Tag Archives: Robert Saler

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22, 2019) in Year A

Faithfulness and Creativity: Robert Saler reflects on the example of Saint Joseph.

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

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

The readings for the fourth Sunday in Advent continue the theme of God’s grace rupturing our quotidian ways of being in the world, and the ways in which the coming of Christ provides a new angle on God’s revelation. This way of framing the matter is important: while Christians affirm that God’s revelation was and is uniquely disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the entire plausibility of the gospels’ narrative framework depends upon Israelite religiosity. This is particularly true in the story of Joseph: while Christians regard Joseph as a hero of the faith for abiding by God’s plan, the entire theological underpinning of Joseph’s encounter with the angel depends upon the rich tradition of Israelite encounter with the divine.

Striking for our purposes, though, is what we might call Joseph’s creative and even “faithful” disobedience to the Hebrew Bible. Much has been made of the fact that Joseph, having discovered seemingly indisputable evidence of his wife’s infidelity to him, could have exposed her to shame, legal punishment, and even death as revenge against her; instead, he chooses simply to end the betrothal without compromising her integrity. This, in and of itself, is an action of what Peter Rollins might call faithful infidelity to the law—by refusing to abide by the letter of the law, Joseph embodies its spirit. Too much Lutheran preaching has occluded the fact that the “law” as the nation of Israel encountered it was in fact a gift of grace from God, a gift that fashioned God’s people and bestowed upon them an identity in a world in which they would be perpetual underdogs. Joseph, by his action, embodies a kind of virtuosic inhabiting of that spirit of grace, but does so precisely by going against his rights under the “law.”

The notion that God’s grace is a kind of deconstructive force that undermines the letter of the law in order to disclose the fundamentally benevolent and life-giving structures of God’s interaction with the world is, of course, a foundational Lutheran premise. Grace does not cancel the law, but it operates in a kind of faithful infidelity to it in order to save sinners. If the law condemns sinners to death, then grace—bestowed by the same God who gives the law—removes the law’s penalty in order to demonstrate God’s redemptive love for what God has made.

A theological maxim that undergirds much of what happens at this site, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is that Christian theology is in need of a “new Reformation,” one that will gradually but permanently shift the center of Christian theology away from understandings of the faith that breed apathy or even hostility towards creation to those that highlight earth-honoring and care for creation as essential aspects of Christian vocation. Those of us who work within that maxim do not view that theological work as entailing the introduction of unprecedented novelties into Christian discourse, as if earth-honoring faith requires a wholesale abandonment of what has come before. Instead, we look to the richness of the tradition in order to discern the paths not taken, the potential conceptual resources, and the places within the core of the faith that can support an earth-friendly practice of Christianity. This lack of fidelity to the tradition as it has been conventionally lived out in many Christian circles is, in fact, a way of honoring what is best about the tradition.

Similarly, the task of preaching Advent hope is not a matter of introducing wholesale rupture into the lives of those listening; rather, it is an invitation to all of us to review where we have been and what God has done for us with fresh eyes, and to consider whether the call of newness that comes with Advent is a call to be creatively unfaithful to that which has held us back from life abundant. All of us have lived lives in which the Spirit of life and our own resistance to grace have intertwined and determined our course; thus, the homiletical opportunity to create a space of honoring what has been life-giving about the past, even as we “betray” those assumptions that have held us back from the life that God would have us receive, is a genuine gift of the preacher.

To live faithfully as Christians in a time of ecological danger will require creatively betraying the assumptions under which many of us were raised. It will require the confidence that comes when we realize that the same God who disclosed the shape of grace in Jesus Christ continues to work deeply within the structures of creation, redeeming that which God has made. And it will, most of all, require the sort of love that wages all on the notion that God’s justice is superior to (and more merciful than) our justice and that seeks to remain faithful to that wager against all odds. Inviting the congregation into that wager of love is a powerful Advent opportunity for Christ’s body on this day.

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

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

First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) in Year A (Saler)

Improvisation — A Christian Stance of Hopefulness:  Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44.

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

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

At my seminary, I am currently facilitating an Augustine reading group. The group is taking the entire year to work our way through his magnum opus The City of God, purely for fun and edification. This 5th century text features Augustine engaging polemically with the educated pagans of his day, those who blamed Christians for the 410 sack of Rome by the Visgoth army and who advocated for a return to the worship of the Roman pantheon of deities.

I am a longtime lover of Augustine, and there is much about his critiques of the paganism of his day with which I resonate. However, in books 6 and 7 of the text, when he decries the arbitrariness of the placement of gods within the Roman pantheon, an interesting contrast emerges that I think separates his time from ours rather decisively.

In my view, part of Augustine’s mockery of paganism is that so much of it seems improvised to him: gods and men serve certain functions at a particular period of time, and are rewarded/used by being placed then in the pantheon in some position that correlates with their usefulness. By implicit contrast, then, Augustine presents Christian truth as something that is established from the foundation of the world and therefore is always already prior to human intervention (thus echoing Paul’s arguments that he was “handing on” only what had been given to him).

However, in between Augustine’s time and ours, those of us who are Christian have come to understand that the Christian imagination has always involved improvisation and the development of its key themes as those themes have moved across radically diverse epochs and cultures. Part of the genius of 19th century theology (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) was to recognize that doctrine is in a constant state of development, and that all living things must continually be developing and changing in order to stay vibrant. Pure stasis, argued theologians from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Henry Newman, is death.

The early texts of Advent are clearly eschatological in focus. And thinking through how Christians who care about creation might understand the “end(s)” of the world is a worthy preaching task for this season. However, it is also the case that Advent invites the congregation to imagine how God continues to improvise throughout the biblical narrative, and indeed throughout the world as we experience it. The Isaiah reading invites us to imagine swords beaten into plowshares. Meanwhile, the reading from Matthew draws its pathos and power from the sheer unpredictability inherent in the end times: what is to come will be genuinely new, and preparedness is essential.

Genuine improvisation is not pure novelty; at its best (as in jazz, for example), it is rooted in tradition. The story of God’s salvific work towards all creation was given to Israel, and (despite a shameful history of anti-Judaism) the Christian tradition at its best has affirmed that it is a continuation of that same fundamental story as it is grafted onto Israel’s history. Similarly, Advent preaching must resist the temptation to frame the in-breaking of God’s kingdom as pure novelty. Not only is that idea not plausible, it also misses profound dimensions of the Christian witness—the deep resonance between the Holy Spirit’s ongoing improvisatory work in creation, the Biblical narratives’ tales of a God who shapes and is shaped by the actions of God’s people, and the shape of Christian hope for the future.

Innovation as eschatology, too, helps to bring out the resonance between the fact of the Earth’s suffering and the slightly menacing overtones of the Matthew reading (since many scholars think that what Jesus is describing is not God snatching people away, but rather imperial forces). The Earth is subject to injustice and degradation, and God’s redemptive improvisation must deal with this as well. We see from the “weak force” of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection how God chooses to work salvifically within the structures of injustice in our world.

Advent is a time, then, to preach about this hope with unsentimental but genuinely biblical confidence in how God’s Spirit continues to do its work throughout creation. The effective preacher will name the deep sense of unease we have as we are surrounded by the effects of what Augustine called libido domini—the imperial lust to conquer, a lust present in our politics and in our souls. However, this will be the occasion for the preacher also to name God’s refusal to let our degradation of what God has made be the final word in creation’s story, and for the preached word to give God’s people new eyes to see how that Spirit is “making all things new.”

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

Third Sunday of Advent (December 15, 2019) in Year A

Expanding the Imagination with Vision: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 35.

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

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

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

The Isaiah text for this week is another Advent reading that offers a unique eschatological perspective—one that might be labeled as a utopia were it not centered in the midst of the ongoing struggle for salvific wholeness experienced by God’s people Israel. The reading contains imagery that is deeply tied to the notion of renewed creation. Much like Isaiah 11’s invocation of the lion lying down with the lamb, here a refreshed and renewed creation is depicted as having its barren and dry places inundated with life-giving water, its habitats kept safe from flesh-eating predators, and (as implied by the language of “everlasting joy”) even the power of death being removed from the creation.

This imagery of creation’s eschatological renewal has been deeply formative in both the Christian and Jewish imagination. Indeed, to the extent that studying early Christian writers is helpful for understanding how the gospel might have impacted those who were hearing it in its early stages, it is striking how often these images recur in patristic writings. As Paul Santmire notes, the church father Irenaeus (130-200) is particularly notable in this regard. As Santmire puts it:

Irenaeus does not assume a dialectic of human salvation and the whole creation, as Origen and many later theologians were to do. He does not envision any kind of pretemporal drama in eternity, where the elect are chosen (thesis); next a scene in time, the creation of the whole world for the sake of providing a place wherein the human creatures or rational spirits already chosen might be saved (antithesis); and then, finally a scene of reconciliation, where the human creatures or rational spirits are enabled to return to God again (synthesis). Rather, Irenaeus begins with the temporal beginning of the creation, as we have seen, and envisions one act of God, one divine economy, aimed at bringing the entire creation of a new status to a final fulfillment through the Word and Spirit” (Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, Fortress 1985).

In his text Against Heresies, Ireaneus picks up on Isaiah’s imagery as he imagines the eschatological fulfillment of creation’s blessedness:

The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the Kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon rising from the dead, when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth.

He even envisioned a situation in which predatory animals would no longer have to hunt each other for food, having returned to a state akin to vegetarianism.

Similar imagery is offered by the patristic writer Lactantius (~260-317) in his text Divine Institutes:

Then, there will be taken away from the world those darknesses with which the sky is obscured and blocked from sight, and the moon will receive the brightness of the sun, nor will it be diminished anymore. The sun, however, will become seven times brighter than it now is. The earth, in truth, will disclose its fecundity and will produce the richest crops of its own accord. Mountain rocks will ooze with honey, wines will flow down through the streams, and rivers will overflow with milk. The world itself will rejoice and the nature of all things will be glad, since the dominion and evil and impiety and crime will have been broken and cut off from it. Beasts will not feed on blood during this time nor birds on prey, but all things will be quiet and at rest. Lions and calves will stand together at the manger to feed; the wolf will not steal the sheep; the dog will not hunt; hawks and eagles will not do harm; a child will play with snakes.

What might these ancient images have to do with contemporary preaching during Advent? The twentieth-century French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry once remarked, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” In a time when so much preaching towards care for creation (as in other important matters) can easily cross the line into mere moral exhortation (or, even worse, scolding), a rich homiletical challenge for today’s preacher—heir to Irenaeus and Lactantius—would be to imagine what sort of vision of fulfilled creation might stir the imaginations of congregations today, and how that vision might inspire creative action towards ecological justice today. Would imagining a world in which coal-burning plants were no more? Where the rich and the poor no longer have to be cast in the roles of ecological enemies? Where species can be appreciated in all their diversity without nagging fears of extinction?

When the preacher engages the Christian eschatological imagination in such fashion, the congregation is left open to surprise as to what actions such an imagination might give rise to, this Advent and beyond. As Jesus himself indicates in the Matthew text for this Sunday, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our world produces effects beyond what the world might have imagined previously; so it is that the church, Christ’s body on earth, might exceed all expectations (even its own) for what God’s spirit calls and equips it to do.

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 September 4 – 10 in Year C (Saler)

Following Jesus into Earth: A New Reformation? – Robert Saler reflects on Luke 14:25-33

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for September 4-10, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Lutherans Restoring Creation, as a movement, has been known to speak compellingly of the need for a “new Reformation” – one that moves Christianity towards care for creation in as far-reaching and epochal a sense as the European Reformation transformed western Christianity. In order for us to hold out hope for such a Reformation, however, we must first recognize a basic fact of history: every substantial transformation in the history of Christianity has deeply impacted the material and spiritual economies of its era.

Note that I am not here saying (as a kind of reductionist Marxist might) that changes in religious outlook are always CAUSED by changes in material conditions; the relationship between ideas and economics writ large is too complex for any such simplified causal claim. However, I am saying that, for a religious reformation to truly “stick,” it must have abiding implications for the material distribution of wealth.

This was profoundly true of the European Reformation that gave birth to Lutheranism and other strands of Reformation theology. The notion of “vocation” gradually shifted from religious orders (with concentrations of wealth in the monasteries) to the daily activities of the rising merchant class. Emerging nation-states consolidated wealth locally instead of sending money to Rome. The printing press allowed for lay participation in theological debate unprecedented in previous centuries of Christendom. And so on.

Part of the point here is that we cannot envision paradigm shifts in theological consciousness that do not implicate themselves deeply into the economic (oikos) life of those who call themselves Christian. If we are to think in terms of a new Reformation that calls Christianity to its vocation of caring for Earth, we must take seriously the fact that the preaching, theology, art, and culture-creation required by such a Reformation will need to tackle “economic” questions head on.

The gospel lesson for this week is one of many occasions in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus sharply mandates that his disciples enact a new relationship to wealth (as blunt, in this case, as “give up all your possessions”) as a requirement of following his way. Apropos to what was said above, anyone who labors under the misapprehension that Jesus is concerned only with “spiritual” and not material matters must inevitably—and salutarily—founder on these passages where Jesus describes discipleship in deeply material terms. It is striking how often those who insist upon “literal” readings of the Bible follow medieval Christendom in assuming that such stark passages must themselves be allegorical or symbolic—thus, “sell all you have and give to the poor” becomes “give some percentage of your net income to charity regularly.” Thus, under Christendom, discipleship becomes a buttress of the status quo, and the radicality of scripture’s economic vision is domesticated.

What would a reclamation of this radical vision look like as part of a theological reformation calling Christ’s church to creation care? At the conclusion of his seminal essay “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry describes reclining on the ground of a forest in his native Kentucky:

I have been walking in the woods, and have lain down on the ground to rest. It is the middle of October, and around me, all through the woods, the leaves are quietly sifting down. The newly fallen leaves make a dry, comfortable bed, and I lie easy, coming to rest within myself as I seem to do nowadays only when I am in the woods.

And now a leaf, spiraling down in wild flight, lands on my shirt about the third button below the collar. At first I am bemused and mystified by the coincidence—that the leaf should have been so hung, weighted and shaped, so ready to fall, so nudged loose and slanted by the breeze, as to fall where I, by the same delicacy of circumstances, happed to be lying. The event, among all its ramifying causes and considerations, and finally its mysteries, begins to take on the magnitude of history. Portent begins to dwell in it.

And suddenly I apprehend in it the dark proposal of the ground. Under the fallen leaf my breastbone burns with imminent decay. Other leaves fall. My body begins its long shudder into humus. I feel my substance escape me, carried into the mold by beetles and worms. Days, winds, seasons pass over me as I sink under the leaves. For a time only sight is left me, a passive awareness of the sky overhead, birds crossing, the mazed interreaching of the treetops, the leaves falling—and then that, too, sinks away. It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace.

When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world.

Berry’s words here hit on something fundamental about the intersection between our economic and spiritual sensibilities: the locus of this intersection is the body. Our own bodies. The drive to possess, to claim bits of the earth as private property, is tied to our own misplaced desires to extend and preserve our bodies into immortality—an immortality of endless consumption. To give up our bodies into Earth, to allow ourselves to join the rest of creation in the cycle of death and resurrection (even as we long for the day in which that cycle is finally broken by unending resurrection) is to reconfigure our relationship, not just to OUR possessions, but to possession itself.

It may be, then, that a theological reformation towards creation care might involve a deep recovery of how intimately our bodies are tied to the earth itself, and how giving up our delusions of sovereignty around our own bodies might free up a new kind of Christian discipleship. As Paul makes clear, to follow Jesus is to follow him into the grave—only then can resurrection be a genuinely salvific reality. As we go deeper into the earth, it may be that we blaze new trails of “the way” of Jesus.

If we can embody this discipleship in our own flesh, then the continual Reformation of our faith towards love for what God loves becomes more viscerally possible than ever 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 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 August 14 – 20 in Year C

Hard Sayings of Jesus: Blessing or Naming? – Robert Saler reflects on Luke 12:49-56

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for August 14-20, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022) 

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

In a Christian Century blog in which I discussed this Sunday’s series of eschatological sayings from Jesus, I wrote this:

The truth is that the scriptures offer us a Jesus who names hard realities in hard terms. I used to hate this fact about the Bible. I used to have little appreciation for the presence of these disturbing passages. It took me a long time to realize that description is not prescription—and that because Jesus says something does not mean that the content of his statement is automatically a good thing. ‘Scriptural’ does not always mean ‘right.’ Part of the genius of scripture is that it names realities about our lives that are often very wrong.

We have a sense of what it meant for Jesus in his time to say that his presence on Earth would bring a sword of division to his followers, one that would force the disciples and the early Christians to make excruciatingly difficult decisions about a discipleship that would put them at odds with the structures around them—government, religion and even family. Behind these words in Luke is the emerging vision of martyrdom in Christian communities, as Luke’s own later narrative of Stephen’s stoning would attest. We have no reason to think that Jesus is blessing this reality; he is only naming it.

The Bible names reality in unsparing terms. The theology of the incarnation tells us that Jesus inhabits this reality without reservation, even unto death. But our world is ruled by a host of realities that the incarnation does not bless; naming one of these is often a preface to judgment instead of blessing. The fact that naming judgment happens on terms different from those we might craft may be key to their salvific character.” (Robert Saler, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century 8/7/2013).

The distinction between Jesus naming reality and blessing it is crucial when we think about how these passages might relate to creation care. Too many exegetical strategies within the Christian tradition—fundamentalist and mainline alike—have assumed that Jesus’ talk of fire and swords is a threatening eschatological judgment. As we have come to know, however, these times of ours HAVE brought about a time in which the Earth is “on fire,” globally. Global climate change is a reality, and increasingly we are aware that this has implications for violence. As a Public Radio International news story, reporting on contemporary scientific studies of the links between rising temperatures and violence, points out:

The effects of global warming are visible. The icecaps are melting and the sensitive equilibrium of Earth’s ecosystems is being thrown out of balance. But a recent study, published in the journal Science, found that humans are affected too, becoming more strongly disposed to aggression and violence as Earth’s temperature rises.

‘Just to give you a sense of what the magnitudes are, the estimated average effect of two degrees Celsius warming in tropical Africa on the risk of civil war in Africa would be something on the order of 40 to 50 percent increase in the risk of civil war,’ said Edward Miguel, co-author of the study and economics professor at the University of California, Berkley.

As a reader of the Bible, I believe that Jesus names the hard realities of our time. As a Christian, I refuse to believe that Jesus (the Lord, the Giver of Life) blesses them. The homiletical opportunity for this Sunday is to allow the hard words of the Bible to name reality as it is.

Once that is done, and it is made plain that the God we are dealing with is no pious projection of “niceness” but a clear-eyed observer of human freedom and its effects, then the gospel news can take effect. The gospel that God saves us and renews creation precisely amidst the fires and chaos of war, and that the Christian task is to practice creation care in the confident hope that even now God’s green shoots are springing forth, is founded on the soil of such truth-telling. Our creation faces death; our churches must live into that reality if we are to proclaim a God who overcame death on the cross and whose Spirit works in us and around us to overcome death and destruction even now.

Let the preacher not shrink from the task of truth-telling, and let us be bold in our hope that God will not shrink from the promise to restore us and the earth God loves.

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 August 7 – 13 in Year C

Freedom from Fear is Freedom to Act:  Robert Saler reflects on Luke 12:32-40

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for August 7-13, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 20-23
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Well-cathechized Lutherans tend to be familiar with most of what theologian Robert Jenson refers to as the “slogans” of the Lutheran faith – “two kingdoms,” “theology of the cross vs. theology of glory,” etc. Oftentimes, though, we portray these slogans as if they mean only one thing, like code words pointing to one specific reality.

It’s more rewarding to realize that any theological notion rich enough to bear the “thickness” of a tradition like Lutheranism is more likely to be polysemic and polyvalent – referring to multiple kinds of truths simultaneously, with shifting emphasis on a given meaning depending on the context in which the words are deployed.

This is particularly true of the cornerstone Lutheran slogan  “justification by grace through faith apart from works.” It is this theological notion that defines Lutheranism, both ecclesially and hermeneutically. Ecclesially, because historically and today, it allows us to judge church practices (indulgences, worship styles, baptismal practices, etc.) by the standard of whether or not they place emphasis on God’s loving action towards us rather than our pious attempts to justify ourselves religiously before God. Hermeneutically, because prioritizing our inability to earn God’s love and salvation allows us to approach such otherwise dire passages as Jesus’ eschatological warnings in Luke 12: 32-40 with the mindset, not that we will live up to the remarkably high standard of eschatological “alertness,” but that God in Christ has already taken the initiative in taking up our failures into the larger Triune work of salvation.

This alone is a rich and crucial referent on the slogan “justification by grace through faith apart from works.” However, another meaning of the phrase is crucial in our time of ecological peril and opportunity. If we are freed to live without eschatological fear of God and free from the demand to justify ourselves religiously by our own actions, then that freedom from fear frees us to be creatures whose actions on behalf of creation and the neighbor—however partial and imperfect—do not need to live up to some hidden standard of divine perfection, but only the God-given creaturely standard of caritas (charity). As Luther saw, the freedom of a Christian to serve neighbor and creation has as its root freedom from eschatological fear, such that we can perform acts of love and charity in genuine concern for the neighbor and not concern for our spiritual résumés.

To take a counter-example: it is well-documented that some (not all) fundamentalist Christians are skeptical about creation care for specifically theological reasons. In many cases, the presenting reason is because they believe that Earth is a temporary vessel for the human drama of salvation, a vessel that will be destroyed at the eschaton/ endtime (cf. Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, Fortress, 2005). However, I have increasingly wondered whether the deeper reason why this particular brand of judgment-oriented fundamentalism is so suspicious of creation care is because framing God as a vengeful judge who can only be appeased by right “works” of belief (that is, believing the proper Christian doctrines) sets God up as what philosopher Slavoj Žižek might call “the Big Other,” namely, the impossible standard by which we measure our actions such that we eventually become neurotic and insular in our capacity to act healthily towards ourselves and others. Fear paralyzes right action; freedom from fear inspires love that heals. Without becoming triumphalist, we Lutherans should not underestimate what a gift this aspect of our heritage is for the Church catholic and the world as a whole.

All of this is to say that the same hermeneutic that allows us to read Jesus’ eschatological statements as promises of God’s coming salvation and not as dire (and ultimately paralyzing) warnings of impending doom is the same hermeneutic that frees us for action. When God’s word heals us, it frees and forms us to play our blessedly limited parts in healing all that God has made. Let the preacher preach love, and know that in her doing so God’s spirit is at work fashioning a people who can live, work, and heal in this Earth.

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 31 – August 6 in Year C

Is Distance Our Security? Embracing Interdependence Joyfully: Robert Saler reflects on Luke 12:13-21

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for July 31 – August 6, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Theologian Joseph Sittler once made the point that, in our day and age, to possess wealth is to be able to purchase distance from one another—to enact a kind of “blubber,” as he puts it, that shields us from undesired interaction with the world. Recently, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has explored a similar line of thought. In his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), Sandel discusses all the ways in which wealth allows those who possess it the ability to purchase separation from those with fewer resources. The examples are legion. Housing developments become gated communities, while summer homes are set apart in the woods. Skybox seats at baseball games and concerts lift wealthy spectators out from the audience or “crowd” proper. Airline passengers who pay more can board earlier and sit further apart from other passengers. We have built an economic system in which prestige is marked by the comforts of diminishing proximity – and indeed, diminishing solidarity – with others.

On the one hand, the immediate creature comforts of, say, having more room in an airplane seat are immediately understandable and require little theological interpretation. However, on the other hand, the homiletical opportunity in preaching on Jesus’ parable of the rich man who builds up granaries only to have his life “demanded” of him is to explore more deeply the impulses that drive us to accumulate wealth and its corollaries—land, excess clothing, anti-theft systems, etc.—and how these impulses betray more primal anxieties.

A homiletical failure—one that has unfortunately been common in the Christian tradition—would be to simply denounce the man’s actions as evident of “greed”  and to warn contemporary Christians away from avarice without acknowledging the various forces at work in our North American society that program us to be, not only consumers, but anxious consumers.  Even as we are urged to spend and spend, we are simultaneously bombarded with injunctions to save and build up wealth for retirement, future catastrophes, etc. We measure the health of the economy by its “growth” even as we are warned that only those who have sufficient reserves will be able to navigate the future successfully. The various incompatible demands placed upon our economic psyches leads to an anxiety similar to that depended upon by the “diet” industry: we spend more and more on diet products and exercise programs even as we are bombarded with encouragement to eat more and more.

It is this impulse which leads us to conceive of economic security in terms of distance, lack of vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the market and the crowds, and getting off the treadmill of the uncontrolled push/pull of late stage capitalism. Likewise, in Jesus’ time, where the gap between the rich and the poor was even more pronounced than in our day, to store up grain for oneself in order to ward off the possibility of future economic ruin would have been a highly understandable impulse. Thus, it might be that the more homiletically honest move here would be to focus less on “greed” and more upon the tendency, in Jesus’ day and ours, to equate wealth with invulnerability and independence.

Here, then, is where “ecological” thinking in its most robust sense may be helpful. In his recent text The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), critical theorist Timothy Morton points out the ways in which our politics, economic arrangements, and even religious understandings might change if we were to live fully into the radical potential contained in the seemingly simple base ecological maxim: “Everything is connected to everything else.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to articulate so powerfully, we exist in “webs of mutuality” such that our humanity is enhanced, not diminished, as we grow more and more interdependent on each other. To seek independence through invulnerability, to build up reserves and to purchase distance such that we absent ourselves from these webs, is not only anti-ecological but also diminishes our humanity as such.

There are profound links for the preacher to explore here. Just as Jesus’ injunctions for humans to exhibit radical dependence on God’s grace were designed to heighten our humanity (as opposed to making us superhuman), so also living into our ecologies of interdependence frees us up to be creatures who joyfully embrace our dependence upon each other and our environment. Solidarity with Earth and with each other is, in one sense, nothing other than having our own fates inextricably tied to the fate of creation and its people. If that is the case, then we really have no choice as to WHETHER or not to be in solidarity—the choice is whether we receive it in joy, live into it with purpose, and eschew all that would distance us from it.

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

Sunday July 17-23 in Year C (Saler)

Right Delight is the Basis of Right Action: Robert Saler reflects on Luke 10:38-42

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for July 17-23, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1: 15-28
Luke 10:38-42

The story of Mary and Martha has, throughout history, served as a kind of paradigmatic biblical intervention into a philosophical conversation that predates the Gospels by centuries, but yet was very current in Jesus’ time: the relative merits of action vs. contemplation (praxis vs. theoria, in Aristotelian terms).

When we think of theory, we often have an attenuated sense of it as a kind of disembodied, less-than-practical intellectual activity; hence our tendency to ask, “It may work in theory, but will it work in practice?” However, in important strands of the Greek philosophical tradition, “theory” (and its Latin cognate of “contemplation”) had a much richer valence, one having to do with gazing in delight and unperturbed peace upon the true, the good, and the beautiful. To be engaged in theory is to be delighting in the good as such.

Unfortunately, while much Greek philosophy did make connections between theory and ethics, the class structures in place in most ancient societies led to fairly stark class-based divisions between those few elites with the leisure time to “theorize” and the majority whose labor (including slave labor) supported the social infrastructure. Aristotle, for instance, did not disguise his views that the life of philosophical contemplation was superior to a life of labor, and that true statements about beauty and the good could only come from the mouths of those with enough leisure, riches, and education to contemplate the good in unhurried fashion.

To the extent that the Christian tradition’s thinking has taken on such Greek philosophical assumptions, then Luke’s account of the Mary/Martha story has served to reinforce such a sense among Christians. Much exegetical tradition has emphasized that it is Mary, who sits in contemplation of “the good, the true, the beautiful” (that is, the person and teachings of Jesus) who is engaged in the properly “Christian” activity, while Martha, whose labor provides the space in which such contemplation can happen, is given short shrift. Sermons stemming from this tradition tend to unwittingly reinforce the divide between theory and action/ethics, with the latter losing out.

However, such a divide is disastrous for a Christian faith that takes creation care seriously. This is not so only because it is clear that a great deal of ethical action is necessary if the deleterious effects of environmental degradation are to be addressed (and further degradation halted). It is also because care for creation is clearly an area where action must stem from a more fundamental delight in what God’s hand has fashioned in our environment.

The Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler saw this. In his celebrated sermon “The Care of the Earth,” Sittler points to the deep interconnection between fundamental “joy” in creation (joy which the Christian tradition from Augustine to Aquinas defined as “resting in something for its own sake”) and right care for—or “use of”—creation. In his sermon (available at www.josephsittler.org), he writes,

It is of the heart of sin that man uses what he ought to enjoy. It is also, says Thomas, of the heart of sin that man is content to enjoy what he ought to use. For instance. charity is the comprehensive term to designate how God regards man [sic]. That regard is to be used by man for man. That is why our Lord moves always in his speech from the source of joy, that man is loved by the holy, to the theater of joy, that man must serve the need of the neighbor. “Lord, where did we behold thee? I was in prison, hungry, cold, naked”-you enjoyed a charity that God gives for use.

If the creation, including our fellow creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment. This has a cleansing and orderly meaning for everything in the world of nature, from the sewage we dump into our streams to the cosmic sewage we dump into the fallout.

Abuse is use without grace; it is always a failure in the counterpoint of use and enjoyment. When things are not used in ways determined by joy in the things themselves, this violated potentiality of joy (timid as all things holy, but relentless and blunt in its reprisals) withdraws and leaves us, not perhaps with immediate positive damnations but with something much worse—the wan, ghastly, negative damnations of use without joy, stuff without grace, a busy, fabricating world with the shine gone off, personal relations for the nature of which we have invented the eloquent term, contact, staring without beholding, even fornication without finding.

When “use” is informed by joy, use (action) itself becomes a kind of expression of that joy. Theoria and praxis merge.

When approached in this light, the story of Mary and Martha offers an intriguing opportunity for the preacher to meditate on how ethical action in the world stems from deep theoria, deep contemplative joy in gazing upon the beauty and goodness of creation. Those already involved in creation care know that acts of care for creation—and those who inhabit it, including humans—have a unifying tendency in that they unite joy and service in an embodied, concrete sense. It is to “take refuge in God,” as the psalm says, by letting delight for what God has made inform peaceful action on behalf of its health and flourishing.

One final note: stemming from the above discussion of the class-based distinctions that have historically facilitated separation between theory and practice, and elevation of the former over the latter, this week’s gospel might also be a time for churches to ruminate on those structures in our world that allow a certain small percentage of our populations to “enjoy” nature in leisurely fashion (e.g. a trip to the Grand Canyon) while others whose labor helps sustain our societies are cut off from such opportunities for unhurried enjoyment. Likewise, discussions of environmental racism might benefit from seeing them through this same lens (that is, what sort of communities are denied chances to enjoy the beauty of nature based on socioeconomic factors?).  Here too, discussion of the beautiful might energize practices of justice.

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

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C
By Robert Saler

Ecumenism as Ecological Lure

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

There is a common saying in ecumenical circles known as “ecumenism of the trenches.” As many preachers this week turn to Jesus’ so-called “High Priestly Prayer” and its specific call that Christ’s followers “be one,” ecumenism in general may well be on the minds of both preacher and congregation.

The notion of “ecumenism of the trenches” suggests that, to a certain degree, both Christian division and formalized ecumenical discussions (such as the good work done by the World Council of Churches) are reflective of a certain kind of stability. When Christianity is in a stable place, then Christians have the luxury of fighting over doctrines; meanwhile, involvement in formal ecumenism, while good, is reflective of substantial resources commanded by the various dialogue partners.

But for creation care preachers, can the threat of ecological catastrophe AND the gospel promise be a way to move the conversation forward?

Perhaps we can again consult Joseph Sittler’s work for inspiration, particularly his most famous—and directly ecumenical—speech, “Called to Unity.”

Joseph Sittler’s “Called to Unity” address was very controversial in its time. Even though the 1954 WCC Assembly in Evanson, IL had already tasked a number of theologians (including Sittler) to consider the issue of Christology in relation to church unity in preparation for 1961, Sittler’s argument—that the future of the church’s proclamation depended upon understanding the planet not simply as the site of God’s creation but also as the site of Christ’s redemption—did not go over well. It went against too many established theological categories.

Despite its lukewarm reception in the early 1960’s, the speech soon came to be regarded as a crucial opening salvo in Christian concern for environmental matters. Since most historians of environmentalism would identify the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as a watershed moment in the American public’s awareness of ecological degradation, the fact that Sittler was writing about environmental concerns as early as the mid-1950’s generally warrants him at least a footnote as a “pioneer” in the writings of contemporary ecologically-oriented theologians. And to the extent that Sittler’s speech can be understood as calling for a kind of “ecumenical environmentalism,” then we can say that his vision has come largely to fruition in the work of theologians and churches (including the ELCA and the LCMS) who have taken up the challenge of relating Christian discipleship to care for creation.

Central to Sittler’s legacy is the idea that the work of creation care happens best when it is related to central questions about how Christians understand God’s work of redemption in the world, inaugurated in Jesus Christ and continued in the work of the Spirit and Christ’s church. As he put it:

A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God’s creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is his [humanity’s] home, his definite place, the theater of his selfhood under God, in cooperation with his neighbor, and in caring relationship with nature, his sister.”1

This theme of understanding redemption as encompassing all of creation such that nature is not simply the disposable backdrop against which the drama of human salvation history plays itself out (as in the Left Behind series, as well as in much popular eschatology stemming as far back as Origen), but rather as an integral part of our human identity and the identity of God’s kingdom—to the point that salvation makes no sense apart from the context of redeemed creation itself (as in the Book of Revelation)—has informed the best contemporary ecological theology.

Moreover, Sittler’s vision runs even deeper than simply the strategic shared activism of church bodies. It is MORE than just ecumenism of the trenches! According to him, the unity toward which the church is both “thrust and lured” is best articulated by means of a “Christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and wrath of God.”

What Sittler’s speech hints towards is not simply a coming “ecumenical environmentalism” but also the possibility of an “environmental ecumenism,” one in which the sort of ecumenical work to which Sittler devoted much of his career (and with which the WCC remains charged) operates with an expanded imagination concerning the body of Christ existing in greater degrees of interconnection around the shape of the world’s need and the ongoing scope of God’s salvific work.

The burden of a challenge toward “environmental ecumenism” would perhaps move us past the old saw that “doctrine divides but service unites” towards a more theologically robust sensibility of incarnation: that to enter into deeper modes of understanding the church Christologically allows us to engage what Sittler calls humanity’s “strong ache” in a world in which nature’s plasticity to human desires has, ironically, constituted nature itself as a new kind of threat—particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable humans on the planet. If ecumenical unity is a future reality to which the present is nonetheless continually “lured,” then Sittler’s speech invites us to think about how this present lure can be comprehended most fully by continually relating our ecclesiology to our Christology, and vice versa.

And for the preacher who wishes to capture the congregation’s imagination as to what can be possible when ecological catastrophe is taken as a “unifying” threat, but also what can be possible when God’s redemption is seen as impacting all of creation, the lure is to try to find ways to make that vision real for the congregation. What rivers near you need to be saved? What are the ways in which divisions among us as citizens of the planet—race, class, income, geographic area, etc.—spill over into churches? What would healing look like?

The Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler

Biblical Insights on Power, Religion, and Material Pneumatology

The Sixth Sunday in Easter in Year C

Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22
John 14:23-29

This week’s lectionary selections offer a bounty of potential themes for creation care preaching.

Starting with Acts: the conversion of Lydia has long been understood as a moment in the New Testament in which the early Christian movement—one that, at least according to tradition (with NT scholarship being somewhat divided on the question), was largely comprised of marginal and economically disadvantaged folk—discovers the potential of coming alongside social and economic capital in ways that are faithful. As a dealer in purple cloth, with a home capacious enough to host Paul and his companions, Lydia was apparently a woman of means; and to become so as a woman in her time, she was likely not a person to be trifled with.

Progressive movements, including those towards creation care, tend to have an ambiguous relationship with power and capital. Such movements are often powered by the experience and witness of those on the underside of history; moreover, in the popular imagination at least, the cause is often taken up by those who cast themselves against the rich and powerful (think of Occupy Wall Street). However, as community organizing principles teach us, social change is often effected by organized money and organized power. Lydia, as a formidable presence within the unfolding story of Acts and the unfolding story of the church, might be lifted up homiletically as an instance of an alliance between God’s mission (not only creation care, but also the solidarity with the poor and other victims of injustice that is an inevitable corollary to creation care) and those with capital to effect real change.

Revelation 22, meanwhile, is the verdant image of the river of the water of life. While the best thing for the preacher on this text to do is to consult the beautiful sections on this passage in Barbara Rossing’s study The Rapture Exposed, this is also prime time to remind congregations that the vision of Revelation is one in which “religion,” to the extent that that word implies separation from the merely secular, is precisely the thing that passes away in Revelation 21. Revelation 22’s beautiful imagery, in other words, is predicated on the lack of temple in the new heaven and new earth. Religion so often is separation from the deep incarnation of God’s truth in creation, but precisely this separation is overcome.

Finally, the John readings are shot through with pneumatology. While the role of the Holy Spirit is often invoked in connection with ecological theology, it is crucial that this not partake in the too-common theological error of portraying the Holy Spirit in overly fluffy, sentimental terms. Jesus promises the coming of the Spirit precisely because the disciples, after his death, would be faced with the gritty, life-threatening work of fidelity to Jesus’ continued mission in the world, and nothing less than the very presence of God ongoing in the community of fidelity to the crucified would do. Thus, if creation-care oriented preachers are going to move their sermons in a pneumatological direction this Sunday, they should make it clear that the Spirit’s presence among us is no airy, light thing. It is the emboldening, vital courage of God that inspires fleshly bodies to put themselves on the line in solidarity with threatened people and threatened creation (cf. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil, for an excellent account of this).

While it’s possible to interweave these various themes in a single sermon, wise preaching might also choose to focus in on one and expound. Power, religion, and material spirituality powerfully intersect in the lectionary, and might profitably do so in the Sunday morning experience of those who are in a position to be surprised by the richness of the biblical witness on these subjects.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler

Debonair Care, or Use in Love
The Fifth Sunday in Easter in Year C

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

What does it mean to have a servant’s heart for creation?
The pioneering Lutheran eco-theologian Joseph Sittler was fond of playing with the implications of different translations of the biblical text. He was especially intrigued by a common French translation of Matthew 5:5, which in English is commonly translated as “Blessed are the meek.” Sittler noticed that the French would often translate this as “Blessed are the debonair.” While “debonair” in common parlance might call to mind connotations of a dapper French gentleman sipping espresso in a Paris café, Sittler pointed out that something else might be going on in the time of the French Bible of Calvin:

But “debonair” in French, in the time of the French Bible of John Calvin, meant a person who is not an idolater, one who hasn’t gotten hooked up in anything worldly, one who is so sophisticated as to know wealth for what it is and that it isn’t everything. Such a one knows status for what it is and knows that it isn’t everything and knows beauty and human acclaim for the promising and deceptive things that they really are. This is a person who has a kind of centeredness that doesn’t let the idols of this world capture it. It’s a kind of debonair in which you sit lightly on the offerings and temptations of this world because you have a vision of something better…

Sittler went on to tie this sensibility to creation care.

It doesn’t say they shall own the earth, or control the earth, or have a real estate option on the big pieces. It says they shall inherit the earth. What’s the difference between owning and inheriting? The difference is: what you own, you probably earn, or make. An inheritance is something you don’t own. You don’t deserve it. It’s a surprise. You live in the world with a gentle spirit, because the whole of creation is a kind of outrageous surprise, a gift. Blessed are they of a gentle spirit, because they live in the world not as ones who strut around as if they own the place, with their technological assaults upon it. Rather, their first feeling for the world is one of tender wonder, gratitude, and amazement.

This sensibility by Sittler helps explain the linkage between the Acts text and the gospel for this week. The gospel lesson from John recounts the classic instance of Jesus operating as a servant towards his disciples: washing their feet and giving the commandment to love. It may seem a stark contrast that this is then paired with the Acts reading, in which Peter is given license to kill and eat food that would have previously been unclean for him as a Jew.

But the gospel sensibility informs the Acts text. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This is a key to true service. Like Adam and Eve, Peter is granted creation for use; however, the use is not to be one of domination, but one of gentle engagement—recognize the goodness of creation (“what God has made clean”), use it, but recognize it precisely as a gift.

The awe that this inspires is what produces the servant’s heart. To serve creation is to regard it with love, and this love is what inspired right use of it—and perhaps even advocacy against those for whom use would turn into abuse.

Sittler brings the point home with an anecdote:

The same time I was studying this beautitude, and began to see some light . . . .I went with some college kids on a trip, a big Saturday afternoon walk through the gigantic Douglas-fir forest in the lower slopes of the Cascades. I watched these sophisticated kids . . . . When they walked into the woods, they became quiet, silent. They would reach out and pat the big trees as they went by. The further we got into the woods, the quieter they became. Then the phrase came to me, “They inherit the world, because they don’t own it.” They don’t think of it fundamentally as potential two-by-fours, though it’s all right to use it that way wisely; if you love a thing, then you’re prepared to use it wisely.”

And so the preacher this week has the unique challenge to speak to we heirs of Peter, those whom God calls to use the earth wisely and with love.

(All quotes from Sittler, “His God Story,” in The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. Richard Lischer and James Childs, Cascade, 2013, 23-24).

The Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler

Living into the Economy of Trinity and Church

Fourth Sunday in Easter in Year C

Acts 9: 36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30

The Acts 9 reading for today is a clear instance of how the logic of Acts’ depiction of the early church works. In what we would today call a “callback” to Luke 8, Peter resurrects a woman who has died—in this case, a disciple of Jesus. Meanwhile, in the John reading, Jesus has a plain occasion against his opponents to state—in the high Christological fashion characteristic of that gospel—the plain fact of his literal identity with the Father: “the Father and I are one.”

Taken together, the readings weave a sort of Trinitarian/ecclesial tapestry. What is the point of the Trinity? It is that the character of Jesus reveals the character of God. William Placher, the late professor of theology at Wabash College, was fond of telling a poignant story wherein he was at the bedside of a dying woman. Turning to him as her resident theology expert, she said to him, “Bill, I just have one question. Is God really like Jesus?” As this dying woman prepared to meet the God whom she had worshipped most of her life in church, her main question was whether the character of that God is trustworthily revealed in what we know of Jesus from the gospel accounts. The point of Trinitarian theology, behind all of its metaphysical nuances and exegetical subtlety, is really to be able to give a “yes” answer to that question.

And if Jesus truly reveals the character of God, then the point of the parallelism between the Jesus of the Gospels and the early church in the book of Acts is to continue that symmetry and identity even further. Jesus is really like God, and when the church is at its best, it is “really like” Jesus. Jesus suffers on the cross: this event has implications in the life of God, and it creates a church that is willing to suffer rather than dominate (at least, at its best!). The church has, clearly, failed spectacularly at various points in history to live into this symmetry—and indeed, no more so than when the church is powerful on cultural and political terms. But the vision is still present, and it still finds embodiment in countless (largely anonymous) works of care and humility throughout time and space. As the theologian Bruce Marshall has stated, the church is not a by-product of the gospel; the church is part of the gospel itself. The real body of Jesus of Nazareth gives way to the real body of Christ formed by the church community acting in the name and Spirit of Jesus.

For those engaged in the work of creation care, then, this Sunday is a chance to reflect on what it means to live into this symmetry in a world imperiled by our radical failures to live lives of love, healing, and reconciliation. If, as activists say, “the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house,” then environmental activists cannot actively mimic the ways of domination that got our planet into its mess. This is not to say that we do not occasionally engage in leveraging power through community organization, politics, etc.—indeed, those are crucial parts of environmental activism. But the church’s role is to ground such action in a broader economy of God’s salvation such that people look to the church’s action and see in it the sort of logic that drove the early church to model itself upon a crucified and resurrected Galilean peasant.

If Jesus truly shows God, and the church truly shows Jesus, then how does the church go about the work of healing creation as Jesus did? What implications does this have for particularly Christian modes of environmental action, even as part of that answer surely involves solidarity with non-Christians? This Sunday is a rich time to reflect on these questions in robustly Trinitarian, ecclesially rich fashion.

The Third Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler

Divine Recapitulation: We are called to join God’s material improvisation of salvation

Acts 9: 1-6 (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21: 1-19

For ecological theologians, the second-century patristic author Irenaeus is a particular favorite. As Paul Santmire discusses in his still-classic book, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, Irenaeus was one of the earliest patristic authors to interpret the promise of redemption as expanding to all of creation, not simply humans (and thus he would prove to be a significant influence on later ecological theologians, including Joseph Sittler).

One of Irenaeus’ enduring legacies is his theory of atonement as recapitulation: the idea that, when God in Christ heals the damage to creation caused by human sin, God does so by providing history with a kind of salvific parallel to the original transgression. Eve rejects God’s command and Adam goes along with it; Mary says “yes” to God and Joseph agrees. The serpent overcomes humanity by means of a tree; Christ is hung on a tree in order to save humanity. And so on.

Scholars engaging Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the beach in the John 21 text have long noticed that Jesus’ otherwise inexplicable demand that Peter repeat his allegiance to Jesus three times makes sense if one sees it as a salvific “recapitulation” of Peter’s thrice-repeated denial of Jesus in John 18. And indeed, one of the things that is striking about the recapitulation themes highlighted by Irenaeus and others is their earthiness: God’s salvation does not occur in some airy “justification” that has no direct bearing on the earth, but rather within creation, in improvising fashion.

Preachers on this day might ask themselves how creation care, and human cooperation with God’s healing of the earth, might follow a similar pattern. To the extent that many atonement theories have a kind of disembodied air to them (e.g. a forensic law-court schema in which God internally arranges for humanity to be declared innocent of guilt for the sake of Christ), recapitulation involves an improvisatory God working with the stuff of creation—including humanity—to bring about historic events that have a salvific impact upon the healing of creation.

Is this not the work of creation care? Humanity, Christians included, are in no position to delude ourselves about the extent of our own capacities for “saving the world,” or even healing it through some series of grandiose gestures. The work of creation care is slow, easily interrupted, not easily measured, and ultimately modest – because the gospel narrative is that it is through small and imperfect things (including Peter and Paul, as in the readings for this week!) that God’s spirit works to bring about repairs to the damage of ecological degradation. We improvise along with God, using the stuff of creation, in order to be a part of how God brings life where there was death. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says to Peter. The betrayer becomes the witness. We who have been criminals towards the earth are given the chance, however imperfectly and partial, to make things right.

The preaching of creation care always provides the opportunity to ask how the God that is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ chooses to heal the world. What does Jesus show us about God? If Jesus’ salvific acts of recapitulation with Peter are indicative both of God’s will and God’s methodology, then the congregation’s imagination as to how it is called into similar modes of being on behalf of God’s mission and God’s creation is left with a great deal of room to expand this week.

Palm/Passion Sunday in Year C (Saler)

The Spirit of Life Pulsates Through Death: Passion and Ecology
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013
Palm/Passion Sunday
Luke 19:28-40 or John 12:12-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14 – 23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

One of the biggest dangers that those who preach about ecological matters face is sentimentality. It is tempting to try and evoke love for nature by appealing to serene mountain landscapes, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, or the peacefulness of a hike through the forest. When we appeal to “nature” in sermons, that temptation is particularly palpable.

The temptation to sentimentalize nature, however, should be resisted. The main reason for this has to do with simple credibility. As Annie Dillard, perhaps the greatest American writer of the twentieth century, has chronicled vividly in such classics as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm, nature is the site of activity that immediately shreds any “cute and cuddly” sanitized postcard images of nature. Parasitism, “eat and be eaten,” brutal reproductive habits, and seeming chaos are as much the order of nature as are beautiful sunsets and charming animals–in fact, you cannot have the latter without the former. To sentimentalize nature is to miss this fundamental truth: nature is arranged so that death and beauty go hand and hand.

And perhaps Palm/Passion Sunday, the Sunday in which many churches go from waving verdant green palms to meditating on the barren place of the skull, when the rich wine of the last supper gives way to the gall of the cross—perhaps this is the space in the church year when that message might resonate most strongly. It is of course the case that Christians throughout history have had variegated and conflicting opinions about Jesus’ death: was it necessary? Was it part of God’s plan? Does it atone for sin, and, if so, how? Consensus on the specific nature of the atonement (that is, a specific “atonement theory”) has never been mandated by Christian orthodoxy. But what does run through various theories, images, and meditations on the cross of Christ is this fundamental datum: the life that the God of Jesus Christ chooses to give is a life interwoven with the realities of death. Easter might overcome the passion, but it does not eliminate it.

But the reverse is true. If life is shot through with death, then the liturgical remembrance of Jesus’ passion is the church’s testimony to a hurting world that what appear to be spaces of death (Golgotha, a sealed tomb) are shot through with life. The places of human failure are the sites of the Spirit’s triumph.

Sentimentality is the enemy of truly Christian action. If Christians over-sentimentalize Jesus, and thus trivialize the faith, then Christian action in the world will be too airy and fragile to stand up to the hard realities of a time in which Caesars and Pilates still reign, in which individuals and whole peoples are crucified by violence of all sorts, and even the best-intentioned work on behalf of the poor and marginalized is inextricable from the limitations imposed by unjust systems. Similarly, to sentimentalize nature is to miss the fact that the very environment which Joseph Sittler once called “the placenta of human self-consciousness” is a place shot through with that which might terrify us. Whitewashed fiction is no solid ground on which to take a stand for that which we love.

Any Christian action in the world will have to take the world as it is—which means that that action must be grounded in hope that may seem as impossible in our day as hope must have seemed at the foot of the cross. And as the terrors of our natural environment move from the sort of “natural” dangers such as predators and parasites to the more humanly crafted threats of global climate change, pollution, and loss of species, we will need to act with the hope that, just as it did two thousand years ago, God’s spirit of life with pulse through the reality of death—such that death is not the final word.

For 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

 

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Caring for the Dying Creation is an act of Hope in Resurrection

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

This week’s readings present a series of evocative images that reside at the intersection between death (anointing spices) and the hint of new life—thus bringing to a new level of intensity and interplay between the reality of death and Christian hope in resurrection that characterizes Lent as a whole.

As it happens, I recently had occasion to meditate on the intersection of mortality and hope when it comes to how we engage in acts of care for creation. In this article, published in The Cresset, I try and make the case that every act of care—in all aspects of life—is, in fact, care for the dying.

Recognition of this fact, far from causing despair, should invite us into a deeper understanding of how radical the call to fidelity in God’s promises is, and how it is in the very acts of giving up the future into God’s hands that we find ourselves empowered to work for God’s future now.

Such is the blessed paradox of Christian action: the more we hold to promises that are beyond our capacity to bring about through our own works, the more we are invited by God’s Spirit into the gift of engaging in the very works that are foretastes of creation’s redemption.

I invite you to reflect on the article (courtesy of The Cresset) as my commentary on this week’s texts:

http://thecresset.org/2013/Lent/Saler_L2013.html

Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Our human systems of self-reliance prevent us from using the gift of creation well.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013

The Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C

Joshua 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-32

One of the most insidious aspects of being caught up in systems of injustice is that we as individuals find ourselves culpable for wrongdoing even if we have not made the conscious decision to perpetuate sin. I might be going about my day engaged in activities that seem perfectly benign, and indeed beneficial: going to work, maintaining my household, engaging in recreation and travel with friends. But each of those activities, in the North American context at least, is implicated in larger webs of real and potential injustice. My salary at my workplace allows me to live, like virtually all North Americans, at a level wherein my basic needs are more than taken care of, even as much of the world’s population goes without adequate food and shelter.  My recreational activities, praiseworthy as they might otherwise be, testify to my complicity in the ongoing consumption of natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

While Martin Luther’s “low” theological anthropology and estimation of natural human capacities, particularly as reflected in the severity of his late-Augustinian doctrine of original sin, is often criticized for being too pessimistic or even irrelevant to contemporary concerns, it is worth noting that the notion of original sin does name a kind of pathos by which we realize that even best aspects of who we are and what we do are inextricable from injustice and its effects. The bare fact that there is virtually no action that we can take—including spending our time working for environmental justice—that does not benefit from/participate in disordered and unsustainable systems evokes the inevitability  of sin in our lives—and perhaps also brings forth the cry for deliverance.

The Joshua reading for this week is ecologically interesting in that it marks the transition of the Israelites from dependence upon the miraculous appearance of manna during their peregrination in the desert to agriculture—once they have successfully brought forth produce from the land, the manna is no longer necessary. This is, in many respects, a praiseworthy achievement, and of a piece with the Israelites taking possession of the land that God has promised them.

However, there is something striking about the fact that the Israelites’ agricultural achievement is marked by a transition away from being fed by the sheer gratuity (not to mention improbability) of God’s manna. Part of what is at play here is a tension that goes back to the stories of humanity transitioning away from the garden in Genesis 2-3. On the one hand, Adam and Eve clearly trespass God’s commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they are expelled from the garden as a result; in the aforementioned Augustinian/Lutheran tradition of “original sin,” this transgression has generally been seen as the root of subsequent human depravity.

On the other hand, within both rabbinical and later Western Enlightenment contexts (as well as in some early Christian church fathers, such as Irenaeus), this move away from the garden was often read as a depiction of the “maturing” of humanity, with all of the promise and peril such maturing holds [cf. Robert Saler, “The Transformation of Reason in Genesis 2-3: Two Options for Theological Interpretation,” Currents in Theology and Mission Vol. 36, No. 4 (August 2009)]. Like a child that is weaned from absolute dependence upon its parents for food, and a young adult who moves from her parents’ home, the Israelites reaching a point of relative self-reliance for providing their own food carries its own sort of potential for both sin and blessedness.

I say “relative,” because—as the rest of Israelite history as recorded in the Old Testament vividly depicts—it is precisely when Israel “forgets” its dependence upon God’s continued mercy and providence that the nation slides into its characteristic evils—idolatry, injustice towards the orphan and the widow, rapacious practices towards the vulnerable. To receive self-sustenance as a right arrogated rather than a gift given is a cornerstone in the construction of sinful systems.

This theme—the perils of self-sustenance—reverberates through the familiar account of the so-called “prodigal son.” In this story, the son’s most significant learning is not his own inability to provide wisely for himself by prematurely spending his inheritance money. Rather, the most significant thing that he discovers is his father’s ongoing willingness to practice sheer gratuity—forgiveness, seemingly excessive celebration, and welcome beyond shame. To the extent that the “father” in the story does indeed signify God, then the message becomes clear—recognizing the ongoing “giftedness” of what we have received is the foundation of right use. Joseph Sittler puts the matter well in his famous sermon “The Care of the Earth:” “Abuse is use without grace . . . . If the creation, including our fellow creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment” (Sittler, “The Care of the Earth” in The Care of the Earth, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).

We as humans will build systems of self-reliance, and those systems will both bless and harm. There is inevitability to this, and the preacher should not sugar-coat it. However, preaching on these texts also presents an opportunity for the preacher to invite the congregation into delight for the sheer gratuity of the gifts that God gives us—in our lives, in church, and in creation itself. And cultivation of such delight in the minds and hearts of the congregation may become the occasion by which new possibilities for right use of these gifts occur.

Third Sunday in Lent in Year C

Let Repentance Linger. By refusing to rush to easy consolation, the preacher creates space for authentic encounter with God’s call for change.
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013
The Third Sunday in Lent in Year C

Isaiah 55:1-13
1 Corinthians 10:1-17
Luke 13:1-9

The philosopher and storyteller Peter Rollins has, in the last few years, become a popular author and lecturer in the United States and Europe. A thinker associated with the postmodern phenomenon of the “emergent church,” he also provides leadership to the Ikon community, an ecclesial gathering of Christians and others who meet in bars to engage in nontraditional liturgical experiences, often centered around a theme. His book How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), describes the power of worship experiences that do not follow set rubrics, but rather create space for authentic struggle with theological questions. Worship, and preaching, can operate in such a way as to keep certain questions alive and vital.

In preaching about Jesus’ parable of the fig tree from an ecological perspective, the preacher this week is confronted with a rather daunting set of facts—which leads to a potentially intimidating opportunity for keeping disturbing questions alive in worship. The facts are these: in all of the readings for this week, God’s mercy is described by utilizing images of the fecundity of nature (clean water, bread, wine, milk, and fruit). As with the readings last week, the physical “fruits” of nature signify spiritual goods – grace, mercy, spiritual sustenance against testing. The logic animating in these readings depends upon nature’s fruition (finite as it may be) to convey reliably the message of God’s infinite fecundity and love. Spiritual riches are signified by nature’s functioning as it should.

In these past few years, our planet—and especially the poorest among us, such as farmers in Third World contexts—has begun to see the effects of global climate change take hold. “Global Weirding” has already begun to create irregularities in weather and growing patterns. Barring a major change in carbon emissions and other climate-altering activities on the part of humans, we can expect that these irregularities will grow worse, with increasingly dire human consequences. For instance, for a convicting examination of the relationship between hunger and global climate change in Nicaragua, see the video “As long as the Earth endures,” available at http://www.elca.org/Our-Faith-In-Action/Justice/Advocacy/Congregational-Resources/Caring-For-Creation.aspx

Lutheran theology emphasizes the primacy of God’s grace, including in matters related to care for creation. However, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously warned, such grace can become “cheap” if it is dispensed and received lightly, without acknowledgement of the gravity of sin and its effects. Part of what is useful about Rollins and the Ikon community’s work is that is demonstrates that there is a sort of liturgical hunger on the part of Christians and non-Christians alike to participate in communal experiences that do not rush to answers too quickly, that do not foreclose the intensity of wrestling with sin, doubt, and nagging questions by asserting their being “solved” by grace.

So the intimidating liturgical opportunity before the preacher this week is the chance to invite the congregation to wrestle honestly with this question: if the Bible signifies the love and presence of God through images of nature’s fecundity, and if human actions are bringing about a state of affairs in which nature will be increasingly less able to bear its fruit in a manner hospitable to human flourishing, then what will it mean for us to live in a world in which the most natural signifiers of the presence of God’s love are gone? What will be the spiritual cost of ecological devastation? Might it be that we, unlike the Biblical writers, will not be able to look to what John Calvin could call “the theater of God’s glory” (nature) in order to see assurances of God’s presence with us?

Lutherans may not be able to go as far as theologians such as Mark Wallace, who make God so immanent within nature that “to commit ecocide is to commit deicide” (cf. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit, New York: Continuum, 1996). We believe that God’s Spirit transcends the material world such that there is indeed divine hope that exists beyond human destruction. However, just as Nietzsche’s “death of God” referred, not to the death of an actual deity, but rather the death of a certain way of humanity signifying meaning and worth to itself, so too the destruction of the natural world can result in the evacuation of meaning for humans. Destruction of our natural environment threatens our ability to experience the world as meaningful, and to experience God as grace-ful. As theologians such as Joseph Sittler, Bill McKibben, and Leonardo Boff have reminded us, the biblical message is that environmental health and existential meaning are inextricably linked.

The Lenten season is a time when the church has liturgical permission to linger with its questions, its doubts, its laments, without feeling the pressure to rush prematurely to closure and consolation. The image of the fig tree that no longer produces fruit because of what WE have done is a haunting indictment, not only of our crimes against ecological health, but our violation of nature as God’s gracious “mask” signifying the endurance of mercy instead of judgment (cf. Vitor Westhelle, The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006). The barren tree is an image of judgment, but like all biblical images of judgment it is also a call to metanoia, as Jesus himself makes clear in vs. 5.

Each preacher will have to decide, in her own context, when her congregation needs to hear the word of judgment and when it needs to hear the still-present word of God’s mercy. But Lent is a time to let the images linger—the barren tree, the antibiotic-tainted milk, the wine used to deaden the senses instead of enliven them. If the preacher creates liturgical space to let these images linger and to let the congregation wrestle with the weight of what we have wrought, then such spaces may unexpectedly become sites of the Spirit’s own redemptive work. Refusal of cheap consolation may be the occasion for genuine repentance, and the surprising mercy that accompanies it. Such is Lenten hope, embodied.