Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation." A sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Psalm 104. April 19, 2015, the Sunday before Earth Day.

Earth Day is approaching this week, and—if you turn on the news or go online, you’re sure to hear challenging ideas about caring for the environment.  So this Sunday seemed like a good day to celebrate God’s Creation and to ponder our place in it.  It’s a day to reflect on what our faith says to us about how we are called to live on the earth.
In this season of Eastertide, we are celebrating good news:   in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of sin and evil and delivered us from the way of death-- to life eternal and abundant.   We ponder what it means to live as Easter people… and what it means to live in the ways of God here and now, in a world where hunger, poverty, poor health, fear, violence, and injustice are daily realities for many of God’s people.  And today, especially, we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.

The text of the first hymn we sang this morning, “The Canticle of the Sun,”  was composed by St. Francis of Assisi.  Francis is known as one of the earliest Christian environmentalist and the patron saint of ecology.  Those of you who were in our book group a few years ago, Chasing Francis, may remember one of the characters saying the Francis “was a nature mystic.  His love for the earth shaped his whole theology…. Franciscans call it a spirituality of creation.”[1]
St. Francis believed everything we see in creation is a reflection of the Creator-- just as we are.  He treated everything in creation as if it were his brother or sister, because we all have the same parent.
For Francis, the world was a prayer book where the footprints of God,[2] could be found everywhere. 

When you ask people about God—and where they feel close to God—for many people one of their first responses would be “Nature.”
I know that I feel close to God when I work in the garden, working with God to cultivate my vegetable crops and planting  flowers to create a place of beauty.    I find joy in sharing a place on earth with Sister Robin and Brother Monarch Butterfly.
But for many of us, even those who feel close to God in nature, there’s a disconnect.   Susan Andrews puts it this way:  “If God is in Nature, if God is the designer of the complexity and intricacy and inter-dependability of Nature, then shouldn’t we honor and worship and glorify this God by protecting that same natural world?  And yet only 50% of Presbyterians consider themselves environmentalists… and only 51% of us have ever voted for a candidate based on his or her environmental positions.  It seems that we ‘discover’ God in nature, but then ignore God when we are called to put the well-being of nature before our own personal agenda.”[3]
In the Sufi tradition of Islam, there’s a story that tells of a priest who walks into an empty sanctuary and finds a young man sitting in a chair, with his feet propped up on the communion table.  “Take your feet off that table.  That is a holy table!”
“Where shall I put them?” asked the young man.[4]
In other words, where should he put his feet that wasn’t holy?

In an ancient story in the Hebrew scriptures, Moses is minding his father-in-law’s flocks in the wilderness beneath Mount Horeb when he encounters an angel of the Lord who appears in a flame from a bush that is burning but not being consumed.
Moses hears the voice of God instructing him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the ground you are standing on is holy ground.”
The ground on which Moses was standing was wilderness.  The name of the mountain, “Horeb,” simply means “wasteland.”  There was no sanctuary there, no religious shrine, nothing to make it seem extraordinary in any way.  And yet it was “holy ground.”  So I hope that, during Earth Week, we’ll all think and pray about what  makes ground “holy.” 
We can argue about the politics of environmental justice.  There are those who see the environment as another aspect of the “culture wars,”  who would like to label and dismiss people who care about the environment as “liberal” or “tree huggers” or “naïve,” and who say it’s about being “politically correct.” 
But those of us who call ourselves Christians need to take seriously what our faith says about Creation.
The Bible is a powerful witness to the sovereignty and providence and creativity of God—the Holy One who is the Source of all life.   In Psalm 104, which we read responsively today, we have an amazing picture of Creation as the work of God’s love, in which each part is inextricably bound with each other part.  Everything is both dependent on and responsible for every other part. 
Human beings don’t even show up in this psalm until verse 14, and then our role is limited.  We are described as one of the creatures that receives bounty—bread and wine to gladden our hearts, and oil to make our faces shine.  The only other place we show up is toward the end, where the only appropriate response to the wonder of creation is described.  We are to sing praises… to meditate on the exquisite gift of creation…  and to rejoice in God’s abundant providing. 

In Genesis chapter one, the scriptures tell us that when God created the world, God blessed it and called it very good.[5]  God is revealed through the beauty, power, abundance, and mystery of the natural world.  Through wind and flame, water and wilderness, creatures and seasons, God is continually present and active in the world.
Human beings are endowed with reason   and given the responsibility to celebrate and care for Creation.  God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam in Genesis 2:15:  to care for the earth.  Cultivate” and “protect” it.”
Over the years, we allowed the biblical texts to be twisted so that “dominion” came to mean “domination,”    and stewardship came to mean “exploitation.” 
Too many Christians think that we are the center of the universe   and have twisted the gospel of Jesus Christ to mean that God is only interested in saving individual human souls--  rather than all of creation. 

Sociologists like Robert Bellah and theologians like Sally McFague keep reminding us of the degree to which the strong sense of community and the priority of  “the common good” that was foundational in the biblical and republican traditions are no longer shaping life in our society today.   McFague says that, although we continue to live in communities, our motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is usually interpreted these days in personal, individualistic ways, as, for instance, the right to carry a gun or the right to do as you choose, rather than our responsibilities for the welfare of the community.[6]

We don’t all agree on the environmental problem, or the scope or cause of the problem, much less the solution.  But there seems to be a growing consensus that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.

When it comes to the environment, we need an alternative worldview.  We need alternative, faithful ways to know our place in Creation that are not naïve or simplistic.  For instance, recycling is a good thing to do, but efforts by individual and volunteer organizations to recycle will not save the planet. 
As one of my colleagues has said, the issue is too global,  too political,  too economically driven to be resolved by personal piety or individual good intentions.  The issue is ultimately theological—a matter of faith—because it raises the question, “Who owns this place?”[7]  
As persons of faith and as a faith community, our task is to imagine how the world would look if God really is ruling, and then to implement that vision—put it into action.
Theologian Robert Costanza states the challenge this way:  “The creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all humanity, to other species, and to future generations.”[8]
The key elements here are sustainability and justice.  Sustainability is about recognizing that the earth’s resources are not unlimited, and that any global life-style created on the model of American consumption is suicidal.  Justice demands that we recognize the huge gap—which widens every year—between the haves and have-nots of the earth.

Sally McFague observes that the Greek word for “house” is oikos, which is the root word for “economics” … for “ecology”  …and for “ecumenicity.”   Thus she suggests that caring for the earth is simply a matter of household economics, which leads her to offer three simple rules for our global household.
The first rule, as in any household, is take only your share.  All the cookies are not for you.    My share-- as your share-- is what is needed for a decent life:  food, shelter, medical care, and education.  There is enough for all--  if everybody would share.
Second, clean up after yourself.  The ring in the bathtub is yours.  That’s simple fairness. 
The third rule is:  keep the house in good repair for the children and grandchildren who will come after you.
Take only your share, clean up your own mess, and keep the house in good repair.   It’s a simple vision on a global scale.
But we can’t be simplistic and think this can happen through our good intentions as individuals.  We need a renewed worldview--  because the current one is not working. 
We need a world in which nations have the humility to confer and compromise...  and to sign and honor treaties to work together for global cooperation to work together on environmental and justice issues.  We need national leaders who have a vision for the common good-- in their own nations and beyond their borders…  and who are courageous enough to risk their political popularity for the promise of a viable global future.  We need economists and business leaders who are smart enough to know that it takes more than money to create a harmonious global household. 
We need faith communities—people like us—who know the earth is the Lord’s and that all the earth is holy ground.  We need to commit ourselves to living and proclaiming that alternative vision to our communities and the world.

We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   We know that we can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we need to unmask idolatries and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace, for the welfare of all.
So… let us commit ourselves to live more lightly and faithfully on this holy ground, and to care for the earth as a way of worshipping and serving our gracious Creator God!
May it be so for you and for me.

[1] Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (NavPress, 2006), p. 75.
[2] “Vestigia Dei”
[3] Ibid., p. 2
[4] Quoted by P.C. Enniss in “Holy Ground” at

[5] Genesis 1:1-31
[6] Sally McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress, 2001).

[7] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground,” in

[8] Robert Costanza et al, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (1979), quoted in Sallie McFague, Life Abundant.

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