This passage from Matthew is one of only a few places in this Gospel where the word “Church” is used. The Greek word is “ecclesia.” The last time in Matthew’s Gospel when we heard this, was when Peter, in the passage from a couple of weeks ago, affirmed Jesus as the Anointed One and then Jesus said that his name would be Peter, or rock, and the “ecclesia” would be built upon him. The reality is that Jesus never used the word “church” as the Church had not been formed yet; these were Matthew’s words.
In both these passages that speak of the “ecclesia,” Matthew reminds us of the great responsibility that comes with being the Church. Essentially, Matthew wanted to affirm that what the Church loosed on earth would be loosed and also established in heaven. As the Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Minnesota said, “The Spiderman mythology gets it exactly right: with great power comes great responsibility.” Sometimes the Church got it right, and sometimes we blew it!
One of the ways that we have got things wrong as a Church in the last 1000 years, especially in the West (not so much in the Eastern Church), is our relationship to the land… our relationship with creation, which is the focus of today’s worship: Environmental justice with peace!
We got caught up in the need for sexual purity to be part of the salvation process through Jesus; Mary, who delivered Jesus, had to be pure (so the theory goes) and so she had to be immaculately conceived. And so the Church, the Roman Church, developed elaborate theologies about Immaculate Conception. But much of this was based around the fact that sex was immoral, or at the very least was a base physical necessity, and that Original Sin tainted all of creation. The Protestant Church picked up this emphasis on Original Sin and the taint of creation. We lost the beautiful mystery of creation, the beautiful words of Genesis 1 that depict a creation that is full of beauty and infused with the Holy Spirit. We seemed to forget the words from Genesis 1, “And behold, God saw that it was good.” We lost the sense of original blessing, a term coined by Matthew Fox.
One of the other ways that we went sideways from the original understanding of seeing God as the Creator of paradise, a paradise that is alive and well among and around us, is the path that was secured by Jean Calvin, the Reformer who has been influential in United Church history. Some theologians have suggested that Calvin paved the way for the modern economic construct of capitalism. Human beings were the centre of the universe and all things should serve humanity. I’m caricaturing, of course, but Calvin’s new path created Presbyterianism in Scotland and led to Adam Smith (a good Scot but not necessarily a good Presbyterian) and his theories around capitalism and free enterprise, especially the “Hand of God” theory and the idea that competition will weed out the successful entrepreneurs from the less successful. Part of Smith’s theory paved the way for creation to be exploited and manipulated as a means to create wealth and prosperity. Of course Smith and Calvin never envisioned the kinds of ways we would be able to exploit nature, as we see today, but their theories paved the way for climate change.
To return to Matthew’s Gospel, we are told about how to resolve disputes. If someone wrongs us, we are to go to that person and point out the fault and deal with it. If it can be resolved, so be it; if not, then 2 or 3 witnesses are to go and be part of the dispute resolution. If that doesn’t work, we are told that this member of the Church is to be expelled. It’s tough stuff, and it’s built around legal requirements of Judaism.
I’ve seen this dispute resolution process work and I’ve seen it fail miserably. But what happens when the member of our community isn’t able to speak for him or herself? What happens when we push out the boundaries of our community? How does creation speak for itself with respect to the wrongs we have committed against it?
Who will speak for the earth and the carbonization of the atmosphere? As a Church, as society, as a species, we must include creation in the understanding of who is part of our community. What I learned growing up in the Church, partly because of my dad’s work with 1st Nations people and partly because of my Celtic heritage, is that our community is an eco-system and it includes all of life.
The organization 350.org reports that most of our earth’s history has had an average of 275 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Because of burning fossil fuels, we are now over 390 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Scientists believe that the safety limit for the earth is 350 ppm and that the historical record of the earth has shown catastrophic disaster at 450 ppm; catastrophic as in 95% of species dying. Some politicians here in Canada and elsewhere around the world, especially in the US, say that they can live with something over 400 ppm especially if reducing the use of fossil fuels will hurt the economy. That speaks for itself in all its horror!
Many Church theologians through history have spoken of creation in different ways and many of these saints and teachers have enjoyed a renaissance of late. St. Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart and many Celtic teachers and saints have spoken for creation. Eastern Christianity has taught for centuries that our created nature is a good thing, and that we are of the earth and of God. Panentheism, a modern theological construct and the likes of Sally McFague and many other theologians speak of God being part of everything—God is in everything (different from pantheism that reduces God to the sum of creation.)
To involve the earth in dispute resolution means that we learn to speak differently about the earth and the universe. The earth is us and we are the earth. As we do to the earth, we do to us, so Chief Seattle is thought to have said. We are killing our future for our children and our children’s children by continuing to load the atmosphere, and our oceans, with carbon. But it is not too late.
Part of our dispute resolution means that we need to put political pressure on our elected governments. But that isn’t enough and part of the reality today is that we need to bypass the politicians and go right to the streets; we need to pressure companies by what we buy and how we buy—purchase power is powerful. We can write letters and organize marches. We can walk more and take public transportation. There are many popular movements that are about advocating the use of renewable energy and getting away from fossil fuels. We can use land differently and stop clear-cutting and the creation of monocultures. We can change our beliefs and welcome creation back into our community. We can make a great deal of noise in support of those who will go to New York later in September with a plan to roll back the ppm of CO2 to a reasonable level of 350. That’s what we’re doing today: to pray and join our voices with those who say that we can transform the path of climate change.
I believe that Jesus calls us, through Matthew, to be agents of change in joining with others in leading us back to 350 ppm. We are called to be agents of change by repenting of our apathy with respect to climate change and to see this whole universe as one big ecosystem. We can shift our thinking from us vs them to a new a vision of community. Christ calls us to work together to transform the world, and this is a beginning!
After all, look around you, here in this place. We are here in the midst of creation, part of creation. This is our home and we can change how we live together!