Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hope and the Work at Hand

Proper 11A

Today’s lectionary readings include the passage from Romans (Romans 8:12-25) in which Paul talks about hope and how the whole of creation is waiting to be set free from its bondage to decay. One of last July’s posts, Hope,talked about this passage in light of two very different experiences: the peaceful experience of sitting outside on a summer morning for prayer, study, and contemplation, and the experience of feeling helpless and discouraged hearing news about pollution and climate change.

More recently, a post about Innate Optimism, Bad News, and Hope from the end of May talked about this passage in relation to even more discouraging news about the climate than we had a year ago. That post asked a couple of questions and offered a couple of general ideas about the particular contributions Christians might make as we face the realities of climate change:

One of the questions the church might be asking is what form our hope should take: What are our specific hopes in relationship to the realities of climate change? That we won’t face hardship? That our leaders will get it together at the last possible moment to avert the worst of the disasters that await us if we continue doing little or nothing? That we will simply find a way to live with dignity and meaning in the midst of all of this?

Other institutions are or will be working on other aspects -- economic, engineering, agricultural, military, political, etc. -- of adaptation to a warming world. Along with our traditional roles of disaster relief, perhaps the church should be thinking and praying about the deeper adaptation, the spiritual adaptation, to a world of increasing challenges and hardships. Christian love, our values of charity and kindness and care for our neighbors, will be an essential part of humankind’s adaptation to these new challenges. The sort of deep resilience that is rooted in faith is something else that might allow us to face our future with dignity and real hope.

This morning’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) can give us some more insight into what our work might be at this time. The parable of the wheat and the weeds (formerly known as tares) makes it clear that it’s not our job to figure out who’s in and who’s out in God’s kingdom. Even if we could discern the wheat from the weeds, the web of interconnections that make up humankind and all of creation make it impossible to exclude others without ultimately excluding ourselves. But there is plenty of work for us to do; Jesus is clear about what our work is: the greatest commandment is the commandment to love. That love takes the form of serving one another: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, doing whatever we can to tend to “the least of these, the people in our world who are easily ignored or overlooked, the people who might look like weeds to us but might very well look like saints to God. The Gospel tells us that when our brothers and sisters are suffering because of environmental degradation, love calls us to do something to lessen that suffering and bring healing where there is brokenness.

Paul’s passage about hope seems to spring up in the Sunday lectionary or the Daily Office readings around the time there is some sort of especially discouraging news about the environment. This week was no exception.

Most obvious to Nebraskans would be the recent heat and humidity. This particular episode of heat and any one incredible dewpoint reading cannot be directly ascribed to climate change (this is the proviso we always need to make about any particular weather event), but it does fit the pattern of increasingly warm temperatures over time and also gives us a taste of what we can expect to be the norm in the years ahead. This heat wave has hit the entire central United States – e.g. as I write this the heat index in Bismarck, North Dakota is 112 degrees --and has spread east.

Also close to home for those of us on the Great Plains are tornado statistics for the year. The Weather Channel has a concise chart comparing the number and severity of this year’s tornadoes to those in an average year. So far this year, 537 people in the United States have been killed by tornadoes; the average number of deaths for an entire year is 56.

But perhaps the most discouraging news of the week has not been noticed much in this part of the country. Even though its effects on our climate will be huge, the accelerated melting of the Arctic ice seems too remote to be of much concern to many folks here. Melting at the Arctic – taking into consideration both the extent of sea ice and its thickness – is happening faster than predicted. (If you follow such things, you know this isn’t the first time that acceleration has been noted.) Joe Romm, who reports on some of the most recent findings in a July 16 post, says that he and some other scientists believe that the Arctic will have “virtually ice-free summers within a decade”. The loss of Arctic ice will accelerate warming for the rest of the planet. To learn about its immediate effects on the land and people near the Arctic coast, read this Icelights report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder.

The parable of the wheat and weeds acknowledges the existence of evil in the world. Part of the point of the parable is that ultimately, evil doesn’t threaten the reign of God. Paul reminds us that even when things seem most desperate, Christians live in hope. We don’t hope because we can see good things happening; we hope for what we can’t yet see. God is in charge. We don’t need to see everything; we don’t even need to know everything. What we do need to do is the work Christ has given us to do: lessen the suffering, bring healing, and have care and compassion for our brothers and sisters and for our planet that sustains life and whose wonders can give us so much joy.

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