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Eco-Justice Notes
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The Most Ecological Psalm
distributed 7/12/13 - ©2013

It was an easy question for me, about a very important topic in environmental theology.

I was in Boulder, Colorado, to preach at an "Earth Care Congregation" of the Presbyterian church. After the service, the congregation's "green team" invited members of the congregation to gather in a beautiful garden space for a wide-ranging conversation about faith and eco-justice.

That's where Ted asked -- with a provocative sort of grin -- if I could point to any place in the Bible that was really "ecological". He wasn't looking for passages about human dominion or our stewardship of creation. He wanted to know if there was anything in scripture that talked about the creation on its own terms.

"Of course!" I said with an even bigger grin. I talked about the end of the book of Job, the Bible's longest sustained reflection on creation, which spells out what theologians describe as "the integrity of creation." God's message to Job is that there is a whole bunch of stuff that God made which is of no use to humans, that humans don't have anything to do with -- and that God loves and delights in all of it. (Evangelical Christian and zoologist Calvin DeWitt has written a wonderful article about the Job text [PDF] and what it has to say about "our responsibility to other kinds.")

Then I lifted up Psalm 104, which is probably the second longest reflection on creation in the Bible. I told Ted that there are sections of that psalm that sound like something out of a modern ecology text -- although phrased far more poetically than what you'd find in a science book. It is a beautiful celebration of ecological relationships, diverse habitats, and ecological niches.

We had a fun and lively conversation about the Bible, how to live faithfully in this ecologically-stressed world, and how congregations have a vital role to play in helping their communities engage seriously and constructively on these issues. Ted's question got me thinking, though, and in the weeks since that conversation, I've gone back to look at Psalm 104. I'm even more convinced that there is contemporary insight in those words of praise from 2,500 years ago.

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Psalm 104 is an important text for us, as well as a beautiful one.

Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler was one of the first to push modern Christian thought about environmental relationships, writing "A Theology for Earth" clear back in 1954. Sittler often described Psalm 104 as an "ecological doxology." He identified that psalm as one of two primary texts (Romans 8:19 is the other) that support his conviction that responsibility for care of the earth is a contemporary theological imperative.

Biblical scholar Bill Brown has an extensive chapter on this psalm in his book, "The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder". He points out (p. 148) that "Novel to this biblical psalm is the claim that creation is sustained not by God's covenantal commitment but by God's unabashed joy." Ps. 104 also gets a chapter in "The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality", where Arthur Walker-Jones points out the politically subversive implications of God's abundant provision of life's necessities, unmediated by kings or priests, or any human.

Psalm 104 celebrates a world that includes humans, but does not center on them. The richly ecological core of the passage, verses 10-23, starts by tracing how springs of water provide for a flourishing of life, naming trees, birds and wild asses. People are beneficiaries of this abundance -- water is essential to the plants and cattle that people consume, and it allows for "wine that gladdens the human heart" -- but all other creatures also thrive in this well-watered world. The wonders of creation are seen in a web of relationships.

Trees are watered by the springs, and in them various kinds of birds build their nests. Some kinds of birds gather in the cedars of Lebanon, but "the stork has its home in the fir trees." The distinctiveness of other habitats is celebrated, with wild goats in the high mountains, and coneys in the rocks. Each of these creatures has an appropriate place to which it is well suited.

This psalm puts humans and lions into overlapping ecological niches that modern science would define as nocturnal and diurnal. At night, the lions and other animals of the forest creep out; by day, "people go out to their work and to their labor until the evening" -- and then turn things back over to the creatures of the night.

Nowhere in the psalm is there any hint that the world was made for humans, nor does it suggest that we are in control of it all. Trees and grass, goats and lions, people and birds, day and night all are tied together in a joyous and gracious community of life.

Much of the environmental theological reflection that I see is hooked into the themes of dominion and stewardship. Sometimes, more progressive voices speak of being "co-creators" with God, a potentially less controlling role. But texts like Psalm 104 and Job call us to greater humility when they remind us that it is not all about us. There are places where the Bible reminds us that we are simply part of the web of creation, sharing in the wonders and abundance of life.

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As I told the folk in Boulder that Psalm 104 is one of the essential texts for creation theologies, I also told them that there is a reason why they were not familiar with it.

Psalm 104 is one of the wonderful creation texts that are left out of the Revised Common Lectionary. Some parts of the psalm are read in the lectionary's three-year cycle, but the lovely ecological core is never heard in churches that follow the Lectionary. The copy of the psalm on our website shows which parts are, and are not, used in the RCL. The ecological part that I've described above has the green highlighting in the margins.

I see the Lectionary's blindness to ecology showing up in similar ways with both Psalm 104 and Job. In both places, the Lectionary celebrates the power of God in the dramatic acts of creation. It is a big thing that God sets the Earth on its foundations, and raises up mountains and divides the waters. So, too, is it interesting that God deals with the powerful and potentially chaotic beasts like Leviathan.

But for the Lectionary, the ordinary workings of the ecological world, the beauty and wonder of the other-than-human parts of God's creation, don't get lifted up as things that might draw us into the praise of God. In the Psalms, Job and elsewhere, those texts about creation are not scheduled for use in sermons and liturgy. For whatever reason, the day-to-day presence of a diverse, interconnected, self-regulating ecological community did not strike the scholars who shaped the Lectionary as interesting or spiritually significant.

Ted asked if there are any "ecological" texts in the Bible. It is tragic that these texts are not widely known and carefully studied. I urge preachers and educators to pay more attention to the delightful, insightful and challenging passages like Psalm 104.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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