"Be the change." Image by Shawn Harquail via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
While the opportunities Scripture offers to speak directly of the beauty, power, and needs of the natural world are extremely frequent, especially in the Psalms, often the lectionary presents us with stories that contribute to environmentally healthy preaching in other ways.
The story of Paul’s conversion, for instance, offers a dramatic example of what happens when one person comes face to face with the destructiveness of a path he had believed was sanctioned by God, and the power that is unleashed when genuine repentance redirects his steps.
In my introductory chapter in Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis, I described how, when Saul -- as he was previously called -- first heard the message being preached by Jesus’ disciples, he reacted the way many faithful people do to new ideas: he sought to shut it down. He began a campaign of persecuting and imprisoning Jews who followed Jesus. The turnaround described in Acts 9 (May 5, 2019) is such a well-known event to Christians, and Paul is such a prominent early theologian, that it is difficult for contemporary readers to imagine how that event might have looked from his point of view. What would it be like to pursue one course of action so zealously, only to learn to your dismay that you were opposing God -- and that you must stop now and do something else entirely?
Paul’s experience provides a distant mirror to our environmental situation today. Most of our lives to this point have been powered by gasoline for transportation, and natural gas and (often) coal-fueled electricity at home and work. If we thought about these fuels at all, it may have been with gratitude for the power of fossil fuels to make our lives easier and more comfortable. If people resist changes that will help heal the environment by reducing our carbon pollution, surely one reason for this is that the ways we have powered our lives have seemed both fortunate and inevitable.
The story in Acts goes on to describe Paul’s conversion from the viewpoint of one of the Jewish Christians who had been endangered by Paul’s former zeal. Ananias enters the story by being told in a vision by God to go and find Saul and pray for him. What mix of fear, anger, and dread must he have felt at the prospect of revealing himself to someone who could have him imprisoned or killed? What amount of sheer courage prompted him to act? And yet, had he not acted, where would Christianity be today?
At this time in world history, when scientists are saying we have only a few years to change our power habits if we are to avoid a radically altered environmental future, the courage that is needed may not be as dramatic as that summoned up by Ananias, but it certainly is greater than ordinary life calls forth. It may involve sacrificing some commodities or comforts we want, or spending more for less energy intensive travel modes, groceries, or appliances. It may involve taking the time to contact our legislators to communicate our urgency to them or to change our light bulbs to LEDs. It may involve speaking with key congregation members, or the community as a whole, about how the church can help heal creation in its weekly practices. All of these involve making a change in what we previously thought we were about. Such changes may be incremental, but are vitally needed.
May 5, Third Sunday of Easter
- Acts 9:1-6, (7-20): Paul, stricken by his own destructive acts, makes a dramatic U-Turn on the road to Damascus, and Ananias risks life and safety to help him.
- Psalm 30 reminds readers that restoration and life depend on God.
- Revelation 5:11-14: Employing a frequent metaphor from the animal world, Jesus is called the Lamb.
- John 21:1-19: Jesus instructs Peter to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep.”
May 12, Fourth Sunday of Easter
- Acts 9:36-43: Sometimes even death is turned into life.
- Psalm 23 presents God’s tender love for humans as that of a shepherd caring for sheep, reminding us of the value of animals in God’s eyes.
- Revelation 7:9-17: Jesus, imagined as the Lamb, is worshiped and will himself shepherd the people.
- John 10:22-30: Jesus again calls the believers his “sheep.”
May 19, Fifth Sunday of Easter
- Psalm 148 calls on all creation to praise God, from sun and moon to sea monsters and deeps to animals, both nonhuman and human.
- Revelation 21:1-6: God renews the earth and will live among mortals, wiping tears from all faces.
- John 13:31-35: Jesus commands that we love one another. As his own life makes clear, such love is not expressed in lip-service but in deeds, even costly ones, for the sake of the living.
May 26, Sixth Sunday of Easter
- Psalm 67 speaks of the earth yielding its increase, God’s blessing.
- Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 envisions the renewed city of Jerusalem, powered by God’s own glory, with a river clean as crystal and the tree of life with fruit for every season, and leaves that heal the nations.
- John 14:23-29 reassures disciples of the Spirit’s presence and peace as they set out to do what has never been done before.
- John 5:1-9 (alternate reading) describes Jesus’ healing of a man who had been ill for 38 years, showing that with God no healing is impossible.
June 2, Seventh Sunday of Easter
- Psalm 97 describes God’s power in imagery of clouds, fire, lightning, earthquakes, and the light of dawn.
- Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 invites all who are thirsty to take from the water of life.
- John 17:20-26 offers Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in future generations, modeling care not only for present friends but for those to come.
June 9, Pentecost
- Genesis 11:1-9 (alt.) relates God’s move against the “new name” humans want to make for themselves, raising themselves heavenward from the land (adamah). Rather, scattered across the earth, they remain adam, retaining their vital relationship to the world God made.
- Psalm 104:24-34, 35b marvels at the earth, filled with God’s creatures, and extols the dependence of every living creature on God’s loving bounty.
- John 14:8-17, (25-27) reassures the disciples that they will do even greater works and offers peace for anxious times.
June 16, Trinity Sunday
- Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 tells of creation from the perspective of Woman Wisdom, who witnessed the birth of the earth’s depths, springs, mountains, fields, heavens, and sea, “rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
- Psalm 8 asks, in the midst of God’s majestic works of moon, stars, and heavens, what humans are.
- Romans 5:1-5 reassures with hope in the midst of character-building endurance.
- John 16:12-15 says the Spirit of truth will guide disciples into all truth, glorifying God.
June 23, Second Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary 12)
- Galatians 3:23-29 claims that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
June 30, Third Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary 13)
- Galatians 5:1, 13-25 promotes the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
- Luke 9:51-62 underscores the high demands of discipleship.
Patricia Tull's bimonthly Working Preacher column, "The Great Community," focuses on ecological themes for preaching.