Tag Archives: humility

**NEW** Preaching on Creation: Sunday July 3-9 in Year A (Carr)

Taking on Rationalization Amy Carr reflects on donkeys facing war horses.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year A (2020, 2023)

Zachariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is both utopic political imagination and Machiavellian rationalization at play in today’s scripture readings. We need the former if we are to minimize climate catastrophe, and ways of reckoning with the latter if we are to enact the kind of collective transformation we need to bring down global temperatures.

On one hand, in our first reading, we have Zechariah’s ludicrous vision of a coming humble king who will exercise dominion while riding a donkey, on whose back he somehow defeats enemies riding mighty war horses. Jesus casts his own authority likewise as that of one who is “gentle and humble in heart, even as “[a]ll things have been handed over to [him] by [his] Father” (Matthew 11:29, 27). The juxtaposition of immense authority and humility is jarring, yet abruptly trust-evoking. Koan-like, the pairing of dominion and humility startles us into a new awareness—a tangible sense of how collective security can be based on mutual trust rather than coercive force.

On the other hand, Jesus wryly observes that “this generation” rationalizes its opposition to the prospect of God’s emerging humility-rooted kingdom by making whatever argument seems to suit the person or the moment: John the Baptist’s calls to repentance are hushed because he was weirdly austere (“neither eating nor drinking”), so he must have “a demon” (Matthew 11:18); yet Jesus’ calls to repentance are ridiculed as hypocritical warnings of a “glutton and a drunkard” because he enjoys “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19). Indeed, in every generation, we can be blind about the shifting ways we rationalize a cynical complacency, especially about a call to turn in a radically new direction as a species. We can be tempted to portray every visionary as somehow dangerous or corrupt, and thereby dismiss their message.

If Jesus keenly names the kind of hypocrisy that might drive a Machiavellian will to power, Paul gets at why we might be drawn to going along with those who speak of securing the current order of things, even if we know it’s less than ideal for all. Paul peels back the mask to call out the sheer absurdity of rationalizing our resistance to acting for the common good:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:21-23).

Perhaps rationalizations that are rooted in selective, belittling observations of prophetic leaders are themselves a mask for despair about our individual or collective ability to act more justly toward one another and toward creation. We see there is a better way, but we feel unable to pursue it—so we justify our sense of stuckness.

It is precisely this inability that Paul believes is healed by baptism into the corporate body of Christ: “Wretched man that I am! Who will heal me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). When we who “are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” come to Jesus for “rest,” and take Jesus’ “yoke” upon us and “learn from” him as  one who is “gentle and humble in heart,” we will “find rest for [our] souls,” for his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). To walk in the way of the Torah, to walk with Jesus as the living Word of God, is to be empowered to do that which we cannot do on our own—or when we are addictively in league with the “law of sin” that we express in entrenched, institutionalized patterns of injustice in our lives together.

Taken together, today’s scripture readings testify that a vision of a just and peaceful creation—and the resistance to that vision—are both collectively negotiated. The current climate crisis only intensifies an awareness that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul are calling us not to an individual escape from the tensions of this world, but to living together from the power of peace that cannot be broken by—but can begin to crumble—the powers that sustain collective paths to destruction.

What deeper corporate call to repentance have we ever had than one that asks us to reorient our everyday material world so that we can live more lightly on the planet—so that all species can keep breathing? The call is corporate because it requires wide-scale technological transformation—not simply a collection of individual choices to reduce, reuse, or recycle. Only government policies will enable the particular “monumental shifts historians call ‘energy transitions’” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Although the shift is more possible and affordable today than it was ten years ago, we still need $800 billion of “investment in renewables . . . each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2ºC of warming.” And politicized rationalizations for a failure to invest persist—such as in the decision of the Trump administration to roll back EPA monitoring of air pollution in the name of not overburdening companies amid the pandemic. (Quotes are from “Not-so-slow burn: The world’s energy system must be completely transformed,” The Economist, 5-23-20, https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2020/05/23/the-worlds-energy-system-must-be-transformed-completely).

In the summer of 2020, maybe we can draw ecojustice inspiration from two places we can perceive the Spirit’s breathing today in winds of swift collective change: through our global calls to let fellow human beings breathe, by preventing deaths from the coronavirus whose symptom is difficulty breathing, as well as deaths by racist ways of policing that manifest in unnecessarily suffocating or killing people of color. Responses to both the pandemic and racist police brutality have found expression in a global sensibility. We have watched ourselves transform the texture of our social relations almost overnight through lockdowns and social distancing. We have witnessed a sudden surge in multiracial protests around the world demanding an end to systemic racism—sparked by the humble witness of 17 year old Darnella Frazier using her cell phone to film a Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd.

Frazier is riding a donkey against the war horses of systemic racism in policing, as Greta Thunberg has done against the more invisible resistance of governments to enacting the kinds of rapidly intensive changes in energy infrastructure that we need to mitigate the disaster of climate change. Like Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem amid Passover crowds, both Frazier and Thunberg have cheering crowds attending them and the vision to which they bear witness. Both also come up against rationalizations for the status quo, and efforts to dismiss them or their prophetic messages.

The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, like the 2019 school walkouts for climate change, express an eschatological vision—a glimpse that another way of being is globally contagious and possible, and grounded in a more accurate vision of our shared humanity and planetary condition. We stand with Zechariah in our capacity to behold human beings—and our belonging to creation—without the distortion of a kyriarchical hunger for power over resources and people.

But as Jesus and Paul suggest in today’s readings, those who stand with Zechariah come up against the subtle war horses of minimization and rationalization that prevent meaningful policy changes, be they about the environment, racism, or public health. On these fronts, to take on the yoke of Jesus is to engage in both the humbling inner soul-searching and the persistent collective organizing that address each of these manifestations of sin. Then indeed “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”—or by her “children” (Matthew 11:19).

Dr. Amy Carr
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

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:

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Mundahl)

When we turn around, we receive the unanimous approval of the mountains, the hills, and the foundations of the Earth. Tom Mundahl reflects on what God asks of us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

This week’s texts do nothing less than turn the world upside down. Their power stems from the gracious outpouring we call creation: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it . . . .” (Psalm 24:1). For God to create is to open a place in the triune life for others, to offer hospitality in a circle dance of community which has no boundaries.

We can see the profound respect for creation in our First Lesson from Micah. Here, this late eighth-century prophet acts as “process server” delivering the indictment of a divine lawsuit (rib) to the people of Jerusalem. And “who” acts as the “Greek chorus” or “jury” witnessing this bill of particulars? The LORD, as prosecuting attorney, tries this case before the mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth (Micah 6:1-2).

This is a “jury” that cannot be bought. Here are witnesses that cannot be tampered with. Understandably, in a court this open and honest, Jerusalem cannot avoid responsibility for the centralization of land ownership (Micah 2:2) and judicial corruption described as “tearing the skin off my people” (Micah 3:2). No wonder the people cry in despair: “With what should I come before the LORD . . . ?” (Micah 6:6).

Naturally they suggest all sorts of ways in which they can placate the court without changing basic attitudes—low bowing, burnt offerings, offering of yearling calves, or even first-born children (Micah 6:6-7).

These suggestions are at once too manipulative and too simple. The prophet puts it plainly in a way that summarizes a century of prophetic faithfulness and creativity: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Although there is nothing new about these words (e.g. “kindness” is hesed, covenant loyalty and care) except their beautiful crystallization of faith, moving from a culturally approved set of norms to practicing justice changes everything! It defines repentance: turning around and getting a new mind. When that happens, the approval of mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth is unanimous!

Paul’s message to the community in Corinth calls for a reorientation similar in scope. After his “indictment” for falling into factionalism, he offers a primer describing the very basis of the life of those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This foundation is not the cunning of human judgment.

In fact, it is self-interested human judgment which has gotten in the way of unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as an authority that can pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47). Like the religious elite Micah confronted, Paul calls his audience to “give it up,” to relinquish expecting God to meet their standards!

Paul strips away the illusory power of human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting people, institutions, and governments up as ‘ultimate authorities,’ that has led to discrimination, violence, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For “our standards and criteria” are always partial and can never include the whole of creation. They always benefit only “us”—however that “us” is construed.

But there is another way, according to Paul, a way beyond the self-concern of people, communities, or institutions. This is demonstrated by the obedient One whose concern for renewing creation was not limited even by self-preservation. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (standards and criteria), and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

The Roman Empire and Jesus’ religious opponents responded to the threatening newness he brings with all they had—specifically, the cross. A recent “botched” execution by “lethal injection” in Ohio took nearly half an hour and caused the victim of this torture to gasp several times. Crucifixion involved a much longer public humiliation before death—from many hours to several days. It was the most persuasive argument Pax Romana had that no one should defy the powers that be. Yet, Paul’s message is that this act of violence failed miserably. The compassionate and just God triumphed over those powers. As Richard Hays suggests: “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge.” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Now Paul turns to his audience and asks them to consider their calling. None of them were called because they met adequate divine standards and criteria. That makes it clear that, using the logic of the cross, despite their membership in this motley assembly and their checkered histories, they have been made part of a new and unified community. It is nothing to “boast about!” For that reason, self-assertion or factional promotion have no place. Like the sheer graciousness of creation, belonging to this new community that lives by standards considered “foolish” by the kingdoms of the world is a gift. A gift full of promise and consequences.

These consequences become clearer in the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes. Now, Jesus, whom Matthew has introduced over his prologue as Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), the “one who is more powerful” (Matthew 3:11), the Beloved Son (Matthew 3:17), and, later, one who brings the new counter empire, “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 4:17), climbs the mountain to teach. In Micah, the hills and mountains served as witnesses to the trial of God’s people (Micah 6:1-2). In Matthew’s temptation narrative (Matthew 4:1-11), the tempter offered Jesus control over “all the kingdoms of the world” with the proviso that Jesus worship the one making the offer (Matthew 4:10). Here the mountain continues to serve as a major character drawing both teacher and learners away from the demands of daily life in order to allow Jesus to act as composer whose “first movement” sounds the major themes that will shape this new community infecting all that Pax Romana stands for.

Beatitudes are not unique to the Sermon on the Mount. They go beyond describing personal qualities and emotions (“happy are…”) to declaring God’s favor for specific human behaviors and often declare “God’s future transformation or reversal of present dismal circumstances”  (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 130). What’s more, “They . . . mark out features of a faithful and favored or blessed and honorable group.  They constitute, affirm, and challenge a community’s distinctive identity and practices” (Carter).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3), then, becomes a thematic melody coursing through this entire “Sermon.” They are ones who are literally poor, ill, marginalized and outcast. They are victims of the power structure, much like the fishermen called to be the first disciples, whose trade was hampered at every turn by Roman regulations. They certainly do not set standards or criteria for acceptance in their worlds! Their very “spirits” are suppressed by the Roman Imperial System, and are poorly served by much of Jerusalem’s religious elite. Yet, they are named “blessed” because now that the status quo is fading; “theirs is” the kingdom of heaven.” Poverty and hopelessness are ending. “The beatitude blesses the ending of current imperial structures through God’s action” (Carter, p. 132).

The consequences of God’s action in bringing a “new order and community” are vividly described in the third beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). While “meekness” has been caricatured as passive incompetence  and laughable mildness, it actually suggests a combination of courage and patient hope that trumps all the attention-getting antics of the power elite. Perhaps more appropriate translations would be “humble,” with its connection to humus or “kind” with its suggestion of commonality and its relationship to hesed, covenant consideration for all (cf. Micah 6:8, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg: 1989, p. 236). “To be meek is to renounce retribution and to live faithfully and expectantly” (Carter, p. 133). Perhaps Paul’s “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2:5-11 describes the power of this humble meekness best.

“Humility” fits well because “the humble meek” are promised that “they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)  “God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth. The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships, will end” (Carter). Why? The earth and all its creatures belong to God.  With this new “humble empire” it will be nurtured and cared for. Certainly the sabbatical and jubilee traditions suggest ways forward.

But even though the promise is sure, this is not the end of struggle. The final beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” makes that clear (Matthew 5:11). That has always been the fate of the prophets (Matthew 5:12). But as disciples called to be “fishers for people” (Matthew 4:19), that is, those who follow in the tradition of the prophets shining a light on injustice and corruption that the powerful want concealed, they can this expect in this “not yet” time no less.

Recently, the President of the United States spoke to the concern of NSA surveillance, an issue that would surely not have been addressed had not Edward Snowden focused a huge beam of light on the scope of U.S. information gathering and its implications. During this Epiphany season, all those who live in the concrete hope of the Beatitudes are called to “let their lights shine” so that the creation damage that we do, and often are complicit in, is uncovered. We do this in confidence that the “criteria and standards” that have allowed Freedom Industries in Charleston, West Virginia, to avoid responsible care of toxic materials will disappear, and that a new and humble world, community, and neighborhood will emerge spearheaded by God’s people.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

Sunday August 28 – September 3 in Year C (Carr)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C: Amy Carr reflects on Luke 14:7-14 and Hebrews 13

Readings for August 28 – September 3,  Series C (2019, 2022)

Proverbs 25:6-7 [or Sirach 10:12-18, alternate] Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the occasion of a high-status dinner party to provoke reflection about humility and about what company we value. It is an interesting story to ponder in a non-anthropocentric way, by extending our sense of company to include a wide range of creaturely life. Yet I wonder if the many-sidedness of Jesus’ message challenges us also to be aware of how we can royalize our encounters with the natural world—seeing ourselves as its awe-filled guests in a way that is good, but not in itself good enough to nourish God’s most vulnerable and neglected creatures. We are both guests and hosts with regard to non-human creation.

The setting of the gospel passage immediately draws hearers into a contemplation of their own search for place and the status of their belonging. We step into a Sabbath meal at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees,” who were “watching [Jesus] closely” (Luke 14:1). That Jesus was invited suggests he is regarded as a social equal by the host; that he is being closely watched suggests that he is being evaluated with regard to his precise status: Is he more opponent or ally? In what unfolds, Jesus speaks into this tense, attentive space by at once outing and redirecting the motivations of both guests and the host at the meal.

Let’s imagine how Jesus’ commanding observations might sound if we think about our relationship to non-human creation as guests and as hosts, respectively.

To the guests, Jesus echoes an old proverb about seeking places of honor not by scrambling to sit near the host, but by humbling oneself: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the palace of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Proverbs 25:6-7). The analogy Jesus uses in Luke 14:7-11 is of a wedding banquet rather than a royal meal, but Jesus does not deny that it is a privilege to dine in the presence of a host who is radiating splendor.

Here we might imagine a wilderness space itself as our host, and we the guests visiting it through a hike or a camping trip. In such settings, many human beings witness the splendor of the holy in the natural world; they long to visit repeatedly, to be near to majesty and grandeur. And because the non-natural world is not looking back at us, it may be easier to accept Jesus’ teaching that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). Even the most assertive of us are humbled by the transcendent vastness of the Grand Canyon; before such a royal host, joy and humility mingle together readily.

Conversion to environmental concern begins for many with a realization that wilderness spaces are endangered, and we are snapped into an awareness that we have a responsibility to them—that we are hosts as well as guests in relationship to the non-human natural world. It is not enough for us to enjoy the goodness of basking in the beauty of God’s creation, when we feel called also to protect it.

In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus deepens the teaching about humility by turning to address not the guests and their behavior, but the host. The host may be accustomed to inviting friends, family, and “rich neighbors” to a “luncheon or a dinner,” because of the expectation of a gift exchange in which the host will be invited in turn to be “repaid” by his or her guests with an invitation to a feast at their own homes (Luke 14:12). It is not as if the host is scheming, perhaps; more that when we host, we tend to invite peers who are our social equals, or relatives with whom we already share bonds of mutual obligation. “But when you give a banquet,” Jesus suggests, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14).

Jesus here addresses us insofar as we ourselves are royalty, seeking not the adulation of economic social equals, but the deeper calling of all with the power of royalty: to utilize our resources to expand who belongs at the banquet that satisfies both our physical need for nourishment and our social need for connection. And once again, Jesus doesn’t deny the goodness of the gift-exchange that is expected from invited guests who are peers; instead, Jesus redirects the desire of the royal host to a longer-term gift exchange—one in which we sacrifice for a future fulfillment that is beyond our immediate glimpse.

As royal stewards of God’s creation, we might widen our hosting responsibilities in a couple of directions. The first flows (with an odd comfort) from the recognition of our own mortality, in a way that is familiar to every homeowner and gardener. At the end of his poem “Planting Trees,” Wendell Berry writes of practicing hospitable attention to the non-human life that will outlive him:

Let me desire and wish well the life
these trees may live when I
no longer rise in the mornings
to be pleased by the green of them
shining, and their shadows on the ground,
and the sound of the wind in them.

In planting trees we expect to survive us, we tap once more into the sense of being guests of the wider creation, with whose future flourishing we are identifying.

A second way to widen our hosting responsibilities with regard to the natural world is to engage in the hard work of going out to discover how—and why—creation is rendered poor, crippled, lame, and blind by all the threats not only to wilderness spaces, but also to the sustainability of all the lands our species populates. This calls for us to move beyond amazement at the natural world to the labor of protecting it with activism and political action; only then can we invite limping and wounded plant and animal species to continue to persist as part of earth’s banquet.

The equation of being good hosts with engaging in political action is particularly apparent in countries, like the US under Trump and Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, where denial of climate change goes hand and hand with policies that increase the production and use of fossil fuels and open tropical forests to increased deforestation.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in the Amazon basin—and not just because it contains 40% of Earth’s rainforests and harbors 10-15% of the world’s terrestrial species. South America’s natural wonder may be perilously close to the tipping-point beyond which its gradual transformation into something closer to steppe cannot be stopped or reversed, even if people lay down their axes. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is hastening the process—in the name, he claims, of ‘development’” (“Deathwatch for the Amazon: Brazil has the power to save Earth’s greatest rainforest—or destroy it,” The Economist, 8-1-19, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/08/01/deathwatch-for-the-amazon ). Part of the proposed action is not only a domestic policy in Brazil of reforestation while it still matters, but of global consumer pressure on food companies to “spurn soybeans and beef produced on illegally logged Amazonian land, as they did in the mid-2000s.” More broadly, we are starting to hear how much it could slow global warming if we each shifted to a largely vegetarian diet, eating meat only once a week.

The exhortations in Hebrews 13 are like cheerleaders urging on those running the marathon of individual and collective efforts to avert catastrophic climate change (and respond to the climate crises already emerging). “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” who may be angels of God (Hebrews 13:1-2). “Remember those who are . . . being tortured, as if you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3). Instead of loving money, “be content with what you have,” for God will “never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5): what we most need we already have, at the heart of things; thinking otherwise leads us to scar the earth and its inhabitants in our grasping for more.

It is hard also not to think of Swedish teenager climate activist Greta Thunberg, when we ponder Hebrews 13:8: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” She models the kind of humility—of knowing one’s place—that is grounded in facts rather than prideful presumption that it does not matter what we do to or draw from the earth. She leads by asking everyone to start with knowing and heeding the scientific facts: to read the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“16-Year-Old Activist Greta Thunberg on Climate Crisis: ‘Please Listen To The Scientists,” Here and Now, July 25, 2019, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/07/26/greta-thunberg-climate-crisis ).

Great Thunberg shares the vision of the psalmist: “It is well with those who . . . conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112:5). Well-being and prosperity are bound up with obedient responsiveness to ineluctable facts. Here the old-fashioned spirit of obedience, of Deuteronomy’s theme of “if you obey, then you will flourish,” very much has its place as our generation takes its turn in hosting a planetary banquet of secure belonging for all earth’s species.

Sunday August 28 – September 3 in Year C (Saler)

Keeping Ecological Theology from Becoming Ideology: Robert Saler reflects on Luke 14:7-14

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for August 28 – September 3, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

From an ecological perspective, this week’s Gospel reading continues last week’s tension between salutary observance of the Sabbath (one of the most fecund potential themes upon which ecological theology can draw) and gospel freedom to exceed the bounds of the law in the name of mercy. However, the lectionary carves this pericope in such a way as to tie that lesson to the twin themes of humility (Jesus’ admonition to guests to choose the lower places at the banquet table) and eschewal of social status (dining with outcasts instead of those who would raise social status).

Does this reading lend itself to thinking about creation care? Here it might be useful to take a lesson from the history of western theology and think about the great achievement of the 20th century. Broadly speaking, in the 19th century, western Christian theology endorsed the broader progress in human confidence characteristic of science, philosophy, and literature of the age. Christianity, on this view, was the crowning religious achievement of a humanity whose upward trajectory of mastery over the vagaries of nature and politics was coming to fruition. Christianity was synonymous with civilization, which was synonymous with moral progress.

Of course, this western confidence in human progress was brutally dismantled by the onset of the 20th century and its array of horrors—two world wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and decades of meaningless conflicts in Vietnam and Korea, to name just a few. The theorist Walter Benjamin was known to say that “there is no history of civilization which is not at the same time a record of barbarism.” Within this arena of horrors, the great achievement of wide swaths of 20th century theology—particularly Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, and the early feminist and liberation theologians—was to rediscover the strand in Jesus’ teaching which painted religiosity, not as the opposite of savagery, but as the vehicle by which some of humanity’s worst instincts were furthered. In other words, religion is as likely to be as death-dealing as it is to be life-giving, and the surest way to move from grace to evil is to assume that one’s own religion is immune from the danger of corruption. This fundamentally Augustinian perspective funded much of theology’s ability to provide depth and meaning as the 20th-century church navigated the uncertain waters of the century.

Thus, when Jesus speaks of the importance of humility in these readings, it is an opportune time for ecological theology to participate in the theologically healthy gesture of turning the critique of arrogance on ITSELF. Is it not the case that those of us who preach and teach creation care are as guilty as any other theologians of acting as though our theological perspective is a kind of gnosis, a kind of privileged knowledge to which others should submit? Do ecological theologians not form our own guilds, produce our own “group-speak,” and sometimes dismiss our opponents unfairly? To acknowledge these sins is NOT to undermine the work of ecological theology—indeed, any theology that is unwilling to submit itself to such critique is in danger of becoming ideological at best and violent (conceptually or otherwise) at worst.

When reading Jesus’ teaching, it may seem gimmicky or self-serving to adopt a posture of humility only in hopes that one will be more greatly rewarded (a seat of honor or a heavenly honor) by showing such humility. But to adopt that line of critique is to miss the fundamental realism of Jesus’ teaching here—genuine humility and willingness to submit one’s own perspective to critique IS a sine qua non of  theology that promotes grace and the furthering of life as God’s beloved world. Rigorous self-critique and the willingness to honor one’s opponents are what separates ecological religiosity from the shrill intolerance of much political discourse in this country, including that around environmentalism. An Augustinian humility and embrace of self-critique is, in fact, perhaps the greatest contribution ecological theology qua theology might make to ecological discourse in general.

The preacher, then, is invited to take the risk of making vulnerable those aspects of the faith about which she cares the most. Use the sermon or teaching time this week as a space to open debate, and perhaps even to express your own struggles around the parts of your faith that you most cherish. It may be that what emerges from this furnace of authentic openness to critique is a seemingly more “humble” but an infinitely more life-giving and durable faith in God’s healing work than what was there before.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday July 24-30 in Year C (Saler)

Thinking with Nature Inspires Wonder:  Robert Saler reflects on Luke 11:1-13

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for July 24-30, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Hosea 1: 2-10
Psalm 85
Colossians 2: 6-15
Luke 11: 1-13

One of the oft-stated goals of ecological theology (and ecological philosophy more generally) is to help overcome anthropocentrism. A rough and ready definition of anthropocentrism might describe it as a mindset that values the nonhuman only in relation to its impact upon/usefulness for the human project. For instance, an anthropocentric perspective might value a tree only to the extent that it provides either wood or aesthetic pleasure for humans, and not for its vital role in sustaining nonhuman environments in ways that do not directly benefit us (not to mention valuing it for its own sake).

It is commendable for environmentalists to urge us to expand our mental horizons beyond anthropocentrism. There are some dangers to this, though. In these post-Enlightenment days, we have learned more and more about the pitfalls that accompany any pretense that we might have about our abilities to think from perspectives beyond our own limited social locations. For instance, as a straight white male, I might wish to overcome some of the negative effects of systemic racism under which I was raised by trying to learn about how African-Americans experience America; however well-intentioned my efforts might be, though, I should never allow this understandable desire to devolve into the kind of arrogance that fools me into thinking that I can “think like,” say, an African-American female. Pretense towards “universal reason,” however benevolent, is ultimately a dangerous form of intellectual colonialism.

The same applies to discussions around anthropocentrism. It is salutary for us to stop and ponder whether we are, at any given moment, valuing the nonhuman creation only for its potential benefits to us, and whether there are ways to expand our vision so as to appreciate the nonhuman for its own sake; that said, we must also have the humility to understand that, at the end of the day, we can only think AS humans and not, say, as a bird or a fox. Appreciation of the Other, including the nonhuman other, lives in this intersection between curiosity and humility.

In the Gospel lesson for this week, Jesus is employing his usual pedagogical technique of utilizing earthy, immediate images to get his teachings across. Here such “natural” images as stones, fish, snakes, scorpions, and eggs are offered up, and they are offered precisely in the context of inviting us towards valuation. We humans need the sustenance of the earth such as bread; moreover, some resources from nature will sustain us (fish, eggs) while others, when not dealt with carefully, will harm us (“snakes,” “scorpions”). The entire point of the lesson around God’s benevolence here depends, at first glance, upon a kind of human-centered evaluation: some of creation is friendly to us and can be received as such, while other nonhuman elements are not initially friendly to us and must therefore be managed or avoided. This is inevitable, and indeed it is its own kind of delusion to think otherwise—as Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and other masterful nature writers have reminded us, the nonhuman creation does not love us humans the way we love ourselves.

On the other hand, to the extent that this Gospel lesson is about training us to trust in God’s sustaining benevolence and to receive that benevolence as a gift, then it is also an invitation for us to imagine the scope of that gift more broadly. The basic lesson occluded by anthropocentrism (particularly in its post-Industrial Revolution forms) is that everything is connected to everything else such that human flourishing is essentially linked to the flourishing of the nonhuman. We might eat eggs and not scorpions, but the environmental degradation that affects scorpions is the same that hurts us. When the nonhuman flourishes, so do we, and vice versa.

THIS TOO is an element of God’s gift to us—the gift of imagination and wonder at the fact that we humans are NOT the ultimate standard of value, even as we admit in humility that there are deep limits to our ability to comprehend this fact. Part of the beauty of the gift of creation—and of God’s sustaining benevolence—is that it is “in excess” of what we can appreciate. To know that God values in ways that we cannot is its own act of faith; and it is this sort of risky faith into which Jesus invites those who would follow him.

The homiletic opportunity present in this Gospel is for the preacher to invite us into this sense of wonder, to invite us to expand our imaginations as to how we might value that which is Other than us in nature. We can only think, dream, and imagine as humans, but as humans we can also worship a God whose imagination and love encompasses all of creation. Wonder, curiosity, and humility might then intersect into a broadened vision for how we might participate in that love in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288