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Monday, 7 November 2011

God's Garden


Readings: Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78.1-7
1 Thessalonians 4.9-18 
Matthew 25.1-13

By way of apology I should outline my caution towards so-called special Sundays. A little like the ‘Year Of’ pronouncements that emanate, I suspect, from a small office in the labyrinthine corridors of the United Nations – with its religious ‘Year Of’ counterpart in the smaller but equally labyrinthine corridors of the World Council of Churches – these declarations can become a hailstorm of cataclysmic proportions, spitting passionate and often worthy concerns at us faster than the speed of light and initiating 'awareness faitgue', let alone compassion fatigue . It seems to me on any one day we can, if not exhausted, find ourselves in the Decade of Evangelism, the Year of the Child, the Year of Being Nice to Endangered Species, the Year of Looking Out For Nasty Weeds, The Month of Being Kind to Grandmothers, The Month of Protecting Endangered Rock Oysters, the Day of Remembering Dolphins and the Day of Making Sure You Are Proud of Your Prayer Book, Hymn Book and Pew, all unawares. I’m a kind of Church Year and lectionary junky, not because I’m some sort of bombastic Anglo-Catholic (though I might be), but because I believe these are the best tools available to ensure that neither worship nor preaching becomes a cyclical focus on the Michael Godfrey personal obsession collection. By preaching and praying the liturgical calendar, imperfect though it may be, we are taken out of cosy comfort zones and forced to encounter the often discomforting regions of the scriptures of our faith. We are not forced into a form of dead mechanicalism, but we are steered away from smorgasbord faith, popular in some churches (evangelical and liberal alike), where we pick and choose the flavours that we like.

That whinge aside, however, I am on this occasion allowing a degree of special focus in our thoughts, for Care of and Hope for what I call ‘God’s Garden’, Creation, is a fundamental mission of the Christian Community. For many years now the Anglican Consultative Council has recognized and affirmed five marks of mission:

• to proclaim the Good News of the Reign of God
• to teach, baptize and nurture new believers,
• to respond to human need by loving service,
• to seek to transform unjust structures of society, and
• to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

The fifth – (which reads like a sentence put together by a working party!) – was a late addition to the first four, arriving on the scene in 1990. Nevertheless it is an important acknowledgement that Creation is an act of God’s sharing love, that the nurture of Creation is a commission given to humanity in the creation stories, and that the lives of many of our sisters and brothers in the human race lie perilously balanced as we often selfishly devour and destroy the resources of God’s earth.

There is then a sense that all our interpretation and application of scripture at all times must incorporate a degree of concern for the garden God has entrusted to us. It would be false to pretend it was overt all the time – as it would be false to pretend that every scripture selection commissions us to evangelize or to strive for justice – but it is there. And serendipitously, it is there by implication today, as our readings towards the close of the liturgical year begin to pick up the crescendo of apocalyptic expectation. It is even present in Paul’s impassioned and moving address to the Thessalonians, which, while hardly a Green Party Manifesto, commissions his audience to live their lives in such a way of love that they benefit and enhance the lives of those around them: ‘live quietly, … mind your own affairs, … work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one’. Paul was far from considering ecological issues, but if we are to read Paul in the 21st century we must ask whether our western lifestyles really demonstrate propriety towards others. Many analysts suggest that the fury that runs through the veins of El Qaida is nurtured at least in part by the bitter gaps in economic status between the West (or, as it is now inexplicably called, ‘the global north’) and the Muslim world, as we gobble up resources that could fuel and feed and clothe all seven billion in the world. It is simplistic, but it is a partial truth.

Sadly, as the Christian community read its apocalyptic texts, as I have mentioned now many times, it read them from a listening or reading site vastly different to that in which they were written. Those of us engaging in the Advent studies will be reminded of this yet again during December. Too often, though, Christians, especially those with an apocalyptic or millenarianist bent, have used expectation of a glorious Second Coming as an excuse to disregard or, more shamefully still, to hasten the desecration of the earth: an ecclesiatical 'bring it on' so that a selfish elect can skiddle to 'glory'. That parody of Christ-mission has understandably led socially compassionate Christianity-averse writers such as Seattle songwriter Charlie Murphy to remind us bitterly ‘the earth is a witch and we still burn her’.

To ignore our responsibility to nature is to drive a wedge between the miracle of our origins, in which God commands us to ‘husband’ creation, and the expectation of Christ’s return. To drive a wedge in such a way is blithely to forget the doctrine of judgement, and to forget those parables in which Jesus warns us that will be asked to account for the gifts we have had entrusted to us. It is to forget, too, that while we often emphasize the ‘friendship’ of Jesus, parables such as that of the ten maidens are texts that remind us of our obligation constantly to evaluate and re-evaluate our lives in the light of the glare of Christ: where were you when I was naked or hungry or thirsty in the global south or in the nations disappearing beneath rising sea-waters?

I do not believe we are called to follow any political party line in approach to these questions. I do believe, though, that we are called over and again to re-focus our lives to ensure that we nurture and care for the gifts that God has given us, and use them constantly in ways which glorify God. We are called to ensure that our lifestyles are not destroying God’s earth, and where they are, or where they are denying the livelihood and the very existence of our fellow humans and other species, to seek forgiveness, make alteration, and in that way ensure that our candles burn with eagerness as the bridegroom arrives.

May God help us so to do.

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