Living in God’s World

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on May 29, 2011, by Christopher L. Webber.

A hundred years ago, most people were farmers.  Two hundred years ago almost everyone was. In 1800 only 6% of the population lived in urban areas.  We tend to think of change in terms of computers and atomic energy and space travel, but the biggest change in the last century was the change from a society in which most people were farmers to a society in which hardly anybody is. And those who are, are not small scale subsistence farmers like those who lived in this area not that long ago. There’s been a recent change back to very small scale, speciality farming and farmer’s markets and so on but the fact remains that most food today is produced by what they call “agri-business” – huge commercial operations that rely often on immigrants – and illegal immigrants – to produce the food we eat.

In all the debate about government spending, we need to look also at the subsidies paid to those huge agribusinesses and the exploitation of immigrant labor. But that’s not what I want to think about this morning. I want to step back from these immediate political issues, important as they are, and ask you to think about something much more fundamental, about our relationship with God and God’s world and especially about prayer.

For centuries this sixth Sunday of Easter was called Rogation Sunday and it was a day when processions would go out into the fields to ask God’s blessing on the crops. Well, why not? Life depended on the crops produced in those fields.  If the crops failed, people starved and died. The Litany still asks God to spare us from “plague, pestilence, and famine” but up until 1979 we had prayers in the Prayer Book for rain and for fair weather and a prayer to be said “In time of dearth and famine” and those are gone.  We don’t worry about that any more.

You’ve seen pictures on television the last week or so of vast fields in the mid-west under water with corn and beans and wheat fields submerged but no one seems to be much worried about the food supply or the farmers. The farmers don’t much like it, but they still get their subsidies and the food gets flown in from Colombia or New Zealand and life goes on.  Why worry? In fact, I’ve been wondering whether it might be a good thing if the crops were wiped out because then we would have to import our food from poorer countries and it would less problem for us and be better for them. We could send less foreign aid to developing countries and spend less on agricultural subsidies for our agribusinesses – and that might even help balance the budget.  My economics may be shaky here; it’s probably not that easy, but what I do want to think about is some of the deeper implications of the shift in priorities from agriculture to a computer economy.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the shrinkage in church membership – not just Episcopal Churches, but all churches – Roman Catholic Churches are being closed in Torrington and elsewhere. Why?  Well, part of it is smaller families; later marriages and smaller families. But part of it, I suspect, is this radical separation between ourselves and our world in our separation from the land.  Yes, lots of us have gardens and we worry about our tomatoes and the blight and that sort of thing but if a sudden hail storm wiped it all out, we’d be unhappy but life would go on. We garden more for the fun and satisfaction than for any serious need. Compare that to a hundred years ago when most people grew most of their own food and depended on their land. We live in a different world than human beings ever lived in before and we don’t have that same sense of dependence on the soil and the crops. The old unity of life has been broken and while you might have had a deep sense of God’s providence if you were out in the fields relying on the rain and the sun that are beyond your control, what sense of dependence on the natural order do you have when you work in a climate controlled office and one day is the same as the next and the forces that shape your life are no longer those of nature but those of Wall Street? I think it makes a difference.

The Times had an article on Thursday reporting that the obesiity epidemic is related to the fact that Americans don’t work at physically demanding jobs anymore.  80% of us work at jobs that are basically sedentary as against 50% 50 years ago – and a lot more 100 years ago. When you lived in a farm, you got your exercise!  What I’m suggesting is that life in the last century or even half century or so has been radically altered from what it had been from the very beginning of human life. Adam was sent out of the garden to till the soil and even if you go back to the hunter/gatherer days before the invention of agriculture, still human beings depended directly on the soil and what it produced. Their lives were bound up with nature in a way that ours are not. Human beings now have a radically new way of living and it began within the lifetime of some of us.

I took my grandsons out this spring to help me plant green peas and the older one was a little alarmed at the composted cow manure that I was putting in the furrows. That was closer to nature than he had been before.  He thought about it a long time and later that day he said, “I hope you wash the peas real well before you eat them.” He’s a city boy.  And most people are these days. School kids get to plant a seed in a plastic cup so they can learn about nature.  But that’s not the same as growing up in nature – knowing how it is because you grew up in it.  And I think it changes our intuitive sense of the processes of the universe and therefore our relationship with God.

I think the members of the Prayer Book Committee that took all those prayers for rain and fair weather and so on out of the Prayer Book were city people and thought somehow that rain and sun were obsolete ideas.  It seemed silly to them to pray for things that were not their concern. I think they thought they were being scientific by imagining that God makes no difference in the world God made.  I went to a conference some years ago at which the speaker was an English priest who is also a nuclear physicist and he laughed at the way the American Prayer Book had eliminated the prayers about nature as if a modern scientific Christian no longer thought God was at work in the world. On the contrary, he said, the more we physicists learn about nature the more we realize how mysterious it is and how much room there is for God to work in it and respond to our prayers.

Is prayer obsolete in our mechanical, computerized, unnatural world? I don’t think so. Unfortunately, it was about the time the revised Prayer Book came out that we really began to understand for the first time how inter-related human beings and the environment are. We began to understand that the PCBs dumped in the Housatonic made the trout dangerous to eat and that the exhaust from a zillion cars impacted the air we breath and our lungs and health and that maybe heating and air-conditioning a zillion homes might eventually heat the outdoors as well as the indoors.  I remember very well in elementary school a text book we used that talked about the infinite, inexhaustible resources of the sea. Since then the population of the world has tripled and the inexhaustible resources of the sea are beginning to give out. The fact is, we are as dependent on the good earth and sea as we ever were – we are part of what some call the biosphere, the inter-related realm of biological life. Some also speak of the noosphere – a realm so dominated by human thought that we have become responsible for all of it, everything that happens. Are we responsible for the tornadoes destroying the mid-west? No one knows, but surely we are gambling with the future of human life if we assume the world can absorb whatever we do to it and not be changed.  Some people say we can’t afford to move toward a safer environment because it will cost jobs.  The Times also reported that the recent wave of tornados has sparked a boom in sales of tornado shelters. That’s one way to create jobs! Another way would be to invent cars that would use less gas and homes that were more energy efficient.

But everything we do has consequences; that’s my point.  Every one of us is consequential. In a biosphere, we impact the atmosphere and climate.  In a noosphere, we influence the world of thought and ideas that shapes the atmosphere and the climate.  Remember the phrase “climate of opinion”?  I think it suggested that there’s a national or international mood.  Politicians and business people try to be aware of the climate of opinion before taking a stand on issues or introducing a new product. They’ll decide the time is right or not right to act because the climate of opinion is what it is. Individuals making individual decisions create a climate of opinion, a national and even international mood. And just in that same way, we help shape the climate itself, not just the climate of opinion.  And we do it at every level: by the actions we take, the opinions we form and share and not least, maybe most of all, by the prayers we say.

This is God’s world. “In God,” Paul wrote, (and he was quoting a pagan philosopher) “we live and move and have our being.”  So what is our relationship, our ultimate relationship, to God? Are we related to God in any real and continuing way? Because if we aren’t – just as if we are out of touch with the biosphere and noosphere it makes a difference.

Perhaps a key word to think about is “wholeness.”  Does my life have wholeness? Am I aware of the difference I make by my purchases, my diet, my involvement in the community, my relationship with the Creator?  Have I got it all together? And, yes, that makes demands and our lives are already too full, too programmed, too hectic.  But isn’t that also the point? Maybe if I had the basic relationships right things would click into place and simplify. Maybe some things would begin to seem less important And life would be reshaped in a way that was clearer and simpler.

Prayer might be the place to begin: a pattern of prayer such as the Prayer Book provides: daily prayer morning and evening, frequent prayer during the day, an awareness of God that leads us to speak to God not just in moments of crisis and times of thankfulness but spontaneously at any minute because we are in God and God is in us and we have our relationships straight and our lives in order.  God sent Adam out of the garden to till the ground and for thousands of years human beings did that and a few still do and thank goodness they do because without them we would die.  But before that, as soon as human beings were created, God said, “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” God gave us dominion; God put us in charge; and now at last we really are and it’s a little frightening not least because as we’ve moved away from the earth we’ve lost that sense of dependency or relationship, of reliance on prayer, that would keep our world together.

I’m not suggesting at all that we should go back to the farm. That’s not the point. We are where we are and the challenge is to maintain or perhaps to regain the sense of wholeness and the sense of dependency that may go more easily with an agricultural lifestyle. So I think it’s harder now, but we are the one form of life capable of adapting to new challenges and if we fail now, the whole created order may well come crashing down around us.

So this is Rogation Sunday – the very word means “to ask” – to pray – and that we need to do as never before to restore our relationship with our world – people, plants, earth, air – and above all, their Creator, apart from whom we die.

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