Greening the Lectionary

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

Year C: Lent

Lent 1: Deut 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13

Choices, choices, choices. We all face them, whether trivial or life changing; they are part of everyday life. Sometimes the right choice seems self-evident whilst other dilemmas are so difficult we find them agonising. The ability to make decisions and the necessity of choosing are part of the blessing and burden of having free will and sometimes it can be challenging.

In today’s Gospel we realise that it is a challenge that Jesus shared, as we reflect on his temptations in the wilderness and catch a glimpse of his decision-making processes at work. Jesus makes the choice to reject the temptations laid before him by the devil, and in saying “no” to them, chooses a different path, one which leads to the Cross. The easier choices of self-seeking miracles, grasping worldly power and exploiting God’s love, are not options for him. The choices Jesus makes are grounded in his knowledge of scripture, prioritise the sovereignty of God and involve considerable self-sacrifice.

Looking at Jesus' temptations leads us to consider our own, and from an environmental perspective there are many: to prioritise profit and economic growth above care for creation, to allow the global poor to absorb the consequences of climate change, to think that its someone else’s problem to sort out, or to resist the cost (personal and financial) of making the changes necessary. The solutions to our present difficulties and the choices that we need to make as individuals, the church and the global community are not always clear and will undoubtedly involve some sacrifice, but we need to wrestle with the issues and act.

As we do so, we must place God at the centre of our decisions and allow ourselves to be informed by his word. “Green Issues” are not an add on to scripture but are to be found everywhere by those with eyes to see it. The Old Testament reading for today with its emphasis on the bountiful land, given by God to God’s people, but bringing with it certain responsibilities, is a case in point. An awareness that the land, and the earth itself, is a gift worthy of being received with gratitude is a good starting point when tough decisions need to be taken about carbon targets, fuel usage, pesticides or plastic. Often, we can think these choices are out of our hands, but decision makers do bow to public pressure and businesses to customer demands. Our voice can count and so can the small everyday decisions we make, about our energy use, what we recycle, how we travel or what we choose to eat or buy. Life is about choices and Lent might be just the time to consider the impact of ours on God’s creation and the future of our world.

Lent 2: Phil: 3:17- 4:1, Luke 13:31-end

A prophet’s lot is not happy one! In classical mythology Cassandra was a beloved of Apollo, who gave her the gift of prophesy as a token of love, but when she spurned his advances he regretted his generosity. Unable to take back his gift, he cursed her so that her prophesies, although always accurate, would never be taken seriously. She foresaw the tragedy that was the Trojan War but was unable to prevent it.

Like Cassandra, Biblical prophets told the future and were not always believed, but they were not only foretellers but forth-tellers, commenting on the political and moral issues of their day. Often the two were intertwined as their predictions described the inevitable consequence if the sinful behaviour they were denouncing continued. Their role was an uncomfortable and demanding one, requiring considerable courage. Gifted with a “God’s eye view”, they were tasked with calling people to repentance, helping them to realise the error of their ways and urging them to live differently. Understandably this did not make them popular. It was no job for a people pleaser.

In today's Gospel, Jesus plants himself firmly within this prophetic tradition, as he denounces Jerusalem as a stubborn city which refuses to listen to God's messengers, whilst showing genuine sorrow for their lack of repentance. His prophesy looks ahead to Palm Sunday, the crowd did indeed shout "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord". He also declares that "your house will be left" or "left desolate". The house of which he speaks is the temple, perhaps predicting the destruction which took place in AD70, or simply warning that a failure to listen to this particular prophet, who was also God’s son, would render the temple empty and "God-less". Either way a failure to repent would have terrible consequences.

For those who have warned about the danger of de-forestation, carbon emissions, and climate change for decades, the idea of unheeded prophesy will be familiar . Sometimes a message is simply too hard for people to hear. Despite the growing consensus about the environmental crisis and the urgent need for repentance, action and lifestyle change. the task of the prophet remains an uncomfortable one. Nevertheless it is one one which both the Church and individuals must attempt.

The ancient prophets were not only those who spoke in God's name, but also people of action. A church which calls the world to repentance about its exploitation of God's creation, will also be a church that leads by example. Can we like Paul, in today's Epistle, be sufficiently prophetic in word and action to say 'join in imitating us"? If we can we will far more likely to be taken seriously and avoid the dreadful fate of the unheeded Cassandra.

Lent 3: Luke 13:1-9

"What have I done to deserve this?" It's one of the most frequently asked questions I encounter in my pastoral ministry. It is often asked by people who are suffering. What have they done to deserve getting cancer, or depression or losing a loved one? The question arises from our desire to make sense of the world and to believe that life is fair. The world we want to live in is one where the good get rewarded and suffering only befalls those who have done something to deserve it.

This is the assumption behind the encounter in today's Gospel when Jesus is brought news of some rather gruesome deaths. Some Galileans had been killed, at Pilate's instigation, whilst they were making sacrifices and their blood had been mingled with that of their offerings. Had they done something to deserve this? Was God punishing them? Was it their fault? The answer Jesus gives is no! Those who had died were not singled out for their fate because they were worse sinners than anyone else. Neither, says Jesus, were the eighteen people killed when a tower fell on them. They might have been good people, bad people or somewhere in between, but that had no bearing upon what had happened to them.

Nevertheless there is a connection between sin and suffering. Jesus main teaching point here is the need for repentence. Repentence which if is is not forthcoming will result in his hearers perishing. The suffering Jesus is predicting might be alienation from God, or it maybe of a more worldly variety but if is is to be avoided things need to change.

As Christians, we believe that God made a good world, and we struggle with questions of suffering. If God is all loving and all powerful why does he permit suffering to continue? Part of the answer must be human sinfulness. People rejecting God, making poor decisions and behaving selfishly result in suffering. Sometimes the sin results in suffering for the sinner, but more often the sin of one person has consequences for someone else entirely.

In the context of our changing climate it is often those who are least culpable who suffer the most. The poor of our world use the least of the earth's resources and yet bear the brunt of devastating changes. Those with the least wealth have the fewest possessions and the least resilience to the vagaries of drought and flood. This why tackling the problem can be thought of as climate justice.

The call to repentence in today's Gospel is a call to prevent suffering. The predicted consequences are not inevitable and repentence could make a difference, just as it did in Ninevah. Similarly we are told that although it is running out, there is still time to stop the worst predictions about climate change coming true. The message "Repent or perish" is therefore, not only an urgent message for our times, but a hopeful one too.

Lent 4: Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15 1-3, 11b-32

This week there are two sets of reading to choose from, Lent 4 or Mothering Sunday. Those wishing to "Green up" their Mothering Sunday Service might find it appropriate to include thanksgivings and reflections on "Mother Earth" alongside "Mother Church" and "Mothers", but I have chosen to reflect on the Lent 4 readings.

"Past put behind us, for the future take us, Lord of our Lives, to live for Christ Alone." These words from Timothy Dudley Smith's hymn Lord for the Years, seem to sum up the theme of this Sunday's readings. In the Old Testament reading from Joshua, the Israelites are putting behind them their forty years of wandering in the wilderness as they cross into the promised land, where a different future beckons. This is marked by the cessation of the miraculous manna which sustained them in the desert and they turn now to the providence of the land which God has given them. Gone too, is the disgrace and humilitation of the land of Egypt, where God's people were enslaved and ridiculed, the shame of being "uncircumcised" and the doubts of the desert, as they enter the land of God's promises, confident that they are His people and He is their God.

For the Psalmist, what is being "put behind" is guilt, remorse and regret, as after repentence and confession, the assurance of sin forgiven is received.The relief and joy of the Psalmist are tangible as he looks forward to a life of renewed faith and trust in God. This is echoed and amplified in the Gospel for today, the Prodigal Son, where the son's poor choices and selfishness are put behind him as he is reconciled with the father he rejected. His repentence results in the surprising and undignified spectacle of his estranged Father, running to meet him and embracing him long before he gets the chance to utter his apology. Only the recriminations of the older brother, put a dampner on the joyous celebrations but one imagines a glorious future ahead for the reunited family.

The theme of reconciliation is writ large in the extract from Second Corinthians which declares "in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." It is worth noting that this is not the reconciliation of individuals or even the human race, but the entire universe. Is it worth pondering what the reconciliation of the cosmos might look like? All of this is set within the profound message of hope that is Christ's new creation, where all that is corrupt and sinful passes away and everything becomes new. Definitely a case of "past put behind us, for the future take us.

Traditionally the fourth Sunday of Lent, as well as being Mothering Sunday, is Laetare Sunday, which means Sunday of rejoicing; a change of pace in the middle of Lent when the mood shifts from somber penitence to joyful hope. It is a welcome change of focus which reminds us that self examination and repentence are not ends in themselves, but the vehicle of good change, of fresh starts, of drawing nearer to God and serving his purposes better. Whatever short term discomfort we may endure is more than rewarded by the results.

Often in our discussion of the environment we use the stick rather than the carrot, rightly pointing out that if humanity doesn't change its ways then there will be dire consequences, but this approach can lead to negativity and loss of hope. Today's readings stand as a corrective to this, reminding us that no situation is irredeemable, and that all things can be made new, that those estranged can be reconciled and the future need not be defined by the past.

There can be no doubt that our past attitudes toward the world which sustains us have been careless and exploitative. We might even go so far as to suggest that they have resulted in an estrangement between the natural world and humanity, but once we have realised this and commited to change, there is little to be gained from looking backwards, apportioning blame and wishing "what if". Instead we must look forward, commiting ourselves to work for reconciliation between God and people, people and people and people and Earth itself.

Lent 5: Phillippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Sometimes working out where to spend our limited time and resources can be incredibly difficult. As individuals and as churches, we face so many demands. We might hope that when it comes to priorities our choices are between the trivial and the important, but things are frequently more complicated, and sometimes we must reject or postpone something we believe to be valuable and worthwhile in order to do something else valuable and worthwhile. We live in a world not only of competing priorities but of 'competing goods'.

As Christians it is obvious that our priority should be Jesus Christ, a point underscored in both the Epistle and Gospel for today. St Paul writes of how everything else in his life, all that he has previously taken pride in, all that used to matter to him, seems worthless now that he knows Jesus Christ as his Lord. From now on all he wishes to do is “..know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death”. Paul’s priority is following Jesus and being like Jesus.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is also the priority. Mary is criticised for her decision to anoint Jesus with expensive nard. Although Judas’ objection is attributed to selfish motives, it is a valid one. The perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii and used to help the poor. John’s Gospel has a tendancy to underplay Jesus’ concern for the poor compared to the synoptics, but anyone familiar with the Old Testament prophets might well have shared Judas’ sentiments. Jesus however, does not. Instead he defends Mary saying “Leave her alone. She has bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus is the priority.It is right for him to receive this costly tribute.

So what are we do make of this? Are we being given a carte blanche to prioritise expenditure on worship over and above social action? Does this passage justify us spending fortunes on buildings for worship, art works, silverware, mixing desks and organs whilst leaving the poor to struggle on alone? Surely not; for the context is important here. Jesus is approaching death and as such the comfort that Mary is offering is both valuable and powerfully symbolic. It shows him as the anointed one, and the one journeying towards death. When Jesus says “you do not always have me” he is acknowledging that love shown to him now at this unique moment in time is precious, because such occasions will be increasingly rare. There is a very small window of opportunity and Mary has seized it. The obligation to advocate for the poor and help them will always be there. The balance between loving God and loving neighbour remains.

Saying that our priority is following Jesus is an easy thing. Working out what to do about it quite another. There is so much need, so much we could do. We want to evangelise, minister to those on the margins, be examples of loving service, challenge injustice and much more besides. Time and energy spent on worship, prayer, fellowship and study is essential. Not to mention what it takes maintain the structures that enable everything else. It remains a question of competing goods.

There are many ways of working out priorities; praying, thinking about the art of the possible or looking at the gifts that God has given to us. Sometimes though, priorities are simply a matter of dealing with the urgent. What is before us that can wait no longer? What opportunities will be lost if we don’t grasp them now? Amid the many pressing issues we face, Creation care can get pushed to the bottom of the agenda. It’s just a thought, but, like the small window of opportunity Mary had to spend with Jesus, our chance to halt the damage to our planet is time limited. The potential to make a difference will be lost if we don't act now. The situation is both important and urgent. We can assume that a world capable of sustaining human life will, like the poor, be with us always, but if our priorities don’t include action on climate change, it may not.

Lent 6 Palm Sunday: Luke 19.28-40, Luke 22.14 - 23.56

Is it possible to include a “green perspective” when preaching about about Palm Sunday or the Passion narrative? Nature is certainly present within the text. In the Palm Gospel the donkey has a significant role in signposting the nature of Jesus' vocation. 

Those who are not squeamish about conflating the gospels might comment on the way that the palms are used to welcome the Jesus as Messiah, although Luke makes no mention of palms or tree branches, only cloaks which are laid in Jesus’ path in his gospel. I am tempted to make more of Jesus’ declaration that should the multitude of disciples stop praising, then “the stones would shout out”. A figure of speech perhaps, but one which suggests that nature has the capacity to recognise Jesus. Those whose voices were raised to acclaim Jesus upon his triumphal entry deserted him, but nature like the faithful women, remains a witness to the end; grieving at the cross; the sun’s light failing, as Jesus’s life ebbs from him.

Within the passion narrative, mention could be made of the bread and wine of the passover, as symbols of co-operation between nature and humanity. An emphasis usefully underscored in this prayer of preparation at the Eucharist.

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to set before you, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, though your goodness we have this wine to set before you, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become for us the cup of salvation.

Preachers might prefer to save reflection on this this until Maundy Thursday or Corpus Christi. Nature is present as Jesus continues on towards the cross. The crowing cock exposes Peter’s denial and Jesus uses metaphors from the natural world to encourage the daughters of Jerusalem to lament for themselves, rather than him. Jesus prays his prayer of agony outside, in the Mount of Olives, and the ground receives the sweat of his brow, as it later receives his body in the rock hewn tomb.

The image of Jesus being received by the earth has long inspired reflection on nature, including the idea of Jesus being buried like a seed to emerge renewed at the resurrection, and there is a well-established tradition that the earth is hallowed by the presence of Jesus' body within it. In the Seventeenth century, Gerrald Winstanley wrote “The body of Christ is where the Father is, in the earth, purifying the earth; and his Spirit is entered into the whole creation which is the heavenly glory where the Father dwells.” ** There is also a sense in which the earth, through the tomb, ministers to and protects the body of Jesus, providing safe haven, after the violence of the cross.

Nature is not the primary focus on the passiontide narrative. The focus must surely remain Jesus and his suffering. Notwithsanding this I would contend it is possible to view nature is a participant in the passion, who affects and is affected, and stands as a faithful, sorrowful and compassionate witness alongside those women who stood at a distance, sorrowfully watching. 

**G.H Sabine, ed. The Collected Works of Gerrard Winstanley (Cornell University Press. 1941) P117 quoted in I Bradley, God is Green (Dartman, Longman and Todd, London 1990) p80