sermon on the ELCA Social Statement*
and Jeremiah 4:23-28; Romans 8:18-23; Psalm 96;
This Social Statement is a sixth as long as the one on education, but death penalty and racism are shorter. Still, this gets bonus points in my book because it’s got to address—by definition—Everything.
This isn’t a confineable topic, even compared to the not-so-narrow topics of how society relates to the half the population of one gender, or what to do about wars that take up billions of dollars of our federal budget. Not that those are piddly things and this is frying bigger fish. It’s that they’re all in the same barrel. By definition, creation means everything that’s not the Creator. So it includes fish and barrels and humans of whatever gender doing whatever we do to each other on this little planet amid the inconceivably vast universe and maybe multiverses. All of that in 12 pages of Social Statement.
Remarkable economy, if you ask me. I appreciate lots crammed into little space, though I can’t quite manage in this sermon the proportion of this Social Statement to the long ones, because it would be shorter than the mini mini sermons for midweek worship and I’d already be done. So I’d better get going.
I explicitly connect this to other Social Statements so we don’t wind up with a sense that this is something separate, that when we talk about creation we mean gardens and forests and giraffes and climate change, but don’t as clearly mean farmers and young girls who have to walk farther to haul water and national security and genetics and how we treat people in prisons. But this is all connected. I really appreciate this Social Statement for understanding that. When Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical came out in 2015, it made a splash for tying together ecological concerns and human rights. Well, the ELCA has known intersectional ecojustice for a quarter century at least, not only caring for animals or separating out human needs as if they’re extraterrestrial, somehow disconnected to life on this planet.
Though the MCC regularly recognizes such relatedness of God, neighbor, and creation, still I expect the Jeremiah reading felt uncomfortable and kind of bleak. But don’t think of it as God’s wrath to start. Instead observe consequences to misbehavior and living apart from God’s intentions: God wouldn’t be very loving if there were no repercussions for how we lived, no possible mournful result, and having license to mistreat others wouldn’t do well to fulfill God’s intentions, either. When we ignore God, farm fields do indeed dry up and wither. When we attend to God’s ways, life flourishes.
At the Capital biergarten Bible discussion on Wednesday, Kathy Henning said Jeremiah reminded her of the start of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book. Here is an excerpt so you can hear what Kathy meant:
There was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings, in the midst of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. Even in winter countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow.
Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. The doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients.
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example where had they gone? It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.
Do you hear the resonance with Jeremiah? Rachel Carson wasn’t writing a spiritual fiction about punishment from God. She was describing the detrimental effects of our use of pesticides like DDT. Certainly we people of faith would say that God continues the creative work of songs and colors and life and so strongly disfavors the causes of mysterious maladies and sick children or dying chickens, the barrenness and blight that Jeremiah also pictured. The effects of our actions were harming God’s good creation. The Social Statement describes this as rebellion against God, which leads to experiencing “disrupted nature [as] a judgment on our unfaithfulness as stewards.”
But it doesn’t end bleak. Like the Social Statement, Rachel Carson moved from a description of destruction and lack of faith toward life restored, freed from the bondage to decay. Paralleling the glimmer of prophetic hope, where Jeremiah sees all has not been completely destroyed, the vision of Silent Spring fostered the turning of culture away from DDT, re-filling spring days in the countryside with song.
The book provoked a revolutionary environmental movement, eventually calling us into things like Earth Day, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Clean Air and Water Acts. We should remember, much of that was signed under a not-very-eager President Nixon under pressure.
Since then, other cries and other crises have arisen. When the Social Statement was written in 1993, the hole in the ozone was seen as a catastrophic problem. Yet a global agreement meant that what was eating away at our atmosphere to allow in harmful radiation would be banned and the air could begin to heal. God’s intention could be restored. Destruction was not the end.
Again, in 1993, global warming was seen on the same level as the ozone hole. We managed to address one problem with a global agreement, and needed another revolution on the scale of prohibiting chemical corporations to profit from DDT, but in climate change have chipped away at the edges. We read the—not bleak but urgent—words in our Confession that “action to counter degradation, especially within this decade, is essential,” but two and a half times that span has passed and we are still needing to compel ourselves and others to the essential action.
A revolution producing global agreement to preserve the life of vulnerable humans and prevent the extinction of thousands of species is certainly not easy. As with the other Social Statements, that’s recognized here. But our faith is never about simple solutions to small potatoes problems. This is always big stuff, life-and-death, enormous tragic wrongs countered with even more powerful love, destructive evils versus creative life, and all founded in our God who is “deeply, mysteriously, and unceasingly involved.”
Though facing similarly weighty and fretful ethical dilemmas as other Social Statements, this one may even more recognize despair, the sense that we can’t make a difference, that the crisis is too big, that the resolution is too far off.
Yet we are people of hope. The creation waits for us, groaning with eager longing. It is not only we who have faith, but the stones crying out, and dogs going into the kingdom of heaven, and valleys waiting to bloom and rejoice, and the trees to clap their hands, and everything in the seas with their coral reefs acidifying. They wait in hope, a glorious hope that may be unseen but will not disappoint.
And so we act. We act, Romans reminds us, even through suffering.
Now, I don’t know if Peter Bakken would say it was suffering to help write this social statement, but it certainly has helped bring important actions to birth. Rachel Carson faced loads of ostracism and even threats for her work. President Nixon probably had some of his own disgruntled suffering. For me, I can’t say that my biking to reduce fossil fuel use has been too much suffering this past week, with such pleasant summer days. It was no great struggle to be out with Kids in the Garden this week, and only slightly more to take an afternoon for a Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light meeting. My decision not to eat much meat doesn’t feel fitting for a metaphor of labor pains. Neither is my suffering of choosing to act analogous with those who suffer from inaction, whose homes are inundated by hurricanes or wildfires, whose song goes silent as they are overrun by a greedy economy, whose bodies are poisoned to the confusion of doctors or veterinarians or biologists.
But I do trust my kinship with all of these, knowing their need from sound science, trusting our relationship through Christ our sibling, with compassion breathed into us anew by the life-giving Spirit that compels our concern and energizes our action, the creative possibilities that stretch in front of us, founded by and resulting in God’s goodness, our true and vital source and goal, our sure home. That is the end.
We heard in the Social Statement’s conclusion: “The prospect of doing too little too late leads many people to despair. But as people of faith, captives of hope, and vehicles of God’s promise, we face the crisis. We claim the promise.” Vehicles of promise. That sounds like the most environmentally-sensitive vehicle there could be. And I rejoice in being aboard with you.
excerpt for reading:
We testify to the hope that inspires and encourages us. We announce this hope to every people, and witness to the renewing work of the Spirit of God. We are to be a herald here and now to the new creation yet to come, a living model.
Our tradition offers many glimpses of hope triumphant over despair. In ancient Israel, as Jerusalem was under siege and people were on the verge of exile, Jeremiah purchased a plot of land. When Martin Luther was asked what he would do if the world were to end tomorrow, he reportedly answered, “I would plant an apple tree today.” When we face today’s crisis, we do not despair. We act.
Given the power of sin and evil in this world, as well as the complexity of environmental problems, we know we can find no “quick fix”—whether technological, economic, or spiritual. A sustainable environment requires a sustained effort from everyone. The prospect of doing too little too late leads many people to
despair. But as people of faith, captives of hope, and vehicles of God’s promise, we face the crisis. It is in hope of God’s promised fulfillment that we hear the call to justice; it is in hope that we take action.
excerpt for Confession & Forgiveness:
Fac[ing] decisions made difficult by human limitation and sin,
we act, not because we are certain of the outcome
but because we are confident of our salvation in Christ.
Not content to be made in the image of God,
we have rebelled and disrupted creation.
A disrupted nature is a judgment on our unfaithfulness as stewards.
Alienated from God and from creation,
we become captives to demonic powers and unjust institutions.
In our captivity, we treat the earth as a boundless warehouse
and allow the powerful to exploit its bounties to their own ends.
Our sin and captivity lie at the roots of the current crisis.
Meeting the needs of today’s generations for food, clothing, and shelter
requires a sound environment.
Action to counter degradation, especially within this decade,
is essential to the future of our children and our children’s children.
Time is very short.
Sin and captivity, manifest in threats to the environment, are not the last word.
By the cross and resurrection of + Jesus Christ,
God frees [you] from [your] sin and captivity,
and empowers [you] to be loving servants to creation.
Although we remain sinners, we are freed from our old captivity to sin.
We are now driven to God’s promise of blessings yet to come.
Captured by hope, we proclaim that the Spirit of God,
“the giver of life,” renews the face of the earth.
Captured by hope, we dream dreams and look forward to a new creation. Amen
excerpt for Creed:
The creeds, which guide our reading of Scripture,
proclaim God the Father of Jesus Christ as “maker of heaven and earth,”
Jesus Christ as the one “through [whom] all things were made,”
and the Holy Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life.”
All creation, not just humankind, is viewed as “very good” in God’s eyes.
By faith we understand God to be deeply, mysteriously, and unceasingly
involved in what happens in all creation.
Central to our vision
of God’s profound involvement with the world is the Incarnation.
In Christ, the Word is made flesh,
with saving significance for an entire creation that longs for fulfillment.
The Word still comes to us in the waters of baptism,
and in, with, and under the bread and wine.
God consistently meets us where we live, through earthy matter.
We depend upon God,
who places us in a web of life with one another and with all creation.
In our time, science and technology can help us to discover
how to live according to God’s creative wisdom.
We look forward to a redemption that includes all creation. Amen
excerpt for prayers:
Creation must be given voice, present generations and those to come. We must listen to the people who fish the sea, harvest the forest, till the soil, and mine the earth, as well as to those who advance the conservation of the environment. We recognize obstacles of people lacking power [and] bombarded with manipulated information. We pray, therefore, that our church may be a place where differing groups can be brought together, tough issues considered, and a common good pursued.
We acknowledge interdependence with other creatures. Solidarity asks us to stand with the victims of fire, floods, earthquakes, storms, and other natural disasters. We recognize many ways we have broken ranks with creation in disenfranch[isement], degradation, and discrimination. We pray, therefore, for the humility and wisdom to stand with and for creation, and the fortitude to support advocates whose efforts are made at personal risk.
For all to have enough means that those with more than enough will have to change their patterns of acquisition and consumption. Sufficiency charges us to work with each other and the environment to meet needs without causing undue burdens elsewhere. We pray, therefore, for the strength to change our personal and public lives, to the end that there may be enough.
Neither economic growth that ignores environmental cost nor conservation of nature that ignores human cost is sustainable. Both will result in injustice. We know that a healthy economy can exist only within a healthy long-term sustainability of our planet. We pray, therefore, for the creativity and dedication to live more gently with the earth.