Greening the Lectionary

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

Year B - Lent

Thoughts for Lent

Lenten themes lend themselves easily to a "Green" perspective. Although the causes of the ecological crisis are manifold and include technological development and increasing population, as Christians we must recognise and name the role of sin. The lust for power that sees the natural world, and other people as resources to be exploited for financial gain. The injustice, that sees the limited resources of the world unequally shared, and the burden of climate change falling on those least responsible for the emissions which have caused it. The greed and gluttony involved in those who have much, taking it for granted and continually wanting more.The profligacy that uses precious resources, to create goods with little purpose, for a limited amount of time, before disposing of them, without thought for the consequences. The pride, that leads us to imagine that we can solve this by our own ingenuity, rather than admitting we are on the wrong track and changing our ways. The sloth, that believes it’s down to other people to sort this out. If sin is at the root of the problem, then self-examination and repentance are crucial.

Pope Francis (2015) calls for an ecological conversion - a change of heart and mind similar to and demanded by Christian conversion. However, we must be careful not to understand the problem exclusively in terms of personal sinfulness, which limits our response to our own changed lifestyles. These sinful attitudes are embedded in our society, our culture, our way of life is predicated on them. Our efforts to live sustainable lifestyles are frequently thwarted by the assumptions of the world we live in; one which considers air travel but not public transport to be essential, which sees continual growth to be necessary for economic well-being, and where success is calibrated by accumulated possessions. We need to examine not only ourselves, but the societies of which we are a part. We need not only to repent, but call others to repentance. Against this background the fasting and self-denial of Lent not only function as spiritual disciplines which enable us to addres our own behaviour, and build our own characters, but as prophetic action. Opening up the possibility of different ways of living.

Lent 1

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.


Lent 2

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.“

In 1937, in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoffer published his theological classic The Cost of Discipleship. The English title of the book speaks for itself, he writes of a discipleship which is demanding, all-consuming and risky. This week’s Gospel makes the cost of discipleship explicit. Jesus’ mission as the Christ will cost him dear, he will not have the easy path to glory that Peter hopes he might, rather he will be rejected, he will suffer and he will die, before rising again after three days. Following Jesus means following him to the cross. The German title of Bonhoffer’s book is Nachfolge means "following“.

This does not mean that those who follow Christ will inevitably face martyrdom, or that we must seek suffering. Nor does it mean that when we find ourselves bullied, abused or exploited we must accept it as “the cross we have to bear” (too many women describe their abusive husbands as “the cross they are carrying” to leave this unsaid). However, it shows the lie of “the prosperity gospel” which suggests that those who follow Jesus will achieve worldly success, because God somehow favours them. Following Jesus, is no guarantee of an easy life or quiet one.

Part of this costly call to discipleship is living differently, putting our minds to divine and not human things. This means, for example, having a different attitude towards possessions. Bonhoffer writes:

“Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry.”

In Mark 10:17-22, the cost of sitting lightly to his possessions renders discipleship too costly for the Rich Young Ruler and remains an ever-present challenge for Christians.

Part of this costly call to discipleship is naming sin for what it is. It is refusing to be complicit with structural evil. For Bonhoffer, this meant calling out the Nazi Regime. Confronted with Nazism, the German Church faced a choice,they could become the religious arm of the state, turn a blind eye to the Nazi atrocities or they could stand against it. Bonhoffer chose the latter course and it was costly. He was initially sent to prison, then to concentration camps, and finally he was hanged. How much easier it would have been to keep quiet, to stay out of politics, to focus on his prayer life, but would it have been more Christian?

In the face of the ecological crisis, we face a similar choice to Bonhoffer. We can name the evil inherent in the destruction of the natural world, in the rich inflicting climate chaos on poorer nations, in bequeathing to future generations problems we are not courageous or selfless enough to solve. This will be costly, both in terms of personal lifestyle, for we will have to practice what we preach, and in terms of conflict, for if we challenge the powers and principalities of this world there will be push back. But the alternative of staying silent, being accommodationist, and making compromises with the values of this world in ways which prove more costly for others rather than ourselves, reeks of cowardice. Is demanding action on the ecological crisis, despite its inherent risks and sacrifices, part of the cost of discipleship in the 21st Century?

Lent 3 Exodus 20.1-17, 1 Cor 1:18-25

“I, the Lord you God am a jealous God, punishing children for the inequity of parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments”.

I have always found these words problematic, after all how can God, who we imagine to be a loving father, punish individuals for the sins of their parents? However, if we exchange the idea of punishment, for consequence, then it seems only too true. For we find ourselves in this perilous ecological crisis not only as a result of our own choices but because of the choices of those who went before us.

The ancient wisdom contained in the ten commandments has been ignored for generations. As early as the fourth century St Ambrose of Milan was bewailing the fact that “the world has been created for everyone’s use, but you few rich are trying to keep it for yourselves. For not merely the possessions of the earth but the very sky, the air and the sea are claimed by the rich few”.

The idols of possession, productivity and consumption have emerged unchallenged to compete with God’s vision for his creation. The ideal of sabbath rest has been abandoned. Covetousness is no longer seen as a sin but a pre-requisite for an economic system based on creating a desire for things we don't need, where we are encouraged to keep up with our neighbours rather than love them as ourselves. There have been many attempts to describe the root causes of the ecological crisis but Christians cannot be afraid to name the cause as sin and remind the world that sin is not a joke but a danger with long-lasting consequences.

We might imagine that given a blank sheet we would have built a different, better world. We know we are complicit but not completely to blame. However, we cannot ignore the fact that our choices will affect future generations in devastating ways. The rate at which we are using resources cannot be sustained, even if we do manage to leave a habitable world for generations to come, they will not have the same resources and opportunities available to them that we have enjoyed. We might even think of this, in the light of the eighth commandment, as theft. Greta Thunberg reproached the UK parliament with the words “The future has been sold so that a small number of people can make unimaginable amounts of money”. Jesus refused to allow his Father's house to be desecrated by the idolatry of greed. Are we required to make a similar stand against the desecration of this planet we share with other creatures and future generations? We cannot continue to say that it isn't our fault for ever.

In 1967, Lynn White declared that “Christianity bore a huge burden of guilt” for cultivating a dominating attitude towards nature. Whilst there was some truth in his claim, I would suggest it bears a greater burden of guilt for not recognising and naming sin for what it was, focussing on personal sins and neglecting societal ones, and over-emphasising sexual sin whilst not calling out greed, discrimination, oppression or idolatry. White suggests that the answer to the ecological crisis would not be found in technology but in religion and I agree with him, because if the problem is sin, then as Christians, do we not claim to have an answer? Suggesting that the cross of Christ is an answer to the ecological crisis may appear foolish, but Pope Francis reminds us of the need for conversion and that a Christian conversion necessitates an ecological one. Repentance is the only answer.

Philip Larkin wrote “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can and don’t have any kids yourself”. We might not agree with his conclusion, but misery has indeed been handed on, but whether we continue to do so is up to us. As Christians, we claim that in Jesus Christ, this cycle can and will be broken. This is why for the sake of our children and grandchildren we must continue, like St Paul, to proclaim Christ crucified.

Lent 4 John 3:14-21

“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?

Mothering Sunday: Colossians 3.12-17, Psalm 127

Mothering Sunday has traditionally had a dual focus, that of celebrating and giving thanks for mother, but also of our “mother church”. In normal circumstances, this Sunday has the potential for outside worship, and “clypping the church” (forming a circle round the outside of the building and in effect giving it a hug), but in these socially distanced times, even substituting a procession might be too difficult to choreograph. In many churches, women will receive gifts of flowers, again providing an opportunity to draw connections with the beauty of the earth.

Those who are serious about “greening” their Mothering Sunday service might find the metaphor of “Mother Earth” useful and consider St Francis’ canticle of the sun, in particular this verse “Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs”.

Relevant connections can be drawn between the loving care of mothers, and the earth which sustains us.

There is potential for a green reading of Colossians 3.12-17, which contains advice about relationships within the church. Remembering that the body of Christ spans the globe and our brothers and sisters already experiencing the devastating effects of climate volatility, we might ask what does “compassionion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” look like against the backdrop of the ecological crisis? Reflection on how love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” could be inclusive of the natural order, and the sense of thanksgiving that is encouraged could easily be extended to include thanksgivings to the creator for the blessings of the creation.

This may also be an appropriate day to consider intergenerational justice, particularly in the light of Psalm 127’s observation that “Children are a heritage from the Lord and the fruit of the womb is his gift.” Parents or not, we have obligations to the next generation. A useful starting point for our thinking in this area might be the Tearfund report Burning down the house which listens to the concerns and frustrations of young Christians in the face of climate change.

Click here for the Tearfund report.

Lent 5 Jeremiah 31.31-34 Hebrews 5. 5-10 John 12. 20-33

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ The crowd, the Greeks, want to encounter Jesus; they wish to see Jesus. They must have heard the stories of his miracles, walking on water, feeding five thousand; his healings of all kinds of sickness, even raising Lazarus from the dead!

In the landscape in which we find ourselves, we know there has been much dying …..thousands globally have died of Covid-19; we are reminded also of the hundreds of migrants who have died making desperate journeys across the Mediterranean Sea; of those who have died due to racism, its injustices and equalities and the protests that ‘black lives matter’.

The natural world too is dying at the hands of human behaviour. The parable of the grain of wheat connects with our on the natural world and the cycle of dying and new life each season; the experience of loss and renewal is part of our lives. In Christian terms, death and resurrection are key to our life experience. Death and loss are not only physical, its also emotional and spiritual. Throughout our lives, we die many times over through a whole range of losses – the death of a loved one, the end of a dream, the breakdown of a relationship, the deterioration of a person’s health, as we navigate through the stages of life. Through loss, we experience a range of emotions; anger, regret, guilt, despair, unforgiveness and fear. But, this passage tells us, it is in the pit of darkness that we see Jesus.

Yet, we are the Easter people, the resurrection people. God always has the capacity to bring something fresh and new from a situation. Often, if we look at a situation from a different angle, a different point of view, we can see how something new and fresh can be brought from loss and even despair. Despite the brokenness of our world, there is a hope that can be re-imagined, renewed, restored through God’s generous love.

We could link this passage of the grain of wheat falling to the earth with the parables of other seeds; the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed and the yeast, the parable of the sower. The Gospels are full of examples drawn from the natural world, as Jesus spent much of his life in the agricultural areas around Galilee. And at his death, he will indeed be ‘ in the heart of the earth’.

God’s commitment to the earth and all that he has made goes back to at least the covenant made in his pledge to Noah: And God said: This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9. 12-13; italics are mine).

The earth is the ‘ holy footstool’ of God it is sacred. It is not personified or deified in the Bible. But all is sanctified by God the Creator, and reconciled to God the Redeemer of the universe. As we gradually come out of lockdown, moving from the total restrictions of the pandemic situation, we know that it’s time now for us to play a more active role again in our community, in our society. There has been much death, and there will be more to come. We must accept the reality.

In our church year, we have yet to work through Holy Week and Good Friday. But perhaps it is as we let go and see God in these places that we too have the potential to come through and to bear much fruit for the kingdom. God’s love has the power to heal, resurrect and enable all flourishing. We can look at what we have lost, what will and sometimes needs to stay lost, and also look forward to new fruit; to faithfully bring forth new life and new hope for ourselves for the sake of future generations and the years to come.

Palm Sunday

On the 19th March 2021, the Revd Tim Hewes and Ben Buse, both members of Christian Climate Action were jailed for 14 days for contempt of court after they glued themselves to court furniture at a hearing for Ben, who had been charged with a public order offence after taking part in an Extinction Rebellion protest. Although it will not be an approach that all are comfortable with, or that all are called to, many Christians feel duty bound to respond to climate inaction and the slow response of governments and big business by engaging in non-violent direct action. I am one, although I have not yet been sufficiently courageous to risk arrest. I firmly believe that such action is warranted and I arrived at that conclusion as a result of regularly hearing from the voices of my brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion reporting the devastating effects of climate change in their countries, and their sense of powerlessness in the face of terrible injustices.

On the 10th March 2021, the body of Sarah Everard was discovered in woodland near Ashford, Kent. Sarah had gone missing as she walked home for her friend’s house. Her death led to an outpouring of anger, which demanded a culture change; that women should not have to limit their behaviour in order to avoid male violence; not going out after dark, or wearing shapeless clothes, but rather good men, men who did not abuse women or behave in a sexist manner, should be challenging those men who are. For good men saying 'I’m not part of the problem’ is no longer enough, instead they are invited to challenge the culture that perpetuates violence and sexual harassment of women. I feel similarly about climate change. It is not enough for me to change aspects of my own lifestyle to make it more sustainable. I need to be challenging the system which allows climate change to happen. That is why I protest.

At one protest, which I attended in my clerical collar, someone told me, with absolute confidence, ‘Jesus would be here, wouldn’t he?’ and I found myself answering yes. Had someone suggested that Jesus would have been present at the Sarah Everard vigil, I would also have answered yes. I am aware that you may disagree, but the Gospels suggest that Jesus frequently risked arrest, and arguably, the original Palm Sunday procession can be conceived in terms of non-violent direct action.

When Jesus rode his colt into Jerusalem, it was a deliberately provocative act, evoking both the prophesy of Zechariah 9:9, Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey and the victory of Judas Maccabeus who defeated the Syrians in 141BC. He was casting himself as both a king and a saviour. The connection to Judas Maccabeus becomes starker if we recall that Jesus moves on from his triumphal entry to ‘cleanse’ the temple. 2 Maccabees 10, recalls how Judas Maccabeus, “recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem” , and “purified the Temple and built a new altar” before being praised by a grateful people who waved palm branches. If Jesus' actions are understood to echo this then suddenly Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple begin to look like carefully orchestrated pieces of street theatre, designed to communicate an important message, not dissimilar to the actions of Tim and Ben.

We cannot be wholly confident about what Jesus was seeking to communicate, but the contrast with Judas Maccabeus is as marked as the similarities. Jesus enters Jerusalem in peace, not as a soldier who has won a war, thus challenging those who thought violence was an answer to Israel’s problems. Whilst Judas Maccabeus cleansed the temple of the desecrating influence of foreigners, Jesus empties the temple of Jewish people, present with the full consent of the temple authorities, who were desecrating it by using it as a market place, challenging their greed and deceit. It seems likely, given Jesus' emphasis on the temple as ‘a house of prayer for all nations’, that the traders had set up their market in the court of the Gentiles, thus preventing non-Jews from worshipping God in that place. He was challenging their exclusivity.

We can be more confident that Jesus was acting powerfully and prophetically, that he was behaving in ways which were disruptive and inconvenient and that he so unsettled the status quo, that the authorities were trying to find ways to silence him. Again, there are parallels which can be made.

Last week, the UK Government sought to bring in a bill which would severely curtail the right to peaceful protest, not just in a time of Covid, but in perpetuity. It would include an offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing a public nuisance’. I wonder what they would have made of Palm Sunday? Jesus took part in a peaceful procession, indeed on Palm Sunday he orchestrated one. Jesus was a protestor – he protested the desecration of the temple. Tim and Bill and thousands of others like them are protesting the desecration of God's world and the abuse of its people. You may not wish to join them, but I hope that you understand them and hear them.