Proper 22 – 10-6–2019 – St. Paul’s
Many a morning as Susan and I are walking our dogs, we are privileged to hear the dawn chorus. Have you ever felt your heart rise in a throbbing ovation as the birds of the air form an orchestra of glory and voice creation’s praise?
Fifty-seven ago the conservationist Rachel Carson published a book entitled Silent Spring. Carson pointed out the way pesticides were coming to dominate agriculture, and were damaging not only birds and animals, but also humans. Just imagine, she said, a spring in which no birds sang: it would be a silent spring. And if that spring lies in the not-too-distant future for the birds, how long before humanity meets the same fate? First there will be a silent spring; eventually, there will be no spring at all. How long before what Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations the morning: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 is credited with the beginnings of the modern environmental movement. Whose young spokes person, Greta Thunberg and the youth of the world have taken up the concerns from 57 years ago. And Carson’s book marks a suitable emblem for ecological concerns, because it synthesizes the four dimensions that have characterized the movement ever since.
The first is the urgent sense of human catastrophe. Ecological concerns, such as those raised by Rachel Carson, have a wide following, but what makes them a focus of universal anxiety is the claim that they threaten to diminish human flourishing in the immediate term and terminate human existence in the medium to long term. How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! That kind of threat makes the ecological movement unique in its claim on the public imagination. It’s a slow-burning version of the threat of nuclear annihilation that mesmerised people’s vision at the height of the Cold War.
The second dimension is the profound sense of grief that these environmental threats all have a human cause. This isn’t a crisis that’s coming from the outside. This is a crisis humans are bringing on themselves. I recall a conversation with an activist friend who was estranged from the church. I asked her what she so disliked about Christianity and she said the biggest thing was that the clergy were always talking about sin and it all seemed so negative and bitter and judgmental and life- destroying. I then asked her why she was so passionate about ecology and without a second thought she launched into a tirade about how people were damaging the air, the earth, and the seas, and she wanted to spend her life changing their hearts and minds and reversing the damage they’d done. I said to her, Who’s the one talking about sin now? You sound more evangelical about the environment than most clergy are about Jesus. The ecological movement may use different language, but it’s generally a lament for human participation in destroying habitats for other creatures and ourselves, and a call to repentance and a new way of living. The earth is like an oppressed and enslaved people, and ecologists are shaking their finger like Moses saying to Pharaoh Let my people go. For many environmentalists, the question of human survival is just the tip of the iceberg: what’s at stake is an economic, social, ideological and sometimes religious transformation.
The third dimension that’s found in Carson’s book and among the great majority of environmental campaigners is a sincere optimism that the ecological crisis is something that can be significantly addressed through public policy initiatives, through legislative change, regulation and prescription. The great debate in environmental circles has been between idealists who want to promote a different way of life that’s not based on a predatory relationship with the earth, sky, and seas, and the pragmatists who want to focus the movement on achievable legislative regulation. The earth is like the Titanic propelling itself toward the iceberg, and the earth’s richest nations are like the Titanic’s owners saying Faster! Faster! Of course the problem with the Titanic was not that it didn’t have a rudder, but that the captain didn’t use it. In just the same way, say the activists, it’s not too late for the earth to change course, once people accept how catastrophic our present navigation is.
But Silent Spring also represents a fourth dimension. It imagines a spring with no birdsong: no chirruping, tweeting, or crowing. In other words, it imagines the earth without a soul. This is a different kind of concern. Its question is less about the preservation of the planet and its inhabitants, including us, but more about the qualities that can’t be measured or assessed. How do you quantify the value of birdsong? How do you estimate the impoverishment of a sky without the waft of beating wings? Even if the planet can survive humanity’s prodigal path of self-destruction, will something precious, and beautiful, and irreplaceable, be lost?
Why is the ecological crisis a problem for Christians? Some would say, it isn’t a problem for Christians. Here there’s a good argument and a bad argument. The good argument is that God is God. If God has our destiny in hand, then a mere setback like the depredation of the earth isn’t an insuperable problem. Surely if we were to ruin the earth, God could just reach out and say Here’s another one I prepared earlier. This is a good argument because it puts things in perspective. It’s true that human sin can never be sufficient to divert the ultimate will and purpose of God. Our sin is never so bad that it can overshadow God’s grace. We can destroy the planet, just as we can destroy our lives and the lives of others; but we can’t destroy what God will finally make of our lives or the life of the planet. In lamenting the condition of the earth let’s not make humanity too big by exaggerating our ability to ruin everything or make God too small by forgetting that this is always a story about God that we get to play a part in, not the other way round. Christian concern for the environment can’t be about self-preservation. It must be based on something else.
Here’s the bad argument. If you say Christians hope to be with God forever; and if you say that that life is the union of our soul with the eternal Trinity; then the rest of planet earth, besides human beings, is one of three things. It could be an instrument that can bring us closer to God, through experiences of intimacy, wonder, or joy, and thus like a ladder we can kick away when it’s got us to the place we need to be. It could be a luxury, like a set of clothes, that make our earthly life more congenial, but aren’t fundamentally necessary. Or it could be a limitation that imprisons us, through entanglement, distraction, or ensnarement, like a straitjacket, that threatens to keep us from our heavenly home. If the created order is a ladder, a luxury, or a limitation, then the environmental crisis isn’t a major problem, because the earth isn’t something we fundamentally need and depend upon.
This is where the Christian view of the earth has so often gone so wrong. Where do we start if we’re going to put things right? We start where Paul started in his second letter to Timothy this morning: This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. We start where all Christian theology starts – with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why does the resurrected Jesus appear on earth at all? If our resurrected destiny is in heaven, why doesn’t Jesus go straight there? Well, see what we learn from Jesus’ brief appearance to the disciples on the first Easter evening. Jesus still has the nail marks on his hands and feet. That means his resurrected body is the same as his earthly body. Jesus is not a ghost. That means his resurrected body really is a body, and not a disembodied soul. Jesus eats broiled fish. That means the created order still has a vital part to play in his heavenly existence.
These three revelations completely overturn the suggestion that the environmental crisis is not a problem for Christians. If the resurrected Jesus is a real body, a body in the image of his earthly body, a body that interacts with the environment not just externally by moving about but by internally eating fish, then the earth cannot be just a ladder, a luxury or a limitation. It must be integral to our identity and our relationship with God.
These were the kinds of insights that led the early church to realize the full extent of what God did in the resurrection of Jesus. Resurrection doesn’t mean our souls escape the prison of the world, pausing only for harp lessons and the fitting of angelic wings before flying away to cloudy bliss with God. Resurrection means the promise that earth will come to heaven and heaven will come to earth. Every way in which earth is too flawed, finite or sinful to be embraced by heaven has been removed by Christ’s resurrection. Earth isn’t a ladder, a luxury or a limitation – it’s the theatre of God’s glory, the play-ground of God’s delight, the garden of God’s encounter with us.
So the reason Christians care about the environment is not because if we don’t we’re toast. The reason is that if we’re not interested in the home God has made to dwell in with us now, how can we claim to be eager for the home God has made to dwell in with us forever? By the way we enjoy the playground God has given us to enjoy today, we show God how deeply we long to dance with the Trinity in eternity. If we don’t treasure the earthly theatre of glory God has given us, God can only assume we’re not interested in entering the heavenly one. As Rachel Carson wrote: The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction. Cherishing creation is the way we show God our gratitude, the way we humbly acknowledge our creatureliness, and an important way in which we worship. Polluting earth, sky and seas, depleting habitats, overfarming land and ocean, eradicating species – such practices tell the rest of creation it’s disposable, tell the rest of humanity that its survival is secondary to our comfort, and tell God that we’re bent on obscuring eternal grace with temporal consumption. This is sin, in its simplest definition: being so short-sighted that we willfully shut ourselves out of God’s abundance and imprison ourselves in our own scarcity. And we’re all a part of it, however often we refuse to use plastic bags at the checkout, however many times we sign an email with a pious message about saving paper, however frequently we sprinkle our conversation with words like sustainability and ecojustice.
For Christians, the environmental crisis may be a problem. But it’s certainly an opportunity. I believe, this being the time of year we are in, that the word HARVEST crystallizes both the problem and the opportunity. Harvest brings together the beginning of the story, the glory of creation, with the end of the story, the day God harvests all things. Harvest celebrates the wonder of creation, in its abundance and diversity. It recalls the day the birds began to sing. And Harvest also calls us to repentance when we remember the Fall, the human destruction of God’s precious gift, the introduction of chaff into the wheat of creation. The Fall is the day the birds fell silent, and forgot how the song was supposed to go. And Harvest does more than that. It reminds us that there was a bird that came to earth and taught us the tune we’d forgotten, making our hearts sing again. And that there will come a day when all creation sings: not just the birds but the rocks and stones and oceans and mountains themselves will cry Alleluia. And that in the meantime we remember this story by the way we sing and seek to turn our lives and our world into a song. We remember this story by the way we inspire others to sing with us and find in themselves a voice they never knew they had. We remember this story by singing this song back to those who’ve forgotten it until they remember how it goes. As Paul says this morning: Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
That’s what Christians do in the face of the ecological crisis. That’s what Christians do at Harvest. That’s the way Christians turn the harvest of the land into an anticipation of the final harvest, when all the bounty of the earth joins the dawn chorus in singing the praise of God.
Let us pray:
O God, Creator of all that is –
of seas and clouds, rains and rivers,
grass and trees, insects and fish,
humans, animals, birds and reptiles,
of all life connected, sharing this one earth –
we are aware that our way of living
is profoundly affecting the earth’s climate,
that many people are in danger of flood and drought,
that some are greatly impoverished,
and the whole fabric of life is in danger.
To those who make international policies,
give wisdom and courage;
to those who direct industry and commerce,
give a concern for the common good;
to those who struggle for justice,
give strength and hope;
and to us all
give the grace and strength to change our ways
for the good of all that lives
and for your glory. AMEN+
Let us be God’s community.
Come with love.
The steadfast love of God never ceases.
Come with curiosity.
We are one body, one planet, one Church.
Come with hope.
As we gather with the bread and the cup, justice is served.
Let us worship.
We give thanks for the planet
we share with all of God’s creation
and for imagining a world-made-new.
Let us share what we have as one way of creating a world
free from hunger, poverty, and oppression.
by whom and for whom all things were made,
Give us grace to tread gently in his world,
And strengthen you with his Spirit,
To serve him in the garden of his creation.
And may the blessing of God Almighty,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Be among us and remain with us always. Amen.