Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17
You may have heard, if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, that we have a bit of a plastic problem. By “we,” I mean us here in the United States, since we are undoubtedly producing more than our fair share of plastic trash, but also the world as a whole. You may have heard that there’s currently a huge Texas-sized “island” of floating plastic in the Pacific, or that, according to one recent, study, by 2050 there’s going to be more plastic by weight in our oceans than fish. We’ve heard the stories of whole countries banning plastic bags and more recently have heard the call to ban plastic straws as well. Even the promise of recycling isn’t what it used to be, since China, which used to take a lot of our plastic for recycling, said at the beginning of 2018 that it wasn’t going to do so anymore. It didn’t want to be the world’s “garbage dump,” it said.
I’ve been hearing a lot about our plastic problem lately, so this year, for Lent, I decided to give up single-use plastic.
I never expected this to be able to do this perfectly. It’s hard to imagine going to the grocery store and not coming home with food wrapped in all sorts of disposable plastic, and unfortunately, I’m not about to start canning fruit or making my own cheese at this point in my life. It’s a rare morning when I even have time to brew my own coffee. But I did figure there were probably some areas in my life where I could make some intentional changes – like the fact that I usually get takeout for lunch, with all the plastic containers and plastic silverware that entails; or the fact that when I’m away from home a lot of my water comes in bottled form. I thought Lent could be a time to think about those changes I could potentially make, even if I wasn’t technically giving up plastic all the way.
It was one of those times when I thought I had a great idea on my own, but then it turned out that a lot of other people had that same idea too, kind of like the year I went as Sarah Palin for Halloween. In fact, enough individuals and churches decided to give up plastic this year that there were whole newspaper articles about it, including one in the Washington Post. In that article, the well-known Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas was interviewed about the idea, and he thought it was a bad one. “They’re giving up plastic as a way of doing something that seems to make the world a better place. It’s a confusion of categories,” he said. “Giving up plastic is aimed at a different set of problems than what Lent is about. Lent is about confession of sin.”
I can see his point. I do think that sometimes these days, in an effort to make Lent less bleak and penitent, we can succumb to the temptation to make it about self-improvement instead, like it’s a time to renew those New Year’s resolutions we’ve already given up on. It’s not. Still, I think I would respond to Hauerwas that for me, giving up plastic – or at least trying – is about confessing my sin: the sin of my unsustainable lifestyle, the sin of my complicity in a culture of consumption, the sin of living mostly for myself, without much thought of how the byproducts of my life do and will affect others.
I’m not saying these things to make us all feel bad, which I think is what articles on plastic islands and climate change and sermons on creation care often do, at least for me. They point out our guilt for things which are too big for us to fix. In fact, some of my friends would likely point out that this emphasis on individual responsibility when it comes to the environment and climate change is just what big corporations want, because it takes the burden of change off of them – and they’re the ones who can actually make a difference. Scientifically and politically, they might be right. But theologically, at least, when I think about who is responsible for all of this, I always come back to me. I’m the one consuming those products and that energy that the big corporations create. The problem is bigger than me, definitely. But it’s also me.
So, for me, my Lenten plastic fast is a form of confession and repentance. Our focus this Lent is on turning back to God, and this is a way of turning back to God by turning back to God’s creation.
You may recall that in the Bible, God is always making these things called covenants. A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties where each party usually has some obligations to fulfill. It’s like a contract, but with a more relational emphasis. In the Hebrew Bible, God makes a covenant with Abraham: God will make of Abraham a great nation, and Abraham will make sure all the males in his family are circumcised as a sign of this new relationship. God makes a covenant with the Hebrew people through Moses: they will be God’s people, and God will be their God. God makes a covenant with David: that a descendant of David will forever reign over Israel. Later the prophet Jeremiah talks about the promise of a new covenant, by which he means a new relationship between God and God’s people once the people have returned from exile, but which Christians have traditionally taken to point ahead to Jesus, who embodies an even newer relationship of love and mercy between God and God’s people.
The first covenant that God makes in the Bible, however, isn’t just with one person or group of people. It’s a covenant with all of creation.
In the beginning, as the story goes, God creates the heavens and the earth. God calls forth light from the darkness, gathers the waters together and creates land; God fills the seas with sea creatures and the land with land creatures and the air with flying creatures; and then God creates human beings in God’s image. And God gives humankind dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth, and God sees that God’s creation is good. In fact, not just good – but very good.
And yet it’s not long before things begin to go awry. It’s not the fault of the fish of the sea or the birds of the air or the creeping things on the earth, though all of them suffer for it. It’s the fault of humankind, whose “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). So what does God do? God decides to wipe it all out and start over. Not the way we usually tell the story in Sunday School, but there you go. God decides to flood the earth.
But before God does so, God finds one righteous man named Noah, and God saves Noah and two of every wild and domestic animal, and they ride out the flood in an ark, and when the flood subsides, God announces the first covenant. “I am establishing my covenant,” God says to Noah, “with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.”
Just in case Noah didn’t catch it, God helpfully repeats it several times in the next few verses: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you…””I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh…” (With who, God?) “Between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” The writer of this passage must really want to drive this point home: humankind may still have dominion – power and responsibility over the rest of creation – but those animals of the earth and birds of the air and fish of the sea are, without mistake, our partners in this covenant.
I told you that a covenant generally has two parts – one part for God to uphold and the other part for God’s covenant partner to uphold. In this case, though, the covenant seems to be pure grace on God’s part. There’s nothing for Noah or us to do; God simply says that God will never again destroy the world with a flood. It’s not a hard covenant for humankind to keep.
But the thing is, if we forget our partners in this simplest of covenants, then there’s a sense in which we’ve already broken it.
My aim, today, is not to point out all the things we’re doing wrong or all the ways we are covenant breakers. I think we probably already know that most of us (especially here in the US) buy more than we need, create more carbon emissions than the world can sustain, and produce more trash than has any place to go.
Most of us probably also know, on some level, that the harm we do to our environment isn’t just about ruining “nature.” It’s about those fish in the sea, swallowing our plastic microbeads. It’s about the creepy crawly things on the ground that we’d honestly rather be rid of but that are actually pretty fundamental to life itself, the diversity of which is decreasing rapidly.
It’s also about each other. It’s about the fact that trash and pollution usually affect the poorest people in society long before the rich are ever forced to see the problem, and that people of color suffer disproportionately from the effects compared to white people. It’s about the high school kids who took to streets and parks all over the world last week to protest our impending climate change crisis and the fact that the grown-ups don’t seem to be doing anything about it. I do wonder sometimes what this world is going to look like by the time my children have grown up, if we will have made headway on any of these problems by then.
Turning back to creation isn’t just about turning back to creation. It’s about turning back to each other, turning back to our neighbors near and far, turning back to our children, and turning back to God.
If you asked me how my plastic fast this Lent is going, I’d have to tell you that results are mixed. I’ve made some small changes. I now have a metal fork in my desk at work so I don’t have to keep taking the plastic ones from Chipotle. I ordered reusable produce bags and shampoo that comes in a bar instead a plastic bottle. I’ve started bringing my own cup to Panera for my morning coffee. (I didn’t even know you could do that, until I asked.) I’ve even managed to bring my lunch to work a couple times recently, on days when I’m feeling particularly on top of life and there happen to be leftovers in the fridge. Most of these changes feel sustainable. They’re new habits I can get into, and am.
I also keep coming back to how much bigger the problem seems than me. Trying to give up plastic has made me really aware of all the plastic in my life that I can’t avoid – or at least that it seems really hard and inconvenient to avoid. It’s made me think more, by connection, about my non-plastic waste, and even about my carbon footprint and how I’m contributing to global warming through the lifestyle choices I make.
But on the other hand – I am more aware of these things, and I have this Lenten practice to thank for that. It may be a small turn, but it’s a turn nonetheless – a turn back to God and neighbor and creation and this covenant in which we are all partners together.
Again, it’s easy to get depressing when talking about all this, and that’s not how I want you to walk away feeling. I learned in seminary that a sermon always has to have “good news!” But I don’t want to make it sound like it will all be OK no matter what. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish high school student who addressed the World Economic Forum a couple weeks ago, told the people gathered there “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” (According to the New York Times, the applause was “tepid.”) It seems clear if we listen to both scientists and children that something really does need to change – and something big, and something soon. God loves us and forgives us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t face the consequences of our own choices and the systems we create.
But there is good news, because I believe that even now, God’s grace is bigger than our brokenness, bigger even than the brokenness of our world, and God continues to call and welcome us home.
God’s grace means we are loved and forgiven, but it also means that change is possible. Grace means we don’t have to be captive to the destructive habits we’ve learned from family or culture – that we can be free to make new and faithful choices, even when we’re up against something much bigger than ourselves. Grace means we recognize the road we’re headed down and turn back.
So: what’s one choice you can make this Lenten season that is part of turning back to God and the covenant we’re part of with all creation?
God is calling us back, to God and each other and creation. All we have to do is turn.