This week saw a stand off between Christian climate activists and the clergy in St Paul’s cathedral over the Church of England’s continued investment in companies profiting from fossil fuels. It has distressed me greatly.
Woe to you … you tithe mint and rue and other herbs, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the other. (Luke 11: 42)
Is it that the Pharisees that Jesus was addressing have become so bogged down in the minutiae that they can’t see the bigger picture? Had they become so concerned that all the ‘t’s be crossed and the ‘i’s dotted that they could no longer read what the writing said? They could only see the spelling mistakes but not the story.
Is it that they found it is easier to address the needs of personal hygiene than issues of social justice, poverty and victimisation that were prevalent ills of the world in which they lived? Did they find it easier to keep washing their hands before meals than to address the luxury lifestyle enjoyed by Herod Antipas at the expense of the rural poor.
Is it that by observing the smaller and easier religious requirements, that they could to all outward appearances be seen as upright exemplars of their faith and so earn the honour and respect of their fellow believers. Perhaps the observances of small things gave the impression of great integrity – if they so routinely practice these small religious acts how much more must they be observing the full law?
Yet Jesus sees through the outer show. He has seen that inside the polished exterior they are full of greed and wickedness (Luke 11:40). He is critical of them for their lack of love and disregard for justice. Whilst they have sought the best seats in the synagogue and respectful greetings in the market place, Jesus has been focused on the work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, releasing the imprisoned, validating the forgotten, turning social expectations upside down, calling for a turning away from unsustainable lifestyles – and bringing in the kingdom of God.
Jesus and his disciples knew from experience that doing God’s will meant getting hands dirty, getting down alongside the sick, withstanding jeers, taking the lower place, and ultimately to be self sacrificing. Such a lifestyle is not always easy, and do we not all want some degree of love and respect? Yet equally experience tells us that if we have confidence in God, even when we are ill-treated, scorned, marginalised, we will still find joy in doing God’s will.
Notice that in Jesus’s reply he reminds the Pharisees that doing the small things should have been an ‘and also’ to the exercise of love and justice. Paying attention to the small things as well as the large is about integrity. For this reason we see Jesus coming to be baptised alongside his fellow country folk. We see Jesus going regularly to the synagogue and taking his turn to read the scripture. We see Jesus observing the traditions of Passover. But for Jesus outward actions do not take the place of an inward commitment to the kingdom of God.
At the present time the single most overwhelming disaster facing the world – God’s world – is human-made climate change. The effects of the rise in global temperatures is already being felt, and the accelerating affect that ongoing temperature rises will create is predictable. Plants and creatures unable to adapt are rapidly becoming extinct. Humans too are struggling and failing to adapt.
The elderly cannot readily cope with extremes of temperature and death rates are rising. The poor cannot afford to adapt their homes to improve insulation levels nor can they afford house insurance against flooding and fires as these becomes more frequent. Not can the poor readily move to more amenable climes. Islanders and those living along river deltas cannot stop rising sea levels from destroying their homes. Farmers cannot adapt practices quick enough to cope with extreme weather conditions. Young children cannot survive as drinking water supplies dwindle to nothing.
All this because we did not pay heed to the warnings, we did not stop polluting the atmosphere with more and more carbon dioxide. Instead we have kept our focus on our everyday habits – school run refuel the car, laundry in the tumble dryer, Sunday lunch roast beef, half term holiday in the sun- and ignored the long term direction of the climate crisis. We have not wanted to admit our responsibility for climate change, not even accepting that we might have been unknowingly guilty of causing harm. Nor have we wanted to change our lifestyles, our habits of a life time – to forgo our metaphorical seats in the synagogue – or loose the respectful comfort of western citizenship.
Surely, we said, this problem is so big it must be a problem for governments, big businesses and world organisations to deal with? It must be their responsibility not ours. And if they act as if there is no emergency, no urgency to act, should we not follow their lead and let things sort themselves out?
We are happy to do the small things, to reuse our plastic carrier bags, recycle the newspapers, buy an eco friendly hammock for the garden and make sure our new T-shirt is made from organic cotton. But to address the big problem, to seek love and justice for the earth and all its inhabitants, is beyond what we can even imagine.
But in the background there have been people calling for and working for change. People who see the problem for what it is and see the scale and urgency of the changes needed. People who are prepared to stand up and stand out and say it like it is.
And where in all this is the church? Where in all this are those who are followers of Christ? Where is the leadership, the penitence, the will to turn things round? Why are we still counting out our tithe of mint and rue whilst supporting a vast carbon producing, fossil fuel dependent economy?