1 Thess 3:9-13
1 Thess 3:12-4:2
by David Coleman, Environmental Chaplain, Eco Congregation Scotland
Section 1 – Notes on the Readings
Old Testament – Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
Although the promise seems specific to one time and place, remember that ‘David’ means Beloved. This is an identity which through Jesus becomes far more inclusive. Don’t see ‘branch’ as a “mere” poetic metaphor: a “branch for justice” who will execute justice may be a person, but for us may also be a branch, in the sense highlighted by the Gospel, that observation of the ways of nature and of trees in particular is likely to promote justice. This might require from the reader a spiritual leap from “it” to “who” in their view of the living creatures we call trees, and their branches. It’s a commonplace of the Old Testament – and especially Jeremiah – that injustice and environmental devastation are two sides of the same coin: an experience of the Old Testament ‘cause-and-effect’ view of the wrath of God.
Does it need to be any clearer that, to make the point, that a just community is one where the partnership with nature is as obvious and beautiful as the trees which are planted and nurtured, and which give life – and air to breathe – to all creatures including ourselves?
Ad te, Domine, levavi
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
2 Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.
3 Show me your ways, O Lord, *
and teach me your paths.
4 Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.
5 Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.
6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.
7 Gracious and upright is the Lord; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.
8 He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.
9 All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness *
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
Humiliation is a ‘soul-destroying’ state of being, which goes well beyond mere defeat in a ‘fair contest’. It’s the result of the violent, merciless, and arrogant approach which seeks to ‘fix’ a problem’ rather than transform a situation. Someone as aware of their own faults as this particular Psalmist would do well to take note.
That’s why talk of ‘fighting’ climate change, or of ‘stopping the climate crisis’, both of which I’ve heard this year, are wrong-headed and counter-productive.
As a species, we seem set on annihilating and enslaving the living planet, God’s Creation full of feeling and justice and praise: leaving, even with the measures just announced at COP on deforestation, insufficient time and space for recovery of the ‘enemy’ on whom we depend. In the process of the war on the world, of course, the poor, and those who contribute least to the crisis are mere collateral damage.
COP took place in a country where, 1324 years before, the ‘Law of the Innocents’ was introduced by St Adomnan of Iona: essentially proclaiming that if warriors insist on war, then it’s unacceptable for non-combatants, women, children and priests to be collateral damage. It’s now well established (and was made clear at COP) that to empower women is a positive environmental action.
We also note, in this Psalm, that even in the curse “let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes” there is room for the healing love of God. We’re still on track, via the schemes of further fossil fuel exploitation, for the gross injustice of more than 2 degrees of warming. Such schemes must be ‘disappointed’ for the sake of love and life.
The New Testament – 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Whilst we share with Paul the recognition of the sustaining potential, even of the smallest Christian community, there’s seldom been a better time than now to abandon the self-deception of perfection. Our own beloved church – surely we don’t want to change the way we sing, the way we read the Bible? Surely our response to threat is to take refuge in the upholding of our tradition? Yes and no, for Christian tradition is dynamic and responsive, able both to ‘bring out of our treasure what is new an old’ as well as to ‘take out of service’ ways and views which have served us well. Recycling and repurposing is not just for metals and glass and paper: we are wonderfully equipped in our spiritual heritage to face danger and crisis as we bring the “bad news” into our holy spaces. We are People of Hope, which is far more practical than despair , and relying on grace, we need not wait for permission to hope.
Sometimes the influence of a wise and well-meaning outsider will, however, unlock those treasures within our faith communities. Recycling, rather than ‘restoring’ the substance of our faith and identity. As a visiting environmental chaplain, working with many local grassroots congregations, Paul’s attitude is my model: there is nothing inferior about the faith of the Thessalonian church, which is why that faith is amenable to becoming yet more responsive to the challenges that beset it. We are truest to our own traditions when we’re always ready to respond, rather than preserve; to step forward in the Way, rather than dig in and make camp.
The Gospel – Luke 21:25-36
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
When, in conversation, I noted the extreme familiarity and relevance of this passage to our present global situation, a lecturer involved in the training of Christian leaders said, “we don’t bother with that, it’s too scary” . And yet how very helpful it is to find in the wild words of Jesus himself, encouragement in the midst of global environmental crisis of the sea, the sky, the climate. We’re certainly confused and fainting, as was very obvious at the sessions I attended in the Blue Zone at COP. Indeed, it’s to the clouds – to our spiritual and active response to the climate that we look for healing and rescue. Yet again, these are poetic images grounded completely in experiential terms, rather than abstract. Though we remember the power of poetry is that through it, we process reality.
Again, in the watchfulness of “all the trees” (there are no fig trees near where I live) we receive the good news which is in all those many warnings in the words of Jesus. Even sobriety is commended not for its own sake, but because ‘drunkenness’, alongside those crushing worries which are best encountered in community, reduces our ability to respond, and to take note of the many signs of our times. Signs which, through the disciplined observations of thousands of scientists convey the loving, warning Word of God to act and change and prepare and adapt. To ignore the science is not only to disregard the trees, but the Saviour who refers us to these natural signs, now globally disrupted.
Section 2 – Sermon Outline
Advent is the most neglected, but most appropriate season for deep and transformative spiritual reflection on the fragility of the world; all the more so following the COP conference in Glasgow, which some have simply dismissed as a ‘failure’, though this does not get us any further. In particular, the leaders of the most powerful nations have not shown themselves to be equal to the distress and confusion which is occasioned by the signs in the skies, the turmoil of the oceans, and the systematic destruction, by manifestly unjust systems and practices, of the life of which we are part. No nation can any longer be unaware either of the chain of responsibility for the crisis, nor of its global and irreversible effects – as in the rise of sea levels and loss of biodiversity, nor will any ‘solution’ stop the crisis in its tracks. And yet those who believe they have most to lose have shown by their intransigence how much they need to hear the voice of the earth, of the indigenous groups who were more visible and vocal than every before. They have shown how urgent is the empowerment of women, which is proven to be a positive environmental factor, and the ‘greenwashing’ of fossil fuel exploiters now looks utterly ridiculous to those “with eyes to see and ears to hear”…. to those of you who do not get bogged down in worry or turn to the false friends of ‘drunkenness and dissipation’. Self-care is the more vital to maintain our critical faculties. Activists must not ‘burn out’ by trying to “do everything”. Because that is itself the very attitude and arrogance that is killing the planet. Some things will be beyond us. We must not let that fact destroy our hope, nor our determination to heal and remake what we can. If Paul visited and encouraged the Thessalonians, he would have helped them discern both what to take and what to leave, in the living out of their faith.
Paul’s approach to the Thessalonian church, the source of his realistic, sustaining joy, was, however, not unduly concerned with power politics, and I wonder if his diverting ambition to preach to the tyrannical Emperor was ultimately far more of a ‘thorn in his side’ than anything else scholars have speculated on. His joy, by comparison was in the responsiveness of grassroots Christians alert to the signs of their times and the very real threats to life, love and faith. I have seen in our congregations how the deepening of faith and the strengthening of community goes together with environmental action
COP has brought us together, or, more accurately, shown us our togetherness, and “whoever is not against us is for us” In Scotland the different faith groups have never been closer, without compromising their beliefs or identity. Perhaps we had made an idol of COP. Now we know different. We give thanks for the limited progress it has brought, whilst strengthening our hope and resolve and awareness for “the days that are coming.”
Section 3 – Additional Material:
Prayer after COP
Dear God of before and during and after;
God, Sustainer, Christ the Servant
from the beginning choosing
partnership with Earth, whom you made;
We thank you for the togetherness;
for the joy of protestors and prophets
the persistence of those who prayed.
We thank you as those who have found new answers
to the question of who, or what
might be my neighbour.
We thank you, with eyes wide open
to the unabated urgency of change
in all those ways of rich and powerful people
and the exploitative philosophies
that upstage and pull rank
over mere faith and hope and love.
We thank you for
the green and ancient wisdom
of Bible, people, Earth and Spirit
which still cares as for family
for fellow creatures…
because they are!
(And worshippers as well!)
We thank you for all the missing pieces
coming to light
of our interwovenness and dependence
on what we thought was merely beautiful
and therefore expendable
though beauty should have been enough.
Yet remembering the last laugh of the Cross
echoing through the empty tomb
We set aside the stifling worry of tomorrow
to deal with what we’re up to eyes in today.
And since the problems are not simply solved.
by nations and by leaders,
we find, refreshed, our place and purpose valued;
our small commitment blessed.
And paths of justice bright for all to see
with this new day of many.
by David Coleman, Scotland, UK