Creation Sunday - The Kingdom as planetary community

[Address at St James' church, Piccadilly, London, 1 July 2007. Based on the readings Deuteronomy 30:11-20 and Luke 9:51-62]

Both of our readings this morning were about big decisions. First we had Deuteronomy, a compendium of the law set in the form of a series of speeches by Moses to the Israelites. In the passage that we read the writer draws to a particularly dramatic conclusion: �I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life�. Who could resist such an offer? Well, most of us, quite often, it seems.

Then we had the passage in Luke, about a challenge to individuals rather that a whole community: (Luke 9:51-62): �Follow me ... you must go and announce the kingdom of God�

So we have two examples of decision points: right or wrong, life or death. On this Creation Sunday, I want to link this theme of decisions with the decisions that we face now � we as individuals, within our communities, and as the human species

Apparently, and at first glance, the main decision before humanity now is about climate change. As a scientist I've been aware of this for a long time, though I'm not a climate scientist. Articles on climate change have appeared regularly in the leading scientific journals for the last 20 years, and we have seen our knowledge of the processes become steadily clearer. This whole development has been focused on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made up of the members of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with over 100 countries actively participating. After their first three reports, in 1990, 1995, and 2001, it had become essentially clear to everyone following the process that human action would in the future almost certainly cause devastating warming unless our activities changed radically. It was striking that governments continued to �choose death�. Because there was still a slight uncertainty, they choose to take no action, playing a sort of inverse Russian Roulette, where you place bullets in 5 chambers of a revolver, keeping the sixth blank, spin the barrel, point it at your country's head, and press the trigger, hoping that it is the blank that will be selected.

It took the Stern Report in October 2006 to wake up the government in this country, and then the fourth report of the IPCC in January this year, to wake the world up to what the majority of scientists had been telling us for many years: that the world's climate is in our hands.

But I don't actually want to focus on climate change this morning. Because climate change, and the world's extraordinary reluctance to act, is just the first and most pressing one of a whole series of decisions that will be facing us. We are trashing the earth and our own society in a whole host of different ways � in consuming raw materials, in polluting the air, the soil and the water, in destroying natural habitats, in extending the scope for the spread of diseases, in increasing inequality and exploitation ... and all the signs are that each one of these, and the many more that we have yet to realise, will be met by the same pattern of denial and refusal to act as occurred with climate change.

These challenges are all the same as that of Deuteronomy, and in essence the same as that of Jesus: �Choose life, or choose death�; and in a great many situations, we find it a lot easier to choose death, unless it is literally staring us in the face. What is wrong with us, that we so repeatedly choose death rather than life, in the face any rational arguments and any emotional appeals? Are we for ever condemned to live in this way? To answer this, we need to look deeper, to the psychological issues that underlie our refusal to tackle climate change and the other issues facing us. And in our religious communities we need to look deeper at what the scriptures are telling us about it.

At their root, say the scriptures, the decision is not about a particular decision regarding our actions. As the Greek Orthodox writer Fr. Silouan emphasised1 it is about turning.

For example, earlier in the same chapter of Deuteronomy that we read is written: �(30:1-3) when you shall return to Yahweh ... then Yahweh will turn your captivity� (where the same word, Shub, is used for "return" and "turn"). A similar image is used in Christian scripture. In the account of the events at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38) the people of Jerusalem ask �What shall we do?�; and Peter replies "metanoesate", that is, transform your thinking � perform metanoia - or turn.

Turning is a call that is constantly repeated in scripture, a call to a constantly repeated decision. Each person and each generation is called to turn. And the turning is always to the same, to the One Mystery. In such a universal context I am reluctant to bring in the assumptions that have accumulated around the word "God". I respect more the Hebrew principle of a name that cannot be spoken; or "the sacred", used in Starhawk's sense of "that from which all other things derive their value"2.

While that to which we turn is always the same, because it is beyond difference, the context of the call widens and deepens progressively. This is because the turning is not just, or even not primarily, an individual matter � it is within a community. We take our stand within a living community, and within that we turn, as invididuals and as a greater organism. It cannot be other, because what we are is a function of our wider relationships. The notion of an isolated person is a contradiction in terms, since even when there is no other person present we are are still constituted by the relationships established in the past with our ancestors and our parents, at least. As a result, the nature of the turning changes from age to age as our understanding of community changes, becoming wider and deeper with each age. (An in that process, we realise wider and deeper aspects of who we are.)

Earlier in Deuteronomy, the writer was expounding a new concept of community:

�(10:18-19) [God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.� It is no longer enough, now that Israel is a settled nation and not a wandering tribe, to restrict community to themselves. They must accept the "Alien"; and not merely respect them, but love them. The community starts to expand beyond tribal limits.

And significantly the animals and the natural world are included in this. Perhaps the oldest of the Hebrew commandments, and one that lives on modern Jewish dietary laws, is �You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk�. If you are a poor family whose most precious possession is a goat, which provides your milk, wool for your clothing and the occasional kid that can be killed on a special occasion, it would be natural to enrich the stew with the goat's milk - but in the new sensitivity that is dawning, that is something repugnant (as repugnant a feeding sheep's brains to cows should be to us, as we realised when BSE arose).

Let's move on to the conception of community in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus founds his ministry on a deeper notion of the community of the disciples, where the idea of community is carried to a new level as a community of love � expounded in the great "final discourse" in the Gospel of John, where the community of love is seen as an image of the divine. Turning is understood as being within this special community, and it is associated with the action of a special manifestation of the divine, present in this community which the emerging Jesus Movement was to call the Holy Spirit.

Crucially, the notion of turning in the teaching of Jesus was linked with the notion of the Kingdom � by turning to the sacred you enter what Jesus called �The Kingdom of God� (or of Heaven). I will Come back to this later.

As the concept of community widens and deepens, what is the context of the call to turn, what is the place of the decision for turning, for us today? I suggest that we are now at the point of yet a further widening of this notion of community, which our strange inability to respond to the needs of the planet points to. "Community" now must include the earth. First "community" was extended beyond national and cultural barries to �the alien�, then it was deepened to a community of love, and now another widening seems to be asked of us. Now the context of the turn is the community of all beings on the planet.

Until recently we have been regarding other beings as commodities, for us to use up and throw away the bones. If that is our relationship with the world, we will never create a sustainable planet, we will always be choosing death, or choosing life when it is too late. Instead, we need to acknowledge our kinship with all the life that is around us. There is nothing strange about acknowledging out kinsfolk; it is the natural thing to do. Now (as some indigenous American nations have done for millennia) we need to turn to the species around us, and even the rocks and the water, and recognise there "all my relations". If we can be reconciled to them, we can then embrace them and acknowledge them. We can enter a community of love for all beings � that is the context of the turn that we are called to take now.

What does it mean, to stand within this deeper and wider community of love for all species, and to turn to the One sacred mystery within this planetary community? First of all, it is something simple, in the here and now. That is the case whenever we turn. In our reading, the writer of Deuteronomy says (30:11-12): �Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, ... No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.�

I'm reminded of the group in the USA whose reaction to the climate change debate was to investigate building a giant parasol in space to shield us from the sun. No, says �Moses�: �It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, 'Who will ascend into heaven to get it' It is in your mouth and in your heart".

Let's return to the message of Jesus and the idea of the Kingdom. His words are very reminiscent of Deuteronomy. Though Jesus declares that �My Kingdom is not of this world� - that is, it is about the sacred � it is also �within among you�. And it is the natural abode of children. Neil Douglas-Klotz3 expounds the word (shemaya) that Jesus used for what was translated as "heaven" as meaning the principle of connectivity, of resonnant sound and meaning, within this world, and not some other world. The turn that Jesus calls for is not about carrying out some great feat of power or some heroic journey. It is to turn right where we are.

The ministry of Jesus was his constant struggle to convey this turning of consciousness which constituted entry into the Kingdom of heaven. In Luke's account of the transfiguration, (9:28-36 - shortly before our second reading) the three core disciples had an experience of this turning of consciousness, revealing a new reality. Then straight after this comes one of the most human episodes in the gospels. Jesus come back to find the disciples flailing hopelessly around trying to cast out a spirit, and he is overcome with exasperation: �What an unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you and endure you?� They just don't get this business of the Kingdom.

Because the Kingdom is a state of being, not a thing or a place. We can take our stand among the planetary community here in London � we don't have to go to a rain forest (though it does help a bit). Nor is it a concept. It cannot be named or grasped; it is necessarily mystery. But we know when we have opened to the sacred, a knowing that might echo the words �The place whereon you stand is holy ground�.

In fact, the turn is not so much something that we do � we certainly cannot do it on our own � it is something that is done to us. We simply have to be present to the wider community, to people, to the land, to its trees and animals, to open our eyes and hearts to this wonder of this great linked community, which some call Gaia. Then a transformation can take place. It is the transformation which Aldo Leopold, one of the originators of the American ecological movement, experienced when he gazed into the eyes of a dying wolf that he had killed4. The ecologist Stephan Harding likes to describe this experience in the worlds "He was Gaia-ed".

That is how we are to turn and enter the Kingdom today. We need to create opportunities for being Gaia-ed, for turning. We need to urge educators to create such opportunities for our children. We need to renew our own experiences of being Gaia-ed, in parks, in contemplating the micro-miracle in a window box, in seeing the moon above us. It will be infectious. And we can carry this turn into our workplaces, into our shopping, into our celbrations. That is how we are to turn and enter the kingdom today. That is how humanity will start to choose life.


1. Lake, David (The Rev. Hieromonk Silouan) "Sinai, Tabor, Athos - the Spiritual Symbolism of Mountains", Network Review No. 91, Summer 2006, pp 16-18
2. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing
3. Douglas-Klotz, Neil, Desert Wisdom
4.Leopold, Aldo A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There 1948, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 129-132.