Monday, October 5, 2020

Our Religious Duty

Caring for creation as the macro Temple

October 4, 2020

            We have now crossed the mid-way point in our Sunday sermon series to prepare for the presidential election. Today we explore the environment, that is, the world we live in, or as Pope Francis like to call it, “our common home.” We have already addressed four topics: (1) abortion and prolife, (2) racism, (3) marriage and the LGBTQ community, and (4) immigration. If you missed the previous homilies, you can either read the text or listen to the audio on the I.C. Church website. They are under the slightly misleading title, “Fr. John’s Voting Guide.” Of course, I do not tell you whom to vote for, but only help you to think more seriously about these subjects from a spiritual perspective.

Recently, I have been reading a book called The Catholic Introduction to the Bible: Old Testament written by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre. That is a long title, so I prefer the acronym the “CITBOT.” In explaining the creation story of Genesis 1, Bergsma and Pitre suggest that Genesis’ primary purpose is not to answer scientific questions, like how old the earth is, or are evolution and creation compatible, etc. Rather, the ancient author deliberately describes the cosmos as a “macro temple.” What does that mean?

Imagine the church building you are sitting in right now as if it were the size of the whole universe and included the cosmos. Or, put the other way around, imagine the church you are in as a micro cosmos (a microcosm), as if the whole universe could fit inside this church. The CITBOT insist: “It becomes apparent that the sacred author has composed an elegantly balanced temple-building account that points to the liturgical orientation of creation” (CITBOT, 96). In other words, Genesis envisions the creation of the world as the construction of a massive macro temple, as God’s house. Remember when Jesus ran the money-changers out of Jerusalem Temple and said: “You shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (Jn. 2:16)? Jesus knows that the whole cosmos is God’s house, but so is the Temple. The two terms are virtually interchangeable. The cosmos is the “macro temple,” the Temple is the “micro cosmos.”

Genesis’ description of the universe as a “macro temple” carries a crucial consequence for human beings, namely, people are created as “priests” of the temple. Bergsma and Pitre assert: “Genesis is also depicting Adam as a priestly figure, commissioned to serve in Eden, the primordial garden-sanctuary” (CITBOT, 103). Did you catch that? Adam and Eve are “priestly figures.” So, if the cosmos is a temple, and people are the priests, then what do you think our job is as priestly figures? Our job is to care for the temple and ultimately to worship God in the Temple. The CITBOT concludes the creation story saying: “All things culminate on the seventh day, the Sabbath: the day of divine rest, the fundamental day of worship in Israel’s later liturgical calendar” (CITBOT, 98). In other words, the main message of Genesis is threefold: (1) the cosmos is a church, (2) the people are the priests, and (3) our work is to worship.

What does all this have to do with the environment? Well, I am convinced that the best way to understand how human beings interact with the environment is as priests taking care of a temple. No one would dispute that part of my job as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church and Our Lady of the Ozarks is to ensure the beauty of these magnificent churches. It is also my task to turn it over to the next pastor in better shape than I found it. That is why the U.S. bishops, in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” wrote: “Protecting the land, water, and air we share is a religious duty of stewardship and reflects our responsibility to born and unborn children” (“Forming Consciences,” no. 86). Notice how they describe care of the earth as a “religious duty.” Why do we care for the environment? Because according to Genesis God created human beings as “priestly figures” who have a religious duty to care for the temple, the cosmos God constructed in Genesis.

The creation story of Genesis radically reframes the conversation about caring for the environment. For example, the reason we care deeply about the forest fires (and its real root causes) in California, Oregon and Washington is because we are priests of this macro temple of the world. The reason we worry about rising ocean levels and floods that threaten people who live along shorelines, especially the poor, is because we are priests protecting this earthly sanctuary. The reason we reduce greenhouse gasses, conserve and renew energy, and recycle and reuse as much as possible is because we are pastors keeping this cosmic temple clean for ourselves and for the pastors who come after us.

To blithely blow off the world around us, or to fail to care for the environment would be like me saying that I do not care if the church roof was leaking, the plaster walls were cracking and peeling, the carpet was stained and molding, and the heat and air were not working. What would happen if I adopted that attitude toward the church? The bishop would send me on a long sabbatical until I learned not to be derelict in my “religious duty” to care for the temple. Likewise, our caring for the environment is not merely an “economic question” so we can exploit the earth to make more money, or just a political hot-button issue to win votes, or a simple liberal or conservative label so we see who is on our side. It goes back to the creation of the world, and our God-given roles as priestly figures with a religious duty that cannot be shirked.

I am so proud of my niece Sophia, who is studying at the University of Georgia (don’t hold that against her). Her major is “environmental economics and management.” Of course I had no idea what that means, so she explained it to me saying: “Living in Arkansas we are surrounded by so much natural beauty. But I’ve traveled to places that lack that same beauty. I really want to help preserve the beauty of our natural world for generations to come.” When you listen carefully to my niece’s comments, with the creation story of Genesis in the background, she sounds a lot like she is fulfilling her “religious duty” to care for creation. From the perspective of Genesis, Sophia makes a better priestly figure than I do.

Once again I hope that this homily falls far short in telling you who to vote for. But I hope it did not fall too far short in helping you appreciate that this world is a “macro temple” in which we are placed as “priestly figures” given the charge of its care. Perhaps no one in the history of the world grasped that primordial purpose described by Genesis better than St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis – who took St. Francis as his papal patron – wrote about a curious custom St. Francis had, explaining: “Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty” (Laudato Sí, no. 12). Maybe seeing the wild flowers and herbs touched only by the hand of God made Francis feel a little more like ancient Adam in the Garden of Eden, that original priestly figure faithfully fulfilling his religious duty to care for the environment.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

No comments:

Post a Comment