Stepping into Theological Uncertainty – Tom Martin reflects on what we are called to do as God’s Servant.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, First Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023, 2026)
The texts for this Feast Day offer an outstanding opportunity to do innovative, imaginative public theology, in an eco-theological frame because they are about justice, and how the people of God do justice. Now let’s see how that plays out.
For an eco-theology sermon the Servant Song from Isaiah offers the best starting point. The linkages to the baptism account in Matthew offer a way of opening the gospel text to ecological applications. The intertextuality of the Servant Song feeds to Matthew’s baptism account via the story of Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:14-19. Luke uses another Servant Song (Isaiah 61:1-3) which has resonant language with today’s reading from Isaiah 42. Luke also connects the use of Christological Servant language to Jesus’ baptism since this is the first ministry event following Jesus’ baptismal call narrative. For Luke it is explicit that Jesus’ baptism is a call to Servant ministry. This allows us to contextualize Matthew’s version as linked to the Servant’s mission and our call to servanthood in the model of Jesus. Congregations may need to hear explicitly that baptism is a call.
Doing eco-theology from the pulpit requires risk taking and a sense of homiletic emancipation. It requires embracing the audacity of having something to say. In the Lutheran tradition there have been strong voices discouraging individual innovation in interpretation from the pulpit. Such words are too human, too tainted by the preacher’s own views. Instead, these voices insist, the pulpit is a place solely dedicated to proclamation. One’s individuality should be removed from the near-sacrament of preaching. Pulpits are for the declaration of a boiler plate, Reformation gospel message that stands independently of the preacher involved. The difficulty is, of course, that all discourse conveys the individual power and views of the speaker. It either does so explicitly or implicitly. To have the audacity to preach creatively and imaginatively in ways that engage our environmental crisis is to seek to open minds to critical thinking and enter a path of evolving understanding rather than convey an authoritatively fixed theology.
In the anointing/baptism of Jesus for ministry God enthusiastically embraced vulnerability. Our celebration of Jesus’ baptism reveals a God who chooses to bring about salvation using the variabilities, inexactitudes, and question marks of human life. Creation-crisis preaching (see the book with this title by Leah D. Schade, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2015) enters into God’s choice of weakness and vulnerability and embraces the fact God comes to us in historically conditioned times and places. Our time and place needs a radical do-over of theology to address global environmental crises.
Eco-homiletics must of necessity produce sermons that are moving targets, frail in their conclusions, and open to a plurality of interpretations. Of course, all this IS in fact happening in the choice to “proclaim” an anthropocentric Reformation gospel. It just happens in the shadows and is clothed, inappropriately, in the supposed invulnerability of unchanging universals. The proclamation of fixed universals is, in fact, patriarchy masquerading as gospel. An eco-theology sermon will seek to displace such certainty and replace it with the uncertainties of our past, present, and future.
The Church faces a completely new and previously unimaginable challenge, the likely collapse of ecosystems at a global level, a sixth mass extinction, the possibility of human extinction. How does the preaching of Jesus the Christ address this!? The People of God must apply the good news, reinterpret the Bible, in ways our ancestors and the biblical authors could not have foreseen. Mistakes will be made, whole sermons will need to be repented of, but without the audacity of plunging ahead into uncharted territory the Church will collapse into irrelevance against this singular challenge.
In my view, eco-theology decenters patriarchy and its domination of the environment by teaching us that faith can be filled with uncertainty, with deep questioning, with ambiguity. Celia Deane-Drummond encourages us to do eco-theology in light of the best science we can find (A Primer in Ecotheology. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017). But science, as she points out, does not stand still. It changes. It evolves. What we think we know can and will alter. These facts are unnerving to theology. We want stable, certain, unaltering answers about God and faith. Eco-theology will eschew providing such certainties. Eco-theology must be flexible, exploratory. Our faith, in relation to creation, must be an evolving project in which we may need to discard promising ideas and commitments which don’t prove out. Eco-theology must also be willing to embrace new commitments that seem to run counter to established theological values (e.g., that God created eco-systems requiring that animals die, often violently). And all this must be done from pulpits.
For the Baptism of our Lord it is the Isaiah text (Isaiah 42:1-9) that most fully pushes us into theological uncertainty. The focus of those uncertainties is for the preacher to ask how it is that the People of God in the developed world do justice toward the earth and do justice with (not for) and listening to (not deciding for) Developing Peoples. The promises of God are vested in a frail and imperfect servant. The servant is not Jesus as God incarnate. The servant is God’s People. Rebellious, weak, imperfect, easily discouraged, often failing. The mission of being light to the world, if it is to be done at all, must be done through us. Notice that the servant fails to understand its own mission (Isaiah 42:18-29)! Abraham Heschel comments that we are the agents who must make real the vision God has for us, not God (The Prophets, 156). This is, perhaps, not a hopeful premise.
In the UK, Australia and the U.S. Christians are the single largest demographic among climate change deniers. There are many reasons, but one is to say that the very idea human beings are capable of, and are, destroying the planet denies the omnipotence of God. God simply would not allow us to have such a powerful impact on creation. Divine omnipotence provides a basis for denying global climate change. Like the Servant (Isaiah 42:19b) the Church itself is blind to the planet’s need and our own culpability. What is most shocking about this first Servant Song is that God abandons omnipotence. Isaiah’s initial servant song casts us, in our frailty, as the servant chosen to renew the earth with justice. To insist on interpreting the servant songs Christologically misses this and retreats into an I-don’t-need-to-worry-God-is-in-charge mindset.
The mission for us as God’s chosen servants is clear. It resonates with eco-theological emphases. First, the need for global mobilization to address climate change, habitat destruction, resource depletion is voiced in the inclusion of all the world’s nations in God’s vision of justice (Isaiah 42:1, 6). Care for weak and vulnerable ecosystems can be gleaned from Isaiah 42:3-4. The eco-homiletic step to make explicit is the need to move our theology past the anthropocentrism of biblical texts. A preacher must be aware and make a congregation aware that the historical focus of biblical texts is nearly always limited to God and humanity. When natural systems come to bear they are usually as window dressing to God’s real concern: humans. None of this Sunday’s texts move beyond this anthropocentrism in any obvious manner. The eco-hermeneutical step is to point to some of the few scriptures which DO intimate that God’s intents reach beyond one species. And thus, allow us to extrapolate from less obvious texts. In a Christian pulpit the best place to begin is Colossians 1:15-20. Christ reconciles ALL creation to God. God’s purposes reach far beyond human beings. The Servant’s mission, OUR mission is justice for all creation.
Justice as our mission opens another can of worms for privileged developed-world U.S. Christians. In my experience it has become an accepted norm for many North Americans to be environmentally conscious. Our children are taught to recycle in grade school. Many of us use community or single stream recycling. We economize our homes for efficiency. Hybrid and electric cars are increasingly popular. We hear “reduce, reuse, repurpose” as a mantra. But as privileged developed-world Christians our concerns trend toward solutions and issues that relate to our emotional investments (particularly animals that make cute cuddly stuffed representations of our donations to help save them). We cushion our lifestyles behind off-sets, and donations. In other words, we FAIL miserably at eco-justice. As privileged people, we talk the talk of environmental concern, without analyzing the deep personal costs of walking the walk. We have valued behaviors, such as jetting cross-country to see family, insisting on each of us having our own car, and we heat our homes to comfortable levels rather than dressing more warmly – behaviors that, when multiplied by millions of privileged people, contribute to climate change and lead to the deaths of others in the developing world. A further and penetrating example is our pervasive cultural belief that technology will help us save the planet. But, our expanding technology has simply translated into increased demand for energy production. We cushion ourselves against the rigors of climate change while our ways of living kill people in the developing world. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s essay “Love Incarnate” speaks eloquently to this disconnect. (Ecotheology: A Christian Conversation, eds. Jorgenson and Padgett. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). To paraphrase Richard Foster, we must live more simply, so that others can simply live (Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World. New York: HarperOne, 1997).
The homiletic danger is that the preaching of eco-justice to first world congregations will perpetuate colonization. We perpetuate colonization when Christians in developed countries decide what issues or programs constitute environmental justice, which species will be saved, what policies developing countries will follow. From positions of privilege our brands of spirituality are made the basis from with to decide what actions to take to save the planet. Ecotheology needs to be decolonized. (See Decolonizing Ecotheology, eds. Mendoza & Zachariah. Portland: Pickwick, 2022). Attuning a sermon to eco-justice for the developing world will involving educating a congregation about the unequal impacts of climate change (northern world vs. southern world) and seeking out and listening to the voices of marginal people in marginal places. Their concerns and needs may not align with the environmental needs and concerns we make focal. A sermon will also need to engage the necessity of and difficulty inherent in fundamental changes to our life-style expectations.
I think this last point particularly difficult in a North American homiletic context. So much of our environmental concern is culturally conditioned and, frankly, facile. So much of what needs to happen lies hidden behind uncritically appropriated cultural “goods.” (Again, see Moe-Lobeda). Preaching eco-justice will mean serious exploration of our basic assumptions about what constitutes “life.” Privileged Christian action for eco-justice will be personal, rather than blaming mega-corporations. It is MY lifestyle and assumptions about minimal standards of living that ARE the primary problem to be addressed, the behaviors to be repented of. When MY assumptions about how to live and how to care for the environment are shared by hundreds of millions we begin to glimpse the impact of privileged “planet care.”
When we grapple with eco-justice we need to address the profound depths to which each of us must make changes to our eco-footprints. Me, changing my life, will be the way in which justice is established in the “coastlands” (Isaiah 42:4c). The central question remains: how do the people of God in the developed world DO justice toward the earth and with developing peoples. To do justice is to be God’s chosen servants. We, all of us, first, second and third worlds, have yet to figure out what justice is in our eco-context.
Moving to the gospel text I think the best ecotheological connection is to focus on Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit as his call narrative. The connection I would make is that we, too, are called to Jesus’ servant mission. In addition, it may be fruitful to explore ways in which the dove imagery harks back to the opening verses of Genesis. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters stirring Chaos toward environmental order, evolution, and fecundity, so too the Spirit Dove hovers over God’s people stirring us to participate in the wonders of creation and to call all creation once again to divine flourishing.
The Psalm (29) offers some possible images of God’s presence in natural phenomenon which may, or may not, provide support to the eco-justice emphasis outlined above. From an ecotheological point of view the danger here is that the images of God’s voice being found in the violence of tornadic winds and the raw power of earthquakes propel us back again into acquiescence before God’s omnipotence rather than following the Spirit Dove into the frail dance of becoming which is Creation. But the imagery of wind, trees, lightening, and earthquake can draw us toward respect for natural systems.
The text from Acts (19:34-43) is not particularly helpful. That God “shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who . . .” could be extrapolated to support the eco-justice emphasis found in Isaiah 42. But mostly anthropocentric concerns dominate. There is little imagery or allusion to draw us out of an exclusive focus on human salvation. My judgment would be to follow one of the steps in the eco-hermeneutic developed by Norm Habel. An eco-hermeneutic acknowledges that the bible is largely anthropocentric in its concerns. Some texts are so strongly so that rather than attempt to use them as springboards toward ecological preaching one should simply name them as “irredeemable.” Ignore this text.
Tentative exploration of decolonized eco-justice with a focus on my developed world congregation’s unconscious attitudes about standards of living, educating about developing world concerns and needs, analyzing my personal footprint on the earth, this is what I would preach. Because these questions, for us, center what it is we are called to do as God’s Servant bringing justice to the nations.
Originally written by Thomas W. Martin in 2023.