A “Greta Thunberg” Sermon – Tom Martin reflects on loving pesky teenagers and grizzly bears.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C (2022, 2025)
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke’s story of Jesus in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth, artificially divided by the lectionary between last Sunday and this, is central to understanding Luke’s presentation of Jesus. By moving this story forward from its location in Mark (6:1-6) to use it as an introduction to Jesus’ ministry and expanding the story far beyond the materials available in Mark, Luke gives us a programmatic theme for interpreting the good news of the Kingdom: reversal of expectations (aka ‘acceptance-rejection’). Everyone has been expecting the Kingdom of God to come in particular ways, to particular types of people, and it has come in unexpected ways, to totally unexpected people. I have used the title, “When Sermons go Wrong” for preaching this story. What goes wrong and moves the plot forward from the affirmation of Jesus in v. 22 to an attempted lynching in v. 29 is the sermon. Pulpits can be dangerous places. Having proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor, his audience is expecting him to fulfill their common-sense assumption that THEY are the ones to receive this outpouring of God’s grace. Against their presumptions Jesus cites bible saying that God’s favor goes to outsiders, rather than insiders. A human centered sermon could develop how it is that God passes over good church people to shower grace on those thought outside God’s ken. Luke plays this theme through the rest of his gospel and the Book of Acts. Don’t look for God in the assumed safe places, nor with the assumed righteous, theologically correct people.
In Luke’s historical context this insider-outsider contrast is focused on Jewish resistance to Jesus and early Jesus-Follower preaching. Jews (largely) reject the good news of God and non-Jews (begin) to accept this message. For the very earliest, and predominantly Jewish, Jesus-Followers this was a reversal of expectations. The unthinking repetition of this Jew vs. non-Jew contrast has contributed to the last 1500+ years of Christian anti-Semitism. This must stop. And it must stop in the pulpit. No preacher should unthinkingly repeat Jew-Gentile contrasts for modern Christians. Nor should any preacher in faithfulness to retelling gospel stories speak of Jews opposing the gospel even if that is what the gospel story has as its surface reading. The cross-cultural meaning of Luke’s contrast is best brought over for us as religious authority, church leadership, and good churchy people being passed over by God in favor of outcasts, the religiously impure, and the not obviously Godly people. How unexpected.
Now, how does this make a Creation Sermon?
The theme of the unexpected is also there in the call narrative of Jeremiah. Jeremiah complains that no one will listen to him because he is only a teenager. “God, you should speak through someone older, more established, and much wiser.” God has other ideas. This Judean pre-adolescent teen will shake the world. How unexpected.
I would call a sermon from these texts a “Greta Thunberg” sermon. Just as with Jeremiah, God has the gall to use a ball of passionate energy packaged in a Swedish teenager to shake our world. No one could have predicted that when Thunberg sat protesting alone outside the Swedish Parliament, she would become a force for environmental change and advocacy. How unexpected.
I have always been struck by the parallels between Jeremiah’s call narrative and the Day of Pentecost as storied in Acts 2. The role of the Spirit connects the Acts story to both Jeremiah’s call and Jesus’ sermon. In Jeremiah “the word of the Lord” comes to him. The phrase is a parallel means of saying the Spirit has come to him. In Luke Jesus speaks out Isaiah’s words, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Usually this is understood to mean Jesus claiming Spirit empowerment for his ministry. The earliest Church is anointed by the Spirit to begin speaking the Good News in Acts 2. It is Luke’s use of Joel’s prophecy to explain the charismatic phenomena in Acts 2 that opens up a “Greta Thunberg” sermon.
This is how the connection plays out. Who is it God chooses to speak for God? God specifies a Judean teenager as chosen to speak for God (Jeremiah 1). In Acts 2 (citing Joel) the people who are specified to speak for God are teens. “Your sons, daughters, and young men will prophecy and have visions.” [Along with the too old and the nobodies (slaves).] Left off the list of spokespersons for God are the middle aged; the established, the empowered, the successful, the mainstream. These are precisely the people we look to for guidance and wisdom; the people we look to as knowing what the best courses of action are for the problems we face. These texts call us to listen to the youth in our churches and communities. These texts call us to let the voices of the young rise up from the background noise to help us find a vision for the future.
One should object that climate scientists are established and authorized figures, and very much not teenagers, who do speak for the environment and are trying to warn us about climate change. BUT science as a culture is an inherently cautious and often conservative endeavor. Scientists hedge their bets on most days and avoid attempting to claim more than can be demonstrated. They are trained not to rock the boat and to follow established protocols and peer review. If there is one self-critique many climate scientists are making, it is that the inherent conservatism of the scientific process means that 30 or 40 years ago, they, as an institutional embodiment of power, were not speaking more loudly and more firmly about climate change.
The real question about all science is less “what do scientists say” than it is “what action will WE lay people take” as a result of the science. Surveys indicate that young people are more attuned to taking action related to science than older generations. But as broad cultural responses to the Pandemic indicate, established scientific voices are not the first choice for who our culture listens to.
The voices our culture is more attuned to tend to be established, well known, people in business, finance, and politics, sports, or entertainment. Theses voices are most often co-opted by capital. The pattern of advice from these sources tends to follow the overwhelming power of consumer ideology in American life. These voices, with the exceptions of entertainment and sports, also usually tend to be middle aged. The voices we find culturally acceptable come from people long enough in an established career path to have acknowledge authority to speak for what is good for all of us. The voices we most normally go to for guidance are voices that will not call for radical environmental change until it is far too late to do anything effectively. The voices we most normally turn to will only attempt environmental reform through traditional economic pathways.
God has chosen the millennials to speak prophetically about climate. God has chosen the Greta Thunberg’s of the world to give us visions of a new relationship with the earth. Frequently we hear, spoken with an impervious naiveté, that our youth are a resource for the future. But then we sideline their voices, their visions, their desires. We fight the lawsuit young people brought against oil companies in 2015 as unproductive. We champion them in word but insist on following only the sage advice of the middle aged. We say we value the young but preserve the power of older generations over the world’s resources.
Gallup polling indicates that on all environmental issues and attitudes there is a generation gap between millennials and older Americans. Younger Americans see the climate crisis as more severe. See the science as more correct. Are more likely to embrace that environmental crises are human caused. Are more willing to alter lifestyles if it will favor the environment. Express greater care for the spiritual aspects of nature. The list goes on. The numbers are significant. What should the Church do about this generation gap? How do we listen to the young without merely paying lip service? These are questions that congregations need to struggle with and be made to struggle with from the pulpit. Struggles a preacher needs to model in sermons. One thing is certain. We need these young visionaries.
I do not know how the ideas in this paragraph would preach. But in any sermon I would prepare for these texts, and along the lines I have been suggesting, a set of memories and experiences, would inform the sermon. I am a child of the Sixties. A teen during the worst of Vietnam. I identify as a hippie turned Jesus Freak. Youth culture made us certain we would change the world. Our vision of a future with equality and peace and justice would prevail. As we aged, we were co-opted by “the Man.” If anything, the stakes are higher now than they were in 1968. How does the Church take the God inspired visions of its young, implement them, and keep them fresh? More struggle to model in the pulpit.
I have been silent so far about 1 Corinthians 13. This is not because it does not connect with the theme of the visionary leadership offered by millennials. It does. It connects in the strongest possible way.
My college students, while ignorant of nearly all the rest of the bible, are familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 from weddings. When we cover Paul in class, I make the point that the “love” being spoken of here is not about marriage. In gest I protest that if they have this passage read at their weddings I will stand up in the back and give just cause why this marriage should not take place! The passage is about how church people should treat other church people. We extend its application to marriage while forgetting the original context. We all know the basics well. Love is patient and kind, does not seeks its own way. Love seeks out truth. Love endures. In this way we should love one another. In this way we should love God’s creation.
One fundamental point is emerging in work on environmental ethics and activism. We protect what we love. What we love we work to help flourish. We sacrifice our selfish interests for what we love. If we are to save the planet, we must love it. To love it we need to be immersed in its wonders, to experience its gifts of grace, to be exposed to its intricacies. Just as we would with any human lover. Love matched with faith and hope must endure and flourish in its embodiment within rich and varied ecosystems. Love will love animals, rivers, forests, and oceans as unselfishly as it loves brothers and sisters in Christ.
A “Greta Thunberg” sermon will explore how God calls teens to speak; how Jesus violates our assumed values; and how Paul can teach us to love Grizzly bears, wolves, the Amazon, and bluebells. We need to ask our Greta Thunberg’s to teach us and give us visions of this love.
Originally written by Rev. Dr. Thomas Martin in 2022.
Note: For more insight to the voices of our youth and their vision for the future, the commentator recommends The Nature of College: How a New Understanding of College Life Can Change the World, by James L. Farrell (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2010.