NOW. – Tom Martin reflects on the prophets and Jesus calling us to ecojustice “today.”
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year C (2022, 2025)
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The texts from Nehemiah and Luke combine nicely to create a sermon about ecojustice. The gist would be that Jesus, by saying Isaiah’s hope is “today . . . fulfilled,” calls his followers to engage in ecojustice practices. Ecojustice emphasizes four practices.
Sustainability. One generation’s exploitation of earth resources cannot deny resources for future generations. We practice limits on our use of the earth to what can be restored, protecting future human and other than human life.
Sufficiency. All creation is entitled by God to share in all the goods of creation. Each life form, each ecosystem is gifted by God with adequate provision for flourishing. Human practices need to reflect that same care.
Participation. “All forms of life are important and must be heard and respected in decisions that affect their lives” (Schramm, 262). Indigenous peoples, the poor, peasant farmers, minorities, endangered species, endangered forests, polluted water systems, all need to be given voice regarding the earth’s resources. Ecological science is an excellent place to find the ‘voices’ of ecosystems and specific species. Our praxis in following Jesus is to listen.
Finally, solidarity. All life is connected and interdependent. Human impacts on any other species or ecosystem impact us in return. Our discipleship praxis is to stand with creation.
To sermonize these concepts the preacher must show how these principles are rooted in the biblical traditions and how these particular texts take us there. [For a fuller description of eco-justice principles see James Martin Schramm’s “Toward an Ethic of Ecojustice” (1996). Cited here from Moral Issues and Christian Responses, Patricia B. Jung and L. Shannon Jung, eds. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.]
This means that a sermon for these texts may need to be a “teaching” sermon. I realize there are many who think sermons should “proclaim.” But in the New Testament proclamation is usually oriented to those outside the Body of Christ, and paraneisis (teaching) is what happens inside the Church. American Christians stand in need of learning about the environmental crisis. What needs to be taught is how Ezra’s reading of the Law and Jesus’ reading of Isaiah leads us to the practice of ecojustice. “Today.” Now.
A typical Protestant misconception is that violation of Torah is to worship other gods. It is a tidy means of privatizing faith and disconnecting it from social change. Against this one can, and should, cite those prophets who lay out economic violations of Torah as ancient Israel’s fundamental problem. (A short list: Amos 2.7; 5.11; 6.4, 7; 7.11, 17; Micah 2.2; 3.12; Isaiah 10.1-3; Ezekiel 16.49-50.) Our theo-political traditions since the rise of modern capitalism have led to a neglect of core economic-theological foundations in the Laws of Moses. We rarely hear about the laws for gleaning and what might be contemporary economic equivalents, the economic reasons for slavery in the ancient world, the Mosaic command to free (Israelite) slaves after a specified time and send them out with the means to live a sustainable and productive economic life. We fail to hear about the year of Jubilee and its command to redistribute the means of productive capital. And mostly we fail to hear that this redistribution is in the direction of the poor at the expense of those with economic security and comfort. A concise summary of Mosaic legislation by Stephen Mott and Ronald J. Sider is recommended (“Economic Justice: A Biblical Paradigm” in Toward a Just and Caring Society, David P. Gushee ed. Baker Books, 1999).
In the Nehemiah passage the connection to Jubilee, freeing of slaves and economic redistribution is to be found by looking back to chapter 5 for a larger context to Ezra’s reading of the Law. People have been forced to sell their children into slavery to pay taxes and the implied debt connected to taxation (5.5a). These same people are denied the Jubilee redistribution of land to enable them to buy back their children (5.5b). Both are violations of the Laws of Moses. This is the Law the people, chapter 8, hear read, weep over, and commit themselves to.
In the context of our current ecological crises the connections of Mosaic legislation to environmental issues become glaringly apparent. Women, children, the global poor, minorities, marginalized people/s, and indigenous peoples all suffer disproportionately from climate change, pollution and ecosystem disruption. Children suffering poverty, food insecurity, and with inadequate medical care are not features only of developing countries. The statistics for these categories in the United States are sobering. Poorer children everywhere suffer from exposure to pollution. Food insecurity is exacerbated by climate change, especially, for children in already marginalized food production areas. Women bear the brunt of depleted water resources and may need to walk miles for a daily supply of water. Inner city poor, especially the elderly, suffer more from summer heat waves than those in affluent suburbs. The global homeless suffer much more from winter cold than those in well-built and well heated homes. Every climate, ecosystem issue we face translates into oppression of poor, marginalized, and disempowered, people. People imprisoned in degrading and collapsing ecosystems.
Money, ownership of capital, control of production, all translate into political power. The Mosaic Law does two fundamental things. One, it ensures the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien in the land are not completely ignored. They can survive. Two, it gives the poor a means of emerging from poverty back into productivity through periodic redistribution of resources. The great hope for the poor in the Torah is the Year of Jubilee. The foundations of capital – land – are redistributed. Every family that through ill luck, mismanagement, or debt burden has lost its familial share is returned its share, is given a fresh start fully participating in the politico-economic system regardless of how they lost that participation. What Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue is Isaiah’s hope for the freedoms and restorations of the Jubilee year. And Jesus says this vision of Jubilee is “today.” Now.
What are the implications of Jesus’ proclamation for those imprisoned and oppressed by climate change? Isaiah says that prisoners will be set free. Jesus agrees. The prisoners the text imagines are most likely in debtor’s prisons. We need to remember that developing countries, the places where climate change impacts are largest and ameliorative practices and changes most needed, are also the places in the world most restricted by national debts. Economic practices are dictated by the World Bank, itself controlled by prosperous countries. These nations do not get to follow guidelines suggested by the United Nations climate agencies. Yet they have the populations suffering most from climate change. NOW, they should be freed. Remember that in Mosaic Law such freedom entails empowerment with the resources needed to live sustainably, to live working to alleviate climate change. Isaiah calls for good news to be preached to the poor. Jesus agrees. NOW. Such good news is not forgiveness of personal sin and a free ticket to heaven. Such good news is practical, accessible ways out of poverty. The world’s rural poor, are on average, people who want to live within the balances of their ecosystems. Good news is that they are to be enabled to do so. Isaiah wants the oppressed to go free. Jesus agrees. Now.
From Jesus and Isaiah, Ezra and Torah we come full circle to sustainability, sufficiency, participation and solidarity. This Gospel text calls us to live out ecojustice. And that means changing our unquestioned and unexamined embeddedness in the privileges of our economic dominance. It also means changing our environmental practices, even if the new practices are not to our immediate economic advantage. That is what the redistribution of Mosaic legislation means. Those who have benefited from environmental exploitation are now called to surrender that benefit for the help of those bearing the worst effects of climate change. The year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:19) is a time of environmental activism.
A completely different sermon can be constructed by using only Psalm 19 as the text. The heavens declare the glory of God. Daily and nightly the Cosmos speaks of its creator. No words, but their speech is undeniable, unmistakable. For the Psalmist this proclamation of God by Creation bleeds over into the wonder and glory of Torah. What makes this so preachable is the contemporary context of science-religion dialogue and a pervasive lay interest in how their faith intersects and interacts with the science that so enables modern life.
For creation preaching the first message from the Cosmos is that the created order contributes to our knowledge of God. Our spirituality is not disembodied. It is not in search of Platonic truths beyond the created order. Faith learns from nature, is enmeshed in nature. We need to preserve the natural order to preserve how it teaches us of God. We even need to preserve the heavens currently obscured by light pollution. There are now few places on the planet where one can “listen” to the night sky as it speaks. Artificial light covers over the voice of the stars and moon. One of my sons told me of a friend in New York City who did not believe in the existence of the Milky Way, because she had never seen it.
In science-religion dialogue there are several ongoing questions addressed in this Psalm. The first is the mystery of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing?
It is not just that this planet exists – countless billions of planets exist. Trillions of galaxies fill the universe. Existence overflows with superfluity. How? Why? The best current science answer is that universes emerge from the Quantum Void. But why does that exist? Both science and religion end with the same mystery – existence. Our faith names that mystery God. But every night you look at the stars, every night we revel in a phase of the moon, every morning we ponder the sun rise Mystery confronts us. The stars shout it out! The galaxies proclaim it! Listen to their voices.
That is the how question. The why question is still further beyond what science can answer. Is existence meaningful? Or idiotic? At a science level meaning/purposefulness cannot be explained. The features of the universe just are, with no apparent purpose or end goal. No meaning to it all. Yet we experience life as meaningful. Is it a charade, an idle tale told by idiots? I find that impossible to accept. My life is too rich, even with its failures, negations, seemingly pointless episodes. Life and the reality of Love give meaning to existence. In the Christian tradition we call the reality “God.”
This sermon would be proclamation. There is Love. We know it. It fills the universe with meaning. The stars themselves sing it out to us every night. Amen.
Originally written by Rev. Dr. Thomas Martin in 2022.