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Eco-Justice Notes
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Running Toward Danger
distributed 4/27/18 - ©2018

Last week's Notes mentioned that I soon would be preaching an Earth Day sermon. The Lectionary texts for that Sunday included the "Good Shepherd" text from John's gospel. That is not one of the passages of Christian scripture that jumps out to me with a clear "eco-justice" theme, so it took me a while to discern how to both respect the text and bring an urgent Earth Day message -- without overwhelming the congregation.

The sermon that I delivered last Sunday, I hope, met all of those criteria. My experience in wrestling with that text was a good reminder to me that the principles of an eco-justice theology are so deep that even verses spelling out a Christological doctrine still call us to care for all of God's creation.

Here's a slightly shortened version of my Earth Day sermon. (Or, the whole sermon is on-line.)

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The gospel text for Earth Day was John 10:11-18. In it, Jesus gives a starkly realistic picture of a hired hand watching a flock of sheep, and Jesus presents himself as a complete contrast.

The hired shepherd out in the fields watching the flock is like the familiar shepherds from the Christmas story who get frightened by angels. He's watching the sheep, and a wolf shows up. There is no voice of authority saying, "Be not afraid," so the paid shepherd runs away. He has a low-status, minimum-wage job, and that's not enough to make you stick around and be attacked by a hungry wolf.

The good shepherd, though, won't run away. The owner of the sheep is willing to lay down his life for the flock. It isn't just a job for him. "I know my own and my own know me," says Jesus.

Running away from danger might be the way that it works with hired-on shepherds, but I've seen lots of evidence of a more compassionate and sacrificial side of human nature, even in our urban and technological world. There are many examples of people willing to risk their lives, not just when they have a vested interest, but to help complete strangers.

I think of the bombing in Boston almost exactly five years ago. As you might remember, two homemade bombs were set off at the end of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed, and more than 260 were wounded. It was a horrible tragedy.

But listen to what one commentator wrote:

Here in Boston, the news is full of genuinely moving stories about the courageous people who, when the bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, ran towards danger, into the chaos of injured and bleeding people and more potential explosions, in order to help the innocent bystanders overtaken by the agonies of a terrorist act. ... when their community was threatened, [they] stepped up to help in whatever way they could.

Jesus tells of the hired hand who runs away from danger. But at the Boston Marathon, and countless other dangerous settings, strangers and neighbors and first responders run toward danger.

If there is a house on fire, neighbors rush to pound on the door and make sure everyone is out. If there's a traffic accident, people passing by immediately offer help -- often when it is very dangerous for them. It really happens quite often. People run toward danger, putting themselves at risk, out of care for others.

What makes the difference between those who run away, and the ones who run toward danger? Jesus hints at it by describing the qualities of the good shepherd. We run to help when we care for those who are hurt -- maybe not because we know them personally, but because we are all part of the community. We see those others as neighbors, and so the instinct to help kicks in. When the community is threatened, we hear the call to respond.

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Speaking on Earth Day in my role of an ecological evangelist, I ask us to take the focus off of Jesus as the ultimate good shepherd, and to think more broadly about those who willingly face danger because of their love of neighbors --a reflection of Christ's spirit.

And, for today, I'm also going to ask you to stretch your notion of "danger" beyond immediate, acute risks like wolves and bombs. On Earth Day, especially, we need to be honest with ourselves about the state of the world -- and it is not good. We can all make lists of things that are not going well, and in fact, the trend of national politics is making many of them much worse.

I'm not going to run through the whole catalogue of issues. Some are local, some are global. Some are immediate dangers, many will cause the worst harm in coming years, and with future generations.

The point is that we are facing real and grave danger. Our community is at risk. Our neighbors are threatened -- our neighbors all around the world, our neighbors of future generations, our neighbors of other species.

My question for today is this. When we recognize that danger, will we run away, or will we run toward the danger? Will you run away, or will you run toward danger?

Let me reassure you. For most of us, in this situation, running toward the danger does not put our lives at risk. "Running" is a metaphor, and it is others who are in danger.

But the contrast that Jesus posed is a very real question for us. In the face of danger, will your emphasis be in preserving yourself, or will you seek the good of the community? Will you take the defensive approach of running away, or will you take the loving approach of caring for the neighbor?

Let me get specific, and talk about the crisis of global climate change. I'm going to take the mainstream science as a given. Our modern society is burning vast quantities of fossil fuels -- coal, oil and gas -- and releasing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The CO2 holds in heat, the planet warms up (on average), and climate systems go crazy. We get both droughts and floods, stronger storms, melting glaciers, rising seas.

As James Gustave Speth has written in The Bridge at the Edge of the World:

all we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today ... Just continue to release greenhouse gasses at current rates ... and the world in the latter part of this century won't be fit to live in.

Our children and grandchildren face a very real threat. Knowing the danger that they face, will we run away? Will we keep burning fossil fuels in order to protect our oil-based economy and to preserve the comfort and convenience that we get from unlimited cheap energy? Or will we run toward the danger, risking out way of life, our privilege and our comfort, so that future generations can survive?

Jesus said, "The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep." But the good shepherd is willing to lay his life down for the sheep.

Today is Earth Day -- an occasion to be honest about the dangers that exist, dangers that threaten the very survival of our children, our neighbors, our world. We do know what is going on.

The question is, how will we respond? Will we protect ourselves, and ignore the danger? Or will we respond in love, risking a bit for the good of others? Will we run toward danger, because we feel the instincts of love to help others survive?

I pray that it may be so.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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