Sacred Earth, Broken Earth

This monthly column will point out environmental dimensions in upcoming lectionary passages and suggest ways to bring God’s creation into our preaching — not just occasionally but throughout the year.

In his new book Sacred Word, Broken Word, Kenton Sparks describes the coexistence of good and evil in creation, including the human spirit and Scripture itself:

Imagine, if you will, a beautiful painting by the likes of Renoir or Monet. And then imagine that someone seizes it, rips it from the frame, crumples it up, and stomps on the painting for about ten minutes. What is left in the end? One has a beautiful painting that is everywhere warped and twisted. The former beauty of the unmolested painting is visible in some places more than others, but no quarter of the canvas has escaped the damage.1

Such interpenetration of good and evil, pleasing and destructive, holy and deadly, is captured liturgically in the season of Lent, in which, as Isaac Watts wrote, “sorrow and love flow mingled down.”

In our town, Good Friday is marked by taking the cross to the streets, remembering along with Jesus’ suffering the sufferings of today, in jails, soup kitchens, and youth shelters. This year, for the first time, the walk will include damaged ecological sites, where beauty lingers despite destruction.

At the cross, Jesus’ followers meet human cruelty that destroys even the best the world has seen. Similarly, when we come face to face with relentless consumption of the world’s minerals, animals, water, and soil, and reckless spewing of destructive toxins, we recognize how deeply destruction runs. It is visible in some places more than others, but no quarter of the human race or of the earth has escaped damage.

But resurrection can be found, not just 2000 years ago, but today. Throughout the earth, communities are confronting and redeeming the damage. Recently I met with the mayor of our town, who told me of plans for parks, tree plantings, community gardens, brownfield reclamation projects, bikeways, pedestrian paths, and a new pavilion for the farmers’ market. A firm that is up-river from my house is developing technology to train workers for solar and wind power jobs. Like the tender crocuses in spring, such movements signal changes in the earth, new beginnings.

On March 3, Lent’s third Sunday:

  • Isaiah 55:1-9 reminds us of a world where food and drink are not commodified, as bottled water is today, where all are freely invited to “come to the waters.” It commends wise choices, so that we may “eat what is good.”
  • Psalm 63:1-8 uses the imagery of drought to describe longing for the rich feast of God’s presence.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 shares the theme of food, remembering the story of manna in the wilderness and the water God gave from the rock.
  • Luke 13:1-9 teaches that those who suffer are not necessarily those who sinned. God waits for us all to bear good fruit.

On March 10, Lent’s fourth Sunday:

  • Joshua 5:9-12 relates the first day that the children of Israel eat food grown in the land of Canaan.
  • Psalm 32 remembers the dangers of drought and flood, and reminds humans that God has taught us the way we should go.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 reminds readers that God’s new creation begins immediately, in this world, where we might become “the righteousness of God.”
  • Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 narrates a father’s joy when his dissolute son stops squandering his heritage and returns home.

On March 17, Lent’s fifth Sunday:

  • Isaiah 43:16-21 describes “a new thing” that God will do: rivers in the desert for the people that God formed “to declare my praise.”
  • Psalm 126 remembers God’s restoration in the past and prays for restoration today, like “watercourses in the Negeb,” so that “those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
  • Philippians 3:4b-14 ponders Paul’s wish, willingly forfeiting his former status, to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.
  • John 12:1-8 tells the story of Mary’s profuse anointing of Jesus, as profuse as the bounty with which God graces the earth.

On March 24, Passion Sunday:

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a expresses reliance on God in the face of human opposition.
  • Psalm 31:9-16 could be the prayer not only of the lowly, but of the earth itself, distressed, ignored, “like a broken vessel,” yet praying for God’s favor.
  • Philippians 2:5-11, resisting arrogance, looks toward the day when every tongue confesses the self-emptying Christ as Lord.
  • Luke 22:14-23:56 begins with Jesus’ last supper, reminding us of God’s presence even in the ordinary gifts of food and drink. It ends with Jesus’ body laid in the earth.

On March 31, Easter Sunday

  • Jeremiah 31:1-6 expresses confidence that “Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.”
  • Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 employs natural stone, rejected by builders, as the “chief cornerstone.”
  • Colossians 3:1-4, with its exhortation to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” challenges us to distinguish between God’s good creation and the sinful order Paul often identifies as earthly. This passage exhorts godliness, but not rejection of God’s creation.
  • John 20:1-18 relates the disciples’ discovery of Jesus’ resurrection at the garden tomb. Mary was more right than she may have known when she supposed Jesus to be the gardener. Creation comes full circle in God’s new creation.

Kenton Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 20.