Creation Care Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
St. Francis Day, Lectionary 27
By Nancy Wright
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
We are given a wonderful series of texts for a St. Francis Day (Oct. 4) celebration. Although there are many themes in these texts, perhaps four might be brought to the attention of parishioners.
First, the role that God assigns human beings to play is highly significant. God challenges humans to call each creature by name. Second, a humble wonder is central to worship and care for Earth. Third, God’s Son sustains all things. And, fourth, the kingdom of God belongs to children. Let us take these in order.
In the understanding of the Hebrew people, to name is to know the essence of a human or other-than-human being. Thus,
“To name” or “to designate” belongs to the ordering of creation; …The bestowal of names initiates the human ordering of creation in Gen. 2:19….This association of the act of naming with creation underlines the fact that the name represents something wholesome and salutary; the knowledge of the name opens up specific human dimensions for communication and for fellowship (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume IV, “Names of God in the OT,” New York: Doubleday, 1992, p. 1002).
Even while mind-bogglingly and newly aware of scientific discoveries about the 13-billion-year-old universe, plate tectonics, cell division, dark matter, and the relatively infinitesimal lifespan of humans on Earth, we have become aware of the planetary role humans now play. As a planetary force, humans now hold the fate of the planet in our hands, determining, for example, how many species become endangered or extinct. The name for this age in which we exert such power is the Anthropocene. It has ushered in the Sixth Great Extinction, this one caused by human beings. Scientists describe five earlier Great Extinction events in Earth’s history, after which new species emerge over millions of years. Elizabeth Kolbert reports that “by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone” (Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction,” The New Yorker [May 25, 2009], accessed February 12, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/05/25/the-sixth-extinction; see also Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015).
Grappling with such power and loss, ethicists use the terms ecocide and biocide to describe human activity that unwittingly runs the story of the creation as told in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, backward.
Christians urgently need to reclaim their biblically assigned role of knowing the names of the surrounding animals and plants. We can do so by learning about biodiversity, the intricacies of the web of life, and the names and habits of creatures in our watersheds.
Watershed awareness is a movement within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stimulated by the Resolution Urging Stewardship of the Gift of Water, passed at the 2016 Churchwide Assembly. The resolution urges that congregations learn about their watersheds, lifting up the names of lakes, rivers, and streams in their worship. To learn the names of animals and plants in the watershed can involve fascinating congregational outings, lecture series, water trips, and prayers for the well-being of other-than-human neighbors. Further, such growing awareness should lead to advocacy for care for God’s creation and continued support for the Endangered Species Act, which is under threat from Congressional leaders, often buoyed by short-term corporate considerations that take no account of the health of a bioregion.
Second, a critical antidote to this tremendous knowledge linked with the ability to harm creation is to accelerate an attitude of wonder. Psalm 8 is a beautiful expression, filled with joy and gratitude, of wonder. Wonder and hope together foster courage and energy for the work of creation care. Writing about Psalm 104, but applicable to Psalm 8, Old Testament scholar William P. Brown writes,
As for humankind in this psalm, we are simply one species among many, and that too is a wonder. Creation is a shared habitation, and if there is a perfection or ideal presumed in the psalmist’s world, it is the perfection of biodiversity, the wild and wondrous diversity of life and habitat. By listing various animal species, the psalmist offers a selective sample of the vast Encyclopedia of Life, which continues to be catalogued day by day (www.eol.org) (Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015, p. 68-69).
Congregations can enliven a sense of wonder by preaching about the intricacies of animals and plants and the manifold wonders of life’s expression, by encouraging worship outdoors, by performing outdoor baptisms, and by including the voices of nature in worship (Paul Winter’s whale calls in his music, which I heard in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at a Solstice celebration, will always haunt me).
Third, God’s Son sustains all things. The Cosmic Christ scriptural theology (John 1:1–14, Col. 1:15–20, Heb. 1:2-3), powerfully urges Christians to contemplate Christ’s shown forth in all of creation. In Confirmation class or Sunday school, students hopefully learn that the church is the congregation, not the building (using the hand motions that open out to show the fingers as the people), but reevaluating and reenergizing the church to care for creation engages Christians in understanding that nature co-worships with us (Is. 55:12) and is sacred, infused with Christ’s being. Therefore, does the church include all of creation? (How would hand motions express that wider, creation-centered awareness of church?)
To recognize nature as co-worshipers, or as part of the body of the Cosmic Christ, renders nature as numinous or sacramental. No longer do humans exclusively take up the center of God’s attention. Further, humans no longer see the discontinuity between their life and that of creation in that they perceive all as nourished and sustained by God. If we think of creation as sacred, how many decisions about land use, economic measurements, and transportation would be weighed with different, wider values and hoped-for outcomes that respect the web of life?
Finally, the kingdom of God belongs to children (Mark 2:14). Several points might be made about Jesus’ blessing of children. First, adults are to receive God’s kingdom of love and justice with devotion and trust, as a child is devoted to and trusts a good, loving parent. Second, since children are particularly vulnerable to pollution, war, and other traumas, making the world safe for children is a requirement for Christians. Third, faithful Christians will foster environmental justice. Noteworthy is the Our Children’s Trust Lawsuit, which goes to trial on October 29. Our Children’s Trust “elevates the voice of youth to secure the legal right to a stable climate and healthy atmosphere for all present and future generations” (https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/mission-statement, accessed September 24, 2018). Justice for #EachGeneration calls for thousands of sermons to be preached in support prior to that date. The website encourages preachers to sign up and learn more.
When Christians help society to move from denial, complacency, and greed to foster a world in which children are cared for to the Seventh Generation, as Native Americans have envisioned, we adults may have achieved wisdom and wonder and innocence enough to claim our inheritance with the children. Then we may enter into Jesus’ kingdom of justice, peace, and sustaining love.