Listening to Creation: Forests

Listening to Creation: Forests

"Exploiting the earth without regard for its intricacy, genius, intelligence, complexity, is foolish.

More than that. It is atheist."

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Luke 14:25-33

The church has designated September as Creation Season. It begins on 1st September, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation and ends with the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi.

For us here in Union Chapel along with Christians throughout the world, it is an important expression of what we stand for and with whom we stand.

We stand with our Creator.

We stand with the Creator, who became one with the Created.  The Word made Flesh. Jesus of Nazareth.

We stand within the intricate web of life, through which our Creator sustains our life on this planet.

We stand alongside the people who are experiencing the fallout from human induced climate change. 

This matters because, as the days go by, we are more and more conscious that the apocalyptic doomsayers of yesteryear were right.

40 degree temperatures in the UK.

Fires in Australia, California, across Europe.

The worst drought in 40 years in East Africa and in China, also here in the UK,

Reservoirs emptying of water, river beds exposed, the source of the River Thames drying up.

At the opposite end of the scale, there are devastating floods in Pakistan.

Climate change is no longer an academic discussion. It is real and it is now.  It is a crisis and we are all experiencing it.

We are at the beginning of the sixth major extinction of species on our planet.

‘Climate justice’ is a concept rooted in the harsh reality that the impact of the enormous changes taking place are felt most by the least resilient, the least able to adapt, the least able to survive.

This is where we stand. 

Christians believe that the universe is sustained by a real and powerful creative force, which is more than the energy within life, although it is certainly that.  We believe that the energy within life is not neutral.  It is benevolent, loving, just and true.

‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible’ [1].

So it is important for us to set aside time in our worship, our prayer life, our reflections on the Bible, our ethical choices, our social action, our individual and our collective commitments to focus on creation.

In these next few weeks we will meditate on its vital components, beginning with forests, followed by mountains, oceans and rivers, and land.

The prophet Jeremiah did not mince his words.  He gave us the image of a potter making a pot out of clay.  That is one of those things which look easy but I am absolutely sure that I could not even begin to do it.

Just as I imagine myself making a complete hash of pottery, this potter messes up big time. He set out to make a clay pot but when that didn’t work, he changed it to something else.  I don’t know what.  Maybe an ash tray or a bed pan.

The prophet sees this as a metaphor.  God intended to make something of Israel but the people were not responding as they should. 

God the potter can change course, direction, plan, and intention, because God is God. God is not neutral.  If love and justice are not at the core of how things are, then corrective measures are in order.

In the context of Israel in the sixth Century before Christ, Jeremiah’s message was tough. It is much tougher today as we face existential threats to humanity. The message is sharp.  If we don’t change, the creator God will change them anyway. We cannot assume survival.

Humanity needs to see the forest for the trees.

Forests are alive.  They are an intricate web of life.  Not just trees but insects, birds, fungi.  They are constantly in the process of feeding themselves. They are a vibrant, vital cycle of dying and rebirth.

Did you know (I am sure you do) that trees talk to each other? Our mean spirited human minds assume that trees compete with each other for light and water. The strongest grow tallest. 

But under the ground, the tree roots draw on the fungi around them to support each other, to feed each other, to protect each other.

Trees cooperate rather than compete.  The insects, the flora, the fauna, the predators, be they insects, birds or animals, work together to create an equilibrium.

And that ecology provides us with around 40% of the oxygen we breathe.

We gain so much from the rich biodiversity of the forest. We need forests of the Amazon, Borneo, Congo, Malaysia.  In just a few hectares of those forests you will find more species than you find in the whole of the UK.

It begs the question whether Darwin’s concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’ was the whole story. If indeed it is the story at all.

Nature is a story of cooperation rather than competition and we humans are the ones who are out of kilter.

So we need to confess that we are dependent creatures. We are not top dogs but inter-dependent with the whole of the created order. God’s way makes sense. Not competition winners but stewards, co-operators with life.

Exploiting the earth without regard for its intricacy, genius, intelligence, complexity, is foolish.

More than that. It is atheist.

We should not bang on about God whilst showing no interest or care for God’s work and the needs of all God’s creatures.

Believing in God is not a technical thing.  It is not an intellectual conclusion (although that may be part of it).

Believing in God is knowing our place in God’s creation.  It is accepting the relationship God has made possible for us within nature.  It is to be co-opted into God’s intentionality of justice and love.

Jesus says the most outrageous things. ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’

This is radical.

Hate is a strong word. We don’t need to think of it as an emotional response to our parents and loved ones.  After all Jesus was clear that the commandment to honour your father and mother was still intact. Rather he is using hyperbole to emphasise that the choice to follow the way of God’s kingdom will require deep commitment and there will be tough choices.

He says: ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’

He says: ‘None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’

Maybe it is not the disciples of Jesus who are carrying the cross today, or losing all they need to live but the forest bed, the trees, the undergrowth, the insects, the fungi.

Just as the Creator carried the wooden cross, hewn from a forest, for humanity in the person of Jesus, so nature is being crucified on the altar of our greed.

For the forest lives and thinks. In its own way it assesses what is needed for survival, growth, mutuality and sustainability.

Humans are not the only ones with an investment in the future.

The forest is constantly creating its own future and contributes significantly to the survival of all living creatures.

Listen again to Jesus as he enlists us in his action planning for the Kingdom.

If you were to build a tower, you would work out how much it would cost.  If you can’t afford to finish it, then you wouldn’t even start.

Or if a king wanted to wage a war which he couldn’t possibly win, then he would more than likely agree to a peace deal.

We have to weigh up the cost and assess the challenge. We are not as strong as the forest or the ocean, the wind or the sun. It’s time to make peace with the earth before we lose the war we have been fighting for too long.

In November 2019 a 26 year old indigenous Guajajara leader was killed in an ambush (allegedly) by illegal loggers in Brazil. He was a member of a group called ‘Guardians of the Forest’. He was not the only environmentalist activist who has made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf the forest.

The best known being the Roman Catholic Sister Dorothy Stang.

We could say they carried the cross for the forest but better to say that they carried it alongside the forest’s ecology which is also suffering for us.

The quest for a just and sustainable planet is perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.

I am not being sectarian when I say that we only have a future if we submit to the God who is moulding us as a potter with a lump of clay.

Our future, and the future of humanity is dependent upon a faith and a trust in God, the creative source of life, the energy within creation.

Our future lies in a renewed, transformed relationship with the forest, the lungs of creation.

It is political.  It is practical. It is intellectual.

And it is mystical.

The forest is a ‘future–proliferating ecology’ [2]. It breathes for us so we can breathe.

To take up the cross of Jesus is to surrender the false consciousness of the survival of the fittest.  Rather it is to see God’s Way reflected in the trees which talk, the ecology which maintains equilibrium – that cooperates rather than competes.

And it is to locate ourselves within the ecology of the future, a renewed spiritual relationship with the Creator, and a practical, ethical response within the ecology of resistance and an eco-system of hope.

[1] Nicaean Creed.

[2] Eduardo Kohn quoted in ‘What about Activism?’ Ed Steven Henry Madoff Sternberg Press 2017.


Sunday sermon, delivered 4th September 2022:

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