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Hope for Creation in Humanity’s Renewal

It was heartening to hear on Friday that the Brazilian government has pledged to end net deforestation by 2015. That is one of the key commitments in a draft climate change plan, which stops short of setting specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But it sets out how Brazil will help tackle climate change by promoting specific actions. At present deforestation accounts for 75% of the country's emissions and it aims to reduce forest loss to a point where by 2015, more Brazilian trees are being planted than are cut down. According to the Environment Minister Carlos Minc, this will be possible through an aggressive programme of restoring native forests, as well as further crackdowns on illegal logging.

Putting People in their Place
One of the things that we have begun to realize is that we face the real possibility that our own actions as human beings could bring about the collapse of all that we have tried to build in this world. Human actions have caused damage through waste, pollution, burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, the mass extinction of wildlife. Most realize that there needs to be urgent change.

But at the same time there is amongst many a crisis of confidence in our ability as human beings to make the changes we need. Environmentalists point out that governments and scientists have known what we are doing for years and yet very little has happened to change things until recently. Even today some are in denial – the truth is simply too inconvenient when it affects our lifestyles and may interfere with our comforts. It seems there is something profoundly self-destructive about human nature itself. Is anything capable of changing people and societies, of dealing with our selfish genes, of transforming human nature?

Humanity Transformed?
In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything the American
writer Bill Bryson gives an entertaining and informative overview of the history of science. Towards the end of the book he reflects on all that humanity has achieved in terms of science and technology. He describes the problems that we still face, including environmental ones. Our track record has not been great. Finally, Bryson says: “If you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going, and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job. But here’s an extremely salient point – we have been chosen, by fate or providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is.”

If, as Bryson says, we are the best there is, what hope is there? At the heart of the issue is this. If there is a crisis of confidence in humanity’s ability to make a real difference to the environmental crisis, can Christian faith help? Over the past few years there have been an increasing number of senior leaders, often not people of personal religious faith themselves, who have made open appeals for Christian and other faith communities to get involved in tackling the environmental crisis. There is a growing recognition that technology, science, innovation and political will can only get us so far, because this is at root a moral and spiritual crisis.

Christian faith believes that it is possible for people to change. The good news at the heart of the gospel is that we do not have to stay lost forever in the mess we have made – whether that mess is in terms of our relationship with God, or in terms of the state of the planet. Our readings today focus on the possibility of change.
Our Epistle from Philippians 2 encourages us to have the attitude of Christ Jesus who gave up the glories of heaven to be born, to live, to die for us. It challenges us to have the servant attitude that Jesus had. Applying that to the care of creation, it is a challenge to work out our dominion over the earth and its creatures with the same attitude of humble servant-hearted sacrifice that Jesus displayed.

Philippians 2 goes on to make the amazing assertion that the same power that was in Christ can be at work in us – transforming us from the inside out. “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (v.13)

God working in us: that surely is the hope of glory. On our own we do not have much hope of solving the mess we have made of planet earth, but God working in us to achieve his good purpose. That is something worth believing in and committing ourselves to. If the Creator of the universe can work through ordinary people like us, then there really can be hope for the planet. If we
abandon ourselves to God, if we allow his Lordship in our lives, he can renew us from the inside out, transform our selfishness into the selfless service that Jesus displayed.

Back to the Vineyard
Our Gospel reading can also give us some relevant teaching about environmental concerns. In last week’s Gospel from Matthew 20, we saw that the world is compared to God’s vineyard, with ourselves as workers within that vineyard. Today’s Gospel from
Matthew 21:28-32 continues the same theme with the short story of two sons who are asked by their father to go and work in his vineyard. One refuses, but later changes his mind and does go to help. The other agrees to help but doesn’t bother to follow through with his promise. On one level we can interpret Jesus’ story as directed to the people around him. The respectable religious leaders are like the son who makes empty promises, whilst the son whose beginning is not so promising but gets there in the end is compared to the despised tax collectors and prostitutes who were beginning to respond to Jesus’ teaching.

But we can also interpret this parable by applying it to our situation. The parable is about God’s unexpected, upside-down Kingdom, where sometimes the most unlikely people respond more deeply and honestly than the conventional religious types – there is room in God’s Kingdom for all, including those the rest of the world has rejected. It is also about actions speaking louder than words. Words are seen to be totally empty unless they lead on to action. It is more important to care for the vineyard than to talk about caring for the vineyard. We can apply that pretty directly to our environmental crisis. Over the past ten years, churches around the world including here in the UK have made many statements about the importance of the environment – about the place of creation in Christian theology and worship. ‘Creation Time’ is part of that rediscovery of creation’s place. The uncomfortable challenge of this parable of Jesus is to ask whether our concern for the environment has been much more than empty words? Have the various Church resolutions yet turned into tangible differences in the carbon emissions of churches and their congregations? Has the hot air of conference debate simply added to global warming?

Of course there are some good examples around and it is important to recognise and commend these. An increasing number of churches have taken the EcoCongregation materials and worked out practical applications of environmental Christian discipleship and witness. Many individuals do what they can. We have our own recycling scheme here in MK. There are other initiatives in MK including the conference on 22nd November run by our local Christian Environment Group which I encourage you to go to. All of these things are good, but we need to keep going.

If we really believe that the power of Christ can be at work within us to will and to act according to God’s good purpose, then we should expect to see evidence of this - examples of profound and radical lifestyle change amongst Christian people. Let us rediscover a biblical vision that, because of Christ’s work, people can be changed, communities can be transformed, and creation can be renewed, and let us seek to put that into practice with actions that speak louder than words.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Faithful Lord,
whose steadfast love never ceases
and whose mercies never come to an end:
grant us the grace to trust you
and to receive the gifts of your love,
new every morning,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.