Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Provocative Message
distributed 3/4/06 - ©2006

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Cynthia & Tom Reiners, of Denver, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Last Sunday, I preached in a Denver-area church. I guess I really offended a few people.

As a frequent guest preacher, I have several "stump sermons" that I use often. Some of them are gentle and theological, and lay a foundation for later efforts to push eco-justice in a congregation (such as A Matter of Hope that I mentioned in Notes two weeks ago).

Because I had already visited last Sunday's church, and I had spelled out some of that background, I brought out one of my harder-hitting messages this time.

A Blessed Way of Life runs through the whole litany of ecological catastrophes that are going on around us. It uses the "environmental footprint" to hammer home the point that the US standard of living is utterly unsustainable. I stress the fact that, if everyone on Earth were to live like the average person in the US, it would take about six planets to meet all of our needs. Even when very few of the world's people live at our opulent level, humanity as a whole is still demanding more than this planet can provide -- about 1.2 times the productive capacity of the Earth. That's the first section of the sermon.

Then I drag out a 5 year old political quotation, from when press secretary Ari Fleisher was first explaining the Bush administration's energy policy. Ari spelled out his boss's position:

The President believes ... that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. ... The American way of life is something that needs to be protected as we enjoy our resources and we enjoy the American standard of living.
I let that sink in for a second, and then I offer a different perspective.
The "environmental footprint" test tells us that our "enjoyment" of resources and our standard of living takes 6 times what this planet can sustain. So I have to disagree with Mr. Fleisher, and Mr. Bush.

The American way of life is not a blessed one. It is seductive, attractive, comfortable, convenient, even fun. There are lots of adjectives that could be used. But it is not blessed.

That's when we turn to the Beatitudes from Luke, which describes blessedness. In Luke, "blessed are you poor" is paired with "but woe to you who are rich." The sermon calls on members of the congregation to realize that they must make a choice between two competing visions of a blessed way of life: (1) the unsustainable and unjust "American way of life" that our society celebrates, or (2) the blessed way of Jesus which calls us to voluntary simplicity, sufficiency and justice.

It is not a "feel good" sermon. It doesn't provide any easy or convenient answers. For the most part, though, I've heard very positive reactions to the message. Many church people appreciate hearing straight talk about the mess that we're in, and having a challenging statement about faithful living in such a world. I have heard from a few people over the years that this sermon led them to make substantial changes in their lives.

Not everybody appreciates it, though.

One gentleman coming out the door after church was very pointed in not shaking my hand. The February mission offering was designated for Eco-Justice Ministries, and a church member was overheard saying, "Well, I can save my money this month!" There's still some active grumbling within the congregation a week later.

I feel good about the balance. If everyone in the congregation had been alienated, then the challenging message would not have made any difference. If everyone left church saying, "that was a nice sermon," then my message would not have been heard, either.

The fact that I made a few people angry suggests that I'm doing some serious pushing. The preponderance of positive comments says that my pushing connected the feelings and experience of many, and offered them words of guidance and support. An activist friend in the congregation told me, "You pushed them about as far as they could go."

As a guest preacher, I have a special freedom to speak bluntly, but I hope that last Sunday doesn't end the conversation. I look forward to continued work with that congregation as we explore ways of addressing the eco-justice crisis as people of faith.

+     +     +     +     +

A few days ago, I came across a quotation from Archbishop Oscar Romero that I had not seen before.

Archbishop Romero is a profound example of faithful transformation. His experience leading the Catholic church in El Salvador opened his eyes to the needs of the poor, and he was changed from a comfortable member of the social elite into a passionate advocate for justice. Because of his ceaseless work for peace and his advocacy for the poor, he was assassinated while celebrating Mass. (I guess that puts a few grumpy comments about my sermon into perspective, huh?)

The archbishop said,

A church that does not provoke any crises,
a gospel that doesn't unsettle,
a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin,
a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin
        of the society in which it is being proclaimed --
what gospel is that?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ will always be challenging and uncomfortable, even when we know that it is a message of good news. As we embark on the reflective season of Lent, I urge churches to push beyond the comfort zone in proclaiming the gospel. Pastors and educators, take a risk in speaking a faithful truth -- or find a guest speaker who can bring a provocative message. Church members, provide vocal and public support when your pastor does push the boundaries.

The needs of our world are great. The church can bring healing and transformation to the world -- if we have the courage to speak faithfully and truthfully.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

PS - A provocative statement was made recently by the delegation of church leaders from the United States who attended the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, held last month in Brazil. Their statement, in the form of a prayer of confession, is a moving expression of faith. It can be used for personal meditation, or as a starting point for conversation.

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