Pentecost with a local church. Acts 2:1-21


Draft Sermon here, also downloadable as PDF at bottom of page

Now, if, in the next few minutes you’re inclined to think I’m drunk, the bad news is, I’m wide awake.

And I’ve never been more so.  As a Christian minister, I am moreover in a far more intense relationship with Christian scriptures in the five years of this job of Environmental Chaplain than in my  preceding quarter century of  grassroots local church experience on which it’s firmly built.  

As a visitor to many churches I need to assure you that my training and experience is not that of an ivory-tower specialist, but of everyday grassroots general practice Christianity,  which aims, with love and integrity, to build up the hope and spiritual resilience of worshippers: not to be rulers and dictators, but rather as Jesus put it, light for the world, yeast in the dough, salt for the Earth: working together with others without watering down the particular treasure you are and that you have to offer.  

The climate and nature crisis pushes us to be more rather than less reliant on our friendship with Christ the Word become Flesh; God incarnate in the Earth. We might enjoy playing at church, but wind-assisted by the Spirit at Pentecost, it’s a grown-up game. The game of Be more Church.

 In these last few days, has come the additional reminder that whilst I’m still in this job, ( and maybe whilst Gillean is still with you), we’ll see things more dramatic than those days last summer when Scotland’s  green hills turned brown overnight. Or the year before when Storm Arwen took out 16 million of our trees in one night.  But we’re only just beginning to take notice, and there’s huge investment in place in all sorts of devious ways to try and make sure we don’t.  

The entire budget of the Church of Scotland under discussion this last week is dwarfed by what’s invested to sow seed of doubt in this truth,  or provide premature reassurance that all is clean and safe and we have time to sit back like the rich  fool in Jesus’ parable.

My friends, it would be  dishonest  and unloving  to suggest other than this: that we are well beyond the time of reasonable doubt that the increase in extremes and the impact on nature is caused by  unjust choices of human societies.  

Immediately, for those even passingly  familiar with the writings of the prophets in the Bible, there’s a striking coherence in that human injustice goes together with environmental devastation in a way that, as I was growing up,  most sensible sober people were content to write off as so much hot air,  but which is spiritually coherent today.  Inspired by the Spirit, Peter stands up in Jerusalem and talks prophets. They’re not absent from  British and Scottish streets.

What do we want? – ask the climate protesters – not just the young and green , but the mature, sensible sober people of the churches- 

What do we want? -Climate justice- When do we want it? Now!

And of course, for those with ears  to hear and eyes to see, interpreted  by the honesty of science  – these voices add powerful authority and authentication to that call for justice. 

Just as in some of the most frequently cited passages from  those prophets, it’s the voices of nature, of groaning Earth, of the trees who breathe out what we breathe in; voices of the commonest  birds in population free-fall and the cutest ones under sentence 

-The gift of language is a two-edged sword: perhaps you get your point across to other creatures, who may be alien or foreign.  But the danger is you may hear something which makes you move on too. That happens all the time to faithful Christians. Faith is not single-use, not throwaway. Faith is always recycled.

Aid agencies like Christian Aid and TearFund have moved on from a narrow focus on people alone because no economy  can exist without dependence on what we used to think were merely beautiful and expendable, but turn out indispensable to our survival, as a species.  

Christians- who are Christians no less than we are –  elsewhere in the world are not hamstrung, by that brutal divide between the fate of humanity and nature. God’s  Rainbow  Covenant is with the Earth, with all flesh, not just Noah. Everything who has breath praises the God who sustains the unified Creation of sky and soil, Heaven and Earth.  

Whatever the fault, the fate is shared. And that is why the ‘Loss and Damage’ message of Christian Aid is completely coherent:  for polluter countries such as ours to invest in helping fellow people and creatures respond to the impact of what the global north chooses to cause is an investment in our own wellbeing as creatures of God’s same Earth.

Within each human  society are further nested injustices: you can’t ask those on lowest incomes to eat more sustainably, insulate their houses, install heat pumps  and drive electric cars when laws and regulations perpetuate inequality.  Do you think, before you vote, what might change this? And do you send messages of support to your leaders when they get it right? Salt, light, yeast. That’s what you’re here for.

Because you can’t blame the poor for having children, when it has been shown that the education and empowerment of women and attending to poverty lead to a rapidly falling birth rate and progress with greenhouse gas emissions.

Be inspired not with the paralysis of guilt, but the energy of responsibility, and the joyful liberation  of the truth that even in a small and easy way,  each of us can choose a different direction. 

There’s a lot of talk about ‘making a difference’ and at a local level, I have seen that  in litter-picks, beach-cleans, insulation projects, reducing waste, and other things which have brought joy  and deepens faith to the communities involved. ‘Making a difference’ is not a con-trick. But it needs con-text. I have not saved the world by changing all my lightbulbs to LED, even if I have saved myself money by doing so.  And encouraged myself and others. Because as Jesus said: if you do good stuff, shout about it,  to the glory of God.

But I have the advantage that speaking to you and to other churches, I’m with communities who value and trust the practice of prayer: we offer a small  commitment from our hearts, without requiring the authentication of laboratory conditions, and trust in the grace of God that God will make of it what is good for the Earth. That too is the Great Commission of the Risen Christ, to bring good news to every creature, though even that was suppressed in my own mainstream training for ministry.

I also know that in the last few years, some of the messages promoted about response  to the climate crisis have been naive and misleading. Shell was forced to withdraw a campaign which suggested you can ‘drive carbon neutral’  by burning their petrol. A couple of weeks ago I heard about enthusiasm for ‘decarbonising’ the oil and gas industry. This refers to reducing the  ten million tons of CO2 sloppily released in production, and has nothing to do with reducing the burning of oil and gas as a final product. Greenwashing ‘ is a major anaesthetic industry. Sleep well!

The earliest  of Christian hymns includes the line “wake up sleeper”. Because people who are not drunk but wide awake take notice: they see what’s heading their way,  and cope with the roughness of the path so full of stumbling-blocks. Karl Marx described religion as the ‘opium of the people’ – as an addictive anaesthetic. 

For some, that’s what it is.  Keeping your head down and hoping  it will see you out. And other realities  block our horizon. The cost of living – war in Ukraine – both of which are deeply connected with the choice  to continue making war on the Earth on whom we depend.

So after the experience of the wind and power and unexpected communication, which are so extreme as  to lead some to conclude that the church is intoxicated, Peter stands up and begins to recycle and repurpose those  Holy Scriptures which the global  Jewish Community had been reverently preserving and rehearsing. 

He lovingly and respectfully takes the things which define them as a faith community and finds something serious and relevant for there and then.  It’s a dangerous strategem. Jesus himself nearly got thrown off a cliff for suggesting to people that the spiritual resources of their faith were to be taken seriously. They are. Because time has caught up with us as hearers. It’s time to be livers.

An awareness of the climate-and-nature crises  has a bearing on how we perceive time: is it, as Jesus suggests  in the way he begins the prayers recorded in the Gospels, time to get on with things. Time to take seriously  the protests of the young  and the worries of the aged? Globally,  and also throughout the  world church?   Those visions and dreams  in which God includes all of us, and in which I believe it’s time  to include  voices and rights beyond our own species.

What sort of deadlines hang over us?  And should or do deadlines change the way we act and think?  And what if we don’t?  What if we sit back like the builder of the house on the sand, who  just like the builder of the house on the rock could not change the climate, but took no notice and made no changes to their plans? 

Do we dig in to a story of ‘everything’s going to be all right’  and ‘God’s in charge  so we don’t need to worry’  or are we going to take that catalogue of disasters and warnings and even ultimatums we call the Bible seriously, because it also offers ways of encountering and responding to threat and turmoil, and even, in the most defining Christian festival  of Easter, a promise of hope beyond  that point that the disciples were sure was  ‘too late’.  At the crucifixion, the disciples were sure “that was that”.  Were they wrong?  I don’t think they were. 

But despair – even justified, rational despair, turned out not to be the only story.  And that, my friends is why, given what I’ve read, what I’ve heard from friends around the world whose homelands are already in crisis with rising of sea-levels, the disruption of animal and bird migration and of growing seasons for crops,  given what I heard at COP26 in Glasgow from the scientists and their  final jigsaw pieces of cause and effect between the way we live and what’s happening  to the planet, the oceans, the ice-caps  and more, and finally, given Jesus’ intoxicated(?) call not to worry about tomorrow, is how I keep going. And keep finding hope in the responses of churches.

Jesus says truth sets us free. And the truth is, that by any stretch of the imagination, we are in one version  of the last days of the way the world has been.  No great surprise if we listen carefully to the promise made by Jesus at his resurrection: I will be with you every day until the end of the age.  That’s a good deal, a great deal, full of grace and help and solidarity, though what it absolutely is not, is a promise of open-mindedness or an assurance of indestructibility of the home we share. But I believe it’s also a promise of solidarity in transition. The best deal going. 

That Day in Jerusalem was not the first or only  time it’s right to think of the “last” days.  But 

young ministers are still  taught that in the face of the world stubbornly refusing absolutely to end, you find a way of ignoring it. 

I think we should be – because the writers of scripture are –  a lot more realistic and a lot more creative than that.

In times of crisis, the best way to live  out our faith is as if each day is our last. To make different decisions, open up different futures.  Nothing to lose, except perhaps  that  story of the end of the church in despair and irrelevance.  Do not worry about tomorrow. Get on with it now!