One of the challenges of the Common Lectionary followed by the Catholic and other Christian communities is that the assigned readings for Sundays — over a three year cycle — are not geared to current events. They often have little to do with what’s happening right now. A preacher too often has a choice: preach on current events or preach on the readings: bring the world into the Word, or the Word into the world. (Both, of course, but that's hard.)
This Sunday, the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, is a fine exception. All three readings refer to the natural world, asking us to learn spiritual truths by appreciating how nature works, by not taking nature for granted, and by learning to see God through nature.
That we should learn of God from nature is a message coming at the right time. Summer, after all, is a season when we can pay more attention to nature, the beauty and fruitfulness of the world around us. Nature can also distress us. Covid 19 is a terrible force of nature that is absolutely relentless and murderous, no respecter of us and our preferences; it is like an earthquake or forest fire or tsunami, except global all at once. And the whole earth itself is in deep trouble, as it gets hotter and hotter, as animal and plant species go extinct, as changes in climate create havoc for us and all living beings.
The readings speak of nature. But what do they say to us about the beauty of nature — and also about its many woes? To put it simply: nature shows us something of God, something of ourselves. We ignore nature at our peril. Let us take up the three readings one by one.
In Isaiah 55, the Lord is heard comparing the regularity of the rainfall, which makes life possible on earth, with the Word that God speaks; what comes forth from God’s mouth does not fail to achieve its results:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55.10-11)
Think about rain. Think of how important, and taken for granted (here in New England at least) it is, enough but not too much, to keep things alive and fresh and growing. The rain is a gift, God’s Word is a gift. It is not up to us to save the world ourselves, it is something God does, is doing, will do, as surely as the rain falls and the crops grow. Relax.
But nature is not all sweetness and light. The most regular rainfall still needs seeds for the growing, and good soil in which those seeds can take root and grow to fruition. In Matthew 13, Jesus reminds us that neither life in nature nor life by God’s word are to be taken for granted:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13.1-5)
Think about gardens in July. Go out into your garden if you have one, and ponder its success: what is growing well and showing signs that the fruits and vegetables are on the way? And what seems doubtful, like all the work may not pay off? Or take a look at your house plants — why is this one flourishing, that one looking sickly? Or go for a walk, and look at the plants and trees growing around us: what is growing well, what seems stunted? What is flourishing, what is sickly, what is already dead? We are like nature, blessed with great abundance, but we need to let grace take root in us, flourishing in the long run.
Most extraordinary is the second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 8: if we are yearning for liberation and groaning amid current sufferings, remember that nature itself groans and yearns, caught up in the same problems that torment us. The Isaiah and Matthew passages draw analogies between the natural and the spiritual, but Paul seems to be speaking more literally. The natural world is suffering by disease and destruction and our neglect, and it too needs to be liberated. The suffering is real, but it shall not endure:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. (Romans 8.18)
But it is not just human suffering. Paul expands the vista greatly, to include nature in the great vision of God’s plan. The world itself is to be saved and healed, even as we are:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (8.19-21)
The natural and the human are both like a woman in labor, suffering until the joys of new life are given:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (8.22-23)
We have the Spirit alive in us, and we are waiting for reunion with God and for our true liberation. We: body and spirit, the human and the natural too, all of reality is suffering the pangs of new birth. Think about the world in trouble, fevered by Covid 19, devastated by human plunder — but don’t stop with the gloom and doom. See also that this world is even now being taken up into God’s mercy, to be healed and restored, a new creation.
On the broadest level, these readings invite us to see how God is and God acts by learning what nature has to teach us: if you would see the invisible, open your eyes to the world around you first. The readings remind us too that we cannot be well spiritually and with God, if the world around us is dried out, overheated, carved up and chopped down, ravaged by Covid 19. Can we not hope and pray that once again in our lifetimes the harmony of nature and spirit becomes clear?
But to end on a gentler note, perhaps also to extend our experience of a natural world fully alive in God, here are a few of my favorite texts, songs and poems that speak of God in nature, nature in God:
• Five nature poems by the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins:
“Pied Beauty” (read by the famed actor, Richard Burton)
and finally, Hopkins' melancholy “Spring and Fall to a Young Child” (sung)