There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath
I’ve written before about how Christian theology has often failed the Earth; too often, we read the words of Genesis – that we have dominion over the Earth, that we ought to subdue it – or read Psalm 8, and we take them at face value and call it a day. The result is a misguided, sinful notion that we can do whatever it is we’d like with the land, air, and water on which all life depends.
But, the Bible is more complicated than that. A Christian relationship with the Earth is a far cry from this dominating, hateful approach to the ways Christian cultures have historically regarded the Earth (an approach which is anything but Christlike).
I preached this sermon at the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, a suburban UCC congregation where I currently work as the senior high youth director. In it, I borrow the concept of the Sabbath – born out of Jewish practice and expounded upon through millennia by Jewish theologians, but still present in Christian tradition – to suggest a different way we might come to relate to the other life on our planet.
I use a text from the prophet Isaiah, which you can read here, to highlight the ways in which Jesus was firmly rooted in his own Jewish faith – and then to explore the implications of this teaching for our relationship to our planet and all life on it.
You can watch the sermon in the video below, or read it in the transcript on the following page.
I have a funny relationship to reports on the climate crisis. On one hand, I so desperately want the crisis to be covered by media sources – and I want it covered honestly, with transparency and frankness. I want to read the IPCC reports as they come out. I want to know the full extent of the crisis we’re in, because I want to be a knowing witness to what is unfolding, and perhaps even an agent in its change.
And yet, when reports on the climate crisis do come out, it is often so upsetting that my first instinct is to look away. I get a funny feeling in my stomach, and my hands sweat, and I can only sigh deeply at headlines that announce what kind of world we’re heading towards. Usually, I bookmark the story, and I spend a few days dreading it before I finally find the courage to read what bad news that report contains.
It’s been this way for a while, but I had no words for what I was experiencing. Eco-grief is a term I’ve recently become acquainted with, and learning it was relief – like a drink of water in a dry land. Eco-grief refers to a broad range of emotions experienced in response to the loss of ecosystems and species, and to environmental destruction. Like other forms of grief, it includes emotions like sadness, despair, frustration, anger, confusion, loss, and hopelessness – among others.
It was a relief to just have these emotions named, and to realize that I was not alone in my feelings of grief. Naming it and seeing that I was not alone became my foundation for acting for a different kind of future.
These are the thoughts I carried with me as I wrote this sermon; my convictions about the need for action for the Earth, my sense of grief in the climate crisis, and my knowledge that many others carry this grief, but still feel alone. And I believe that this is a place where people are sorely in need of hearing the Gospel.
I preached this sermon at my seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, as part of our observance of the Season of Creation, a liturgical movement which seeks to pray for and act to protect creation. You can access the audio to the sermon here, or read it below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about eco-grief or the sermon in the comments, and if the sermon touches you in anyway, I’d be delighted it you shared it.
“Christianity has nothing to do with certainty… Christianity is about living in opposition to certainty; it is about faith in the midst of doubt. Indeed, Christianity has no room for certainty, for certainty lives by the law of self-protection; its own rightness keeps it from hope and, most importantly, (the greatest of these, Paul says) from love… Doubt then is not our enemy, but our friend. For it keeps us from the most unchristian of things: assuming that we possess certainty, that we need not think about faith or love our neighbors, and worse, that we need not search for God.”
Andrew Root, “Doubt and Confirmation: The Mentor as Co-Doubter” in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry
I worry that our churches are setting faithful people up for failure. Given that the people in our pews are thinking, intelligent people, and given that they listen and engage with faith every day, it is only a matter of time before anyone who attends church regularly will begin to think: hey, wait a minute. What about…? And yet, our churches don’t often have room for this kind of doubt, and people feel that they cannot both doubt and find a home in our communities; the only option they have, it would seem, is to leave.
Questions and doubt shouldn’t scare us, whether the questions are our own or the doubts of someone whom we love. Doubt, questions, ponderings – these are all the surest sign that we have engaged our faith seriously, that we are seeking our tradition and God on a deeper level. Put another way, questions mean that we taking the things we hear seriously, and wanting more information; questions are a sign of great faithfulness.
And yet, this is not often how we approach questions in our faith communities. Confirmation classes are often structured to simply hand information over to the young people in our congregations, sermons are often filled with statements born in a certainty foreign to the people in the pews, and one does not often hear people voice their doubts in the church coffee hour.
Scripture gives us an alternative way of approaching doubt. Indeed, in the story of Thomas at the end of the Gospel of John, I am struck by how the doubtful apostle is so able to express his doubts to his community – and still remain a part of the community. I can’t help but wonder whether the story of Thomas might help us to build church communities which encourage curiosity, doubt, and questions as integral, healthy parts of faith, rather than obstacles to be overcome.
I wrote this sermon for Resurrection Lutheran Church here in Chicago to speak to the virtue of doubt. So, here’s to doubt: our friend on the road of faith, encouraging us to seek more knowledge about God, about scripture, about what it means to live faithfully. Doubt our co-companion, who keeps our minds and our hearts open to something new, who weeds out our certainties so that we may flourish in our faith.
Here is the lectionary reading for the day, and you can see the sermon by going to page two just below this text.
Throughout the month of January, I traveled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean: to Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Greece, visiting sites important to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This trip was a dream of mine, and I am still processing much of what I saw: the Church of the Nativity in the midst of a walled-in Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Jordan River, the Dome of the Rock, and Ancient Corinth, just to name a few.
As people often are during pilgrimages, I was surprised to find that the holiness I sought was often found in the places between the sites. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt I learned the most about God from the people I encountered, for both the joy and pain I witnessed in my experiences with them: vendors who gave directions, strangers who helped us navigate buses and trains, teenage Israeli soldiers with machine guns on their arms, Bedouin children who sold tea in Petra, Palestinians who told us their stories of heartbreak and loss, and also of love of homeland, a longing for peace, and resiliency.
It is these images that I carried in my heart and mind as a I approached the texts for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, though the stories of my travels do not enter this sermon. While Luke’s Beatitudes take place on a level place and not on a mountain, as in Matthew, I thought of the beauty and serenity of the modern-day Mount of the Beatitudes, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, and how the quiet prayerfulness of this place belies its proximity to state-sanctioned violence and poverty and hunger – suffering from which I was immune because of my blue American passport.
And I wondered: what does it mean to be a Christian today, and what does it mean to be an American Christian? And who would I be in the crowd Jesus addresses in this passage from Luke: one to whom he says “blessed”? Or “woe”?
These questions became the bedrock for my sermon at Resurrection Lutheran Church on February 17th. You can find both the text for that morning and my sermon text below.
It should strike us as absurd. Pilate is the Roman governor of Judea. He has a palace, he has cops and regents and the support of an entire Empire. Jesus, in the context of this passage, has just been abandoned by his only friends and supporters, arrested, subject to police brutality, and is now sitting helpless in front of one of the most powerful men in the Judea. Pilate holds all the power, something he would remind Jesus of only a few verses later, and yet he is asking Jesus about truth, and about who Jesus is.
And Pilate does not ask him, “do you claim that you are king of the Jews?” Pilate only asks him, “Are you king of the Jews?”
This short Gospel reading is missing most of its context. If we were to read it in context, we would know that Pilate is pacing back and forth between Jesus, the accused, and the people of Judea, who have demanded that Jesus be killed, though they have not specified what his crimes were. Imagine: the decisive governor of Judea, pacing between a mob and a lone, peaceful man, trying to figure out what to do with this accused man. If we read this passage in its context, we would also know that Jesus has already announced who he is; only a few short passages before this, Roman soldiers announce that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus answers, “I AM.” And everyone falls before him, bowing.
“Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate asks. But Jesus does not play his games. He has already said who he is, and king is never the title he has applied to himself.
In fact, when Pilate asks again whether Jesus is a king, Jesus only replies, “You say that I am a king,” but that he has come to this world to testify to the truth.
The truth? Pilate must have thought this was a bold claim, because he immediately asks, “What is truth?” Those who know the Gospel of John well may have the answer on the tip of their tongue. Before his arrest, Jesus announced “I am the way, the truth, and the light.”
We know the answer to Pilate’s question about truth, and yet still I can’t help by feel that we are Pilate. Like Pilate, we pace between Jesus and the things people are saying about Jesus, wondering what the truth is; we pace between the mobs of this world and the man hanging on the cross, wondering who to believe. We have been told who Jesus is, perhaps felt ourselves fall before the great I AM, and yet still we wonder what the truth about this curious person, Jesus of Nazareth, is. Or, perhaps, in an age where the words ‘fake news’ are so often used, we may pace between what we hear and what we know, wondering what is true, and then perhaps wondering what God has to do with the truth, anyway.
N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, said that, “truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed.”
So, when we say that Jesus is the truth, we testify to the fact that Jesus, the powerless man who stood before Pilate, is the one who comes to shine light into our dark corners, to illumine where hearts break and death reigns high, to bring mercy and love and grace to those who need it so desperately.
But truth, as NT Wright defines it, is at odds with the Roman Empire. Empires, he says, can’t cope with the truth. He goes on to say that empires “make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice.”
And this is certainly true of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire spread and dominated through the largest and fiercest military the world had ever seen, and they grew their territories through violence and force. They killed entire cities which resisted, salted the earth to remove people’s ability to live off the land, they exploited the natural environment wherever they went, and they created a system where the vast majority lived in squalor while the richest among them enjoyed luxury.
But they had their reasons. The Roman Empire functioned this way to keep chaos at bay, to maintain order. They valued the pax romana, the Roman Peace, wherein people could trade freely and people could live safer lives, if only the violence exported further away from Roman cities. They prided themselves on a prosperous economy, on a stable government. The Roman Empire emphasized its military force and exploited the land and its people because they believed that this was the best way to give people good lives.
In short, they believed that violence would be their savior.
And Jesus claimed the opposite.
Jesus, who came to testify to the truth, says that his kingdom is not from this world, because the kingdoms of our world are full of this myth of saving violence. Our kingdoms, whether they be the Roman Empire or the United States, claim that we can be prosperous and safe – we can find our salvation – if we simply rely on violence in whatever its form.
But Jesus tells us that this kingdom is not from our world, where violence is hailed as savior, but that his kingdom is over truth. And Pilate asks him, “what is truth?”
But Pilate could have known already, had he been listening. Jesus had been preaching and teaching publicly for three years by the time he was put on trial before Pilate. For three years he had been shining light on the dark places of our world and bringing mercy and healing to all whom he met. Jesus testified to the truth by healing the sick and dying, by raising Lazarus from death, by comforting the brokenhearted, by speaking to foreigners and teaching women, by feeding the hungry and witnessing to God’s light in the world.
Jesus had been testifying to the truth for years by proclaiming God’s love for the world, and by showing that this great love meant healing from our every ill, freedom from the captivity of injustice, and redemption for all creation.
And the Empire could not cope with this truth, and they crucified him.
Pilate paced back and forth between Jesus and his accusers, wondering which savior he might choose. And he chose violence.
So, Jesus is right. His kingdom is not from this world, it has no basis in saving violence. And Jesus never does claim to be a king. His only crown was made of thorns, and he had no throne – only a cross.
So, why then, do we even have Christ the King Sunday? Why is it we gather once a year, at the end of our church’s calendar, and proclaim Christ to be something that he never claimed for himself?
The answer lies in the origin of this feast day. You see, unlike Advent or Lent or Easter, which are all ancient parts of our church calendar, Christ the King Sunday is only 93 years old. It was declared a holy day in the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1925, as a political response to the rise of fascism in Europe, and especially in Italy.
That same year that Christ the King Sunday was given a place in the Roman Catholic Church’s calendar, Mussolini had declared himself dictator over Italy. And he believed vehemently in the myth of saving violence. His “Black Shirts,” the fascist party of Italy, claimed that it would resurrect Italy to the former glory of the Roman Empire through violence and domination.
And the Church Universal felt the need to remind the world that Christians do not count our allegiance with the Empires of this world, and that our salvation comes not from violence. Rather, we follow a different way. The Truth, over which Christ reigns, is where we count our allegiance. It is in Christ, not violence, that we find our salvation. And it is through God’s love, not weapons and fists, that we will find the redemption of the entire world.
Today, we may find ourselves like Pilate in so many ways. We may wonder what the Truth is, and we may scurry between who Jesus says he is and who the world says he is, wondering what is to be believed. We may wonder who our real savior is – Jesus or the violent ways of Empire.
And like Pilate, we rely on the violence of an Empire to secure our own safety and economic prosperity and comfort. We may not be the ones who hold the weapons, but we rely on the US military, now the largest the world has ever known, and police and private prisons and factories which rely on child labor and detainment centers for immigrant children for the kind of lifestyle we live here in Lakeview. Like Pilate, we have outsourced the violence we rely on for our lives, and like Pilate, we can find ways to make this violence into our savior.
But the difference between a Christian and Pilate is that Pilate chose Empire. As he paced between his two options, between the mob and Jesus, he decided that violence was his savior after all. And we, as Christians, claim that Christ is the true king. As Christians, we proclaim that we have chosen a different way that the one that our empire has laid out for us. As Christians, we hold fast to the faith that love is a greater savior than violence, and love will always have the final say.
Christ the King Sunday marks the end of this year’s church calendar. Next week, we will begin the season of Advent, where we wait with bated breath for the birth of Jesus. It is fitting that we celebrate Christ the King just one week before we remember the beginning of his earthly life. Because nothing can tell us more about the kind of sovereign Christ is than to see that he entered this world as a helpless, fragile infant, born with all the limitations of our frail flesh, born helpless and hunted by the Roman Empire. And all this, only to be Immanuel, God with us. It is this Jesus of Nazareth, laying in a manger, that we proclaim God, and it is this Kingdom of God, where violence has no foothold, to which we belong. Amen.