Jesus and the Journey of Overcoming
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2015
By Robert Saler
The First Sunday in Lent in Year B
Whenever I teach seminars about the relationship between our Christian faith and care for God’s creation, I have an exercise at the beginning where I ask students how it was that they fell in love with the idea of caring for creation as an expression of their faith. What was their epiphany, their conversion?
And as you might guess I heard a lot of stories about students standing at the Grand Canyon and having God’s majesty watch over them, or spending hours walking through the pristine woods and feeling God’s presence, or looking out onto the ocean, and so on.
My story was a little different.
The truth is, that I first came to really get the connection between faith and earth care during a pretty intense hangover.
When I was in graduate school, working on my doctorate in theology, I used to spend hours and hours each day reading and arguing and getting into all the different nuances and theological opinions of Christians across twenty centuries. Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, evangelicals, atheists, on and on and on, fighting it out in my head. I did that for about eight or ten hours a day, and I loved it, but, as you can imagine, at night I would occasionally need to go out and blow off steam. I was young, no family, etc. So one night I maybe stayed out a bit too long, blew off a bit too much steam…etc. So the next morning I found myself a little bit unable to move, or to travel very far from my bed. Head killing me, stomach upset: some of you reading this know the drill.
So I’m lying there, and the problem is that even though my body feels about dead I can’t shut my brain off and go to sleep. So I’m thinking about, you know, regret and remorse: “never again!” But since I was used to thinking about all of those theology fights all day, I couldn’t help it: I started thinking about religion and theology, right there in the middle of my hangover.
And in so doing, just like my students standing at the Grand Canyon,I had my epiphany.
And that epiphany was—wait for it—pain hurts. It really, really hurts. And it does really, really bad things to our spirits.
Amazing insight, right?
And my further epiphany was as follows, and just bear with me for a second here: a hangover, as you may know, is primarily caused by dehydration. Lack of water in the body caused by excess alcohol metabolization, etc. Dehydration. Which means that the pain I was feeling because of my own dumb fault that morning was not entirely dissimilar to the intense pain being felt by our sisters and brothers on this planet—the UN estimates 783 million—who do not have enough access to water, including the intense pain felt by children who die from dehydration. That pain is real. Indisputably real. Pain kills bodies, but it also damages souls if it goes on long enough and intensely enough.
And it was then that I realized that—all the controversies aside, all the religious disputes about Christian belief and ethics and dogma aside—surely at the end of the day there are some pretty simple facts staring us in the face. Pain hurts. People without water, men and women and children in this world, are in pain. People without adequate energy resources—namely, without power/ heat/electricity, and so on—are freezing. Pain, as Elaine Scarry has reminded us in her monumental work The Body in Pain, creates worlds of hopelessness for victims in which language and narrative selfhood falls away. It can be nothing but evil in such contexts.
And let’s keep being real for a moment: We all know that issues around environmentalism, ecology, conservation, etc., get very political very quickly. That’s inevitable, and serious issues deserve serious debate. But underneath all the politics, when all is said and done, let’s be clear: people are hurting. Bodies are hurting and pain damages souls. And however much fun it may or may not be to distract ourselves with party politics and church politics, at the end of the day: pain is real. And if we believe that God is a God of love, and that God loves those in pain, then the math becomes pretty simple. It doesn’t have to be about hugging trees or saving whales if that’s not your thing. But if Jesus is your thing, then ignoring those who are hurt by environmental degradation really just isn’t an option—at least according to that really edgy sermon that we’ve all heard, the one preached from a mount.
I’d love to be able to end this story of my conversion by writing that since that moment I became a model ecological citizen—always recycling, retrofitting the house to cut energy costs, not taking a job that has me flying every month, etc. But that would be a lie. “Chief of sinners am I,” said Paul, and he meant it. So do I. I’m a 21st-century American, and by virtue of that fact alone I’m already richer and more resource-secure than the vast majority of the planet’s population. I use way more than my fair share of energy, and water, and food, and carbon, and despite whatever articles I write or sermons I preach, the fact remains that I’m still caught up in living in ways that hurt God’s planet and God’s people. Unsustainable systems from which I benefit and to which I give strength, even when I’d like to think that I’m rebelling.
And that brings us to the fight against temptation, and demons, and Satan, and to our reading, because the truth is that the Christian faith has long understood that the real evils that we have to fight are not the ones out there, but the ones inside of us. The ones that we cling to, that partly make us who we are. The ones that drive us into our own wilderness, where the fight must take place.
The preacher who preaches on demons and demonic temptation in Lent should not waste time trying to convince the congregation one way or the other as to whether there literally are realities called demons, or whether the Bible uses that language symbolically to describe persistent inner torments and temptations; faithful Christians across centuries have and do understand it both ways. But the preacher should try to convince the congregation that the gospel of Jesus Christ is only gospel for us if we understand that our deepest sins are not math problems that we can somehow stand outside of and puzzle about and solve through reason. No, our deepest problems, our deepest sins, are inside of us. The fight isn’t a math problem, it’s a wrestling match.
And if the preacher falls into the trap that is as common with environmentalists as it is the old-fashioned moralists and tells the congregation that the only answer is to pick yourself up and try harder, then the joy of preaching is betrayed. We talk a lot in the Lutheran church about works-righteousness, but really in this context that’s really just a term for the idea that faith is about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and fighting your demons alone and God/the Earth judging you at the end.
But this isn’t a story of a man being told to pick himself up and fight the fight against demons alone. This is a story of Jesus overcoming, and of the church being invited to live into that overcoming. The good news is the overcoming of Satan and, as we’ve seen in earlier texts, the overcoming of the demons that cause us to become agents of death rather than life. Jesus taking on Satan in the wilderness and inaugurating the victory of which his church is to be the bearer.
Which means that the Jesus which the congregation encounters in Lenten preaching is not a Jesus who is going to tell us to keep doing good things for creation for the motivation that somehow it’s up to us to save the planet and save God’s people. No. If it were up to us then we’d be lost, and God’s creation even more lost.
The Jesus that we meet in Lent doesn’t wait around for us to get it together. He fights demons and the temptation to dominion, and fights it on our behalf. He takes the sins that we hold deep inside of us and, slowly but surely, does the Spirits’ work of changing us into God’s people.
Preaching creation care in Lent must avoid at all costs having the congregation leave feeling like it has heard environmental scolding, or even Christian scolding, a word telling it to do better or else. The gospel of the Lenten journey inaugurated in the desert is to know that the Jesus that we meet here in these texts is one who is already working on God’s world, working on its pain in ways seen and unseen and, more to the point, is already working on your heart. That your demons and my demons aren’t safe, and that even in the pain of losing them we are held by a love that is bigger and more powerful than we can possibly comprehend. God is doing God’s healing in the world. God’s people, God’s church, is so loved by God that the Spirit is going to take us along for the ride. Preach that scandalous good news and be amazed—by the beauty of God’s healing out there, and the beauty of God’s healing in our very being.
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288