The series of readings that we have on Sundays is called the Revised Common Lectionary. This lectionary was put together by scholars and leaders in the church many years ago with a few goals in mind. One goal was to add an Old Testament reading to the lectionary then in use, which at that time only had a reading from one of the letters in the New Testament and one of the Gospels. Another goal was to promote unity among different denominations. It was hoped that not only Lutherans would use this lectionary, but also Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and so on and so forth, so that when you would go out to Sunday lunch with your friends after church, you would all be able to share different perspectives on the same texts, thus bringing people of different traditions closer together. The Revised Common Lectionary also goes in a three-year cycle, so that one year our Gospel readings are from Matthew, the next they are from Mark, and the third they are from Luke, with John sprinkled in at various places. I think the Revised Common Lectionary does work for some of those purposes, but there are some drawbacks to using it as well. One of those drawbacks is that it gives us pieces of Scripture, without much context, so we don’t get the whole story of what’s happening. Related to this, since I as a preacher have several options of texts each week to preach on, I will preach on the one which I deem to be the best one for you all to hear, and more often than not, I will favor the Gospels. That leaves the Old Testament and the Epistle readings out in the cold for you all to try to decipher on your own. That is doing a disservice to our Holy Scriptures. As Lutherans, we believe that all Scriptures point to Christ, and so we should be doing our best to learn about those Scriptures and to deal with some of the texts that we might not want to deal with.
And so, starting today, we are going to switch over to something new called the Narrative Lectionary. The Narrative Lectionary comes out of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and it has the goal of going through the Bible in an orderly fashion each year, so that we get the whole sweep of our story of faith, and we can focus more fully on different stories that might not always get our attention. In the fall, even though we will have short Gospel readings to accompany the Old Testament reading, our focus will be on stories out of the Old Testament, and after Christmas, we will move into a more in-depth focus on Gospel stories.
So, today we begin at the very beginning with the creation story from Genesis chapter 1. In 2015, Pope Francis released the encyclical letter Laudato Si’, which translates from the Latin as “Praise be”, the beginning words of a hymn of praise from Saint Francis of Assisi. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs”, Saint Francis writes, and Pope Francis repeats as his introduction to this encyclical letter. This encyclical was highly anticipated before it was released as the letter that was going to be about climate change. Those on one side of the argument were expecting that at last, the church would have something official to say about the environment, while those on the other side of the argument were getting ready to circle the wagons and to fire shots to defend our current way of living. And after the letter was released, yes, there was and there still is much of this back-and-forth argument going on. However, I think that many people who have read the encyclical—and I have gotten through a good portion of it myself, but have not quite finished it—have found that, contrary to our expectations, this letter from Pope Francis is not only about climate change. It is instead a theological treatise on how God has called us to be stewards of the world which he has given us, how we as humans have failed that commission, how our society and our way of life does not promote being good caretakers of the earth, how we are lost in our sin, and, how, in spite of all of this, God still gives us hope for change through his Son, Jesus Christ. This encyclical is not just Roman Catholic theology, it is good Christian theology, and I encourage all of you to take the time and read through this letter. If you go online and do a Google search for it, it should come up for you to download and be able to read.
In this letter, the pope begins with the state of the earth: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” The earth is not, in fact, an inanimate, dead heap of rock that we can take and use as we will. No, the earth is alive, and we see that even in our text from Genesis today. God says, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” God works in partnership with the earth, yes, but it is the earth itself that, at God’s command, brings forth plants. God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures . . .” Even the waters of the earth, in partnership with God, bring forth such things as fish, whales, octopus, and whatever else the phrase “the great sea monsters” includes. The waters of the earth are alive and bring forth more life at God’s command. And the earth even brings forth animals: cattle, pigs, and other livestock, bears, wolves, elk, antelope, deer, rabbits, and all kinds of wild animals. The earth has given birth to us and to all living creatures in partnership with God’s word, and the earth therefore is our sister and our mother whom we should be treating with respect and with honor.
Instead, because of our sinfulness, we see the Earth and her creatures as something separate from ourselves, and something that we deserve to possess, to dominate, and to use however we please. Instead of seeing ourselves as intimately connected with the creation and a part of all life that we should value and treasure, we see ourselves as somehow above it, and we deny that anything we do could seriously damage the world that we find ourselves upon. But if we accept the premise that God has made us from the elements of the earth, then, as those earth-creatures, just like all other living organisms, it would follow that we could in fact affect the environment of the earth by the things that we do.
The truth is that the climate is changing around us. The Northwestern part of our country is suffering severe drought. While they have wildfires every year in that part of the country, this year has been much more severe. The state of Montana is burning up from all of the wildfires, and the smoke from those fires is not only so dense that the air quality across the whole state is unhealthy, it is also drifting as far east as Minnesota. That doesn’t usually happen, folks. In the southern part of our country, Hurricane Harvey turned Houston and the surrounding parts of Texas and Louisiana into rivers by dumping 50 inches of water into the area at once. They’ve had hurricanes there before, but a hurricane causing this much damage is unprecedented—fueled in part by the waters of the ocean that have been warming up over the last several decades. Hurricane Irma, which is coming, is Category 5 and has not lost any strength—and is barreling towards Florida, with Hurricane Jose behind it in the Atlantic Ocean and Hurricane Katia in Mexico. Again, it’s not that we haven’t seen hurricanes before—but with the waters warming up as quickly as they are, it’s causing hurricanes of unprecedented strength to cause even more suffering and damage than usual. Yes, climate change is real.
But why do so many of us resist the notion that humans can be responsible for climate change? It’s basic science, after all: when we burn things like coal and oil, more carbon dioxide goes into the air. At the same time that we’re doing that, we’re also cutting down trees, which would normally absorb the carbon dioxide. So all of this extra carbon dioxide is being trapped by our atmosphere and warming up the planet. And since God made all of the creation to be in relationship with one another, what we have done not only affects the atmosphere, it also melts the polar caps, causing the water to rise; it warms up that water, causing hurricanes to become more vicious and deadly; it causes the peoples in northern climates who depend on ice for their seal hunts to go hungry since they can’t hunt seals; and it causes places like Miami to flood because of rising sea levels. I even saw something about how the war in Syria and the refugees that flooded into Europe can be traced back to climate change: a warmer and drier climate caused a drought; the drought forced people into the cities, causing large amounts of unemployment; the government couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to help; protests began; the government cracked down, and war erupted. Each thing that each one of us does has an effect on the creation, and the only reason I can think of for people to deny that basic fact is because of fear: fear that we might have to significantly change our lifestyle, and fear that we might lose the work that keeps us employed.
At the end of our Genesis account today, we hear that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God’s creation is very good. That includes you, me, the plants and animals around us, the air we breathe, and everything else—working intimately in relationship with one another. God loves everything in the creation so much that he sent Jesus, his only Son, to take on our human flesh, live as one of us, and ultimately, die on the cross for us. And God gives us the promise of a new creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus lives again, we have hope that we, too, will live in that new creation, where there will be no more crying, no more pain, no more deadly fires or hurricanes. Because of that hope, we have nothing to be afraid of.
Therefore, we have no need to be afraid of the changes that we will have to make, because we know that Jesus is with us. In his encyclical, Pope Francis speaks of Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who has long been an advocate for environmental issues. The Pope quotes the Patriarch as saying that we need to look for solutions to our misuse of creation “not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would only be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing. . . .It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed, and compulsion.” And isn’t this, after all, what Jesus calls us to do? To deny ourselves, take up the cross, and to follow him? In denying ourselves and in losing our lives, Jesus tells us, we will in some mysterious way gain it. With Jesus beside us, we have nothing to fear and abundant life to live.
This is the wonder and the joy of the Gospel: that no matter how badly we have messed up the creation, there is still hope. God still loves all of his creation: plants, animals, rocks, water, sun, moon, stars, you and me. There is still hope because of that great love of God for all of us. There is no reason to fear, and there is every reason to move forward with measures to enable us to live in harmony with the creation once more. Pope Francis writes, “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” As we go from here today, let us indeed contemplate the joyful mystery of the world around us, and give praise to God, our Creator. Amen.