A sermon by the Rev. Peter Sawtell
for the annual meeting of the New Hampshire Conference, UCC
June 17, 2006 – © 2006, Eco-Justice Ministries
We have spent two days, gathered as members of the United Church of Christ, grappling with how we might be more faithful in our ministry, and in our ecological stewardship.
Yesterday morning, I put forth the proposition that we need to see our relation with God's creation as a core perspective within the church. In the words of the NCC letter, "it is no longer acceptable to claim to be 'church' while continuing to perpetuate, or even permit, the abuse of Earth as God's creation." I called us to transformative ministries of ecological relationships within this limited world.
But having taken you through two days of this topic, I have a confession to make. Notwithstanding my theological fervor yesterday, there have been times when it has been difficult for me to justifying care for the creation as central to Christian theology.
In much of my work with local congregations – in classes and in worship settings – I lift up the biblical sources for environmental stewardship. When I'm doing that, I find that I'm usually drawing on Old Testament sources. And I've heard from my colleagues who are doing similar work across the country that most of them do the same thing.
We look to the creation stories in Genesis. We look to the instructions about Sabbath and Jubilee. We look to the wonderful poetry and praise in the Psalms. We talk about Job and the other wisdom writings. We turn to great passages in the prophets.
And we hardly talk about Jesus at all.
It seems that the New Testament is not a rich field for ecological insights. That last part of the Bible is not necessarily against what I'm trying to lift up. As you heard from me yesterday, at a depth level it all hangs together quite well. But on first glance, and second, and third, it all seems to be about human relationships. The rest of creation is pretty invisible. The rest of creation looks like surface and object, and not system and subject.
When I'm talking ecology with church groups, Jesus language comes up often enough that I do feel like I'm doing Christian ministry. But the fact of the matter is, about 90 or 95% of what I write and say is just fine for the Jews and the Unitarians who are part of my constituency.
That worries me.
Is this message about caring for creation really that fringe to what the Christian church is all about? In my life calling and my Christian vocation, am I trying to advocate for something that is really peripheral to our historic faith?
This afternoon, I invite you to join with me in my personal journey with this question. Let's treat it as something of a detective story.
Here's the question that we'll be investigating: Can we put together an iron-clad, compelling case to prove that Christianity is ecological to the core? Not "the Judeo-Christian Tradition." Not some generic, interfaith spirituality. But the Christian faith.
That's our investigative challenge. And so we need to investigate the very core doctrines of Christianity.
As Christians, we believe that something pretty important happened in Jerusalem going on 2,000 years ago. In all of the diversity of Christian thought, we all say that, somehow, that Jesus guy made a difference.
Theologians talk about the importance of "The Christ Event" in terms of the doctrine of the atonement. And, as soon as the theologians start talking about that doctrine, they will point out to you that the fancy theological word breaks down into at-one-ment. It has something to do with making whole, making one, the broken relationship with God.
There are lots of different theories of the atonement. Different eras and different communities tend to claim distinctive approaches. Those differences are generally about the answer to one question: What's the big problem that Jesus solved?
Historically, there have been three broad themes, three general approaches to the atonement. So, in my detective work about Christianity and the environment, those are the sources that I went to.
Let's say that I interviewed three witnesses, to see if I could get them to place Christ at the scene of the ecological crime.
1. UCC Member
The first witness is a UCC member from the liberal side of our denomination. I asked her what the atonement is all about.
She told me that The Big Problem is that humans are ignorant about how we should live. The problem is one of knowledge. The solution: Jesus is the teacher and the great example. Jesus shows us how to live, and we turn to his words of instruction for insight. His death is important because it models for us what true commitment, sacrifice and obedience are all about.
Hmm. The teachings and the model of Jesus are really good about living simply and sustainably – there was a workshop focused on the beatitudes. They are great teachings about understanding ourselves in relationship and community. There are some examples in his teaching that draw on nature. But Jesus does not come across in the Bible as some sort of ecological crusader. This is a friendly witness, but not a compelling one.
2. Mel Gibson
The next witness could come from a more theologically conservative side of the UCC, but I went to Catholic film maker Mel Gibson to get the straight scoop. Mel, I said, tell me what Jesus is all about.
Mel told me (though his film, The Passion of Christ) that The Problem is sin & guilt.
Humans in general, and each of us in particular, are bad people. We've done the wrong things, and we have not done the right things. We're wracked with guilt and shame. We deserve eternal punishment. The Solution: By his death, Jesus has "paid the debt" that we each owe. He has put a giant credit in the cosmic ledger books on our behalf. The death of Jesus somehow cancels out the need of an angry and judgmental God for vengeance and punishment. This is the sense of the atonement that was at the heart of Mel's film, with its great floods of sacrificial blood.
Well, that's good news, I guess, but it sure seems to say a lot more about heaven and hell than about this earth and its problems. If we only pay attention to Jesus on the cross, then that's about the only "tree" in the story. Mel is not a helpful witness for my project.
3. Reformation Theology
Maybe the third time is the charm. Let's talk to a witness who will tell us about the classical theology of the Protestant reformation.
This witness tells us that The Problem is death, and the power of evil in the world. Not only are we anxious about our personal mortality, but the presence of death in the world is seen as a flaw. Great powers of evil, systems of corruption and deceit, keep us in the realm of death. Solution: By the resurrection of Jesus, God has overcome the power of death. We lift up not just the hope, but the promise of eternal life.
That's certainly good news. And the centrality of the resurrection in God's saving work is affirmed when we see Easter as the greatest festival of the church year. But as this story is generally told, it is only humans who are promised that eternal life. That's not a very good ecological message.
So we've interviewed three different witnesses to find their theological slants on the atonement. They all deal with real, valid, important problems. And they propose theological solutions that address those problems through Christ.
But all of those approaches seem to say that what I see as one of the most pressing problems of our day and age, the ecological crisis that I keep calling on churches to address, has nothing to do with God's saving work in Christ.
The three classical notions of the atonement, centered variously in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, have almost nothing to say. My three best witnesses are not helping me solve the mystery – or worse yet, they're giving me a negative answer.
Can we connect the saving work of God in Christ with the environment? It seems not. Maybe my work really is on the fringe of what Christianity is all about. Maybe there isn't a compelling reason why churches should care about the message that the faith-based environmental movement is trying to spread.
Maybe you've spent all weekend here based on a false premise – – but I won't leave you there!
There was a time when I was about to give up on solving the mystery. I felt in my heart that Christianity called us to care for the creation, but I couldn't find anything at its core that affirmed my hunches.
That's when the lucky accident came along. As in all good detective stories, something came up that provided that creative twist in perspective, and put all of the evidence in a new light. It came, not from a witness that I sought out, but from an unexpected direction.
My home church is Washington Park UCC in Denver. Several years ago, a woman joined our congregation who hadworked on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church. She opened us to the wonderful idea of Restorative Justice as a healing alternative to the criminal justice system in the US.
Restorative justice tells us that there are three parties in the problem of crime, or more broadly, of sin: the victim, the offender, and the community. While the restorative approach is common in many cultures around the world, it is very different from the western European tradition that has carried into US law. Our system looks at only two parties: the criminal, and the state as the agent of punishment.
In restorative justice, we get a different statement of The Big Problem: The community has been harmed by the acts of an offender against a victim. Solution: The offender must be brought back into right relationship with the victim and the community.
In working through that reconciliation, we hear truth in what our three witnesses told us.
But there's also the critical insight that comes out of Restorative Justice about the community. The whole is harmed when a part goes astray. It is not enough to deal with the victim and offender. We also have to bring about the healing of the community.
That insight has been beautifully transformational in the criminal justice system. It has provided new paths of grace for offenders, and new forms of healing for victims and communities.
The same insights are transformational for our theories of the atonement. Humanity's sin and evil impacts the whole community. Not only the human community – it hurts and distorts all of creation.
Aha! A church group working on criminal justice gave me the twist to understand an ecological Christianity in a new way. By remembering that the whole community needs to be considered in the reconciling work of God, the non-human parts of creation move from irrelevance to being the reason for Christ's salvation. By remembering the community, the message that we heard from those three theological witnesses is interconnected, broadened and transformed into new insights.
The good news is that the desire of God is for reconciliation of the whole. And while it does not often get named explicitly in the New Testament, that promise of reconciliation keeps showing up in the most sublime statements about God's saving work in Christ.
There's the passage we heard this afternoon, which starts off proclaiming Christ as the source of all creation. In the less-than-inclusive language of the NRSV, it says: "through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross."
If the problem that God solves in Jesus Christ is about a violated and fragmented community, the solution is not found just in punishment or forgiveness of the offender, or in some sort of settlement between God and the offender. The whole community must be reconciled, brought back into right relationships.
A similar theme is expressed in the psalm we heard. It speaks of the sin of the people – a collective sin, and of the forgiveness of God. It asks God to restore the people, and it points to some of the signs of that restoration – God's glory will dwell in the land, in the whole community, and the entire natural world will be enriched. Forgiveness and restoration are not just personal, not just human. When human sin is forgiven within the restorative context, there is a flourishing and a healing for all of creation.
We may often forget it, but the early Christians carried with them those sorts of Hebraic concepts about community and restoration – things that they would have taken for granted as implicit in the message of God's saving work in Christ.
So, in today's world, we need to look at humanity as the offender, the one within the whole of creation who uses and abuses freedom and power. And our environmental sin these days is great. I won't run through the whole litany of problems again, but it is clear that we have hurt the community of life.
In the face of that great problem, the promise of the Gospel is that God seeks reconciliation and healing for that entire community. When we do our theology with the insights of restorative justice, the whole of creation is intimately involved in the saving work of God in Christ. God breaks into human history, God brings grace and forgiveness and transformation, so that humanity can be reconciled with God and with all of creation.
Seeing all of this in the terms of restorative justice not only gives us insights into the problem. It tells us what we have to do as we live out our part of that reconciliation. We can learn from the criminal justice system about the steps that must be taken.
We need to go to the ones who have been hurt, directly and indirectly. As in any restorative justice process, the offender needs to meet with the community, to hear and to absorb the tragic consequences of our actions. We need to hear the hurt and the anger and the grief. We need to confess to all who have been harmed. We need to try to make some form of restitution. And we need to clean up our act, so that we don't do it again.
Any offender who has been through a restorative justice process will probably tell you that meeting with the community is hard. Hearing all that they have to say to us is painful. Formulating a confession and an apology that is genuine is agonizing. But they are all essential steps in the process of reconciliation and healing.
In the end, God and the whole community of life want us to be healed. The core Christian proclamation is that, somehow, the death of Jesus on the cross has something to do with making that reconciliation possible.
The whole of creation gathers with us today and every time we remember the saving work of God in Christ. Because it is not only for us that Jesus died, but for the whole creation.
And so our mystery is solved, and we find wonderful good news.
Therefore, let us give thanks, and let us be empowered to actively seek reconciliation with all of our neighbors.