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
1 Corinthians 10:1-17
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.