As you have discovered by now, we are observing the first Sunday in the Season of Creation. When I looked at the scriptures appointed for today, I wasn’t too sure how to handle them in this context. But then I thought of how biologists or other scientists start by simply looking closely at what is in front of them. And these scriptures shed some light on what we need to be doing during this season.
They invite us to contemplate, not first the beauties of nature, but the imperatives of right thinking and the difficulties of judging right from wrong. Not only judging (and whether we ought to keeping our opinions to ourselves)— Ezekiel and Matthew both address the matter of how we communicate that judgement.
And this is serious stuff—not easy to do. Mind you it’s all too easy to have hissy fits about how folks behave. I mean, you know, other folks. These are of course always other folks.
And no matter how carefully a person tries to, for instance, to care for Creation there’s always somebody who can lay a guilt trip on them. Just yesterday a friend who’s a complete vegetarian mentioned how judgmental some of her vegan acquaintances have become. Raising the question—are we really encouraging each other? Or simply needful of shoring up our own perfect choices in life?
Where I grew up, in the Bible Belt of Southern Pennsylvania, there were whole billboards that shouted PREPARE TO MEET THY MAKER and they were not about traffic safety. [One of my high school classmates even told me with tears in her eyes how sorry she was that I would be going to hell.]
This was the baggage I brought along when I came to pray on the scripture we just heard in the Gospel, “whose ever sins you retain they shall be retained.” The baggage of ready condemnation. So I was surprised, when I meditated on it seriously a few years back, to discover that this passage can be understood not as a command to judge, but as a command to be cautious in judging. To exercise the greatest possible care, in fact.
And Ignatius of Loyola (whose teaching I’m afraid I’m always talking about) instructed his followers to “always strive to put give the best possible construction” to a person’s words and actions. Because it’s easy to condemn. It’s easy to think that somebody else is trying to insult you, or to belittle you, or to cause you harm, when in fact they might have a completely different reason for acting as they are doing, unrelated to you entirely.
The irony of our present day predicament is that, on the one hand, we are always judging each other in a fairly facile way—the litmus test here is that little puff of relief we feel when we do so, that little frisson of self-satisfaction that lifts the heart and tells us ‘yes we do have standards’ (and of course our standards are the Right Standards). This daily desire to reinforce our own worth by assuring ourselves that we Know what is right and we have Chosen it… runs hand in hand with a shared and often articulated resolve to “NOT BE JUDGMENTAL” … a semi official if secular creedal attachment to letting each citizen have their own political and religious opinions and practices and to Not interfere.
So here we are, two decades into the 21st Century, and what we have been doing doesn’t work any more. (a) First, these high standards about which we have allowed ourselves to become somewhat complacent turns out to be at best ineffective and at worst, cruel and hurtful. They keep us from questioning our assumptions and, essentially, from maturing, morally. (b) Second, not interfering with other people’s opinions and behaviour (while privately disdaining them) is at best dishonest and passive-aggressive and at worst sends us collectively right over the edge of disaster. Whether we mean disastrous climate change or terrifying erosion of democracy or massive social injustice…. Have we actually set ourselves up for failure?
Maybe one of the gifts of the present time is to see the need for judgment in a whole new way.
Matthew places this teaching between Jesus’ prophecy of …. and his final journey to Jerusalem and all that awaits him there. Ezekiel, writing towards the end of the Babylonian exile. He was shifting into a new key, preparing to prophesy as he does just at the end of this passage today, of God’s weariness with judgment and yearning for mercy.
What we need, instead, is to question our own complacency about our personal judgments, and to face up to the need, as Richard Rohr puts it (https://cac.org/restoring-relationships-2020-09-06) to restore relationships. This is impossible without acknowledging what is objectively wrong.
And so we come to the the Season of Creation which starts with Labour Day and ends with the Feast of Saint Francis. This is entirely fitting—both because in Canada it brings us through the season of abundance to Harvest Thanksgiving—and because Francis and his followers developed a theology of Creation that started from God’s goodness and love.
I remember a time when we thought that putting humankind at the top of the “chain of being” was a concept to be discarded, an anthropomorphising degradation of a wonderfully connected web of life in which we were simply a part. WHAT IF we are neither the top of the pyramid, nor only another part. In other words, what if the Incarnation is part of what our connection with Creation means?
Here’s a different way of seeing our role:
Rather than viewing the world from the top rung of the ladder of creation, Francis [of Assisi] saw himself as part of creation. His was a descending solidarity between humanity and creation. Instead of using creatures to ascend to God, he found God in all creatures and identified with them as brother and sister because he recognized he shared with them the same primordial source of goodness.
In light of Francis, we are called to participate in life-giving relationships that reflect a God of generous love. Sin describes the personal history of one who was created for communion and refuses it. It is the rejection of our identity as part of an interdependent world in which God’s power as creative source expresses itself through the shared power of other creatures.
[From Jane Kopas, Sacred Identity: Exploring a Theology of the Person (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1994) p. 103, referenced in Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth by Ilia Delio O.S.F., Keith Douglass Warner, O.F.M., and Pamela Wood, Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2008).
We see, in this view of sin, a view also of how we can abdicate our responsibility to all of creation. Our human consciousness equips us to be more than mindlessly greedy: we also have the ability to collect data and observations over time, and to exhibit a connection of care—both of which give us a part to play even at this late hour.
Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced. —James Baldwin (1924–1987)
Facing up to our situation connects once more with those so-old and now newly needed readings about real work of judgment: what’s called the duty to warn.
Almost a year ago—though it feels so much longer, doesn’t it? Greta Thunberg came to Montreal rallying what seemed like the whole city to her call for action against climate change. Witness the horrendous rise in carbon emissions shown here.
In the 11-plus months since then, we have a virus… an organism that is, itself, part of our ecosystem…wreaking havoc with economic systems, revealing the vast inequalities that many of the so-called privileged had been wilfully blind to … the ridiculous relative cost of tar sands production… and even offering a tantalizing glimmer of the clean air and water that were once normal in cities that had been swamped with exhaust and waste.
That might be why this year’s chosen theme for the Season of Creation is “Jubilee for the Earth.”
We need to face the fact that the way we have been living in North America would take four planet Earths to sustain. By some estimates, Europeans use half as many resources as we do, and many countries struggle on far fewer resources.
ESJAG’s [the Cathedral’s Ecological and Social Justice Action Group] recent conference on biodiversity offers much more information than I have time to tell you here, and the talks including some videos are available on the Cathedral website. In addition, I commend to you their quarterly newsletter which draws together updates on related themes. We cannot address climate problems without confronting many social and international issues. Some approaches we might take to this complex problem are described in the aforementioned book Care for Creation.
Our planet, that little blue marble, is finite. However, as Julian of Norwich perceived – when God showed her a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in her hand and told her that it was “everything that was made” – “God made it, God loves it, and God keeps it.”
Thanks be to God.