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Preaching on Creation: Sunday August 14-20 in Year A (Ormseth)

If we are to address Earth-care together, no nation can claim privileged exceptionalism. Dennis Ormseth  reflects on a global scope for the vision of well-being.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 14-20, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Constructing political agreements to address on a global scale the degradation of the earth’s ecology is proving to be a nearly insurmountable challenge. As James Gustave Speth writes in an “anatomy of failure” of global environmental governance, environmental deterioration “is driven by powerful underlying forces; it requires far-reaching international responses; and the political base to support these measures tends to be weak and scattered.” These forces are quickly identified: “the steady expansion of human populations, the routine deployment of inappropriate technologies, the near universal aspiration for affluence and high levels of consumption, and the widespread unwillingness to correct the failures of the unaided market.” But the strategies needed to deal with these forces are very difficult to put in place. They need to be far-reaching and complex: new energy policies, new transportation strategies, changes in agriculture and the management of forests around the world. The required actions “demand international cooperation on a scale seldom achieved” (Speth, pp. 98-99).

The politics of such cooperation are exceedingly difficult: the issues are increasingly complex and difficult to understand; the impacts are remote or difficult to perceive; they concern future problems more than current ones, and problems that may be felt more immediately by other people in other places rather than close to home; and the problems tend to be chronic rather than acute. The political institutions needed for sustained and effective action are rarely strong enough. Economic needs regularly trump the needs of the environment. The wealthy global North protects its world dominance over against the poorer South. And particularly problematic is the persistence of the government of the United States in its arrogant attitude of exceptionalism, which undergirds a “pattern of unilateralism and of staying outside the multilateral system unless we need it—a la carte multilateralism” (Speth, pp.98 – 99, 107-11)

Can Christian churches contribute to the effort to meet this immense and daunting set of challenges? Without addressing specific issues identified by Speth, the lectionary lessons for this Sunday nonetheless point to resources within the tradition for helping the world deal with important, perhaps even crucial, aspects of them. The readings evince a powerful determination on the part of God to overcome the divisions that separate peoples from each other and work against their mutual well-being. Psalm 67, for example, reminds us that God’s people are to pray that God’s “way may be known upon earth, [God’s] saving power among all nations” (67:2; our emphasis). There is global scope to the vision of well-being for which we commonly pray, as in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Furthermore, the challenge of bridging divisions between peoples is clearly addressed in the lesson from Isaiah 56; through the prophet, God promises to gather “the outcasts of Israel” and “others . . . besides those already gathered” (56:8). To the “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these,” the prophet promises on behalf of God, “I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” Interpreted in terms of the mission of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this promise means that those who minister to God and act as God’s servants will be co-servants with him in serving creation. Together with these strangers the people of God already gathered embrace the restoration of creation adumbrated in Jesus’ ministry: keeping the Sabbath rest, which encompasses all creatures in God’s own shalom, they join his ascent of the “holy mountain,” which is to say that, the representative ecology in which God, the creation, and the servants of creation are brought together in prayers of joyful praise and thanksgiving. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7).

In the Gospel reading for the day we see how such promises might actually begin to be realized. The encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman offers a vision of how such deep divisions that prohibit the healing of creation might be overcome. Warren Carter describes the situation as follows:

Just as Jesus “came out” or left one place (Mt 15:21), the woman also “came out.” They meet in an unspecified “nowhere” place in the boundary region of Galilee and Tyre-Sidon, the interface of Jewish and Gentile territory. It is a place of tension and prejudice: Josephus declares  “the Tyrians are our bitterest enemies” (Con Ap 1.70), and there were clashes between Tyrians and Jews in the 60s (JW 2.478). Along with ethnic conflict, there are competing religious understandings (Israel is God’s chosen people), economic needs (the urban centers Tyre and Sidon require food from rural areas), and political goals. Tyrian political aspirations for further territory and resentment of Roman rule ran high. Josephus notes that many followers of John of Gischala, who revolted against Rome, came from ‘the region of Tyre” (JW 2.5888; cf. Vita 372). The woman comes not from the cities of Tyre or Sidon but from that region, suggesting perhaps her poverty as a rural peasant (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 321-22).

Thus, in her appeal to Jesus as he enters the conflicted territory that separates her people from Jesus’ people, the woman confronts many of the complex factors that render political accommodation of any kind difficult, today no less than in the first century: rival populations struggle for control of contested territories and the resources they contain; the power and prerogatives of empire trump local concerns; and the resort to military power to guarantee access to material resources adds to the people’s sense of vulnerability and hopelessness. And figuring most prominently in their exchange is the challenge of the imperialistic ideology of Israel that, astonishingly, seems in the first instance to be even Jesus’ own point of deep resistance to her appeal.

Nevertheless, the woman draws on virtues she intuitively knows she can depend on for the response she seeks from Jesus: she cries out persistently, as in prayer, to one she acknowledges as Lord and son of David, challenging, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ very identity and mission.” Her petition squarely confronts the ideology implied by that mission:

“her request has challenged his ideology of chosenness, which restricts his mission and his disciples mission to Israel. In the tradition of Abraham, she demands her share in God’s blessing for all the world (15:29-39; 1:1-2). Her request protests an excluding focus on Israel and reclaims her place as a Canaanite and a Gentile in God’s purposes” (Ibid., p. 323.)

When Jesus persists in his resistance she matches him with both wit and courage. In the crux of their exchange, so offensive to contemporary ears attuned to politically correct standards of speech, he supplies a metaphor that provides an impetus to transcend their conflict.” It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. “Why does he use a food metaphor when she has not asked for food?” Carter astutely asks, and observes:

“Bread or food has also been an issue in two previous stories (12:7-8; 15:1-20) that have involved conflict between traditions and God’s will. Here the struggle concerns whether Jesus will be bound by cultural and historical conventions in resisting this woman from around Tyre and Sidon (see 15:21-22), or understand that faithfulness to his commission to manifest God’s saving reign does not violate Israel’s priority if he extends the reign to Gentiles. Food, then, is a metaphor for God’s empire or salvation (1:21, 23; 4:17)” (Ibid., p. 324).

So while his comment persists in maintaining “the status quo of ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, and political division, her response lays claim to his metaphor for her own cause: “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Thus, she reaches out

“beyond these barriers to possibilities that are faithful to God’s promises to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1-13). Without questioning the priority of the children (Israel), and while recognizing the authority of the masters, she reframes the significance of dogs (Gentiles). It is not a matter of food or no food (Jesus’ alternative), but food for both. . . . She demands a place at the table, not under it.”

What Carter calls attention to is the relationship between a master of the household and its domestic animals. Not only the children of the household receive the master’s care; the animals belong to the household as well, and cannot be denied the food that is appropriate to them. And, we note, this wild metaphorical stratagem of the woman triumphs!

Jesus has a name for her persistence: “Woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” Indeed, the narrative has made the greatness of her faith very clear; she has overcome every obstacle. But it is important to see precisely what that faith is. It is clearly not faith in Jesus as the one who delivers special privilege and power to Israel among the nations, or, for that matter, to Christian believers. It is rather a faith in the gracious mercy of God that transcends all such “ethnic, gender, religious, political, and economic barriers.” And even more: we would suggest that her metaphor expresses a faith that overcomes the commonly assumed division between humans and their animal companions. Here, we might say, is faith in God as the creator of all who provides food for all. Her appeal is to a God for whom, in the vivid image of the woman’s plea, dogs are as welcome at the family table as are the children!

The implication for people of faith in the context of contemporary care of creation is clear: in the face of this woman’s faith in the God of all creation, whose healing servant she recognized in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the exceptionalist ideology of Israel or any other nation falls away. For this God, there is no barrier to restoration of all creation. This truth comes hard to Americans or citizens of any nation who expect from the rest of the world subservience to their unilateralist conceptions of fairness and justice. To embrace such faith can be painfully difficult, and especially so for those who have taken special pride in being recipients of God’s salvation. Indeed, in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we see how painful this recognition was for even the great apostle of justifying faith. God, he acknowledges, has given everything to his people, and yet he must relinquish their exclusive claim in favor of God’s transcendent compassion and all-inclusive mercy. Even Jesus would seem to give up his people’s privileged status with great reluctance.

So we should not be surprised that it comes with great difficulty for a nation such as ours, so wonderfully blessed as America has been in this place, to acknowledge other nations’ claims on ecological equity and justice. Nor, for that matter, for the human species in relationship to the needs of the rest of God’s creation.  The woman transformed Jesus’ understanding of his mission in relationship to the purposes of God; who will change ours, so that the creation God so loves can be truly and finally restored?  The Christian community has this transformation of perspective and orientation to offer the nations of the world, in their quest for policies that address the dreadful reality of our degradation of God’s creation, with both compassion and justice for all.

 Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

How Do We Truly Commit to the Earth Charter?

During the 2019 Churchwide Assembly the ELCA voted to officially sign onto the principals of the Earth CharterFor a history on that process read here (click).

Now what? How do we all make sure we live this out? 

Thanks to the focus of the Delaware-Maryland Creation Care Ministry group who is acting as shepherd for the larger ELCA Sustainability Table on this facet of our work together.

See most recent working group notes here (from May 2020) and consider how your synod (or just your congregation) may follow their lead: 

As part of the Sustainability/Environment Table workgroup to implement the Earth Charter, the Delaware-Maryland Synod Creation Care Ministry decided to focus on principles 7.a. and 7.b. under II. Ecological integrity.

7. Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.

a. Reduce, reuse, and recycle the materials used in production and consumption systems, and ensure that residual waste can be assimilated by ecological systems.

b. Act with restraint and efficiency when using energy, and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

These were recommended because we believe these goals can be embraced and achieved by our congregations and because energy efficiency and adoption of renewable energy sources is critical to address our climate crisis.

As such, we developed an Eco-Resolution (see here) that was to be presented during this year’s Delaware-Maryland Synod Assembly in May 2020.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our assembly was cancelled, however we continue to share our message via digital means including videos we have produced.

Our Synod Council will vote on whether to pass the resolution and Larry Ryan produced a video to explain our objectives:  YouTube link

  1. Awareness of the ELCA’s longstanding support of Creation Care and specifically the 1993 ELCA Social Statement on the Environment.

2. Awareness of the Earth Charter that was endorsed during Churchwide Assembly in 2019.

3.  Implementation of portions of the Earth Charter working in cooperation with the ELCA Sustainability/Environment Table.

4. Engaging with congregations to help them be better stewards of creation as defined in our project “New Hope for Creation” that received funding from our Synod Connectedness Team.

In addition to our video on the Eco-Resolution, we asked Delaware-Maryland Synod Bishop Bill Gohl to produce a video that explains the Earth Charter at a high level : CLICK HERE

And as part of our outreach to congregations with our New Hope for Creation project, Charlie Bailey produced a video (click here) for his congregation that invites them to become better stewards of creation by becoming a covenant congregation, modeled after LRC’s Covenant for Congregation.

The Delaware-Maryland Synod Creation Care Ministry would be happy to engage with other Synods in implementing the Earth Charter and other creation care work.

Tools for Talking and Listening

Being church together doesn’t have to mean we have one mind.  Listening to the Holy Spirit within each of our stories can help us move beyond disagreement and confusion.   There is no one way to help us along this journey, but there are many resources to help us find common ground.  Below are some suggestions – please let us know if you have experience with these or other tools you want to share.

Methods:

Talanoa Dialogue – Read the history (click here) of this telling/listening process based on three foundational questions:
>Where are we now?
>Where do we want to go?
>How do we get there?
View sample workshop on how to share this method (click here). 

World Cafe Method – There is a whole community of facilitators with online advice (click here) who can help you figure out how to use this manner of group decision making.  This is a great format when you have people together who already care about an issue but don’t know what steps to take next or feel like they aren’t hearing from all perspectives.   Download an easy visual guide here.

Deliberative Dialogue – For a clear definition of this process of group engagement explore the National Issues Forum site (click here).  For a whole toolkit using this process re: Climate Choices (click here). 

Resources:

Inspirations and gratitude: a Thank You Card for God’s Good Earth

In honor of the High Peaks region of the White Mountain National Park, N. Conway, New Hampshire

From Lawrence Ryan

In honor of the Redwoods of John Muir Woods

With love for the North Shore of Minnesota!

Thanks to the people of Creation Keepers Ministry at St. Andrew’s Lutheran, Columbia, MO

David Rhoads!
Your stories, your wisdom, your dedication, your friendship.

In gratitude for our life-giving rivers and lakes

Matthew 6:26-29 “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to your life’s span? And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these.”

- In honor of Zulu Davidson -
May we treasure all our elder creatures!

In honor of Jane Affonso, co-chair with me of the Southwest CA Synod Green Faith Team.

For those who advocate & steward well for the Earth!

Psalm 104:14-21 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.

In Honor of Dad & Mike

Phoebe Morad
For all of your dedication, friendship, and hard work. :)!

Psalm 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

Phoebe Morad for her awesome job as Executive Director of Lutherans Restoring Creation!

Thanks to all the passion from the North West Pennsylvania Synod Green Team!

Genesis 1:20-23 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

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Your input will be added within a few days.

As we recognize 50 years since the first Earth Day in 1970, supporters from across the nation say thanks by giving a donation to Lutherans Restoring Creation and lifting up the people, scripture, places, creatures which remind them of God’s love shown through Creation and our vocation to care for it:

 

Creation Care Ambassador Program

We are thrilled to announce that, through an ongoing partnership between the ELCA and ecoAmerica’s Blessed Tomorrow, a  Creation Care Ambassador Training occurred in April and June of 2020 with over 140 participants from ELCA communities.  These certified Ambassadors are ready to share their new skills and resources with your Lutheran church and community.  Check out how many (click to see map) have already committed to offering a presentation for free! Contact us (click) if you are interested in having an Ambassador offer this service to your group (virtually, or eventually in person).

Disappointed you missed the training and interested in becoming an Ambassador yourself?

Next Training:
September 18, 2020 from 11:30 to 4 pm Eastern Time.

REGISTER HERE

See how this resources fits into all the ways ELCA supports Creation Care Ministries by listening to this recorded 1 hour webinar.