Season of Creation
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The Community of All Creation
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, environmental Coordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa
Texts (Revised Common Lectionary)
Jeremiah 4;11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17 (Roman Catholic, too)
There are four main types of theology that are resistant to the idea of the community of all Creation.
- “Escapist” theology: Many Christians feel that the church should primarily be concerned with the message of salvation for humans: that Jesus Christ came to save human beings from sin and to reconcile us with God. The vertical relationship with God is more important than a horizontal concern for the environment. When Jesus returns we will receive a new earth, therefore we should not waste time protecting the earth.
- “Mastery” theology: Some Christians quote Genesis 1:26, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it and have dominion over it.” Therefore they conclude that it is our God-given right to treat nature any way we want. We have been mandated to dominate and use the earth.
- Prosperity gospel: Some Christians believe that material possessions are a sign of God’s blessing. God wants us to prosper at all costs, even at the cost of the environment.
Fear of New Age: Some Christians dismiss environmentalism as being “New Age”. They feel uncomfortable and threatened and fear that working with others towards a “green” agenda may compromise their faith. They are afraid of pantheism (the belief that nature is divine) or paganism.
These passage help us to grapple with some of these concerns[i]
Hearing the Word
Comments on Jeremiah 4;11-12, 22-28
For the people of Israel the loss of their homeland was the loss of everything. In Jeremiah, God’s judgement is painted as a terrifying picture of the undoing of Creation itself. God reverses the creative work of the beginning of Genesis. The earth again becomes “waste and void” (v23). The mountains quake and birds and humans have disappeared – the works of civilization, both agricultural and urban, have vanished (v 23-26). Light has gone – and event the heavens grow dark (v28).[ii] Theologically and politically the Babylonian invasion of Judah means the end of the world. This destruction is as a result of human wickedness.
In the Biblical view, the earth and all that fills it is part of one web of life. A basic error of Western culture is to separate humanity from the rest of creation. The very term: ‘the environment’ suggests that we are a separate entity, while everything else is ‘out there’. A theology of domination has taught us that nature is something separate to be dominated and controlled. Modern technology separates us from being in touch with nature. It is something to be viewed on a TV or cellphone screen.
In Genesis, humans and all creatures are formed together (Gen 1:24-31). In this passage all suffer from God’s judgement. Humans have a pivotal role with a special calling for the well-being of Creation. When we fail, all creation suffers. So this passage shows us two challenges: to work with God’s redeeming purposes to save Creation, and at the same time to turn from the ‘evil ways’ that have incurred God’s judgement.
“The majority of people in the world today seem to have lost touch with the earth from which we were all born. And because we no longer experience ourselves as part of the cosmos, many of us are participating in the destruction of God’s creation. When we lose touch with creation, we lose touch with God.”– Albert Nolan[iii]
Comments on Psalm 14
Psalm 14 shows the breadth and depth of human corruption. “the fool has said in his heart, there is no God” . The reality is that for many Christians, although they worship God, their lifestyles are almost exactly the same as those who don’t believe in God. We no longer see Creation as something sacred, created by God.
Traditionally we have used the concept of ‘stewardship’ – looking after things well. Yet in biblical terms the word ‘steward’ is applied either to someone caring for a specific plot of land (vineyard, garden or field) or, as more often, an amount of money (in Greek an ‘oikonomou’). To simply apply the term stewardship to the entire inhabited earth is to overlook the stronger biblical emphasis on the holiness and wonder of the world.
“And God saw that it was good – and it was very good” – that off repeated sentence from Genesis 1 and 2, reads as an understatement. That is until we realise the words ‘good’ and ‘God’ derive from the same root in English. So as we may say “God is good”, we may equally say “the Earth is godly!”.
Surely this has to be a fundamental reason why Christians and others should take the environment seriously – because it is a place of holiness. That is why caring about has to be at the heart of our behaviour. The planet is sacred and we should not desecrate her. In as much as we do this unto the Creation, we also do it unto the Creator…..[iv]
Comments on 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
In this reflection on his life, Saint Paul expresses gratitude to Christ Jesus for a life which changed radically because of the experience of grace in his life. He was formerly ‘a blasphemer, a persecutor [of the Church], and a man of violence.’ Now, in a radical turnaround, he has been strengthened, judged faithful and ‘appointed to his [Christ’s] service.’ (v. 13). God’s grace overflowed in his life, and Christ Jesus through faith, love and patience (v14-16) found Paul out. Paul who was the foremost amongst sinners can be strengthened and appointed to service, and so can we, both as individuals and as the human race.
It is easy to become despondent on looking at the state of the Planet. World Wildlife Fund in their Living Planet Report[v] indicate that since 1970 there has been a devastating drop in the population of creatures globally, 38% reduction in land animals, 81% of freshwater creatures and a 36% drop in ocean populations.
But this passage gives us hope that just as individuals can be transformed by grace, so too can the human population. It is not too late for us to be transformed from “persecutors of the Earth and people of violence”
Comments on Luke 15: 1-10
Both the Timothy passage and the Luke one focus on the wonder of God’s redeeming love.
The value of lost things
The power of this passage depends on our understanding of value of lost things. Without that assumption lost things have value the parables would lose their force Luke gives us three parables from Jesus on this theme, featuring a lost sheep, a lost coin and the next story in (v 11 -31) is the lost child. As the parables are told, the ratio of lost to safe changes; one sheep in a hundred, one coin in ten and one child in two. Yet the commitment of the shepherd, the woman (and the parent) is total and the scale of celebration at the end of each story is lavish.
The two parables in this reading take place both in an outdoor setting and within the home; the rural landscape and the domestic scene. Whatever the setting, and whatever the proportion of the missing to the safe, Jesus suggests that God’s care is consistently generous. In contrast, many people tend to think that the disappearance of natural species is a matter of relatively small importance. In decision making matters, the economy often takes precedence over ecology. Partly as a result of such a mindset, we are living through the sixth great extinction in the history of the Earth – and the first to be caused by humans. The current rate of extinction is said to be 100 or even 1,000 times above the natural level.[vi]
A true sense of the value of God’s creation will cause us to repent of such callous disregard. God did not say – never mind one sheep is lost I still have 99. Or never mind about the coin, I still have others or I can buy some more.
Looking at these stories from another perspective we see a searching shepherd, a determined woman and a waiting father. They did not give up hope, they worked hard, with determination until what was lost was found. This shows us that the challenge to protect our Earth is not an easy one, it is not a short term challenge but requires us to stay strong, work hard and never give up hope.
Interpreting the Word
In the Context of the Season of Creation, these passages have much to teach us. What is our theology of Creation? Why do we not see Creation as sacred? Why do our souls not grieve for the lost amongst God’s creatures, but we only grieve for the lost souls of human beings?
Until the Middle Ages the Church had a strong theology of creation. Science and faith spoke the same language. Their clear understanding of cosmology was based on Genesis. Genesis taught us that humans were called to love God, to be reconciled to one another and to care for Creation.
The discovery that the Earth moved around the sun came as a bombshell – the dethronement of the earth as central to the universe challenged the theology of creation – and Galileo was condemned as a heretic. Science and religion began to develop on different paths. The theology of creation was lost and the church focussed on the Christian story – on redemption and salvation. As their understanding of the universe was threatened so the Church moved away from a theology embracing creation to a theology focussing on the Fall and Redemption of humankind.
The split between Church and Science widened with Darwin’s further discoveries. In the case of evolution most of the religious world clung to the Genesis account as a document of both faith and science. Religion was unable to enter into creative dialogue with the new scientific view of the cosmos.
During the age of Enlightenment science was impoverished by the lack of spiritual insights. Science could answer the question ‘how’ but not the question ‘why’. God was seen at best as a ‘clockmaker’ leaving this machine for humans to control. Nature was no longer alive or permeated with spiritual presence, it was objectified and lost any rights. It was seen as simply matter to be manipulated to satisfy human need or greed. The industrial revolution primarily took place in Christian countries where the sense of the spiritual value of creation had been lost.
As the church turned inward and focussed on personal salvation and debates about doctrine, the scientific community developed a parallel salvation story – the power of science and technology to save the world. Some of those dreams have turned into nightmares.
The Christian world had moved from a theology of wonder to a theology of plunder.
So how do we rediscover our theology of creation? Is it time to decolonise our theology?
Preaching the Word
There are several themes that we can draw on from these passages
God never stops loving us or the world, but there are consequences for our actions. The 10 Commandments command us not to covet our neighbours ox and ass and yet consumerist advertisements command us to covet all that we see. We have reduced the concept of “prosperity” and life in all its fullness to a life full of material goods. And we are reaping what we have sown, both in terms of physical illnesses and the impact on Creation and loss of biodiversity.
The fool has said there is no God
What does it mean to believe that the Earth is not sacred? Why do we no longer believe or act as if that the “Earth is the Lord’s” but we have claimed it as our own. Gus Speth, former US Environmental Advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter said this” I used to think the top environmental challenges were biodiversity loss, eco-system collapse and climate change. I thought with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy. And to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation . And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
We are people of hope. Just as God could transform Paul from enemy of God’s people to leader, he can do the same with the human race. God placed us in the garden planet to ‘work it and look after it” Gen 2;15. We admit that we have sinned and done a bad job at looking after this Planet, but we also know that God can turn us around and we can take up the challenge to live as Earth keepers and Earth Healers.
The value of lost things
Part of our worship needs to include a lament for what has been lost and a confession of what we have done to God’s earth. This also includes the crime against the generations to come. We are stealing from our children’s inheritance. And then we must get ready for action, like the persistent woman and the faithful shepherd and set out to save those who are in danger of being lost.
Living the Word
There are three stages that assist us in responding.
You cannot protect what you do not love. So it is important that we re-connect with nature. The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy. A- pathy means lack of feeling. Most Christians do not hate the world, but we don’t love it. Love is a verb.
So we can choose to go for an outing into nature instead of the shopping mall. To go for a picnic rather than a restaurant. To organise a hike for youth from church. To teach our grandkids to grow tomatoes. To walk with barefeet on the beach. To rganise a service in nature
Hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth. Read about the impact of climate change on the poorest communities, watch documentaries about the impact of plastic on our oceans. Read about the animals that have already become extinct. Bring that pain before God in personal prayer or group confession.
- Take action
Make a list of what you are going to do and re-examine after six month.
There are four types of action – choose some from each kind
- Holding actions these are actions – that limit the harm (such as recycling, saving water, reducing use of fuel or electricity)
- Influencing others: start recycling at school or church. Start a fundraiser to buy water tanks for church, start a garden at church
- Spiritual practices: eg praying in nature. Organising a service in nature. Finding a space where you can see nature when you do your devotions.
- Systemic change: get involved in a campaign. Offer an environmental organisation your support in terms of time and resources.
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Southern Africa
[i] A Rainbow over the Land: Equipping Christians to be Earthkeepers. Conradie E, Field D, Botha R, Mash R et al 2016 Bible Media
[ii] Eco-congregation Scotland . Creation Time Resources 2016
[iii] Albert Nolan, “Cosmic Spirituality: Searching for the Spiritual Roots of Africa and Asia”.
Challenge 8, (1992), p. 4.
[iv] Martin Goss: Easter Green News. Diocese of Exeter
[vi] Johan Rockström et al., ‘A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Nature 461:24 September 2009, pp. 472-475.