An Environmentalist-Turned-Pastor Reflects on Ash Wednesday – Lois Sorensen.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Our Old Testament text for Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17) certainly has eco-theological aspects. Dennis Ormseth discussed this reading in his commentary for Ash Wednesday in 2011.
The Old Testament in general can be characterized as “embodying a message of stewardship” (Robin Attfield, Environmental Ethics; page 21, including a footnote referring to scholars corroborating that interpretation). Not only does God put the first human to work in the garden to “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), with “keep” not referring to taking ownership but taking care of, as in “The Lord bless you and keep you” (Numbers 6:24), God actually retains benevolent ownership. Examples of God exerting this role include: extending the Sabbath rest to animals (Exodus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 5:14), allowing the land to rest every seven years (Leviticus 25:3-5), and using a Jubilee provision to remind the faithful about who ultimately possesses the land: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23).
Although most of Attfield’s book was written from a secular perspective, he provides vocabulary that we can use when articulating a faithful response to God’s perspective (humans as temporary tenants and God as benevolent owner). Namely, we respond by moving away from individual selfishness and anthropocentrism (an ethical system concerned only with humans and things that serve humans; Attfield, p. 221) and moving toward ecocentrism (an ethics system based on the inherent value of whole ecosystems, including habitat and all living creatures; Attfield, p. 225). After all, God expresses an ecosystems approach to Creation in the first chapter of Genesis, seeing that each major creative act was as “good” (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18, 21,25) but only seeing to the final outcome – everything together that had been created – as “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
How might we use this faithful response, this Old Testament stewardship hermeneutic, as a perspective through which to reinterpret the Gospel text for Ash Wednesday?
Give Alms. Pray. Fast. And when you engage in these acts, do so for the right reason: to glorify God, not to glorify yourself. Those three imperatives and one qualifying instruction from the Gospel text (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21), are often the basis for the sermon or homily on Ash Wednesday and for the framework of our entire annual 40-day journey through Lent. However, these three imperatives and one qualifying instruction do not fully summarize the “discipline” of the season, including ecotheological implications, if we neglect the stewardship aspects of the final three verses of our appointed Gospel text.
Matthew 6:19-21 reads as follows: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Although the NRSV correctly translates the personal-possessive second-person pronoun in the Greek as plural (“yourselves”) in verses 19 and 20, and as singular (“you”) in verse 21, the traditional focus on earlier verses can cause us to inadvertently interpret the whole reading as an individual call to pious action. If we instead interpret this storing-up of treasures is a collective activity with collective as well as individual consequences, these verses provide a broader call to action.
Instead of limiting ourselves to the hard work of personal repentance, we should also – as members of congregations within local contexts and as members the broader Lutheran movement – approach Ash Wednesday and the entire 40-day journey through Lent as an opportunity to collectively repent of the waste and harm we have caused God’s treasures on earth and recommit to wisely stewarding all that is entrusted to our care. Let us “sound the alarm” and “call a solemn assembly” and castigate each other to “rend your hearts” (words heard on Ash Wednesday from Joel). Let us act to “loose the bonds of injustice” and “let the oppressed go free” and “break every yoke” (words heard on Ash Wednesday from Isaiah). In other words, let get serious about actually “doing Ecotheology” (Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A. J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014).
A Lutheran pastor (Daniel L. Brunner), a UCC pastor (Jennifer L. Butler) and a Pentecostal pastor (A. J. Swoboda) devoted 95 pages of their 262-page book to a confessional treatise about “doing Ecotheology.” They call upon the words of another prophet, not Joel or Isaiah, summarize what it means: “Do Justice. Love Mercy. Walk Lightly.” (paraphrasing Micah 6:8 on page 145). They acknowledge it requires defying Spirit-Body dualism, labeling it inherently unbiblical. They also acknowledge that the language of “stewardship” has been commandeered by some congregations as a church-y name for their annual financial pledge drive. They advocate for ecojustice — between privileged and poor communities, between “developed” and “developing” countries, between humankind and the rest of creation – as necessary to correct a perverted sense of imago Dei in order to promote the flourishing of all life as intended by God.
Although Brunner, Butler, and Swoboda do not explicitly invoke Matthew 6:19-21, they discuss a multitude of means by which we can align our hearts and the treasures entrusted to our care. Surely, we can find some actions, as individuals and as congregation, which are indeed expressions of the Lenten disciplines of giving alms, praying, and fasting? Embody what they call “down-to-earth living” (pp. 178-216), including: buying local, using public transportation, managing our ecological footprint (energy efficiency, water conservation, edible gardening, environmental landscape practices, pre-cycling, recycling, etc.), talking a walk or simply spending 10 minutes a day outside (to witness the glory and wisdom of God in creation), keeping the Sabbath (including rest from unnecessary consumerism and energy consumption), living simply (so that we are content, such as Philippians 4:11, instead of allowing possessions to own us, such Luke 18:22-23), and even “eating justly” (such as avoiding food purchases which support ecologically unsound farming practices and fasting in order to use less natural resources or donate to a feeding charity).
Brunner, Butler, and Swoboda also advocate “greening” each congregation. This includes leadership articulated from the pulpit as appropriate appointed texts present themselves (or taking-on the Ecotheology as a Lenten or other church season theme). It also means making ecological decisions regarding congregation-held land, buildings, and maintenance thereof. It can also include Earthkeeping as an integral aspect of missional efforts. Offer space for an organic community garden; get involved with organizing and advocacy for issues like clean air, clean water, energy efficiency, endangered species projection, habitat restoration and local recycling programs; or engage in some other context-specific activity. In the case of my “small but mighty” elderly congregation, our Lenten community outreach project for 2022 includes “giving up” unused or gently-used clothes and bedding and then partnering with two local agencies to share these items with our unsheltered and housing-insecure neighbors, including adults participating in recovery programs and children requiring Guardian Ad Litem services.
Think of what we could accomplish together if each congregation engaged in one additional Ecotheology-informed practice each Lenten season!
Originally written by Lois Ann Sorensen in 2022.
Reverend Sorensen left a 29-year public sector career as environmental protection professional to finish seminary and become an ordained minister.