Craft of Preaching

Take the Challenge!

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I recently heard a preacher commenting on...

“...the way we sometimes loathe ourselves and behave self-destructively. The way we hurt and wound one another, even the people we hold most dear, emotionally, spiritually or physically. The damage we do to the earth, which provides our sustenance and is the only place we have to make our home. The ways we turn our backs on God and refuse the good that God would give us. All of these are symptoms of a deep and fundamental brokenness that exists within every human being -- and that brokenness is what we call sin.”1

Implicit in the preacher’s message was that damage done to the ecosystem parallels damage done to the self, others, and our relationship to God. It’s not a different category, calling for an “environmental” sermon. The created world is one fabric, in every place vulnerable to the same human ills -- violence, ingratitude, greed. No matter where sin does its damage, among humans or not, the same repentant restoration is necessary.

Anti-ecological circles habitually contrast the natural world and the human world as two opposing interests. In this view, to favor preservation of Appalachia’s mountains is to be against jobs. To favor clean air and water means opposing economic development. To favor a carbon tax is to despise industry, and that, so the argument goes, is un-American.

But the cynicism of such rhetoric is increasingly self-evident. Who lives in the mountains? Who breathes, and drinks, and relies on coastlines and weather patterns to remain stable? Not only other animals, but humans, too. Environmental concerns are human concerns; environmental justice is human justice.

Theologians rightly claim that harm to God’s creation betrays indifference toward its Maker. When we connect the dots, we see that such indifference is not only theological, but social. For people of faith not used to thinking of the natural world as much more than scenery, ecological advocacy most be cultivated as an intellectual and moral habit.

So here’s a two-part challenge for 2014: 1) Do set aside special days and seasons for ecological preaching. Highlight, for instance, Interfaith Power and Light’s Preach-In on Climate Change on February 16, Earth Day on a Sunday close to April 22, or the Season of Creation during September, leading up to St. Francis’s Feast Day. Or even adopt a more creation-themed lectionary throughout what is traditionally called “ordinary time,” as the Rev. Peter Sawtell at Eco-Justice Ministries proposes, calling it “Not Ordinary Times.”

But also embrace a more fundamental, ongoing homiletical challenge: 2) Remember creation’s other members every week, the rest of the year. Weave environmental perspective into every sermon. Intercede for the health of vanishing species alongside human ailments. Teach about parenting and pollution; preach resurrection and recycling. Wrap the power of God’s cosmos around family stories, theological truths, visions of faithfulness. Because listeners who hear this message weekly, intertwined with other Christian concerns, will grow in theological imagination. They will recognize the world beyond humans as God’s domain and our responsibility, and not some alien realm.

Where in your weekly sermon is the Good News for, and from, “the works of God’s fingers” (Psalm 8:3)?

A growing number of resources help preachers think theologically and biblically about the natural world and our place in it. Here are some to feed a preacher’s soul:

Sally G. Bingham, ed. Love God, Heal Earth. Pittsburgh: St. Lynn’s Press, 2009.

Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough, eds. Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans, and Other Animals. London: SCM Press, 2009.

Charlene Hosenfeld, Ecofaith: Creating and Sustaining Green Congregations. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009.

Lyndsay Moseley, ed. Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008.

Larry Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Patricia K. Tull, Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013.

In this season of Epiphany, several January lectionary readings concern light, God’s first creation in Genesis 1. Only the passages with clear ecological themes are mentioned below.

January 5, 2014:

Jeremiah 31:7-14 anticipates restoration for Judah as agricultural welfare: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds: “Their life will be become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.”

Sirach 24:1-12 (complementary) describes Wisdom’s origin before all creation, and her influence throughout all nations and lands, over heavens, seas, and earth.

Psalm 147:12-20 praises God’s command over natural forces and provision of food for the world’s inhabitants.

Ephesians 1:3-14 describes God’s plan to unite all things, both heavenly and earthly, in Christ.

John 1:(1-9), 10-18 compares Jesus to the original light of creation, which “shines in the darkness.”

January 12, 2014, Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9 places God’s restoration of the suffering nation in parallel to God’s mighty acts in creating heavens, earth, and all inhabitants.

Psalm 29 describes God’s majesty over powerful features of ancient Israel’s natural world: the sea, Lebanon’s gigantic cedars, and Kadesh’s fierce wilderness.

Matthew 3:13-17 narrates Jesus’ baptism in terms recalling the world-changing flood in Noah’s day -- God’s choosing of one for redemption, and the saving message conveyed through a dove.

January 19, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7 recalls God’s forming the prophet in his mother’s womb.

Psalm 40:1-11 employs features of the natural world as metaphors describing both dangers from which God delivers and securigty in God’s deliverance.

John 1:29-42 imagines Jesus as a lamb and the Spirit as a dove. 

January 26, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4 uses the rhythm of night and day to describe despair and hope.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9 draws images from the natural world, describing God as “light” and “rock.”

Matthew 4:12-23, invoking Isaiah 9, employs the metaphor of light. 

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Donald B. Summerfield, "Sin," sermon delivered on Oct. 27, 2013, at First Presbyterian Church, Jeffersonville, Indiana.

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