by Ellen Sims
texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
In preparing to speak at last year’s Earth Day rally downtown, I read Jim Antal’s book Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change. Actually, that book read ME, examined ME. Since then I’ve been wanting to schedule a study of the book for our 9:30 class to help us consider one of the most challenging justice issues for people of faith: care for God’s creation.
Nine years ago the Rev. Jim Antal, the UCC’s Conference Minister for Massachusetts, spearheaded a “carbon fast” for Lent. The UCC sponsored it and other many denominations and faith groups supported it. Over the last nine years thousands of people representing all fifty states and many other countries have benefited from this opportunity to become more ecologically “conscious and conscientious in their daily lives.” Rather than “giving up” something for Lent, like, say, sweets or swearing, we might choose this Lent to experiment with new spiritual practices for becoming better stewards of creation. And perhaps some of these experiments will became lasting commitments. Our actions might range from the very simple, communal, and short-term (for example, conducting an energy audit for our church) to more long-term, individual commitments (consistently buying only local produce) in order to reduce our carbon footprint: hence, “a carbon fast.” Participating in a Lenten carbon fast allows Christians to experience a short-term commitment to feasible actions that can make a difference.
I’m giving up meat for this Lenten season. I have no expertise in environmental or medical science, but many studies show there are compelling health, environmental, economic, and humanitarian reasons for reducing meat in our diet. In fact, some research suggests eliminating meat and dairy from your diet is the single biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint, which reduces the warming of our planet. (See https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth and https://www.downtoearth.org/go-veggie/environment/top-10-reasons).
When I decided to challenge us to a “carbon fast” for our Lenten spiritual practice and pair that challenge with a “green” sermon series, I wasn’t sure if the lectionary’s texts would lend themselves to environmental-themed sermons. But you may be surprised at how earth-centered scriptures generally are—and maybe not so surprised at how earth-centered ancient people were. Today’s Hebrew Bible and New Testament stories are rooted in the earth and contextualized by a culture
— like and unlike ours — that both valued and plundered the things of the earth.
While we try to read ancient scriptures by appreciating their distinctive socio-cultural settings, we can be sure that the seeds of acquisitiveness and dominance that now imperil our planet were planted in humankind long ago—even inside some of our sacred scriptures. Embedded in today’s reading from Deuteronomy is the belief that God justified the invasion and “possession” of land through brutal conquest. In just the first sentence we heard the word “possess” twice as an order from God: “When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall (listen to this next verb) take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground . . . .”
Do we worship a God who would order a violent invasion? Have you considered how the Canaanites would have written this story? Isn’t it easier for Native Americans to identify with the Canaanites than with the Israelites who invaded their land? The Bible has stories rooted in cultures that wanted to justify their domination of other people and their land.
We want to be careful not to selectively choose and interpret stories to justify our way of life and blind us to the dangers we and our land may be facing. Never before in human history has the earth itself been so imperiled by a “way of life.” Our Bible celebrates creation, but it was written by people who could not imagine that human greed and violence on a scale that could literally extinguish life—by pollution or nuclear war—and it has been used to justify the human exploitation of creation. Core tenets of Christian scripture still can speak to these unprecedented times in which we live. And yes, greed and selfishness and every-man-for-himself-ness have always existed. But picking and choosing scriptures to justify selfishness and short-term thinking will be our ruin.
Today’s gospel story, in contrast with the Deuteronomic story, emphasizes Jesus’s triumph over the temptation to acquire and dominate. Luke 4 may help us recognize our own temptations to choose immediate gratification over sustainable solutions and the welfare of all—-and inspire us toward ethical commitments that could become planet-saving. This Gospel story may be stretched into a warning against being lured away from the kin*dom’s priorities for people and the planet. May we, like Jesus, see this world’s realities and then work for God’s aims. A few observations as I ask Luke 4 to read US and our culture through the lens of climate change and toward a commitment to ecological justice.
First, notice Jesus keenly experienced an embodied commitment to the work of resisting evil and opposing forces that threatened lives. Prior to the start of his ministry, Jesus had deprived himself of food for 40 days. Of course, he’d been living all his life under the Roman occupation, enforced by armies as it conscripted people and extracted natural resources. But following his baptism by John, Jesus “was led by the Spirit [of God]”—into the wilderness, away from the Spirit of the Empire. In a series of temptations, Jesus recognized the fullness of the Empire’s systemic greed and abuse of power, assisted by local authorities including Temple authority, and symbolized by the devil. At that critical moment and thereafter, Jesus steadfastly resisted those forces.
Fasting and praying attuned Jesus to God’s compassionate and peaceful vision for our world. Perhaps some form of fasting would give us, too, a vantage point from which to survey the world. We might be able to resist apathy and stand up for clean air and water. The waning middle class in America is being tempted to trust Wall Street and Washington and the mega-/prosperity gospel churches with the life of luxury and power they promise. But Jesus’s choices point us to a future tied to the hungry in our community and the health of our planet.
We see in Luke 4 that it was the devil’s revelation of Empire’s unbridled power and Religion’s dangerous authority that fully exposed the tempter’s intentions. Although the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and then from the Temple offered Jesus the glory due God alone, Jesus retained his humility before God. It is our own hubris and avarice that have allowed humanity, 2000 years later, to believe that if we can dream it, make it, sell it, commodify it, then we deserve it . . . whatever the cost to the planet. Then and today, economic, political, and religious systems (represented in the three temptations of Jesus) often work against God’s kin*dom. We might look down upon this good earth and, unlike Jesus, see from the devil’s perspective dollar signs and short-term gains. That vantage point distorts our values, Jesus realized.
We also recognize in the temptation of Jesus that magical thinking was not then, nor is it now, the way to save planet Earth. Turning stone into bread is a promise that has yet to come to pass. Instead, the hurting and hungry people on this planet should inspire us to strengthen our resolve to address root problems of injustice. There are no magic tricks. Yes, we hope scientific advances will help heal planet Earth. But magical thinking that denies climate change will be as effective as trying to turn stone into bread.
I’m not claiming Luke’s writer intended this temptation story to be an ecological parable. I’m taking liberty here to place this ancient story into our context. This tenuous situation of our planet did not exist 2000 year ago. The specific sins of greed and domination that we’ve committed against God’s good creation have been done by US, not by people in Jesus’s time. We can’t blame the Romans for climate change. But we can see values Jesus upheld at great cost to himself. I believe a life of service and love of God and all that God made and loves IS Gospel/Good News. I believe John the Baptist today would be shouting “repent” to fossil fuel industries. Repent means “Stop what you’re doing! We’re on a dangerous road. Turn around!”–which today means, among other things, “Stop killing the planet! Reverse this deadly direction you’re taking!” One way Christianity can help reverse climate change is through the practice of repentance so that we can reverse course. We know how to preach and “do” repentance.
Christianity also offers a 2,000-year-old approach to surviving tyrants and forces of evil: the beloved community. One person’s individual effort to, for instance, spend 6 weeks as a vegetarian will have little impact. But banding together to heal our planet WILL.
I am so in love with this faith community. I see you and the way you love. And the mistakes we make as individuals and with one another. And the way we rebound and keep trying. And I think community IS key to growing spiritually and combatting injustices, including the most challenging, the forces that are exacerbating climate change.
Christianity also offers at least one other strategy for saving planet earth: hope. Deep hope. Because Christian faith is not in an evacuation plan from planet earth to heaven above. I don’t deny eternal life in God. But the churches that teach Jesus is going to come back and save us before things “heat up,” so to speak, are part of the problem. Many think God will whisk the favored ones off to heaven so we don’t have to face the consequences of polluting our air and waters, altering the climate so that vast parts of the planet submerge under the oceans or are fried to a crisp. But people of faith must draw upon a faith deeper and realer than a spiritual ticket out of this world. We have to care about and commit to the future of THIS earth.
For God so loved THIS world, that God gave God’s only son . . . .
PRAYER: Lord, lead us not into temptation but deliver us–as you delivered Jesus. Amen.