Preaching the End of the World in the Face of the End of the World – Leah Schade reflects on Malachi 4:1-2a and Luke 21:5-19
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for November 13-19, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
For preachers, eschatological themes are anticipated with nearly as much enthusiasm as dental check-ups. “The end of the world . . . again,” quipped one pastor at a pericope study I once attended as we tackled once more the images of the end-times that proliferate in the last Sundays of Pentecost and the first Sundays of Advent. This sarcasm perhaps masks a deeper unease about the real fears alluded to in passages such as Malachi 4:1-2 and Luke 21:5-19, whose warnings of impending cosmic upheavals ricochet sharply off contemporary headlines about war, natural disasters, and strange “signs” that warn of dire days ahead. Add to this the disconcerting news about species extinctions, the climate crisis, football-field-lengths of forests disappearing by the hour, and extreme forms of energy extraction, and the task of preaching “good news” in the face of seemingly imminent ecological doom can feel overwhelming to pastor and congregation alike.
Catherine Keller describes the problem this way:
[W]arnings of social, economic, ecological, or nuclear disaster have become so numbingly normal that they do not have the desired effect on most of us, who retreat all the more frantically into private pursuits . . . . How can we sustain resistance to destruction without expecting to triumph? That is, how can we acknowledge the apocalyptic dimensions of the late-modern situation in which we find ourselves entrenched without either clinging to some millennial hope of steady progress or then, flipping, disappointed, back to pessimism? (Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. P. 14).
Especially for the preacher, the dual temptations to either legalistically preach about “saving the earth” or to irresponsibly encourage waiting passively for a messianic solution can lead to an “apocalyptic either/or logic—if we can’t save the world, then to hell with it. Either salvation or damnation” (Keller p. 14). The task of the preacher will be to avoid such a false dichotomy.
The reality is that in many ways creation is, in fact, already in the eschaton. This is especially true for the strip-mined mountains, decimated forests, and other devastated areas of Earth for whom “the end” has already happened. The preacher working from an eco-hermeneutical reading of these texts might introduce the “readership” of Earth and Earth’s other-than-human creatures. Because, in fact, the “end of the world” has already come to pass for countless species whose history has come to an end at the hands of human beings. Doomsday has come and gone for the North American Passenger Pigeon, Australian Toolache Wallaby, Indian Arunchal Hopea Tree, and St. Helena Olive, not to mention untold numbers of plant and animal species whose final dying members passed into oblivion unnoticed and unmourned by human eyes. And what of the impending end-of-days for the hundreds of plant and animal species currently facing threatened or immanent extinction? How nice that human beings have the luxury to debate their worth, value, and fate, quibbling about biblical and philosophical semantics as these species languish in prisons of shrinking habitat, poisoned waters, and diminishing food supplies. We have ghettoized creation, delineating by way of concrete and metal boundaries where greenery, fur, and feathers can and cannot live, blocking them into increasingly shrinking habitats that isolate and cramp them in their once vast and free-ranging bioscapes.
A sermon that preaches both “law” about our ecological crisis, as well as “gospel” that proclaims God’s grace in the midst of our failures, finds a way to do three things. First, the sermon will honor the intrinsic value of God’s Creation. Second, the sermon will realistically state the ecological dilemma in which we find ourselves today. Third, the sermon will be clear about what God is doing to bring about a transformation towards life, even in these tumultuous, death-drenched days.
The prophetic words of Malachi and Jesus are strikingly appropriate for our contemporary time. As our planet continues to be encased with the fumes of burning fossil fuels, the day has surely arrived when Earth is “burning like an oven.” The difference between Malachi’s prophecy and the situation today is that it is not yet the arrogant and evildoers who are stubble. Rather, it is the poor, marginalized and disempowered. Nevertheless, the prophet is clear that there will be consequences even for those who believe their wealth and privilege will protect them from the evil they commit. Further, the prophecy is also clear that those who have respect for God—and God’s Creation, we might add—will experience the sun not as a burning punishment, but as healing warmth. This will be especially true if our efforts to curb consumption, conserve energy and resources, and develop non-fossil-fuel forms of energy begin to slow the effects of global warming. Thus, we are given hope that our work in faith-based environmental activism will have real effects for society and the planet.
This is not to say that our work in eco-advocacy will go unopposed. Jesus warned that those who do the work of resisting the powers might very well be opposed by people in their own family and possibly be arrested and persecuted. Here one can bring to mind some examples of Christian and other faith-based environmentalists who have been arrested in acts of civil disobedience against corporations and governments who insist on polluting and desecrating Earth and human communities. UCC minister Rev. Jim Artel [http://www.ucc.org/news/ucc-conference-minister.html] and Rabbi Arthur Waskow [http://beforeitsnews.com/alternative/2013/03/photo-80-yr-old-rabbi-arthur-waskow-arrested-at-white-house-xl-protest-2601032.html] have both been arrested in protests against the Canadian tar sands XL pipeline and its threat to land, water and the climate. Yet Jesus’ words compel us to continue our work and to trust that His power is with us:18”But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Endurance is what is needed in this long-term struggle to protect and advocate for Earth and “the least of these” within our planet’s fragile atmosphere. Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians echo Jesus’ words: 13”Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”
It is in Psalm 98 where the preacher can find the vision to sustain us during these soul-wearying struggles. “The ends of the earth” (v. 3) already know that God’s victory against the death-wielding systems is assured and are singing a song of joy for what is to come. The sea roaring and the floods clapping their hands herald the work of God filling the earth with Her presence. We, too, are invited to add our voices to Creation’s chorus and bring our instruments of peace to the biotic orchestra.
[Note: Worship planners may want to have the congregation sing the hymn “Earth and All Kin,” based on the well-known “Earth and All Stars,” in response to creation’s call and God’s call to “sing a new song.” [http://ecopreacher.blogspot.com/2013/09/hymn-earth-and-all-kin.html]
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288