I’ve just given this butterfly, which I’ve made out of recycled hardboard in my garage, as a leaving present to thank the members of the congregation who supported me in the four years that I have worked there.
This year has been Climate Year there and butterflies have played a large part. Butterflies are beautiful but fragile creatures and vulenerable to many of the effects of climate change. They are also an ancient Christian symbol of resurrection. The caterpillar “dies” but it is transformed within the tomb of the chrysalis to be reborn as something new and beautiful.
This particular model is based on the Large White which I regard as a symbol of hope.
The species became extinct in the United Kingdom in 1979 largely due to intensive agriculture reducing the areas of unimproved grassland in which it thrived. Scientific studies revealed the exact nature of the problem and allowed conservationalists to plan for its reintroducition. Today the butterfly breeds at 33 sites across the South West of England. (The full story is actually more complex and wonderful and you can read about it at this link.) The hope in this story is clear, if we want to change things, are prepared to listen to what is required, and then act on that understanding, then we can.
Inspired by this I made a much larger model with a wingspan of nearly 4m to take up to the demonstration of public concern that was held on the middle Saturday of the recent CoP 26 meeting in Glasgow. Before that, it was suspended in the Church throughout our recent eco-festival as a symbol of the need for Christians to join with the rest of the world’s popualtion in holding our governments to account over what they are doing to our planet and its people and how they plan to change this.
Unfortunately I’d forgotten that it was likely to be windy in Glasgow in November and it was unsafe to unfurl our butterfly on the march in the midst of over 100,000 people. We did manage to give it a flutter at Glasgow Green at the end of the march where there was a little more space.
After we returned I preached a sermon about the Christian requirement to hold our government to account in this way and shared some pictures of the march. You can watch it on this video clip below if you’d like to. It’s based upon Micah 4:1-5:
1 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, 2 and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3 He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; 4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
5 For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.
I’ve been struggling recently with how we respond to the degradation of our environment which seems to be continuing so uncontrollably. I feel a need to express my grief. The little video below is an attempt to do this which I shared in worship last Sunday (using a felt board and laminated cut-outs of the animals and plants).
We followed this by singing selected verses of “Think of a world without any flowers” which is becoming a more and more poignant song for me:
Think of a world without any flowers, think of a world without any trees, think of a sky without any sunshine, think of the air without any breeze.
We thank you, Lord, for flowers and trees and sunshine,
we thank you, Lord, and praise your holy name.
Think of the world without any animals, think of a field without any herd, think of a stream without any fishes, think of a dawn without any bird.
We thank you, Lord, for all your living creatures,
we thank you, Lord, and praise your holy name.
The nearest Biblical parallel to what we are facing seems to be that of the Jewish exile in Babylon and the experience that is articulated in Psalm 137, This sermon attempts to draw out those parallels and offer our community a way through its grief.
In 597BC, after a revolt against Babylon, the new superpower in the Middle East at the time, a three month siege resulted in Jerusalem being pillaged, the Temple being destroyed and a large part of the population being captured and taken into exile in Babylon. They remained there as captives for approximately 70 years.
The effect was devastating on the people. They had lost everything they held dear. Many had lost family members in the wars or siege or had been separated from them when being forced into exile. They would have lost their possessions and homes and in many cases land that had been passed down through the generations. Perhaps most importantly, though, they had lost their God. Before the exile the Jews believed in a tribal God whose main purpose was to look after Israel. But Israel had been destroyed. That God had failed. Imagine what it must feel like to have a God who has failed. It would drive you to sit down by a river and weep. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
How does that reflect our experience today? For almost as long as Christianity has been around it has felt that society has been progressing – moving in the right direction. The expansion and development of Christianity has occurred at a time of progress and development for humanity. It has been possible to see human progress as moving towards the coming of a Kingdom where slavery is no more, where women are no longer subject to men, where even poverty might be eradicated. Every successive generation has known a better world than its parents. It has been very easy to assume that a beneficent God has been looking after us and guiding that progress. In the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But now we see a world that is deteriorating, that might even be destroyed. The issues aren’t just about the environment. Throughout the world the gap between rich and poor is increasing, and the poor are really suffering. “Progress” has not brought happiness, mental illness is rising rapidly. In many regions, including our own, there is political instability bordering on chaos and a feeling that our democratic institutions are failing. The current state of the environment is not only a depressing fact but also a metaphor for the state of our current society more generally.
It really feels to me as if the God who many like me believed to be guiding human progress has failed. There is a resonance between the grief of those Jews in exile in Babylon, who had lost everything including their confidence in God, and our present generation, who are in danger of losing everything and may already have lost their confidence in God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?”
The Jews were in exile for 70 years. The generation that went into exile and wept so bitterly died in exile. A whole generation grew up in exile and never knew any other way of living. It was only later generations that finally returned to what they had been told was their homeland.
When we look at the projections for how the climate will change over coming years then we face a similar but exaggerated situation. We, the generation present here, will almost certainly not live to see a return to anything that is seen as progress. Many generations will almost certainly live in a severely denuded environment, and probably with currently unimaginable political instability as rich and poor fight for what little food it is still possible to grow.
I do believe that eventually a generation will emerge who return to its homeland, who eventually recognise that the only way we can all live life to the full, on a finite and degraded planet, is to accept the gospel of love and community that is offered freely to all … but it will be a very long time coming.
Of course, some will see our predicament as God’s judgement and others will see the state of our earthly existence as essentially irrelevant when we look forward to spending eternity in God’s presence. Such ideas may comfort others, but they do little to comfort me. What I feel in my heart is an aching sadness for the world as it could be but isn’t. A sadness I can only describe as grief. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So I place myself alongside those exiles in Babylon and want to learn from them how to express, and live through, that grief. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying identified 5 stages of grief and we see many of them in that Jewish experience, and in our experience today.
First is denial and isolation. The Jews could not deny that they had been physically removed but they did continue to live in isolation from their captors and continue the religious practices that, one could argue, had led them to be in that position. Today we definitely see denial of what is happening to the world and a desire to carry on as usual.
Then there is anger. We don’t often hear the second half of psalm 137 read out but how can wishing your enemies’ children’s heads be crushed against rocks be anything other than an expression of anger. I feel anger today for how the planet is changing. I suppress it, but that only means it emerges as tears rather than violence. Greta Thunberg feels that anger and expresses it far more powerfully than I can.
Bargaining comes next. How many of the psalms (many of which scholars now believe where written or at least edited during the exile) embed some element of an attempt to bargain with God. As we read in Psalm 137:
If I ever forget your holy city, LORD,
may my arms be turned into twigs and burned.
How often do we attempt to bargain in our response to environmental change, “Surely if I choose to cycle more often and install solar panels I will have done enough” or “we as a nation should only act if other nations are willing to act alongside us”. The bargaining is doomed to failure because it fails to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
Then depression, sitting down and weeping by the river, descending into mental ill-health as individuals and as a society.
But finally comes acceptance. Eventually the exiles did come to accept that the exile was real and learnt that they had to accommodate to their loss. Many of the stories of the exile are of Jews flourishing as individuals or as a group within their new circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t restore what is lost, but it does allow us to begin to live fulfilled lives again despite that loss. In terms of how our planet is changing we will eventually accept that the planet has lost much of the beauty we appreciate today, but when we do we will find different ways of living fully as God intended.
That is why it is so important for us to work through our grief because it is only when we have accepted it that we will look for these new ways of living. I included our gospel reading earlier (Mark 15:25-37) that it is only when we have accepted the grief of what Jesus went through on the cross that we are able to embrace the new way of life that we experience as Resurrection.
At this time helping our community to grieve may be one of the most important roles the church has. The support we offer at funerals and otherwise during grieving is one of the last points of contact that we still have with many people in our community. We know how to support people through grief when they lose a loved one. Maybe we should develop our expertise in allowing people through their grief for this planet. Maybe acts of lament like the story I told earlier on might be one way of allowing people to express and live through their grief.
It is also important to work through stages of grief because grief is disabling and disempowering. We become paralysed and unable to help ourselves. What could better describe our human society at the moment than paralysis and inability to help ourselves? Moving through the stages of grief to acceptance frees us to act and to transform.
Accepting the awful reality of what is happening to our planet can break us out of that paralysis and empower us to act as agents for change. Jeremiah was a prophet at the time of the exile. He is famous for his lamentations, for his grief for his nation. It was through embracing and working through that grief, however, that he became one Israel’s greatest prophets and one of the most powerful advocates of societal change and a demand for social justice that the planet has ever seen.
That is what our society today needs. It needs prophets to advocate new ways of living on a finite planet with finite resources. It needs the imagination to dream up a new economic system that are not dependent on continual growth and the inevitable increases in consumption of resources that this entails. It needs demands for justice in the sharing of our human and natural resources. Above all it requires prophetic voices to remind us that what is required is for us to love the Lord our god with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
We cannot do this if we are paralysed by grief, but if we work through that grief to accept our loss then we can be liberated to work for the coming of the Kingdom. The world will almost certainly be transformed by climate change, but, if we liberate ourselves to action, there is still a chance that the physical and biological changes can be limited. Perhaps more importantly, that change will only be brought about if we can direct our society away from competitive individualism to the social cooperation and justice which is the heart of our gospel. We must work through our grief and be liberated to go once more into the world to love and serve our Lord.
My thinking has been influenced heavily by three different sources:
A sermon following the lectionary readings, the first half of Psalm 22 (see here for a powerful Australian paraphrase) and the story of the rich young ruler as told in Mark’s gospel.
I’ve found this a rather difficult week. I have very real reservations about how many things in society are heading at the moment. The rational scientist in me looks at how things are going and concludes a bleak future awaits us all. The feeling Christian in me grieves for all those who will be caught up in this process and the struggles they will have to endure. When I read today’s Psalm, which starts off as a lamentation, it struck me as a powerful, poetic description of what it is I feel. The only difference perhaps being that the psalm is written as a personal lamentation whereas the grief I feel is for our community.
Monday saw the publication of the latest report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change. The report makes salutary reading. Scientists opinions on this subject are always estimates and their analysis of the growing evidence is that these estimates have been too generous in the past. The effects are being seen earlier and more severely than they had expected. They are now saying that we need to take even greater actions even earlier than their previous recommendations. Of course this report comes at a time when world governments are failing to meet even the looser earlier requirements.
But it’s not just climate change. There are a number of other large-scale environmental factors including loss of habit and biodiversity, acidification of the oceans, degradation of soil, pollution of the atmosphere and oceans, and increasing shortages of fresh water (these are summarised well, and not too bleakly, in Kate Raworth’s book, Donut Economics). On all these fronts the future looks bleak if we progress as we now are.
Then there are economic factors. There is growing inequality in wealth distribution with the rich flourishing and the poor being left to fend for themselves. Economic growth is largely funded by personal and governmental debt which is clearly unsustainable. Within our own country the health, education, law enforcement and social care provision is being starved of funding and is failing to support the most basic needs of many of our population. We see this particularly in the growing debate, in the second half of the week about the consequences of continuing to roll out universal credit in it current form.
And all of this is contributing to a growing crisis in our mental health services. Wednesday was UN World Mental Health Day. It is essential that such days are used to remind ourselves on the scale of this problem but it led to another slice of confronting publicity. We were reminded that mental health problems, and particularly those amongst the young are getting worse. At any given week one in six people experiences as common mental health condition and the funding of mental health services is simply nowhere near what is required to satisfy this need.
The stereotype of the old street preached is based around the message, “Repent all ye sinners for the end of the world is nigh”. The modern equivalent is perhaps not a pronouncement that this world is going to end but that is going to change beyond our imagination in the decades to come and that most of that change is going to be in a direction that we would rather not imagine. I don’t think its healthy to dwell on this all the time but every so often I think it is important that we acknowledge what is going on in our world and how we feel about it.
Reading the story of the Rich Young Ruler as a critique of contemporary society
At first sight the gospel reading doesn’t seem to align with either the psalm, or the reading from the book of Job which is set as an alternative, or the introduction I gave to this service earlier. The story is almost always taken as referring to a particular individual, the rich young ruler. Indeed some commentators have suggested that Jesus teaching should not necessarily be extended to anyone else. This man had a specific problem, they say, and Jesus offered a specific solution. If don’t have that problem then the teaching needn’t apply to us.
It might not surprise you to hear that I don’t buy into this and I’m actually going to take a different slant on this story. I’m going to suggest that this story and Jesus’ subsequent teaching can be taken at a societal level. Indeed when the man has departed disappointed and turns to his disciples Jesus doesn’t lament for an individual, he expresses a generalisation, “How hard will it be for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God”.
Note the difference here between what the man asks for and how Jesus talks afterwards. The man asks what he need do to “inherit eternal life”. Jesus reflects on what is required to enter the “Kingdom of God”. This is characteristic of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, which contain probably the best record we have of what Jesus actually said. “Eternal life” is obviously tied up with ideas with what will happen somewhere else after we die and is rarely on Jesus’ agenda. He is much more interested in proclaiming the “Kingdom of God”, a vision of how the world is and will be, “on Earth, as it is in Heaven”.
Jesus’ linkage of the coming of the Kingdom to our attitudes to wealth is important in our modern context because almost all of the environmental problems that our world currently faces are a consequence of our focus on accumulating wealth, of wanting more stuff for ourselves and our children and our grandchildren. Whilst our lives are immensely enriched by that stuff, it is the factories and agricultural processes that we use to produce it that are causing the problem. Our industries pump out vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere and our farming expands to satisfy our needs leading to environmental degradation, habitat loss and eventually extinction of many species which used to live where we now grow food. The problem isn’t limited to our material wealth. Our wealth is now expressed as much through the experiences we crave for as well as it is through the stuff we accumulate. Travel for tourism is a particularly damaging for the planet through the carbon dioxide emissions from air travel, degradation of once vulnerable and once inaccessible ecosystems, and distortion of local economies to serve the needs of tourists rather than local inhabitants.
Many of our economic and social problems are also, essentially, a consequence of our societal pursuit of wealth. The drive for wealth creation, gross domestic product, under current economic models is leading to suppression of wages for those on low incomes to fund large pay outs for investors and exorbitant salaries for those at the top of industry who maintain this system. The desire for houses and furnishings and cars and holidays keeps us enslaved to our jobs and exacerbate worries about income and job security which are two of the largest drivers of mental health problems.
In short, our society’s obsession with wealth accumulation and economic growth is one of the largest barriers to the coming of God’s Kingdom in our modern world. Jesus clearly didn’t respond to this Biblical incident with a critique of the twenty first century market economy, but he did recognise, in the earlier and more localised economy of which he was a part, exactly the same factors operating as wreak havoc in our world today. There is no doubt in my mind that there are important societal messages in the words we have heard read this afternoon as well as the requirement for a personal response that preachers normally focus on when preaching from this text.
Re-focussing on and celebrating Kingdom priorities
Changing societal attitudes to wealth and wealth creation is a huge political challenge. Where do we start?
Perhaps the first thing is to realise that we don’t have to “start”. The church, at its best, has engaged with this question over the centuries. There have been celebrations this week that Archbishop Oscar Romero is tohas been made a saint. He we must remember was martyred for standing up against the evils of the economic system that was developing in El Salvador in the 1970s. The Archbishop of Canterbury has made important pronouncements about the creation and management of wealth in the modern world. The task has already been started, all that we are invited to do is join in seriously.
The next thing to remark is that we will almost certainly get nowhere by simply criticising wealth. One of the most obvious aspects of this gospel story is that when asked to do give up his wealth the young man simply walked away. If all we do is criticise wealth then the population will simply walk away as he did. We will be left preaching to ourselves.
What Jesus did, and what he continues to do, is to offer an alternative. To allow us to judge success not by the quantity of our possessions but by the quality of our lives and particularly of our relationships. It is interesting that in the final verses of todays readings, the reward that the disciples are offered is new and deeper relationships. We have to show the world that a life following Jesus, whatever income, is a much richer one than a live spent pursuing wealth.
The only way we can do this, as individuals and as a church is to live lives that exemplify this, that show how much more rewarding our lives can be when we turn from pursuing wealth and engaging in pursuits that are destructive of our planet. We need to celebrate those lives and show others how fantastic they can be. About a year ago I decided avoid eating meat and dairy produce as much as possible because of a growing awareness of how much damage modern meat and diary farming does to our planning. Initially this seemed daunting but with the help of a couple of well-chosen cookery books and the wider resources of the internet I’m now revelling in fantastic diet of wonderful food that I would never have considered before. There is no doubt that my life has been enhanced by cutting down on foods that are produced using destructive practices.
For a longer period I’ve tried to cut down on the amount of flying I do. Of all the things that most people can do to help the environment, stopping flying is the easiest and most effective. But by making this choice we have begun to re-discover the beauty of our own country and particularly to revel in the seasons rather than trying to escape them. Of course many people have always lived much more simple lives than I’ve lived for the earlier part of mine and in this case our role is to honour and celebrate those lives and to encourage people to continue within them rather than to beat them up for not being even better.
Living faithfully in a deteriorating world
But how does this fit in with the rather bleak picture I set out in the earlier part of this service. Whatever we achieve at a personal level, it is extremely unlikely that we are going to prevent at least some of the cataclysmic changes that face our world. One of the assertions of the IPCC was that we only have another 12 years to change the way the world operates in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The world’s economic and political systems simply don’t work that quickly. It is inconceivable that we, as a planet, are going to take action quickly and effective enough to avoid extremely serious changes to our climate. We are going to have to live in a world that appears to be growing away from the vision of God’s Kingdom.
The Bible does offer us guidance here but it is very tough guidance to accept. In many Biblical visions of the future the eventual coming of the Kingdom is preceded by some apocalyptic disaster befalling the world. Those who eventually enter the Kingdom are often those who manage to preserve their faith through that apocalypse. In the past those visions were often regarded as prophetic of real events that God would bring about. In the modern world they are perhaps better interpreted as metaphors that allow us to make sense of the coming challenges. Things are almost certain to get worse on this planet, quite possibly, catastrophically worse, but however bad they get it will still be possible to live in accordance with God’s will, to love him and to love other people as we love ourselves. It is only when the whole world bends to this will that we will start to make real progress towards the coming of his Kingdom and, however rocky things become in future years it is our responsibility as Christ’s followers to live in such a way that the vision of that Kingdom is preserved in such a way that eventually all people will come to recognise its power and to work for its realisation. This will not come for many years, and it will only come on an earth that is almost unrecognisable from that we enjoy today, but our Christian hope is that it will come. Each of us has a part, all be it very small, in keeping that vision alive and passing it on to generations yet to come, however, unlikely that its realisation seems.
In conclusion I want to read the second half of the psalm that we heard read earlier. A psalm of lament for the state of our world is transformed into hope filled manifesto for the Kingdom that is yet to come.
At your table, God, the needy will feast; ……..those who hunger for you will be fed till they burst with praise! ……..They will be able to live it up, now and forever!
In every corner of the earth people will wake up to themselves ……..and turn back to you, LORD.
Every race, nation, tribe and family ……..will offer themselves to you in worship,
for you have the last word on everything; ……..what you say goes.
Even the dead will bow down to you, LORD; ……..those who are trampled in the dust will look to you in hope, …………….and I will live for you and you alone.
Our kids and their kids will serve you, LORD; ……..as we pass the message down from one generation to the next.
People not even born yet will hear the story; ……..they will be told of what you have done to set us free.