The Happy Apocalyptic
As Environmental Chaplain, I could sum up the average visit to a church in this way:
Me: ‘The end of the world is nigh!’
Congregation: ‘What a lovely service!’
... which is a good outcome, if you think about it. Crisis makes our faith make sense, but we hold on to the recognition that ‘Hosanna’ - God help us! can still be a joyful shout. Scripture and tradition, through the Wild Wild of the Spirit, do convey the gift of spiritual precedent, even though the global magnitude of what we now face may seem unique.
My role does often involve being asked to give a ‘talk’ outside of a devotional context, but I much prefer bringing the truth of the bad news into worship; the place of the Good News, with all the resources of prayer and tradition, most of which actually arose in circumstances of threat or oppression. ‘Be more church,’ as it were, and you’ll shine more brightly. People can truly cope better and make wiser responses if they’re not setting faith on one side. I speak from personal experience as someone whose inbox daily includes well-argued reasons for despair. But ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow; you’re up to your eyes in this “kakia” today,’ says Jesus. And I carry on.
The poetic reasoning of preaching needs to assert our right, as people of faith, to invest in well-informed hope (not blind optimism) irrespective of whether a clear rational pathway to hope is available. Part of this may involve standing up to generations of Enlightenment intimidation, reinforced through the dutifully anthropocentric idiom of our Bible translations. There, Creation is always ‘it’ rather than the perfectly acceptable ‘they’ or ‘who’, holding humanity to account for injustice. There’s an irony that the heirs of the Enlightenment in science now set us free to consider the languages of trees and plants, the feelings and longings of our non-human neighbours, which have been continuously evident to sisters and brothers in Christ in the indigenous communities of the Earth, despite repeated attempts at (cultural) genocide and ecocide.
You yourself, remember, know more about the climate crisis than the most eminent theologian of a previous generation. Respect them by recycling, rather than deferentially re-using. In an age of instant online access to Greek and Hebrew texts and cribs, the preacher needs the courage/confidence/responsible recklessness to be a dynamic part of the community of interpretation, rather than a pathetically acquiescent consumer of a legacy pew Bible, which impoverishes ‘all Creation’ to ‘all people’ (GNB, Mark 16:15). You may belong to a generation urged to dismiss that particular ‘Great Commission’ because it was written by someone other than the main writer of Mark. But should it be merely scholarly criteria, or a combination of scholarly and pastoral, that determines what choices are made in what is presented to a congregation? I’m not suggesting we ignore or disregard historical/text criticism, but this is only one strand, one aspect of discernment in what we offer to feed our congregations.
Given an honest transparency, it’s often wise to pre-digest or integrate footnotes or variants of texts, rather than waste good preaching-time explaining in detail why you’ve gone for a particular version. Again, this needs courage, confidence, integrity, and the trust of the congregation.
The rewards of leading a congregation into environmental commitment are many. Some might even please the treasurer when we save waste and fuel, but we can also observe a deepening of faith, community, and motivation - and, of course, joy, in litter picks, repair cafes, and more.
Crisis-aware preaching has many intimidating defaults to negotiate. One is a widespread insistence on ‘lament’ at the crisis, which brings the danger of getting bogged down rather than passing through what may be a genuine experience of bereavement when the penny drops about the planet. It’s not spiritually viable to live continually in lament. The ‘Hallelujah Anyway’ spirituality of the powerless and oppressed offers a positive alternative.
Another particularly oppressive default setting is the anodyne comfortableness of ‘Stewardship Christianity’ which recycled some Reformation roots to become the go-to way of talking about Creation, before crisis was more widely recognised. The difficulty is the - largely unbiblical - tendency of ‘stewardship’ to objectify what is being cared for. Reducing our relationship with Creation to one of ‘looking after property,’ even if it’s God’s property, rather than finding our place and purpose alongside fellow stakeholders and partners, on whose wellbeing we depend, in the rainbow covenant with ‘all flesh’ and ‘the Earth’, both of which include us, rather than exclude us.
Biblically literate preachers ought to be able to do better, and be ready to repent of all our semantic and linguistic exclusions and otherings of the most omnipresent character in scripture, next only to God, namely the Earth. Even to begin to make Earth a proper noun, written with a capital letter in prayer, liturgies and your own preaching notes, gets you on the road. Earth Lives Matter!
The truly terrifying truth - about the crisis we’re already in - the truth does set us free to rummage and recycle even the scary and embarrassingly weird, of which some has still made it into the lectionaries. Treasures new and old.
I started noticing early on in this job, the growing similarity between, what used to be embarrassingly wild or decoratively picturesque passages like Luke 21:25-27 and our news reports. How do we learn, anew, to drive these vehicles of scriptural solidarity in crisis?
Possibly by breaking down the barriers of language to identifying with our own experience. Gawping into the infinite wonders of Outer Space may promote a desirable level of holy wonder and humility, but as disciples we’re pulled up short by the Ascension Angels: [Acts 1:11] ‘why are you looking into the sky?’ Or maybe, on that one occasion, we should use the word ‘heaven’.
The discipline of crisis compels me as a preacher to be reminded that Scripture makes sense when we limit ourselves to what is terrestrial, pedestrian and experiential. You’re less likely to despise ‘the vault of the sky’ as primitive, when you’ve stood still with your feet on the same Earth as the one who formulated that. There’s precious little total abstraction in the Bible. The climate crisis is the end of ‘mere’ metaphor. And we respect that all the more as we realise the depth of understanding of the Water Cycle, poetically connected in the same breath as the successively recycled word of God in Isaiah 55. Environmentally aware preachers realise that prophecy is not single-use or throwaway. Recycling and repurposing are our hermeneutic. Both in the spoken word, in body-language and in every visual aspect of communication available to us, be it in the stoles and vestments we choose or inherit to preach in, or the projected images integrated into our sermons, which enable us to deal with bigger ideas than words alone would permit, as well as continuing a surprising line of thought while the screen does the job of footnotes: reassuring our most discerning hearers that we’re not talking out of our backside!
The Kingdom/Reign of Heaven/the Sky emerges as similarly related or even identical to the ‘way the climate is ruled’ and the cosmic gravity of the crisis we’re in comes home as something which endangers even ‘Heaven’, alongside all those ‘laws which never shall be broken’ (Psalm 148 and ‘praise the Lord ye heavens adore him’) - the disintegrating aspects of ‘seed-time and harvest’ to which we traditionally appeal for reassurance. It’s science fiction, rather than the Bible, which insists on the disconnectedness of dimensions, rather than the dynamic and connected unity of ‘Heaven and Earth/Sky and Soil’.
Thus the surprising and encouraging realisation is that as Christian preachers, we’re potentially rather well equipped for the task of building spiritual resilience and maintaining hope amongst our people. In the case of my own ministry, this includes encouraging and sharing stories of the green initiatives of the congregations themselves. As prayer, and with that dignity, rather than merely ‘like’ prayer.
What I’m seeing in the emphasis on reflection and responsiveness in training for Christian leadership does give cause for hope too: the skills and tools opening up the potential of preaching for engagement with all aspects of the crisis are widespread.
The confidence to do so, is on the other hand, rather lacking, which is where movements such as EcoCongregation Scotland (and Ireland) and EcoChurch come in. The label, and the identity that goes with it, makes a difference. ‘who do you say you are? - we’re an eco-congregation, therefore ... .’ Don’t let your bishops, moderators or superintendents off the hook, either: when you’re trying to make a case for a change of direction in a particular congregation, their -even tacit - approval or indifference can make a difference.
Welcome to The College of Preachers
To explore the website fully, please sign in or subscribe.
Non-subscribers can read up to three articles a month for free. (You will need to register.)
This is the last of your 1 free articles this month.
Subscribe today for the full range of resources from The College of Preachers, including Lectionary sermons for every Sunday, book reviews and more.