Tag Archives: Philip Goodchild

Preaching on Creation: Third Sunday of Lent (March 7) in Year B (Saler15)

Projection, Humility, and the Call for JusticeRobert Saler reflects on preaching care for creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

For those preaching about ecological justice during this Lenten season, the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the marketplace presents a significant temptation. We should spend some time exploring that temptation and the ways in which John’s text itself provides a safeguard against it.

The temptation can be described as follows: Regardless of one’s political affiliations, there can be little doubt that the unfettered free market mania towards commodification of Earth (and its people) has been perhaps the most significant factor at play in the 20th century’s degradation of the environment. As Philip Goodchild has argued in his excellent work Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, neoliberal capitalism by definition cannot engender its own safeguards to keep commodification of resources from destroying our planet.

And so it is very easy for environmental preachers to make a leap from Jesus’ protest that the Temple was, in his day, being turned into a “marketplace” of both physical and spiritual economies to a jeremiad against contemporary capitalism and its effects upon the earth. To be sure, such critiques (pastorally calibrated) have their place in preaching, and it can be an effective tool in the preaching arsenal.

However, even as noted, an environmental preacher as Joseph Sittler was also careful to caution that it is very easy for us to simply project God’s will onto our own (especially when we regard our own causes as inherently righteous) and as such simply invoke theological language to “baptize” our projects. Sittler, in his ecological preaching, was also careful to maintain the ontological and epistemological DISTANCE between God and us so that preaching justice (including environmental justice) does not come off simply as coopting God’s word, but rather being responsive to it.

To be clear: Those of us who preach environmental justice DO, hopefully, feel as though we are being responsive to the effects of God’s word upon its hearers; however, the dangers of projection and cooptation must always be borne in mind. Just as I feel as though those who continually invoke the Bible to oppose, for instance, immigration reform are projecting their own politics onto the gospel, I must be open to the same charge being leveled at me and my own inevitable intermingling of religion and politics. There is no safe place on which to stand; all is risk in these fields. The risk must be assumed, but it should be assumed with humility about the extent to which our religious motivations and God’s will can finally be identified with each other.

Fortunately, the John pericope gives its own safeguard:

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

The dangers of “owning” the messianic impulse such that faith becomes a property of select individuals (which was, after all, the truly pernicious thing about heresies such as Gnosticism) were already present even when Jesus was alive and walking amongst the people; how much more dangerous are they today!

The preacher, then, has the opportunity to preach on justice in such a way that she can even call attention to the fact that any justice work that we do as a church cannot be a matter of simply “owning” God’s agenda—since that agenda, like Jesus, remains as elusive as it is allusive—but rather of responding in imperfect fidelity to the ongoing call for justice present in God’s world. This latter stance requires deep epistemological humility: At the end of the day we cannot “know” that we are right. It may be that God calls us to work within the structures of capitalism, or to work to undermine them, or to do both—or neither. These are contextual judgments made by imperfect humans, but scripture testifies to the fact that God is in the habit of using precisely imperfect humans to bring about the works of the kingdom. We must, in the end, act, but acting in humility confers far more effectiveness than acting in presumed “prophetic” arrogance.

Preachers, can you enact that balance between the longing for justice and the humility of finally not knowing the extent to which we are “right” in your own sermons? Can that generative paradox be a fruitful place from which to consider care for creation in your own context? I would assert that, to the extent that your own preaching can generate this sort of passionate humility, this space will communicate the gospel mandate to care for creation in a spirit of gentleness and love far more effectively than preaching born from projection. Let your preaching adhere to the paradoxical contours of John’s text, and allow the surprises of the Holy Spirit to take over from there.

Originally written by Robert Saler in 2015.
rsaler@hotmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) in Year A

Granting Time, Rupturing Time: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 8-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

In his deeply insightful book Capitalism and Religion The Price of Piety (Oxford: Routledge, 2002), the philosopher Philip Goodchild investigates how the structures of late capitalism mimic those of religion, particularly Christianity. At one point, in a discussion on how we “spend” the resources given to us and how such spending choices reflect our “piety,” he offers the following observation on time:

One significant example of the way in which honor is shown is the gift of spending time. One shows value, respect, concern, or interest in something or someone by spending time on it or with them. Unlike other resources, however, we have no freedom to preserve the expenditure of time. Time may be saved only by intensifying expenditure elsewhere. The flow of time forces us to pay our respects—it is a currency that cannot be hoarded but only traded. If we do not choose how we will spend our time, then its expenditure will be determined for us by duty, custom, habit, or distraction. A renunciation of all honoring, all choice of where one spends one’s time, is an acceptance of the values imposed by external powers. It is acquiescence in the existing distribution of values, and an honoring of such values. To the extent that the future encloses possibilities, and thought is able to select among these possibilities, then honor is shown. The question of transcendence is laid upon all free creatures constrained by the flow of time. To be temporal and free is to be pious.

Goodchild’s insight recalls that of Luther, who argued that our real “gods” are the ones that we honor with our trust when the temporal flow of our lives becomes disrupted. It is when the normal flow of time, the quotidian rhythm of our days, becomes disrupted that we come face to face with the real objects of our piety.

John the Baptist was, of course, the great disruptor of time—this eschatological prophet, whom both Jesus and the Gospel writers honored by spending time on his narrative. Similarly, although the Isaiah passage for this week is often understood in somewhat “fluffy” terms as a charming vision of paradise, in its contxt it too should be understood with its full disruptive significance: the coming of peace is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into a world in which, as Chris Hedges has said, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Just as in the book of Revelation, the figure of “the lamb” here is fraught with prophetic force, for nothing damns the horrors of war (including war on our very surroundings) so profoundly as a vision of the blessings of peace.

As we think about how we live as citizens of creation, Advent forces us to acknowledge that both personally and systemically we so often choose to honor (with our time) activities of war, exploitation, and practices that are killing us and our planet. As Goodchild’s quote points out, we do this not only by our active choices, but also by our “acquiescence in the existing distribution of values”—our refusal to be disruptive of the customs and habits that are unsustainably exploitative (hence our liturgical confession of things “done and left undone,” sins of commission and omission).

It is helpful, then, to think of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s kingdom for which the church prepares in Advent in terms of the disruption of our piety—our pieties towards what it is that we honor with our time, the piety that causes us to go along unquestioningly with what Goodchild elsewhere calls the “liturgy of common sense” (even, and especially, when that quotidian “liturgy” is destroying our planet and ourselves), the piety that causes us to look at creation as a stockpile of resources for our consumption rather than a fragile web that sustains that which God loves.

In our daily pieties, we are no better than the hypocrites against whom John the Baptist rails—we, as much as they, need disruptive grace to reform our ways of spending the honor of time, and living as God’s people in God’s creation. The gospel promise of Advent, then, is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus retains the power to break our way of honoring that which kills us, and frees us to live out our time on this planet as partakers of God’s new way of being.

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