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Synod of the Covenant workshop helps preachers convey ‘exilic hope’ in the climate crisis

On ‘Equipping Preachers,’ the Rev. Dr. Jerusha Matsen Neal shares research for an upcoming book

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Jerusha Matsen Neal (Photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School)

LOUISVILLE — Together with the Rev. Dr. Ellen Davis, her colleague at the Duke Divinity School, the Rev. Dr. Jerusha Matsen Neal, who teaches homiletics there, has been teaching a class that requires students to preach a sermon on the climate crisis to any congregation in North Carolina. “My congregation is too politicized, too distrustful, too poor or too rich, too white or too Black, too rural or scientifically illiterate. They’re theologically conservative or progressively smug. They’re lectionary bound or they’re despairing or they’re afraid,” the students tell their professors early on in class.

After a couple of weeks, students turn the lens on themselves, claiming they’re ignorant of the science or of the congregation or about what to say, or just plain afraid of the task before them. “What does one say in the face of the unthinkable?” Neal asked last week during “Equipping Preachers,” a monthly webinar offered by the Synod of the Covenant. Watch the 82-minute workshop, hosted each month by Synod Executive the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, by going here.

“We’re going to talk today about hope, exilic hope in relation to the climate crisis,” Neal told the online gathering of preachers. Hardwick noted that Neal is completing the manuscript for her upcoming book, “Holy Ground: Preaching, Climate Change and the Apocalypse of Place.” Neal called her online workshop “Preaching Exilic Hope in the Climate Crisis.”

“Hope is a complicated topic in relation to climate justice preaching because there are so many ways to get it wrong,” she said. Hope can lead preachers to passivity if they think, “God’s got this, and we really don’t need to do anything.” Or it can lead to “an overblown sense of our own importance.”

Texts like Jeremiah 4:23-26 can lead preachers to ask difficult questions, including this one: Can the Creation and the covenant of a good God come undone? It can, she said. “Notice the way there is a kind of unraveling of the Genesis 1 account of Creation,” Neal said. Knitters call the process “frogging,” or ripping out one’s knitting and starting over to correct a mistake.

The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick

Biblical scholars tell us that Genesis 1 was put “at the front of our canon precisely during the season of Jeremiah and his peers,” Neal said. “The two texts are in dialogical relationship with each other.” Genesis 1 “was never meant to be this sort of proof that God’s people will never be displaced,” Neal said, calling Jeremiah 4 “a hope-filled cry of an exiled people who are claiming that God can still breathe life in the face of devastation. It brings an exilic lens to the question of climate justice: What does it mean to be faithful when the land changes under your feet, and where is God when that happens? More significantly, what does God require of us?”

Read 1 Peter 1:1-5, another passage addressed to exiles, and ask yourself these questions, Neal suggested: Where is God standing? Can God be trusted? What does faithfulness look like? Does human action matter? What is our hope? What is the good news?

“My thesis today is God’s solidarity with Creation is foundational to salvation history and God’s commitment to Creation is woven throughout both scriptural testaments,” Neal said. She offered workshop participants six takeaways during her engaging talk:

  • Re-remember the old, old story. Doing this kind of work “means that when you preach on climate, you’re moving beyond the Genesis 1/Romans 8 sermon,” she said, preaching Creation care “from the whole Bible and all liturgical seasons.”
  • Make justice connections. “I think this is the preacher’s job at this moment: to make very clear to folks that climate care is racial justice. It is the eradication of poverty work, and it is decolonial work,” Neal said. “The crisis disproportionately impacts Black and brown bodies all over the world.”
  • Honor everyday resistance. “It’s easy to come up with solutions to the climate crisis that benefit only some,” Neal said. “When you look at how scripture describes resistance to empire, there is a consistent honoring of everyday resistance,” such as the lifesaving work of Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah. “The work of ordinary women caring for vulnerable children begins to dismantle the empire that has set itself against Creation,” Neal said. Today, African American women including Heather McTeer Toney “are taking center stage in this fight.”
  • Draw on spiritual disciplines. “There is a kind of musculature in the church that climate advocacy requires,” Neal said. “There are all kinds of practices in holistic Christian formation that lend themselves to the work of climate justice,” including worship, prayer, fasting, tithing, sacraments, art, poetry and table fellowship, she said.
  • Renounce false optimism and reject despair. “I think sermons can help congregations see this crisis in a new way,” Neal said. At the end of the class that she and Davis taught together, one student, a climate activist, told them: “In the face of terrifying statistics about the damage we humans have done, we don’t repent because we think we can fix it; we repent because God’s love compels us. … After all, this is the nature of love: even when it’s too late, love works.” Another had this to say: “Our current moment is a crisis, but it is also an opportunity for repentance. It is a threshold through which we can turn from our sinful ways of greed and destruction and turn back to God.”
  • Know your people. “Take the long view,” Neal suggested. “This isn’t one-and-done preaching.” As author Jeff Stanfill suggests in the book “Disastrous Preaching,” “there are concrete takeaways” from biblical accounts including Noah’s flood, Joseph’s famine, Job’s suffering, Joel’s locusts and Jerusalem’s famine. Such passages can aid the preacher who’s called to preach to a faith community facing immediate trauma from an environmental disaster.

“This work has to be locally rooted and biblically grounded,” Neal said. “It’s not political posturing. It’s core to who God is and what God requires of God’s people.”

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