September 5, 2021 Rev. Beckie Sweet
In her book, Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on her decision to leave the life of a parish priest in the Episcopal church for a new life of teaching and writing. The move involved finding a new place to live. For the first time in their lives, she and her husband were looking for property to buy—in the Georgia countryside. His requirement was running water. Hers was being not more than ten miles from town. When they found just the right spot, with oak trees and trillium and elderberry, persimmon and blackberry and milkweed and water, she says, “I found my place on earth.” And then, as she does so exquisitely, she reflects theologically.
I know plenty of people who find God most reliably in books, in buildings, and even in other people. I have found God in all of these places too, but the most reliable meeting place for me has always been the creation. I have always known where to go when my own flame was guttering. To lie with my back flat on the fragrant ground is to receive a transfusion of that same power that makes the green blade rise. To remember that I am dirt and to dirt I shall return is to be given my life back again. Where other people see acreage, timber and soil, and river frontage, I see God’s body. . . . The Creator does not live apart from creation . . . When I take a breath, God’s Holy Spirit enters me. (pp. 79–80)
When I read that, it triggered a long-forgotten memory. The summer I directed Sr. High Camp at Sky Lake, we started each day with Morning Watch. After a noisy, chaotic breakfast in the large, over-crowded dining hall, campers returned to their cabins to retrieve Bibles and their Morning Watch devotional guide. They were told to find a spot somewhere on the grounds, where they could sit — not close to, but within sight of their counselor — to observe a fifteen-minute vigil of silence and to read the Bible passage for the day, the brief devotional meditation and prayer. At the beginning of the week, most of the campers hated that ritual. But during Evening Vespers, when a few of the campers would report their “God Sightings” for that day, Jonathan shared his journey during Morning Watch like this:
“On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I could read the Bible passage, meditation, and prayer in about a minute and then be bored to tears for the next fourteen. And then today, I was sitting on the ground with my back to a tree, being bored to death, thinking about lunch and hiking and swimming, and for some reason I lay back on the ground and looked up. What I saw amazed me, a sight like nothing I had ever seen before. The trees were white pine, red pine, hemlock. The whole place smelled like pine. Looking up into the spreading branches of these tall trees, stunned me. Try it sometime. Find a tree, lie down underneath it, and look up. I wasn’t such a big deal in God’s creation after all. These trees were towering above me. I could see, and smell, and feel God in those trees!” Jonathan was amazed by God’s creation!
Wendell Berry, as good poets do, finds words to capture deep human experience:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.
Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place
“The heavens are announcing God’s glory,” the psalmist wrote three millennia ago. “The firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” Creation, in all its mystery and majesty, in all its fearful power and intricate beauty, tells us something of the creator. God is revealed in nature.
God’s good creation is holy. God’s good creation contains within itself the very essence of God. You can see God, meet God, in creation.
Furthermore, in Psalm 24 the psalmist proclaims, creation belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” It isn’t ours. It doesn’t belong to us. The earth, creation, belongs to God. We are guests—temporary guests, at that. And part of why we are here is to manage the place, to be stewards of God’s creation. In fact, that may be our highest calling, our holiest vocation, to manage God’s creation.
Wendell Berry, whose poetry I quoted, is also an essayist and novelist, who farms in rural Kentucky. He is not happy with what has happened and is happening to the earth and the air and the water. He is not happy with the way agribusiness and industry treat the creation.
In a speech he made 15 years ago, he said:
Jesus thought he was living in a holy world. . . . Much of the action and talk of the Gospels takes place outdoors: on mountainsides, lakeshores, riverbanks, in fields and pastures, places populated not only by humans but by animals and plants. And these nonhuman creatures, sheep and lilies and birds, are always represented as worthy of, or as flourishing within, the love and care of God. (The Way of Ignorance, p. 135)
When he wanted to make a point about God’s providential care, Jesus said, “Look at the birds: they neither sow nor reap.” When Jesus wanted to convince the disciples to stop worrying so much about their lives and who need to trust God’s goodness and mercy, Jesus said, “Consider the lilies, they neither toil nor spin, and yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” This is a bit of advice certainly relevant for people like us who spend much time worrying and being anxious about our lives,
Now, a sermon on God in nature could become an exercise in sentimentality or New Age spirituality except for the fact that the way we are treating the earth has caused a major crisis—some scientists think a life-and-death crisis. The environmental crisis is, many are now saying, one of the greatest moral issues of our time. And so, while this is about your own experience of God in the sacredness of nature, it is also about our responsibility for managing the universe in a way that will be life giving and life sustaining for our children and our grandchildren and for all who will come after us. And on that score, we’re not doing very well.
Wendell Berry remembers in an essay that in his childhood, “people in my part of the world drank fearlessly from springs and wells and swam without anxiety in whatever water was deep enough. . . . Now we know that water pollution is only a part of a package that includes air pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, urban sprawl, and other symptoms of a general disregard for the world’s life and health” (The Way of Ignorance, p. 69).
For decades, environmentalists who have struggled to be taken seriousl were dismissed in the political arena as liberal tree-huggers and challenged by scientists paid by industry to prove that fossil fuels are not harmful. Environmentalists, backed by hard science, have fought the good and lonely fight. And now, finally, nearly everyone acknowledges that the environmentalists were right all along. We’re in trouble environmentally.
In a special cover article on global warming, Time magazine observed:
from heat waves to storms to floods to fires to massive glacial melts, the global climate seems to be crashing around us. . . Scientists have been warning us for decades . . . about pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. . . . Environmentalists and industrialists spent years shouting at one another about whether the grim forecasts were true. Now the serious debate has ended. Global warming is the real deal and human activity has been causing it. (3 April 2006)
So it’s time to pay attention. It’s time for people of faith, people who believe in the Bible and the Judeo-Christian teachings, to acknowledge what has happened, to understand and accept stewardship of God’s creation, or the lack thereof, as a moral issue. We must change the way we think and make personal adjustments and decisions appropriate to our faith for the preservation of God’s creation.
I like to remember that Jesus knew the psalms and probably had committed most of them to memory. I like the thought that when he looked up into the night sky, the same words came to him as come to me—“The heavens are announcing God’s glory.” And that when he walked by the lakeside in the early evening and greeted the fishermen, or when he walked by a field ripe with grain, or when he sipped good wine, ate honest bread, bit into a sweet, delicious fruit, or when he saw a precious newborn, the words that came to him were, “The earth is the Lord’s & all that is in it.”
We thank you, O God, for this amazing world:
for green trees reaching into your blue sky;
for everything that is natural, holy, earthy, real;
for birthing and growing and living and dying;
for people to love and cherish.
For those who work to sustain and protect it all, we give you thanks.
And for the one whose whole life in this world—
birth, life, death and resurrection—
points to you and your love, we give you thanks. Amen.