To Climate Change Deniers and Climate Despairers – Amy Carr reflects on variable gospel notes to the hard of heart and to the worrywart.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday August 21 – 27, Year C (2022, 2025)
The voice of God in Isaiah ties human flourishing itself to land, because it is the basis for the well-being of all creatures on earth. And the reverse is true as well: if people aren’t treating one another right, the land will suffer, too. The prophet uses a conditional language: if you remove the yoke of oppression, feed the hungry, stop pointing fingers at one another and start taking responsibility together, then God will “satisfy your needs in parched places,” “and you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:9b-12).
Isaiah presents us with a common-sense picture of how to live, framing it in a pattern we can find in the Mosaic law as well: if you practice these justice-seeking wisdom teachings, then you and the land will flourish. One could begin and end a sermon on addressing climate crisis with this theme alone. Sometimes fleshing out the nature of the moral law in our time and place suffices.
The gospel story from Luke stirs in two additional currents we might bring to bear upon creation care. The first we might call the rebuke of the hardhearted. The second we might call the gospel for the worrywart—the Christian who worries about the great expectations raised by Jesus’ miraculous straightening of a woman’s bent back. The latter is an undercurrent, the former the focus of Jesus’ own direct teaching. Both speak to our troubles in implementing Isaiah’s vision of a just world.
Misusing the Sabbath: A Rebuke to the Climate Deniers
Part of Isaiah’s call for justice is a call to keep the Sabbath. Rather than “pursuing your own interests on my holy day,” YHWH calls for delighting in the Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13). In response to such delight in the LORD on a day of rest, the LORD promises earthly success: “I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob” (Isaiah 58:14).
But in Luke, we overhear a debate about the keeping of the Sabbath. The official of the synagogue complains when Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath, interpreting the act of healing as working on the Sabbath. He angrily asks why Jesus couldn’t just wait to heal the woman on one of the six days of the week that is not the Sabbath.
His response sounds petty, and the delight of the people in Jesus’ incisive response suggests they found funny the synagogue official’s small-minded accusation. Jesus interprets the spirit of the Sabbath as a day of resting not from just any sort of work, but from oppression itself: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16).
“You hypocrites!” Jesus often uses this term to rebuke those who wrap themselves in the mantle of religious authority to stop a movement that calls them to challenge their own take on tradition, or to grow into values that better reflect the heart of that tradition. So, today, we might do this with those who say the gospel has nothing to say to the plight of our planet, that Jesus came only to rescue human beings from sin and death. And like the crowd around Jesus, maybe we can muster humor (as some social media memes do) alongside condemnation of those who deny the goodness of addressing our abuse of creation. Indeed, when we find ourselves drawing upon biblical authority to justify burying our heads in the sand rather than appreciating the paths of redress for those locked in suffering, we are shamed not only by sharper arguments, but by the laughter of those who see how ridiculously wrong we have been.
Hearing the Gospel as a Worrywart: Confronting Climate Despair
This is one thread of encounter with the gospel reading, a thread that explores how our traditions—even a divine command—can get in the way of doing the right thing when, in its name, we can’t open ourselves to a new good thing in our midst. Another strand to explore is the pain of knowing that the stories of Jesus’ healings of others are not ones we can replicate on demand.
Maybe those of us who are Lutheran tend to be more comfortable with this fact than our Pentecostal siblings might be (although charismatic Lutherans globally might beg to differ). Maybe most of us can rest content in the knowledge that a bent-over woman being able to stand up straight is a sign—a sign pointing first and foremost to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah who carries God’s redeeming Word to us in a more cosmic way. Then we might see this unnamed healed woman as an icon of the straightened-up world as a whole, when viewed against an eschatological horizon. A first century woman’s healed spine is a first fruits of how, in the famous words of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Those reading this commentary, though, are not content with gazing at an eschatological timeline for the fulfillment of our expectations. Even when we are fuzzy about knowing exactly how our own actions toward creation care participate in divine providence, we assume that they do matter in the divine scheme of the things. Our personal, congregational, policy, and other intentional behaviors that translate into good news for creation: these are all icons, too. Like Jesus’ healing of a crippled woman, ecological healings performed by the corporate body of Christ on earth—by those who belong to the church—also express and point to the Creator’s own renewing work in Christ and the Spirit.
Is it enough to think of our small steps towards addressing climate crisis as first fruits of a renewed creation that God will complete in the long run? So many of us are terrified about the fact that we need to make collective global changes now to avert the worst of global warming. Making our congregations and homes more energy efficient, using fewer plastics, encouraging our elected officials to support climate change policies—all we do seems necessary but insufficient. Climate activists can face our own form of Luther’s facere quod in se est obsession: it does not seem enough to “do what is in us” to do, and to let God take care of the rest. How do we know we have done enough to pull our weight in the body of Christ’s mission of healing? And what about when we know it is indeed “never enough?” When the good news of healing becomes a command that we are expected to perform collectively, it can trigger not only a worrywart syndrome, but outright despair.
Notice that in asking such questions, we are stepping outside the frame of Jesus’ disputation with the synagogue official. We have stepped into the crowd that bears witness to an iconic act of healing, and become that person in the crowd who wishes she could enter the disputation with another sort of question: Why aren’t all the sick healed? Why aren’t peace and righteousness shaping the whole of things? Why don’t you do more than heal one particular woman? Perhaps this person in the crowd begins to follow Jesus from afar. She notices that they are sent out in pairs to preach the good news and to heal others, too. Maybe she even joins in. But she’s still asking the big picture questions, triggered by the gap between messianic expectation and the width and depth of the world’s brokenness. A sign is not enough when—as Isaiah 58 announces—the well-being of the entire land is at stake.
Interestingly, the author of Hebrews shares this set of questions. Early in the life of the church, after the risen Jesus has ascended and sent down the Holy Spirit and promised to return, there were worrywarts. When would the first fruits of the Spirit give way to the full flourishing a Messiah was expected to bring? The community addressed in Hebrews is wondering whether they were misguided to think the story of Jesus added anything substantive to their yearnings for a better world—a promised land for a promised time.
The author of Hebrews tacks straight into this intangibility and spins it as a positive: “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them” (Hebrews 12:18-19). Unlike the site of revelation to Moses at Mt. Sinai, the new covenant mediated in Jesus (Hebrews 12:24) occurs in the heavenly Mount Zion, in “the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22). Rather than fear of physical contact with the destructive presence of God who descended to the earthly Mount Sinai (where “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death,” Hebrews 12:21), in “the heavenly Jerusalem” there is multi-species rejoicing, including “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” through the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 12:22-24) who, as both High Priest and Sacrificed One, stands always at the Temple of God’s presence, interceding for us (Hebrews 4:14, 7:25, 10:9-10). At one level, then, the author of Hebrews says to those impatient with the fact that the earthly Jesus who healed so plainly has withdrawn out of sight: we may not be able, then, to see the work of the high priests offering sacrifices to God on our behalf, but we can trust that the intangible presence of Christ as High Priest is far more effective. It is in Hebrews that we get the whole motif of faith rooting itself in what is unseen (Hebrews 11:1), the promised land that lies above and ahead.
As so often throughout their creative midrash that reads in a Christological key so many beloved Jewish motifs—Mt. Sinai and Jerusalem, Abraham and the promised land, the priesthood—the author of Hebrews cultivates hope and fear in tandem. First, while we cannot see or touch the promised land while we live by faith, this should intensify rather than relax our vigilance in keeping the faith: “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking, for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!” (Hebrews 12:25). Here the author of Hebrews echoes the voice of Isaiah, that great worrywart for God, who conditions the well-being of the land on human practices of justice and service.
Second, read from the perspective of a Christian anxious today that we will fail to do enough to address climate crisis, Hebrews then goes for the jugular of those in the crowd of Christians who worry that faith focused on the heavenly Jerusalem has nothing to say to the earth’s well-being at all: “At that time [God’s] voice shook the earth, but now [God] has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.’ This phrase, ’once more,’ indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:26-29).
So if created things are not to remain, why bother protecting the earth, if the promised land is a heavenly realm anyway? If right worship within that eternal kingdom is all that’s needed to protect us amid a divine conflagration, it is easy to see why some Christians nosedive from this passage into trying to draw souls into that eternal unshakable kingdom. Nothing like tempting a worrywart to become a bonehead—someone consciously hard of heart about the mattering of the earth, and thus hard-headed about investing in policy changes that are economically costly and disruptive of the sabbaths of material comfort we’ve created for ourselves in the interim!
I posed this question recently to Paul Santmire, one of our eco-theological elders—why bother, if heaven and earth are passing away and God will be the one to make all things new?—and he pointed out that we could ask the same question about the value of caring for any human being, since we are all mortal: “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
Jesus cared about a woman with a bent back who crossed his path. Those reading this commentary care about the warming planet and the multiple ways our species pollutes it in the course of improving our standards of living through technological innovations—prompting new innovations that can address the problems we have created. What in the gospel motivates us to continue such care, treading away from both despair that we can ever do enough, and a spiritual triumphalism that is a backdoor into another, indifferent form of despair?
Although he does not address climate crisis per se, David Courey thinks deeply about the gap between what Douglas John Hall calls “expectation” and “experience” in What Has Wittenberg to Do with Azusa? Luther’s Theology of the Cross and Pentecostal Triumphalism (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015.) Noting that Pentecostalism (with its roots in the Azusa revival in 1906-1915) fosters experiences of the Holy Spirit that create expectations of perfectionism, including complete healings from all disease as direct manifestations of faith, Courey turns to Luther’s theology of the cross and its theme of “calling a thing what it is” to interrupt a triumphalist tendency in Pentecostalism. That triumphalism might take the form of expectations of healing that don’t match people’s experience (leading them to feel sinful for not finding healing); of redirecting a sense of success to the “institutionalization” or numerical growth of Pentecostal churches themselves; or of “the deflection of painful reality by sustained rhetoric” (Courey, p. 258). Whether through this-worldly despair or other-worldly escapism, triumphalist expectation wards off the reality of persistent creaturely suffering.
Courey’s Pentecostal theology of the cross invites a spiritual perspective that can speak also to the ecologically-concerned Christian in the crowd, impatient for more radical change beyond the healing of one person:
“The cross acknowledges reality, life as it is encountered with all its inscrutability. But it also breathes a spirit of mystery into the in-breaking of the divine on the everydayness of human existence…. A redefinition of Pentecostalism that reckons with the sacramentality of…God’s presence in an embodied spirituality will lead to a recovery of anticipation properly nuanced within the limits of here-and-now actuality” (Courey, p. 257).
Courey’s pneumatological theology of the cross—extending a sense of sacramental sign to embodied experiences of the Holy Spirit’s presence—might take form for some of us as embodied experiences of wonder and well-being triggered by our encounters with the non-human natural world.
Perhaps in this life we have only a collection of first fruits of the Spirit to behold, not a realized eschatology. Perhaps we have to keep in our pocket to pull out from time to time these great and grave questions about whether it matters eschatologically to address climate crisis. In the meantime, walking along with those questions in our pockets, we can hone our skill set of climate advocacy and scientific know-how. And we can write our own midrash that is in dialogue with that in Hebrews, with its profound understanding of the fragility of all creation juxtaposed with something eternal that Jesus, joined to our human existence, bespeaks for us in the Holy of Holies. We can join in the great crowd of witnesses at work translating anew for creation as a whole our inherited, well-worn, beloved concepts from the past—from Sabbath rest to promised land.
Originally written by Amy Carr in 2022.