of this week’s Gospel reading where the seventy are sent off without purse, bag or sandals and are encouraged to rely on the generosity of others, simplicity of life and hospitality might be particularly worthy of consideration.

Sunday 30th June

Trinity 2

Galatians 5:1 13-25 Luke 9:51-62

 Is the Christian obligation to love each other, that is other Christians, a priority over and above loving all people? When, in this week’s Epistle, St Paul sums up the law in the commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself", he does so in the context of encouraging the fractious Galatian Christians to commit to a life of mutual slavery. They are to stop their back biting and in-fighting and exchange self -indulgence for love. In this instance, loving your neighbour seems to begin at home, or at least church.

Yet we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that one’s “neighbour” transcends tribalism to encompass all those in need, going beyond those who are like us, or with whom we agree, or who go to our Church, or whose beliefs we share. If we look at the concept of “neighbour” through a green lens, we would undoubtedly wish to include our global neighbours, those in parts of the world whose “need” is exacerbated by both climate change and the precariousness of living in poverty. We may well wish to consider whether loving our neighbour includes our inter-generational neighbours, those children and young people who are striking for their future and those yet unborn who may inherit a world with insufficient resources to maintain the abundant life we enjoy. We may even find ourselves wondering whether our understanding of “neighbour” can stretch to include those other species with whom we share this planet.

For the sake of all these “neighbours” Christian action and advocacy on environmental issues are vital. Even if we take the understanding of “neighbour” at its narrowest and apply it only to our fellow Christians the conclusion remains the same. For many of our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, the threat of climate chaos is a present not a future reality. Loving them, being slaves to them, means doing something about it. Consequently “creation-care” and “safeguarding the integrity of creation” must not be seen as a “bolt-on” to our Christian mission. This is core business not something we do if “we’re into that sort of thing” or when we’ve got we’ve got time and resources left over from whatever we think the “real work” is.Tackling the climate emergency, advocating for change, educating for sustainability, articulating a Gospel which is good news for the earth and not just people, is the real work. It is loving our neighbour as ourselves.

In our Gospel for today, Jesus, his face is now set towards Jerusalem, prioritises the invitation to “follow him” over and above saying goodbye to loved ones, or even burying the dead. Time is of the essence and Jesus only has a short time left. Activities which would have been normal, desirable, essential even, are to be left undone because of the urgency of the situation. Arguably, the same principle applies in our present climate emergency. We must ask ourselves, as individuals and as a Church what do we need to leave undone, so that we can love those neighbours, Christian and non-Christian, near and far, in the present and in the future, for whom action on climate change is a pressing need? For not to do so and carrying on with a Christian version of “business as usual” would I fear, be the height of self-indulgence and the opposite of love.

Sunday 23rd June

First Sunday of Trinity

Luke 8:26-39

"What about the pigs?"

This week’s Gospel reading is an uncomfortable one on two scores: firstly it deals with “demon possession”, a notion which is alien to our 21st Century sensibilities, at least in the West, and secondly because our increasing awareness of animal rights causes us to ask “What about the pigs?” However, St Luke’s initial audience would have had no such qualms. Their worldview could easily accommodate the idea that someone could be possessed by a legion of demons and it would be entirely fitting to them that these destructive and life draining entities should be disposed of via those most “unclean” of animals, pigs.

For them the primary message of the passage would be power of Jesus to save and heal, even in a Gentile community. But they may also have noted that despite Jesus revealing the extent of his power, the response to him is predominantly hostile. One might go so far as to say he was run out of town. St Luke attributes this to fear. Whether this fear was amplified by what happened to the pigs is unclear but being instrumental in the destruction of an entire village’s swine herd is unlikely to have endeared him to the community. The demoniac who is demoniac no longer, is a different story; overwhelmed by gratitude, and perhaps some fear of his own, he begs to be allowed stay with Jesus, but he is given a far harder mission, to return to his home, bearing witness to his antagonistic community of all that Jesus had done for him.

What we take from this passage will depend, as ever, on our point of view. There will be those who consider that the anthropocentrism of the passage and the fate of the pigs renders it irredeemable as a source for an ecologically sympathetic theology. Others will use it to suggest that a Biblically literate theology does privilege the needs of people over and above those of animals, particularly when people find themselves as isolated and enslaved as the Demoniac did. Those taking this line will wish to consider in which circumstances this privilege should be exercised and where its limits might be. Another approach would be to ask a different question. I would suggest that a contextual reading of the passage will cause us to contemplate what it means to challenge evil. The approval we would expect is not always forthcoming and even positive and necessary change can be met with suspicion and fear, particularly if it has economic implications. In advocating for our planet and encouraging attitudinal and behavioural change we can find ourselves identifying with the lone, brave voice of the former demoniac as he gives his uncomfortable testimony, more often that we might imagine.

TRINITY SUNDAY

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

On Trinity Sunday, it would be perfectly in order to preach on the role of Trinity in Creation, not only in bringing forth the world from chaos but also redeeming and sustaining it. However, if we are limiting ourselves to the texts that the compilers of our lectionary have selected for us, then it is the Old Testament reading about Lady Wisdom, which lends itself most easily to a “Green” commentary.

The personification of the Wisdom of God we find there, was of profound importance in the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity. The idea of Holy Wisdom became incorportated within the Incarnate Word of John’s Gospel and clearly influenced Colossian’s description of Christ as the first-born of all creation. It is interesting to note that Wisdom is created before the natural world and before human beings. It would appear that Wisdom is a necessary pre-condition for dealing with both. In an age when interactions between people and the non-human creation are so disordered that the word chaos is frequently employed, this is worth pondering. To what extent has neglect of God’s wisdom brought us to our present ecological emergency? To what extent can attention to it provide the answers we need?

However, it is the delight that Wisdom shows both in the creative power of God and in the Creation itself which is the most striking aspect of the passage. Wisdom rejoices with God not only in the order that has been created but in the “inhabited” world. The delight is not in a sterile and lifeless world but in one teeming with human and non-human life. It is the human race though, which is singled out for a special mention. The delight in Creation found in this passage has resonances of the refrain “And God saw that it was good” found in the first creation narrative, but it goes beyond it. Not only is creation “good” in the sense of being in harmony with God, but it gives enjoyment and pleasure. Creation’s purpose is clearly more than utility. The ability to delight in creation is a mark of Wisdom and one which we would do well to emulate. Is there a need for our sophisticated, technology-driven society to recover a more simple sense of wonder and joy in the natural world, appreciating it not for what it provides for us, or its potential for exploitation but for the marvel that it is?

 

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