“The heavens declare the glory of God—and bear witness against our injustice.”
Care for Creation Commentary on the Season of Creation—Year B 2012
By Rob Saler
The Third Sunday in the Season of Creation in Year B: Sky Sunday
Chances are, three Sundays into the Season of Creation cycle, the preacher and her/his congregation has already had occasion to discuss how many popular understandings of salvation are detrimental to the health of the Earth. And to the extent that damage to Earth goes hand in hand with social injustice, visions of salvation as “going to heaven when you die” in such a way that one completely leaves the earth behind have also funded significant social inequalities.
The classic expression of this—still widely quoted today—comes from a 1911 folk song by union organizer and musician Joe Hill. The song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” was a parody of the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” and—in a manner similar to Marx’s charge that religion functions as the “opiate of the people”—it expressed Hill’s anger at the way in which Christianity’s visions of salvation as escape from earthly troubles fostered resignation rather than outrage at unjust social conditions.
come out every night,
As Merold Westphal points out in his book Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, voices such as Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and (in this case) Joe Hill provide a very useful function to Christians by demonstrating how bad theology can foster social injustice. To the extent that these sharp critiques of Christianity call the church to amend its thinking in the direction of justice, they echo the prophetic witness of biblical prophets such as Jeremiah.
For Joe Hill, the “sky” is synonymous with the airy, innocuous, ultimately inconsequential views of heaven that leave the earth abandoned to injustice. Jeremiah, however, paints a picture of the “heavens turning black” as judgment against humanity, more specifically, as judgment against Israel for its wrongdoing.
Does the sky turn dark when we do wrong? Does the sky turn dark when we are unjust to God’s creation, and to the people who inhabit it (particularly the poor who bear the lion’s share of suffering when Earth’s ecosystems are degraded)? When pollution and industrial blight diminish the beauty of what God has made, then it is no homiletical hyperbole to suggest that it might indeed be the skies themselves that bear prophetic witness against us and our injustice. Surely our ancestors would be aghast at our ability to turn the sky itself dark—with exhaust, with carbon, with nuclear mushroom clouds.
Indeed, to the extent that, as our Psalm suggests, “the heavens tell the glory of God,” then to desecrate the sky might even be akin to desecrating an icon or profound work of religious art. A Native American student at the seminary where I used to teach would often challenge his classmates by asking them to imagine him leading them down to the seminary’s ornately decorated chapel, then smashing the altar and organ to pieces. “This,” he would say, “is how Native Americans view what we have done to the earth. We have destroyed the chapel that God has given to us.”
In the Hebrew mind, the “glory” of God also connoted the “weight” of God—the intensity of God’s presence, and God’s judgment against evil. Against this backdrop, the words of Jesus to the high priest that the world would soon “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” takes on a connotation that would likely not have been missed by Jesus’ interlocutors: Jesus is claiming that he is, in his own person, a manifestation of the judgment of God against injustice. We who know where the story is headed know that this judgment would soon go all the way to the cross, and beyond—the ultimate victory of God over that which would desecrate God’s purposes on Earth.
In these lectionary readings, then, “sky” is far from being synonymous with airy removal from the turmoil of God’s people. “Sky” is the sign of God’s presence. But if, as we have been suggesting, that presence spells trouble for the forces of death and injustice, it also provides images worthy of beauteous celebration. When the epistle writer seeks language to describe what it means to exist in harmony with God’s righteousness, he gives his readers the promise that those who live in peace will “shine like stars in the sky.”
In this vein, we can understand that Jesus, in exhorting his hearers to “build up treasures in heaven,” does not mean to ignore the welfare of Earth. Rather, to live in alignment with the “heavens,” to be people of the “sky,” is to be people who live their lives in harmony and co-creation with the purposes of God—people for whom the “presence” of God is a source of daily joy and awe. To live this way—by grace—is surely a grace itself.