April 27, 2o17
Sermon on Creation Care
I greet you all this morning with profound love and respect.
Any topic imaginable always involves “creation care” in some form, of course, and also always involves our relationship to creation from the peculiarity of our place, inevitably, within it. It’s funny to realize that, when discussing creation, we are a little like Hamlet trying to fathom the mind of Shakespeare! We cannot actually sit apart from the action and engage in any truly “objective” analysis, nor are we really authors of unfolding events; and that is because we are also created, along with the story, integral to the story even as we engage all our lives in attempting to divine it. Today I will focus on what is sometimes called the “natural world,” which is to say the ”non-human” world (even as I am aware of the innumerable blendings of the two worlds, such as this church in which humans meet, and yet which is made of trees and metal and stone….); on humans’ relationship with the natural world in the modern era; and specifically on the wounding of the natural world that has taken place as a direct result of human activity. A sermon would not do justice to our intentions in an Episcopal church if it did not also include a pathway to hope, a prescription for action, a way forward into healing and resurrection. Therefore I will also focus on the healing of those wounds to the natural world, steps toward which are already being undertaken by many people and organizations in both secular and faith communities. For example, just yesterday members of this congregation, including some of you no doubt, joined other groups at Irondale Beach in Port Hadlock to remove invasive plant species damaging the native ecosystem there.
Our relationship with the natural world never begins with injury. Instead, we are born into an environment designed precisely to be welcoming and nourishing to the human. Conditions on Earth are exactly what is needed to survive and thrive, for humans, and also for the many cohorts of plant and animal species with which we co-exist. For example, in advance of the arrival of the human species, this planet developed and continues to maintain an atmosphere composed of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% consisting of trace amounts of other elements such as the greenhouse gases that form a protective layer from the sun’s incredible heat and energy, and which keep our planet mild enough for human habitation. The atmosphere is perfect for us and for everything living on the planet’s surface. This atmospheric composition is unique to our planet; in contrast, for example, our nearby, beautiful neighbor Venus has an atmosphere composed of elements such as sulfuric acid (a substance that quite literally rains there), and which is many hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit at the planet’s surface. A higher percentage of oxygen on Earth could lead to organisms spontaneously catching fire (there appears to be evidence of that in Earth’s past); a lower percentage and we would not be able to breathe. Our bodies and those of the plants and creatures around us are designed exactly for this atmosphere and for no other.
The stumbling block in our age is that human endeavor, particularly in this modern era, and for a variety of reasons, is clashing with the aims of the planet as expressed in its physics. On this planet, life wants to emerge and flourish. Left to its own devices, Earth will apparently do everything in its power to produce and sustain life, and furthermore will do so lavishly, abundantly, and using breathtaking diversity. (If humans completely deserted the Pacfic Northwest for 1,000 years, mighty old-growth cedars would greet our return.) And once the life forms are here, they then take off on their own and begin to create anew: so we have amazing relationships with “pets” from a variety of species; bowerbirds building one-of-a-kind nests using odds and ends from human garbage as well as the usual tree twigs; the occasional “ambassador” orca or bottlenose dolphin actively seeking out human companionship; Mozart symphonies and Chopin etudes… The evidence is overwhelming that the physical processes of Earth are designed to invent, nurture, and sustain life, and to encourage the flourishing of anything that being alive creatively implies. This is the planet’s singular purpose, written throughout its physical processes.
This singular purpose gave birth to the human species, the life form that recognized God as the Creator. It was through the magnificence of the natural world that the human came to realize God’s existence, God’s constant presence, and God’s unfailing love.
I often observe in my secular talks that planetary physics are a set of non-negotiable phenomena. Earth’s physical processes are extraordinary technologies, un-inventable through human projects such as economics, or human technologies designed to enhance economic production. That stands to reason since the economy and human technologies are themselves, like everything else, a result of and utterly dependent upon the conditions in planetary physics. We can cooperate or not with the conditions that exist. Scientific inquiry has demonstrated that when an organism or a process falls out of cooperation with the conditions that exist in physics, the organism or process either ceases to exist, or it is completely and forever altered. There are countless examples of ways in which humans have cooperated with planetary physics, and the results have been truly remarkable, even astounding. A short list of examples includes the invention of submarines, airplanes, rockets to the moon, the accoutrements of modern medicine, modern warfare, televisions, telephones, computers, etc…….
In 2002 I graduated from the University of Oregon with a Master of Science degree in Environmental Studies. It was an interdisciplinary degree involving numerous areas of inquiry including biology, ecology, limnology, geology, geography, astronomy, cosmology, politics, and landscape architecture. The majority of the data I studied, unfortunately, concerned the deterioration of Earth’s life-support systems and the resulting devastation and destruction of its plants and animals. As an astronomer on my Master’s committee pointed out once, the view of Earth from space satellites clearly reveals the blue areas turning gray, and the green areas turning brown. The course of study filled me with such alarm and frenzy that I eventually became somewhat “shell-shocked,” and would come home to my place on the McKenzie River, and get into a seated fetal position with my arms hugging my legs by the rushing river, rocking and crying like a crazy person. I could not believe that the facts I was learning about this planet’s devastation were not blaring headline news. In every area imaginable there was dire news about situations either already extant or developing rapidly into nightmares: overfishing; ocean adicifcation; numerous forms of both organic and chemical pollution; habitat destruction; the overuse of deforming and deadly chemicals in agriculture; dwindling essential resources such as fresh water; deforestation and desertification; and the real game-changer, which is the alteration of the chemical composition of the atmosphere, with all the implications that has for the near future of all the planet’s surface-dwellers, including those in the oceans. These problems constitute a crisis greater than any human community has previously faced. Furthermore, all the areas I mentioned have gotten worse since I left school, because they are not being addressed at the scale necessary for repair to occur in time.
What has trumped all significant environmental healing is the absolute, unwavering commitment on the part of modern cultures to economic wealth, at the expense of the physical well-being of the planet, its inhabitants, and its life-support systems. To put it another way, real wealth is being exchanged for a “wealth mirage.”
Anything that obstructs Earth’s intentions is doomed to fail. We simply cannot overcome the physics which are both emblematic and creative of those aims. “Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god” (Psalm 16).
Early in life the human, like any plant or animal, must begin learning how to navigate the maze of challenges and contradictions inherent in a life on this planet. A characteristic probably unique to the human is grappling with the conundrum of philosophical and moral challenges, particularly the numerous areas that are neither black nor white. As an example, I don’t like to kill anything…..but I must consume the dead in order to live, whether what I consume is an animal or an apple! I doubt that the coyote or the deer labor mentally and emotionally over that issue as I do!
The relationship children develop with the natural world is perhaps the most powerful, profound, and lifelong. I’ve heard it said that a child’s dream life for the first five years mainly involves animals, and certainly a child has an intense and lively interest in the non-human as well as the human. That was the case in my family beyond a doubt. One adventure I had as a child altered forever my way of understanding the natural world, teaching me how to answer for myself a conundrum involving wild animals. I turn to this story, which I told at last year’s vestry retreat, for inspiration and awareness when I seek some means of acting as a healer for the earth’s present wounds.
I was about nine years old, and there was a creek in my neighborhood containing an abundance of frogs. All the children spent time at one of the creek’s ponds on summer days, catching and releasing the frogs. Sometimes children would take a frog home as a pet, and one day I decided it was my time to do so. I caught and proudly brought a big frog home and placed it in a moderate-sized fishbowl, and filled it full of water. I poked holes in a lid and screwed it on the top. At first the frog jumped around in the bowl a lot, and I was excited and happy to have brought the creature home. As the afternoon wore on, however, the animal sank to the bottom of the bowl, or hung suspended in the water, its limbs flaccid, the body seemingly lifeless. As I watched the frog do nothing, I began to feel deflated myself. My mother said gently but insistently that frogs would not make good pets, and that a frog could not possibly be happy as a captive. As the afternoon wore on I began to have the sense that she might be right that the frog was miserable, but I also felt that I should be able to have a frog like the other kids. What was wrong with my frog? Growing deep inside, however, was a gnawing awareness that the experience was not what I had expected or hoped for, and I gradually came to feel heavy and sad as I watched the frog throughout the afternoon. Empathy for a wild creature was born in me that afternoon: I could perceive in the frog’s expression of hopelessness something I knew in my own experience, and yet had never articulated.
I don’t remember exactly the moment that Mother’s convincing caused my transformation (and I remain grateful that she waited until it was my decision, since as a result I became in touch with my own truth about the situation), but sometime that evening after dark, I wrapped in my child’s arms the fishbowl containing the hapless frog, and got in the car with Mother to return the little animal to its creek. My main concern was that the frog not jump and hurt itself on the way; and while in the car I concentrated on holding the sloshing fishbowl upright. During the short ride to the creek the frog appeared perfectly lifeless, except for its open eyes, its body swaying with the tiny currents in the fishbowl.
When we got to the creek, which was on a neighbor’s land, it was pitch dark except for moonlight glinting on the burbling water; I can still remember seeing clearly the rocks and sediment in the creek bed, and smelling the sweet yet musky scent of the water. But what happened next, as we got out of the car and approached the stream, I will never forget: the frog suddenly came alive, jumping up and down in the fishbowl, bouncing hard against the lid at the top, and, using all four limbs, scrabbling and slapping furiously against the sides. Since I was holding the bowl close against my midsection, I had, in a very literal sense, a visceral awareness of the frog’s frenzied desire, of insistent panic and….joy? I heard Mother say, “Look! The frog sees its home! You’re doing the right thing to let it go.” At the creek’s edge I turned the fishbowl upside down as gently as I was able, and poured the contents into the flow. The frog made an enormous leap into and under the water, and away from us forever into the night. I felt profoundly moved and near tears, but didn’t know why nor had any idea how to describe the feelings.
Now, as an adult I can say the powerful internal response was one of incredible love, release, and joy myself! Those feelings of release and joy have never left me in response to the natural world.
In today’s Gospel of John we revisit the story of the one disciple who would not take the word of the other disciples that Jesus was resurrected. This disciple insisted on poking his fingers into the holes in Jesus’ hands and side, the wounds caused during his crucifixion. The disciple will forever be known as “Doubting Thomas,” but his legacy is not so much of unbelief as it is of needing physical proof before he is willing to believe. Jesus invites Thomas to conduct the investigation, but then Jesus reminds him that there are those who will follow for which his opportunity to touch Jesus in person won’t exist; how will those followers find proof of the resurrection?
My friends in Christ, it is high time to look actively for the resurrection we are celebrating in this Easter season; in fact, I am certain that our very lives depend on our finding it, and soon. In our Eucharist we celebrate the Body and the Blood each week. The holes in our Lord’s body also stand for the gaping wounds in the tapestry of life in this ailing world today. The holes in Jesus’ body, all but forgotten in the joy of Easter morning, are still there, and they are real. His body was real, and one reason he came to life as a human was to demonstrate that the body is real and that it matters, that our home is in him and in this place that He made so perfectly for us.
The frog in my fishbowl recognized its real wealth as soon as it glimpsed its creek in the moonlight, and it didn’t require any more proof than that. Our real wealth is a gift borne by the Creator. When the heart is leading, the way forward is unmistakable. When we desire healing as much as my frog wanted to go back home, we cannot fail to find it. May we ever be reminded that all of Creation will support us in its care.