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With or without horns

Draft Shooting script for a sermon on Christ the King: Matthew 25

Just to start with: what makes a sheep a sheep and a goat a goat?

Is it horns – here’s some goats with no horns, sheep with fabulous horns.

Is it attitude, or capability for damage?  just give it some thought . In the meantime,

From next Sunday, we’re offering a daily video to recycle the penitential, reflective, Season of Advent, as a resource  which  Christianity provides for  encounter with global threats and upheavals,  but which has degenerated into a countdown to consumer Christmas, punctuated by chocolate.

(Maybe keep the chocolate!)

I’ve found it’s very worthwhile to hitch a lift on the Christian calendar: 

To work with beloved festivals and actions of our faith, variously shared  across different churches. 

If there’s any ‘landfill’ in the life of your church; something  of which you’re absolutely certain  there’s no environmental repurposing possible , I’d be delighted to hear about it. Without reservation or restriction, there’s nothing too holy to be green.

Even if not every church ‘does’ Season of Creation, for which, in EcoCongregations,  we pedal really hard,  there’s evangelistic mileage in a tree in church at Christmas, in an outing to a wind farm for Pentecost, and Easter-with-wood, from Sunday Branches to crucifixion tree,  and more.  

Last year I found you can now get into some very productive trouble with that modest  traditional practice of  giving up meat for Lent.  

Today,  many churches, mark  the  “Feast of Christ the King/ the reign of Christ”… a minefield for how we think of Jesus. 

Do we know Jesus as a friend, a mentor, companion, a partner in life lived with justice,  a comforter in disaster, a treehugging speaker to wind and waves….

or as ‘he who must be obeyed’.  I hope we’ve grown out of the latter.

Blind obedience risks idolatrous obedience to just one received  presentation of Jesus.  Imprisoning him  in the throne.  Dumping all our own responsibilities on him, as if we had no purpose ourselves. 

That is not the message of this story.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, at the Annunciation, describes herself –  repellently,  if we’re rigorous – as a “slave” – and yet asserts the right to her own decision. 

At which point the angel clears off: no longer needed!

Likewise, whenever  her son Jesus was in danger of being identified as  a despotic ruler, he repurposed, what we understand as  ‘rule’. 

Above all,  with  this story, we welcome Jesus  the  master storyteller of urgent change. Jesus the catalytic artist who, rather than being a candidate  for more profitable retraining, compellingly  recycles both fears and faith.

When we turn up at eco meetings  we get that look: Christians: what are THEY here for? 

But here’s the good news.

You’d think that it  would be an uphill task,  when Lectionaries that many churches follow, are as innocent of climate crisis as you’d expect a sheep to be of justice.

And yet, it both is and isn’t hard.

First of all,  the  glossy veneer of environmental irrelevance  in our translating and presenting of Scripture in our lifetimes isn’t that deep. 

 A wee scratch and you find something very green underneath.  Good News for every creature.  And, what Pope Francis insists on: the inseparability of Creation care  and justice, as we listen for the voice, groans, joy and praise of every creature, after their own kind.

What you also find, is , how much of Jesus is warnings. The earliest known Christian hymn is “Wake up sleeper!”

We don’t approach with  complacency recrimination, but rather, with gratitude, our immediate ancestors in the faith, who concluded  salvation was an exclusively  human thing, and tweaked sacred language accordingly. Writing prayers and hymns reducing  creation to an inert lump of property signed over to  exclusive human whim, and benefit. 

Especially, we thank them when they acted in the cause of justice.  That’s our  point of happy  solidarity with them.  Even  those who, with the best intentions, shoehorned the idea of endless linear growth and progress into  hymns, prayers and more. They longed for the end of poverty and expressed it that way,  though God-as-only-endless has  turned out to be a diabolical shortcut to ‘endless-only is God’. 

We thank them because, as we become aware of  slants filters and lenses, and because awareness breeds respect,  we are called  to seek out, right now, as they did right then,  what’s right for our own age on this planet.  

Our parents might  look like goats but they were mostly trying to be sheep.

Listen, that we may hear what the  Spirit is saying to God’s people today, because today is so different, even from a very recent yesterday. And  God keeps up to date.

When it comes to  ‘time’, Bible writers and Earth scientists both tend to think in “ages”;  in chunks of time punctuated by upheaval. The turnings of those ages are very delicate times indeed. 

They occasion leaps in faith, rather than getting bogged down in the prudence of a world which, like fossil fuels, is already passing away. That’s why scriptural  resources of judgement, inherited  from times of persecution, can be responsibly, if recklessly, recycled:

Transitions are Time to embrace – with justice – the vision and moral imagination of the common good, which,  it turns out, rewards seemingly selfless justice more realistically than selfishly tidy calculation. 

Astoundingly, science and faith concur. 

Nonetheless, when Jesus says he will be with us through the End of the Age- how do we receive that as better news, because  it’s how it’s written, than seamless,  “endless” “always”. 

Well, for a start,  whatever has an end also has a purpose.  Endings enable  new beginnings.  

When we befriend our mortality, then, through the cross, we come closer to our friend Jesus, who did not flee endings, but repurposed their opportunities. 

Befriending mortality is a  foundational insight for the deep, reverend urgency which equips us to respond in days which, far from uniquely in history,  have a right  to be seen as ‘the last days’ .

So: to this wonderful and scary folktale  of sheep and goats that the same Jesus whose God wanted none to be lost – therefore inflicted on his friends.  

This story, scarily,  but ultimately realistically, confronts us first with the challenge of ‘too late’. Life is like musical chairs. And you don’t know when the music will stop.

And that’s why this  shocking tale is not about any conveniently or impossibly remote future, but bluntly addressed to you right now.  

It’s a tale of slippery slopes and  irretrievable tipping-points, a reminder that without  extreme vigilance,  things really can get out  of hand.  

And that like every hurt  we’ve done the planet, even damage done without malice, is real damage. Seemingly  “innocent injustice” is unmasked  as self-inflicted harm.  Malice may be absent, but choices are not.

Identifying this as folktale is no insult. It’s long been recognised that folk literature – even watered down , candy floss ‘fairy stories’ – play an important part in children’s mental health and the development of character.  

In stories, like the highest of high-level computer languages; Far more going on under the bonnet of than any report of supposed fact.

This story -mixing horror and  rural idyll – wakes us up to the perennial urgency of justice in all aspects of life, and in every choice we make.  It’s a very ‘adult’ tale indeed!

Above all, in our blind spots. Sheep and goats are  equally unaware of holes they are digging, treasures they are  accruing . 

In the course of “safely grazing” -which, truth told, is what sheep and goats are most bothered with –  the sheep include, the goats exclude specifically the most glaringly vulnerable fellow creatures.

That’s where, both  in contrast and confirmation of  Christ on the Cross in Luke, this folktale from Matthew rules out any excuse of ‘not knowing what they do’.

I asked what makes  sheep  sheep and  goats goats. It’s nothing to do with horns, nor with capability for damage.  And it’s the shepherd, the judge, the protector of the flock as a whole, who  makes this identification.

I’d like to risk suggesting, because Jesus doesn’t actually call it that , that this story is not the “last”  or ultimate  judgement,  but more, a  judgment at  the end of this age.

So today,  in the midst of all our crises, do you identify as a sheep or a goat?  

As righteous or a sinner?  As sheep with horns, or a goat without ?   

Five hundred years ago, the Reformer Martin Luther concluded we should  identify, with truth, as both. If I brutally simplified the theological argument: damage is done, and we’ve been part of it, but  there’s no cause to give up,  for in Christ, it’s open to us to be goats in sheeps’ clothing.  

It was the choices, not the species that identified the left and right.  And justice, which the Jesus in this story reminds us is not a human invention, but built in to Creation from the foundation of the world.

EcoCongregation Advent Calendar Project: The Judge to cheer the Forest


EcoCongregation Video Advent Calendar 2020

\ an Alternative Advent event! Looking for reflections based on all the aspects of our life, work and prayer: housing, food, anti-waste, anti-poverty, ethical finance, insulation, farming, forestry, just transition… whatever you’re into.



A ‘Cat-and-monkey’ Retreat : looking after what matters

In the midst of the very considerable restrictions  on the previous shape of my work of travelling to visit, encourage and challenge churches, in September, I was able, thanks to a visit to congregations in Skye, to spend a couple of  reflective/active days in the landscape of Scotland. This was also a way of marking my 25 years in ordained Christian Ministry ( September 1995).

The moon will not strike you by night

On the walls of ancient churches, like Iona Abbey, you may find both a cat (contemplative) and a monkey ( active). For these few days, I combined the two.

Here I present my video diary, and some of the Psalms which I took with me, having asked friends which Bible passages they felt would be spoken to by amazing locations.   I am an occasional hillwalker, rather than a mountain-climber, so I didn’t go up things I was likely to fall off, but enjoyed some wonderful sights.

Filming is, of course, rough and ready. but as good as I could manage. The locations stretch perception. Overall, a reminder to place yourself, either imaginatively or actually, in the concrete  situations referred to  in Biblical imagery, rather than watering things down with abstraction. The majority of the visuals are from the immediate occasion, with some added.

25th Anniversary Retreat Video Diary….


Part 1; Red Point : the End of the Road

[Goes with Psalm 8 under the stars)


Part 2: The Skye Cuilin on an open-ended day

\-What do we need to set out?

[Goes with Psalm 121 on Sgurr Alastair


Part 3 Bein Damh – with the view that brought me to Applecross.

Cake and Eat it/ What a Mountain really is….

[Goes with Lord’s prayer



Part 4: Rest Day: the Cycle of the Kingdom

(building on my observation of the cyclic nature of Creation and the Kingdom) We are  Mostly Water.

Part 5: The Lost Valley,  panting with the deer, and some reflections on the value of the Reformation, and love-songs.


Psalms as pilgrimage

It’s a recognised way of Bible reflection, to read  passages over and over. I added to that what came to mind in a location.

Psalm 8 as a pilgrimage

Psalm 121 as a pilgrimage

Psalm 139 as a pilgrimage

Psalm 95 with dancing strangers

Psalm 36 by a mountain stream

Demo Clips: Hymns on YouTube to trad tunes.

I’m extremely grateful for these demo recordings of the hymn texts offered for the Season of Creation
Wording and credits can be found in the description box on YouTube in each case. They’re also on my Facebook page ‘EcoChaplain Online’

Please do use, if they have a place in your worship or devotions.
Now Christ lives here ( Courage Brother)

Now Christ lives here ( Blaenwern)
Our Legacy is dire ( Kingsfold)
One Day I said sorry ( St Deinio)
Deep our Longing ( Westminster Abbey)

Livingston United Parish Church Silver Award

Creation Time Activity – Map of Scotland in stones.

We are delighted to announce that Livingston United Parish Church, Nether Dechmont Community Centre, Livingston has been awarded an Eco-Congregation Scotland Bronze Award on 06/09/2019 in recognition of their work and commitment to caring for creation.

Livingston United Parish Church were especially commended by the assessors for the level of involvement of many individuals in the planning and the continuing good communication links, as well as the way communications are made.

They were also commended for the way they embed creation themes into worship, prayer and learning. A foundation in spiritual living & worship is embedded in the ethos of the worship team in promoting all matters of environmental & peace and justice concern. This is achieved in a variety of ways with all ages and places on the journey included.

Also noted for special commendation were the number of varied actions and creative activities available to the congregation and local community which continue to be supported as well as the evident embedding of the eco congregation values into what they are doing.

Eco Awareness Stand

Selkirk Parish Church Gold Award.

Selkirk Parish Church have been awarded their Eco Congregation Scotland Gold Award.
The Parish Church has just achieved the highest award as an Eco Congregation, only the sixth in Scotland to receive a Gold Award, and the first to experience a virtual assessment via Zoom.
The congregation was delighted to learn that all the criteria under the headings of Spiritual, Practical and Global Living were met or exceeded. They were particularly commended for the use of the pop-up shop as a monthly Recycling Clinic and drop off point. So thanks to those in the community for collecting and bringing those hard-to-recycle items to the pop-up shop. (eg crisp packets, bottle tops, old watches, jewellery and mobiles) The church eco group ensures these items are recycled in an environmentally responsible way, benefitting a number of charities. These practical actions demonstrate the congregation’s conviction that caring for the environment is an essential outworking of their Christian faith. The Gold Award criteria also require the congregation to take action on a wide range of other environmental issues including bio-diversity and climate change.

The congregation hopes to celebrate this achievement when the current restrictions allow. Please follow the Selkirk Parish Church Facebook page for the latest news and events.
“The Gold Award challenges us all to maintain and build on the achievement!”

Season of Creation: Thoughts on the launch

EcoCongregation Scotland has been preparing material for use during the ‘Season of Creation’ for some years, previously  gathered by Miriam McHardy of ACTS and my predecessor Rev Trevor Jamison. We've struggled this year, with the background of COVID, which has added to everyone's workload and stress, and we are thus all the more grateful to this year's writers who found they were able to take part after all.

We began the project looking forward to preparations for the COP conference, which will now happen next year in Glasgow:  we have a breathing space  to work towards a fruitful use of the opportunities for prayer, and the raising of consciousness which that will bring.

We aim to provide something which is of real use to local churches, many of whom will be using the Revised Common Lectionary,  or its close relative used by Roman Catholic congregations. 

We’re grateful for permission to use the graphic from the Global Catholic Climate Movement this year, as we’ve very much aiming at partnership rather than competition, and the overarching theme of Jubilee for the Earth has deep biblical resonance. 

We also welcome the initiative of Climate Sunday from Churches together in Britain and Ireland, whose launch coincides with our first ‘Sunday’.

Our approach, quite appropriately, is encouraging and challenging, though  never prescriptive:  use these things as seems good to you and the Holy  Spirit. Work it in together with the way you do things:   between us we provide both the medicine and the spoonful of sugar to help it go down. Grab a phrase, an image, or an idea, and run off with it!  Have fun! Get carried away! See what you can get away with!

We’re indebted to the care taken by Church of Scotland Weekly Worship in shaping their own very helpful guidelines, though, necessarily,  we go further.

We are not  ‘filling in a gap’, but rather making space.  We bring to this task a belief, born of current and practical experience, that much of the Bible can immediately  be read, with integrity, in a way which highlights the rootedness of our faith in the partnership of God with Creation - variously described as ‘covenant’, in which human beings have a vital part to play, though by no means the only part. We are, as Pope Francis has said, “ruled” by the Earth.

I’ve discovered that this may require the cashing in of some reserves of daring.  We often exist in a theological  environment patrolled by what Alastair McIntosh calls “silverbacks” 

“:Silverbacks” = older and once eminent men (as they usually are) who still pronounce with a head-of-department authority on matters  over which they’re  either out of touch, or aren’t within their field”[Riders on the Storm, published 13th August 2020 ]

So  sometimes we need to say things  differently, which seemed long ago to be settled. But God alone is unchanging.   To be clear :we never impugn the integrity of those who came to different conclusions in a different time and context,  but we do need, most urgently, to open  wide eyes ( including our own) to the signs of these particular times,  which are not by any means exclusively, of the virus threat,  which seems, prematurely and lethally,  to block out all others.  

The surprise for some is that no mode of churchmanship has a monopoly either on ‘climate’ issues, nor, for that matter, the problems of denial and incrementalism within our communities. We turn up  treasure  new and old.  

Once a church, congregation or community learns to trust and read the Voice of Creation through the honesty of science, Christian commitment compels involvement. 

I’m relieved that I’m not a ‘climate’ chaplain only, as there are so many stacked up but interweaving environmental crises, of which COVID 19 is but one.

in our writing, we  have required the discipline of taking note, but not being overwhelmed by the crisis which has forced us online , thereby actually multiplying the scope  of our audience.

In Bible poetry - frequently - the mountains dance, the trees clap hands, the stones (threaten to) shout aloud and  Creation groans.  Poetry is so often the most emotionally accurate way of expressing deeper truths -   without conflict with science.

The currently renewed appreciation of the sentience of fellow creatures, brings a new depth of meaning to this imagery. We ‘hear the voice of the earth’ as never before, though we have a whole raft of wonderful ( and well-financed) strategies for ignoring, or postponing action on what that geo-prophetic voice might have to say.

The most  obvious images ( beasts, birds, seas,  skies, soil) are not at all the only ‘creation’ themes.  As  environmental scientist Gus Speth has famously said, 

“The  top environmental  problems are selfishness, greed and apathy”,

Thus themes emerging from this year’s texts are as follows:

Responsibility  ( Given our (collective)  complicity in global damage....  It is responsibility, more  than ‘control’  that God gives to our species in Genesis 1:26

Love for neighbour (taking neighbour rather widely). There’s a very serious need to hear and be shocked by the partisan xenophobia of some of the passages; to grow beyond local parochialism to a global concern.

’Payback’ and revenge  vs Forgiveness = as enabling power.

Urgency in all things: though set against  the disabling  idea of  ‘already too late’.

Maybe forgiveness, and the experience of grace will be the key to the most effective Christian environmental witness, especially where churches have been bombarded with the demand to “do more”. 

This last attitude is, of course, one of the errors which is killing the world with the pursuit of endless growth.

  It takes little study of the New Testament to  confirm that   Jesus’ practice was to liberate with forgiveness first,  before  evidence of changed life came to light, so  encouragement takes precedence over condemnation.

Should it be a surprise that the best we have to offer in the state of the world today are also the best expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  The sheer practicality  of making forgiveness/healing/enabling a priority  over vengefulness   shoes through.  

If the one who sings prays twice, then the one  will also hurt twice, who insists on suffering and punishment, rather than a more ‘restorative’ sort of justice.

Enjoy the Season, and see where the Spirit leads!