You’d like to preach a Creation-Care sermon in your congregation. But where to begin?
Reading the Bible through a “green” lens
Whether you’re a lectionary preacher, or choosing your own biblical passages for the day, the key to preaching a Creation-Care sermon is to use an “eco-hermeneutic” to interpret the scripture. Hermeneutic is a fancy word meaning “interpretation.” An eco-hermeneutic means to read the biblical passage through a green lens, so to speak.
[If you’re preaching the lectionary on April 22, 2018, click here for sermon ideas based on Psalm 23.]
6 Ecojustice principles for reading the Bible
When it comes to interpreting Scripture from an ecological perspective, biblical scholars Norman C. Habel and Peter L. Trudinger developed six ecojustice principles for reading the Bible.
- The principle of intrinsic worth: The universe, Earth, and all its components have intrinsic worth/value.
- The principle of interconnectedness: Earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival.
- The principle of voice: Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice.
- The principle of purpose: The universe, Earth, and all its components are part of a dynamic cosmic design within which each piece has a place in the overall goal of that design.
- The principle of mutual custodianship: Earth is a balanced and diverse domain where responsible custodians can function as partners with, rather than rulers over, Earth to sustain its balance and a diverse Earth community.
- The principle of resistance: Earth and its components not only suffer from human injustices but actively resist them in the struggle for justice.
These principles are helpful for providing the interpretive keys to read scripture with “green eyes.” But just so you’re aware, not everyone may be on board with this ecological approach to the Bible.
A word of caution.
Some may balk at the idea of celebrating Earth Sunday or focusing on ecological issues in a sermon. “We’re not supposed to be worshiping trees!” I’ve heard some folks say this in response to a service focusing on God’s Creation. However, it’s important to point out that honoring God’s Creation is not the same as worshiping it. Nature points to the power, grandeur, and care that God gives to what God has made. A service celebrating Creation reminds us that protecting and preserving what God has entrusted to us is part of our calling and vocation as Christians.
So, one of the first things you’ll need to do in a congregation that has never heard an eco-sermon before is to make the case that the Bible not only contains a plethora of passages about Creation, but actually authorizes humans to care for this Earth that God has made. One helpful resource is the Green Bible. You’ve heard of Bibles have the words of Christ in red? Well, in the Green Bible, any passage having to do with Creation is in green print. Just flipping through the passages shows just how much of the Bible makes reference the created world.
Here are a dozen passages that could serve as the basis for a sermon about caring for God’s Creation on Earth Day, St. Francis Sunday, or any Sunday you decide to preach about Earth-care.
Genesis Chapter One. God created it all, and it’s all good!
Genesis Chapter One tells us that God calls Creation “good.” In fact, the word “good” is used seven times in this chapter (tov in Hebrew). What can we learn from this? God loves what God has made. We, too, can cultivate a deep love for Creation among our children, our congregations and communities. [For ideas on how to cultivate this love of Creation, try: Welcoming Children into God’s Creation: 4 Things You Can Do Now]
Genesis 1:28. What’s with “subdue” and “have dominion”?
Genesis 1:28 tells us that God exhorts humans to subdue Creation and have dominion over it. Some interpret this to mean that God has given human beings free reign over nature to do with it whatever we want. In fact, the current director of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, uses this interpretation to justify using coal, oil, gas, and all natural resources for human profit.
I would argue that this is an incorrect interpretation of the text. Having dominion is not the same as “domination.” God entrusted the world to human beings, recognizing the power they have. That power is not to be abused, but exercised with the utmost care.
Not convinced that Genesis doesn’t give humans free reign to use and abuse the planet? There are two scripture passages in Genesis that directly counter this interpretation.
Genesis 2:15. “Till and keep.”
One passage that counters an anti-environmental interpretation of Genesis 1:28 is Genesis 2:15. In that text, God puts Adam (literally, “earthling”) into the garden to “till and keep it.” In other words, God wants us to take care of the Garden of Earth. The Hebrew words connote restraint and being a servant of the land. Thus, the relationship between humans and Creation is not one of domination and hierarchy, but of interconnectedness and service. [For more on this passage, read No, Mr. Pruitt, Fossil Fuels Are Not God’s ‘Blessing’ for Humanity.]
Genesis Chapter 3. The tree of knowledge.
The other passage that counters the argument that God gave humans all the resources of Earth to use and abuse is the story about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis Chapter 3. The narrative shows us that God set limits for human beings in how they were to exist in the garden. For the good of Adam and Eve, for the good of the tree, for the good of the entire garden, God essentially said: “This far and no farther.” God established a boundary for the mutual protection of the relationship between humankind and the created world.
When humans refuse to obey these limits and flout the command of God to exercise restraint towards Creation, the results are catastrophic. There is a rupture in the relationship between the humans, between humans and nature, and between humans and God. So, no, it’s not all for our use. We must be wise and prudent in how we interact with the world God has created.
Psalm 23. Green pastures, still waters.
Psalm 23 has obvious connections to nature with its references to sheep, verdant fields, and an abundance of food. There is also a sacramental quality to this psalm. We need clean water for baptism. We need healthy land and a stable climate to grow wheat and grapes for the bread and wine of communion. Psalm 23 is just one of many of the psalms that give us a strong ethic for Earth-care. Others include Psalm 24, Psalm 19, and Psalm 8, just to name a few. [For a fuller treatment of Psalm 23, see: When Psalm 23 Shepherded Me.]
Matthew 6:25 – 34. Birds and lilies.
Jesus often used examples from nature to illustrate his points. He was part of an agrarian society, so his listeners were very familiar with the natural world around them. When he refers to the “birds of the air,” and the “lilies of the field,” Creation becomes his teaching partner in helping humans understand what it means to trust in the goodness of God.
In our modern context, of course, there are serious threats to those birds and lilies. Species extinction, destruction of natural lands, and agricultural monoculture threaten the very ecosystems that support Jesus’ teaching partners. We would do well to heed Jesus’ instructions to refrain from worrying about the pursuit of consumer goods, and instead turn our attention to those flowers and fauna so that we can preserve the species that still remain on this planet.
Luke 10:25 – 37. Caring for Earth-kin as “Good Samaritans.”
In turn, the parable poses questions for preachers to consider as they seek to proclaim God’s Word within their particular enviro-socio-contexts. Are animals our neighbors? Mountains? Ecosystems? How far down the food chain and how far afield should we go? In what ways does the interconnectedness of the water cycle, food web, air currents, and local/global economic systems impinge on how we preach? I make the case that we need to expand the concept of “neighbor” to our Earth-kin who connect to each other and to humans in biotic, social, and spiritual ways.
Matthew 25:31-46. Caring for “the least of these.”
I wrote a Good Friday reflection on the extinction of the last male northern white rhino who had just died in Kenya. I argued that species extinction is something preachers need to address in their sermons. Sadly, however, my research indicates that this topic is the lowest priority for preachers to address. In other words, endangered species are truly among “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Bearing witness to what I call the “eco-crucifixion” is an important part of Creation-crisis preaching. Voicing our grief for these lost species in the form of biblical lament can activate our moral response to preserve the species, coral reefs, natural lands, and habitats that remain.
Jesus said that he could be found among “the least of these,” and if we care for them, we are caring for Jesus himself. If that is the case, then Christ is found even among the least of these in nature, and by caring for them, we care for Christ himself.
John 20:11 – 18. Jesus as “the gardener.”
I think it is very interesting that Mary would mistake Jesus for “the gardener” when she first sees him on that Easter morning. She doesn’t mistake him for a soldier, or a priest, or one of the other disciples. Anyone one of those players in the events of the past three days could have been lurking around the tomb that morning. But Mary looks at the man standing there and sees a gardener.
In my book Creation-Crisis Preaching, I share a sermon about my husband’s grandmother whom we called Mam Mam. Her faith was cultivated in the church – and in the garden – and she believed God’s promises to her. As she drew near her death, I was certain that she drew comfort from these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). Those words were spoken by The Gardener.
The Gardener knows the truth of eternal life, and is trying to communicate that to us in as many creative ways as he can. This is the one who understands the deep, deep truth that permeates all life – that gives purpose and meaning and hope to those who allow themselves to be taught by the Earth and nurtured by the promises of God.
John 3:16. For God so loved THE WORLD.
This is the most famous of the Christian scriptures. It also provides an important eco-hermeneutical key for supporting Creation-care. Notice what Jesus did not say in this passage. He did not say, “For God so loved human beings only.” No, he said that God so loved the world. In Greek, the word is cosmos. This means that the salvific significance of Jesus is not limited to human beings. Jesus’ redemption is meant for all of Creation.
This is important to point out to those who argue that Creation is not included in the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. For many, the created world serves only as a stage upon which the drama of human salvation plays out. For others, nature is merely a set-piece that God will throw away when Jesus comes to “create a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). This interpretation is highly problematic and has been used to rationalize all manner of human desecration of the planet. But as the next passage further shows, Creation, too, is included in salvation.
Romans 8:18-25. Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the Children of God.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul recognized that Creation was “subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it” (v. 20). Scholars debate whether “the one” is God or human beings. So it’s unclear who has subjected Creation to suffering – people or God? In any case, what is absolutely clear is that “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21). When will this happen? When the Children of God are “revealed.” From an environmental perspective, this passage calls for Christians to show themselves to be actively working on behalf of Creation for “redemption” that comes through Christ.
This passage is also important for instilling a sense of hope in those who are suffering the travails of this time. While we may not yet see a world healed from the ravages of humankind, our faith inspires hope, which, in turn, compels us to work to make that hope a reality.
12. Revelation 22:1-7. The river and the tree of life.
The Bible begins in a garden. Christ’s resurrection occurs in a garden. And the Bible ends in a garden. The last chapter of Revelation contains one of the most vivid images of what the prophet sees in his vision of Christ’s reign. The angel shows him “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb.” This river flows right down the middle of the street in the midst of the city. The city – where industrial pollution, storm run-off, and trash often destroy the beauty and health of rivers. God intends for every part of this Earth – including centers of human population – to be as clean and refreshing as when water first flowed in Eden.
The other striking image is that of the “tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit.” The abundance of these trees is found not just in their fruits, but in the leaves themselves which are “for the healing of the nations.” In other words, trees have healing properties.
Medical scientists, biologists, arborists, camp counselors, eco-psychologists and parents of children already know this. Many of our medicines come from trees. Children who play in forests are healthier in their minds, bodies, and spirits. Trees clean our air, prevent soil erosion, and add tremendous beauty. They are the lungs of this planet. And tree-planting projects have helped war-torn areas recover and find new life. It’s no wonder God chose a tree for this consummate biblical image of healing and restoration.
What are your favorite passages for preaching about Creation-care?
There are literally hundreds of passages that could serve as the basis of a “green” sermon. If you have a favorite biblical passage about Creation, I invite you to share it in the comments below.
Looking for more ideas for Earth Day? Or sermon ideas for preaching about Creation? Try these posts:
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA).
 Norman C. Habel and Peter L. Trudinger, Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 1-2.