Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Eco-Reformation Sermon: The Questions that Dare Not Go Away

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship,
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author of Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015)

Texts:  Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

I was once cautioned by a Lutheran elder to beware of my pursuit of developing a Lutheran approach to ecology and environmentalism.  “All this talk of ‘saving the earth’ that I hear nowadays sounds like works righteousness. We are saved by faith, not works,” she reminded me.  “So you’re listing dangerously close to Lutheran heresy by insisting that there is something humans can do to save the planet.”

In one sense, she was correct.  It is important to be aware of the risk of human-centered ecological works-righteousness and firmly recognize that God is the source and agent of human involvement.  In other words, it is not we who save the Earth, but the Triune God working in, through and among us who saves us all. 

But her warning also seemed to shroud a more serious sin – ecological quietism.  The danger of our Lutheran doctrine of being “saved by faith alone” is that we go to the other extreme of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” which requires no response and no action.  Cheap grace excuses us from doing the work of Christ in this world.  Thus we can rationalize avoiding taking action on any justice issue – including ecological justice – by convincing ourselves that as long as we’re justified by faith, God will take care of the rest.  But that’s not what Martin Luther meant, nor what he modeled.    

The stories we will tell about Martin Luther on this day and over the next year as we celebrate 500 years of the Reformation will be so important as we remember who he was, what he did, and how our identity as Lutherans is shaped by the events that happened five centuries ago.  Would Luther approve of what Christians of his namesake have been doing over the past 60 years working to restore Creation?  Or would he shake his finger at our misguided deeds?

It’s helpful to remember that what drove Luther to that church door in Wittenberg, Germany, with his theological critique in hand was the fact that he paid attention to the suffering of souls around him. And that his anguish for himself and for them led him to ask questions.  In his book What to Remember When Waking, the poet David Whyte writes about “the question which has no right to go away.”  On the cusp of Luther’s writing of the 95 Theses that would start a tidal wave of transformation across Europe, Martin Luther raised questions that had no right to go away.  Questions like:

“Who is this God we worship?”
“What does God require of us?” 
“Why are we told to be content with the answers that have been given to us without our input?” 
“What has to change in order for us to fully experience the grace of God?”

And those questions led him to the source of suffering located in a particular narrative about God and salvation that had been constructed over the course of 1000 years.  It was a narrative that benefited a select few while putting undue burdens on the great majority to uphold that system. So Luther’s questions started a conversation that did not fit into the dominant narrative, that disrupted the pattern of what had been passed down for generations.  It was not well-received by those in power, but Luther’s questions and the ensuing conversation were part of a truth-telling that was intended to set us free (John 8:32).

Lutherans today who are concerned about re-forming the church toward an ecological responsibility are also attending to the suffering of others.  From species disappearing, to coral reefs bleaching, to entire communities flooded, and others devastated by drought, the effects of fossil-fuel induced climate change and human violation of God’s Creation have all spurred us to ask questions that have no right to go away.  Questions like:

“How are we to understand God’s Creation and our relationship to it?”
“What do God and Creation require of us?”
“Why are we told to be content with answers that have been given to us without our input?”
“What has to change in order for us, for all of humanity and the rest of Creation to fully experience God’s grace?”

Like the Reformation of the 16th century, this Eco-reformation being led by a handful of Lutherans is also disruptive and disturbing.  It interrupts the way we’ve been telling the story.  That story about humanity’s dominion has benefited a select few while putting undue burdens on the great majority to uphold the system. 

We do not do this work of Creation-care in order to be saved or to be justified by God.  We do this work because we are saved and justified by God.  For me, Martin Luther models the passion to be angry about the way things are.  This is righteous anger that led him to take action: writing, preaching, debating, reading, teaching, and speaking boldly against the powers that are causing great and needless harm.  This passion led to courage to take action on behalf of that faith active in love. 

Do you know what the root word of “courage” is?  It is the French word cor, which means “heart.”  So having courage means having the heart to ask the questions, to engage the conversation, to name what is wrong and who is hurting.  The Eco-reformation is inviting us into courageous conversation.  This conversation is so difficult because we hardly know where to begin or what to say, since what is happening is so huge, it is something we can barely wrap our minds around.  So there is, at best, a hesitancy.  At worst, there is a denial that the conversation is even necessary.

But as Luther’s opponents discovered, once the question has been asked, it cannot be unasked.  It cannot be contained. The Reformation spread like dandelion seeds across a meadow and quickly took root as a thousand yellow flowers across a landscape of despair.  

Similarly, the conversation about our relationship to God and Creation has already started. It's a conversation that's going to happen with you or without you.  So we have choices to make.  We can either choose to be part of that conversation, or we can resist it, deny it, or try to silence it.  And then the choices will be made without us. 

You are invited to plop yourself down in that meadow and immerse yourself in the beauty – as well as the pain – that the conversation entails.  In the meadow we must ask ourselves, what is the courageous step for us to take now?  When we ask that question, admittedly, it leads us to the direction that we don’t want to take.  Because it will mean leaving behind a way of being and doing and driving and eating and selling and buying and consuming that is causing great harm.  But when we ask those questions, we find ourselves being apprenticed to something much larger than ourselves, to a God who invites us to abad and shamar, to till and to keep (Genesis 2:15).

Like Luther, we are facing frightening prospects of what lies ahead for us.  At great personal cost and sacrifice, he made his stand for truth.  He could do no other.  We can take heart – take courage – from the God of Luther who knows that we face stakes even higher than the pre-industrialized and pre-nuclear era of 1517.  In the face of planetary collapse we plant trees.  We write letters to the editor and to our elected officials.  We march in protest. 
ELCA Presiding Bishop Eaton, Bishop Jessica Crist, and Bishop Guy Erwin at Standing Rock, standing with the tribes who are fighting against the pipeline on their sacred lands in North Dakota.  For more info, click here.
We teach our children how to ask questions and engage in those courageous conversations.  We invent to ways to conserve and create clean energy.  We preach sermons that proclaim the truth of the laws of nature, as well as the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection.  And we remember Bonhoeffer’s words in his book Ethics:  “The world still stands; the end is not yet here; there are still penultimate things which must be done, in fulfillment of the responsibility for this world which God has created,” (127).

Take heart!  Be of good courage!  The God of those small but mighty questions is alongside us, within us, and – sometimes in spite of us – still at work through us.  This world which God has created is ready for us to get to work!


Amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fair Warning: Hamster Wheel of Climate Denial is Shutting Down

Fair warning:  If you post something on my Facebook timeline, my blog or my twitter feed (@LeahSchade) that perpetuates the denial of climate disruption, it will be removed and you will be unfriended.  This goes for posts, responses, or shares within the jurisdiction of my page.  Climate denial is costing lives, property and money.  I will not allow my social media sites to be a platform for that hamster-wheel conversation. It’s time for accountability, creativity, community and solutions. Anything else is a distraction and wastes valuable time and energy.

  

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Pivoting on the Fulcrum of Gratitude

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Text: Luke 17:11-19

“Your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:19

In this compelling story from Luke, ten people afflicted with leprosy - a contagious disease that affects the skin - approach Jesus and call to him from afar (knowing the strict rules about avoiding contact with the unclean).  Without even a wave of a magic wand, Jesus says the word and they are cleansed of the disease as they walk . . . skip  . . . run! to show themselves to the priest and be declared clean and acceptable once again. 

But one man turns.  It's not the kind of metanoia that indicates a 180-degree turn away from sin.  This is just a pivoting pause.  But it makes all the difference for what Jesus sees about the state of this man's soul.  Because this pivoting pause turns on a fulcrum of gratitude.  He turns back around and drops to his knees in thankfulness.  Jesus then declares that his faith has made him well. 



There are three different words used in this passage to indicate wellness. In verse 14 when the ones with leprosy realize their affliction is gone, the word is katharizo.  You can see the basis for the word catharsis, meaning purged or purified.  In verse 15, the Samaritan realizes he has been cured, and the word is iaomai, which means healed.  But in verse 19, Jesus says that the man's faith has made him whole.  The word is sozo, from where we get the word soteriology, meaning salvation.  In other words, this man's faith - which is based on his thankfulness (v. 16) has indicated a certain quality within his inner being.  And this quality indicates a wholeness that is more than skin deep.

What is it about gratitude that is so healing?  Evidence is growing about the positive ways in which gratitude affects your state of mind.  Cultivating thankfulness increases your level of happiness and satisfaction in life, your ability to reach your goals, and the quality of your relationships.  But studies are also showing that high levels of gratitude also correlate to increased health on both the physical and psychological level.

Apparently what happened with this man - a Samaritan, who was not only afflicted by leprosy but also looked down upon because of his status as a foreigner - was that his faith on the inside, pivoting on that fulcrum of gratitude, mirrored the healing that Jesus had caused to happen on the outside. 


But was it this one miraculous act of healing that caused him to suddenly be oriented toward gratitude so much so that it affected his faith?  That's certainly possible, but not likely, given that the other nine had the same experience and had no pivoting pause.  It's more likely that this man had cultivated his gratitude for many years, so that even in the midst of his affliction he found reason to be thankful.  Thus when this miracle of physical healing occurred, his spirit was already oriented in such a way that gratitude naturally followed. 

As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Thessalonians 5:18, "Give thanks in all circumstances."  Notice he didn't say give thanks for all circumstances.  Because certainly there are things that happen to us that we are understandably not happy about.  Nor should we should feel forced to a fake an air of humble thankfulness for our affliction.  Rather, giving thanks in all circumstances means that no matter what happens, we give thanks that God is still with us, and is still working in and through us and others to bring about healing and wholeness.  Giving thanks is about trusting that God is still present, still cares, and is still active, even if we can't right away see the way in which that action is manifesting itself.  That kind of trust is what we call faith.



Who is the most grateful person you know?  Who for you exemplifies the kind of faith that pivots on a fulcrum of gratitude so that no matter what happens, they are able to trust the goodness of God and take appropriate action that aligns to this goodness and trust?  Who is that person who inspires gratitude in you?  Have you shared with them how much they inspire you?  Have you taken steps to follow what they have modeled for you?

I was in a pastor's Bible study about this text and one of my colleagues shared with me a question that had been once been posed to him: 
What would you have this morning if all you had was what you gave thanks for yesterday?

May this question give you a pivoting pause and help you to find your own fulcrum of gratitude.




Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Review: Fracking America by Walter Brasch

Walter M. Brasch
Greeley & Stone Publishers, 2016
Reviewed by:  The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY

When future generations look back in confounded horror at the sordid history that led to the devastating effects fracking has had on their country, Walter Brasch’s book Fracking America will surely provide them with a detailed compendium to help them understand. 

Walter M. Brasch
Weighing in at over 600 pages, it is not a book that one will necessarily read cover-to-cover in one sitting.  This is not due to the quality of the writing (which is both meticulous and engaging), but instead due to the nature of the topic itself.  Reading about the ways in which industry executives, lobbyists, and both elected and appointed  officials at all levels of government have colluded to exploit the land, water and communities of this nation is infuriating and distressing.  And so it is recommended that this book be taken in small doses.  But do, indeed, take the doses. Because Brasch’s book, which represents nearly seven years of research, is a necessary antidote to the toxic effluence of advertising and public relations campaigns spouted by the oil and gas industry over the past decade meant to fool the public into thinking that fracking is a safe, “homegrown” energy that will miraculously grant America energy independence.  Fracking America, with its exhaustive research (supported with 70 pages of endnotes) and first-hand accounts of people on the front lines dealing with the deleterious effects of the fracking boom-and-bust cycle, testifies to the truth about the shale gas and oil industry often ignored by mainstream media.    


As an ecological theologian with many years of experience as a “fractivist” in Pennsylvania, I especially appreciated Brasch’s inclusion of the chapter “Theological Perspectives on the Environment.”  It is not often that journalists and secular writers recognize the important role religion plays in public policy and environmental consciousness.  Brasch not only realizes why the theological angle is important, but touches on several different perspectives, including the Roman Catholic stance articulated by Pope Francis, several Protestant voices, and the Jewish perspective.  He also includes the ways in which religion is being manipulated and twisted by several right-wing radical Evangelical organizations and politicians to justify the use of fossil fuels, discredit the science about climate change, and undermine efforts to care for God’s Creation by casting aspersions on Christian environmental efforts. 


Perhaps the greatest value of Brasch’s work is as a reference book for those needing to find information on aspects of the fracking phenomenon largely overlooked by most journalists and writers.  The index alone is 25 pages and carefully catalogues the topics and subtopics of this medusa-like topic he has taken on.  Brasch’s book is the mirror we need in order to see the fracking industry for what it really is without getting mesmerized by the corporate advertising that lure us into petrified silence.  I, for one, am grateful that Walter Brasch has cared enough about the injustices committed against Earth, children, women, men and communities to bear witness to this painful history as it is unfolding.  And my hope is that armed with the information Brasch has provided, these children, women, men and communities will align with Earth and rise up to take back their rights for clean water, air and land.


The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is the author of Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press 2015) and blogs at www.ecopreacher.blogspot.com.  
Leah Schade at an active fracking site in Tiadoghton State Park near Williamsport, PA in 2012.
The shirt reads: Where Would Jesus Frack?