Featured on the blog this week is an Earth Day Sermon given by Rev. Paul Slentz at Edgehill UMC in Nashville on April 24th. It’s titled, “Care for Creation: Give Praise and Thanks; Take Delight; Share; Protect.”
Care for God’s good creation is something I have felt strongly about my whole life. And above anyone else, I have my parents to thank for that. From as early as I can remember, my mom and dad took my brother, my three sisters, and me places where we could immerse ourselves in the wonders of nature. Some of my most cherished memories center around vacations to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. There I not only saw the beauty of the natural world, but I also saw its grandeur. The towering peaks in the crystal blue skies gave me a tremendous sense of awe. And from the beginning, both through the teachings of my parents and probably from some deep soul place that is in us all, I connected all that wonder to the Creator.
And while a deep sense of awe before God’s creation was being instilled in me, so also was the teaching that I had a responsibility to care for it. One of my earliest memories in this regard is walking in our suburban Kansas City neighborhood with my mother when I was quite young and seeing a robin that was clearly very sick. My mom explained that the yard where we saw the robin had been sprayed with chemicals, that those chemicals had then gotten into worms in the earth, and that when the robin ate those worms it had become sick. She then went on to say that that was why we didn’t use any weed killers in our yard and instead picked the weeds by hand. I learned two things from that early lesson. First, things we put into the environment can poison the wonderful creatures that share this world with us. And second, we can and should take actions to keep that from happening.
So these things, a deep sense of the wonder of creation and a clear understanding of the importance of care for that creation are things I’ve had inside me from a very early age. And so this morning, I want to share with you a framework that is helpful to me as I think about the importance of care for the earth from the perspective of faith, and that I hope you will find helpful as well. And that framework is this: The earth is a priceless gift from God and we have a special vocation to care for it. Therefore, a faithful response is to do the following four things: First, give God praise and thanks for the gift. Second, delight in the gift. Third, share it with other humans and with all other creatures. And fourth, protect the gift from harm. So, those four things: Give Praise and Thanks; Take Delight; Share; and Protect.
First then, as people of faith, we should always remember to praise and give thanks to the Creator of this wonderful earth. As I get older, this praise and thanks giving for creation is becoming more spontaneous for me. More and more often now, when I walk outside and am greeted by a bright red cardinal singing its heart out, or I glance up and spy a red-tailed hawk wheeling across the sky, or stand transfixed by a spectacularly beautiful sunset, I find myself saying (often silently but sometimes right out loud), “Thank you, God.” I’m guessing that many of you do the same thing. The writer of Psalm 104’s soul was bursting in just such a way, when he or she wrote: “Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. . . . . You make the clouds your chariot; you ride on the wings of the wind . . . .” And then the psalmist, after many verses of praise for particular parts of creation just read by Nancy, ends by writing: “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” And one of my favorite modern expressions of thanksgiving to God for the wonder of creation is that of ee cummings:
I thank You God for most this amazing
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;
and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes (i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;
this is the birth day of life and of love and wings:
and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any–lifted from the no of all nothing–human merely being doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
So, this is the first thing: we are to always give praise and thanks to God for the gift of creation.
The second is closely related to the first, but I think different enough to separate out and that is “to take delight” in the gift of creation. I think this point might be especially relevant for serious-minded Edgehill folk. I believe it will help us to be better care takers of the earth for the long-haul, if we make sure that we delight in its wonders along the way. Environmentalist Naomi Klein writes in her book, “This Changes Everything,” that she had gotten to the point where she could not enjoy being in the midst of nature’s wonders because it always put her in mind of the threats to them. But she came to recognize at some point that she could not live continually with that sadness and that it was okay to relish earth’s marvels while fighting to preserve them — and even to bring a baby into this beautiful though imperiled world. Rachel Carson, author of the sobering book Silent Spring, and mother of the modern environmental movement, also recognizes the essential connection between delight in and care for the earth when she writes, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout all life.” So, “taking delight” in God’s good gift is the second thing.
Third, we are to share the earth with all our fellow creatures, human as well as all other living things. We are, of course, familiar with God’s call upon us to share the goodness of creation with our fellow human beings. That is part and parcel of what it means to “love our neighbors.” And love of neighbor in this context of care for creation reminds us that it is the poor who are impacted most severely by harm to the earth. More often than not hazardous chemicals, waste dumps, and the like are placed in low-income communities. It is no accident that huge gasoline storage tanks were located in the formerly low-income Nations neighborhood where the church I served for eighteen years, Sixty-First Avenue, is located, and that the city dump for years was in the neighboring mostly African-American community of Bordeaux. And this is even more the case in developing nations and in the lands of indigenous peoples, where the inhabitants have been poisoned as large corporations extract oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, and other minerals for the gross consumption habits of us in the first world.
And it is important that we understand that there are many third world people who have been and are currently being treated harshly and even killed as they have tried, sometimes successfully but often not, to defend the land and water that is life itself to them. Most recently on April 5, four people who were protesting the building of two coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh were killed by police. The plants, if built, will force the eviction of several thousand people in a fertile coastal farming area. News of these very poor and relatively powerless people risking all should serve as a motivation for us to do more. The bible’s call to “love our neighbor” most definitely means sharing God’s good creation with those Jesus called “the least of these.”
The Bible has less to say explicitly about sharing with the rest of creation, what some have begun calling “the new poor.” But there are scripture passages which show that God provides for the wellbeing of all creatures and that we, therefore, should as well. Again from Psalm 104 we read: “You make the springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal . . . . By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.” After describing many other creatures provided for, the writer concludes, “These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.” And so, if God provides for all living things, we too should share the earth with them.
One final but absolutely essential note on sharing creation: This must not only be across species, it must also be across time. Our sharing must be with our children’s children’s children, and, of course with the offspring of all creatures. The old expression says it well: We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
Fourth and finally, all of this means that we have a sacred responsibility to protect the earth from harm. I have come to believe that this is one of the great callings of our time as people of faith. It is painfully clear that God’s good earth is being harmed terribly by human greed and carelessness. In spite of claims made by some based on ideology rather than facts, overwhelming scientific evidence shows that the burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming. This is having increasingly devastating consequences to vulnerable people throughout the world and to millions of plant and animal species that cannot adjust to rapid climate change. The insatiable consumption of electricity in this country and throughout the world has created a huge demand for coal, leading to the practice of destroying whole mountains to get at it, ruining habitat and making ugly scars on the earth. Overfishing of our oceans has led to steep drops in fish populations, which has in turn negatively affected the great and marvelous sea mammals. The list goes on and on. The earth is under attack and humankind is the attacker.
And yet, there is much to be hopeful about because there is also a growing global movement that is acting to preserve creation. The UN Climate Change Agreement reached in Paris last December and signed this past Friday put close to two hundred nations on record to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the International Renewable Energy Agency reported earlier this month that use of renewables like wind and solar grew by over 8% in 2015, the fastest pace ever. Because of efforts by those who love God’s earth, the air in our cities and the waters in our rivers are cleaner now than they were fifty years ago. The Endangered Species Act has helped bring many creatures back from the verge of extinction. And efforts are underway to plant hundreds of millions of trees to begin restoring forests.
Advocacy organizations, like the Sierra Club, Green Peace, and now many faith-based groups, are organizing for earth care legislation and working to elect people who will pass that legislation. Locally, several of us from the Nashville District Creation Care Ministry and Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light, along with people from secular environmental groups, have testified at TVA Board meetings, strongly urging them to shift more quickly away from dirty carbon-based sources of energy production to clean renewable ones. We have also been pushing TVA (and will be pushing NES) to put more resources to helping lower-income households increase the energy efficiency in their homes, which will result in lower energy bills for people living on the edge financially as well as create less greenhouse gas emissions.
The morning of Saturday, May 14, this church will be coordinating with Calvary and West End UMCs for a major recycling day at West End. And the Nashville District Creation Creation Care Ministry will be leading a large recycling effort at Annual Conference this year. And, by the way, we need volunteers for both of those events. And while those efforts are going on at the levels of organizations and governments, each of us as individuals can make choices that show our faithful dedication to care for the earth. The way we live our lives each day can lessen our harmful impact and give us daily reminders of the fight for creation. Making sure that we turn lights out when we leave a room can help cut down on mountain top removal in West Virginia coal country. Planning our days more carefully so we don’t make so many trips in our cars can reduce our carbon footprint. What we eat can make a big difference too. Eating locally produced foods whenever possible means less carbon dioxide is sent into the air in getting those foods to our markets. And eating more vegetables and less meat, especially beef, will help reduce the number of trees cut down around the world to create cattle pastures as well as reduce the greenhouse gas, methane. Every day choices by all of us can make a big difference. The old expression many of us first heard decades ago applies now more than ever: “Live simply, that others may simply live.” We can protect God’s good earth.
Well, to wrap things up, let me simply state the main points again. The earth is a priceless gift from God and we have a special vocation to care for it. And so, we give God praise and thanks for the gift. We delight in the gift. We share it with other humans and with all other creatures. And we protect the gift from harm. So, those four things: Give Praise and Thanks; Take delight; Share; and Protect. This is our calling. May God give us the courage to fulfill it. Amen.