The long career of environmental lawyer James Gustave Speth has taken him into governmental and intergovernmental leadership, academia, and many years of nonprofit environmental advocacy. His newest book, They Knew: The US Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, is titled in quite a different key from that of the book he published with UCC minister Peter Denton last year, Imagine a Joyful Economy.
Juxtaposed, these titles articulate two paradoxical, but complementary, frames of mind environmental advocates experience. On the one hand, those who care for creation feel grieved and outraged over the people and powers that are propelling the world toward a diminished future. On the other hand, with prophetic vision we can imagine a healthy and hopeful alternative future, one that gives priority to “people, place, and planet” instead of “profit, production, and power.”1
Two paradoxical, complementary frames of mind characterize much of Scripture as well. Joyful psalms such as 146 (Ordinary 32B) and 148 (Christmas 1C) portray a cosmos ruled by God, who provides shelter, family, food, and freedom. Even psalms of lament are well known not only to complain of present circumstances and their causes, but to envision healing and redemption. Likewise, when biblical prophets criticized their societies, they were not being vindictive, but rather, pointing toward an alternative future that they believed God wanted for Israel, one characterized by peace and wellbeing.
Faith offers this gift of imagined worlds. The prophets and psalmists placed all that happened around them in an earthly sphere that was secondary, at most, to their belief in a God whose plan ultimately rules creation, both natural and social. Chaos and chaotic seas often stood as metaphors for hostile human powers. Psalm 93 (Christ the King / Reign of Christ B) and other passages describe God’s reign above the tumult of such seas. Though “the floods lift up their roaring,” God stands majestic over these waves.
Jesus, similarly, anchored his visions of the divine structure reigning beyond the reach of human empire as “the kingdom of God” or, in Matthew’s gospel, “the kingdom of heaven.” He spoke eloquently of this realm’s nearness to children (Mark 10:14-15), religious seekers (Matthew 4:17; Mark 12:34), the poor (Luke 6:20), and the persecuted (Matthew 5:10), a realm growing from a mustard seed to a great tree, nurturing all around (Matthew 13:31), yeast that leavens the whole loaf (Matthew 13:33). People of faith recognize what it means to maintain citizenship not only in this-worldly nations, but also in the cosmos God intends, an earth set right for “people, place, and planet.” As long as structures of greed and wealth constrain our choices, we are not entirely free to live as if the renewed future has already come. But insofar as we can choose, insofar as we can envision and articulate that future, we can lean into it.
November 7 (Ordinary 32B)
- Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 (semi-continuous) follows the reading from Ruth 1 last week. Here, once again, barley seed and human seed are paired. During the barley harvest Ruth proposes to Boaz. When she bears his child, she carries fertility forward to a new generation.
- 1 Kings 17:8-16 tells of the poor widow whose grain and oil lasted through the drought, saving her and her son.
- Psalm 146 reflects on the mortality of human leaders and the infinite gifts of God, directing attention to the gifts of the natural world as the provision of God, “who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry” (vv. 6-7).
- Mark 12:38-44 warns against self-important hypocrites who demand public respect. It extols instead a generous widow, declaring the meaningfulness of seemingly small gifts. Individual actions still matter.
November 14 (Ordinary 33B)
- 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (semi-continuous) shares Hannah’s song of joy in the God who feeds the hungry and gives children to the barren.
- Daniel 12:1-3 compares the wise to the sky’s brightness.
- Mark 13:1-8 predicts the unthinkable, the temple’s coming destruction. A millennium-long status quo will disappear in a day. Many debating the threat of climate change assume the ecosystem’s invincibility, yet Jesus emphasizes that nothing is invincible.
November 21 (Christ the King / Reign of Christ)
- 2 Samuel 23:1-7 (semi-continuous) compares wise rule to “the light of morning … the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land” (v. 4), inviting reflection on the soul-enlarging and mind-clarifying natural landscape.
- Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 describes “one like a human being” who is given dominion over the whole world.
- Psalm 93 describes God’s reign over the mightiest of floods and waves.
- John 18:33-37 describes Jesus’ peculiar reign over, not derived from, this world’s powers.
November 28 (Advent 1C)
- Jeremiah 33:14-16 uses the metaphor of a tree branch to describe a righteous ruler springing up.
- Luke 21:25-36 takes a lesson from the spring’s leaf buds, a phenomenon few today take thought to examine right outside our doors.
December 5 (Advent 2C)
- Baruch 5:1-9 quotes from Isaiah 40, announcing mountains and valleys leveled and trees providing shade.
- Malachi 3:1-4 compares God to earthly fires purifying precious metals.
- Luke 1:68-79 compares God’s tender mercies to the breaking of dawn.
- Philippians 1:3-11 expresses Paul’s grateful support for the Christian community, modeling valuing persons over wealth.
- Luke 3:1-6 emphasizes that all creatures will see God’s salvation.
December 12 (Advent 3C)
- Zephaniah 3:14-20 announces good news for disabled persons and outsiders, changing humiliation into praise and renown.
- Isaiah 12:2-6 imagines salvation as a well from which the faithful joyfully draw water.
- Philippians 4:4-7 invites the audience into gentleness, joy, and peace in the midst of cares.
- Luke 3:7-18 challenges hearers, like healthy trees, to bear worthy fruits.
December 19 (Advent 4C)
- Micah 5:2-5a imagines Godly leadership as feeding a flock of sheep.
- Luke 1:46b-55 praises God’s support of the lowly and resistance toward the powerful.
- Psalm 80:1-7 paradoxically portrays God as both enthroned on cherubim and busy tending sheep.
- Hebrews 10:5-10 prizes Jesus’ self-giving over the giving of material sacrifices.
- Luke 1:39-45, (46-55) celebrates the “fruit” of Mary’s womb.
December 26 (Christmas 1C)
- 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 attends to the lowly: a boy and his self-giving mother.
- Psalm 148 calls all creation to praise God: angels and heavenly bodies, earthly residents both animate and inanimate, and after all these, human beings.
- Colossians 3:12-17 commends appropriate adornment: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Patricia Tull’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “The Great Community,” focuses on ecological themes for preaching.