What a hope-filled message the second reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom 8:18-23) is! This present time of suffering from a pandemic has us all eagerly awaiting some glorious revelation from God. Many may think it will come in the form of a vaccine, but a new birth to that freedom will not come about without labor pains. Some of these pains we have already experienced in the deaths of loved ones, in jobs lost, and in cancelled celebrations of life events, including participating in our liturgies. There will likely be more pain before we are free of the threat of this virus.
St. Paul says that creation awaits the revelation of the children of God, and indeed our entire planet is suffering grave pains, too. Rising temperatures due to increased greenhouse gases, more wildfires, more catastrophic storms, decreasing biodiversity, more plastic pollution, more droughts — the list of our planet’s illnesses, most of which are directly or indirectly caused by human action, goes on and on. So where is the hope?
The hope comes from what we hear in the reading from Isaiah 55:10-11: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” God sends down the rain and snow, and we are expected to do the work of tilling, planting, nurturing, and harvesting. We are to help achieve this revelation. We get to choose where the seed falls: on the path, on rocky ground, among the thorns, or on rich and fertile soil where it will yield the harvest that God desires (Mt 13:1-9). Our current experience, when we’ve all been forced to stop, step back and look at where we are going is an unprecedented opportunity to choose the fertile ground and to chart a new direction for the future.
All of creation is waiting to see what we humans choose to do. Will we rush back to “normal” patterns of consumerism, convenience, comfort, and indifference to anyone or anything but ourselves, or will we embark on a new path to restore the earth to right relationships, with God, with each other and with all of creation?
In my work as a Maryknoll lay missioner in El Salvador, these agricultural terms of sowing and tilling and harvesting are everyday language, as I work to promote sustainable agriculture and environmental awareness. The importance of food security and food sovereignty was especially obvious when it became increasingly difficult to get to markets to buy food during our lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Being able to produce even a part of what we consume makes the food situation for the farm families with whom I work that much less precarious.
And in the midst of our lockdown — at the end of May and beginning of June — El Salvador was hit by Tropical Storm Amanda, which morphed into Tropical Storm Cristobal. These storms produced nine days straight of rains, serious flooding and landslides, and resulted in the deaths of 30 people and the destruction of hundreds of homes. This highlighted even more the need for reforestation, soil and water conservation practices in agriculture, land-use regulation to limit construction in vulnerable areas, watershed management and many other practices to promote resiliency that we have been advocating for in our parish environmental work.
Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, says that everything is connected. Clearly, the problems we see in dealing with a major health crisis, which has turned into a worldwide economic crisis, are interrelated with the environmental problems. Unjust political and economic systems that leave so many people vulnerable to weather disasters are the same structures that make them vulnerable to health crises. We have seen that the homes that wash away or are buried in mudslides are those built where construction should never have been allowed, but political or economic interests prevailed, often overlooking environmental impact studies.
Likewise, money allocated for the health care system in the past was insufficient and squandered, leaving hospitals unfit for and inadequate to handle the current COVID-19 outbreak. The most vulnerable and marginalized are the ones who disproportionately suffer the consequences in both cases.
That is why this should be an opportunity and a time of hope, because we can transform this reality. We don’t have to return to the normal we left behind; we can choose a more fertile ground in which to plant the seeds for the harvest that God wills. Let us not close our minds to the poor and vulnerable, let us hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth and work together for our common home, where all have an equal chance at not only survival, but a dignified, meaningful and fulfilling life. We can and should influence structural change. This is the call to be a part of something bigger, like participating in demands for climate justice or the movement to eradicate systemic racism. This is where voting counts.
In addition, all of the seemingly small or insignificant actions that each one of us can take as an individual — such as using less electricity, plastic and water, or reusing and recycling — can make a difference. As Pope Francis says, “these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings [and] can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity. We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile” (Laudato Si’, 212).
With hope, then, together with the psalmist, we shout and sing for joy, “The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest!”
Scripture reflection for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, July 12, 2020 (15th Sunday in Ordinary Time)