Part Three of Rev Dr Scott Couper’s sermon series on Mission and the Environment
“’A New Kind of Pollution”
*Hebrew Scripture: Numbers 35:33-34
*Christian Scripture: Acts 15:19-21
Friends, this morning we continue with part III of our sermon series entitled “Sunday Times”. The series is written to help revitalise our congregation and discern the future of our church. Our series is about the ‘signs of our times’. In this series, we are, in a sense, reading the newspaper to learn about the state of our world. What is happening in the world that ought to affect our Christian faith and our local church in Sydenham?
Our theses in this series is that “Cosmocentric is the new anthropocentric” and that the greatest challenge faced by the world, the Christian church and thus the Bethel Congregational Church is the environmental crisis. The destruction of the Earth is likely the proverbial elephant in the ‘room’ (or, in our case, it is in the ‘church’) which is so big that no one can see it. The destruction of God’s Creation is perhaps the area of greatest need for our church’s ministry and it will continue to be for generations to come. We are asking ourselves each week: “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?”
As Christians, we face a fundamental difficulty in searching the scriptures for answers to the questions of modern life. Many of the difficulties faced today were not faced during King David’s time nor in Jesus’ time. Therefore, quite understandably, the Bible often seems often fails to speak about issues that are on the front pages of our newspapers. For example, the Bible does not provide us guidance on genetic cloning – cloning did not exist 2,000 years ago. The Bible does not assist us deciding when, technically, a human dies – when the brain or the heart is no longer functioning? – because 2,000 years ago the human body could not be kept alive if the brain was dead. Likewise, the Bible does not offer us advice on organ donation.
Sadly, in response, Christians have often chosen not to speak about modern issues in church – for example, the environmental crisis – believing that church only speaks of ‘biblical’ issues. Because so many issues important to us today are not discussed in the Bible, many of us, especially our young people, understandably believe the Bible to be irrelevant.
Conversely, the Bible speaks of many issues which are not related to our contemporary lives. For example, I found in Deuteronomy 24:6: “Do not take a pair of millstones – not even an upper one – as security for a debt, because that would be taking a man’s livelihood as security”. How many of you have ever searched your car or between your couch cushions for some lost ‘millstones’? Or, in Deuteronomy 21 we hear proscriptions for how to marry a woman captured in war. Wow! Because so many issues are discussed in the Bible that are unrelated to our modern life, again, many of us understandably believe the Bible to be irrelevant to our lives.
Yet, to believe the Bible is irrelevant is a serious error in judgement. The Bible, for me, is the most relevant book for my life – it has more guidance, more wisdom, more helpful information than any other text that has ever been written. I believe the Bible is inspired by God. That does not mean that it is perfect – only God is perfect. To believe the Bible is perfect is to render it worthy of worship, and that is idolatry.
Friends, despite the fact that the Bible addresses many issues not related to contemporary life and does not address many issues that are related to modern life, the Bible is in fact very relevant. But the scriptures are relevant if we embrace a paradigm shift that changes the lens through which we read them. If we undergo a paradigm shift, then that which we may previously understand to be irrelevant suddenly becomes relevant! That paradigm shift is, I propose, to reinterpret anthropocentric texts in a cosmocentric manner. That is, we need to read scriptures seemingly concerning humans only and interpret them anew to be also about God’s Creation. Believing that the Creation (the environment) must have a restored relationship with God as well as humans may be the key to understanding God better and thus preserving ourselves for God’s purposes.
Let us take the example of ‘pollution’ as an issue that has traditionally been interpreted anthropocentrically in the Bible. If I were to drop all this ‘dirt’ (rubbish, trash, garbage) all over the sanctuary floor as I am doing now, all of you should have a negative visceral reaction to what I am doing. It is offensive. It is wrong. We don’t like it. Why? Fundamentally, we believe that that this space is God’s space. We believe that God is worshipping with us. We believe this this church is a sacred place. When I put rubbish all over the floor, my deacons are agitated because I am polluting God’s space and thus I am separating us from God because God cannot be in a polluted place. Because God is perfect, God cannot be defiled. God cannot be dirtied. God cannot be soiled. God cannot be rotten. God cannot be contaminated. God cannot be unclean. God cannot be impure. God cannot be polluted! Anything imperfect, anything rotten, anything contaminated, anything unclean, anything impure, anything polluted cannot be in God’s presence – if it is, it will separate us from God! And since Adam and Eve were cast out the Garden of Eden, we have been rightfully terrified of being separated from God.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the whole of the scriptures has predominately been interpreted anthropocentrically. And thus, the entire edifice of our spiritual lives has been founded upon the premise of ‘pollution’ – we must not pollute God or we will be separated from God! Read Leviticus. The Grain, Burnt and Sin offerings (chs. 1, 2 and 4) are all about cleaning the pollution and reconciling – eliminating that separation between – humans to God. All the laws about clean and unclean foods (ch 11), all the laws about purification after doing everything from having sex to burying someone, all the laws about diseases (ch. 14), menstruation (15), mildew (ch. 13), eating blood (ch. 17), sex (ch. 18), marriage and adultery (ch. 20) – it just goes on and on and on. Read Deuteronomy, it continues. Read all the way to the Christian scriptures, it continues. Jesus confronts all of these rules and regulations and almost does way with the lot of them because Jesus came to reconcile humans to God. Jesus came to remove the pollution. Jesus became the balm that heals the broken relationship between us and God. Jesus Christ restores us, purifies us and renders us righteous to enter into God’s presence by taking upon himself our filth so we do not pollute God. And thanks be to God for this anthropocentric interpretation!
Yet, the rules and regulations against pollution continue even with Jesus’ apostles. In Acts 15 we read, “[…] abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (vs. 20).
But, I argue, we need to go further now. We are polluting our world and we need to take the spiritual and anthropocentric concept of pollution and apply it to what human beings are doing to the Earth. If God created the world and saw that everything therein was “very good”, then our destruction of Creation is polluting and further separating ourselves from God. ‘Cosmocentric is the new anthropocentric’!
There is much biblical evidence for this literal, this environmental, concept of pollution in our scriptures. Numbers 36 reads, “Do not pollute the land where you are […]. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell” (vs. 33-34). (Of course, this scripture relates to polluting the land with blood, but it is still polluting the land nonetheless.) We need to take the biblical concept of pollution and add to it an environmental lens. That is to say, as Christian people of faith, we need to proclaim to the world that when we degrade God’s Creation, when we pollute it, we thus degrade and pollute our relationship with God, becoming further separated from God and his presence on Earth through Jesus Christ. In short, littering and all pollution of the Earth should be considered by Christians to be a ‘sin’.
How is the Bethel Congregational Church responding to the biblical mandate to not defile the land? Are we recycling in our neighbourhoods? Are we recycling in our households? Is our church land tidy and neat? I can promise you, alongside our property wall there is much litter.
As we begin to discern our future ministry, what if we used our property as a recycling depot for all of Sydenham Heights? What if we cleaned our local park every month and placed a big banner in the trees with the commandment, “Do not pollute the land where you are.” What if our Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade joined efforts to clean the Umgeni River and its estuary that leads to the ocean? How will we as a community of faith proclaim the gospel that we are participants with God in God’s salvific plan?
And the people of God responded: “Amen.”