Consider the Raven – A Sermon on the Bible and Biodiversity

Texts: Luke 12:22-31; I Cor. 13:1-13

On a day when our city is full of noise and sloganeering, this is a sermon about what holds the world together. This a sermon about what our Catholic siblings sometimes call the “integrity of creation.” This is a sermon about the Bible and biodiversity. This is a sermon about God’s love for the wonderful variety of plants and animals that populate the earth.

In Luke chapter 12 (just before our reading) Jesus tells a parable about a rich farmer who had an exceptionally good harvest. The harvest was so good that his barns and warehouses wouldn’t hold it all. The farmer could have looked for ways to benefit others with his excess, but he did not. Instead, he tore down his barns and warehouses and put up bigger ones. Then he said to himself, to his soul actually, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

The farmer’s misstep is hard to pinpoint. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus commends good business thinking (Matt. 25) and demonstrates a penchant for food and conversation. The farmer’s misstep couldn’t have been his business sense of his enjoyment of a meal. Here’s what Jesus says of the farmer at the end of this little story:

You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

The best description of the farmer’s misstep has to be his “self-centeredness.” He had the mistaken impression that the best use of his profit was alleviating his own worry. He had the mistaken impression that the best use of his profit was shielding himself from the “what-ifs” of the future. As he saw it, his own welfare was the point.

Against this self-centeredness, Jesus commends an eccentric life—a life centered on God.

We are often told that the root of the ecological crisis is our “anthropocentrism.” That is, the view that every other form of life on earth has value only as it benefits us. Thus, we persist in using pesticides that harm bees and other pollinators because it benefits us.

It’s sometimes then said that Christianity encourages this kind of thinking and, therefore, must be abandoned. And yet, it is precisely this sort of self-centeredness that Jesus warns against in this parable. Instead of considering our “treasure” in light of our own interests, Jesus says we should consider it in light of the interests—not just of other people—but of God.

This is the basic framework for valuing biodiversity in a biblical perspective. We sometimes call this  “theocentrism.” When we are thinking about the worth of a creature, the value of a plant, the rights of an animal—we ought to think about it in it’s relationship to God. The Christian pilgrimage is a journey of learning to care (or learning to love) as God does.

This is what Luke wants us to have in mind as we plunge into vv. 22-31 of chapter 12. Here are a few key lines:

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. . . . Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin . . . But if God so clothes the grass of the field . . . how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! [D]o not keep worrying.”

Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. Don’t just look . . . consider . . . reflect . . . let these animals and plants become our tutors. They show us how to live in light of God’s care.

In the first chapter of Genesis there is a line repeated several times (I’m sure you know it): “And God saw that it was good.”

Separation of land and sea—“And God saw that it was good.”

Plants capable to fruit and seed—“And God saw that it was good.” 

Sun and moon—“And God saw that it was good.”

Birds in the heavens and monsters in the seas—“And God saw that it was good.”

Cattle and creeping things—“And God saw that it was good.”

Finally, in verse 26, God gets around to humans—and they are good too. The plants and animals are declared good in this creation story before it’s even possible for them to benefit human beings. They are valuable on their own. Creation has integrity without us.

So, Jesus says to consider the ravens and the lilies. Consider how God cares for them. Rethink your worry about yourself, skip the building of new barns and warehouses, and go right to relaxing in God’s care. Let the raven and the lily be your tutor.

One of the most disturbing aspects of our current ecological crisis is the rate at which the earth is losing what God calls good. We are losing our tutors.

Yes, life on earth always involves death, even the death of entire life forms—extinction. Some theologians, like Elizabeth Johnson, identify this as the cruciform pattern of life. Through this cross-shaped process, life emerges from death. What we’re seeing now, however, is not that.

The rate of extinction is now “hundreds, or even thousands, of times higher” than it should be. That’s according to a summary drown up by the Smithsonian. This obliteration of animal and plant life is largely due to human activity. Some is the result of over-hunting (or over-harvesting): the extinction of mammoths and mastodons long ago, but also the stellar’s sea cow and the passenger pigeon, as well as the ongoing decimation of fisheries.

Climate change contributes to this rapid loss of species, yet, as a recent UN report states, much of the current large-scale harm to plants and animals comes through changes in the ways we use the land and sea. Nearly 1/3 of the earth’s land surface is now devoted to farming, the cultivation of just a few forms of life. It is increasingly difficult for God’s good creatures, many species of songbirds or instance, to thrive.

Let’s return to the Bible. In Job chapter 12 we readers are given a curious instruction:

Ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; the fish of the seas will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.”

Ask the animals. Ask the plants of the earth. What they say is that God holds their lives in-hand, just like ours. The wellbeing of plants and animals matters to God. Their ability to be themselves, to be fruitful and to multiply, to yield seed and to swarm, to fill the seas and to gallop across the land—this integrity matters to God whether it benefits us or not.

A couple more biblical examples: In Leviticus and in Psalms we read that land belongs to God (Lev. 25:23; Ps. 24:1). We are accountable for our conduct upon it. Some scholars suggest that the distinction in the Torah between the “clean” and the “unclean” animals is partly a strategy to preserve wild nature. There is also the Torah prohibition against eating blood (Lev. 17). This is explicitly intended to instill an abiding respect for life—even the life of non-human creatures.

Gus Speth has had a high-flying career as an environmental lawyer. He has been an administrator in the UN development program, an advisor to the Carter administration, and dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He once said, and this is a well-known quotation:

“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.”

What is this path of “cultural and spiritual transformation”? Certainly, there are many wisdom traditions that can be helpful. Yet, I want to suggest that our shared Christian faith should be among them. The teachings of our scriptures tell us that, even though we humans have a distinct role and a distinct set of abilities, we are not the only creatures of value on this earth.

The truth is, we sense this. We sense that the sage grouse and polar bear are fearfully and wonderfully made. Many people sense this. The attentive hunter senses this, so does the mindful farmer. Anyone who takes the time to consider the animals, to wonder at the trees, to be startled by wildflowers—they all can recognize this. God has plastered this truth across the face of the earth.

We can all see that life has to be about more than filling our barns and warehouses. The need for a “cultural and spiritual transformation” is not just manufactured religious guilt.    

So, what does our Christian faith have to contribute toward such a transformation? The truth is that the Christian faith is all about transformation. Woven into the warp and the woof of scripture is the call to live in a way that does not make our own ease the measure of value.

Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. God holds them in hand—and us as well. Put simply, the worth of the walrus and the black footed ferret is not determined by what they mean to us, but by what they mean to God. And God says they are good.

This is a call to transformation. As we search the scriptures and reflect on the history of Christian communities, we find that over and again we are taught the virtue of simplicity or restraint—voluntarily using less than we could. The Christian scriptures and sage voices remind us that sometimes the answer to unmet desire is not more striving, but a taming of desire. Gelassenheit (serenity) in the midst of frothy consumption. Yes, this is a call to transformation.  

Finally, there are Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13. This is a text read by Christians around the world this Sunday. This is a text replete with ecological virtues. Patience is an ecological virtue. These days hope—active and engaged hope—is an ecological virtue. And surely love is an ecological virtue.

Love of future generations, yes, but also love of other creatures. You can amass all kinds of accomplishments, but if we do not have love, Paul says, we have nothing. “For God so loved the world . . . .” This too is a call to lifelong transformation, to care and love others as God does.

I’ll conclude with this: It is hard to love what you do not know, so set your curiosity free.

It is hard to love what you do not know, so consider the raven and the lily. Consider the endangered rusty-patched bumble bee and the cherry birch. Consider the endangered Banff springs snail and the bashful bullrush.

Consider them, while you can, in the light of God’s loud declaration of their goodness.

Consider them, while you can, in hope for your transformation.

Consider them, while you can, in love.

Those in the know may recognize some thoughts above from the following:

Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth (Baker, 2010).

If you don’t feel like you are in the know but would like to be, check those two volumes out.

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