“Scripture changes how we view mountains!”
Care for Creation Commentary on the Season of Creation—Year B 2012
By Rob Saler
The Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation in Year B: Mountain Sunday
One theological theme that became common in the latter part of the 20th century was the notion that the church exists as a kind of “sacrament” for the world. As Avery Cardinal Dulles pointed out in his book, Models of the Church, this thinking took hold partly as a response to growing consciousness of the ecological crisis facing humanity, but also because many of the theologians whose visions inspired the second Vatican council were captivated by the Eucharistic imagery implied. Just as the Eucharist is material (bread and wine) in which divinity is present in a unique way and which is given for the salvation of the world, so too is the church a material “body” which is graced by Christ’s presence in unique ways, but is given not only for the salvation of its members but for the salvation of God’s entire creation.
The Isaiah reading for this week is an eschatological text that seeks to reassure Israel, God’s people, using imagery of nature in which savagery and violence are overcome. Just as the wolf no longer feeds on the lamb, and the lion eats straw rather than flesh, so too will injustice among humans end—the kind of injustice by which one person labors but does not enjoy the fruit of those labors. This text is one of several instances in the Bible in which God’s healing and restoring to wholeness—two literal meanings of “salvation”—are revealed to encompass the whole scope of creation. This is the full weight behind the Bible’s continual descriptions of “God’s holy mountain” (as in Psalm 48 for this week)—God’s mountain is the site of the realization of God’s purposes on earth.
With this sort of text, the great temptation for the preacher is to fall into sentimentality in describing nature. Just as children are surrounded with anthropomorphized stuffed animals in order to amuse them, it is easy for us to render nature as “cute,” “pure,” or “innocent” in our rhetoric in order to contrast it with the meanness of human existence. However, those who spend any time in nature know that it, too, is a space of violence and suffering. The author Annie Dillard has written compellingly about the fact that, if we are to truly be at home in nature, then we must understand that competition, suffering, and death are integral parts of the “wild” landscape.
As Christians, then, we are called to think about the ways in which, just as we need God’s salvation in our human experience, we might follow Romans 8 in positing that nature too cries out for deliverance. It is striking that one of the most profoundly reassuring passages in scripture—Paul’s assurance that “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”—comes directly after his description of a creation that groans in anticipation of its own redemption. This suggests that, when scripture speaks comfort to the turmoil of the human soul, it speaks similar comfort to the turmoil of creation. This highlights, too, one of the most striking features of the gospel narrative for this week: when the resurrected Jesus commissions his disciples to go and preach the astonishing news of God’s victory over death, he tells them to “go and preach the good news to all of creation”—or, as the Greek suggests, the entire COSMOS!
When we bring these texts together, an interesting parallel suggests itself: just as we might imagine God’s healing radiating out from the church (at its best) to the world, can we (following Isaiah) envision mountains in a sacramental/eschatological sense as images of a healed creation? This is particularly powerful because “salvation” is not a one-way street in either case. The church needs healing from the work of God’s Spirit in the world; as Joseph Sittler would have it, the church is caught up in a broader “ecology” of grace. Likewise, mountains can only sustain life by being a part of larger bio-networks. Salvation is an ecological process.
The notion that mountains are sites from which life and healing emanate has good scriptural precedence; think especially of God’s giving of the law on Mount Sinai, or the centrality of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” to any ethic that would base itself on Jesus’ teachings. The opportunity is here for the preacher to describe nature in unsentimental fashion (since the church should always be clear-eyed about death), but also to marshal the beauty of the texts in order to describe a vision of redemption stemming from “mountains” in a sacramental sense.
How might this change how we view mountains? And in an age of mountaintop removal mining, how might it change how we treat them, as well as everything else that God wishes to redeem? These are the questions that should be occupying the minds of God’s people as they turn from worship to service.