Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Christian Witness In a Wounded World

When I visit with church people about the environmental crisis, the most common question is “What can we do about this?” or (tellingly) “What can I do about this?” Sometimes, of course, the response is a less positive “I can’t let myself think about this!” that points to an underlying assumption that there is nothing any one person can do about the environmental crisis, and so no point in putting any energy into thinking about something so unsettling. The people who want to do something, either collectively or individually, have the moral response right, I think: We need to do everything we can to make our situation better. The people who are overwhelmed, though, have one piece of it right: It’s too big for our small efforts at stewardship — e.g. recycling our plastic, turning down the thermostat a degree or two — to make much difference. 

Along with thinking about what sort of honest response to give people who are eager to do their part in repairing the Earth, I wonder about what particular gift we Christians can offer as humankind faces a challenge unlike anything else we have faced before. It would be silly for us to try to duplicate the work done by the big conservation and environmental advocacy organizations, who employ professionals who are better equipped than we are to lead in small mitigation efforts and in advocacy. We can pray, and we certainly know something from salvation history about hope. 

I was invited to preach at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Hastings, Nebraska, this past Sunday. This congregation looked at consumer habits and plastic pollution during Lent, and I was asked to preach about where this fits into the bigger picture of our environmental crisis.The Gospel lesson (John 20:19-31) was the story of “Doubting Thomas” encountering the risen Jesus. Reading this story again in light of questions about plastic pollution and climate change helped me articulate better some of what the Church’s call might be in this century. Here’s my reflection on this passage in light of these questions:

But [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

Good morning! I’m delighted to be here with you this morning, and especially delighted that I’m here because this congregation has been studying the problem of plastic pollution and looking at the sorts of habits to adopt as a congregation and as individuals in response to that problem. No doubt most of you now know more than the average American about the size of the problem and its ramifications for human health and the ecosystems in which we live. I don’t know about you, but when I look at the statistics about the amount of plastic produced and how much of it ends up as trash, I can’t even wrap my head around it. What I do know is that I’ve taken photos along shorelines from our little lake here in Hastings to the Great Lakes to the Hawaiian Islands of plastic trash that all looks the same — those brightly colored bottle caps stand out everywhere. 

I serve as a deacon in The Episcopal Church. While deacons get assigned to a parish — mine is Church of the Resurrection in North Omaha — we serve directly under the authority of the Bishop. Our charge is to serve as a bridge between the church and the world, interpreting the needs and concerns of the world to the church and making Christ’s love known to the world in word and deed. We have a special call to serve the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely — in other words, to help and advocate for people who are marginalized. I began my ministry as a deacon working in hunger ministry here in Hastings when we were first starting the Open Table lunch program, a typical sort of ministry for a deacon.

In 2007, while serving our parish in Grand Island, I went to a national conference for Episcopal deacons where our Presiding Bishop — our equivalent to an Archbishop — told us that given our charge to care for the poor, the sick, the hungry — for people in any kind of need — we needed to get to work on the environment! She explained that pollution and climate instability exacerbated all of the miseries we deacons traditionally addressed. That was what I needed to hear, as I had already become excited about something called the GreenFaith Fellowship Program that trains religious environmental leaders. I entered the fellowship program and changed the course of my ministry.

GreenFaith, an interfaith group, organizes its work in three categories: spirituality (connecting the wonder we experience in nature with our faith), environmental stewardship (the sorts of practices that help conserve our resources and keep our air, water, and land healthy), and environmental justice (noticing that the impacts of pollution and climate change often hit the poorest communities and communities of color first and worst, and advocating for better policies and systemic practices to change that).

As part of our fellowship program, we attended retreats around each of those areas. To my surprise, the most spiritually moving of the three, the one where I truly felt I had stood on holy ground, was our environmental justice tour of the toxic sites of the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey.

One of the many sites we saw that day was the biggest trash incinerator in New Jersey, which sat within a half mile of two low-income housing projects. It was also near the intersection of several freeways. The air quality was not good. We exited one of those freeways and got off our bus and stood at the gate of this place.  As our guides told us more about what we were seeing -- about the mercury emissions and the high asthma rates near the incinerator – I watched an unending stream of garbage trucks come off the expressways and go through the gate to the incinerator.** I turned to Rabbi Troster, the head of the fellowship program, and said that this must be like the lowest circle of hell. He said that was what he had thought when he had first visited the incinerator. Yet there was something holy in witnessing this. 

When the entire tour was done and our group was reflecting on it, we found that everyone in the group had had a similar experience as we made our pilgrimage and stopped at several toxic sites. Seeing those things had connected us to the holy. The sense I made of that was that seeing how our habits of consumerism and carelessness affect some of the most marginalized people in our own country had given us a glimpse of how our way of life affects Jesus. As we treat the least of the members of God’s family, so we treat Jesus. When we stand as witnesses to suffering, we stand close to Jesus.

Our Gospel reading about Thomas illuminates that sort of witness to environmental degradation and injustice. I believe that a major piece of an appropriate response from Christians to the big environmental challenges of our time — and I’d put plastic pollution and climate change at the top of a list of those challenges — is better understood in light of this story about Thomas and his doubt.

In this story, the other disciples believed Jesus was alive because he had appeared to them, but Thomas expressed doubt because he wasn’t there to see it for himself. (Notice that Thomas was evidently the only one who had had the courage to leave the locked house.)

If you’ve been a church-goer for a number of years, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ve heard a preacher say we should be more like the other disciples and less like Thomas. Here’s my full disclosure this morning: I really like Thomas, just as I really like Martha, Lazarus’s sister who didn’t choose the better part. They are my kindred spirits, and since both of them are considered saints, I think that’s okay.

I like Thomas because I think there’s something deeper than garden variety doubt going on here. Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” These aren’t the detached words of a mere skeptic; these are the words of someone who is passionate about knowing the truth, and the words of someone experiencing deep grief. 

To take the word of others and believe that Christ is alive – which is the one thing Thomas would like to be true more than anything – means taking the risk of believing too hastily. If he took their word for it only to discover later that this belief was wrong, it would be like losing Jesus all over again. Thomas is already too heartbroken to take that risk.

Notice that when Jesus appears to Thomas and shows him the evidence, so-called Doubting Thomas not only believes that Christ is risen but goes beyond what any of the others have said. He addresses Jesus as “my Lord and my God”. Thomas may have understood the meaning of Christ’s being alive more than did some of the others, and perhaps that’s why he was so cautious about believing. For Christ to be alive and appearing in various places, including locked houses, implies that Jesus was indeed more than beloved teacher and friend. He was God! The truth of Jesus’s resurrection changes everything, and I think Thomas understood that in a profound way. Being clear about the truth was more important to him than being offered hope that might prove to be false or comforting words that could be half-truths meant to make him feel better. Thomas wants to be a witness to the truth.

The truth about Jesus was a joyful truth. The truth about environmental degradation in the 21st century is discouraging and sobering. Most people in our nation manage to ignore this truth most of the time, either by outright denying it or simply not thinking about it because it’s emotionally difficult to do so. But the truth, whether it be joyful or sad, has a way of bringing us closer to Jesus and grounding us more deeply in our faith. And standing close to Jesus on a solid foundation of faith is a good place to stand as we look at the scale of the challenge before us.

For most of us, the first steps in bringing our faith to bear on the environmental challenges facing us is to commit ourselves to greater personal responsibility for reducing our use of toxic substances and energy, reusing items instead of throwing them away (because there isn’t really any “away” where they can go), and recycling whatever we can. Along with our small contributions toward reducing the amount of plastic waste or carbon emissions, these practices keep our awareness of environmental issues in the front of our minds and serve as an example to others.

But we are so far down the path of environmental degradation that the amount of real difference we can make depends on our efforts toward environmental stewardship being done as one piece of systemic change, not in isolation.

So the next step for people of faith facing our environmental challenges often is to advocate for better corporate and government policies. We can write letters, visit with legislators, and use our power as voters either as citizens, members of church councils, or stockholders. 

Environmental stewardship and advocacy are important, and we need to encourage each other in our efforts. But these are good practices for anyone, no matter what their faith or lack of same. To be honest, there are several fine environmental organizations that are better equipped to lead us in environmental stewardship and advocacy than are most of us in the church. 

What we can offer in ways others can’t, and, I suspect more and more, what is a call from God to the church today, is to serve as Christian witnesses to the environmental crisis. We can look at the truth about plastic pollution and climate change and, instead of ignoring it, denying it, or sharing a false hope that things will magically get better without our having to do anything inconvenient, we can simply stand prayerfully with that truth. Standing close to Jesus on a solid foundation of faith is our unique gift, a gift that gives us the inner peace, strength, courage, and love to bear witness to the truth. 

Tom and Cathie, who are sitting right here with us this morning, continue to serve as both advocates and witnesses for our land and water in Nebraska by their perseverance in attending rallies, hearings, and landowners’ meetings in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Tom participated in civil disobedience, a now traditional way for Christians to stand as witnesses to the truth. If you want to know what witnessing to the truth looks like, you have good resources right here in your own congregation.

Witnessing to the truth requires us to do some homework and be discerning about what we read and listen to. The pursuit of truth takes some effort!  We can be witnesses by gently speaking the truth in our words and actions, whether that be in conversations with family and friends, in the course of our advocacy efforts, or by standing with others in actions like rallies or marches that advocate for better policies. 

Are our acts of prayerful witness successful in terms of convincing others or improving policies? We always hope they will be, but often they are not. However, that doesn’t mean we are powerless. In times like ours, it’s important to speak the truth for its own sake. That is what gives our lives meaning and also gives our souls true peace. Standing in witness is a form of prayer, and we know prayer is important even when our prayers appear to be unanswered.

Our world is wounded; pollution and climate change are intertwined with other justice issues, and there is work to be done that requires both actions of stewardship and advocacy and contemplative practices such as prayerful witness to the truth. Thomas was passionate about knowing the truth about Jesus; Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds. In a wounded world, faithful Christians — the ones who know and follow Jesus — don’t shy away from touching the wounds.

If we remain faithful to truth and bear witness to it alongside Jesus, whatever happens will have meaning. That in itself is a form of hope that might serve us well in the years ahead — the hope that we live meaningful lives of integrity no matter what. Amen.

**For an update on the incinerator, here’s a 2012 article about emissions controls being installed on it. GreenFaith was part of the coalition of activists pushing for emissions controls.