On Earth As In Heaven
As a preacher I am blessed to hear a great sermon. I know the challenge of crafting words and theology designed to move believers to live more faithfully or welcome unbelievers into the faith. Fortunately, I hear such preaching often as I travel or attend worship at my home congregation St. Marks United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana.
Recently I heard one such finely crafted and moving sermon delivered by one of my pastors, the Rev. Jimmy Moore. I invite you to read it, to consider the wisdom it contains and to be moved by his call to live with a more robust theology of Creation. Here it is:
Creation Groans, Creation Glories
[Prior to this sermon, Rev. Moore Interviewed Dr. Jeffrey White, Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Director of the Integrated Program on the Environment at Indiana University. This interview is available through St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington.]
Sermon: I want to tell you about a friend of mine. She is great. She is one of the most reliable friends I have ever had. When my dad died when I was fourteen, she was there for me. She just didn’t place any restrictions on what I needed. When I reached my late-thirties and had a time of depression she was there for me. She just said, “you come and be where I am, and you don’t need to say anything. Just be here and it is fine.” She is intriguing. She is graceful, and she is full of mystery and wonder. And her name is Nature. I have found that she has a really big job to do. This is a big world with a lot of people in it. She helps feed and clothe this world.
I think that part of what I needed to know this week is that she is still present for me. You see, this is not how I expected this sermon to begin. This has been one of the more challenging weeks in my pastoral ministry. Some of that I won’t be talking about and some of that I will. I am doing a funeral tomorrow night for a family Mary Beth and I know. This is public story, so I am not speaking out of turn, but a twenty-three-year-old man took his life. Then on Thursday, one of you called me to let me know there was a seven-month-old baby in Riley Hospital who was nearing the end of her life. The family wanted a baptism. I went over there, was with this family and baptized this baby who is still on life support, only so that her organs can be harvested for other children in the hospital.
Often during the week I wonder how what is happening the week is going to run into what is going to happen on Sunday morning. I didn’t see this one coming… but my heart has been super heavy and full. My mind knows it is not smart enough for what I’m having to deal with. I needed my friend. So, ironically, I was doing a wedding in Greenwood and because I am not of good cheer when I drive up Indiana highway #37 (with all the construction), I drove through Nashville and up Highway 135. And the woods were there. And, she brought some of her healing… and I will need more. And so, will some of these people.
What I will tell you is that I know most of you here. I know you and I know if you had a friend and someone was treating your friend badly, you would intercede. My friend needs help. My friend needs you. So, I actually do believe that the Doctrine of Creation is as potent for us as the Doctrine of Redemption. It tells us how we are here and how God’s life breathed into the life of the world, and breathes still.
Dr. White, in our interview, used the word, “sanctuary.” I told the Sunday School class this morning if someone vandalized this room with ugly graffiti, you would be livid. I would be. Yet, the world is our sanctuary. The cosmos is our sanctuary. I do not believe it is the will of Jesus for us to ignore the fact that this world is in need. I think one of the things that happened in the Christian tradition is that in earlier translations of Genesis, the word “dominion” was used to describe what humans were to be given in terms of our responsibilities in creation – we had “authority.” I think that came subtly, and not so subtly, to mean we could do whatever blessed thing we wanted to do with the world and it would be alright. More recently those who study scripture are liking and valuing the word “stewardship” more than “dominion.” Stewardship says we have this care, this gift that has been given to us.
I know that you have people in your lives that have been given to you – your children, your friends, your parents, your partners and your congregation members. I am deeply convinced, deeply convinced, that the responsibility we have is the responsibility of love. We are called to treat creation like we would our children, our partners and our friends. To love it that much. To love it exactly that much. And so, the Psalmist says, in Psalm 19 “The heavens are declaring the glory of God.” Now, I have already told you that I don’t believe that science and religion are at odds. I do believe that when I step into this world I am stepping into a holy place filled with glory — FILLED with the possibility of being healed and blessed, filled with the fact that I am in a world that is here for us and in a world for whom we are to be present and caring and responsible.
I will also reject the notion that somehow it is a violation of Christian calling to care for the environment. I have heard people say, “if it is going to be burned up anyway, why should we care?” Please don’t take that view toward my home! It makes no sense. This is the world you are given… right now, this is it. This is the world where unless something unbelievable happens, your children will be living, and their children will be living, and their children will be living. It is part of Christian calling to invest in that.
So as the Romans passage tells us, all Creation is groaning. This groaning is swept up into reconciliation, into the longing of God to bring all things together. Not only by creation but also by redemption, God is bringing us together to care for this world. There are some bad things happening in this world. There are some bad things happening in this State. In Indiana, we are one of the most polluted states in the country. That is not an opinion, that’s a fact. So, we could talk about arctic temperatures warming. We could talk about draughts in Australia or Africa. We could talk about what climate change is doing in the world. But, I am asking you to do something different today. I want you to know that our call today is to recognize what is given to us.
So, In the span of eight days I will do a funeral, a memorial service, I will have baptized an infant and will have done a wedding. What all of these have in common is the word “cherish.” In funerals and memorial services, we are invited to cherish the memory of the ones we love and cherish the faith that calls them to God. In our marriages we are called, not only to endure marriage, but to cherish each other. You can laugh at that. Everyone who is married knows what I’m talking about. If you feel you are doing more enduring than cherishing, there is a problem. Right? When we baptize babies, even when babies only have a few hours to live, we are cherishing the breath that is in them and the hope that is in them and the love that surrounds them. And, we are called to cherish this world.
Let me close mentioning two theologians. One is named Matthew Sleeth who was an emergency room doctor until he was on a vacation with his wife. Sitting on a beach, she asked, “What is the biggest problem in the world?” He said, “It is the fact that we are poisoning ourselves and it makes my job as a doctor more difficult.” She responded, “Well what are you going to do about it?” He quit as a doctor and became a pastor and works in creation care.
He tells the story that around this time he took his son fishing. It was a small town on a river and they took a guy named John with them. He said my boy caught a fish and John said “Well, that’s a trout.” The boy said “Dad, can we keep it?” and Matthew said, “No it needs to grow some more.” He released the fish and John looked at him in a strange way. Then his boy caught another fish, not quite as big as the first and asked, “Dad can we keep it?” Sleeth said, “No son, it’s smaller than the other one, right John?” John said, “Well, frankly, I’ve lived here all my life and the trout you are holding up there is the second largest trout I have seen in my life. The one you threw back was the largest.” Sleeth said to his son, “Okay, we’ll take it home.” As they were walking back to their car, John grabbed Sleeth’s arm and said, “I need to tell you something. Do you see that sign right there? It says that ‘This river is full of dioxins’. Your boy, if he takes a bite of that fish, take it away from him and don’t let him eat anymore. Children in this area aren’t supposed to eat more than one fish a year.”
You, you good people of God aren’t supposed to eat fish more than twice a week. This is a problem, in the making of paper and other products we have released these toxins and all over the community this is happening. As Walter Brueggemann would say “This is an issue of neighborliness.” What we do, does impact the other.
One more theologian is A. J. Swoboda, who is a Pentecostal Christian. He calls himself a Pentecostal Environmentalist. He says we should know that there are three things about Pentecostals. He says: 1) “We believe the Spirit is moving and so God is involved in what is happening right now.” 2) “We believe in caring for the marginalized. This issue is marginalizing people everywhere because of what it is doing to their environment. It effects the poor more than those who can get away from it. 3) Finally, he said, “We cry. If you go into a Pentecostal church, you will find Kleenex all over the place that means we can be moved.”
Then he says this, “We believe in two conversions. The first conversion is to God. The second is a conversion (which sounded outright Wesleyan to me) is a conversion to be back to the world. This is the conversion I am preaching today – that the God who loves you says, “love my world.” Don’t pretend that what is true is not true. Christians don’t do that.
Wendell Berry said “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us was good for the world. We were wrong. Rather we should adopt the assumption that what is good for the world is good for us.” To go back to my earlier point, Wendell Berry, like Jeff, like me, like you, finds grace in the world.
This is Berry’s poem The Peace of Wild Things that many of you know:
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go lay down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
Good people of God, this world, this grace-filled world, this groaning world is given to us. The call in the invitation of today, the request of today, is to take care of what we do with it. It is full of glory and full of longing and we are called to be in it. That’s the Gospel too. Amen.
“Thy kingdom come on earth” is a core element of our foundational prayer… the Our Father. How then shall we live? How can we sing the great hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” in these days? What if we had the eyes to see God’s realm in our every day living?