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.
Some churches, by ongoing commitments to earth care, have regained sustaining gratitude for this amazing blue jewel that shelters and feeds us. But the subject of the rest of the universe besides people — the interconnected, interdependent, breathtakingly powerful community of the more-than-human world — still remains outside of most sanctuaries.
Since the Bible swarms with creation’s life, our opportunities to highlight it are many.
For example, Isaiah the prophet, though a city-dweller, often compared Jerusalem’s citizens to trees, grape arbors, and grasses. For him, God was a vinedresser, a cultivator, a sower of seeds. Like many other prophets and poets, and like Jesus centuries later, Isaiah lived much closer to the ground than many of us do today. Scripture’s writers knew — in fact, every generation until ours has known — that we humans, so important to ourselves, are just a fraction of the great community.
Not long ago, other major themes permeating Scripture went unnoticed. Many generations missed the calls to social justice, for instance, but now we perceive how often Scripture insists on care for widows, orphans, and strangers. Perhaps one day soon Christians will become so aware of the rest of Scripture’s teeming world that we’ll wonder how we overlooked it.
One Friday evening I took seminary students to a synagogue so they could hear their hard-learned Hebrew as a living language of praise. Next to me, a young woman wept through the entire Sabbath service. I’ll never forget what she said to me: “I’m fine. No, I’m overwhelmed. It’s like meeting family you never knew you had.” Her revelation has stayed with me as I’ve taken other Christians to synagogues and mosques and temples. Many say that having experienced this wider community, they will never be the same again.
If recognizing our kinship with other worshipping communities moves us, how much more will learning our kinship with a myriad of other creatures with whom we share this world? What will happen when our sensibilities break open, and we meet these neighbors not as objects, not as yard furnishings or pets or protein sources, but as ever so many “thous,” surrounding us so we are never, ever alone?
Here are some opportunities September’s lectionary readings offer for broadening our preaching themes to honor the earth and its other creatures:
- Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (September 2): “The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag….” In the first Sunday after the summer-long semi-continuous reading of David’s story, ending with Solomon’s dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, this poetry associated with Solomon finds its setting in the enduring temple of the natural world, the garden of delights where love flourishes. This is the lectionary’s only Song of Solomon passage. We may therefore dive into its poetry as into a summer pond — not just these verses, but other parts of this jubilant book.
- Psalm 146 (September 9): “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them….” This psalm goes on to describe God’s care for the hungry, prisoners, blind, and poor. It proclaims God as the benefactor not only of humble people, but also of all who live in earth and sky and sea.
- Psalm 19 (September 16): “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” This psalm explores God’s two great corresponding works: the natural world, wordlessly proclaiming God’s glory, and the Torah, God’s instruction, sweeter than honey. The psalmist likewise prays for words that honor God, the “rock and redeemer.”
- Psalm 1 (September 23) describes the righteous as trees, planted by water streams.
- Psalm 124 (September 30): English translations notwithstanding, this psalm never mentions either “our side” (but rather God’s being “with us”) or “enemies” (rather, “humankind”). Our help comes from the maker of heaven and earth, who saves us like birds from the fowlers’ snare.
- Epistle of James: Criticism of materialism, competition, and greed is found in the semi-continuous readings throughout the month. Here, “world” is used in a very different way, referring not to creation, but to human society alienated from God’s ways (see also John 3:13-17 on September 14). The Greek word here, kosmos, differs from that used in the LXX Psalms, where oikoumene appears. Could dichotomies drawn between God’s heavens and the human “world” have inadvertently fueled devaluations of the natural world? James’s practical call to resist materialism and greed is a much-needed antidote to our society’s insistence on calling us not citizens but consumers, and to the throw-away culture that is pillaging the earth.
- Mark 7-9: Finally, though admittedly less ecologically rich than this month’s other readings, Mark’s passages offer subtle possibilities. Jesus’ honoring the humble and calling the least the greatest, for instance, may lend attention to the smallest creatures, the ones we may not recognize, without whose labors we would all die out: the bees whose pollination causes vegetables and fruits to grow, and the decomposers (bacteria, fungi, and worms) breaking down dead tissue to regenerate life — creatures at least as necessary as those of us higher in the food chain.
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.