This address was given at Trinity Lutheran Seminary's
Commencement in May of 2003. Used with permission.
 Exhausted faculty, indebted graduates, anxious development
officers and president, relieved partners, children, parents, and
friends, I am delighted to be your commencement speaker.
 Such is the manner of a concocted commencement address by
Garrison Keillor, who, after delivering the whole burdened world
into the hands of the graduates, though none had jobs, commended to
them a sense of humor as sure proof of their humanity. "When
Moses came down from the mountain with the clay tablets, he said,
'folks, I was able to talk [Yahweh] down to 10.
Unfortunately, we had to leave adultery in there, but you'll notice
that solemnity was taken out.' And that night the Israelites
killed the fatted calf and drank wine and told old Bible jokes in
 There are good reasons both to leave adultery in there and
take solemnity out. I wish for all of you and yours a day,
indeed days and years, of celebration and joy. Break some
more bread together, share the cup in another round, tell a few old
Bible jokes, and embrace God, the fathomless Mystery that surrounds
the burning mystery of your own lives.
 Joseph Sittler was an eloquent man who was also an elegant
theologian. He was, to be precise, a Lutheran ecologian well
before we had a name for that. In fact, Bill Gates's
Spellcheck still insists on that obnoxious wavy red line when you
type "ecologian," even correctly. A league ahead of his time,
Sittler's call in the 1950s for "a theology of earth" still goes
largely unanswered among Lutherans. My hope for you today is
that his theme of fidelity to God lived as fidelity to Earth does
not go unanswered in your ministries.
 I didn't come today as a sidewalk preacher in a sandwich
board to reissue Sittler's call. Nor it that necessary, since
his plea is anything but new for ministry and calling.
Already for the Yahwist, in the oldest biblical strands, the
primordial human calling is to till and keep the garden. The
Hebrew word for this-abad-literally means "to serve." Adam (earth
creature) serves adama (topsoil, the land), from which adam comes
and to which earth creature returns. The Psalmist, too, says
the task God has assigned you is "to renew the face of the
earth." And several decades before Sittler, Bonhoeffer said,
in "The Foundation of Christian Ethics," that "[E]arth remains our
Mother as God remains our Father, and the Mother will not lay in
the Father's arms those who are not true to her. Earth and
its distress, this is the Christian's 'Song of Songs.'" Your
"Song of Songs," in whatever form you tap out the symphony of your
ministry, is "Earth and its distress."
 We renew this calling and rededicate ourselves on a weekly
basis, in sacred space. In "This is the feast," we "Sing with
all the people of God and join in the hymn of all creation…"
A little later in the liturgy we bless God and pray, on the cusp of
the Great Thanksgiving itself, "O Lord our God, maker of all
things. Through your goodness you have blessed us with these
gifts. With them we offer ourselves to your service and
dedicate our lives to the care and redemption of all that you have
made…" (Lutheran Book of Worship, 88)
 Despite all this, Sittler's 1961 ecumenical complaint in New
Delhi still holds. Though we Lutherans are a Christocentric
people, we do not have a "daring, penetrating, life-affirming
Christology of nature." Yet until we follow such a Christ,
Sittler went on, the powers of grace will not be loosed upon earth
"to diagnose, judge, and heal the ways of humans as they
blasphemously strut about this hurt and threatened world as if they
owned it."1 Sittler had himself, in
1954, vowed "as a son of earth [to] know no rest" until earth's
voices were gathered up "into a deeper and fuller understanding of
[his] faith." Earth's voices have about them "the shine of
the holy," Sittler said. "A certain 'theological guilt'
pursues the mind that impatiently rejects" [or neglects]
 How will you answer the invitation of the mass to join the
hymn of all creation? How will you live out your prayerful
vow to the care and redemption of all God has made?
 Sittler himself might well have started with Simone Weil's
question, as a way to repair the errant theological mind and loose
the powers of grace. Weil's question is: "How can
Christianity call itself catholic, if the universe itself is left
Any God-talk that does not take in all 13-15 billion years of the
pilgrimage of the universe to date, and the immense wheeling of 100
million galaxies, each swimming with millions of stars and, we now
know, numerous planets; any God-talk that does not gather in all
species come and gone, all well as those leaving as we speak; and
any God-talk that does not embrace the whole drama of life in all
its misery and grandeur, is simply quaint. Shorn of the
universe, ours is "apartheid" worship of a human species
idol. It is God rendered in our own diminished, smudged
image. It is Luther's self-strangled heart (cor curvatum in
se) at the species level, pridefully excluding all life and all
worlds except our own. Teilhard, the Roman Catholic ecologian,
finds himself praying in "The Mass on the World": "Shatter, my God,
through the daring of your revelation the childishly timid outlook
that can conceive of nothing greater or more vital in the world
than the pitiable perfection of our human organism."4
 Teilhard's was a Christology of nature, as was Sittler's
and Weil's. And this real presence of Christ in the mystery
of matter is the center of an Earth-honoring Christology for your
ministries. "God crosses the thickness of the world to come
to us,"5 Weil
says in a splendid iteration of one of Luther's own theological
bottom lines; namely, the finite bears the infinite. The
thickness of the world-the finite, the creaturely, nature,
you-bears, like Mary's womb itself, God-in-Christ and the
Spirit. That cannot mean less than this, that Earth, this
frail Ark of Life assail in the inkiness of space, is a
sacrament. All peoples everywhere, together with the rest of
creation, are born to belonging and are gathered into one in God as
the grains of wheat scattered on the hill become the bread of life
and the fruit of the vine becomes the cup of blessing. These are
the visible and tangible signs of the sacramental commons that, by
God's grace and as God's gift, is ours in earth, air, fire, water,
and one another.6
The thickness of the world crossed by God includes the Cross
itself. The Cross of Jesus Christ is the center of Lutheran
faith. Sittler's lament is only that the Christ of our
ministry and piety has not truly been the cosmic Christ at whose
torture and death even the stones cry out for justice.
The cross is the cross of brute reality. It tells the
truth about life and the God of life. The truth about
life is both joy and death, degradation and redemption, tragedy and
recovery, beauty and terror, misery and grandeur. The earth
knows great gladness, and steady spasms of humor: the humor of
penguins walking, wildebeest trying ballet, baby homo sapiens first
discovering their toes, butterflies trying to look serious or go
unnoticed. But there is also earth's grievous "distress":
disasters of the spirit and the land, catastrophes of psyche and
ocean, the acidity of rain and soil, mind and household.
Nothing less than lowercase apocalypse is already the companion of
millions of creatures today. "Only the sated and well-fed
enjoy Calvary," said W. H. Auden, "as a verbal event." The
cross is not a comfortable symbol of culture and "home." It
is a shocking sign from the periphery about injustice and wrongful
death at the hands of that culture and many another. The
cross tells the awful truth of violence that never honors
God. There is no humane way to destroy, no gentle way to
kill, no good end for torture or capital punishment. Golgatha
is a dump, then and now.
But the cross also tells an awesome truth. To believe
in God is to disbelieve in the world as it is. It is not to
disbelieve in the world, but only the world "as it is." Ours
is not a wrong Earth and wrong world-that perennial Christian
heresy. Ours is the good Earth and a good world gone horribly
wrong. Yet in the emotive region of the cross and in the
awful silence of a dying Christ, there is loosed a power that has
traversed the thickness of the world to win space for life, even
life abundant, on the home turf of death itself. It is the
power of none less than God, a seismic whisper of strength amidst
weakness, joy amidst suffering, grace where only wrath and pain
seem apparent, even life itself on the rise within the precincts of
But what does this cosmic cross of Christ and a theology of
earth mean for your ministries, especially those-and it's most of
you-who are U. S. citizens? What does "to believe in God is
to disbelieve in the world as it is" mean for us?
A theology of earth and Christology of nature means loving
the earth fiercely in the place that is home for you, wherever that
may be. It means loving all of it fiercely: the folds of the
hills, the sparkle of sunlight on water and water on stone,
together with all those irrepressible efforts of humans to compose
their own stanzas for the hymn of all creation. This is
the "earth patriotism" of faith and it means, as members of the
faith community embedded in the civic community, a patriotism that
cares enough to address our nation's deep flaws.
Such patriotism also means what Christian asceticism has
always meant: namely, living lightly, gently, and equitably upon
Earth. It means Christianity's disapprobation of a life of
taking, built as it is upon carefully cultivated desire for
essentially small things that thwart the true self in God. In
a moment when two of the forces that most shape our lives are Islam
and consumerism, the asceticism of loving Earth fiercely in a
simple, disciplined way of life that tethers spiritual richness to
material simplicity ought to seize us and not let go.
I close with one illustration. Two Presidents Bush
declared the same thing a decade apart: "The American Way of Life
is not up for negotiation." George Bush, Sr. did so, to world
anger, at the Earth Summit he attended for one day in Rio in
1992. George Bush, Jr. could not do so at the Earth Summit in
Johannesburg in 2002, since, among all heads of state, he was a
complete no-show, also to world anger. But he did so after
9/11, and most of the U. S. citizenry apparently agrees, while most
of the rest of the world does not.
The Bushes, however, are typical, rather than unique; and
the sober truth is that if you want to understand U.S. foreign
policy as well as domestic policy since 1950, you need but focus on
one thing: the exacting requirements of American affluence.
You could start with President Franklin Roosevelt's meeting in 1945
with Prince Saud of Saudi Arabia and their happy exchange: U.S.
support for the new royal family in return for guaranteed U. S.
access to Saudi oil, come what may. Or you could cite from
1950 onward the advocacy in both economic policy and popular
culture of consumerism as a healthy way of life redounding to the
common good. Bride magazine's Handbook for Newlyweds, widely
consulted in the 1950s, put it concisely: "When you buy the dozens
of things you never bought or even thought of before, you are
helping to build greater security for [the industries of] this
country. What you buy and how you buy it is very vital to
your new life and to our whole American way of
living."7 Yet even that may
not prepare you for Alan Durning's finding that global consumer
classes, led by the U.S., produced and consumed as many goods and
services in the half century from 1950-2000 as throughout the
entire period of human history prior to that point.
A close look at the notion of democracy embedded here is
unsettling. Democracy's three classic values are liberty,
equality, and community ("fraternity"). But the only talk now
in our nation is about freedom as liberty and how it can be
secured. We hear nothing of the other two any more-equality
and community. When liberty ideologically trumps all else in
a free enterprise model tied to affluence as a way of life, then
even democratic government itself is basically about protecting and
promoting freedom to acquire wealth and do with it as you
please. The right to property and its uses is more basic
than, say, government as an equalizing force ("equality") or
government as the people's means to achieve the common good
together ("community"). We have quietly amputated two-thirds
of the democratic vision.
Put all this together and the question becomes this, for
Peoples of the Book: Why don't Christians, Jews and Muslims
join others to protest a consumerism that touts freedom as liberty
to ransack the world storehouse and engorge any and every style it
comes upon, a consumerism ravaging the planet and mortgaging our
With God's blessing, you will work out a post-materialist
life as one way fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to
Earth. I finish with the invitation to sing Lutheran earth
patriotism together. Love of country is wholly proper, as
Sibelius knew. We can rightly sing "God Bless
America." But no Christian citizen of this nation
should sing "God Bless America" as a song of American
exceptionalism and as sanction for a way of life exempt from
re-negotiation. Still, my invitation is not one borne of
protest, even though we Protest-ants were named for such. My
motive instead is to give full, positive voice to the
Earth-honoring faith to which Joseph Sittler dedicated his own life
and that I covet as your ministry's "Song of Songs."
In any event, don't forget to tell a few old Bible jokes
along the way, slay the fatted veggie-burger, and share the cup of
blessing. If we began with Keillor and Moses, we end
with Sibelius and a line from Chesterton: "Life is serious all the
time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity
you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex,
death, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have
madness."8 Let's sing!
This is My Song
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes,
my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating with hope and dreams as
true and high as mine.
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams
on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover, and skies are
everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for their
land and for mine.
Jean Sibelius, 1899.
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 3, Issue 9
1 Joseph Sittler, "Called to Unity: Redemption within
Creation," (printed as a booklet at Holden Village, Chelan, WA,
2 Joseph Sittler, "A Theology of Earth," reprinted in
Richard C. Foltz, ed., Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment: A
Global Anthology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2003), 17.
3 Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: G. P. Putnam's
Sons, 1951), 101.
4 Teilhard de Chardin, "The Mass on the World," in The
Hymn of the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 25.
5 Weil, Gravity & Grace, trans. by Arthur Wills with
an introduction by Gustave Thibon (Lincoln, NB: University of
Nebraska Press, 1952), 142.
6 The phrases are allusions to the hymn by Marty Haugen,
"As the Grains of Wheat," in With One Voice: A Lutheran Resource
for Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), # 705.
7 Handbook for Newlyweds is cited by Lizbeth Cohen in "A
Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar
America," Miller Center Report, A Publication of the Miller Center
of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Volume 19, No. 1,
Winter, 2003: 6.
8 G. K. Chesterton, as cited from the Frontispiece of
Susan Sparks, Humor and the Sacred, Master of Divinity Thesis,
Union Theological Seminary, 2003.