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Sunday, April 28, 2019
Scripture: Deuteronomy 33:13-16a & John 3:16
Rev. Dr. Riley Jensen
Never before! Not in 2000 years of trying to say what we believe about the sovereignty of God over all of life have the confessions of the Church included such a clear statement about our responsibility for God’s created world. Not one of them! Not Heidelberg or Westminster! Not even our efforts to be more contemporary through Barmen or The Confession of 1967! We have gone through more than 2000 years of church history before stating what we believe about our environmental responsibility.
Now the cynics among us might say that never has our environmental lobby been so powerful. And it is true that we are more aware than ever before that Planet Earth is our home, and that its life cycle is sustained by fragile interconnected ecosystems that must be respected and maintained. Therefore, the most recent Confession of our Presbyterian Church, added to our Book of Confessions in 1990 contains these strong words of admission and confession: “We exploit …nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.”
There are some who will read those words and say, “There they go again, captured by the latest cultural fad, taking a detour from the narrow road to salvation onto the broad road of accommodation. It is true! Today is Earth Sunday on the national calendar, but it is also Eastertide on the liturgical calendar. Because of the resurrection, we affirm the sovereignty of God over all of life, and so our concern and our discipleship extend to the responsibility our God has given us over the created order.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There it is – the Gospel in a sound bite! That’s all we need to know and the rest is commentary, but I would suggest that somewhere along the line the commentary has led us astray.
Perhaps you learned and memorized John 3:16 as I did, as a quick and easy formula for getting to heaven. But in doing so we have often overlooked the importance of those first five words: “God so loved… THE WORLD.” It is worth noting that the Greek translation of “world” here is “cosmos”, meaning the whole created order, not just humankind. You see, the coming of Christ emerged from God’s love for the world, not God’s love for a new world, a perfect world, or even a redeemed world, but the world as it was and is. Therefore, belief in Christ is thus dependent on belief in the inherent goodness, precious value, and lovability of the whole of the created order.
Furthermore, this good world having been formed into being by the hand of God is the kind of world that evokes awe, and wonder, and reverence. It is the kind of world the Psalmist extols with breathless adulation,
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them…?
Now I will admit that we preachers have often given the world of nature short shrift. We have made jokes about people worshiping God on a golf course or getting high on a mountain top instead of being in church filling up our pews. To the extent that we have done that we have played into an either/or dualism that has left the impression that our salvation has nothing to do with the natural order of things when in fact the two are bound up together. God wills not only the salvation of the individual but also the redemption of the world.
God loves the world, the cosmos. God created it and called it good. As someone said, “God don’t make no crummy stuff!” Years ago I used to take high school groups back-packing in the high Cascades and Olympics of the Pacific Northwest. It was the easiest evangelism I ever did. It is practically impossible not to believe in God when hiking through a high mountain meadow, or drinking from a clear running stream, or viewing spectacular vistas from an eight thousand foot ridge, or singing “How Great Thou Art” by a campfire above a mountain lake.
However, it also became increasingly evident over seventeen years of such experiences that what God had created human beings were spoiling. It became hard to find a mountain trail that did not at some point pass through acres of lumber company clear-cuts; no longer were campfires permitted because hundreds of thousands of campers had scavengered the underbrush and had begun scarring the forests themselves; and then there was the water which even in the highest streams needed a cleansing pellet before it was considered safe for drinking.
II. God Entrusts the World to Us
Now on this particular issue I expect that I am preaching pretty much to the choir. There are probably more practicing conservationists per square mile in West Michigan than in most parts of the country. We are extremely aware of the natural beauty around us. We value it and we want to protect it. But we also live in a world and have been raised in a church in which we have either been taught or assumed a mistaken biblical morality – that the world was made for human beings and not human beings for the world.
Of course, I speak of a domination theology which has seeped into our economic assumptions – that the world exists only for our pleasure and our profit. Therefore, if it will benefit us, if it will create jobs, if it will raise our standard of living, if it will permit us to drive bigger faster cars then let the rain forests be ravaged, let the oil slopes be drilled, let the wildlife be decimated, let the ozone layer be threatened because the world exists for me and mine, us four and no more.
In fact from a Judaeo-Christian point of view,the Bible begins and ends on a note of conservation. The Book of Genesis talks about God giving creation a final blessing by saying to the humans that have been placed here, “Be fruitful, fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that moves on the earth.” The problem is we think being fruitful means we can overpopulate, that subduing the earth means we can trample and waste it, and that having dominion means we can rule creation according to our selfish and shortsighted whims.
At the end of a literary trek through sixty-six books and thousands of years of human struggle, the Bible ends with the Book of Revelation promising a new heaven and a new earth…The vision of the writer of Revelation brings heaven and earth together, making them one by the indwelling presence of God, who frees us from sorrow and is with us forever.
And so,where are we now? We are somewhere between those two gardens, the Garden of Alpha where life began, and the Garden of Omega where life is renewed and the earth and its creatures are healed. But in this in-between place we have become vulnerable to a misunderstanding of the Bible. Our present crisis requires that we reread and understand the Bible in the light of God’s ongoing work of creation which requires our participation.
The Bible calls us to be stewards of the earth. We humans do not own the world or any part of it. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” said the psalmist. The early writer of Leviticus heard God saying, “The land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.” We humans are guests and stewards here, not owners.
There is no question that such a sense of being stewards entrusted with God’s creation is the biblical charge and responsibility given to us, but something went wrong when we memorized John 3:16 and taught it to our children. We became preoccupied with our individual salvation, and forgot that if there is any priority in that verse at all, it begins with the world and not us. The world is not separate from us. It is part of us and our salvation. It is because God loved the world that God gave us Jesus. And the life we are given through Christ is bound up with that world.
In the book, Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, Leopold, an early environmentalist argues that all of our efforts to live together as fellow human beings may come to naught unless we all begin to understand that our lives are sustained by the whole of the natural order. He describes our existence as a pyramid, what he calls a pyramid of life. Leopold certainly sees human beings as the peak of the pyramid, but the peak is resting on a large and complex base of living and non-living things that, woven together, form the basis for all human life. Without that base, he argues, the pyramid collapses and we all disappear.
III. Our Response is Thank You
I can’t imagine any of you disagreeing with anything that I have said this morning. On second thought, knowing you as I do, I can imagine it but that is not the issue – agreement with the limited logic of one person. The larger issue is “what will our response be to God’s love for the world. It was the fifteenth century mystic, Meister Eckhart who said, “If the only prayer you could say in your whole life is ‘Thank You’ that would suffice.”
And that’s it! That’s the response God is looking for. I submit that the very first response God is looking for is “thank you.” When there is that attitude of gratitude we will begin to look at God’s creation in a new way, and act differently in our stewardship of it.
As contemporary religion has sought to take more seriously the world that God created and loves, a movement called “Creation Spirituality” has sprung up. It seeks to show that in the Gospels and in the teaching of Jesus is a natured based wisdom and spirituality which asks the question, “Where is the holy?” “Where do we go to find God in our world?” “Where is that place where our worship comes alive because the presence of God is obviously there?”
Where and what is that holy place for you? Traditional Christianity has nurtured the idea that the only holy place is the church. We think of the church building as God’s house. But this idea is wildly incompatible with what Jesus taught, that God is present in all places to hear our prayers and accept our worship. Solomon knew after he had built the Temple that it was not and never could be the only dwelling place for God, for he said, “Behold, heaven and the highest heavens cannot contain thee, how much less this house that I have built.” Years later, Paul preaching in Athens, said, “God that made the world and all living things dwells not in temples made with hands.” God lives in the heart of all creation.
It was the poet John Wright who reminded us, “Let the trees be consulted before you take any action, and every time you breathe in, thank a tree.” The truth is that we have not often said thank you to a tree or had the kind of reverence toward the environment which would evoke such gratitude. This is not because we are hostile to our created world or even that we do not value it, it is just that we have been lazy stewards. Ours has not been malicious intent it has just been carelessness.
It is so appropriate for us to recognize Earth Day within the context of worship as we remember that God so loved the world. As we think about the crisis of our environment we need to know that this is a spiritual crisis. For something will have gone out of us as a people if we do not love and protect creation, and that something will be our soul. Christianity has talked a lot about “saving souls” and now we need to realize that saving our world is about saving souls – our souls.
John Muir, the naturalist, said that when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. We live in a web of unity. All of the world is full of the glory of God – May we know it; May we protect it; May we give thanks for it!