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Plastic Jesus

Updated: May 10

“Plastic Jesus”

April 21, 2024 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Exodus 20:2-6; Romans 8:19-23

Fourth Sunday of Easter 

Exodus 20:2-6

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Romans 8:19-23

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

 Hi.  Good morning.  This is a weird title for a sermon, don’t you think?  Plastic Jesus.  What’s that about?  Jesus isn’t made of plastic.  Why would Jesus be made of plastic?  That would be cheap and, honestly a little kitschy.  Like the kind of knick-knack you might find gathering dust on the shelf of a church library established in 1963.  Or a dashboard decoration in a taxi-cab.  Or a toy inside a plastic easter egg.  When we like to think about God in more serious ways, like in worship and or in other special spots that feel sacred, plastic isn’t usually a factor in the equation.  

Plastic Jesus as a sermon topic?  What could it mean?  

Do you remember this moment?  This was November 19th on the Sunday when we introduced the idea of weighing plastic bags.  Why?  Because even though these big puffy bags of bags only weighed 1.75 pounds on John Jarvis’ fish scale, we believed that it might be possible for this community to save bags that would have normally been trashed, and ounce by ounce to add them up to meet a 1,000 pound goal.  What we didn’t know in this picture on November 19th, is that we would reach this goal in four short months.   Which tells you two equally true things.  You all have been amazingly diligent in saving your plastic.   AND, we use a lot of plastic.  

We’re zeroing in on plastic today because it’s something I think we’re all much more aware of after our journey to 1,000 pounds.  I’ve heard your stories about meticulously washing out food bags that you use to toss in the garbage.  I’ve heard you say you talked to store managers and construction crews about saving the industrial plastic wrap that they were just putting in the garbage and then bringing it into the church for recycling.  I’ve heard you say your children speak up when a piece of plastic is being put in the trash reminding you that it could and should be recycled instead.  I’ve even heard some of you took plastic out of the neighbor’s trash can when it clearly should have been recycled instead. 

The dedication with which you and the community as a whole have helped the church to achieve this 1,000 pound pile of plastic is simply breathtaking.  Part of it might have been the incentive of getting something tangible in exchange for our labors; seeing the transformation in action: plastic bag to plastic bench.  It has a nice symmetry.  It makes us feel warm and fuzzy and helpful inside.  Instead of filling up our trash bag now our plastic makes a place to sit in our church yard.  I think the bench was a big part of it.  

But when we step back and see what’s been accomplished, the bench is really a very small part of it.  Because what’s actually happened is that all of us who stepped up to this challenge have suddenly become conscious of how much plastic is in our lives.  And three months of noticing what plastic we’re using and studying it to see if it’s recyclable changes habits.  It will be hard for you to throw a bag into a landfill where it will sit for 500 years knowing that it could have instead been recycled.  We are, by the way, still collecting, as we help our elementary school toward their 1,000 pound goal.   But more than that, there is something morally significant about considering what we do with the plastic we use knowing there are options besides the landfill.  

I’m proud of you.  But this is just the beginning. 

You want to know why I’m preaching a sermon called Plastic Jesus?  Because plastic has become something like an idol for us 21st century humans.  One definition of an idol is misplaced dependency.  Leaning so heavily on something for convenience, or support, or salvation, that it quickly replaces something else more important.  I know none of us would admit out loud to worshipping plastic, but our dependency on it and our choice again and again for the convenience it offers, elevates it to a level of dangerous importance in our lives.  A dangerous level that, in practice, challenges other values we claim to hold dear.  We sometimes act like it's plastic that’s here to save us, not Jesus, subconsciously trading quick and easy for mindful and slow.  

Think about it: In the course of 7 decades (that’s less time than some of you have been alive) plastics have gone from being non-existent in our lives and homes to present in almost every imaginable product.  Try to find one thing that isn’t made or packaged with plastic and you’re going to have to look very hard.  

Since the 1950s when plastic was first mass-produced, its production has grown exponentially every year.  By the year 2019, 460 million tons of plastic were produced annually.  And while recycling is good, it has not been able to keep up.  It’s estimated that 2/3 of all the plastic that has ever been made in the 70 years of the “plastic age” we now live in… 2/3 ….has been released back into the environment and remains there in some form and will remain there in some form for the next 30 generations.  And even when it does begin to decompose, the plastic becomes debris floating in the oceans, micro- or nanoparticles in the soils, microfibers in water supplies, and microparticles in, yes, your body.

And the worst part of all of this, is that it’s us that all of this plastic is being made for.  Our demand keeps growing.  In the last 15 years alone, half of all plastic ever created has been made.  The primary reason for this incredible escalation?  A new phenomenon that our Tupperware-party hosting mothers and grandmothers couldn’t have even imagined.  The wide, wide world of plastic that you use only one time and then throw away.  They’re called single-use plastics and they are the biggest contributor to plastic waste.

A straw with our soda, a plastic bag to hold our produce in our shopping cart, a wrapper around our candy bar. Taken individually, each seems harmless. These modern conveniences are so common—and so quickly thrown out—that they hardly register in our minds. But single-use plastics come with a heavy cost.  A straw used once won’t ever go away.  And we must ask ourselves, is it worth it?  

The Hebrew Scripture is filled with warnings against worshiping things that are made with human hands. The prophets point to this as idolatry, as a key thing that leads people away from both God and neighbor. The quintessential example of this is found in Exodus 32 when, in Moses’ absence, the Israelites built a golden calf to worship, claiming that it was this thing that they had created that truly saved them from their enslavement. Plastics are a human invention that we often credit for much of what we consider to be progress in our society. And yet, as we look at the costs of extracting oil for its production, or the heavy toll that Creation bears in its disposal, we see that we have turned our backs on the true source of life in order to chase after a false sense of achievement and convenience.

Several years ago, I got this for Christmas.  It’s a bamboo cylinder that holds….. three metal straws in three convenient sizes.  Regular, medium and extra big (for milk shakes, I presume).  It was a really thoughtful gift with an eye toward helping me be more prepared to say no to plastic straws.  What happened, though?  This found a nice little spot nestled in my kitchen drawer.  It became a gift that I felt good about receiving because I liked its intent.  A souvenir of my good intentions.  But it didn’t lead to a change in my practice.  I’ve used it about one time for the simple reason that I don’t typically use straws at home.  I would need to get into a habit of having this with me in the places where I’m tempted to use a straw… restaurants, drive-thrus, milk shake stands. 

I give you this illustration to say, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir.  You all know plastic is a problem in theory.  It’s just that even when we know what the right thing is, putting it into practice means intentionally accepting that it will be inconvenient and it will take a change in habits. 

But we’ve done it before.  Four years ago when New York State banned plastic bags I didn’t know how I’d ever remember to bring bags with me to the grocery story.  Now it’s second nature and I’m guessing this is true for you, too.  We need to learn from that.  Even though the laws aren’t mandating it, we need to find ways to say no to the convenience of single-use plastic.  And maybe it starts by carrying a metal straw in your purse or glove compartment.  Or maybe for you it starts with getting a refillable water bottle so you aren’t buying so many plastic bottles of water.  Or maybe for you it means carrying a cloth bag to the grocery store to hold your veggies in the shopping cart.  Or maybe for you it means refusing the plasticware that comes with your take-out because you have a reusable set in your car.  

Straws, bags, plastic ware, bottles and cups are an easy place to start.

Over the last 70 years, and especially over the last 20 years, we convinced ourselves that we need and even deserve the convenience of plastic.  What we need though, is to understand that it is us that caused this problem and it’s us who bear the responsibility to solve it.  Creation waits for us.  God waits for us.  It’s up to us. 

Don’t stop recycling.  But before you recycle, consider some of these other important R’s. 

Reuse! Before you ever put anything in the recycling bin, first consider: is there some way this can be used again by you in your house?  Reduce! Buy less things in the first place.  Can you make it or grow it yourself?  Can you buy in bulk and conserve packaging?   Refuse! Say no to plastics when you have an alternative.  Buy your produce locally from a farmer who doesn’t shrink wrap it.  Go without a straw or bring your own.   Repair! We live in a disposable culture.  Don’t be so quick to throw that broken plastic thing away.  Have you ever used gorilla glue?  It’s amazing!  Better yet, consider spending a little more to buy a product that is made well enough that it won’t break.

 Restore! Plastic is all around us.  Pick it up when you see it on the ground.  Our church gathered 6 full bags of trash from the side of the road between here and Lawyersville and that wasn’t close to all of it.  

It doesn’t stop there.  Regenerate, rethink, review and remember. Remember who you are and Whose you are: You are a beloved child of God. The very first commandment God gave humanity was to care for creation (Genesis 1–2). In your approach to all things created by God and by humans, remember you are a caretaker. Let that sacred charge be your guide.

Let us pray: 

O God, 

We know there is much to be thankful for, even in our plastic crisis. We acknowledge that plastic is a useful resource when used appropriately, as in many life-saving medical applications. We can also give thanks for the many people leading the way in tackling the misuse of plastic and uniting to take action to be good stewards of your Earth. 

Thank you, God, for organizations that fight tirelessly for the betterment of us all. Organizations that honor Indigenous voices and wisdom as they do the crucial work of making connections between these dangerous impacts on the human, plant and animal health and the fossil-fuel driven production of plastics in the region. 

Thank you, God, for the thousands of people worldwide who take part in plastic-free efforts, reducing their own reliance on single-use plastic and encouraging others to understand the damage plastics are doing to creation and our global neighbors. 

Thank you, God, for the new global plastics treaty negotiations that are taking place during 2023 and 2024 and the opportunity to tackle our plastic crisis as a global community. 

Thank you, God, for people of faith for whom love of creation and care for God’s world is a core piece of their identity and their faith in the Lord, and who are using their creative gifts to reduce reliance on plastics and encourage others to bravely go against the flow of society standards. 

The rising levels of plastic pollution that bring destruction to the oceans and their inhabitants deeply sadden us, and we recognize that it grieves our Creator. We give thanks for all the voices working and praying for the day that will bring real change. 


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