God’s Creation Needs Good Preaching Good Preaching Needs God’s Creation
Fifteen years ago when my two children were still very young, I took them to a place called Hildacy Farms in Marple Township, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the U.S. It’s a 55-acre natural lands trust that preserves fifty acres of woodlands, hedgerow, and meadows. Though hemmed in on all sides by relentless human pressure from shopping malls, roads, and housing developments, this is a pocket of paradise. Baltimore Orioles alight on reeds jutting up from the marsh. Bluebirds dart across the meadows. A quiet stand of evergreens invites centering and deep breathing. And a waterfall cascades down from Springton Lake and flows into the rolling waters of Crum Creek.
My children and I had discovered a place where native plants and wildlife were allowed to live without fear. No hunting, fishing, or trapping will threaten the animals. Picnics and camping are not allowed so that no trash will spoil the natural landscape. The way God’s hand fashioned this land is the way it will remain. Human visitors are permitted but are to leave no trace when they’re gone.
I decided to preach an Earth Day sermon about the need to preserve natural lands, using Hildacy Farms as an example. I framed the sermon with a Scripture passage from Genesis Chapter 3 which tells of the rupture between humans, nature, and God when Adam and Eve fail to respect the boundaries God puts in place to protect the Tree of Knowledge.
This sacred story resonates with what we face today on a planet where we have violated God’s Creation and insisted that we have the ‘right’ to do whatever we want with God’s Earth, no matter the consequences. Even as our children die from strange diseases, and we can’t eat the fish from our poisoned waters, and the atmosphere is choked by pollution that traps heat and melts the icebergs while whipping up catastrophic weather events, many seem not to grasp the need to change our practices and respect the boundaries God established.
So, in this sermon, I lifted up Hildacy Farms as a beautiful example of human beings finally obeying the command of God in the Garden of Eden: this far and no farther. I concluded the sermon with these words:
Sometimes there is great blessing in establishing boundaries and protecting them. Sometimes the benefits of changing your lifestyle or business practices to reduce your carbon footprint outweigh the initial sacrifice. Sometimes foregoing profit in order to preserve a natural legacy reaps rewards far beyond monetary wealth. And sometimes acknowledging a dying Earth is the only way to save it. Because after coming through the scorched land of crucifixion, God will bring us to the resurrection in the new Eden – the garden of Easter morning.
I have preached this sermon at two different churches within the suburban Philadelphia area. Both were located in upscale, mostly white neighborhoods. Both times, congregants expressed curiosity about Hildacy Farms and indicated their intention to explore the preserve. But the most moving comment came from a gentleman who shared that he and his family had a piece of property inherited from his parents, and they were debating what to do with it. He said that after hearing the sermon, he was considering doing with the rural property what had been done at Hildacy Farms – turning it into a land trust to preserve it for posterity. He thanked me for planting the seed in his mind.
That experience taught me that God’s Creation needs good preaching, and good preaching needs God’s Creation. I believe that when preachers make a regular practice of connecting Scripture and environmental issues, we can proclaim justice for God’s Creation in the face of climate change and environmental devastation. Studies have shown that parishioners who hear sermons about climate change are more likely to be concerned about taking steps to prepare and protect communities than those who hear nothing from the pulpit about this issue.
Yet, my own research has shown that some clergy are hesitant to address climate and other environmental issues because they have become so politicized. In a 2017 survey of over 1,000 U.S. mainline Protestant clergy, I gave respondents a list of social issues and asked which ones they had addressed in the previous year. Environmental issues registered among the lowest priorities to address. Fortunately, the 2021 survey saw environmental issues rise to be in the top ten. However, the survey still showed that less than half (47%) of the respondents had addressed things like pollution, extinction, climate change, or environmental justice in their sermons.
Yet, according to research by ecoAmerica in 2021, 78% of Americans are concerned about climate change. And in a 2022 survey I conducted of 172 congregational lay leaders representing more than ten different denominations from thirty congregations across sixteen states in the U.S., 75% of them indicated they were ‘very concerned’ about the environment and climate change.
These numbers are nearly identical to research conducted in Great Britain. According to data from the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) 2021 Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OP), three-quarters (75%) of adults in Great Britain said they were worried about impacts of climate change. Those who reported high levels of concern were three times more likely to have made changes to their lifestyle than those who were relatively unworried. So, I wonder how much of a priority it is for U.K. church leaders to address climate and environmental issues from a faith perspective, given this level of concern among the general population.
If you are a preacher wanting to find ways to craft sermons that make the biblical and theological case for protecting God’s Creation, I can share with you ten ecojustice principles for reading and interpreting Scripture. The first six are drawn from Norman Habel’s work in The Earth Bible. The last four are ones I have developed using an ecofeminist hermeneutic in my book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit.
GUIDING ECOJUSTICE PRINCIPLES
- 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.
PRINCIPLES OF AN ECOFEMINIST HERMENEUTIC FOR PREACHING
- Focus on Earth-orientation rather than a hermeneutic of anthro- and androcentrism. Read Scripture through a ‘green lens’ to ascertain how texts may be oppressive or liberating to women, children, those most vulnerable, and the Earth community.
- Proclaim the good news for both the human and other-than-human community of Earth. Analyze the impact and power that certain texts will have when preached in a community of faith within its ecological context.
- Hermeneutic of remembrance. Recover biblical traditions so that we can view the biblical story from an ecofeminist perspective, moving away from those inherent andro- and anthropocentrism of texts that assume subordination of Earth and women.
- Creative actualization. Tell stories from Earth’s and women’s perspectives. Reformulate narratives in the perspective of the discipleship of equals among the human and other-than-human communities.
To see examples of how these principles can be used in actual sermons, you can check out my blog, EcoPreacher on Patheos or see the sermons in my book, Creation-Crisis Preaching.
In an effort to encourage clergy to preach and teach on Christian ecology at least once a month, the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and I have partnered to develop a free resource called EcoPreacher 1-2-3. We provide sermon preparation for preaching about caring for God’s Creation that is short, accessible, and based on a solid biblical foundation. Each instalment offers a brief ‘eco-exegesis’ for interpreting a biblical text from the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday. This is followed by one ‘eco idea’ for the basis of a sermon, two ‘eco questions’ to go deeper, and three ‘eco actions’ to help a congregation put their faith into action. With this resource, preachers can use the sermon ideas in their own context and make it relevant for their congregation. EcoPreacher 1-2-3 is ecumenical, adaptable to your preaching context, and can spark ideas for sermon preparation. Sign up to receive the monthly EcoPreacher 1-2-3 resources at https://interfaithsustain.com/ecopreacher-123/.
Remember that when preaching about God’s Creation, many will be feeling dismay that we are in the midst of what I call an ‘eco-crucifixion.’ So one of the most effective strategies is to share stories of people of faith and worshiping communities working to protect, heal, and restore Earth. Show people how they can participate in God’s redemption of Creation not with wishful thinking, but authentic hope in God’s ‘eco-resurrection.’ This is the power of good preaching, and it is the power of God in and through Creation.
 Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, Juhem Navarro-Rivera, Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics: Why Americans are Conflicted About Climate Change, Environmental Policy, and Science: Findings from the PRRI/AAR Religion, Values, and Climate Change Survey, (Washington, D.C.: Public Religion Research Institute and American Academy of Religion, 2014).
 American Climate Perspectives Survey 2021, Vol. IV. ecoAmerica. https://ecoamerica.org/american-climate-perspectives-survey-2021-vol-iv/
 Schade, Leah D., “EcoPreacher Congregational Leader Survey,” 2022, BTS Center, unpublished survey results.
 ‘Three-quarters of adults in Great Britain worry about climate change,’ Office for National Statistics, Nov. 2, 2021. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/threequartersofadultsingreatbritainworryaboutclimatechange/2021-11-05
 Norman C. Habel, “Guiding Ecojustice Principles,” in ‘Readings from the Perspective of Earth,’ ed. Norman C. Habel, The Earth Bible (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000), 2.
 Leah D. Schade, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit, St. Louis, MO: Chalice. Ecofeminists see a connection between the oppression of Earth and the oppression of women and those most vulnerable. They believe that the ecological crises cannot be addressed without simultaneously addressing patriarchal, hierarchical domination systems. Ecofeminists make a concerted effort to show how ecological issues are directly tied to issues of justice for women, the poor, people of color, Indigenous communities, and all marginalized and vulnerable individuals and groups.
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