john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Jesus and the Earth

    Good Shepherd 12/9/2004 (Morning Prayer)

    Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Luke 14.25-33

    It's the Liverpool diocese Clergy conference this week...
    ... we'll be exploring themes in the Bishop of Liverpool's book Jesus and the Earth ... [1]
    ... under the heading An unchanging gospel in a changing environment ...

    Timely: our world is changing fast and we need to prepare ourselves for a very different sort of future - prepare ourselves as Christians, ask ourselves how our faith in Jesus Christ helps us to see the world and shows us how to behave in it.

    I wonder how the world has changed in your lifetime; I wonder how you think it will change over the next twenty years; I wonder how you think Jesus wants us to relate to the earth?

    Yesterday's Guardian printed some articles about how experts say the world will change over the next twenty years [2]. I'll share two of these: 1. Cities will get even bigger; 2. The climate will keep on changing.

    1. Cities will get even bigger

    More people live in cities now than ever before. In the 1700s less than 10 per cent of the world's population were city-dwellers. By 1900 the proportion had reached 25 per cent. Today it stands at 50 per cent and the trend looks set to continue. Soon, two out of three people on earth will be living in a city. The question is, will they be complaining about it or will city life be good, in the future?

    One of the things we forget about cities is how much they depend on nature. Though today's cities occupy only 2 per cent of the earth's land surface, they consume more than 75 per cent of its resources.

    Question: "What is 120 times the size of London?" Answer: "The land area required to supply London's needs." Looking at the city like it was a giant machine, consuming resources, using up energy and spewing out wastes, researchers found that although the city itself occupies an area of only about 1,500 square kilometres, London actually requires roughly 20 million square kilometres of territory for its supplies and waste disposal.

    They call this London's ecological footprint. Though the city is home to just 12 per cent of Britain's population, it uses up the equivalent of all Britain's productive land.

    In reality, of course, the horizons that supply London extend beyond the British Isles to the wheat prairies of Kansas, the soy-bean fields of the Mato Grosso, the forests of Scandinavia ... and thousands of other locations.

    I was surprised to learn that London is now one of the world's smaller cities. It was overtaken years ago by places like Los Angeles and New York, but more so by cities in the developing world, Tokyo, Cairo, Calcutta, Mexico City, and many others whose growth in recent years has been astonishing. There are less than half a million people in Liverpool. There are 19 cities around the world - and mainly in the poorer parts of the world - which have 10 million or more inhabitants. Imagine what their ecological footprint is.

    Experts say that by 2020, nearly 600 cities will have over a million people living in them, more than 400 of these in developing countries. At least 23 cities will have over 10 million, and several of the poorest will have more than 20 million people in them. Mumbai, which used to be known as Bombay, has 17.4 million people in it today; in 2020 it is likely to have 22.6 million.

    The quality of life for many in the cities of the developing world is desperately low, with squatter or slum housing being the norm rather than the exception. But, contrary to the idealised western view of the countryside as a haven to which city-dwellers yearn to escape, conditions are far worse in the rural areas. The cities may be poor, but the countryside is poorer still.

    The brutal fact is that, while one-third or more of city-dwellers in the developing world live on or below the poverty line, only about one-third of the rural population lives above it. A typical study of urbanisation in the developing world concludes that despite appalling housing conditions, lack of fresh water and services, minimal health care and few chances of finding a job, the urban poor are on average "better off than their rural cousins, on almost every indicator of social and economic well-being".

    2. The climate will keep on changing

    We all know what has happened in Boscastle this summer. And in the news today, a hurricane is hitting Jamaica. These are just two examples of what is happening to the world's climate. And the experts say that by 2020 with icecaps melting and sea levels rising, low countries will have even more floods or even disappear underwater, northern countries will experience more and more heatwaves, and global warming will mean more freak events like flash floods, hurricanes and cyclones all over the earth.

    Massive cities, climate change - all of this seems to paint a gloomy picture of the future. It's very similar to the one Jeremiah had of an earth under God's judgement - a decimated earth:

    I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
    and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
    I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

    Of course, we know that when the people turned back to God then their health and the health of the land was restored. And from a secular perspective, we know that humans and all the earth can adapt to changing circumstances. The people of Boscastle are already rebuilding; birds who lose their feeding-grounds when bulldozers move in, can find new places, or new foods. Though there are limits - and many species are already dead because we have taken too much away from them.

    You might consider how the world has changed in your lifetime, and how you think it will change over the next twenty years...

    One thing to take from the Jeremiah passage is that it shows very clearly how God has authority over the earth. If he is angry he can send hot winds of judgement, cause the mountains to quake and the hills to shake.

    Now we have to be careful with this primitive view of God; because, as Bishop James points out in his book, today we trust that if God is judgemental he is also merciful, "We look to God to be both Judge and Saviour."

    Bishop James says that many environmentalists today feel strongly that our world is experiencing judgement:

    [They] daily point to the result of abusive human exploitation of the planet and to the ecological crisis now upon us. Crisis is the Greek word for judgement. When the media broadcast the headline 'Environmental Crisis' they are declaring to the world a truth greater than we realise. We are reaping what we sow. This is the crisis, the judgement: 'Do not be deceived,' wrote Paul, 'God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.'

    One of the greatest concerns is to do with the effects of consumerism on the earth - as we produce more and more and consume more and more our ecological footprints get bigger and bigger.

    When Christians over the centuries have asked ourselves how we think Jesus wants us to relate to the earth, many have answered by withdrawing from it , by living with little or nothing, by abstaining, and by campaigning against those who seem to be enjoying too much the fruits of the earth.

    There is much to be said in favour of treading lightly on the earth - I will say some things in a moment - but such a view of Christian living can be a bit too other-worldly. The scientist John Polkinghorne, who is also a retired priest at the church I trained in in Cambridge, has said, 'Matter matters to God.' The great twentieth century bishop William Temple insisted that Christianity was the most material of all the religions. And today's gospel reading tells us something very revealing about Jesus: Jesus was a consumer.

    It reminds us that 'the Son of Man came eating and drinking.' And as Bishop James points out in his book, "his enemies were so outraged by his lifestyle that they accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. They compared him with his ascetic cousin John the Baptist who 'came neither eating or drinking' and made the comparison in order to belittle Jesus."

    In today's reading Luke tells us that "The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"

    Jesus was a consumer. Some people didn't like that. Some people don't like that today. As James says in his book, "[Many people] feel that Christianity, especially in the West, has ... readily sanctioned and sanctified consumerism and global greed. Many green ethicists have laid the blame for the West's exploitation of the earth's resources at the biblical door of Christianity." They feel that the book of Genesis, with its command to 'fill the earth and subdue it', has given humankind carte blanche to exploit the earth.

    But Jesus is what James calls a discerning consumer. I like to think of him as a restrained consumer or a thoughtful consumer. I don't think there's any evidence that he ever was a glutton or drunkard. But there is plenty of evidence that he cared very deeply about the small things, the forgotten things, the vulnerable things of the earth, like in the story we heard today.

    Yes, he told his critics, I eat and drink with sinners. That's because I came to look for them and save them.

    And he says this is just like a shepherd, a worker very close to nature, who searches and searches for the one sheep of a hundred which is lost, searches and searches until it is found, and carries it home on his shoulders, rejoicing. It's only a sheep. But it matters.

    Jesus is a consumer. He is in the earth, he loves and enjoys the produce of the earth and loves sharing it with others.

    But Jesus tells stories which care for the earth, and which help us to see how we might be part of nature's sustaining cycle, rather than its destroyers. Like the bees, in George Herbert's poem, which Bishop James quotes:

    Bees work for man; and yet they never bruise
    Their master's flower, but leave it, having done,
    As fair as ever, and as fit to use;
    So both the flower doth stay, and honey run.

    How we are to live faithfully to God in relation to the earth?

    In coming weeks I'll share what comes up at the clergy conference; meantime will welcome your points of view as well; about what we can do as individuals to live faithfully to God in relation to the earth, and also any ideas about what we could do together as a church...

    [1] James Jones: Jesus and the Earth
    [2] John Reader [Guardian Special reports]: No city limits