There is a village in Alaska that is falling into the sea. Actually there are many villages in Alaska that are falling into the sea. The Inuit people, originally migratory, were forced to settle in “permanent” villages. It is these “permanent” villages that are falling into the sea. Once protected by sea ice, they are now eroding away. Climate change, of course, is the reason. Shishmaref is of particular interest because there is a Lutheran congregation there. At some point in the not-too-distant future, says Bishop Shelley Wickstrom, the homes of Shishmaref will be put on skids and dragged to a new location. But not the church. It is too big. If the people are to worship, they will need a new church.
Shishmaref, Alaska, is only one of many communities in the vanguard of what scientists predict will be 50 million to 200 million “climate refugees” by 2050. Because Shishmaref has Lutheran connections, our church will have a moral obligation to those villagers, those ELCA Lutherans. But what about Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana? And thousands of other places. Climate change poses a huge global problem—it affects everyone.
The history of life on earth is rich and varied. The creation stories in Genesis give us a beautiful, poetic rendition of unfolding life on earth that is pleasing to God. The collapsing of the process into six days makes it manageable, comprehensible. Of course we know that the earth’s evolution has been far more complex. We can assert this without any diminishment in our faith in God the creator.
Scientists looking at this history of living things see five mass extinctions in the last half billion years on earth. And more and more of them are convinced that we are on the verge of a sixth mass extinction. (See Pulitzer Prize winning The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert.) So what’s a Christian to do? Martin Luther is widely quoted as saying that even if he knew the world were to end tomorrow, he would still plant a pear tree today. (That quote has never actually been verified, though it is probably his most popular.)
Stewardship. It is a faith practice that involves far more than an annual fund drive for the congregation. Stewardship is our acknowledgement that everything we have and everything we are comes from God. Stewardship is returning to God, providing for our neighbor, working with our neighbor to care for the earth. It is not a massive global initiative, but a way of life, a faith practice for people who follow the Risen Christ.
Christians do not have a monopoly on stewardship, nor on care of the earth. And Christians, like others, have a moral obligation to engage in global initiatives to care for the earth. It’s just that we are very clear about the why. We love because God first loved us.
Personal stewardship is an affirmation that we are not created unto ourselves, that we are a part of something larger, and that in response to God’s love through Jesus Christ, we orient our lives in gratitude.
We pray to God for the earth. And we work with our neighbors for the earth, planting trees, recycling, lessening our carbon footprint. And we practice stewardship. Because we know that it is not ours to spoil, not ours to ignore, not ours to hoard. We care for the earth as a matter of stewardship for the present, and for the future.
We may not be able to prevent a certain species of bat from going extinct, nor a particular kind of frog. But as Christians we have a responsibility to care for the environment. It is a matter of stewardship. We were not given the earth to live in to use up all its resources and make it uninhabitable for the future. Farmers know that. Ranchers know that.
That’s stewardship. A faith practice.
Jessica Crist, Bishop