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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Stardust and a Stable
distributed 12/13/13 - ©2013

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Harold Palevsky, M.D., and Lorna Lynn of Wynnewood, PA, in honor of Jack Twombly. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.
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Christmas is a good time -- not the only time, but a very good one -- for us to explore Christianity's amazing proclamation of incarnation. When we say that God is in the person of Jesus, we are saying that creation matters. However high or low your Christology, incarnation should make Christianity an ecological faith.

Normally, we talk about incarnation in terms of "God becoming human" -- which is true. But it is much more than that. A book chapter by Norman Habel, A Theology of Deep Incarnation and Reconciliation, helped renew my delight at the full scope of God-with-us. Habel wrote:

We begin our reading of the Gospel with the incarnation. ... God becomes flesh, the Creator becomes clay, the Word becomes Earth. The Word incarnate has all the elements of a human body. ... In Jesus, God joins the web of life, becomes part of Earth's biology.

Habel goes on to ask: "Does Jesus the creature represent all creation? The answer, I believe, is yes! Jesus, as animated dust from the ground, is that piece of Earth where God's presence is concentrated in the incarnation."

But perhaps that still does not go far enough. It is still too Earth-centered. When I read the words, "animated dust", I think of the joyous declaration of identity spoken by many of my friends who find truth and meaning in creation theologies. "We are stardust," made up of elements birthed in ancient and distant stars, joining us with the stardust that is the shared stuff of the entire universe.

The incarnation is not only about the Earthiness of God. It affirms that God is embodied in all creation, here on this planet, and everywhere. The scandalous proclamation that is central to Christianity -- that God became human -- is an affirmation of galactic matter. All physical things become inseparable from divinity.

But when I stretch things that far -- when I go from the particularity of a baby in a stable, all the way out to the dust and gas of the entire universe -- it is hard to feel the intimate relationships that can enliven spirituality. I'm not alone in sensing that disconnect. Habel notes:

The connection made by writers between this cosmic Christ force at work in the world and the historical Jesus who suffers and dies, is according to [Paul] Collins, 'an awkward link' -- so awkward in fact that the cross becomes secondary in much ecotheology.

Those are tough questions. Habel reminds me that, theologically, the essential detail of incarnation is not birth but crucifixion. The happy Christmas news of God's "concentrated" presence in a stable lays the groundwork for what comes later. "Peace is effected through the God who suffers on the cross and with creation." Good Friday is a particularity that defines the Christian story.

"We are stardust" stretches a creation spirituality far beyond our normal consciousness, but it is -- so to speak! -- nebulous. When we seek hope for this planet, we also need particularity. The problems of sin, evil, and alienation are -- as far as we know -- Earth problems, and tied specifically to humans. Habel: "Human sin affects more than humans; it causes many inter-related parts of life to be at odds with each other and ultimately with God's design."

We are stardust, but the need for salvation may be unique to this planet. However, we can't narrow down too far. The promise of Earthly salvation brings reconciliation to the whole Earth community, humans and the rest of creation together.

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All this deep theological reflection about incarnation is part of how I deal with Advent and Christmas as an ordained minister. But I have another set of roles that bring a very different set of perspectives to my December routines.

I am the executive director of Eco-Justice Ministries, and I really give a lot more attention to fund raising than to theology during the closing weeks of every year. [Make your tax-deductible contribution today!] Surprisingly, the theological tension of stardust and stable is informed by some practical (and engaging) resources on how to increase charitable giving.

A short (22 page) e-book titled, Homer Simpson for Nonprofits, provides excellent advice backed up by solid research. About half-way through, at principle 4, they give this advice to fund raisers and activists:

When you are telling stories, asking people to take action or raising money, remember that small beats big. Always. ... If you want to communicate with your audience on the scale they comprehend -- a human scale -- then take the big issue your organization addresses and communicate it through stories about one person, one whale, one tree. ... Small -- NOT big! -- is what evokes feeling, and feeling is what prompts action.

Those hard-nosed words about philanthropy help me see both the brilliance of Christianity, and the challenge of relating that faith to this time of global ecological crisis. All of our planet's beauty and agony, all of the complicated stuff about sin and grace, evil and death, are brought to a focus in and through the incarnation. God-with-us in the person of Jesus is "small, not big" and capable of evoking deep feeling and passion.

For the bulk of Christians who are not academic theologians, the story of Jesus has been an amazingly approachable, vivid and compelling story. That personal and particular narrative has changed lives and inspired commitment. Generally speaking, the small stable has been a more powerful story than vast stardust.

The challenge for the church today is to take that story of incarnation on a human scale -- the story of a baby in a stable and a man on a cross -- and make sure that our telling of the story engages us with the larger Earth community. If we tell the story so that it ignores the rest of creation, then we're distorting the Gospel, and we're not tapping into the transformative power of Earthy incarnation.

This Christmas, as we start to explore ways of addressing global crises through the "small" story of Jesus, we can begin with one short sentence from Habel. Rather than talking about God becoming human, try this: "In Jesus, God joins the web of life, becomes part of Earth's biology."

Park that sentence in your mind and your heart in the coming weeks. Let it shape your conversations and the way you worship. I think you'll find that it helps you connect the story of Christmas with both the stable and planet, and can include the stardust.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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