An Earth Day Sermon
by Steven Whitney; Texts: Genesis 2:15, 9:8-11 and Job 12:10, 38:1-7
by Steven Whitney, preached at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Earth Day Sunday, April 21, 1996.
Texts: Genesis 2:15, 9:8-11 and Job 12:10, 38:1-7
Good morning! Happy Earth Day! And thanks be to God for this opportunity to reflect on the goodness of the creation and on our role in its stewardship.
As you may have read in the Messenger, I am a professional environmentalist. I work to protect, among other things, the forests of this great land which John Muir once described as the finest God ever planted. My work has enabled me to do many things -- I've given plenty of speeches -- but this is my first sermon. And, to tell you the truth, its a little scary. Speaking from the head is easy. Speaking from the heart is harder to do -- at least for me.
So I think I'll begin with a true story. Last Tuesday afternoon, I took some time off, and knowing these remarks would require a little thought, I gathered up a Bible and some other materials and walked down the street to our local pub for a cool micro-brew and a sandwich. Needless to say, the waitress was a little surprised at my choice of reading materials, so I explained what I was doing and then I asked her if she thought it was improper to write a sermon while sitting in a tavern. She replied by asking where I went to church. When I said "St. Stephen's Episcopal" she chuckled and said "Oh, don't worry about it, they've all been here."
And she may be right, and that's OK. Because, unlike some other religious traditions, those of us in the Anglican tradition openly celebrate God's creation in all of its manifestations. The forests that blanket the landscape, the clear water that flows from the mountains, the bald eagles and killer whales, the flowering shrubs that paint our neighborhoods with flashes of pink and yellow, the diversity of human life, and yes, even the hops for my beer last Tuesday afternoon. For all that we have, and all that we are, we owe thanks to God.
Christians five centuries ago knew this well. They set aside a few days a year during planting time, Rogation Days, to offer their thanksgivings and to ask for the Lord's blessing on their fields and crops. Today's readings from that Rogation Day tradition are pretty clear about who is the Creator. Did you hear what God said to Job from the whirlwind? "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?" Of course, you and I know the answer, its right there on page one of the bible -God created heaven and earth and said it was good. And, although in the Christian tradition the human role in God's world is unique among the animals, man and woman are not creators, they are merely a part of the Creation -- placed in the garden by God. Job learned that lesson the hard way.
But our Rogation Day readings for today don't stop with this reaffirmation of God as Creator. They go on to affirm that God not only created the earth and all that is upon it, but that Creation belongs to God - the land, the water, the animals, the air, the "riches" -- all God's. This is emphasized by way of the parable from Luke about the rich man who has accumulated so many worldly goods that he must build a bigger barn to contain them all. God's response is to call the rich man a fool and declare, "This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" We know the answer to that one too.
So from the readings we know that God is the creator and that creation belongs to God. But it's the collect that gives us some insight into the role of humanity in the context of Creation. It begins by saying to the Lord . your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature . . Notice it doesn't limit the statement to creatures that provide us with food, or those that are commercially valuable. It is unequivocal. It says every living creature.
When I first read today's collect, I was reminded of the story from the Jewish tradition when Noah is loading the Ark with the Camels and water buffalos and the goats, when up the ramp comes a pair of tiny little gnats. According to the story, Noah turned to God and said , "You want me to save the gnats? Of what possible value could they be?" And God replied "Yes Noah, save the gnats. They hold many secrets you may never know."
In fact, it is the Noah story where the bible is quite clear that God's covenant was established not just with people, but with all of creation. God said to Noah and his sons, "I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth." Have you seen the rainbows over Seattle during the past few weeks? They truly have been amazing. No one who has seen them can possible doubt God's resolve to uphold his covenant with the Earth.
But what about us? I wonder what God thinks of our modern attitudes toward the diversity of life, where value is measured not in terms of the secrets the creatures may hold, but in dollars and cents. We treat the earth like an ark in reverse. Rather than march the animals two by two up the ramp of survival, we march them faster and faster down the gang-plank of extinction. "They are taking our property rights" we say, "just to save the spotted owl or the wild salmon." But I think we need to start asking ourselves the question, whose property is it, really? And, on whose authority do we use our private land to the detriment of God's creation?"
Which brings us back to the collect for today and our request that God "grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts..." Faithful stewards. . . What does it mean to be a faithful steward of God's creation? Good question. Fortunately the bible provides guidance -- the first reference right in Genesis 2 when God placed the human creature in the garden "to till it and keep it." Clearly this direction from God means we have the authority, if not the responsibility, to till the Earth in order to make its productive powers flourish. But does this mean we are to till all of it? I don't think so, because we also have the obligation to "keep it" which means to sustain it, conserve it, perpetuate it -- to "keep" the Earth by protecting its God created life systems and life forms. And, let's not forget the rainbow -- God's covenant with creation and with all of the world's creatures. "Till it" yes, but know when to stop.
In the modern age, of course, "when to stop" is usually a political call. And the world of environmental politics can be complicated and frustrating. In conservation work it is often said that all victories are temporary and all defeats permanent. And most of the time it's true. Yet, despite the frustrations, and the fact that it seems I work twice as hard for half as much money - I wouldn't give it up for anything.
Years ago I was fond of saying that environmental work is a lot like working for the Church. Only back then I had no idea how true that statement really was. You see I didn't find my way to church until 1986 after my first daughter was born, and long after my career was underway. At first, I pretty much just went through the motions, until one Sunday something clicked. I remember the sermon vividly. It was on the subject of intergenerational responsibility and was illustrated by reference to the environment and our obligation as Christians to care for creation. That was the first day I remember really hearing a lesson. It made sense to me. It was relevant to the world today. It was important. And, it came right from the bible. Since then, I've heard a green message almost every Sunday.
I used to defend my decision not to attend church by saying that I always felt more spiritual on a mountaintop than in a building. But while that was true, it hardly justified living a life without God. I was missing the point. The point is, God speaks to me through the mountains -- always has. It just took me awhile to learn how to listen. For me, and perhaps for you, nature is the ultimate tangible manifestation of God in our midst. And, I have come to learn that somewhere deep in that knowledge lies the basic motivation for my life's work. Like the little gnats in the Noah story, there remain many secrets I may never know -- this spiritual journey is still more mystery to me than understanding. But day by day, one step at a time, with God's help, the understanding grows.
Let us pray.
Lord, we thank you for this opportunity to reflect on your creation, your covenant with all living things, and our obligation to be good stewards of the gifts you have provided. Help us to understand that each of us has an important role in Caring for Creation, by the choices we make and by the actions we take. Give us the wisdom to choose thoughtfully, and to act with care, in accordance with your will, and your love of this good Earth, our island home.
Happy Earth Day -- Amen