The Creation Itself Is Waiting

This sermon was preached by Christopher L. Webber at Trinity Church, Milton, Connecticut, on July 1, 2012.

Last October, you surely remember, we had an horrific snow storm that downed trees and powerlines  and paralyzed the state. We were without power for almost a week, some were without it for much longer. Nine days ago we had another horrific storm that did even more damage on my property and three days later another violent storm swept through. Three storms of unusual violence in nine months?  What’s going on?

Fortunately, we don’t live on the Gulf Coast that was pounded last week by one of the earliest tropical storms ever, dropping two feet of rain on some communities in 24 hours, or the mountain west, ravaged by forest fires, or the mid west where tornadoes have been wiping out whole communities.

The farmers who first settled these hills paid attention to the weather. They planned their lives around the regular succession of seasons and knew when to plant corn and when to harvest.  Over the few centuries that Europeans have lived in this area enormous changes have taken place.  The forests were cut down to make room for farms and the hills were stripped bare to make charcoal for blast furnaces and the native turkeys and deer were hunted to extinction. Then better farm land was opened in the west and the iron industry shifted to Pittsburgh to take advantage of West Virginia coal  and mesabi iron ore and the forests grew back and the turkeys and deer and bears came back. There may be more of them now than ever before. New England is a case study in human environmental engineering, our ability to shape our environment.

The Book of Genesis tells us that God created human beings and told them to “fill the earth and subdue it.” and “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  Some have taken that as a blank check, we’re in charge, it’s all ours to exploit as we will. But one of the great Jewish scholars of the twentieth century, Robert Gordis, once wrote that that would be “a complete distortion of the truth.”

“On the contrary,” he writes, “the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish interpreters prohibit such exploitation.  Judaism goes much further and insists that man has an obligation not only to conserve the world of nature but to enhance it because “man is the copartner of God in the work of creation. . . . The war against the spoliation of nature and the pollution of the environment is therefore the command of the hour and the call of the ages.”

But the New Testament goes further still in telling us what those early verses in Genesis really mean. The various translations tell us that God gave human beings “Dominion,” or “authority,” or “rule”  but in the Gospel we find Jesus telling his disciples what it means to rule if you are a follower of Jesus.  It’s something candidates for office need to remember in a democracy.  Jesus called his disciples and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42)

So to rule is to serve.  Democratic government is based on that principle. To rule is to serve. We sometimes still use the phrase “public servants.”  To rule is to serve because it is only by seeking to serve that we can really meet the needs of others.  And surely that applies also to the environment.  To dominate is to destroy and we have been doing that for centuries. To rule is to serve and we are only just beginning to see what that means.

Over in Sharon we have a conflict going on right now between the old idea of domination and a better approach.  We have developers with their eyes on a piece of land for a shopping center, but wait!  There are bog turtles there and they’re an endangered species.  Well, a generation ago, the bog turtles would have had no chance. Who would even have noticed?  But now it’s a new story.  There are still plenty of people who don’t get it, but go to a local library or historical society where they have pictures of this area a hundred years ago with the hills stripped of their trees and the smoke of a hundred kilns and furnaces thickening the air. Where do you draw the line?  If the bog turtles go, what about the turkeys and deer and bears?

I remember visiting a section of Ireland called the Burren.  Stone age human beings settled there thousands of years ago and cut down the trees so they could make farms and they let loose their goats  to feed on the local plants.  They had no idea how thin the soil was, but lacking trees and green plants, the soil washed away and even now, thousands of years later, nothing can grow in the Burren. When Oliver Cromwell marched through with his army in the seventeenth century he said of the Burren that it was an area with: ‘Not enough wood to hang a man, not enough water to drown a man, and not enough soil to bury a man.”

The Great Plains were a fertile grassland until the nineteenth century with enormous herds of buffalo and a rich variety of wild life. Then the farmers came and plowed up the prairie and turned it into a dust bowl. They had no more idea than the primitive settlers in the Burren how to care for the land, how to preserve the natural balance of deep rooted grass to hold the soil in place, so they plowed it all up and when the natural cycle of drought came along in the 1930s the dry soil blew away in clouds so thick that visibility was often limited to two or three feet and the skies grew dark in New York and all along the east coast.  Half a million people lost their homes in one year.

This year it’s fire that is sweeping through the west.  Fire in the west, floods in the south, epic storms east and west, and there are still people out there denying that human beings have anything to do with it and terrifying the politicians into avoiding the subject. Other nations around the world are moving to develop alternative energy sources and reduce the pollution of the air we breath and the water we drink while here there are no bold initiatives, hardly even any timid ones.

It’s the first reading this morning that brings all this to mind. [NOTE: For historic reasons, the lessons were those appointed for this day in the 18th Century when Trinity, Milton, was established.] The apostle Paul is talking in global terms about God’s purpose in creation and what he calls “the glory about to be revealed to us.” And some Christians have so narrow a view that they think of it only in personal terms: “my salvation,” “getting right with Jesus.” But Paul’s vision is vastly bigger than that  And it takes in the whole of creation. He tells us that the whole creation “waits with eager longing” to see what God is doing and when the day comes, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” It is, St Paul tells us, like a new birth and “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” It’s a better description, it seems to me, of our day than his with the whole creatioin caught up in a transformation, a birth process, that may lead to new life but also, all too easily, to death in childbirth because we are still so short-sighted, so ignorant of the needs of the created order.

This time it’s not just a section of western Ireland or a few mid-western states that’s at issue, but the world itself that could easily be destroyed or, if we have the vision and courage, opened to a new era of international cooperation and intelligent use of the resources God has provided.

There’s a marvelous passage in the writings of Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth century English priest who had a deep understanding of the wholeness of creation and wrote: [NOTE: Traherne’s spelling is unique!]

Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till evry Morning you awake in Heaven: see your self in your fathers Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys: having such a Reverend Esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels. The Bride of a Monarch, in her Husbands Chamber, hath no such Causes of Delight as you.  You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your Veins, till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and perceiv your self to be the Sole Heir of the whole World: and more then so, becaus Men are in it who are evry one Sole Heirs, as well as you. Till you can Sing and Rejoyce and Delight in GOD, as Misers do in Gold, and Kings in Scepters, you never Enjoy the World.

We cannot rightly enjoy the world “Till the sea itself flows in your veins,” until we have that deep sense of the unity of life and that deep concern for stewardship of the gifts we have been given, until we have that sense of the unity of creation that enables us to turn away from our destructive past and begin to concern ourselves with what the Roman priest, Teilhard de Chardin called, “The Building of the Earth.”  This Sunday, as we celebrate Independence Day, is an ideal time to rededicate ourselves to that understanding of God’s purpose and commitment to work together toward that goal. I think the “Litchfield Transition” group are thinking in those terms and I hear it again in that wonderful hymn we will sing at the end of the service, America, the Beautiful. Notice that the first verse gives thanks for the beauty of the created order and only then moves on to speak of the human beings who inhabit it:

O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea!

It’s worth remembering also the Biblical vision. We’re often told that the Bible begins in a garden  and ends in a city as if we ineluctably move away from nature to a city that paves over the soil and has no space for trees.  But in fact John describes in Revelation a vision, yes, of a city, the new Jerusalem, but a city with a a river flowing through the middle of it and trees on every side, the tree of life from the Garden of Eden with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

That’s the vision, the Biblical vision, and if the politicians don’t get it, who’s surprised? But if we don’t get it, we will have only ourselves to blame if we leave our children a ravaged and barren landscape and have to answer for it at the throne of judgment.

I heard a story once about a Scottish preacher who pictured the souls gathered before that throne of judgment crying out, “O Lord, we dinnae ken; we dinnae ken.”  “And the gracious and merciful Lord,” he said, “will look down on them and say, ‘Well, ye ken noo.’”  You know now.  And so we do. We know now.  Pray God that it’s not too late.

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