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Earth Care as Vocation and Mission

Sunday, June 2, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 104; Exodus 23:10-13

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It is so terrific to be marking our first Earth Care Sunday here at Lewinsville, and we need to express our profound appreciation to Susan Bartram and Maia Foster for initiating and leading the Earth Care effort here. You and others on the Earth Care team have put these concerns on the church’s radar screen in a clear and strong way, and you have helped many of us improve our thinking about the environment and the earth and our responsibilities towards them, and we are profoundly indebted to you all.

The church is increasingly becoming aware that biblical faith is deeply rooted in, and committed to, the well being of creation. Creation care, earth care, are not peripheral interests to the church; earth care is not something that we can get around to when things lighten up in our schedules. Earth care should not be something that we put on the side while we deal with more fundamental matters. The Bible begins, in Genesis 1, with a poetic litany about creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Every day, God smiled at what was created, the Day and the Night, the earth and the sky and the seas, the great sea monsters, the creeping things upon the earth and humankind, saying, “It is good, it is good, it is very good.” God delights in creation, because God is devoted to creation. That which God has created, God loves, and that which God loves, God will watch over, and guard, and deliver.

Psalm 104 takes a deep dive into the majesty of creation, as though 104 is like a jazz riff on Genesis 1. You, O Lord, make the winds your messengers, you set the earth on its foundations, you make springs gush forth in the valleys, you cause grass to grow for the cattle, plants for people to use, the birds build their nests in the trees, the stork has its home there, the wild goats live in the high mountains, and the coneys – some us didn’t even know what a coney was, but it turns out to be something like a rabbit or a badger – live among the rocks. There is an energy to the psalm, and it is an energy that pours forth from those who love the earth and all its creatures. There is a delight, and an expansiveness, and an openness, and a power that God has infused into creation. The psalm makes clear that God is not only concerned about the state of our souls, but that God takes great delight and interest in the material creation that is all around us.

In the original Genesis creation poem, humankind is created in God’s image, which means that we are to share God’s work and God’s attentiveness to creation. We are not God, but we are made in God’s image, and so if God loves and cares for creation, then so must we. According to Genesis 1, God gives humankind “dominion” over the fish of the sea, and over the birds and the cattle and every creeping thing. That word ‘dominion’ has done a bit of mischief and created some problems down through the ages, as humans have assumed that ‘dominion’ means that we can do whatever we want to the earth, as though God has given us a license to use the earth as we wish. But biblical faith resists tyranny and exploitation wherever they appears, so that it is far closer to the biblical view to understand ‘dominion,’ not as exploitative power over, but rather having responsibility for, accountability for, and stewardship of the earth and its creatures. Dominion is a term of leadership, so that humans bear the responsibilities of leadership for the birds and the fish and the little creeping species that populate the forests and the seas of our planet.

Our Earth Care practice begins with an appreciation of the divine attentiveness and commitment to the well being of the earth and its creatures, and then it moves to an awareness of our human vocation and mission to care for the earth and its creatures. Our second reading today is a little text from the legal materials of the book of Exodus, having to do with Sabbath rest. Biblical faith perceives that there is a direct link between human activity and the well being of the rest of creation. What humans do, and how we do it, impacts the rest of the planet.

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident immigrant may be refreshed.” This text is addressed to those with at least some accumulated power in the Israelite economy – those who own land, vineyards, and olive orchards. According to this text, when humans do not observe the Sabbath practices of this text, when we push ourselves and our systems to work constantly, when we refuse to pause and refuse to allow those for whom we are responsible to pause, when we produce and consume without ceasing in an attempt to get ahead or to maximize our profit margins, it is not just our blood pressure that suffers. The poor suffer, those who work for us suffer, animals suffer, the land suffers. God intends the land and the entire eco-system to have regular opportunities to breathe and to pause. God has wired creation with a built-in rhythm of work and rest. When we do not honor this rhythm, when we push and squeeze and extract beyond limits, creation no longer works as intended.

In the months and years to come, we are going to need to work together to care for, and heal, the earth. Human activity has already done quite a bit of damage to the eco-systems of the planet. We are going to need to build coalitions, to work with partners in other faith traditions and the sciences and other organizations, and to encourage innovation and creativity as we respond. We’ll need to explore and develop sustainable efforts in transportation, food supply, fuel and energy and power, waste, and more. And we must always pay attention to how the well being of the earth impacts the poorest among us. For, as in so many areas, environmental crises hit the poorest the hardest; the church, in particular, must not abandon the poor and retreat into safe zones of the privileged and the efficient.

Earth care involves science, it involves economics and public policy, but it is also a spiritual discipline for the church. It is a spiritual discipline because the God whom we worship in spirit and in truth is the same God who adores, takes delight in, and watches over creation. Jesus paid attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Earth care is part of our calling, it is in our biblical DNA, and it is essential for the flourishing of the earth. To God, the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer, be all the glory, honor, and praise. Amen.