Sunday, 28 November 2010

Advent and the environment - Alpha to Omega

Preacher: Veronica

About thirty years ago there was a series in a radical Christian magazine called The Other Side. The series was called The Reversed Standard Version. Basically the writer took a well known passage of Scripture and changed it to mean what people generally seem to think it means. This in many cases totally reversed its true meaning. I found this a very enlightening thing to do. When I read what Richard Bauckham has to say on Colossians in relation to ecology, in his book Bible and Ecology which we are studying, I immediately had the idea of doing the same with the passage he quotes. So here is the Reversed Standard Version of Colossians 1.15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all humanity; for in him all people were created, all people have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all people,
and in him all people hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in humanity. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself some human beings,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Thatʼs how Christians often appear to read this passage. Salvation is about rescuing a select few human beings from the dead world of this planet and taking them to heaven. The destiny of the non-human creation is to be burned up, or laid bare, according to how you translate one obscure verse in 2 Peter; and it will be replaced by a new heavens and a new earth.
Now letʼs hear what Colossians 1 really says - and while you hear it, Iʼm setting you a challenge: count how many times Paul uses the words ʻallʼ or ʻeverythingʼ, or the phrase ʻall thingsʼ :

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers— all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Any answers? I made it eight, in five verses. This is a poem or hymn about the cosmic Christ, a Christ whose reach extends to all creation; and that is why Richard Bauckham, in Bible and Ecology, chooses it as a source for a biblical understanding of Christʼs relation to ecology.


Bauckham begins with some background introductory remarks. He points out that most of the biblical theology of the created world is developed in the Old Testament, and is taken for granted in the New. Bauckham doesnʼt mention this, at least in the chapter weʼre studying today, but I would want to add that Jesus himself does often turn to the natural world for the images in his parables and teaching. As Thomas Hardy said in a poem about himself, ʻHe was a man who used to notice such thingsʼ.

What the NT does do is to give us a Christological, or Christ-centred, rendering of the OT theology of creation. In other words, the NT writers are re-reading the OT in the light of Christ, and in it they discover that Jesus Christ is intimately involved in the whole story of creation. Hence the repeating of ʻall thingsʼ in our Colossians passage - Christʼs work encompasses Godʼs whole creation, earthly and heavenly.

Bauckham sees this as part of a metanarrative, or overarching story, which is about the relationship between God, humanity and the rest of creation. This story is leading to a goal, and the goal is all of creation being taken into eternity. And this goal is being achieved through Jesus Christ, who is active both in the original creation and in the renewal of creation. As Revelation 22.13 puts it, ʻI am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

Lost narrative

Clearly this understanding of Christ’s role towards creation has not always been prominent in Christian thinking, in fact it’s been entirely obscured sometimes. This is because of the intrusion of philosophical ideas from other world views, in particular the world view of Plato, in the early centuries of Christianity. In Platonism, there is a strong dualism between matter and spirit, and spirit is always superior to matter. I’ve seen this expressed in another book as a simple diagram:



Now contrast the Christian view, based on Hebrew thinking, as expressed in another diagram:


When my friend Evelyn, who is normally quite prim and proper, saw this diagram she immediately asked, ‘Where’s the sex in the Christian one?’ Which is a pretty good question, so let’s add it in.

Early theologians tried to combat Platonism by a more biblical view of the goodness of material creation. But there is quite a lot of evidence that over the centuries, the battle was to a large extent lost. You only have to think of a chorus that used to be popular: ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of his glory and grace’. What’s so wrong with the things of earth, which God has created, that turning to Jesus has to turn us away from them? This is exactly the criticism environmentalists have made of Christian theology, that it sets humanity in opposition to nature.

Bauckham says there is a modern version of Platonic idealism, which is our scientific quest to ‘conquer’ nature and bend it to our purposes. This creates a dualism of humanity versus nature, in which our goal is to become completely independent of nature, maybe by some form of everlasting artificial intelligence. In Bauckham’s words, ‘We should be deploying the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body against these anti-human technological aspirations’. Or to put it another way, ‘Salvation is not the replacement but the renewal of creation’.


Against this background, Bauckham explores the Colossian hymn as what he calls a Christological eco-narrative (sorry about all the jargon). It’s constructed in two halves, the first about the creation of all things in, for and through Christ, and then about the reconciliation of all things in, for and through Christ. The two parts parallel each other totally in language and structure, so that the scope of reconciliation is as wide as the scope of creation.

But this is not about some cosmic Christ figure set in eternity, but specifically about the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth, who embodies the universal in a particular human life. This Jesus shares God’s relation to the world: he is both creator and redeemer, and he has begun the reconciliation between God and all of nature. The key verse is, ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’.

Bauckham says this means that ‘the Gospel story - the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - is focal and decisive for all creation. The fullness of God in him is the intensive presence of the God who fills heaven and earth. His sacrificial death identifies him with the whole of the suffering and perishing creation. His resurrection inaugurates the renewal of all creation’.
He goes on to list some ecological conclusions we can draw from this passage. Firstly, it gives a holistic view of creation, because all creation is integrated in Jesus Christ. Secondly, this vision relates to the actual human figure of Jesus, crucified and risen. This, he says thirdly, is the hidden mystery at the heart of creation. This mystery cannot be discovered in creation itself because creation is full of violence, but it can be seen in the way God transcends that violence in Jesus. By his non-violent, self-giving love, Jesus overcomes the violence of creation.

Fourthly, there is the mention of the ‘powers’ at the heart of the Colossians hymn. This is there to tell us that while earth may appear to be in thrall to powers of violence and injustice, they are in fact already conquered by the cross. And their conquest becomes a practical reality by God working through us as we seek to make a better world.

This brings him to the fifth point, which is really a question: is creation fallen? As modern people we now know that there was animate life long before humans emerged, so we can no longer hold to the idea that nature is corrupted because of some historic human action. In fact violence and death are integral to the processes of nature, and without them the evolution of species could not happen. So where did what we see as evil in nature, come from?

According to Bauckham, the Bible does not really attempt to answer this question fully, but what it does do is to prophesy that through Christ the creation will be liberated from the evils that it now suffers. It is focused on the creation’s future, not its past.
At this point we can turn to the other passage Bauckham examines in the first half of this chapter: John’s prologue to his Gospel.

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....
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him...
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth.

All four Gospels begin by linking the story of Jesus to the story of the OT, but John goes back the furthest: to the beginning of Time itself. By starting his Gospel with the words ‘In the beginning’, he is offering us a way to read the Genesis story in the light of Jesus. He is also giving a nod to Proverbs 8, in which a figure identified as ‘Wisdom’ tells us:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

Although this describes a created figure rather than an uncreated one, Wisdom in this context is often identified with ‘the Word’ who was with God and who was God in John 1. This is the Word who becomes flesh in Jesus: God incarnate entering into our created world, so that in the end our created world can be taken into God. Notice how that phrase ‘all things’ recurs in this passage: in both the creation and the Incarnation, Christ is related to the whole creation, human, animal and inanimate. This is the world which is to be redeemed, when in Bauckham’s words ‘creation finds its fulfillment in being taken into the divine life’.


Finally, Bauckham looks at some of the nature miracles in the Gospels, such as the calming of the storm, and at the wider meaning of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching. He points out that the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ would have called out Old Testament echoes in the minds of Jesus’ hearers. There are parallels to it both in Isaiah, a book the Gospel writers quote a great deal, and also in the Psalms, which emphasize the kingship of God over all creation. For example in Psalm 95:

For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker

God is the King of all creation, and humans are invited to join in the praise which the animal and inanimate creation already offer. We are also told that creation looks forward to the coming of God to judge and rule the earth. Hereʼs part of Psalm 96:

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

So Jesusʼ nature miracles are a foretaste of the wholeness which will eventually come to all creation, and the Kingdom he proclaims is one that encompasses all creation. Which brings me to my conclusion, which I canʼt put better than Bauckham does: ʻWhen God does come to judge and to rule, all creation will rejoice at his adventʼ.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The community of creation - praising & mourning together

Preacher: Chris

Bible reading: Psalm 148

This afternoon, we will be discussing the final section of the third chapter of Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology, in which he describes a ‘community of creation’ that both praises and mourns together. During the talk today I would like us to keep in mind the idea of testimony and counter-testimony, as it will be (hopefully) helpful in discussing what appear to be contradictory, even offensive passages. Indeed, I know I have been thinking about the idea of counter-testimony far too much since I first heard the term used. At the flat Tim and I have recently moved into, there were a few scattered dishes and cups that the previous tenant had left. I have a strange compulsion that insists on having matching plateware, glasses and so forth—it’s really weirded out a few of my flatmates over the years. So after a recent trip to IKEA in which we brought back six matching plates and six matching bowls and six glasses, I relegated the old plates and bowls to somewhere under the sink, only to be pulled out in times of dinner party desperation, and called these dishes the ‘counter-testimony’ plates as opposed to the ‘testimony’ plates and bowls which are easily accessible in the cupboards. Faith interacts with real life!

But that aside, I would like to open by re-considering Psalm 148. Baukham discusses the ‘community of creation’ and emphasizes the inter-relationship among humanity and ‘the rest of creation’. One of the ways in which this inter-relatedness is demonstrated is in the concept of ‘praising our maker together’—that is, all of creation joins together in praise: it is an act which unites the natural world. Baukham performs an extended close reading on Psalm 148, the one we read together just a short while ago. Baukham notes that the ordering of the psalm places human praise last, but he does not see this as a sign that human praise is somehow more valuable or necessary; in fact, any talk of valuation seems inapplicable. How are we to compare, for instance, the praise of a mountain—majestic, inanimate—to the praise of a ‘flying bird’? Or the praise of the stars to that of snow? Rather, the psalmist invites praise from the whole of creation, from the angels in heaven to the physical earth and the creatures—including humans—that inhabit it. This praise is not to be taken as some kind of animism that ‘attributes consciousness to all things’, but neither is it to be taken as mere ‘poetic fancy’. Instead, the metaphorical language of the psalm points toward a reality in which, to quote Baukham, ‘all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves and fulfilling their God-given roles in God’s creation’. Apart from its rather Lord of the Rings-like injunction (‘Put aside the Ranger. Become who you were born to be!’), Baukham’s statement implies a fundamental self-identity, a joy in creation, a joy in being created that all of creation shares. We join nature in praise, on one level, by simply being, but at the same time our being is not in a solitary or self-serving manner; rather, our being points to a being created—a relational existence tied to a creator.

Yet often we find ourselves distanced from a sense of unifying praise. At home group this week, we were talking about isolation from nature in the urban environment, how even the nature we do encounter is a permitted nature, formed and bounded by human strictures and desire. We permit a commons green to grow, but we place walking paths in it and restrict its shape by the presence of roads and fences. The landscape of allotments is at once natural—plants of all kinds grow in them and creatures make them their home—but at the same time they are a direct product of human conditioning and formation: we command the ground and order it to our using, which is perfectly understandable, but we risk suffering a separation from the land and creatures that, like us, embody or point to praise of God. To quote Baukham at length:

Before the modern period, the praise of all the creatures seems to have been more widely appreciated in the Church. The reasons why it has fallen out of most modern Christian’s consciousness must be urban people’s isolation from nature, which deprives them of a living sense of participation in nature, and the modern instrumentalising of nature, which turns it into mere material for human use. But these reasons also suggest how valuable it might be to recover a living sense of participation in creation’s praise of God. It is the strongest antidote to anthropocentrism in the biblical and Christian tradition. When we join our fellow-creatures in attributing glory to God, there is no hierarchy and no anthropocentricity. In this respect all creatures, including ourselves, are simply fellow-creatures expressing the theocentricity of the created world, each in our own created way, differently but in complementarity. As Psalm 148:13 says, in this worship God’s name alone is exalted: there is no place in worship for the exaltation of any creature over others. Moreover, to recognise creation’s praise is to abandon a purely instrumental view of nature. All creatures exist for God’s glory, and we most effectively learn to see other creatures in that way, to glimpse, as it were, their value for God that has nothing to do with their usefulness to us, when we join them in their own glorification of God.

We normally treat nature as a neighborhood—the physical space in which we conduct our individual and social interactions, but Baukham would press us to think of creation not only as a neighborhood but also as a neighbor. As the expert in the law who tested Jesus by asking ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life’ and then attempted to justify himself by asking ‘And who is my neighbor’ received a life-expanding answer to his question, so too perhaps we could benefit from probing the question of not only who, but also what is my neighbor. How do we treat the world around us in such a way as to acknowledge is co-adulation of the God which we, too, praise? We can—must, really—move beyond a view which simply asks ‘How can this matter before me be useful to me’ since this results not only in resource depletion, but a fundamental lack of respect for our physical reality.

The Bible records, as we have seen in Psalm 148, creation’s praise to its creator, and humanity is included or invited to enter this cosmic praise. Humanity becomes tied to a community through its shared praise. But just as we share in creation’s praise, so too we also share in its mourning. The Bible describes several instances in which nature is said to mourn—nature withers, it is blighted, it suffers destruction. But Biblical passages in the Old Testament connect ecological suffering with human behavior. That is to say, the Bible assumes, much more than we do today, a direct relationship between human action and natural suffering. It assumes humans exist in a tight-knit moral relationship with and to nature. Hence we find passages such as this one from Jeremiah 12:4:

‘How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, “He is blind to our ways”’

Or this longer passage from Hosea 4:1-3:

Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites,
because the LORD has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
2 There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
3 Because of this the land dries up,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea are swept away.

This is pretty scary stuff. Human propensity toward evil results in even the fish of the sea being swept away. Nor is ancient Israel the only culture to make such a connection. In Shakespeare we often find evil deeds in the human realm reflected in the disorder of the natural world. After the murder of King Duncan in Macbeth, an old man comments:

'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.
And Duncan's horses—a thing most strange and certain—
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind. 'Tis said they eat each other.

In response to the unnatural murder of the king, nature reverses itself. The falcon, the chief aerial predator, is killed by an owl who normally hunts mice for its prey. And elegant horses suddenly ‘turn’d wild’ and reportedly begin to eat each other. Act 1, Scene 3 of Julius Caesar opens with ‘thunder and lightning’. Casca describes unnatural portents, foretelling the (unnatural) assassination that will occur within the ‘two hour’s traffic’ of the stage:

O Cicero,
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.

I could go on with several examples, in part because nature’s stormy response to the events of humankind is an effective way to increase dramatic tension on stage, but also because, to the Elizabethan mind, in a world in which all nature is ordered and intimately interconnected, the untimely death of a king requires a response from nature. So what are we to make of these passages—Biblical, Shakespearean or otherwise, which form a direct and uncomfortable link between human moral behavior and ecological disaster? Baukham is comfortable enough to say, though not in a terribly straight-forward manner: ‘The natural order and the moral order are by no means unconnected’, which he qualifies by examining Paul’s writing in Romans 8:19-23:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the reaction waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning and in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Creation suffers with us as we await redemption. To quote Baukham again:

Paul and the prophets share what Ellen Davis calls ‘the biblical understanding of the world, in which the physical, moral and spiritual orders fully interpenetrate one another—in contrast to the modern superstition that these are separable categories’. This is not to say that Paul or the prophets understood the connection between human behavior and ecological degradation in the way that we are now able to do, but what modern scientific knowledge makes possible is mainly a fuller understanding of how human physical behavior (burning fossil fuels, over-fishing the oceans and so forth) has extensive and destructive consequences for the ecosystems of the planet. For the ethical and spiritual dimensions that pervade such human behavior it is we who can learn from the biblical writers.

That is to say, science can instruct us in how precisely over-harvesting of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay (near my home), for instance, can lead to destructive environmental consequences. But Buakham points us back to a spiritual search for why such over-harvesting takes place.

To go on a bit of a tangent before closing: To be frank I have been a bit wary of aspects of our entire discussion of creation, especially in dealing with concepts such as ‘the fall’ or this idea that humanity’s moral choices are made apparent in the natural world. I am wary because of the way in which this thinking has been used to blame destructive natural events on certain groups. So, for instance, we have Pat Robertson blaming hurricane Katrina on the prevalence of abortion in America, and, as we discussed last January, sickeningly, the earthquake in Haiti upon a supposed pact the Haitians made with the devil. So I’m interested in probing this question of how we can say ‘humanity and the rest of creation are intimately linked’ because there is a logical benefit of argument in doing so, without wandering into territory in which ideas on teenage premarital sexual activity are bringing about natural disasters. Perhaps this is merely a matter of re-defining ‘moral choice’ away from, say, whether a woman decides to have an abortion or not or whether or not it’s okay for two men to love each other (gay people historically have also been blamed for natural disasters), and to a moral imperative more closely related to human interaction with the earth—how does our ‘need’ for fried (or raw, if you’re into that sort of thing) oysters affect the health of the Bay? Or, perhaps this involves bringing in counter-testimonies—the sun does shine, after all, on both the evil and the good.

It is difficult for me, at least, to fully conceive of being part of a community of creation. Life in London is a bizarre mixture of human manipulation of physical matter—the Tube, for instance—and patches of nature in a more traditional sense—Highgate Wood, etc. I recall a few weeks ago we read together a modernised form of Psalm 148, in which we said something along the lines of ‘Skyscrapers, praise the Lord!’ (or buses, trains and so forth). Sitting on the Tube to come over to the LMC today, I was thinking about this psalm for an urban environment. What does it mean, how can it possibly be that a community of creation can include something like a telephone pole? Does a bicycle or a Tube carriage join in praise of God? I’m not sure what to think, nor could I formulate anything overwhelmingly pointed to say in the trip from Goodge Street to Highgate, but I do think that our interactions with the material world, especially in an urban environment, require some understanding of urban landscape as, too, existing as part of our community of creation, even, paradoxically, as some of the very ‘urbanness’ we co-exist with is demonstrably harmful to other aspects of the material world.

To draw to a close, we have looked at how we are joined in and with the ‘community of creation’ in a shared way—in a sharing of praise together—as well as in a causal way—human actions bring about environmental consequences. As members of a community, we bear a responsibility to our neighbors, both human and non-human. Baukham’s most prescient point perhaps lies in his link between the liberation of creation discussed in Romans and Jesus’ discussion of the Kingdom of God. The realization of both events is set in the future, yet co-exist in the present, or we ourselves act to bring them about. As Baukham says: ‘We cannot achieve the liberation of creation but we can anticipate it’. In so far as humanity’s spiritual struggling ties into nature’s own suffering, we are incapable of setting nature free from its ‘bondage to decay’, yet like the Kingdom of God, we actively can be bringing it about.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The community of creation – sharing the earth

Preacher: Sue

Readings: Ps 104, Matt 6:25-33

This is the fifth in our sermon series on creation and the environment and the fourth looking at Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology. The theme for today is “the community of creation – sharing the earth”.

Creation - solidarity & care

Veronica started this series with a look at the Genesis 2 creation story. She pointed out that the man is made from the dust of the ground – just as the birds and other animals are a few verses later. Humans and all the other creatures are made of the same stuff – they are all part of the “community of creation” that Bauckham talks about throughout the book. And humans are commissioned to cultivate and preserve the earth – not to cultivate it intensively till it gives way to dustbowl and desert but to cultivate it in such a way that it is also preserved.

Flood – violence, chaos, creation re-made, violence contained

Veronica then looked at the flood and memorably observed that one of the main symptoms of creation’s gradual descent into corruption and alienation from God was that it was full of violence.

Bauckham defines the Flood as a kind of ‘de-creation’, a return to chaos. But at the end of the story there is a ‘re-creation’ in the covenant that God makes with Noah and his descendants and, significantly, with ‘every living creature that is with you’.

Creation – tenants and fellow-fillers

Wayne also talked about the “community of creation” and pointed out that its not just humans who are encouraged to “fill the earth”. The sea creatures are encouraged to fill the seas and the birds to fill the earth. We have to bear that in mind when we interpret ideas like subduing the earth and having dominion over it – as well as remembering that the earth belongs to God and we are merely tenants.


Lesley looked at some passages from Job which remind us that we are simply a small part of God’s creation, a part about which God cares, no doubt, but part of the community of created beings, who are not less important. Our task is to respect them, to accept that God is working ultimately for our good (however painful and puzzling life may be at times) and join the divine resistance against the forces of chaos and destruction.

So, now for today’s passages. Let’s start with Psalm 104, one of my favourite psalms.

Humans & animals – dependence & empowerment

It is full of a sense of right-ness and order and plenty. Every creature including humans has its place in connection with God, and the earth. I love the picture of the young lions roaring for their food from God, depending on God to keep the universe going and provide food for them. Not that this is a passive dependence. The lions may roar as they seek their food from God but they don’t just lounge around waiting for some tasty prey to drop from the sky – they are busy out hunting all night, the birds are busy building their nests and the people are busy going out to work all day. There’s a lot of purposeful and fruitful activity and freedom here which Bauckham calls empowerment.

Generosity and exuberance

Another thing I love about this psalm is the generosity and plenty of it all. God gives humans not only bread but also wine and olive oil. And Leviathan (maybe an untamed monster or maybe a real animal perhaps a whale) is apparently there partly just for the fun of playing in the sea.

Unique habitats

The psalm is full of good things in great variety and they all come from God. God gives different habitats & has different creatures in mind to occupy them. So for instance “the high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys”, whatever they are. I think that’s important to hear in an age where human activity is destroying habitats directly by building on top of them or indirectly through climate change, pollution and so on. It challenges us to ask whether difficult-to-cultivate wildernesses are a technical challenge to be overcome by ingenious agriculture or development or are actually areas intended for other creatures to enjoy.

Animals subjects of their own lives

I guess some of you may be beginning to squirm as I drift towards anthropomorphism here. I admit that it is a huge temptation for me - for which I blame my father who made the most of my vivid imagination as a child to tease me into empathy for even inanimate objects - like a toy car limping along forlornly with a wheel missing.

But I call Bauckham to my defence! Bauckham does allow a little cautious anthropomorphism. It is, he says, the only way we can empathise at all with other conscious creatures. It’s not to say that it’s exactly the same for a dolphin to be excited or playful as it is for us – just that it’s reasonable to talk about a dolphin being excited or playful. So he suggests we can be a bit anthropomorphic so long as we still do our best to understand animals as animals and within their own world.

And I think a little cautious anthropomorphism will allow us to hear a message Bauckham sees here, that the animals in this psalm are all the “subjects of their own lives”. They are all busy being themselves and doing the things a bird or a lion or a Leviathan needs to do. And they relate directly to God, they don’t have to go through humans as a kind of dominion-wielding earth-subduing middle-man. God is at the centre here, with humans dependent on God just as the other creatures are. To use Bauckham’s terms, this is a theocentric vision, not an anthropocentric one. And God delights in all of creation – and the beauty of this psalm invites us to join God in appreciating and respecting our fellow creatures.

The specialness of humans?

But, you may be asking, aren’t we humans special in some way? Made in God’s image, don’t we have some special connection with God?

Well, in Psalm 104 there are only really two concessions to any kind of specialness for humans. One is the reference to cattle and crops which implicitly acknowledges that there are some animals and plants with which humans have a special relationship – which seems to be OK as God provides the plants for cultivation and the grass for the cattle. And the other is the very last verse we’re reminded that there are sinners & wicked people on the earth.

We may have another question as we read this psalm’s vision of a world where everything is working so well and every creature is apparently happy and well-fed. What do we make of this when we know full well that many people are NOT provided for, when in Haiti people weakened by years of not having enough to live on and months of post earthquake chaos are dying of cholera, or closer to home when failed asylum seekers in this country have to try to live on nothing?

That seems like a good point to turn to the words of Jesus in our Matthew passage.

In some ways we are very much in the same world here as we were in Psalm 104. The heavenly Father clothes the grass of the field with flowers and feeds the birds of the air.

What will we eat, what will we drink, what will we wear?

But Jesus knows his listeners are also wondering whether they will be clothed and fed. And for us too there may be real questions about how we will stay afloat financially, what will happen if we don’t find work or if we lose our jobs, how we will manage when we are too old to work and so on.

What does Jesus say to these worries? “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?” At first sight we may think that Jesus is saying “humans are more important than the rest of creation so God will take care of us”. But, following Bauckham, I think what he is actually saying is “God takes care of all of creation, even the bits we hardly notice or worry about, and that includes us”. Jesus does say that we are of more value than the birds but that’s not the reason we are cared for. The heavenly Father cares for us because we are part of creation and God cares for all of creation.

Of course, the birds’ dependence on God’s care is much more obvious that ours. The birds have to forage afresh each day; human beings can gather what they’ve sown and reaped into barns and then pretty well forget about depending on God till they’ve emptied the barn and are back at the beginning of the sowing and reaping cycle again the following spring. Or in our case we can just pop out to shop in Sirwan or Morrisons – making it even easier to forget our dependence on God. But, whether we have a job or not, a cupboard full of food or an empty bank account, we are dependent on God’s provision just as the birds are.

What about those who aren’t clothed and fed?

Jesus’ clear assumption is that God will always meet the birds’ needs and ours. And some of us may have stories of how God has provided just what we needed just when we were at our most desperate. But we could list plenty of examples where that isn’t true, perhaps even moments in our own lives. Human activity, agriculture, climate change deprive birds and animals of what they need to survive and populations plummet or become extinct. Millions of people live without access to adequate food, clean water, sanitation, clothing & shelter. Richard Bauckham’s take on this is that Jesus is assuming that the people of his time are living according to the OT law which is designed to ensure that even the poorest have enough to eat, for instance by tithing and leaving food in the fields for gleaners to gather up. There is enough for everyone so long as people obey these commandments and don’t greedily seize it all for themselves.

So what does this mean for those of us who may have more than we need to survive?

Well, that’s where I’d like to come back to my title for today: “sharing the earth”. Sometimes for other people to have what they need may require some action on our part, whether directly or through campaigning and humanitarian organisations or by lobbying governments for better sharing internationally. And it may also require us to demand less from the earth ourselves so there is more left for all our fellow creatures, the birds and the animals and other humans. We may need to accept a slightly less comfortable but more generous lifestyle for the sake of sharing the earth with the rest of the community of creation.

So I think Psalm 104 and Matt 6 have a key point in common. They describe a community of creation which is abundant, diverse and beautiful. There is enough for every human and every creature as they all depend on a generous God and none takes more than they need. Sometimes we find this kind of vision in prophecies of God intervening to put everything right some time in the future. The challenge of these passages is that they expect this vision to work here and now.