Ex 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
by Rev Nathan Empsall, MEM; Episcopal priest in New Haven, Connecticut, USA; editor of Episcopal Climate News; and campaigns director for Faithful America
Today is not just the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, or even just the final Sunday in the Season of Creation. It is also the annual Feast of St. Francis, patron saint of animals and ecology. The Episcopal Church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts describes St. Francis as “the most popular and admired [saint], but probably the least imitated.”
All four of this week’s readings have something to say about creation. What would it mean to take the readings together, and interpret them in light of the life of St. Francis?
Hearing and Interpreting the Word
Comments on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
The design of creation is that of an interconnected web, where no strand can be pulled without unraveling the entire thing. Climate change is the most urgent example of this interconnection: Eating too much meat in Europe increases the size of wildfires in the United States; driving gas guzzling SUVs here in the USA helps destroy the coral reefs of Australia; burning coal in Australia can cause drought in Africa.
Literally everything on Earth is connected to the earth, and thus shares a connection with everything else. This includes the Ten Commandments, each of which has an environmental connection of its own. Let’s consider three of the ten, letting these examples remind us that all of our actions impact the whole of creation.
Exodus 20:8: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” As humans, we have lived far beyond our limits, consuming too much, reproducing too widely, and taking more from God’s earth than we give. What would it look like if western society decided that ever-increasing production and growth were not the ultimate values, and started taking a day off from time to time to just “be” rather than “do”? Perhaps if we took our own rest more seriously, the planet would be able to rest and heal as well.
Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.” Thanks to climate change, ancient glaciers are melting; the Great Barrier Reef is dying; and a sixth mass extinction has begun. These features of creation existed for thousands of years, revealing God’s glory to nearly every human generation – until now. By constantly burning our fossil fuels, living beyond our means, and prioritizing profit above all else, we are stealing the treasures of the earth from future generations.
Exodus 20:16: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Here in the USA, one of our two main political parties routinely denies the reality of climate science, blocking all attempts to solve the problem. Like the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori says, we must name such climate denial on the part of western corporations and lawmakers for what it is: False witness, and thus, a sin.
Comments on Psalm 19
Theologians Douglas Moo and Jonathan Moo call this psalm “creation’s testimony,” writing, “In Psalm 19:1, we learn that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’ They do not use human words (v. 3), and yet their voice is heard through the earth, accessible to all (v. 4).”
According to Psalm 19, God’s glory is revealed not just in Scripture but also in nature, where the whole of creation proclaims God’s greatness with a language far more vibrant than any human tongue. This makes it the perfect passage for St. Francis Day, since St. Francis himself made nearly the same point in his beautiful 13th century hymn, “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.”
“Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.
“Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.
“Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.”
(It is from this canticle that Pope Francis drew the name of his powerful ecological encyclical, Laudato Si, which is Latin for “Praised be.”)
Comments on Philippians 3:4b-14
Paul begins this passage with what might seem like bragging, but is in fact a subversion of societal norms. He has a resume and a lineage that his peers would consider exemplary, and recites it all in a way that starts to sound downright boastful – only to shock those peers by declaring it all worthless: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ… For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish.”
A key question Christians must ask ourselves, over and over again, is this: How would my life be different if I was not a Christian? If we cannot answer that question, then we must consider the possibility that we are following society’s norms, not Christ’s, for Jesus subverts and changes everything about human society. The challenge of our faith is to set aside the greed, destruction, and selfishness that Western society demands we follow and instead seek “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”
One trap the preacher must avoid when interpreting Philippians is considering creation itself part of the “rubbish” that “lies behind,” viewing earth as the opposite of “the heavenly call.” There are some evangelical preachers who claim it’s okay to pollute and litter since we’re leaving the earth behind for heaven anyway – but nothing could be further from the truth. Remember that in his letter to the Romans, Paul makes a very similar point as Psalm 19: All of creation praises the Lord. This means that, approached in the right fashion, creation can actually help us to know Christ, and is not part of the powers or principalities that we should consider “loss.”
Comments on Matthew 21:33-46
The very setting for this Gospel reading reminds us of the centrality of the natural creation to God’s kingdom: A vineyard at harvest time.
Most modern Bibles give this parable a heading like “The Wicked Tenants.” It is the story of a group of renter-farmers who abuse the land and abuse their neighbors, even to the point of killing the landlord’s son, believing they can keep all the profits for themselves. Yet ultimately, their abuse of the land and of others is counterproductive, leading to their own “miserable death.”
Like the pharisees, we must ask ourselves: Are we the new tenants who will produce the fruits of the kingdom? Or are we the wicked tenants, living a lifestyle beyond our limits that destroys everything it touches? Like the tenants, whenever we abuse creation – its land, its water, or its people – we abuse ourselves.
It is worth noting that this same chapter of Matthew began with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as observed on Palm Sunday. By entering the city through the east gate on a donkey with palms, Jesus deliberately contrast himself with the Roman governor Pilate, who entered through the west gate with what Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe as “a visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses… banners… sun glinting on metal and gold.”
First Jesus established a visual contrast between his kingdom of love and the humility and the Empire’s, then he used parables to underscore the choice facing his disciples. It is still a choice we face us today: Love and humility towards our neighbors and creation? Or continued greed and destruction in the shadow of the powers and principalities?
Preaching the Word with St. Francis
St. Francis, born in 1181, grew up wealthy, only to renounce his family’s wealth and devote himself to serving the poor as well as animals. He was the rare camel who did indeed fit through the eye of a needle, recognizing as did Paul that his riches were loss. Francis went on to found the Franciscan orders (which began with vows of extreme poverty) in 1209.
Francis’ service to the poor and his love of nature are, in many ways, the same thing today. Climate change impacts everyone but no one more than the poor and marginalized, who often cannot afford to deal with the costs of relocation or ecological disaster. St. Francis would be the first to recognize the need for environmental justice: We cannot serve the poor without also caring for creation.
Something that I don’t think is discussed often enough about St. Francis is that he was a war veteran who suffered from what we now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In 1202, as Paul Moses writes in Commonweal magazine, Francis “saw men he knew since childhood torn limb from limb in a devastating battle, and was taken prisoner for a year, thrown in a dark, damp hole in the ground. This left Francis a broken man.”
Francis’s own trauma led him to identify with others in their trauma, opposing warfare and spending time with the poor, lepers, and other outcasts – just like Jesus. It was through his radical service to the poor, as well his new communities and their travels through the Italian mountains, that he began to find some measure of healing.
There is a great deal that we need healing from today: War, famines and plagues, systemic racism, the coronavirus pandemic, and of course climate change itself. Right now, far too many of us are on the path of the wicked tenants, sabotaging ourselves by sabotaging all that is around us. Perhaps – like Francis, Paul, and Jesus himself – we could begin to find healing by turning away from the pursuit of material profit, and towards the beauty of God in creation.
Living the Word
Through the Ten Commandments, we see the need to protect creation with all that we do. Through the examples of the psalmist and St. Francis, we see the need to connect with Christ through creation – a connection that cannot happen if we destroy nature rather than protecting it.
What does it mean to protect creation? In the Sustainable Preaching notes for September 6, Bishop Geoff Davies gave us an important list of vital actions for churches to take, including reducing food waste, ending fossil fuels, and pressuring politicians to act.
I would only add to that list that we must make sure our actions are motivated not by economics or politics, but by faith. Everything we do for creation must have the Creator as its foundation, or it will be rootless and blow away like so much dust in the wind.
This is what made St. Francis so special, and his ministries and orders so successful: Not his unwavering service to the poor or the earth, but his underlying devotion to Christ, which made his service possible.
What Francis understood was that his ministries and values were means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. They were outgrowths of his devotion to his loving creator. We can’t serve the poor simply because it feels good. We can’t “go green” purely for economic reasons. It was only when Francis realized that there was something bigger than himself, a God who required his complete and utter devotion, that he found joy and began to do good things for creation.
Francis’s example isn’t simply doing good works and loving the earth. If that’s the example we’re trying to copy, we won’t succeed. His example is that we need to decenter ourselves as individuals. We need to root our worldview in our neighbors, our surroundings, and above all, in God. This outlook isn’t just a temporary act that takes a few minutes each day; it is an entire way of living and of being, pervading every moment of life. Love is not an emotion, but a state in which we dwell. When we devote ourselves to God in this way, there we will find joy, love, and freedom – and there we will find the grace to share that joy and love with all of creation: with the poor, with animals, with friends, and with the earth itself.
by Nathan Empsall, Connecticut, USA