Forest Sunday

In September our congregation at Hare Street is celebrating the Season of Creation, four Sundays which focus on aspects of the natural world in which we live. This year we focus on Forests, The Land, The Wilderness and Outback, and The Rivers.

We will begin with some biological concepts, and facts and figures about the state of the world's forests, and then reflect upon the four set readings which I have posted in full below the reflection.

The First Impression
Luke slices through the urbane sophistication of Athens.

21"Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new."

What would he think of us, devoted to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter?

Paul lived in our time; a time of burgeoning cross-pollination of culture flowing along the Roman Roads. Athens was a cultural centre of the world; we live in Athens, for the whole world flows into our homes in the papers, through the TV, and especially, from the Internet.

There are many gods on offer, yet we still seek meaning, understanding, and hope. Few of us— do any of us?— truly find that Unknown God which would fill the void within us.

There is a God beyond all the noise of our culture.

This is the God who made the whole Cosmos in which we live:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth... (Acts 17:24)

This is the God who gave us life. Not an idol we create, but God far beyond us. God

does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things... “In him we live and move and have our being...” Acts 17:25-28, quoting Aratus' Phaenomena)

God gives us life and breath and all things. We are dependent, subordinate beings. We are not the Lords of the earth; we are made from the earth. Genesis 2 tells us we are adam, made from adamah. We are flesh made from dust. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" the priest will say, even if we have created the greatest of empires. Job said (1:21)

Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return...

And yet in all our dependence and ordinariness, we are given great privilege. What is humanity? asks the Psalmist. "You have made them a little lower than God!" (Psalm 8) Animal though we are, we are "made differently from the animals."

Physically and biologically we know we are animals— but there is not a companion among them for us— we are different for we know good from evil. (Genesis 2) Something about us "has eaten the apple." (Genesis 3)

Many folk see the story which traditionally has been called The Fall as a story of a great sin. Is this is so? Is it not the story of what distinguishes us from the animals? The story that shows our magnificent and yet tragic difference, the story that understands we know the difference between good and evil? (You can see more nuanced understandings of Genesis 3 based upon Irenaeus   here and here.)

There is something in us that has died.  We do not have the innocence and the simple unreflective  glorying of just being that is known by the animals. Our brief moments of joy are always in the shadow of "the knowledge of good and evil." We cannot simply be. We are separated from God. We are removed from the garden. But in the "woman"— in each other— there is found a partner, a companion and helpmeet like no other in the world. We are a people of community. We cleave to each other. We taste a little of the old memories of being with God in the garden in the cool of the day. (Genesis 3)

Outside the garden of innocence, we are placed nonetheless in the forests of earth where there still "grow[s] every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food ." (Genesis 2)

As an animal, we have outgrown ourselves. We are too big and too numerous. We are too clever— we can smelt, and build, and make war. Yet we no more clever than any other animals, and perhaps we are worse. For we cut down the forest; we dismember the lungs of the world, and the heart of the earth. (I owe this phrase to livescience.com)

We are destroying the forest which provides us with the very oxygen which we breathe; the forest which holds 70% of the lland based species on earth; the forest which in all its diversity stabilises the ecological systems that give us a toehold in the fragility and frailty of being a species.

It is true that we are like grass " which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, " (Matthew 6:30) and we are lighting the fire... which will jump the breaks and burn us. We are like every other organism. When there are too many the planet, the Cosmos, the ecology and the climate self correct. The swarming populations destroy their own sustenance, but life goes on in another form without them. Our monocultures decrease the stability of the land. Disease spreads more easily. We are forced to live in the alien places where the Ebolas of Earth lurk.

•••

For "adam" to survive we have to get beyond survival of the individual at all costs. We have to transcend being an animal driven by our evolutionarily formed survival of the fittest and become a citizen— a human being— worthy of earth. We have to dethrone our self, and live not for me, but for us.  As Bill Loader says of Matthew 16:21-28

The call is not to lose self identity and so abandon one's responsibility, but to abandon the agenda for living which pits self against the others.

It is no longer a question of what will grow me at your expense, but what will grow us? I have no right to anything which diminishes you, or which diminishes the planet. What will grow the forests instead of cutting them down? This is not "mere ethics" developers and corporations can ignore. This is a matter of our survival; 80% of earth's natural forests have been destroyed. Up to 90% of West Africa's coastal rain forests have been destroyed since 1900.

This change in who we are is no mere act of will. What we are describing when we seek to overcome the animal identity in us that survives at all costs to the others,  is the impossible  Kingdom of God, where all that seems natural is overturned. We are talking of a way of being in the world where the fundamental enmities are reversed:

where "the wolf shall live with the lamb... the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp," in a great reversal of the curse of Genesis 3, and

they will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.  (Isaiah 11)

This is a rebirthing work of the Spirit, to use the language of John 3. It can only come from God— "from above." It is a revelation, not something to which we can simply set our mind. We are so biologically programmed to compete and to outdo, even to destroy so that we can survive, we might as well ask how we can enter our mother's womb a second time;

How can we do otherwise? We can only look up at the one lifted up on the cross. For our healing, we must look upon the "son of man," the truly human one who transcended the need to survive at all costs.

We cannot understand or control the spirit-wind of God. We cannot reach out and take what we want from God. We can either hide from God— from the flow of the spirit,  or we can step out into the wind and let it blow around us where it will.

We "get in the way of the spirit" "in whom we live and move and have our being," by living like Jesus. The Faith is a way of life, an all of life discipline that places us in the way of the Spirit. It helps us collide with God. It points us back in the direction of the garden. It turns us around. To do this is to repent.

When we live the way of Jesus, Paul claims, we meet the Unknown God alongside us. We begin the journey back into the garden—forest, and begin to be at home rather than being Lord-pretenders and destroyers. 

Jesus came so that we would not perish but have life, says John 3. God wants only good for us. Judgement is what we bring upon ourselves. If we will not revere and cherish the forests, and all the ecosystems of the planet, then we will be destroyed. Judgement will fall upon us. Not judgement willed by God, but what we have pulled down upon ourselves. Amen.

Andrew Prior

The Readings for Forest Sunday
Genesis 2:4b-22

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, [Or formed a man (Heb adamof dust from the ground (Heb adamah)] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

18 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman, [ishshah]
   for out of Man [ish] this one was taken.’ 
24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Psalm 139:13-16

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. 
15   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed. 

Acts 17:22-28

21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor [Greek: from one] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.” [Aratus, a pagan poet, from his poem Phaenomena, written about 270 BC in Athen]

29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

John 3:1-16

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus [him] by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’[anothen anew "up-place"] 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[wind and spirit are the same word] 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You [plural] must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you* do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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