Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Held in Common with Creation

Well, aren't you lucky readers! Two posts in two days! And get this--both sermons! Below is the sermon that I preached this past Sunday, Earth Day/Integrity of Creation Sunday (ugh, UCC, could you have come up with a more un-poetic name?) in the church I've been attending since the fall, in my hometown. I was a little worried it was too prophetic for a debut preaching gig, but it seemed to go over well. Oh, and the lectionary text I used was Acts 4:32-35.

"Held in Common with Creation"

Three years ago, in February 2006, I was beginning the spring semester of my first year in seminary. I was in my first session of a course entitled, “Religions in the City,” where we would study Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. Since it was a requirement for all first-year students, it was pretty big class, but the professor asked that we each introduce ourselves, in an unusual way. Our professor opened up a red umbrella that had ruffles on the edges. Maybe it was really more of a parasol. The professor explained that we were to each take a turn standing in front of the class, holding the umbrella, and after giving our name, describe our religious, social, and political beliefs in one sentence. I remember standing up there, and stating that I believed I was quickly becoming an eco-feminist, a new term in my vocabulary that had been growing on me as I took an increasing interest in ecology and our relationship with the environment and saw how it related to the oppression of women. I remember the professor, who uses that label to describe herself, cheering. I remember thinking how radical I was becoming by being an “environmentalist.”

What a difference three years can make. Later that spring, Paramount Pictures released the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which won an Academy Award and helped former Vice President Al Gore win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. All of a sudden, global warming and the effect humans were having on the Earth was everywhere—and it hasn’t let up yet. It seems that every company is spending money on advertising how eco-friendly they are. Many food companies are claiming that they are using “all-natural ingredients.” Car companies are coming out with more and more hybrid models—including hybrid SUV’s. Fashion magazines have been including articles and features on ways to reduce energy consumption and promoting “green” fashion—like organic cotton t-shirts and sheets made from bamboo. Trendy fashion labels came out with designer grocery bags. There’s even a whole cable network devoted to living green. Somehow in just the past three years, being eco-conscious has gone from being radical to being chic. Green is the new black.

While I am glad to see individuals, businesses, and government embracing the green lifestyle, I’m a little worried it’s too trendy, that it’s no more than a passing fad, that such over-exposure will actually backfire and cause people to think it’s all hype. I also worry that the green movement is very image-oriented, that many people do it just for the cool-ness factor. But most importantly, I worry that despite the increased attention being paid to living green, our culture—how we relate to the earth and to each other—is really not changing all that much.

Now, for the most part this is happening in our secular culture, outside church. So why does it matter if this eco-consciousness is just a phase? What does being green have to do with being a Christian?

Well, as Freuline Maria would say, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” Let’s look at Genesis 1:26-28:

                                    Then God said, “Let us make humankind

in our image, according to our likeness; and 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.”

            So God created humankind in his image,

               in the image of God he created them;

               male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful

and multiply, and 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.

And so it began. The use of these biblical verses as validation for the notion that humans are “above” the rest of the natural world and meant to take it as their own goes back centuries. By being created in the image of God—as apparently no other part of creation was—we assume that we are therefore more God-like than anything else on earth. We have been fruitful and continue to multiply; we have, for the most part, subdued the earth.

Our newly eco-conscious society does not seem to be changing its views on this, and I think there are two reasons for it.

The first is a view of humanity going back to the philosopher Plato, and within Church tradition to St. Augustine, which exalts the spiritual aspects of humans while disparaging the physical parts. By focusing so much on our spiritual selves rather than our bodily selves, it is easy to continue seeing ourselves as separate from—and superior to—what we call “the natural world.” However, as gardener and writer Vigen Guroian says, “We humans belonged to nature right from the start. We are not interlopers…” The passage I read from Genesis a moment ago is part of the first creation story. In the second, Adam is created out of the dust of the ground, and God breathes life into him. If you attended an Ash Wednesday service at the beginning of Lent, you might’ve been reminded of that creation with the phrase, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Just last week we celebrated Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, God-made-flesh. In the elements of communion, as we partake of food from the earth, we are reminded of Jesus’ physicality, of his body and blood. And yet we often forget this, and see nature as something other, something that does not include us.

The second reason I believe we aren’t really changing is that we objectify the rest of creation. Rather than seeing it as another subject that we can relate to, it is an object, there simply for our use. The earth and its inhabitants have no purpose or value in their own rights, but rather are valued by what they can do for us.

Now, there has been some recognition among Christians, going back to earlier environmental movements, that caring for the earth should be a part of our faithful duties. This still is mostly promoted using the stewardship model. Referring to the earlier passage from Genesis, we are called to be stewards of the earth. However, I struggle with this idea because it still doesn’t deal with the two problems I just mentioned. This idea of stewardship still places us as stand-ins for God in a position of domination (through care) of creation, instead of recognizing we are part of a greater whole, which includes the Divine, animals, the atmosphere, and the earth. It also still upholds the view that creation is there for us to use. The concept of stewardship—whether of creation or in a household—is about managing resources.

One aspect of the stewardship model that I do like, however, is that it stresses the idea that the earth does not belong to us; it belongs to God. We like to think that we own our property, that within certain lines everything belongs to a nation, and we forget that we’re simply occupants, borrowing from the true landlord.

So if the stewardship model doesn’t really work, is there another way to view creation, another way to integrate our faith as Christians with the green movement? Yes, and I think part of it is found in a little nugget from one of today’s lectionary readings.

The Acts of the Apostles is the earliest book in New Testament, and one of my favorites. Maybe that’s because it was written by Luke, my favorite Gospel writer. Really, though, I just love following along as this rag-tag group of Jesus groupies tries to figure out how to continue on without his physical leadership, how to be a community following his teachings, how to live not as Jews or Gentiles but as this new thing, Christians. In today’s passage, what sticks out to me is that by sharing their resources, by holding everything in common, all their needs were met, “there was not a needy person among them.”

I think that we need to expand that a little, from people to all of creation. See, those first Christians recognized that they were a community and dependent on each other. They were in relationship with each other. If they had maintained their independence, tried to maintain they separation between “mine” and “yours,” they would’ve fallen apart. As church communities of people, we still do this pretty well. If someone in the church has a need, the community comes together to fill it. We are in relationship with each other, fulfilling one of Jesus’ two most important commandments: loving our neighbor as ourselves. I’m suggesting that we expand our concept of neighbor to include not only people but trees, animals, dirt. Now, before I’m accused of being some kind of hippy or bleeding-heart liberal, let me say that I agree with Sally McFague, one of the leading environmental theologians, when she says that in this case, equality is not sameness. We do not treat the dog the same way we treat the tick on its body or the Lyme disease the tick carries. In that case, yes, we are called to be caretakers because we can. Choices have to be made—tick or dog? Tree or caterpillars destroying tree? Rabbits that only live in meadows or trees taking over the meadow? Those choices can be made with love, though, and as products of a common Creator.

I think the key to a long-term Christian eco-consciousness is to remember that Rolling Stones song: “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” There is enough room on this planet for all to get what they need; the problem is many of us are living to fulfill all our wants. And this, I think, is the biggest problem with the current green movement. Our lives are really not changing—we’re just making them slightly less toxic for the rest of the world. But we’re still consuming a lot, and still manufacturing and using resources to keep up with that consumption. Climate change is occurring rapidly, bringing stronger storms, and more extreme weather conditions like drought and floods. And the worst part is that the people most affected are the people contributing to it the least. The wealthy developed countries contribute the pollution, garbage, and destruction of eco-systems, while the poorer, developing nations suffer. In the United States, when the south suffers a drought or the Midwest floods, we have plenty to offer for help. No one goes hungry because the crops didn’t make it. Disease doesn’t run rampant when the rivers overflow their banks. The same is not true elsewhere in the world. We’ve heard a lot about pirates lately, with the heroic rescue of Capt. Phillips. But did you know where some of those ships being attacked are headed? To Kenya, where they are suffering through a severe drought and there is no food.

This, to put it very simply, is sinful. That is a loaded word, but there is really no other way to put it. This is not what God wants for God’s children or any of God’s creatures.

I’m not saying we should feel guilty every time we use a plastic bag or upend our whole lives once we walk out of here today, but we need to be aware how our actions—or inaction—affects the rest of creation.

It is not all darkness, though. This is Easter season, a time of hope and promise of resurrection, freedom from sin and fullness of grace. Let us heal our broken relationships with each other and God and with the rest of Creation. Let us live simply so that all may simply live. Let us remember that if we release our claim on creation, recognizing that it belongs only to God, and hold all in common, no part of creation will have need. Let us bless all the earth in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

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