Craft of Preaching

Trading Our Birthright?

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Do we see ourselves as part of the magnificent community created by God to live in harmony, or do we, like Esau, trade our birthright for a momentary mess of stew?

We need not make every week Earth Day to keep reminding our congregations that God's creation is a Christian concern.

In his book The Creation, written as a letter to Christian preachers, biologist E. O. Wilson calls religion and science "the two most powerful forces in the world today."

He comments:

"If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem would soon be solved. If there is any moral precept shared by people of all beliefs, it is that we owe ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich, and healthful environment" (5).

We may search for a technological answer to the multiple environmental dangers our world is facing, but the questions are really human ones: What do we value? How do our daily lives and values line up?

Wilson argues that science can provide information about the biosphere, which is "the totality of all life, creator of all air, cleanser of all water, manager of all soil, but itself a fragile membrane that barely clings to the face of the planet" (27), but religious leaders help shape awareness of and gratitude for this complex and tender sphere.

This October in the Revised Common Lectionary, both Job and Mark 10 provide promising grounds for exploring these questions:

Job
The four strategic readings from the book of Job (1:1, 2:1-10; 23:1-9, 16-17; 38:1-7 (34-41); and 42:1-6, 10-17) comprise the lectionary's only semi-continuous Job sequence. We are introduced to Job's suffering the first week; the second week develops his plea to God to justify his afflictions; and the fourth week concludes the story. But the pay dirt is in the third week, when God answers, changing the subject entirely.

Job had thought humanity the center of it all, with human good and evil the universe's defining forces, conditioning even God's responses. In asking Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" God does not discount his suffering, but places it in a much larger sphere: a world filled with wild and strange creatures in whom God also delights. Human moral behavior may be important, but it's arrogant to suppose our own welfare the universe's sole concern. In the end, Job seems to recognize that God's priorities differ from the ones he had assumed. When his life is renewed, he departs from patriarchal order to give his daughters inheritances alongside his sons, and theirs are the names remembered.

The four psalms that accompany the Job passages echo their themes.

  • Psalm 26 pleads for vindication
  • Psalm 22 describes intense suffering
  • Psalm 104, the lovely creation psalm, aptly echoes God's speeches, placing every animal, including humans, in the ecological niches from which they honor God
  • Psalm 34 reflects on trust

Mark
In the Gospel readings throughout October from Mark 10, Jesus uses one occasion after another to teach the world-altering values of God's realm, values like those conveyed in Job, values completely congruent with an environmental sensibility.

  • The first reading, Mark 10:2-16, appeals to the creation story to teach marital faithfulness, and highlights children's receptivity to God.
  • The second (10:17-31) subverts reliance on material wealth, calling the last first, and the first last.
  • The third (10:35-45) subverts the search for worldly recognition, claiming that "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant," calling to mind Adam's original role in Genesis 2:15 to serve the earth (translations say "till," but the Hebrew word is avad, "serve").
  • The fourth (10:46-52) serves as a capstone, showing Jesus bringing sight to a blind man, a motif that throughout Scripture signals the acquisition not simply of physical sense but of insight.

This chapter repeatedly asserts a value system in which the search for personal gain brings impoverishment, but self-relinquishment and simplicity bring us into God's realm.

These passages can be preached without reference to environmental issues, but they acquire depth through examination of the environmental dimensions of childlike trust, simplicity, servanthood, and seeing -- rather than remaining blind to -- the world that surrounds us.

Old Testament Readings
The Old Testament's complementary passages are promising as well:

  • Genesis 2:18-24 (October 7) is paired with Psalm 8. Generations past have read both passages, along with Genesis 1:26, as assertions of human domination. But a less anthropocentric reading recognizes in these passages companionship and wonder, despite the human claims of uniqueness.
  • Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 (October 14) can be used to discuss environmental justice, especially if verse 8 is included.
  • Isaiah 53:4-12 (October 21), like the Mark passage, reflects on servanthood, providing an opportunity to read the passage as 1 Peter 2:21 does, as a call to follow Christ's example.
  • Jeremiah 31:7-9 and Psalm 126 (October 28) both employ environmental themes to describe restoration, emphasizing human dependence on water and harvest.

Hebrews
Finally, the book of Hebrews, though the least promising this time for environmentally tuned preaching, offers some sidelines.

  • Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 (October 7) uses Psalm 8's creation themes to describe Jesus.
  • Hebrews 4:12-16 (October 14) recollects the account all must render to God and exhorts faithful perseverance.
  • Hebrews 5:1-10 (October 21) counsels living rightly within limits as Jesus did; and
  • Hebrews 7:23-28 (October 28) offers sober reminders of mortality.

Patricia Tull's monthly column suggests ways to bring God's creation into your preaching, drawing on the coming month's lectionary texts. Her hope is that creation in all its splendor -- "the great community" -- will be remembered in preaching and worship not just occasionally, but throughout the year.

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