Let’s say that it’s early morning, Advent. The alarm blares and I crawl out from bed. Through my bedroom window I can hear the wind blow snow, but once I pull on a sweatshirt, I am not cold. Since I live on Long Island, and my house is old, I begin my day by turning on lights as I find my way to the basement, and I check the water level in my oil-fired boiler. The water level is good — no steam will push out of my radiators. So I turn on my coffee maker, I fry some eggs. My wife gets up — we take hot showers, dress, eat, drink copious amounts of coffee, feeling our way to conviviality. We get in the car — she gets on the train, I get to work in a cold church kept above freezing by a gas-fired boiler. Around me millions of people are trying to get to work. The main drag in my village is clogged with car after car of them.
Everything I have done I have done with the help of a fossil fuel. My warmth came by burning oil to make hot steam; my eggs were delivered to my grocer courtesy of gasoline-powered trucks and cooked using the natural gas pipeline hooked to my stove; I could see what I was doing from because my lights received energy from a coal-fired power plant. I arrived in warmth to the train and the church in my gasoline powered car, which I look forward to using for the rest of the day. I wear clothes made in other countries, shipped on oil-burning ships. Some kind volunteer has cleared my church door with a gasoline-powered snowblower. It’s a good life; supposedly, a barrel of oil equals twenty-five thousand hours of manual labor, and in a year, I probably use twenty-five barrels of oil. Thanks to those twenty-five barrels of oil, gas, and coal, I get to spend a comfortable morning with hot coffee focusing on preaching about the free grace of God for all people, to be followed by an afternoon in a toasty hospital comforting the dying with the promise of resurrection. Meanwhile, although I cannot see it from my window, the world roasts. I don’t think about it because I want to be able to get up tomorrow morning like I did today — warm, comfortable, at peace.
We Lutherans have placed our bets on the comfort of the Gospel. We are told to preach grace, to rely on grace, to err on the side of grace, not to refuse grace, to be diligent in the use of the means of grace. For a while, our official slogan was, “Living in God’s Amazing Grace!” The promise of God made to us in our Baptism and confirmed in Holy Communion is supposed to set us free, make us happy, save us. To signify the rich abundance of God’s grace, the ELCA encourages its churches to build extravagant fonts of running water. The symbolism is good, and the sound of running water echoing through Augustana Chapel can be a welcome distraction. Imagine such a font of water in California, where the Sierra snowpack that provides the water for agriculture in California is melting at such an alarming rate that Steven Chu, the Nobel Laureate and current Secretary of Energy, has said, “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California” and added, “I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.”1 The world we create by burning fossil fuels will slow the great gush of the waters of Baptism to a trickle you may kill to drink and will clean out California before an earthquake shoves it into the Pacific. I wish this were melodrama, but such disaster has already appeared in the Sudan, Chad, Syria, Pakistan, and India, where villagers have abandoned their homes as their water has run out. When there is no more water, how will we use the means of grace? How will we baptize? I don’t think about this when I drink my coffee in the morning.
Placing our bets on the comfort of the Gospel means that we know we are in deep trouble and cannot save ourselves. We are in deep trouble with our planet, and I am not sure that we have the theological tools to address it in this church. To address climate change, we need to change our way of life. It means repentance, it means confession, it means change. I did not hear much about repentance and change in seminary; I did hear a lot about acceptance and inclusion. I have not heard much about it from the pulpits. But I have heard it in the Bible, and I have heard it in our Confessions. The Church must reclaim the theology of repentance and works, to stop basking in the hot tub of cheap grace, to cease with bold prayers and sinning boldly, and work like the desperate, poor, blind, afflicted, stumbling, troubled sinners in the hands of God that we are. If our Baptisms are to mean anything, let us pass into the death with Christ and not leap ahead to glory too quickly.
We can begin with the Confessions. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melanchthon writes:
We say that throughout life good fruits (good works) ought to follow repentance (that is, conversion or regeneration). For there can be no true conversion or true contrition where the mortification of the flesh and the good fruits do not follow … Thus, inner repentance means nothing unless it outwardly results in strict correction of the flesh.2
He argues here against the performing satisfaction to obtain salvation and the forgiveness of sins. He rails against superstitious rites, saying:
[W]hen Christ says, “Repent,” he is certainly speaking about total repentance, about the entire new life and its fruits, not about those hypocritical satisfactions that the scholastics imagine avail as a compensation for the punishments of purgatory….3
Of course, the subtext of this argument is that it arises from a debate about how we are saved. We, who live in God’s amazing grace, know that Christ alone saves. But we too often lose the vision of the saved life — we always lose it when the dispute focuses simply on salvation and does not reveal anything about what salvation means for the saved. Melanchthon seems to think that a saved person has certain obligations, set forth in Scripture. He writes:
[W]e have already testified that repentance ought to bring good fruits. The [Ten] Commandments teach what these good fruits are … — not to buy off eternal punishment but to keep from surrendering to the devil or offending the Holy Spirit. These fruits have God’s command and ought to be done on account of the glory and mandate of God, and they have their own reward.”4
One of their rewards might be living on a planet that has enough water for everyone.
Notice that Melanchthon uses ‘ought’. There are oughts in our faith. We are good at the first part of Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free … not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”5 Melanchthon points out: “The entire scope of repentance — contrition, faith, good fruits — bring about a lessening of public and private punishments and calamities, as Isaiah teaches….”6 Climatologists have told us that the maximum safe amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million. At this very moment, we have 390 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our skies. Scientists at MIT have looked at the pledges to reduce greenhouse gases made by governments around the world at Copenhagen and calculated that if every government held to their pledge, by 2100 we would have 725 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Those pledges will not satisfy, they will not earn a reprieve, they are not repentant. If we do what we have promised, we will burn.
In some ways, it is helpful to have a number. Three hundred fifty parts per million is a clear and achievable goal. Al Gore, for one, has a plan on how we can do it. But doing it will require a lot from us — in fact, it will require an entirely new way of life, a way of life that will not necessarily be easier. In a book review written for The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert compares the views of the Hydra behind Superfreakonomics and Al Gore. She quotes the first, who say,
“If you think like a cold-blooded economist instead of a warm-hearted humanist, Gore’s reasoning doesn’t track … It’s not that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don’t want to stop, or aren’t willing to pay the price.”7
Can Lutherans call those words what they are, the siren song of the flesh that must be put to death? Kolbert continues:
By the end of [Gore’s book] “Our Choice,” it may be clear that we possess the tools needed to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions, but the book has also shown — intentionally or not — that deploying them would require a lot from us. It would mean changing the way we eat, shop, manufacture, and get around, and, ultimately, how we see ourselves.8
This sounds like repentance — one that Melanchthon could champion when he writes, “Moreover, it is worth teaching that our common maladies are lightened through our repentance and through the true fruits of repentance, through good words done from faith….”9
We have abandoned such teaching along with words like ‘ought’, ‘must’, ‘necessary’, and ‘let us’. Let us now do as we ought, as we must do, as it is necessary for us to do, we who have received the Holy Spirit — for we who have been saved cannot risk surrender to the devil or offense against the Spirit.
Quoted in “California Farms, Vineyards in Peril from Warming, U.S. Energy Secretary Warns,” Los Angeles Times, 4 Feb. 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/feb/04/local/me-warming4, accessed October 18, 2010.
Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession [XII] Repentance, The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb, Timothy G. Wengert (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), 209.
Elizabeth Kolbert, “HOSED: Is there a quick fix for the climate?” The New Yorker, 16 Nov. 2009, http://newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/16/091116crbo_books_kolbert, accessed October 18, 2010.