Greening the Lectionary

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

Year A - Lent

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.

Ash Wednesday John 8:1-11 Casting the first stone.

It isn't just the climate that's changing, ethics are too. Although we are still praying for the UN to make eco-cide a crime, there is a growing awareness of ecological sin. The Pope is considering writing a chapter in the Catechism on the subject and those preparing for confession are being encouraged to examine their consciences about the way in which their lifestyle choices affect the health of the planet. This is something that Christians of all denominations could incorporate into their spiritual practice this Lent.

An awareness of ecological sin is found not only in the Church but in the secular world too, frequently with a high degree of judgmentalism attached. Those who campaign for change and advocate for the planet are held to impossibly high standards in order to earn a hearing and are accused of being hypocrites if they so much as use a plastic bag. Holding others to a higher account than we hold ourselves is a disingenuous ways of silencing those who prick our consciences and make us uncomfortable.

Whilst it is good to practice what we preach, our Gospel today makes it clear that no-one, apart from our Lord himself, is able to achieve a perfect life. Christians, above all people, know that failure to live up to our ideals does not render those ideals worthless. Amongst those who have already made significant lifestyle changes in response to the climate emergency, judgmentalism is a constant temptation. If you haven't flown for thirty years its easy to condem frequent flyers, or if you have given up meat (even bacon) it's easy to demonise carnivores.

It's natural to think, if I've made costly sacrifices why shouldn't you? However this doesn't take into consideration the realities of people's lives. If my daughter lived abroad would I find it so easy not to fly? Could I deny you your car if the nearest shop was an hour's walk away? Our entire way of life is predicated on carbon usage. Sometimes it isn't possible to do right for doing wrong. We all juggle competing 'goods'.As with prayer, people should be encouraged to 'Green as they can, not as they can't'. Small actions can grow to big ones and dull consciences can be sharpened. Yet make no mistake about it - change we must.

Our Gospel today provides a template for this. No-one is without sin so no-one, except Jesus is in the position to judge. Yet neither is anyone let off the hook. Those in the crowd are forced to acknowledge their own short-comings whilst the woman at the centre of it all is gently, yet firmly, challenged to change. The call to repentance is still loud and clear and today we must heed it more than ever. It is often said that our culture has no concept of sin making it difficult to preach the Gospel, but against the background of the climate crisis, the reality of sin comes into sharp focus, giving us the opportunity to offer age old wisdom about repentance, judgment, forgiveness and grace to a generation so deeply in need of it.

Lent 1: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19

There is considerable scope for Greening the Lectionary this week. Those who wish to focus on the Gospel might like to read last year’s reflection on the Temptation of Jesus, but this year my focus will be on the Old and New Testament readings. As we hear the Old Testament reading which describes ‘the Fall’ we might like to consider the extent to which humanity’s besetting sin of wanting to “be like God” and our unwillingness to accept limits on our 'wants' is at the root of the ecological crisis.

However, in the light of Paul’s emphasis in the Epistle, I confess myself unwilling to stop at verse 7, but to read on to verse 19 to hear the curse that unfolded as a result of this first disobedience. It's particularly important for those of us seeking a ‘greener’ understanding of our faith because the curse not only falls on the snake, the man and woman but on the ground as well. The relationship between human beings and the natural environment, which was intended to be one of harmonious ease, becomes much more adversarial. The land is now reluctantly providing for humanity’s needs and humans are ‘toiling’ away against a backdrop of thorns and weeds.

Yet all is not lost, for St Paul is clear that, in Christ, the consequences of the curse are undone. “Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” If we understand Paul in this way, then creation, so often excluded, from our anthropocentric understandings of salvation is enfolded in its scope. It too is redeemed, restored and justified. The disobedience of Adam alienated people from God, men from women and humanity from nature. In contrast, the obedience of Christ brings the possibility of reconciliation.

Looking at our world today it seems as if humanity and the natural world are more alienated than ever before.The “now and the not yet” nature of salvation is very much in evidence as we anticipate a time when Christ “will reconcile all things to himself,” (Col 1:20) yet see ecological disaster all around. Yet our anticipation need not be limited to looking forward with hope, for anticipate has another meaning – to prefigure. As those who believe themselves “ransomed, healed, restored – forgiven, it is incumbent on us to be agents of reconciliation, amongst people, nations and the natural world.

Lent 2: John 3:1-17

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

It is hardly surprising that these verses are amongst the best loved in Scripture. They answer our deepest fears with the assurance of God’s immense and costly love. They contain the promise of salvation and eternal life. They provide comfort to those who believe already whilst inviting those who do not to make a response of faith. They are helpful to pastors and evangelists in equal measure.

Indeed, they are so familiar that we can imagine that we know exactly what they mean, but as ever, shifting our perspective to a ‘Green’ one provokes new questions. Who exactly is being saved? Is salvation limited to people or is the non-human creation included? This is not a trivial question but one which will have an effect on how we preach, how we view the natural world and our response to the challenges of the climate emergency.

The verses can be read very exclusively - only those who believe will be saved. This rules out the non-human creation, since only people have the capacity to believe. It also rules out those of other faiths and no faith, those with limited cognitive function and those who are too young to have a concept of belief. Whilst the passage is clear that those who believe will not perish - does it actually say that everyone and everything else will? I'm not so sure.

On the other hand, when set in the context of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus, these verses are inclusive, expanding the scope of salvation. The use of the word ‘world’ is telling and it is used no less than four times in these few sentences. God loves the world, the Son is sent to the world, not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved. For someone like Nicodemus, a Pharisee who had been taught that salvation was for the Jews alone, and only law-abiding Jews at that, this would have demanded a radical rethink.

For us, a similar leap may be demanded, to permit our understanding to be broadened to include not just humanity but the non-human creation. I accept that it’s perfectly possible to read these verses as if they refer exclusively to people. The Greek word ‘Kosmos' has a spectrum of meanings ranging from ‘the human family’ to ‘the entire created order’. However, I find it difficult to imagine that of all the wonders He created and declared to be good, God only wishes to save humanity. Or that God made a covenant with the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals after the flood,(Gen 9:10) only to see them perish, or that trees, sunsets, dogs and mountains have no place in the Kingdom.

My take is that when Scripture says God loves the world – it means the world – all of it. As such the world cannot be somewhere we leave behind when we are saved. We must be saved together with the natural world not from it. It is also inconceivable that God sees it as disposable. Creation cannot merely be a playground for human beings to enjoy or a storehouse for them to plunder. God's beloved world is not something to be used and discarded but to be respected and cherished. For if God so loves the world – shouldn’t we?

Lent 3: Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

According to Water Aid, a staggering 785 million people still don’t have access to clean water. As the 21st Century progresses access to fresh water will become increasing fraught as sea levels rise and weather patterns become less predictable. The provision of water is likely to become a political football with the alarming possibility of ‘water wars’.

It is tempting when adopting our ‘Green‘ lens to use this week’s Gospel as a springboard to highlight precisely these issues. However, this would be to do the text a disservice. Since no water, however clean, cold or even sparkling quenches thirsts for ever, it is clear that the living water Jesus speaks of is not your run of the mill H2O but has a deeper meaning.

If we read the passage in exclusion we are left puzzling as to what this 'living water' might be. We need to fast forward to John 7:39 to discover that it refers to the Holy Spirit. Preachers may wish to draw out the parallels between the life giving, cleansing and restorative properties of water and the Spirit. Rewinding back to the prophet Jeremiah we realise that in offering ‘living water’ Jesus is appropriating imagery that refers to God. Although Jesus does not say ‘I am the living water’ the implication of divinity is the same as in the “I am’ sayings. Jesus is not only the Messiah, he is God.

The passage is sometimes viewed as a pattern for mission, in that Jesus treats the woman as an equal, seeks her help, avoids patronising her, piques curiosity and engages in dialogue. The testimony of the Samaritan woman, who excitedly introduces others to a man who ‘told me everything I have ever done” allows Jesus the space to speak on his own behalf. An Orthodox tradition claims that she continued her work as a missionary until her martyrdom, eventually appointing her as ‘equal-to-apostles’.

Those seeking to follow in her footsteps today will need to adopt a holistic view of mission which attends to both spiritual and material concerns. This theological conversation about 'living water' is set within the prosaic context of a woman going to a well, looking not for spiritual sustenance but water for drinking, cooking, and washing and a man who is thirsty and in need of a drink. The woman's initial excitement is not that she has met the Messiah, but the intoxicating and ultimately mistaken idea that she wouldn’t have to walk to the well day in and day out.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that unless people have what they need to survive in terms of water, food and clean air, they will be far too preoccupied to have thought for spiritual matters. The truth of this can be seen in this week’s Old Testament reading where the Israelites trust in the Lord wavers in the face of thirst. People not only need ‘living water’ but freely available clean water as well. On the other hand, we would be failing in our duty as Christians if we sought only to meet material needs and not tell others about the love of God. It’s a case of both/and.

Those of us who place justice high on our missional agendas rightly criticise those who proclaim good news without addressing human and ecological need but we need to remember that man does not live by bread (or by water) alone.

Lent 4: John 9 1-41

I was once in a meeting where the conversation turned to what we were giving up for Lent. Amid the usual answers of chocolate and alcohol someone replied that they were giving up hope, and we laughed because we hoped they were joking. Is giving up hope an option? As we face the twin crises of Climate and Corona Virus we might well feel tempted to. Both seem apocalyptic in scope and have the potential to end life as we know it. Both can breed fear, panic and despondency. Both make us acutely aware that there are things beyond our control and that belief in progress is an illusion.

The Greek myth of Pandora’s box, presents an ambivalent view of hope. Hope is what is left when disease, evil and death escape into the world. It is unclear why hope is in the box with the evils. Is it because hope is our best response to disaster or is hope an evil itself, deceiving us with false promises?

The Christian Gospel is unequivocal. Hope is at the very heart of our faith and it is an unquestioned good. The hope of which we speak is not the same kind of naïve optimism that has seen people ignore government advice about social distancing, or insist that life style change is unnecessary because technology will find a solution our ecological problems. Christian hope does not deny reality but engages with it.

It is based on the person of Jesus Christ and his Resurrection. It acknowledges the suffering of the world and insists that God himself understands and partakes in it. It maintains that just when we seem most overwhelmed, forsaken and defeated new possibilities emerge. Christian hope insists that death is not the end and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. It is not 'pie in the sky when you die' but a commitment to a renewed creation where sin, sickness and death play no part.

It is against this background that Jesus' claim in this week’s Gospel, to be the Light of the World, has a special resonance. Light helps us to see things more clearly, Light shows the way, Light stands as a symbol of hope in the darkness. As long as it shines we know that we are not alone. On Sunday evening, the Archbishops are asking us to light a candle in our windows to remind us of this.

In some ways, our response to the Corona virus is a cause for hope. It is helping us realise how inter-related we all are; when my health depends on the health of my neighbour, selfishness is stupidity. We are changing, we are discovering how easy it is to have online meetings instead of travelling long distances. We have learned that most us can live quite nicely without flying. Empty shelves are showing us that food is precious and not to be wasted. Air pollution is down, emissions are reduced. People are finding new ways to love and care for each other and the planet is benefitting.

My hope is that like 'the Man Born Blind' we may begin to see things differently. I am praying that out of this challenging time comes a stronger commitment to social and environmental justice. Now is not the time to give up on hope - it is a time to be hopeful and prayerful. “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5)

Lent 5: Ezekiel 37. 1-14

The description of the Valley of Dry Bones found in this week’s Old Testament reading was originally a prophesy given to the Jews in exile, encouraging them to look forward to a time when their exile would be over and they could return home. Such is the power of its imagery that it has resonated down the ages, speaking of the ability of God to breathe new life into situations where hope is not merely lost but completely extinguished.

The image was used by American Slaves to sustain them during their experience of subjugation and continues to speak powerfully to our context of environmental destruction, where land has been left barren, habitats destroyed and species annihilated through human greed and carelessness . In the face of this dare we hope that new life can really be brought out of death?

The experience of the Chernobyl exclusion zone suggests the answer is 'yes'. The 1986 accident brought enormous death and destruction both to human life and the surrounding ecosystem. Animal populations decreased and the conifer forest close by turned red and died. A valley of dry bones if ever there was one.

Since then however, the area has flourished. The animal population recovered there is now a wider bio-diversity than previously. This does not mean that radioactivity is good for wildlife, but that any negative effects are outweighed by the of absence people. It’s a salutary tale in more ways than one. We are experiencing something similar as the Corona virus forces a quarter of the world into lockdown and disrupts “business as usual”. Unsurprisingly the planet is benefitting as a result, but this should not lead us to imagine that the Corona virus is a good thing, or that the world would be a better place without people in it.

Those likening the human race to a virus are wide of the mark from a Christian perspective. This does show that the selfish, greedy and entitled assumptions that have undergirded our lives for so long are destructive and in need of re-evaluation, but also that change is possible and people retain the capacity to sacrifice for the common good.

The Corona Virus has pressed pause on life as we know it. It has let us to ponder, and hope and pray that when life resumes lessons will have been learned. It is up to us to “be like Ezekiel” and prophesy in word and deed to the dry bones of a people who have lost their way but are remembering how to live generously.

We must speak of the Resurrection of Jesus, which Ezekiel’s vision prefigures and the way that the whole creation will be renewed and restored in Christ. We must stand alongside the vulnerable, those considered expendable in the face of an economic crisis, and the abused planet. We must preach hope and work together with the Spirit to bring life where there was no life. Creating oases of beauty and nature in cities, enabling species on the verge of extinction to thrive , or working sacrificially to provide healthcare, food or reassurance in a time of need will speak to our generation as powerfully as Ezekiel’s vision.

Palm Sunday

Uniquely of all the Gospel accounts, Matthew's gospel has Jesus riding on two Donkeys, both the Donkey and her foal. "They brought the Donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them". It conjures up a picture of Jesus struggling to balance on two Donkeys of different sizes which borders on the comedic. However, Matthew's motivation is not humour but a desire to present Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophesies, in this case one from Zechariah 9.9. Matthew's understanding of this prophesy is that the King will come riding on a Donkey and a colt, so that is something Jesus must have done. Matthew, of all the evangelists, has a particular fondness for showing how Jesus fulfills prophesies.

In Biblical imagery, the Donkey is a royal beast. Simply by riding a Donkey in this somewhat stylised way, Jesus reveals the heart of his vocation. He is a king. Crucially Donkeys were ridden by kings in peacetime, in contrast to the 'war-horse" of warrior kings. So by entering Jerusalem in this fashion Jesus is dashing the hopes of those who wish to see him lead a rebellion against the Romans. The King who rides a donkey is also humble, and this is a particularly noteworthy emphasis when taken in conjuction with the reading from Phillippians 2. This man, who is riding the Donkey(s) is not just the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy, not just the long awaited King, not just the Messiah but God himself, but a God who was sufficiently humble to empty himself to take the form of a slave. Our world doesn’t seem to have a lot of time for the humble – it's a competitive world, where you take what you need and hang the consequences, where you look after number one even if it means others go without, where those with the loudest voices get heard and the weak go to the wall. Humility is an awful long way from emptying the shelves and stock piling hand santiser. It is precisely such attitudes which have caused the climate emergency, an arrogance that see humanity not as part of nature but above it, a greed that values profit over people, a contempt for human and animal life. Yet the virus has shaken our hubris. That something so small and seemingly inconsequential could stop the world in its tracks stands as a stark reminder that we are not invincible. The delusion of independence is now stripped away and we realise precisely how interdependent we are. Humbling indeed. "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" urges St Paul. It's a lesson that will stand us in good stead as we face the challenges ahead. Humility may even become our saving grace.