Tag Archives: eco-theology

Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C

Returning to Our Origins Dennis Ormseth reflects on the start of our Lenten journey.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2011, 2013, 3017, 2020, 2023)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain (already a signal that will alert readers of this series in the comments for the season of Epiphany, in which the mountain regularly serves as representative of God’s whole creation), so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that

is, at the center of the Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

“The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word ‘hypernatural’ (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such ‘had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again'” (Fretheim, p 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22)” (P. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (P. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic, anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (P. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (P. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.

This is Church and You Are Needed Inside & Out

Watch this message from our churchwide leaders and fellow members across the country who recognize the tough, uncomfortable work of being “called out” into the world.  It is an empowering 7 minutes – worth the watch for all of us, not just the voting members who will be sitting in the conference rooms.

For those wanting to embolden their sense of calling to Creation Care for All as ministry inside and outside the church – you don’t need to have a resolution ready,  join a march, or preach on climate (yet). Start here:

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation’s Easter Message

Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30

Sermon from Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church,  Hingham MA

More than Just Weird

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.  It’s “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and there are clear references in it to the book of Revelation — which is where 666 and all that “mark of the Beast” stuff comes from.  In the third verse of that hymn, we find, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing . . . To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”   So there, 666!  “To God and to the Lamb” we will sing, we will sing.  You can’t scare us!

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, a seer named John who is in exile on Patmos, likely for being a thorn in the side of the Roman empire, writes to seven churches in what’s now Turkey about a heavenly journey he experienced in a series of strange visions.  Through what John has received, he wants believers to find hope and courage so they can live faithfully in even the most difficult times and circumstances.

John’s visions are weird stuff, to put it mildly, although the meaning of the coded language was clearer in its own time and culture than it is to us.  Rome was an oppressive empire, and it expected blessing and honor and wisdom and power to be given to Caesar, the ruler Nero at that time.  It was dangerous not to do that, but Christians then (and now) rightly give honor and blessing and glory and might to God, not to imperial rulers or authoritarian leaders.  Just as Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was sometimes referred to as “He who shall not be named,” Nero was alluded to by believers in other ways.  For example, since Jewish numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet, when you spell out Caesar Nero, you get – ta-dah! – 666.   He who shall not be named.

The book of Revelation was controversial enough to be the last book accepted as part of the Bible, and Martin Luther was never convinced Revelation really belonged there – although he felt free to appropriate some of its imagery to viciously attack the pope.  Revelation has been used and misused throughout the centuries, and the current iteration of misuse is the well-known series of Left Behind books and movies.  In them, born-again Christians get “raptured” up to heaven out of their beds, cars, or planes, leaving behind their clothes, glasses, hearing aids, and maybe even their hip replacements.  The rest of us get left behind.  Lutheran scholar and professor Barbara Rossing recalls how her seminary students once left clothes carefully arranged on their chairs for her to find when she came to class.  Nobody got raptured, she said – “I found them in the cafeteria.”[1]

The whole rapture thing, she insists, “is a racket.”  It was invented back in the 1830s as part of preacher John Nelson Darby’s system of biblical interpretation.  The word “rapture” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible, so the concept got pieced together from a verse here and a verse there.  The Left Behind books are grounded in Darby’s system, and they lead to what Rossing sees as a preoccupation with fear and violence, with war and “an eagerness for Armageddon.”[2]  For fundamentalist Christians – who are politically influential right now — all of this has significant implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East, which should give us pause.

It’s only on All Saints Day and during the Easter season every three years that we hear readings from Revelation, so it’s a perfect time to leave behind the misuses and abuses of it and wonder how it might be the word of God addressed not just to first-century Christians, but to us today.  It’s full of rich images for worship that are meant to be read more as poetry than prediction.  And while John hears about the coming Lion of Judah – fierce and violent – what he sees is “the Lamb who was slain” – vulnerable and victorious.

As I was studying Revelation this week, I found myself thinking about the baptismal font in the church where I grew up.  It was white marble and on its cover stood a little lamb with a tall, thin pole leaning against it.  At the top of the pole was a narrow signal flag.  Oh, I realized, that’s “the Lamb who was slain [who] has begun his reign.”  And we who got baptized in the water in that pure white font were washed in the blood of that slaughtered Lamb.  It’s a shocking image that we’ve thoroughly domesticated, and of course it’s not meant to be taken literally.  However, it bears witness to how life is stronger than death and how God’s vision is about new life, restoration, renewal, and healing.

When chaos threatens, people of faith can live as people of hope, enduring through struggles and suffering because we trust that ultimately God’s power is greater than any other power, God’s grace is stronger than the world’s sin, and God’s reign has already begun, even if we don’t see it.  Revelation is a pretty bracing witness – encouraging us to not give up or give in to whatever is not “of God.”  We sometimes pay lip service to how a life of faith is a counter-cultural way of life, but Revelation amps that way up and exhorts us to resist the cultural and political forces that work against God and seek to thwart God’s desire for an end to violence and oppression.  The Lamb who was slain becomes the shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and springs of water, and through places of danger to where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  John wants believers to listen in worship to his visions so that they will find courage and discover strength for the present because they have hope and trust in God’s future.

A week or so ago, Kris Niendorf came to the Thursday Bible study with a bunch of origami peace cranes she’d made as signs of hope while watching the not-so-hopeful news on tv.  It seems to me that, through these tiny symbols of resistance to the world’s injustice and violence and oppression, Kris was refusing to give in to the despair that I suspect can tempt us all.  Images, gestures, and actions can embody hope and offer strength in anxious times like our own, and worship itself is full of such images and actions.  We come to remember who God is and who we are.  We come to be put back together after the past week so that we can be signs of peace and hope in the week ahead, bearing witness to God’s power to sustain and encourage us and to lead us to live ever more deeply into our identity as people of faith.  Revelation speaks as powerfully about our call to live with hope and courage in the face of injustice and violence as it did in the first century.

Revelation offers us a word from the Lord in another way, too.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear a reading from Revelation in which John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.”  He hears a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”[3]  In John’s vision and God’s plan, the earth matters.  We don’t go up to God; God comes down to us and makes God’s home with us.  If we took that image seriously, how might it affect how we care for the earth and for all life on this planet we call home?

The language of Revelation is filled with images of all creation being restored and redeemed, and of all who make earth their home singing praises to God.  As part of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy during the Easter season, I say, “And so, with Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all its creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. . . .”  Did you catch that?  It’s not just us who sing but it’s the earth itself, the sea, the creatures who walk and swim and fly.  We all sing “to God and to the Lamb” and “millions join the theme” as we sing, as we sing.  We’re part of a cosmic chorus.

We humans are smart but not necessarily wise, and technology allows us to exploit our planet’s resources faster than the earth can renew itself.  That has never been true until now.  We who are called by God to care for and protect what God has made are surely called to repent — not only for what we have done but also what we have left undone in caring for God’s creation.  From the beginning, we were created for partnership with God, for joining all creation’s song of praise.  We were not made to wreak havoc on creation, which humankind increasingly is doing.

In that holy city that comes down from God, the water of life that we know in baptism flows through the city from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  John sees that “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  Can you picture in your mind God’s new creation where water flows freely, all are fed, and healing marks all kinds of relationships?  Where our allegiance is to God alone?

That’s the vision John describes, and we are called to live into it, to let God’s future draw us to it and to work for its fulfillment.  A clear-eyed look at the forces, fears, appetites, and institutions that resist what God desires makes it clear that courage and hope will be crucial if we are to live faithfully.  A community of worship that sings “with earth and sea and all its creatures” and receives the Supper of the Lamb will help sustain us.  The book of Revelation – which, as you see, is not just weird — will ground us in a deep ecology that is the word of God addressed to us today.

And so, let us be faithful people of hope and courage, of strength and healing.  Let us be faithful people together in worship and praise.

Amen.

 

[1] Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing:  The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Revelation 21:2-3

Johan Bergh: Luther as Environmentalist

Download, read, and share widely this brief reflection from active disciple, Dr. Johan Bergh.  In his piece, published in the Trinity Review (2013), Bergh relates the framework of grace and neighbor love with how we are to understand the role of public action in our church.  Read more recent reflections on his blog: www.greengracepostings.blogspot.com

“God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.” – Martin Luther

Download the six-page excerpt from Trinity Seminary Review here: Johan-Bergh-Published-Journal-Article-Luther-as-Environmentalist.pdf

Dr. Johan Bergh, ACC

Johan serves as Pastor for St. Philip Lutheran Church, Mt. Dora, FL., and is an International Coach Federation ACC Coach, ELCA Coach and Coach Mentor and ELCA Licensed Coach Trainer. He volunteers his service by coaching ELCA leaders and mentoring ELCA Coach-In-Training rostered leaders. He currently serves as Coaching Ministry Coordinator for the Florida-Bahamas  Synod and serves on the ELCA Churchwide Coaching Ministry Team as well as a level II Natural Church Development Coach. He earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in 2006 with a concentration in Discipleship and Leadership (M.Div., Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, OH 1981). His Bachelor of Science, Natural Resources, Environmental Interpretation (The Ohio State University) degree provides an environmental studies background for his current work as a Green Faith Fellow (www.Greenfaith.org)

He and his wife Janet have been married 39 years and have two adult daughters and two grandchildren.  He enjoys golf, running, hiking, fitness exercise, reading, biking, spinning, and good friends!

-Life and Missional Coach: http://www.beinganddoingmatters.com

-Coaching Ministry Coordinator, Florida-Bahamas Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: http://www.fbsynod.com

Articles by Panu Pihkala, University of Helsinki

The Stewardship of Creation: A Theological Reflection

by David Rhoads

Steward is a biblical term that refers to a manager who is responsible for the goods and property of another. A steward is not therefore an owner, but one who has a responsibility to an owner to treat property with care and respect. Stewardship is a term that refers to the responsibility of a steward to manage wisely. The unjust steward was one who took advantage of his position to aggrandize himself (Luke 16:1-13).

Stewardship has come to be used in the Christian community in a broader sense for our responsibility to manage wisely the goods and property that are in our possession. The assumption is that we do not really possess or own anything. Rather, the world, including us, belongs to God, and it is arrogant for humans to think otherwise. Therefore, we are not owners but stewards of all that comes into our arena of responsibility—income, assets, property, goods, time, talents, and our very selves. Religious stewardship is management as sacred trust.

In recent times, the concept of steward has been applied in its most original and fundamental meaning to refer to our human responsibility to care for the Earth itself (Gen 1-2). Our human failure to be responsible stewards of Earth has led to the current ecological crises threatening global climate stability, the ozone layer, and the diversity of plant and animal species. Ecological problems also include the pollution of air, the despoiling of land, the degradation of fresh water, and threats to the health of the oceans. The loss of forest and arable land in alarming proportions has tremendous implications for food security. Human population, now approaching seven billion, is placing stress on every ecosystem on Earth. As Christians, what is our responsibility?

Stewardship of Creation Is Our Human Vocation

The Bible is a good place to find guidance. The concept of environmental stewardship originates with the first of the creation stories, in which God gives humans dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the animals of the land (Gen 1:1–2:4). Traditionally, Christians have distorted the mandate to “exercise dominion” to mean that creation was made for human beings and that we have a right to dominate and exploit creation for our own wants and needs. This has led to incalculable abuses of nature.

What we now know is that the Hebrew word for dominion does not mean “to dominate” or “to exploit.” Rather, it means “to take responsibility for,” as a ruler would be responsible to assure the well-being of those in the realm. In this first creation story, human beings were created last, not as the so-called “crown of creation,” but in order to exercise responsibility for the well-being of the garden Earth. According to Genesis 1, exercising responsibility as part of God’s creation is the main reason humans were created. Therefore, being stewards of creation is foundational to what it means to be human. Caring for creation is not an add-on, not a sideline, not related just to part of our calling. It represents our proper human relationship to Earth. This portrayal puts human beings squarely in a caretaker position in regard to environmental stewardship.

We Are Called “to Serve and to Preserve”

The second creation story goes even further in clarifying the concept of environmental stewardship (Gen 2:5-15). In this story, God put Adam and Eve in the garden in order “to till and to keep” the land. However, the words translated as “till” and “keep” may be misleading. The Hebrew word for “till” is a word used to depict the service that a slave gives to a master. And the Hebrew word for “keep” means to preserve for future generations. Hence, the mandate “to serve and to preserve” the land places human beings not in a hierarchical position over creation but in a position of service to it.

Just as the later Christian message depicts Jesus as a servant-king, so humans are challenged in this creation story to assume a similar role: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Care for creation is to be exercised not to serve our own wants and desires but to serve the best interests and well-being of all Earth-community together, including ourselves.

All Creation for Its Own Sake

This stewardship role for humans as servants of creation is reinforced by the idea that creation was made for its own sake. After God created each part of creation, God saw that it was “good” in its own right—even before humans were created. Furthermore, in the first creation story, God mandated not just for humans but also for the animals to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” God wishes for all species, not simply human beings, to survive and to thrive. In Psalm 104, the psalmist celebrates creation and explains that the grasses were made for the cattle and the crags for the mountain goats; all of creation has been arranged by God so that all animals receive “their food in due season.” If we are to be good stewards of Earth, there is a foundational reverence we need to bear toward all of life for its own sake, because it is God’s creation and it is filled with God’s glory.

The biblical writers invite us to delight in creation, for delight is the right basis for our use of it. We will preserve that in which we delight! And we are called to love creation. We will care for that which we love! Even more, we are invited to love creation as God loves it: not in the abstract, but concretely in terms of caring for life. The biblical Sabbath regulations require that humans give rest to the animals every seven days; and in the seventh year they must allow the land to lie fallow, free slaves, and remit debts (Exod 23:10-11; Lev 25). As good stewards, we are called to take these kinds of actions in order to serve and to preserve Earth-community.
Hence, all our actions of stewardship are to be done as part of our service to the larger will and purposes of God. In some sense, we humans are partners with God in being responsible for creation. As humans, however, and not gods, it might be more appropriate to say that we are responsible to creation. Most fundamentally, however, we are responsible to God to care for creation. This is our vocation under God.

So often we make our plans and ask God to bless them. Instead, we are called to discern the plans of God and then to ponder how we can bring our lives into conformity with them. According to the Scripture, God wills for creation to thrive in all its diversity. God wills for air, sea, and land to bring health and well-being to all creatures. God wills care for the vulnerable. God wants there to be peace and justice in the land, for humans and non-humans alike. We need to see anew the purpose of our lives within the context of God’s larger purposes for the world and to exercise our stewardship in the context of this more embracing vision.

The all-embracing vision of God for creation is violated, when there is injustice by humans against humans. The biblical authors know the close relationship between the ways people exploit Earth and the ways people exploit the poor. In the Bible, when people are oppressed, the rest of creation suffers too—the land languishes and the grains fail (Jer 2:7; Isa 24:4-7; Joel 2:2-20). We are called to steward resources not only in ways that generate sustainability for Earth’s resources but also in ways that sustain life for the poor and vulnerable. In biblical terms, we are to act out of God’s compassion for “orphans and widows.” We are called to care for the least and the lost—human and non-human alike—just as Jesus “came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Yet there are pitfalls here, and we need to face them if our vocation as stewards is not to end in the arrogant and paternalistic role of the privileged few exercising control over the world and “the poor” to serve their own interests. If the task of stewardship is to serve as a sacred trust on behalf of all Earth-community, we must be willing to go beyond our own wants and desires in order to see creation through the compassionate eyes of the God who empowers the weak and makes common cause with the most vulnerable. It is only as servants of Earth community that we avoid paternalism.

Our Oneness with the Rest of Creation

Fundamental to such a wise and humble exercise of stewardship is the experience of oneness with the Earth-community we serve. God’s covenant with Noah and all creation affirms that all living creatures are in solidarity with each other in covenant with God (Gen 9:8-17; Hos 2:18). This experience of creation’s oneness is affirmed by the admonitions throughout Scripture for all creation to worship God: “Let the sea roar and all that fills it; let the field exult and everything in it. Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy” (1 Chr 16:29-34). All parts of creation together—human and non-human creatures and the rest of the created world—are to “praise the name of the Lord” (Ps 148).

There is a wonderful scene in the book of Revelation that portrays this common praise. John the seer says: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth , and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, “blessing and honor and glory and might to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be forever and ever” (5:13). What a vision! We are in solidarity with all creation; and if we do not care for Earth-community, the whole creation will not able to celebrate together in praise of our creator.

Moreover, we are also called to be at one with future generations to establish and maintain a sustainable life on Earth—to leave creation healthier and more resourceful than it was in the previous generation. There are some Christians who claim that we do not need to worry about the future of Earth because Jesus is about to come to deliver the saved from Earth. Others claim Jesus will come and rescue Earth from any problems we may cause for creation. Others see personal salvation as so important that heaven is all that matters; Earth is but a brief pilgrimage for individual souls. There may be some truth in some of these beliefs, but in no way do they begin to tell the whole biblical truth.

The Bible says unequivocally that God’s purpose is to restore all creation. The whole notion of incarnation—God becoming flesh (John 1:1)—is that the divine movement is not an escape from Earth but a movement toward embodiment in creation. Jesus became flesh to bring “new creation” (Gal 6:15). Paul testifies to this vocation when he claims that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” ready to “be set free from its bondage to decay,” as it “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:18-25) who will care for each other and for Earth. We are called now to be those children of God who exercise stewardship in relation to all creation.

There is an affirmation of creation in the biblical writings that cannot be denied. The vision of the end-time in the book of Revelation is that God will come to a renewed heaven and Earth and will dwell here among people (21:1-27). The vision of the New Jerusalem is a vision in which nature is in the midst of the city. In this vision, the river of life flows right down the middle of the city streets; it is clear as crystal and it is available to all, free of charge, so that none may be deprived of fresh water. And the tree of life is thriving on either side of the river; and it yields fruit twelve months of the year, so that no person will be hungry. God will dwell here with them and will wipe away every tear from their eyes. As we lean toward the salvation of God, this is the vision that we as stewards are called to live out in our lives and to foster in others.

Implications for Our Life and Times

In our modern culture, we have been ruthless and unjust stewards of Earth. We too often place profits above people; we put security for ourselves above security for all; and we act as if the world is there for our use alone. Much of our contemporary global economy is based upon the most efficient ways to strip resources from the land and to pay the lowest wages without regard to the health and well-being of workers. We have reduced land and people to commodities that serve financial markets. We have pursued a standard of living without regard to its impact on nature and people. Furthermore, ecological disasters have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable people—third world countries, the poor, people of color, the sick, and the elderly. These also happen to be the ones with the least resources to respond. We have a responsibility to discern our immoral and destructive ways, confess them as sins, and turn to a new way of living.

Our Stewardship of Creation Today

So what does this mean for us in the twenty-first century? Clearly, it means that we need to embrace stewardship of Earth-community at a collective and a personal level. We need to change the system and we need to change our personal behavior.

The Collective Trust. First, we need urgently to act collectively as stewards in our responsibilities to creation at the local, state, regional, national, and global levels. We need to support laws and policies and systems that promote the health of the environment—promoting cooperation with global treaties, strengthening legislation that secures clean air, safe water, and productive land; advocating for policies that reduce energy consumption and assure species diversity; placing limits on land use and on waste; and investing in environmental technologies. In addition, we need to reverse the process of economic globalization toward the use of local products and services. We need to find ways to encourage the greening of business and industry. We need to redirect the whole economy toward technologies, industries, and services that foster a sustainable lifestyle for the Earth-community. Commitment to ecological justice demands that we attend especially to the poor and vulnerable, the ones most affected by ecological degradation. This collective transformation of society is crucial, for if Earth-friendly treaties, laws, policies, and common practices are not in place, the changes we make in our personal lifestyle will be much less effective than they might be otherwise.

Also, as congregations committed to stewardship of creation, we can collectively renew our beliefs and actions to bring about a reformation in the church as an institution—transforming our worship and directing our educational programs toward creation-care, making our buildings and grounds Earth-friendly, observing best environmental practices at coffee hour and meals, and teaching our children to be Earth-keepers. We can incorporate environmental stewardship into the full identity and mission of our parishes, such that care for creation becomes part of the ethos of our life together. Thereby our congregations can become flagship communities that serve as witnesses in the towns, cities, and regions in which we are located.

The Personal Trust. Second, we need to become responsible stewards in our personal behavior, particularly in relation to that which is directly in our care. Each of us has a small piece of creation for which we are directly responsible, namely our living space—an apartment or house and perhaps some land. We are called to see our responsibility for this parcel of creation as part of our vocation as God’s stewards. Consider this: your living space is connected to virtually every environmental problem we face—the emissions from your furnace, the food in your refrigerator, the coal from the electricity you use, the water that goes in and out of your house, the products you purchase that are shipped from a distance, the treatments you give your lawn, the gas in your automobile, among other things. The choices we make about these everyday matters have a direct impact on the well-being of Earth and Earth-community. We can make a difference, every single day. We have it in our hands to make daily choices that can lighten our negative impact on Earth and help to restore God’s creation. What is more, these same practices can be extended to our places of work. We are stewards of our own local environment as a sacred trust.

There is a concept of environmental tithing that is relevant to our vocation as stewards of creation. Most people are familiar with the biblical concept of tithing, the giving of a “tenth.” The biblical tithe has been used as a marker of responsible stewardship. This tenth is given back to God—to the church, to the poor, to other causes deemed expressions of God’s will—as a symbol that the whole belongs to God. We can also apply the tithe to the stewardship of our personal resources of Earth. Can we reduce our electrical use by ten percent? Can we reduce the gas for heating by ten percent? Can we reduce the water we use by ten percent? Can we eat ten percent less food that comes from a distance? Can we eat fewer meals with meat? Can we travel ten percent less than usual? Can we invest a tenth of our financial resources in funds that contribute to sustainability? Can we set other goals to reduce our impact on the environment by a tenth—or more? And if we can, could we then contribute the money saved toward further efforts at restoring Earth? Tithing is just a beginning as we contemplate all we can do on a daily basis at home, at work, and in society to foster and maintain a sustainable world.

Our Spiritual Discipline

Making these choices as God’s Earth-keepers may involve sacrifice on our part as we seek to live a simpler lifestyle and walk lightly on Earth. In our Christian life, the key to making our world sustainable is viewing our change of behavior and our sacrifices as acts of love and kindness toward all creation—toward other people; toward other creatures; and toward the well-being of land, sea, and air. In doing these things as part of our spiritual discipline, we exercise our vocation as stewards of creation not out of fear, guilt, shame, outrage, or despair. Rather, what makes this journey sacred is that we act with a gratitude nourished by the fountain of God’s grace, an inexhaustible source of “living water” that will sustain us for a lifetime of loving creation, and that will enable us to be stewards of creation with hope and joy!

 

 

 

Within Limits: Remember the Sabbath

Jim Martin-Schramm
Luther College Chapel
October 7, 2011
Exodus 23:10-12 (or 31:12-17)

Within Limits: Remember the Sabbath

Our reading this morning is from the 23rd chapter of Exodus:

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:10-12)

One of the problems that has plagued the modern era has been a self-defeating anthropocentrism. This brief passage from Exodus is remarkable for its breadth of moral concern. The injunction to let the land lay fallow every seven years reflects God’s concern for the landless poor who needed access to food, but it also reflects God’s concern for wild animals and even for the land itself. The injunction to rest from work every seven days was made to provide rest and relief for all who work the land, including domesticated animals and servants. In this passage God’s scope of moral concern extends well beyond human beings to the welfare of all that God has made.

The alternative reading for today from the 31st chapter of Exodus ties this practice of taking time to rest more directly to observation of the Sabbath:

The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: ‘You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’

Now, I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t remember the part about being put to death for doing work on the Sabbath. How many of you have done work on the Sabbath? If we put everyone to death who worked on the Sabbath I suspect there would not be many of us left!

More seriously, however, perhaps this text has a point. Is it possible that by never taking time to rest we are working ourselves to death? Is it possible that our own work schedules and relentless lifestyles are also working others to death? Is it possible that our industrious and industrial way of life is working our planet to death?

Wendell Berry raises these sorts of questions in his foreword to Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba (Brazos Press, 2006). I read this book in preparation for this homily and found it very helpful. Berry writes:

We are living at the climax of industrialism. The “cheap” fossil fuels on which our world has grown dependent, are now becoming expensive in money and in lives.…. The industrial economy, by definition, must never rest…. Whatever we have, in whatever quantity, is not enough. There is no such thing as enough…. Six workdays in a week are not enough. We need a seventh…. We need an eighth…. We cannot stop to eat. Thank God for cars! We dine as we drive over another paved farm. Everybody is weary and there is no rest. (11)

There is very little that is sustainable about our current industrial way of life. According to Paul Hawken in The Ecology of Commerce, every day the global economy burns an amount of fossil fuel that it took nature 10,000 days to create.[1] Put another way, 27 years of stored solar energy in coal, oil, and natural gas are burned by utilities, cars, houses, factories, and farms every 24 hours. Think about that: Every day we consume an amount of fossil fuel energy that it took the planet 27 years to create.

Given the focus of these Exodus texts on agriculture, it is worthwhile to reflect on how our industrial way of life is affecting the land, other animals, and the people who work to produce the food we consume. While we have made some important strides in the U.S. regarding soil and water conservation, we are still losing topsoil faster than nature can replenish it and our applications of fertilizers and pesticides are polluting waterways and contributing to huge dead zones like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, our land use practices have destroyed and fragmented so many habitats that we are now experiencing an unprecedented rate of species extinction and loss of biodiversity.

Our industrial way of life has not been good for wild animals and it certainly has not been good for domesticated animals. The vast majority of the ten billion animals slaughtered in the United States last year were raised in massive confinement operations that gave them little room to move and little access to fresh air and sunlight. In Iowa, the nation’s largest producer of pork, the total swine herd of nearly 20 million pigs outnumbers the human population of Iowa by almost seven to one.[2] An overwhelming majority of these pigs are locked in stalls that do not provide enough room for them even to turn around. Similar conditions afflict chickens in Iowa, which also leads the nation in egg production. According to Norman Wirzba:

Chickens are crammed, eight at a time, into wire crates no bigger than the drawer of a filing cabinet. The crates are stacked on top of each other in darkness, which means that chickens higher up defecate on those below. As a result, illness and anxiety run rampant, and so heavy uses of antibiotics are required to keep the fowl healthy enough till slaughter…. “(Living the Sabbath, 26)

As we know all to well from the raid in Postville, IA, the people who work in these industrial slaughterhouses are not treated much better than the animals they kill for our consumption. The meat-packing industry is one of the most dangerous in the nation and it relies on cheap and disposable labor frequently furnished by desperate immigrants to our nation. No creature should have to live like this, whether worker or animal.

Norman Wirzba argues that we will not be able to abandon our destructive, industrial way of life until we recover the discipline and practice of the Sabbath. He does not mean that it will be sufficient merely to ritually observe the Sabbath day and to refrain from work during that day. Rather “[t]he key to Sabbath observance is that we participate regularly in the delight that marked God’s own response to a creation wonderfully made.” (15) On the seventh day of creation God steps back to rest and to rejoice in a creation that is “good, very good.”

By keeping the Sabbath we stop to praise God for the goodness of creation. Ellen Davis, the Hebrew Bible scholar, reminds us, however, that “Praise does more for us that in does for God…. We praise God in order to see the world as God does.”[3] By praising God we learn to train our desires and to value creation as gift and not possession.

A life oriented around the Sabbath should lead us to give thanks and praise for the gifts of photosynthesis, soil regeneration, clean water, and the daily supplies of sun and wind. Wirzba writes: “When we forget these gifts, or when we fail to see them as gifts and mistake them to be ours by right or by our own effort, we falsify who we are. We overlook the fact that our lives are everywhere maintained by a bewildering abundance of kindness and sacrifice.” (36)

The Sabbath tradition confronts our anthropocentrism and industrial mindset head-on. We are not independent but radically interdependent with all that God has made. We must let go of our false sense of superiority and live more humbly under the restrictions and limits God has provided so that all may flourish. To deny these limits and turn our backs on God’s creation is to deny God. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that “Any error about creation also leads to an error about God.”[4] God invites us to turn away from our failed and frenetic ways in order to live our lives rooted in God’s delight in the goodness and wonder of creation. Only with such a Sabbath mindset will be able to live sustainably in this world.

Amen.

[1] Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, Revised edition., (San Francisco: Harper Paperbacks, 2010).

[2] Iowa State University Farm Outlook, June Hog and Pig Report Summary (7/6/11), http://www.econ.iastate.edu/ifo/; U.S. Census Bureau: Iowa Quick Facts, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/19000.html

[3] Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Boston: Cowley Press, 2001), 34. Cited in Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, pg. 28

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, cited in Wizba, Living the Sabbath, pg. 143.

The Nature of Things: Rediscovering the Spiritual in God’s Creation

Edited by Graham Buxton and Norman Habel
Forward by David Rhoads

With contributions by David Rhoads, Paul Santmire, Celia-Diane-Drummond, Heather Eaton, Ernst Conradie and others, this volume highlights a diversity of perspectives on the spiritual in creation, both traditional and radical.

Download a copy of the flyer here.

Visit the publisher’s website to order

Coming Home To Earth 

by Mark Brocker

As a young Norwegian Lutheran teenager in rural Wisconsin, Brocker lay awake one night worrying whether he believed in Jesus enough to get to heaven. This getting-to-heaven anxiety reflected an excessive focus on individual salvation and a loss of concern for the well-being of the Earth community. A faith journey that leaves Earth behind is misguided.

Ever since those early teen years Brocker has been on a journey to come home to Earth.

Coming Home to Earth makes the case that there is no salvation apart from Earth and that Earth care is at the core of our identity and mission as followers of Jesus. The ecological consequences of a loss of concern for the well-being of Earth have been devastating. Brocker is especially concerned to determine what will motivate followers of Jesus to make radical changes in our way of life so that we can participate in the healing of wounded Earth and all of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. We are far more likely to make needed sacrifices for our fellow creatures if we share God’s delight in and affection for them, and cherish Earth as our home.

Read more and order

Synod Resolutions: Synod Actions

Resolution to become an LRC Synod
Central States Synod
Approved June 2015

Resolution to become a Green Synod
Northern Illinois Synod Assembly
Approved April 2008

Resolution on Establishing an Environmental Stewardship Committee
Metropolitan New York Synod, 2009

 

Central States Synod Assembly Resolution Calls for “Green Action” (2017)

At the 2017 Synod Assembly in Kansas City, voting members adopted a resolution that encourages “its leaders and congregations to make use of the resources of Lutheran Restoring Creation for faith-based congregational initiatives and addressing care of creation and the threat of climate damage.” Included in this call to action are efforts to conserve energy and/or the use of renewable energy, congregational educational programs and action plans that may include such things as installing solar panels to generate renewable electricity, utilizing the Lutheran study guide on the Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis (Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home), and supporting policies that seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Click here to view the Lutheran study guide.

Further, the adopted resolution states “the Central States Synod recommends that all members of its congregations be active environmental stewards and ‘green disciples’ by engaging in prayer for guidance, study to gain a better understanding of environmental issues, and action to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

To help you and your congregation carry out this resolution, the LRC Mission Table will provide regular Green Action items in the Synod e-newsletter. For more information on Lutherans Restoring Creation, if you’d like to host a Creation Care workshop, or if you need help in your setting, please contact Noni Strand, the LRC Mission Table chair at nonistrand@gmail.com.

 

 

Synod Resolutions: Divestment from Fossil Fuels

Transition to Cleaner Energy Memorial
Upper Susquehanna (PA) Synod June 2015

Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod’s Creation Care Task Force pledges to investigate what divestment would mean for the synod and the world. June 2015

Metro New York Synod
Approved May 29, 2015
News Release 

Saint Paul, MN Area Synod
Approved April 24-25, 2015
Oregon Synod
Approved May 18, 2013.
New England Synod
Approved June 7-9, 2013

New England Synod’s Bishop Hazelwood Connects with Catholics over Climate (and other) Changes

On the heels of the Pope’s Encyclical encouraging caring for our common home, two religious leaders in New England came together this month in agreement that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a time to see how churches can work together to solve some of our most pressing justice issues: including the state of our planet and those least capable of adapting to increasing natural disasters and public health concerns.

Read Boston Globe article here

Copy of Bilateral Letter from Cardinal O’Malley and Bishop Hazelwood’s linked here.

Oregon Synod Divestment Resolution (2013)

St. Luke Fossil Fuel Divestment Resolution passes at Oregon Synod meeting

On Saturday, May 18th, 2013, the St. Luke Fossil Fuel Divestment Resolution PASSED a vote at the ELCA Oregon Synod. Now it will be forwarded for consideration at this summer’s Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh.

In a meeting also attended by Secretary of the ELCA David Swartling, the synod Reference and Counsel Committee suggested an alternative “RESOLVED” clause that they believed had a better chance of being adopted on the national level. This alternative, mirroring one submitted at the NW Washington Synod meeting, requested an “opt-out of fossil fuel stocks” option for church employees in the Portico pension program.

St. Luke’s Pastor David Knapp, Council President Barbara Roady and Environmental Chair Michael Hall declined, stating that, given the magnitude and urgency of the issue, they wanted St. Luke’s request to fully encompass all ELCA-connected investment programs.

With two minor text adjustments, the resolution was allowed to go to the floor “with reservations” about its financial/legal ramifications and the feasibility of its requested actions.

Floor debate about the resolution was dramatic and the final outcome was far from obvious. In the end, the vote tally showed 102 in favor, 94 opposed and 14 abstaining.

 

 

Metro NY Resolution 2015 Release: Fossil Fuel Divestment

NYC-AREA LUTHERANS RESOLVE TO DIVEST FROM FOSSIL FUELS

CULMINATION OF EFFORTS BEGUN SHORTLY AFTER LAST YEAR’S PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH

June 1, 2015 (New York, NY) – On Friday, March 29, the annual Assembly of the Metropolitan New York Synod, one of the most populous geographical divisions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), resolved to divest from fossil fuels within five years. The Synod Assembly also voted to ask the national body of the church to do the same at the Churchwide Assembly in 2016.

Reverend John Z. Flack, pastor of Our Savior’s Atonement in Washington Heights, Manhattan, introduced the two resolutions from the floor of the Assembly. One resolution calls on the Metro NY Synod to “cease any new investments in companies whose primary business is the exploration, extraction, production, or refining of coal, oil, or natural gas,” and to “ensure that, within five years, directly held or commingled assets” in such companies “are removed from its portfolio.” The resolution also urges member congregations to follow these steps.

The second resolution calls upon the 2016 Churchwide Assembly “to urge that, by May 1, 2017, all ELCA congregations and independent, cooperative, and related Lutheran organizations and investment corporations” take these same steps to remove fossil-fuel investments from their portfolios.

Both resolutions passed with very little opposition.

The resolutions were the culmination of work begun shortly after the People’s Climate March, a gathering of 400,000 people in New York City last September, calling attention to what many now refer to as the “crisis” of climate change. As Gerard A. Falco, Chair of the Synod’s Environmental Stewardship Committee, explained, “Lutherans, from our Synod and from across the country, were deeply involved in organizing the People’s Climate March and making it the success it was. The march galvanized public opinion, and our committee decided to build on that momentum to get these divestment resolutions passed.”

About $289,000 of the Synod’s current investment portfolio will be immediately re-allocated in response to the Assembly’s action. Altogether, the Synod’s investments total about $12 million.

With the passage of these resolutions, the Metro NY Synod joins the New England and Oregon Synods – and many other congregations and religious bodies, both in the US and abroad – in divesting from coal, oil, and natural gas companies because of their damaging effects on the climate. This religious divestment movement parallels the strong student-led campaign to divest colleges and universities, and the growing campaign to divest state and municipal pension funds.

Robert Rimbo, Bishop of the Metro NY Synod, said “With this action, our Synod joins the chorus of those who acknowledge that ‘if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.’ This is a fiscally responsible step, but it’s also the right thing to do. As Christians, we are called to care for all Creation. As Luther himself wrote, ‘God is essentially present in all places, even the tiniest tree leaf,’ so ‘to do harm to Creation is also to assault God. And when humans assault God, there is only one outcome, and it is not a good one for humans.’ With these resolutions, we’ve taken a further step in living out our Lutheran vocation.”

The Metropolitan NY Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church covers the five boroughs of New York City and Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, and Westchester counties. The Synod has approximately 64,000 baptized members in 190 congregations served by about 300 pastors and 100 rostered lay leaders. For more information, visit http://www.mnys.org/.

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Contact:
Sarah Gioe
Director of Communications
Metro NY Synod, ELCA
212-870-2376
sgoie@mnys.org

Gerard A. Falco
Chair, Environmental Stewardship Committee
Metro NY Synod, ELCA
914-548-3108
gafsail@aol.com

Northeastern Pennsylvania to Study Divestment (2015)

The following resolution was passed at the June 2015 Assembly of the Northeastern Pennsylvania:
WHEREAS, Jesus calls us as his disciples to both love God and love our neighbor, and climate change is a direct threat to both God’s creation and God’s people, the church should be a leader in all efforts to preserve and protect creation;
WHEREAS, the current movement to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in sustainable forms of energy are an important part of the overall campaign to combat climate change and protect people and the planet;
RESOLVED, Resolved, that the Synod’s Creation Care Task Force be authorized to conduct a study to discuss and evaluate divestment from fossil fuels in preparation for a vote about possible divestment at the 2016 Synod Assembly.
For more information about issues specific to Pennsylvania go to the Lutheran Advocacy office in PA.

Memorial for Transition to Clean, Renewable Energy; Upper Susquenanna Synod Assembly (2015)

WHEREAS, God created heaven and earth and everything therein and proclaimed it good (Gen 1:1ff); and God has entrusted humankind with the care of the earth (Gen 2:15); and

WHEREAS, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has adopted social policy statements, “Caring for Creation” (1993) and “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood” (1999) that call for economic and environmental justice, to protect the health and integrity of creation both for its own sake and for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations, and for economic justice, to consider how our actions affect the ability of all people to provide for their material needs and the needs of their families and communities; and

WHEREAS, in 1993 with the Caring for Creation social statement, we realized the urgency was already “widespread and serious, according to the preponderance of evidence from scientists worldwide [of] dangerous global warming, caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide” from the burning of fossil fuels, and that “action to counter degradation, especially within this decade, is essential to the future of our children and our children’s children. Time is very short;” and

WHEREAS, climate research is clear that there has been a rapid rise in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with current levels (400 ppm) the highest in the past probably 2,000,000 years. This increase has occurred most rapidly in the past 200 years during the worldwide Industrial Revolution;[1]

WHEREAS, climate research is clear that burning fossil fuels is the major source of rising levels of carbon dioxide, negatively impacting our climate.[2] Consequently, the use of fossil fuels must be dramatically reduced; and

WHEREAS, the most recent report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims continued greenhouse gas emissions will cause “long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems;”[3] and

WHEREAS, in “Caring for Creation,” the ELCA declares that we will seek to incorporate the principles of sufficiency and sustainability in our life. Consequently: “We will, in our budgeting and investment of church funds, demonstrate our care for creation;” and

WHEREAS in 1990 and 2007 the ELCA Church Council approved an Environmental Social Criteria Investment Screen that recommends limiting investments made in corporations which are the most egregious in terms of damage to human health or the natural environment and investing in corporations which are taking positive steps toward a sustainable environment;[4] and

WHEREAS despite decades of shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies, the industry continues to spend nearly $2 billion dollars a day searching for additional fossil fuel reserves and over half a million dollars a day lobbying governments for subsidies and support for further extraction;[5] and

WHEREAS fossil fuel divestment can have a major influence on how society responds to climate change;[6] and

WHEREAS the ELCA has historically divested during periods of great social need, including the movement to end apartheid in South Africa; and

WHEREAS by divesting from fossil fuels, the ELCA joins with faith partners such as the United Church of Christ[7] and the World Council of Churches[8] as well as large institutional investors such as Norway’s $850 billion Government Pension Fund Global[9] and a growing list of colleges and universities, cities, religious institutions and foundations in the fastest growing divestment effort in history[10]; and

WHEREAS, un-burnable carbon stored in fossil fuel reserves presents a material financial risk to investment funds that provide capital to these companies;[11]

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Upper Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA memorialize the 2016 Churchwide Assembly to call on the ELCA and its related institutions and entities, such as the ELCA Endowment Fund Pooled Trust – Fund A (hereinafter “Fund A”), the Mission Investment Fund, Portico Funds, colleges, seminaries, Social Ministry organizations, camps, synods, congregations and individual members to take leadership and make a public commitment to transition away from investments in fossil fuels to investments in clean, renewable energy sources as expeditiously as it is financially feasible to do so; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that by December 31, 2016, the ELCA follow its published procedure titled Social Criteria Investment Screen Policies and Procedures Development[12] to develop a social criteria investment screen designed to result in divestment of all fossil fuels investments held in Fund A,[13] which includes prayerful consideration of the following recommended components:

a)Publication of a list of the values of all fossil fuel investments currently held in Fund A;[14] and

b)Cessation of any new investments in fossil fuel companies with respect to Fund A; and

c)Ensuring that all securities of fossil fuel companies that are either direct holdings or holdings in commingled funds are removed from the portfolio of Fund A within five years; and

d)Publication of quarterly updates, available to the public, detailing progress towards divestment of Fund A as set forth herein; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Upper Susquehanna Synod memorialize the 2016 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, as part of the development of the new social criteria investment screen identified above, to direct the ELCA’s corporate social responsibility review team to consider and recommend to the executive director of the ELCA’s Congregational and Synodical Mission unit, for further review pursuant to the ELCA’s published procedure titled Social Criteria Investment Screen Policies and Procedures Development, the addition of a fossil-free investment fund that excludes the 200 largest fossil fuel companies as an option for ELCA retirement plan participants; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this synod memorializes the 2016 Churchwide Assembly to urge members of the ELCA and its related institutions to exemplify personal and institutional responsibility by practicing energy conservation, purchasing more energy efficient appliances and vehicles, investing in renewable energy systems, and advocating at all levels of government for public policies that support clean, renewable energy sources.

Respectfully submitted,

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, Pastor, United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA

and

The Buffalo Valley Conference of the Upper Susquehanna Synod

[1] Climate Change: The Evidence and Our Options, Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University. Concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) over the last 800,000 years. Fig. 6, pg. 163. See http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/TBA–LTonly.pdf. 2007 IPCC Working Group. “Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has continued to increase and is now almost 100 ppm above its pre-industrial level.” See http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch7s7-es.html. EPA: Causes of Climate Change. “Since the Industrial Era began, humans have had an increasing effect on climate, particularly by adding billions of tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.” See http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/causes.html.

[2] NRC (2011). Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to  Millennia. National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA. “Emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have ushered in a new epoch where human activities will largely determine the evolution of Earth’s climate.” NASA: Global Climate Change; Vital Signs of the Planet. “Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by a third since the Industrial Revolution began. This is the most important long-lived “forcing” of climate change.” “Over the last century the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).” See http://climate.nasa.gov/causes.

USGCRP (2009). Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson (eds.). United States Global Change Research Program. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, USA. “It is clear that impacts in the United States are already occurring and are projected to increase in the future, particularly if the concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise.” See http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=UCg7inA-HksC&oi=fnd&pg=PA13&dq=USGCRP+%282009%29.+Global+Climate+Change+Impacts+in+the+United+States&ots=uXe7HdVN2I&sig=3OcIArtThzaK sX5JwzBrWNEj59A#v=onep age&q&f=false. NOAA, USGS: Climate change impacts to U.S. coasts threaten public health, safety and economy Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities: A Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. “…the effects of climate change will continue to threaten the health and vitality of U.S. coastal communities’ social, economic and natural systems.” See http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2013/20130125_coastalclimateimpacts.html

[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5.

[4] ELCA Environment Screen: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource

%20Repository/Environment_Screen.pdf.

[5] Oxfam: http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/bp191fossil-fuelsfinance-climate change171014-en.pdf.

[6] Climate Change: Implications for Investors and Financial Institutions: Key Findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report. http://www.unepfi.org/fileadmin/documents/IPCC_AR5__Implications_for_Investors__Briefing__WEB_EN.pdf

[7] United Church of Christ: http://www.ucc.org/gs2013fossil-fueldivestment-vote.

[8] World Council of Churches:  http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/central-committee/geneva 2014/reportofthefinance- policy- committee/@@download/file/GEN_FIN06_APPROVED_Report_Finance_Policy_Committee.pdf.

[9] Article regarding Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/05/worldsbiggest– sovereign-wealthfunddumps-dozens-of coalcompanies

[10] This website lists the institutions that are committing to divest from fossil fuels:  http://gofossilfree.org/commitments/

[11] University of Oxford: http://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/research-programmes/stranded-assets/SAP-divestment- report-final.pdf.

[12] Policy is accessible at: http://www.elca.org/Resources/Corporate-Responsibility.

[13] ELCA Endowment Fund: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource

%20Repository/ELCA_Endowment_Fund_A_Brochure.pdf

[14] By using the current list of 200 coal, oil and gas companies found here: http://gofossilfree.org/companies/. Source: Unburnable Carbon, The Carbon Tracker Institute; http://www.carbontracker.org/wp content/uploads/2014/09/Unburnable-Carbon-Full-rev21.pdf.

 

 

Southeastern Minnesota Environmental Stewardship Resolution (2009)

Resolution 2009 – 03: Environmental Stewardship

1 WHEREAS, the ELCA adopted the “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice” Social 2Statement at the Churchwide Assembly in 1993 to address the church’s understanding of God’s 3 call to us to care for the earth; and,

4 WHEREAS, the ELCA has created materials to guide congregations, schools, and other groups 5 in conducting environmental audits; and,

6 WHEREAS, the knowledge and understanding of the impact of our individual 7andcongregational uses of natural resources is documented (for example, The 8MillenniumEcosystem Assessment) ; and,

9 WHEREAS, Scripture shows God’s love for creation and mandates humans to serve and keep 10 the earth; and,

11 WHEREAS, a Green Team can be a catalyst for transformation in a congregation; and,

12 WHEREAS, there is a relationship between global injustice and the degradation of nature. 13Our Companion Synods in the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Colombia and the Central 14Dioces in Tanzania struggle from the imbalance of the use and exploitation of the world’s 15natural resources,

16 THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Southeastern Minnesota Synod live out more 17fully the “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice” Social Statement actions; and,

18 BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that each congregation of the Southeastern Minnesota 19Synod of the ELCA conduct the ELCA’s Environmental Audit; and,

20 BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that congregations of the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of 21 the ELCA study caring for creation issues in Sunday School and Bible Studies, to learn more 22 about our call to be God’s stewards of the earth; and

23 BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA 24establish a committee or task force to address environmental issues in the synod and 25congregations; and,

26 BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that a goal be set for the year 2011 for 75% of all products 27 used by the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA office and its congregations be 28environmentally conscious. This goal would include attention to the use of fairly traded 29products.

Submitted by the congregational council of Bethel Lutheran Church, Rochester,Minn., authored and approved by the“BIGG Idea” team (Bethel Individuals Going Green) A similar resolution was passed by the Blue Earth River Conference Assembly.