World Day of Prayer for Creation
by Rev Dr Andrew Warmback, Green Anglicans, Diocese of Natal, South Africa
Texts (Revised Common Lectionary):
Jeremiah 2: 4-13
Psalm 81: 1, 10-16
Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14 (in Roman Catholic Lectionary, too)
This Sunday marks the beginning of the Season of Creation. Today is particularly significant in that it is also the World Day of Prayer for Creation. The focus for this week will be on the need to pray for the environment, and particularly on the value of praying together with others.
The World Day of Prayer for Creation has been growing in significance over the few years and needs to be supported. In 1989 the Orthodox Church declared 1 September as a Day of Prayer for Creation. In what has been regarded as an ecumenical gesture of global significance, Pope Francis announced in August, 2015 that the Roman Catholic Church will also recognize September 1 as the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Other church leaders, including the international heads of various denominations have added their support. A number of church organisations, including the World Council of Churches, have joined in this call for prayer. See www.seasonofcreation.org
Hearing the Word
Comments on Jeremiah 2: 4-13
The reading this week follows on from the Jerimiah’s call and vision recorded last week. In terms of background, an important part of Jerimiah’s ministry took place after the death of King Josiah, from 609 BCE to Israel’s exile to Babylon in 587/6 BCE; and his message was addressed to Judah. In his message he complains that the leaders, the priests, the teachers and the prophets have abandoned God, have neglected their duty and turned to other things.
They had forgotten their roots, the God who had been faithful to them in delivering them from slavery in Egypt, protecting them in the wilderness and who had brought them to a land of plenty. They had defiled the land; the prophets had turned to Baal.
So Jeremiah’s concern is summed up in these words, expressed by God: they “have committed two evils: they have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, and have dug cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:12-13).
Comments on Psalm 81: 1, 10-16
This Psalm has similarities to the message from Jeremiah.
The appeal to Israel is for them to “sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.”(v1) Instead Israel has turned away and does not listen to God. They had forgotten that it was God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt (v 10a); and it is God who wants to satisfy them with good things – the finest wheat and honey from the rock (v 10b and 16). The people are to listen to God and obey God.
Comments on Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16
This is the closing chapter of the book and in the first section there are words of encouragement. The words are practical words of advice on how to live well, in the service of God and others. Compassion and empathy with those who suffer us important. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers….Remember those in prison….Let marriage be held in honour by all….Keep your lives free from the love of money.” (v 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
In this section wonderful words of the assurance of God’s presence and comfort that are quoted: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”(v 5b) And, “God is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (v 6) Again, our faith in Jesus is to be expressed in practical ways: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have”. (v 15, 16)
Comments on Luke 14:1, 7-14
This parable is told by Jesus at the house of the leader of the Pharisees, on the sabbath. Having healed the person “who suffered with swelling.” (v 2), and challenged the religious leaders about their interpretation of what is permissible to do on the sabbath, Jesus takes the opportunity to challenge then further.
In telling this parable, Jesus warns the guests invited to the wedding banquet against sitting down at the main table – “the place of honour.” (v 8) Rather take another seat and be moved up to a more important seat later. In that context the most important seating place would have been given on the basis of social standing or power. Jesus indicates that this social system will be inverted, in that those who put themselves forward as important will be “humbled”, and vice versa (v 11).
Another point Jesus makes is that those to be invited are not to be those who will return the invitation; instead invite those who are poor and are living with disabilities. (v 13) This practice would certainly have been in stark contrast to that of the religious leaders. God’s invitation is extended to all, irrespective of wealth or any other quality.
Who one invites to a meal is significant. In the parable Jesus encourages his hearers to focus on inviting those who were in some ways on the margins of that society. This would have been a surprise to the religious leaders among whom Jesus was sharing a meal and telling this parable. We know that Jesus himself shared meals with those whom the society would have looked down upon, such as tax collectors and sex workers. Jesus’ “table fellowship” was a means he used to challenge the systems that accorded status and honour to some and shame and discrimination to others, prevalent in that society.
Interpreting the Word
South Africa is a country of great beauty and variety. Yet it is also a country of extraordinary inequality, accompanied by the growing impoverishment of many and widespread environmental destruction. We still live with the legacy of colonialism and apartheid which destroyed a sense of belonging and community among people as well as alienating them from their land and natural resources. We still experience “environmental racism” in which vulnerable communities suffer disproportionately the effects of environmental degradation. Our preaching needs to offer a prophetic voice in this context.
The advent of democracy has been good not only for people’s wellbeing but also for the environment. Strong environmental legislation has been passed. Our Constitution states that everyone has a right to an environment “that is not harmful to their health and well-being.” There is wide scope for people and organisations, including the church, to play a role in ensuring that our legislation is implemented.
Let us read and interpret the Bible through green lenses. Let us become aware of the implications of the text for us as human beings as well as for creation as a whole. In our preaching let us draw upon and integrate theological traditions that promote ecological justice, including African and eco-feminist theologies.
Preaching the Word
Arising from the readings, and in the light of this being the first Sunday in the Season of Creation, there are a number of possible themes that could be developed further:
- God offers the best. It is God who “bought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruit and its good things.” (Jeremiah 2:7a). God who wants to satisfy them with “the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock.” (Psalm 81: 16) Emphasise the goodness of creation, the blessing of its abundance and fruitfulness. This should be our motivation to appreciate it and to enjoy it. We usually tend to frighten people into action by emphasising the damage that is being done to the earth. Let us see creation as something of lasting value that is to be preserved and protected. As has been said, let us look after the earth so that it may look after us.
- Related to the above, we read: “But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.” (Jerimiah 2:7b). Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and particularly in the prophetic writings it is evident that there is a connection between the people’s relationship to God and the earth itself. Faithfulness to God and justice in the community results in the fertility of the land – the blossoming of the desert. The opposite is also true. In considering major environmental problems like climate change, fracking and nuclear energy, let us explore the link between unjust and exploitative political and social systems and the destruction of the planet. What can we do to work for environmental justice – justice and fairness in the way both human beings and the land, the seas and the atmosphere are treated? Is there a sense in which we can talk about expressing solidarity with the earth?
- The complaint in Jeremiah and the Psalm is that people have forgotten God and turned from God. They no longer listen to God. Have we turned from God? What have become our gods? Is it our personal possessions , materialism and wealth? What about the earth itself? The earth is no longer regarded as a gift from God to be used and enjoyed by all for the common good. We privatise nature and attach a market value to it. And how do we listen to God? How do we return to God? What are the values and the way of life that would flow from our commitment to God?
- The words from the book of Hebrews which speak about qualities like love and hospitality are usually taken to refer only to human beings. But what about the rest of creation? Should our “doing good” and “sharing what we have” not also extend to all God’s creatures, to the whole earth community of which human beings are an integral part? If the good news of the reign of God is for the whole earth then surely all of life should be our concern? How can our church become a loving community that embraces all of creation?
- Who is invited to your “banquet”? Reflect on our attitude towards those who are different from us, including those who are members of churches different from our own tradition. How do we affirm difference and respect diversity? Is our attitude marked by humility or are we judgemental? What can you learn from Christians who are different from us? In tackling environmental issues it is more effective to work together with other churches.
- We are urged to “keep our lives free from the love of money”. (Hebrews 13:5a). How do we do this? What is the impact of materialism and consumerism on God’s creation? In what ways do our economic systems promote greed and hoarding and ultimately the destruction of the natural environment? How can we work at transforming our economic systems to be ones that promote sharing and the preservation of the integrity of creation? What can we as a church do to model a community of generosity, caring, and sharing what we have? How can we become a church that is marked by simplicity?
- All the readings refer to food/eating in some way. Where does our food come from? Is it healthy? Is it produced in a sustainable way, in ways in which the land is not exploited so that the fertility of the soil is not compromised in the process? Do people have access to land to grow food? What negative impacts do the genetic modification of food, especially staple food, having on the health of human beings as well as the health of the environment? What can your church do to help ensure that all in your community have sufficient food to eat? How are we using our church land?
- The symbol of the cracked cisterns from Jeremiah is a powerful one. It makes us think of water, where it comes from, where it is stored and how it is distributed. How much does our water cost? Why do so many people die from water-borne diseases and lack of adequate sanitation? Should access to drinkable water not be a basic human right? What can our church do to ensure the water supply in our community is clean and affordable? Are there others you can join in achieving this?
Living the Word
The following suggestions are offered to promote the World Day of Prayer for Creation:
- Celebrate the World Day of Payer for Creation in your services today.
- If your Sunday service does not have this focus then arrange another service in which you can pray for creation. Even better, plan to hold an ecumenical service with other churches in your neighbourhood for this purpose.
- In preparing this service choose hymns and songs that express the goodness of creation, the threats to its future and the vocation of human beings to cherish all of life and to ensure its flourishing.
- Put on your notice board or in you church newsletter environmental challenges that require pray and further action.
- Develop prayers and other liturgy that is environmentally friendly and which can become part of your regular services. So pray regularly for creation in your services.
- Make connections between the sacraments and nature; for example for baptism we use water; for the Lord’s Supper/Mass we use bread and wine.
- Work at establishing and strengthening ties with other churches in your neighbourhood, not just among the pastors or clergy but among the people too.
- Begin an environment group within your congregation.
- Begin planning for the World Day of Prayer for Creation next year.
by Rev Dr Andrew Warmback, South Africa
Warmback, Andrew. 2017. The Church and Ecological Justice, Cluster Publications, Pietermaritzburg.