Nature’s Warning

I live in Indiana near Louisville, Kentucky. Since mid-March, Kentucky’s governor Andy Beshear has offered an update every afternoon concerning the coronavirus pandemic and steps Kentuckians are being asked to take. Early on, he asked pastors to cancel church services.

My first reaction was shock. Not hold church? With Easter coming? When mainline churches already struggle? Why church? But like others, I quickly realized that what always gave life and solace before might now deal illness and even death.

By Palm Sunday my spouse, who leads a small congregation of only 50 members, had worked out a solution—car park church. He would stand on the sidewalk and members would sit in their cars, appropriately spread out in the parking lot across the street, honking their horns to say “Amen.”

It’s a biblical theme, nature itself forcing change upon people who will not listen any other way. The prophets of old spoke of floods or drought resulting from human heedlessness. Leviticus 26 describes the land getting its sabbath rest only when the people are forced into exile.

Scientists too preach nature’s indomitability. Humans may think we can control the earth, but its laws are not so lightly broken. Sooner or later, recognized or not, reckoning comes. And humans may choose either to double down on our demands of the earth, or to humbly begin to take nature’s laws seriously. What more biblical time for this than the jubilee year of Earth Day, which began in 1970, fifty years ago this spring?

The pandemic and its tragic losses come from crossing boundaries we perhaps didn’t know were there: from commerce in wild animals that should not have been eaten, from overheated travel that spreads disease worldwide, from complex and vulnerable supply chains, from massive inequality that imperils lives already closest to the edge, from policies aimed at wealth building for a few over security for many. The pandemic exposes fissures in our society that can no longer be ignored.

A crisis like this brings tremendous opportunity. We can see the reduced pollution from cars staying home. Some have hoped that realizing that the unthinkable could turn our lives upside down in a week’s time might serve as a warning that the unthinkable effects of climate change—about which we have heard for decades—could likewise catch up with us with staggering results.

But of course crisis also presents opportunities for opportunists. Under cover of this crisis, the U.S. government continues its march to dismantle necessary environmental protections —reducing fuel efficiency and industrial pollution standards, fast-tracking oil pipelines, and claiming that environmental protections will be unaffordable in the new economy.

Likewise on the personal level, as many learn how to stay at home, how to cook and bake and grow food and generate our own fun, it’s possible we might rethink the meaning of “home,” begin seeing it as a center of creativity rather than a sleeping shelter. But it’s also possible that pent-up hunger to travel and shop will simply mean returning as quickly as possible to our old consumptive ways.

We stand a chance to learn something from hard-won experience. Or to stumble on to our next collision with nature’s demands. No doubt some of us will choose one path, some the other. As with the pandemic, our choices do not affect ourselves alone, but everyone we share this world with. One thing we who follow the environmental news know: nature will not wait another fifty years to disrupt our lives again.

Gospel Readings

  • John 14:1-14 (May 10) reassures disciples of Jesus’ accompanying them, through faith.
  • John 14:15-21 (May 17) assures disciples of the Spirit’s presence, and reminds them of their responsibility to faithful service.
  • John 17:1-11 (May 24) defines eternal life as knowing God, and emphasizes Jesus’ work on earth.
  • John 20:19-23 (Day of Pentecost, May 31) portrays the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples as human breath.
  • John 7:37-39 (Day of Pentecost, May 31, complementary) describes rivers of flowing water welling up from the hearts of believers.
  • Matthew 10:24-39 (June 21) describes God’s care for the sparrows.

First Readings from Acts

  • Acts 7:55-60 (May 10): tells of Stephen dying courageously without denying this gospel.
  • Acts 17:22-31 (May 17) describes Paul preaching of a shared creator God who lives beyond all human imagination, in whom, in fact, “we live and move and have our being.”
  • Acts 1:6-14 (May 24) portrays Jesus, when asked what he would do, instead telling the disciples what they would powerfully do in their own city, country, and to the ends of the earth.
  • Acts 2:1-21 (Day of Pentecost, May 31) uses wind and fire to describe the Holy Spirit, and describes meteorological events as harbingers of Jesus’ presence as the disciples set out to change the world.

First Readings from the Old Testament

  • Numbers 11:24-30 (Day of Pentecost, May 31) relates Moses’ wish that all would speak prophetically and truly, guided by God’s spirit.
  • Genesis 1:1-2:4a (Holy Trinity Sunday, June 7) tells the grand creation story, complemented by Psalm 8, which observes “the heavens, the work of your fingers.”
  • Genesis 21:8-21 (June 21) relates the story of Hagar and Ishmael, sent out to the wilderness, met by God and given both a promise for the future and water for present thirst.

Psalms

  • Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 (May 10) describes God as the psalmist’s rock of refuge.
  • Psalm 66:8-20 (May 17), reinforcing courage, compares humans to precious metal, saying, “You have been tried as silver is tried.”
  • Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 (May 24) calls God the one riding upon clouds, and shows the heavens pouring down rain.
  • Psalm 104: 24-35 (Day of Pentecost, May 31) describes the multitude of earth’s creatures, “living things both small and great,” created by God’s spirit, looking to God for their food, and returning to dust when they die.
  • Psalm 8 (Holy Trinity Sunday, June 7) complements Genesis 1, below.
  • Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18 (June 21 complementary) prays not to be swept away by enemies and floods, or swallowed up by the deep.

Second Readings

  • 1 Peter 2:2-10 (May 10), like the Psalm for the day, employs the metaphor of stones, calling the disciples “living stones” that are being “built into a spiritual house.”
  • 1 Peter 3:13-22 (May 17) reminds disciples that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”
  • 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 (Day of Pentecost, May 31) emphasizes the diversity of gifts given to all, because though the body is one it has many members. This is so not only for humans but for all members of the created community, who each play a crucial role.
  • Romans 6:1b-11 (June 21), using water imagery, describes baptism as burial into Christ’s death, in order to “walk in the newness of life.”

Patricia Tull’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “The Great Community,” focuses on ecological themes for preaching.