TODAY, as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher, I shared the following reflection at a church in south Liverpool.
The inspiration came from two of the recommended readings for this Sunday: Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20. The inspiration for the theme of the service came from an ecumenical prayer service for the Season of Creation, which included an adaptation of Psalm 85. Here is my introduction to the service:
It’s September, the Season of Creation. It’s a time to renew our relationship with our Creator and all creation, through celebration, prayer and action, together with the whole human family, for the good of our common home.
In 1989, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I proclaimed 1st September as a day of prayer for creation. The Orthodox church year starts on that day by remembering how God created the world.
The World Council of Churches has developed this time into a season of the Christian year, extending the celebration from 1st September, the Day of Prayer for Creation, until 4th October, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment. Millions of Christians across the world have now embraced this season.
This year’s theme is inspired by the words of the prophet Amos: ‘Let justice and peace flow’.
So I invite you to join me in asking God for the grace to let justice and peace flow among us and through us today!
And here is my reflection:
‘Unfailing love and truth have met together.
Justice and peace have kissed!
Truth springs up from the earth,
righteousness smiles down from heaven.’
– Psalm 85:10-13
The words of the psalmist call us to reflect on how we might learn truth and righteousness from earth and heaven, so justice and peace might flow and embrace each and every one of us, and all life in this world.
Justice and peace call us to change our attitudes and actions. Righteousness demands that we build right relationships with all our neighbours around the world, and with all of creation.
The most important challenge we face today is the climate crisis, the urgent need to end new fossil fuel production, to phase out existing coal, oil and gas production fairly, to ensure universal access to clean, affordable energy, and for wealthy countries and businesses to pay for the loss and damage for which they bear responsibility.
These are urgent moral matters. They will only happen if a massive social movement for climate justice relentlessly pressures the world’s powerful governments, finance institutions, and industries. Faith communities must be part of this movement that challenges them to change.
Many people wonder where to find God in the midst of the climate crisis. This week’s readings point us in the right direction. They tell us that it is time to wake up, to draw strength from our faith to face urgent matters that require our courage and integrity, and to engage together in behaviour that may be uncomfortable, but it is prophetic, and essential for our survival and salvation.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he reflects on the moral quality and integrity of the community: fellowship and mutual love are the foundations of effective action to ensure justice and peace. We hear that all God’s commandments are summed up in just one: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
Paul sums up the teaching of the Hebrew Bible as being love and care in the right way. In this version of the Golden Rule, a universal truth found in all the world’s major spiritual traditions, Paul reminds us that to love is natural, but there are right ways and wrong ways to love. To ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is a way of honouring the self and the other, together, at the same time.
Sometimes though, what we call love isn’t really love, it’s taking advantage of others for our own benefit. Sometimes that love is not responsible, it’s harmful. When people claim love but hurt others, or covet that which doesn’t belong to them, that’s not love, for, as Paul says, ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour’.
Paul is concerned for the impact that such irresponsible love has on the one who loves too. For they are asleep, they are without the light of God, they are not living in the light of Christ.
Paul continues: ‘Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep’.
‘Waking up’, becoming more aware of ourselves, of others, and of God in our world, is a key element of spiritual growth.
Paul calls on the followers of Jesus to wake up and ‘put on the armour of light’ to face the challenges of the day.
Waking up suggests that we can see things in a different way, and act in new ways as well. What does this responsible love look like for us as followers of Christ?
In this Season of Creation, this new-seeing, new-acting life means awakening at a deeper level to God’s love for people and planet alike.
If love does no wrong to a neighbour, does that include unintentional ‘wrongs’, the wrongs we have done when we’ve not recognised that our behaviour causes harm and hurt. Of course, for then it has not been responsible love.
So who, then, is our neighbour? Local neighbours? Neighbours who share the same land as us? Neighbours who take away and recycle our waste for us? Neighbours who extract precious natural resources from the Earth for our coveted possessions? Neighbours who suffer from adverse weather? Are we loving these neighbours responsibly? Is this love and care being shared in the right way, or are we still in the darkness and not quite yet in the light of God for all Creation?
How can we say we love our neighbour while we ignore the catastrophe that is facing our neighbours, in particular our most vulnerable global neighbours? How can we ignore the cries of our neighbours being devastated by drought and flooding, hurricanes and wildfires?
Then there’s the responsibility of our species to care for our mutual dependence with the Earth and all creatures. The author of Genesis chapter 1 understood this, by including God’s calls to humanity to be stewards of creation, but perhaps we’re just beginning to rediscover and respect it.
As Paul also observes in a way which speaks loudly to our age: it is about – or long past – time. The urgency and the responsibility applies to all of us. Heatwaves, wildfires, and flooding are not a future scenario, they are a present reality. And we are reaching tipping points – as temperatures increase, we face leaving a bleak and barren future for our children, and their children.
And yet, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls us with loving attention to confront those in our communities whose actions may be unjust or harmful. It shows how harmful attitudes and actions, left unattended, can disrupt the entire community, and how a beloved yet wayward member should not simply be excluded.
More often than not it is more important to be in right relationship than it is to be right. Jesus offers a practical approach to restoring relationship and seeking reconciliation, beginning with two people, including others, if necessary, before, as a last resort, going to the authoritative body of people (though, for us, sometimes the offence is so serious that going directly to the authorities is not only good practice but essential if a person’s safety is at risk).
Confrontation can be unpleasant and hard, even when our cause may be right and just. Yet Matthew’s Gospel describes justified confrontation as a necessity. The climate crisis requires confrontation with the world’s powerful governments, finance institutions, and industries. Each of these benefits or profits from the way things are.
Many faith communities, and their leaders, are uncomfortable about confronting these powerful forces. They fear that if they speak out, they will suffer the criticism of mixing politics and religion, or a backlash from wealthy benefactors. These fears, while understandable, are hurdles which faith communities must overcome. If it is wrong to destroy God’s creation, then it is certainly wrong to profit from such destruction. Faith communities have a responsibility to society, and a sacred duty, to speak out in the face of wrong. Confrontation of evil is part of the prophetic tradition of our faith. Now is a time to raise prophetic voices. In the words of the late great prophet Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’
So as people of faith we are called to act. We may not feel able to challenge the world’s powerful governments, finance institutions, and industries. But we can draw on the love we have for neighbours and for our children, and stand on the prophetic tradition of those who have gone before us.
It is now well beyond reasonable doubt that human activity – in particular the burning of fossil fuels within our lifetimes – is the direct cause of the measurable increase in heatwaves and wildfires, storms and floods. Denying the abundant evidence of science, the experience of our neighbours in the global community, and the decline of wildlife around the world, is not simply ‘a matter of opinion’ that polite Christians can ignore. Such ‘politeness’, or avoidance of confrontation, is collusion. In our time, that is a choice to be on the side of the polluter, and of global injustice; a choice to ‘walk by on the other side’ and disregard our neighbours living with the consequences of climate crisis.
So, our churches, while striving to welcome everyone and accept them where they are, cannot be seen as a sanctuary for attitudes and behaviours which are harmful, not only to others but ultimately to those who hold them. A small example: If other groups use our church premises, do we ask them to use fairly-traded goods, and recycle while they are our ‘guests’, even if they pay to hire the space?
And if people agree with the bogus authority of climate-change denying material, it’s a pastoral task, not to beat them down or bully them into agreeing with us, but to challenge them lovingly. For meaningful and lasting change to happen, we need to involve even the gifts and commitment of those who begin as sceptics and deniers. We’ve seen that hearts and minds can change. Isn’t that the reason we are a church community?
Jesus challenges his community to find ways of loving, healing, and changing the mind of those who persist in what truly harms God’s world. In this case, ‘sin’ might be best understood as something which truly harms the Earth, and our relationship with God and our neighbour. The climate crisis calls us – following the special care that Jesus devoted to ‘gentiles and tax collectors’ – to do what we can to include everyone of goodwill.
Jesus goes on to say that how we handle conflict here on earth affects heaven. A creation-aware reading of the phrases ‘whatever you bind’ and ‘whatever you loose’ makes more than just spiritual sense. Creation, Heaven-and-Earth, Sky-and-Soil is the one unified Creation of One God. In a unified creation of Heaven and Earth, Sky and Soil, what we ‘bind or loose’ impacts the whole climate. The climate crisis is a crisis of Heaven and Earth. It’s that serious. Our decisions and actions ‘bind’ it all. This passage reminds us that our actions and lifestyles have truly global importance – as also do small, faithful prayerful initiatives. The promise; ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,’ doesn’t refer here to gatherings for worship, but to our call to recognise harm and attempt reconciliation. Just ‘two or three.’ The God of Heaven and Earth is not fussy about scale when we’re following the call of Jesus to justice and peace.
Margaret Mead, who studied the origin and development of human societies and cultures, said:
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’
On this Earth, our common home, the Word was made flesh proclaimed peace and justice for all creation.
The inspiration for this year’s theme for the Season of Creation came from the words of the prophet Amos:
‘But let justice roll on like a river,– Amos 5:24
righteousness like a never-failing stream!’