Everything that Breathes

PCG staff member, Betsy Neely, offered this sermon in celebration of Earth Day at Wesley United Methodist Church in Champaign, IL on Sunday, April 15.

I’m honored to be a part of your worship at Wesley, especially in anticipation of Earth Day this week. Thank you for inviting me to speak with you as we listen together for the presence of God in this place.

Let us pray:

O God who made the stars,

May this eternal truth be on our hearts as we gather to worship you:

That the God who breathed this world into being

Placed stars into the heavens

And designed a butterfly’s wing

Is the God who entrusted his son

to the care of ordinary people

became vulnerable that we might know

how strong is the wonder of Love

A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp

A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore

May we be a part of your creative work here in this place

May our ears and eyes and hearts be open to your good work all around us

And, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God.

Amen.

In his classic poem, Intimations of Mortality, 19th century poet, William Wadsworth, reflects on the glory and beauty of nature, but, at the same time, he offers a lament. The second stanza reads:

“The rainbow comes and goes and lovely is the rose. The moon doth with delight look round her when the heavens are bare. Waters on a starry night are beautiful and fair. The sunrise is a glorious birth. But yet I know where’ere I go that there has passed away a glory from the earth.”

With these words, Wadsworth both celebrates the wonder of creation and laments the fact that, even in his day, the footprints of human progress take a undeniable toll on the good earth around us.

I thought of this poet’s words just the other day as I was driving back from an Environmental Lobby Day in Springfield. After driving for hours through the beautiful landscape of Illinois farmland—through sunshine, then a little rain, then a muted, hazy sunset seen through the spinning blades of a wind-farm, my travel partner and I neared the city of Chicago. All of the sudden, rising up from the landscape, and cutting the orange sky with its dark, smoky silhouette was an oil refinery. As my companion and I drove past the eyesore in our oil-powered vehicle, she said these words, “Why would anyone want to injure our beautiful earth?”

The irony of that moment has stuck with me—we were appalled at the refinery, yet there we were, unnecessarily driving a gas-burning car to Springfield and back simply for the sake of convenience. I consider myself to be environmentally aware. I would even go so far as to call myself an advocate for environmental justice. And even though I try to leave as miniscule a carbon footprint as possible in the way that I live my life, driving my car to locations outside the city is just one of many examples of the ways I injure the earth on a fairly regular basis.

That evening, I found myself, like Wadsworth, basking in the ever-changing beauty of the natural world around me, but at the same time, lamenting the realization that that world is a fragile one and that, with each heavy-handed blow we as humans make to the earth, a bit of its glory seems to pass.

I work for Protestants for the Common Good, an education and advocacy organization that works to advance justice in public life. PCG brings a biblical and theological perspective to critical public issues. Our approach to public life emerges from an understanding of God’s inclusive love and the recognition of justice as mutuality and interdependence. We respond to God’s love by working for the common good and by creating a community of mutuality in which each person is given the opportunity to flourish and contribute to the world as a whole.

In this year and in years past, PCG has worked on legislation to bring a religious voice in church and society to the broad range of environmental issues in local, regional, national, and global arenas, and PCG works to advance public policies at all levels that justly promote the flourishing of the natural world of which humans are a part. This includes work on renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate change, and environmental justice. We believe that, through education and advocacy, we can help bring forth essential social change on environmental issues—change that will help ensure the future of this great earth that we call home.

I am proud of the work that we do at PCG, but I am not here today to shove a legislative agenda down your throats. Instead, I’m here to talk with you about our relationship to the earth and to all of God’s creation as a critical issue of faith. The earth in its entirety belongs to God and human beings are not only entrusted with its stewardship, but are in fact active participants in the ongoing creative work God is doing here in our midst.

The idea of creation has been on my mind quite a bit during these last several months. You may or may not know that your pastor, Miriam, and I are both in our 7th month of pregnancy. It’s a wild and amazing thing to be privy to the process of creation on such an intimate level—to literally feel creation happening inside of your body—to watch the growth of new life within yourself, week after week. But the thing that has struck me the most profoundly about this process is the fact that I am not the Creator here. In fact, it’s amazing how very little my actions have to do with the work and the growth occurring inside of me. Instead, I am a witness to the wonder of life sustaining itself. My role is to nurture that life and to help the creative process to flourish. So, I am not a co-creator with God, but, rather I am a vehicle for God’s creative work. New life is being formed through me, and there are things that I can do to help ensure that life is rich and healthy, but the life itself is certainly not being created by me.

We talk about the creation story in Genesis as if it took place all at once and within a week’s time. But in reality, it isn’t as if creation was a one-time event—something that occurred millennia ago. Though we may rarely think of biblical messages in terms of the environment, in reading the Bible, we are constantly reminded that God created the earth and saw it as good, and that we humans are only a part of the great creative work that God is doing on this earth. It’s an ongoing process and we are a part of it whether we like it or not.

Psalm 148 reads:

“Praise the Lord from the heavens, give praise in the heights. Praise him sun and moon, give praise all shining stars. Praise him, highest heavens. For the Lord commanded and they were created, assigned them their duties forever, gave them their tasks. Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deep waters; you lightning and hail, snow and clouds, storm winds that fulfill his command; you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars; you animals wild and tame, you creatures that crawl and fly”.

The scriptures tell us that we are called to be stewards of God’s good creation. As the creation narrative in Genesis puts it: God placed Adam and Eve in the garden “to cultivate and care for it.”

Even outside of the biblical text, Christianity has a great tradition of spiritual writings that revere nature, not only as a part of God’s creation, but in fact, as a part the imago dei, the image of God.

Remember St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun: “Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my Lord, Brother Sun, who brings the day and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears your likeness”

So, like humanity, nature also bears God’s imprint and likeness. It can never be a mere play-thing at the total and utter discretionary use of humans. Instead, we humans are a part of God’s creation as a whole.

And so we must choose what role we will play. We can either choose to facilitate God’s creation—to nourish it, to strengthen it, or we can choose to undermine that process—to neglect it with our ignorance, to manipulate it in the name of human progress, or even to violate it—to rape and destroy the world that God has given us—the world of which we are a part—the world that we are called to nurture.

No matter what role we choose to play, we are each a part of this world.

Contemporary Christian poet, Nigel Cooper, in his own nature psalm, writes:

“Here I sit looking through the window of your creation: but I am also created, a piece of your making…Even while sitting and breathing I belong to your world, where does my body end and nature begin? This earth is not just another thing outside myself: your whole creation is a mystery of which I’m a part. In our own eyes we think of ourselves as distinct and different: we feel that humanity can dominate the beasts and the earth, but we must turn ourselves round before nature bites back; the trees and the animals we’ve exploited, we’d now like to save: to begin to plan for the future and learn from the past. For everything is your creating and we can treasure it. To be able to be fully human, we need your creation. So nature requires us also to be part of her life; I rely on the natural world so that I can survive.”

We revel in the glory of creation. We celebrate our part in its beauty. And yet, we must lament:

In addition to the toll our actions take on a beautiful landscape, there are more grave consequences to be had should we chose to violate the gifts the earth has to give us.

We have seen first-hand the connection between poverty and the environment. Many people think of these as separate issues, but in fact they are hugely interdependent. Most of the world’s poor are rural poor, who for thousands of years have been a part of the very creative process I mentioned before. Many are subsistence farmers, completely dependent on their environment for survival. But as a result of widespread deforestation, the land isn’t providing like it used to.

Land that once bore bountiful crops is no longer producing. Streams that provided water to drink now run dry. Out of desperation, people must cut down trees to sell as firewood, even though doing so means further destroying their one chance of survival. And so these people are forced into a new role—to subvert the process that is ingrained in thousands of years of farming in order to survive. These once flourishing communities now participate in the further destruction of the earth around them.

Those who suffer from the environmental impacts of coal-fired energy plants, tainted water supply, and landfills are often the urban poor. In Chicago alone, more than 40 deaths last year were attributed to poor air quality in some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. I recently heard someone in the healthcare industry lament that, “If you’re poor, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be unhealthy. But in this country, being poor is hazardous to one’s health.”

On a global scale, you have all heard the warnings: that the world as we know it will drastically change in our children’s time; that the world’s average temperature will rise 2 degrees centigrade; that if we do nothing to address the issue of climate change, the dangers are not trivial, but catastrophic.

I suspect there may be climate change skeptics among us today. That is okay. I am not here to convince you that climate change exists. But even those who believe most firmly that climate change is a reality think that there is little we can do to stop it. Scholars have said that only massive action by governments and large corporations can address the huge scale of global warming. They may be right. But as people of faith, we are also people of hope. Just last week, we celebrated an impossible victory over death, and a rebirth that defies all logic. So, while it may seem that we face an irredeemable situation when it comes to the state of our earth, we are called to put our hope into action, and to live in such a way that can bring healing and ensure abundant life.

Christians have a long tradition of ascetic practices that, while small, raise their consciousness to problems in the world. This is still happening among Christian communities today. I have seen congregations try to address global warming and ecological issues by instituting a once-a-year car free Sunday; doing tours of toxic waste dumps in their area; partnering with a third world parish for planting carbon sink trees to absorb the CO2; growing organic gardens on the church ground; and banning plastic or Styrofoam cups from parish facilities.

These steps may feel trivial and small, but they are at least a beginning. And perhaps it is through small measures such as these that we are reminded of our role as creatures who are a part of this world—restored to the calling we were given at birth—to nurture, not destroy this process of creation. The hope is that such small actions will make us aware of the larger response we need in light of the blaspheming of God’s good creation that is occurring all around us.

My prayer is that, no matter what our response may be, we would openly celebrate God’s creation in all of its manifestations. The forests that blanket the landscape, the clear water that flows from the mountains, the bald eagles and killer whales, the flowering shrubs that paint our neighborhoods with flashes of pink and yellow, the diversity of human life. For all that we have, and all that we are, we owe thanks to God. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!

Amen.

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