Proper 10A, Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 10, 2011

By Jeanyne B Slettom

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Isaiah 55:10-13Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13Romans 8:1-11Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

These two texts can be taken together and read as a counter narrative to the ecological degradation that is taking place on our planet. In Isaiah the rain and snow in God’s creation do not flood the Earth; they water the Earth. The progression from water to sprout to sower to bread to the one who eats the bread describes a providential creation where everything is interconnected and works together for joy and peace. This is a vision of the well-being and flourishing of creation—the “word” that proceeds from God’s mouth as synonymous with the natural laws that order the universe. When all is as God envisions, the mountains and the hills do burst into song, and the trees of the field do clap their hands.

In the Psalm, this providence is expressed in language that suggests stewardship—God visits the Earth; waters, enriches, and provides for it. Nature responds with abundance, softening, blessing, overflowing, and joins together in singing for joy. All of this speaks of beauty—a world that is clothed, girded, bedecked, and crowned with beauty and abundance. This is the world as God intends it.

And what has become of this world under the ministration of human beings? Contrast the “word” of the corporatocracy with the word of God, and all those gentle expressions are replaced by words like “drill,” “raze,” “clearcut,” “drain,” “dredge,” and “dump.”  Beauty is replaced by pollution in water, soil, and air; mountains have their tops taken off, forests are laid bare, and wetlands are destroyed. The planetary climate system is undergoing massive change, upsetting the natural order as we have known it. With polar ice caps melting, sea levels rising, rapid desalination of the oceans, and natural disasters of greater frequency and severity, we are seeing a world far different from the one described so poetically in these passages.

What is to be done? “When our deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,’ the psalmist writes, “you forgive our transgressions.” There is a crucial distinction here for we who are already being overwhelmed by our climate-changing deeds—God forgives, but does not undo the consequences of those deeds. Those we still face, as we have throughout our history of wars and exploitation. Nevertheless, God remains “the hope of all the ends of the earth, of the farthest seas.”

How is it possible to speak of hope when severe weather and earth events are already upon us? Well, how was it possible to speak of hope in the darkest hours of World War II? As evidenced by the individual stories of heroism that still emerge from that era, God is present in unseen ways in countless groups and individuals, working to overcome suffering and evil. In other words, God does not prevent the consequences of our actions, but God does not abandon us to them, either. The transforming power of an omnipresent and unfailingly compassionate God is ever at work, aiming the world toward that vision of joy and peace established “in the beginning,” when God created order out of primordial chaos. If then, then now: wherever there is ongoing chaos, there is ongoing creation—creation aimed at joy and peace. And that is the basis for all our hope.

Romans 8:1-11

This text can be interpreted in light of the previous discussion; namely, the things of the flesh as the bottom-line, short-term profit focus of global corporations and the “I’m here to be re-elected, not to govern” myopia of politicians (or our own “let someone else deal with it” tendencies). The things of the Spirit, by contrast, are attitudes and actions by groups or individuals that support the flourishing of all creation. This is the Spirit of life and peace that dwells within each and every one of us, that is ours to chose, and that empowers us when we do. It is reductionist, I know, but in the context I’m proposing, “flesh” and “Spirit” can be formal terms for “exploiter” and “steward.” The “Spirit of Christ” is the phrase that signifies the whole range of choices we have about how to live, how to govern, and how treat creation that comprises both the teaching ministry of Jesus and God’s vision of the world so eloquently expressed in the Isaiah and Psalms texts.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

There’s not a lot more to say about this parable, since Jesus himself has already explained it! The preacher’s opening is in the phrase, “the word of the kingdom.” If we take seriously the idea that God is still speaking, as the UCC tagline goes, then the question to ponder is, what is “the word of the kingdom” that God is speaking to us today? “The kingdom of God” (or “commonwealth,” as John Cobb prefers, or “household” as some feminists have proposed) is a phrase that signifies an orientation to the world that folks like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Joerg Rieger explain  by contrasting it with “empire.” It was the principle hermeneutic of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement. It’s well known. It’s not a difficult or elusive concept. The problem is that it operates on the plane of meta-ethics, which means that the specifics must be drawn from whatever context we are in. What are the practical ethics—the specific rules—that can be derived from “the word of the kingdom” in our present circumstances?

Throughout this commentary, I have been suggesting the Earth itself as our context, based on the readings from Isaiah and Psalm 65. Our present circumstances contrast starkly with the vision laid out in those texts, revealing a counter-narrative of exploitation and interruption of the organic flow from water to sprout to sower to bread. The practical ethics to be derived from this context—which is to say, the way to be the good soil that receives the word of the kingdom for today—is to advocate for and follow sustainable practices, to be stewards of the Earth.

In the verses that follow, Jesus will give us parables of the kingdom, but not a set of precepts or book of rules. His method is to give us a hint of what the kingdom looks like, then encourage us to figure out how to realize it in our own lives, both individually and societally. The teaching is: “This is what the kingdom looks like. Now what steps can you take to make it happen?” Of course, we can refer to the Sermon of the Mount for overarching concepts, but the details are still up to us.

With this understanding, any number of ethical issues can be taken up in a sermon; the underlying structure is the same. Here is God’s vision. Here is the counter-narrative. What needs to happen in this situation to align the world/our actions with God’s vision? How do our results measure up to the results of God’s vision, that is, joy, peace, beauty, blessings, abundance? And not just in part, but for all of creation?

Jeanyne B. Slettom is the director of Process & Faith. She received her PhD from Claremont Graduate University. She is an adjunct professor at the Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and also co- pastor of Brea Congregational (UCC) Church in Brea, CA. She is the editor of Creative Transformation, managing editor of Process Studies, and editor of The Process Perspectiveby John B. Cobb, Jr., and The Process Perspective II.