Greening the Lectionary

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

Christ the King - Year A

How would you define a successful life? It is someone who makes their mark, achieves something significant, a book, a symphony, an acting career, a pop song that endures for decades? It is someone who has made lots of money, created a viable business, been able to retire at 30 or 40 or who hasn’t retired at all and has gone on to amass billions? Is it someone at the top of their profession, as a politician, a lawyer, a footballer or athlete? Or someone who has known the secret of happiness, who has enjoyed a contented life filled with pleasure. Perhaps all of these are true, except it appears that, in our Gospel this week, when lives are being judged by the supreme authority different criteria are in play.

Those who have lived successfully are those who have lived selflessly, who have lived for others, who have lived mercifully, incorporating small or large acts of kindness in their daily lives, those who have fed the stranger, visited the prisoner, reached out to those in need of help. Those who have acted rather like the good Samaritan, seeing where help was needed and responding. These are the things that have eternal value, not wealth, not power, not public recognition. These are the definition of a successful life

In the end all the trapping of success mean little, compared with living a life where love has been shown. Loving others does not always make for an easy life, loving others may require sacrifice, it is not the quickest way up the greasy pole and people may well take advantage. Loving others does not even guarantee a happy life, although we may find ourselves surprised how often thinking of others bring its own unique kind of joy. Yet a life of loving others is what God understands a successful life to look like.

This passage is clearly speaking about loving and serving people. I will insult neither your intelligence nor the author's intent by somehow suggesting that a difference between the Sheep and the Goats is how they treat the natural world. Although practicing love towards people tends to make people loving towards the rest of creation and caring for the natural world tends to make people loving towards people, because practicing love is practicing love and compassionate people tend to be inclusive rather than exclusive in their compassion.

In our world however, caring for people, for the sick, feeding the hungry, giving the thirst water does have an ecological aspect to it. We know that environmental harms fall on the most vulnerable.We know people are being made ill by air pollution and toxic dumpts. We know that droughts and degraded soils cause human hardship, we know that wars have ecological aspects and we know thing will only get worse until enough people say enough is enough.

So against this background and in the light of this passage, I urge you to consider afresh what does a successful life might look like?

Matthew 25:14-30

At first glance, this week’s Gospel seems to have many connections with our “Green” agenda. After all, this parable is one of the sources for the idea of the “Stewardship of Creation”. Human beings are seen as “stewards” who have been entrusted by God with the natural world, which we hold in trust for him. We are to look after it/use it wisely and one day we will be held accountable to God for it.

So far, so good! Except…I have a few problems, firstly, I don’t think stewardship is the best model to describe the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation, but it is a great improvement on exploitative and abusive attitudes and I am certain that we are indeed accountable to God for our treatment of his gift of the natural world. More importantly though, the traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents presents a very uncomfortable view of God. It's not easy to understand the master as God, because he's not a very pleasant character. He has slaves, and and no matter what your translation says, make no mistake about it, the Greek means slave. He's either a thief or at the very least exploitative and greedy, why does he reap where he does not sow and gather what he does not scatter? What happens to those who did reap and did sow - do they see any benefit? The description of him reminds me of those multi-nationals who make billions yet avoid paying tax, and as if that isn't enough he casts his slave into outer darkness

Such a master-god would hardly be good news for anyone. He would be a tyrant. Can this master who suggests lending at interest possibly be equated with the God who commanded in Deuteronomy 23:19-20 

You shall not change interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest?

Can this master who takes from those with least and gives to those with most possibly be equated with the God who has a preferential option for the poor?

Can this master who owns slaves really be equated with the God who led the slaves from Egypt to freedom in the promised land?

It is possible then, that we have misunderstood this parable? Perhaps it is not about using wisely that which God has given to us at all, but rather about what happens when people stand up to the systems that create inequality, or when slaves stand up to their masters, or how in an unfair world those who have get more and those who start with little so often lose even that.

In our use capital-to-make-capital society, it is easy to see the first two slaves as the virtuous ones and the third as lazy, but what if the real hero is the slave who stands up against the master’s bullying and dares to incur his master’s displeasure by doing the right thing. If this is the case then this parable is not a great model for creation care, but instead becomes a critique of a world where those who already have a great deal get even more, whilst those who don’t have much get even that taken from them, which seems to be an accurate description of the world in which we live today. A world where the constant accumulation of possessions on the part of those who already have, has devastating environmental consequences for who have so very little. 

In 2010 Gary Gardiner issued the following challenge to Christians, especially those of the “Green” persuasion.

"Many religions are in fact rapidly embracing the modern cause of environmental protection. Yet consumerism- the opposite side of the environmental coin and traditionally an area of religious strength- has received relatively little attention so far. Ironically, the greatest contribution the world’s religions could make to the sustainability challenge may be to take seriously their own ancient wisdom on materialism. Their special gift – the millennia old paradoxical insight that happiness is found in self-emptying, that satisfaction is found more in relationship than in things, and that simplicity can lead to a fuller life – is urgently needed today. Combined with the new-found passion of many religions for healing the environment, this ancient wisdom could help create new and sustainable civilizations."

 Is it too challenging to imagine that the demands of the ecological emergency require us to be like the third slave and resist the demands of ever-increasing economic growth? And if not, do we have sufficient courage to face the cost of doing so?

Remembrance

I must confess I would be most surprised if someone chose Remembrance Sunday of all Sundays to preach about the Christian’s relationship with the environment. Remembrance Sunday is rightly about remembering with gratitude those who have fought and for peace and security and those who still serve. I have said before on this blog, my aim is not to turn our emphasis away from the right and proper focus of any given Sunday, but rather to integrate a “green” perspective into our preaching and worship. This is not to suggest that there are not things that can be said. Firstly, it is intriguing to note the origin of the Remembrance Poppy. The poppies which grew on the battle field after the battle was done showing the resilience of nature, allowing something beautiful to emerge from the carnage of war, offers an analogy for the hope of peace.

Those who have experienced war would be the first to tell us that war is hell, a last resort, a failure on the part of the international community. So Remembrance is not only about remembering but about casting a vision for peace, and praying for that. There is an ecological element to this. The worse that the ecological crisis becomes, the more potential it brings for unrest and war. Indeed, analysing present conflicts through an ecological lens, shows that even now, the struggle for scarce recourses, not only oil, but water, and land is a root cause of many tensions.If we want peace, we need to get to grips with the ecological crisis.

It may also be worth noting, that the image of God’s peace, his shalom, is expressed not only in harmony between humanity and God and amid humanity itself, but as harmony throughout the whole created order.

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11 6-9 (NRSV)

As we remember, let us pray for and work for peace.

Matthew 22:34-46

If only Jesus had summarised the law by saying "love God, love your neighbour and love the Earth", persuading people to prioritise the ecological strands of discipleship and mission would be so much easier, but as we seek love God and our neighbour we may discover that caring for and safeguarding the created order is at the very heart of what we are trying to do. If, as some eco-theologians suggest the Earth, is “the Body of God”, then in loving the Earth we are literally loving God.

Yet it is not necessary to adopt this novel premise to see how protecting the Earth can express our love for God. Loving God means seeking him and worshipping him, longing for encounter with the divine, and setting aside time to listen for that still small voice. It involves learning and growing, praise and thankfulness. For many, time in the natural world facilitates this - creation speaks powerfully of the creator and provokes awe, wonder and praise. The natural world can be considered a gift; one which speaks profoundly of the giver, and if it is a gift then treating it with respect and tenderness, indeed treasuring it, would seem to be a way of honouring the giver.

Caring for the Earth is also a way of loving our neighbour as ourselves. We might consider extending the idea of neighbour to include species threatened by extinction or animals farmed in ways which deny them the quality of life which God surely intended for them, but even if we restrict our understanding of neighbour to our fellow humans, we find ample motivation for engaging in environmental activism.

I would argue that we must never let our zeal in challenging the exploitation of the natural world blind us to the exploitation of people - they are two sides of the same coin. Parts of the world are already experiencing the devastating effects of climate change, resulting in failed harvests and misplaced peoples. Whilst even in this country mental health is being affected by lack of access to green space and inhaler usage is soaring due to poor air quality in some of our cities.I wonder too, if we should consider those as yet unborn as our neighbours. What kind of world are we bequeathing to them? Some of the consequences of our actions, whether damaging or healing will not be seen in our lifetimes, but does this mean that we should not consider them ethically important?

Those working towards social justice will discover that this is not possible without ecological justice. The impacts of the ecological crisis fall on the most vulnerable and the intersections with racism and sexism are manifold. Although there is no mention of nature within this week’s Gospel. I would suggest that it is one of the most “Green” passages in the whole of scripture. If we need a justification for living sustainably, campaigning for action on climate change, or bringing the carbon footprint of our Churches down to zero – we find it here - in loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.