Saturday, 24 September 2011

Harvest Thanksgiving - The wrong perspective on humanity's place in creation

Psalm 104:10-24
You make springs flow in the valleys, and rivers run between the hills. They provide water for the wild animals; there the wild donkeys quench their thirst. In the trees near by, the birds make their nests and sing. From the sky you send rain on the hills, and the earth is filled with your blessings. You make grass grow for the cattle and plants for us to use, so that we can grow our crops and produce wine to make us happy, olive oil to make us cheerful, and bread to give us strength. The cedars of Lebanon get plenty of rain - the Lord's own trees, which he planted. There the birds build their nests; the storks nest in the fir trees. The wild goats live in the high mountains, and the rock badgers hide in the cliffs. You created the moon to mark the months; the sun knows the time to set. You made the night, and in the darkness all the wild animals come out. The young lions roar while they hunt, looking for the food that God provides. When the sun rises, they go back and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to do their work and keep working until evening. Lord, you have made so many things! How wisely you made them all! The earth is filled with your creatures.

John 1:1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Sometimes I get very frustrated with the church. We preach about a life of service and about how special we all are to God, and we act on what we believe by looking out for the needs of other people, and at harvest time we give great thanks to God for the food that we have and for the work of the farmers in harvesting it. But I can’t help thinking we’re not seeing the whole picture.

You see the Christian religion, just like Judaism and Islam, has its primary focus on humanity. Now that in itself is not a problem, because as humans we are of course bound up with our own story. The problem I think that we have is that we have also assumed that everything else on the earth should also be bound up with our story. We have an arrogance that perpetually puts us at the centre of all creation in our own minds.

The church has gone so far with this idea that it made a point of actively persecuting scientists like Copernicus and Galileo who recognised from their observations that actually the earth wasn’t at the centre of the universe with everything else revolving around it. Their observations led them to the conclusion that the sun was at the centre which outraged the church.

We now know that not only is the sun not at the centre of the universe, it’s not even in any prominent place in our galaxy, just slung off in one of the spiral arms. And even our galaxy is nothing special; our nearest neighbour, Andromeda, is a far more spectacular and much larger galaxy.

Yet this arrogant belief that we are somehow far more important than any other species persists. One of our new Eucharistic prayers includes this line:
‘In the fullness of time you made us in your image,
the crown of all creation.’

How do we know we’re ‘The crown of all creation.’ Of course we’re created in God’s image, but we’re not very good at living up to that are we. Who is to say that amongst the billions upon billions of other planets in the universe there aren’t other species also created in God’s image who do a much better job of living up to their nature.

There is a label for this mentality and it’s ‘anthropocentric’, which is the belief that humanity is meant to be at the centre of everything, the most important thing that God has ever created, and it’s that belief that allows us to recklessly savage the planet without thinking of what we’re doing. We often blame big business and greed for the way in which earth’s resources are consumed, but our religion, so long as it keeps this attitude, is culpable because we’re excusing others by agreeing that what we want as a species is what is most important.

Yet in the two readings today we get a clear picture of the whole of creation and its importance to God. Psalm 104 echoes loud and long with its praises to God for all that he has created, and the beginning of John’s Gospel makes it clear that everything was created through Jesus, the Word of God. But there are plenty of other readings we could have had.

Genesis Chapter 1 is not meant to be a literal scientific account of creation, but it’s noteworthy that God decided that what he had created was good, every part of it, not just the human bits. Or we could have had a verse from the end of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus tells the disciples to go into the whole world and take the good news to all creation. That’s quite a pointed use of the word creation.

The word kosmos is the word translated as ‘the whole world’ but Mark uses a different world for all creation, ktisei, which doesn’t come up in scripture all that often, but refers to the created order. When we add plenty of other passages in here I think that we need to be thinking quite carefully about the responsibilities we have in terms of our harvesting.

We should not be taking from the earth that which we cannot replace. But we are, and so long as we have this idea that humanity is the only really important thing God has ever created, and that we are at the centre of everything, then we will go on ignoring the damage that we are doing, when really we should be in the thick of the eco-movement.

For instance, did you know that our rainforests cover just 2% of the earth’s surface, but they are home to over 65% of all the different species on earth. Yet we destroy more than an acre and a half of rainforest every second, every second! By 2025 we will have lost half of them and by 2060, they will all be gone, with all the animals that live in them.

We have to get away from this belief that the universe revolves around us and start to recognise that we are a part of the ecosystem. We give thanks to God for the harvest that he has given us, but we should also be thanking God for the harvest that he gives to other creatures.

There is such a thing as eco-spirituality, but at the moment it is dominated by paganism and eastern new-age style spirituality in this country, and Christians are labelled as being as bad as the rest of the world when it comes to not caring about the planet, and I think they may have a point. There is a branch of theology that believes that, if God is going to create a new heaven and new earth, then who cares if we destroy this one.

But is that anyway to think about one of the most precious gifts God has given us? It’s about time we began to recognise that we have a responsibility, as the current stewards of this planet, to ensure that all creatures get the harvest God desires for them, and that we shouldn’t be the ones who get to have it all. We always think in terms of mission as saving our fellow human beings, but the Church of England recognises that another important mark of mission is to the planet and it’s other inhabitants.

So at this harvest, as we give thanks to God for the food he has given to us, may we also begin to think long and hard about the responsibility we bear for the needs of all of the inhabitants of this planet. Whether or not we are the most important thing in creation is open to debate, but it is absolutely clear from scripture that God gave us this planet into our care and intends for us to be good stewards of it, and that’s one job that we are certainly not living up to.

The earth is the Lord’s and he has entrusted us with it. As Christians we have a responsibility to look after it with deep spiritual care and affection. Amen

Friday, 23 September 2011

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity - The offensive ways of God

Philippians 1:21-30
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Matthew 20:1-16
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

God is offensive. Or perhaps I should clarify that. The ways of God are offensive to people. No, that’s not quite far enough either. How about this: The ways of God are offensive to Christians. Now that may sound like an unlikely thing to say, but I want us to think about God’s grace this morning, and some of what I say will be difficult for us to stomach, because although we know statements like, ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first’, we don’t actually pause and think about the implications.

Let’s have a look at the parable we have before us this morning, because this is a classic example of a parable that should shock us when we think deeply about what it actually says. The first thing to note is the context. Jesus is not talking to large crowds of interested spectators here. This isn’t one of those occasions when large numbers of people come on over to follow Jesus.

Instead it follows on from the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus hears him say that he has always kept the commandments but recognises quickly that his wealth is actually his anchor and tells him he must give that away so that he will learn to depend on God. But the man can’t do that and goes away disappointed.

And then Jesus turns to his disciples and begins to explain how hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven; that a camel has more chance of getting through the eye of a needle than of a rich person getting to heaven, saying that many who are first will be last and the last will be first.

The story that we have before us today follows on directly from this and so we can conclude that he’s telling the disciples this parable to illustrate what he’s just said to them. In other words this parable is not evangelistic. It’s not aimed outwardly. It is aimed fairly and squarely at believers, at insiders like us, and it is likely to offend people. It is, however, a principle we need to learn and apply in order to grow as a church.

The story is really quite simple. A group of labourers are hired at the beginning of the working day, let’s say 6.00am, and reach an agreement that they will be paid the usual daily rate for a day's work. The vineyard owner hasn’t got enough people to do the work so he goes back out again at 9.00am and wanders around the middle of the town, finding men in the market place doing nothing. So he hires them too.

Another three hours goes by and at noon he hires yet more men who are doing nothing. He goes back to the market place again at both three and five in the afternoon, each time hiring more men who seemingly have nothing to do. Sometime around 8.00pm he goes out into the vineyard himself. The working day is over, which shows clearly that these people didn’t submit to EU working directives because some of them have done a fourteen hour day.

Then he calls them all over and begins with those who he hired at five o clock, and he pays them all the full daily wage, even though they have only done three hours work. Now you can probably imagine what is going on in the minds of those who have been at it for fourteen hours.

They know what their contracts said, the daily wage for a day's work, but now they have seen how generous their employer is! If the three hour people get a day's wage, then they should be getting more than four days pay, by their calculations.

Imagine, then, what it must have felt like as he worked his way through the employees, giving each group, no matter how long they had worked, a day's pay. How would you have felt? Wouldn’t you have felt cheated somehow? Yes you had a deal, but if he can be this generous, surely he could have offered you more.

And that is what it feels like to be an insider on the receiving end of God’s grace, watching him pouring out his love on those who got in at the last minute. We love the story of Jesus telling the thief crucified on the cross next to him that he will get to be in paradise as well, but think of what the implications are. That man stole and robbed his way through life whereas you have all worked hard to be good, upright and moral Christian citizens, and you will both get the same reward.

Isn’t that offensive? It can certainly feel that way. Yet what it means is, regardless of how hard you have worked for all of your life at trying to be a good Christian, God chooses to forgive someone and give them the same rights as you to heaven if they repent on their dying breath. You both get to heaven.

God hasn’t done you out of anything, but his grace and love are so far reaching that he will forgive and restore people to his love the moment they turn to him. That’s what grace looks like, and it can be offensive to insiders because our natural position is to say, ‘Yes, but we have given up everything for you for all of our lives.’

Now don’t get me wrong; in the verses before these the disciples say the same thing, when Peter points out how much they have given up for the kingdom and Jesus reassures them that they will receive so very much in heaven as a reward, ‘But’, he says, ‘Many who are first will be last and the last will be first.’ We will be rewarded for being faithful, but God’s grace also extends to those who have only just repented.

What I think this story highlights for us is a sense of jealous ownership, that as insiders who have always tried hard we ought to be rewarded, and this extends into church life on this side of the veil too.

It is wonderful to welcome new people into church life and encourage them to get involved. But I also wonder how willing we are to let them get really stuck in, or whether there is a sense of, 'We were here first - we should decide who does what.'
This seems to me to be a similar attitude to what we see in the parable, that God makes little distinction between the first and the last to arrive - all are treated with love and grace.

So let us be generous in our love and giving. Let us welcome new people and give them honour in the church and not expect them to have to do the hard graft for five years before they are accepted, but to make them a part of the family from the very beginning, because in doing so we are treating them as God treats all of us, giving grace and love to all, regardless of how long they have been here. Amen

Brueggemann et al, Texts for Preaching: Year A, Louisville: WJK Press, 1995, 493f

Greenbelt Meditations

Thank you to all those who have contacted me asking for when the Greenbelt meditations will be posted up here. I promise I will get to them as soo as I can. I've just had a post-Greenbelt holiday and am now trying to catch up with parish work and a number of other responsibilities, but I promise they will be up before too long. A couple of recent sermons coming up next...