to Whom Does the Earth Belong?

April 22, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Scripture here…

[Birds singing…]

Birds singing in the sanctuary at Westminster Church. It’s a bit disarming. It brings the wild into an ordered, built space. It interrupts our human words with the sounds of nature.

And yet something needs to get our attention and bring us to our senses. Those birds remind us of our place in God’s creation.

The opening pages of scripture define the terms of human life on this planet, at least from the perspective of people whose faith springs from the biblical witness.

“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.’” (Genesis 1:26)

Some may interpret – and have interpreted – this as a divine green light to exploit the planet, but the Hebrew wording suggests something altogether different. The terms used affirm humankind’s provisional authority – authority for a time – to care for creation in God’s place. The language does not point to a mandate to dominate; it describes a responsibility to protect.

That responsibility, as we have seen, can be fulfilled well…or not.

Genesis is the most abused book of scripture. Its misinterpretation has given rise to the current growing movement against science, as if the foundational, poetic myth-telling, deep-meaning language of Genesis were meant to supplant geology or biology or anthropology or evolution. The first book of the Bible and its opening lines provides us with the basic framing of human purpose: to live within the creation, representing the divine will for the earth and all its creatures.

There’s no ownership language there. If the question is to whom does the earth belong? the response from Genesis is: certainly not to humankind. The psalmist has the theologically-correct response: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.

Yet we struggle with our place in creation. We’re estranged from our very creatureliness. We ache for the outdoors, for a week in a cabin or a bench in the park or a sunset on the beach. We think it’s just the need we have for some fresh air and relaxation, but something else is going on. That longing goes much deeper. We saw it yesterday as thousands of us poured outside finally to satisfy the craving we have deep within for the goodness of the slowly-greening earth.

Our desire for nature reflects a profound creaturely yearning for the Creator. Something within us remembers the goodness of our God in the splendor of the earth itself. The birds remind us of the words of Genesis.

[Birds sing]

There’s another old story from Hebrew tradition that helps us remember the natural response of the creature to the Creator: the account of Moses and the burning bush.

Moses is in the wilderness near Mount Horeb, tending the sheep of his father-in-law’s flock. He’s in the midst of the created beauty of God’s good earth and its creatures, when suddenly a bush that seems to be on fire catches his attention.

When he stops to look at it, a voice calls to him from the bush. “Moses. Moses!”

“Here I am,” he replies.

“Come closer,” the voice says. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:4-5)

This story is typically viewed as an account of the call of Moses by God to go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites, and it is. But there’s a preliminary summons, a first-order call to remember the sacredness of the earth. Before anything else, Moses, remember that. Remove your sandals; the place on which you are standing, the voice says, is holy ground.

It’s as if the voice were saying,

“Look at the goodness of this wilderness, Moses, and of this fiery bush, and of the sheep, and all the creatures. Look at the beauty of this mountain, the light, the air, take in the scent of the ground, listen to the birds. Remember that all this is holy, and you are part of it.”

We should have taken off our shoes as soon as we heard the birds. This is holy ground.

[Birds sing]

We listen to those sounds every Wednesday evening in our time of quiet prayer in The Clearing. And last week I took off my shoes as we listened to the birds. I didn’t think about Moses and the burning bush; I simply didn’t want to compete with the sounds of creation.

In his poem The Sacredness of the earth, Raymond Foss writes:

So much of our faith
that which is eternal
the dogma we believe
without a certain creed

Something inside
something lasting
believing in the sacredness
the preciousness of the earth

Not a given faith or religion
no, far deeper, primal
something to which we can relate
the world we walk upon
the earth from which we came

The place on which you are standing – the earth from which we came – is holy ground.

The degradation of the planet by humankind is a spiritual problem. It comes from having lost a sense of our creatureliness. We’ve forgotten our place in the creation. We live as if we owned the earth, as if it were ours to do with as we please.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.

April 22, 1970, marked the first Earth Day. It was organized by a broad, national coalition of urban and rural citizens, Republican and Democratic officeholders, students and business leaders. The effort came in the aftermath of a major oil spill off of Santa Barbara, California. Millions of Americans from all walks of life agreed that protecting the environment was our work as a people, a high national priority. That consensus led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency by an executive order from Republican President Richard Nixon.

Today, 48 years later, that bi-partisan, cross-cultural coalition has largely dissolved, one more victim of the rancorous national ethos of our time.

Earth Day did not invent the environmental movement; it was simply the latest manifestation of a long-standing American commitment to preserve the natural wonder and beauty of this land for future generations. Our legacy going forward.

Another Republican president led the way at the start of the 20th century. Theodore Roosevelt “created 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, 51 bird reserves, and four game preserves, and protected from development 230 million acres of public lands.” Here in Minnesota Roosevelt established the Superior National Forest, within which the Boundary Waters Canoe Area lies. (http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/people/historical/roosevelt/ and http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article209492384.html)

Roosevelt had sought solace in the wilderness of North Dakota’s Badlands after his wife and mother died on the same day in 1882. His heart was broken and he knew the deep, restorative value of wild places in their natural state, unperturbed by human development. He found great comfort in the wild. He went camping with John Muir for a week in Yosemite. Roosevelt connected to his own creatureliness.

It was Muir who said, “All terrestrial tings are essentially celestial.” I can imagine that old Scot, Muir, saying that to Roosevelt around a campfire in the Yosemite wilderness. Roosevelt understood. He cautioned against letting – in his words – “selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/opinion/protect-minnesotas-boundary-waters.html)

Today the nation’s political leaders seem bent on doing just that as they dismantle decades of environmental legislation and regulation aimed at protecting America’s wild places from exploitation and degradation. Off-shore drilling has been re-opened. Oil exploration in areas long-protected has now begun. Just when alternatives sources of energy are becoming economically viable, fossil-fuel industries are being de-regulated to operate in ways that threaten fragile ecosystems and contribute to global warming. The Boundary Waters may soon be downstream from a new copper ore mine.

When the EPA was established a Republican U.S. Senator called it a

“Very strong and overdue effort to arrest and prevent the erosion of the priceless resources of all (hu)mankind and also to preserve that most priceless asset, the human being…, who, in a singularly polluted atmosphere, may find it impossible to exist.”  (Sen. Jacob Javits; https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/guardian-origins-epa.html#agency)

That was in 1970. Today, on this Earth Day nearly half a century later, the Environmental Protection Agency is increasingly ignoring its original protective purpose. Having made good progress in defending the environment as a nation, we are now losing ground. Some of the loss will be irreversible.

Protecting the goodness of the earth is not a partisan issue; it’s not, at root, merely a political or economic matter, either. It is, rather, a question of the role of humankind as creatures on this earth. It’s a question of our legacy as part of the goodness of creation. It’s a profound spiritual challenge.

For people of faith it’s a matter of rediscovering our God-given purpose on the planet, and that is the stewardship of the earth.

Westminster is engaged in the work of caring for the planet in many ways. Now that the snow is finally melting the storage tanks underground are beginning to slowly fill with water. That reclaimed water will soon be irrigating our green roofs and all the plants and trees on the site, and flushing the toilets in the new wing.

That reclaimed water is a sign of our congregation’s commitment to protect the earth. But the church can do more, and not merely with the building. It should even extend to our worship. The sacraments of baptism and communion, for instance, ought to be seen as earth-honoring rituals. The water and the bread and cup are sacred, not only because of our prayers, but because they come from God’s good creation and they connect us back to it.

We tend to spiritualize our liturgy and lay so many words and formulas over it that we can’t really see sometimes what we are really doing when we worship. We sanitize our worship spaces so that they work against our need to connect with the Creator, which is a fundamental purpose of our worship of God. We forget that we, too, are creatures of the earth.

Maybe we should listen to birds more often in the sanctuary. And take our shoes off when we enter.

[Birds sing]

To whom does the earth belong, its creatures, the birds and fishes and mammals and frogs, the lakes and rivers, oceans and glaciers, the mountains and plains, the air, the grasses and trees? To whom does all that goodness belong?

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.

Thanks be to God.

Amen

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

David Shinn

O mighty God, with your steadfast love, we enter your house this day with joy and thanksgiving in our hearts. Your Spirit guides us into the worship, and fellowship life of this beloved community. We bow down before you and lift up praises with songs and prayers. For you are our God, and we are your people. You bless us with this holy covenant of love that will never abandon us nor forsake us.

Loving God, we give you our heartfelt thanks to you. In you, we find the fountain of joy and drink it from the cup of delight. For you are the creator and maker of the cosmos, and all living creatures sing praises to you for your mighty act. You declared all your creation as good and called us to be steward and caregiver of all that is good. For your creation, from the grandest of Sequoia and blue whales to the tiniest plant cells and ameba, is indeed holy, and you have gifted us by placing us in this beautiful world.

Yet by our greed, and our brokenness, we have forsaken this beautiful creation. We have not only ravaged this land, but also threatened the indigenous people in it. Forgive us O God. Echoing the prayer of Basil the Great.

O God, enlarge within us the sense of
fellowship with all living things,
our brothers and sisters the animals to whom thou
gavest the earth as their home in common with us.

May we realize that they live not for
us alone but for themselves and for
thee, and that they love
the sweetness of live.

Then together with the Indigenous people of Hawaii who prayed:
Let us give thanks for the world around us.
Thanks for all the creatures, stones and plants
Let us learn their lessons and seek their truths,
So that their path might be ours,
And we might live in harmony, a better life.

May the Earth continue to live,
May the heavens above continue to live,
May the rains continue to dampen the land,
May the wet forests continue to grow,
Then the flowers shall bloom
And we people shall live again.

We pray for families who are caring for their loved ones receiving hospice care. May peace and comfort of God surround them and assure them of God’s never ending love.

We also lift up all in our community who are seeking healing from surgical procedures, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and rehab. We pray for our loved ones living with mental illness. May you bless them with healing of their bodies, mind, and spirit.

For our newly ordained officers, elders, deacons, and trustees, pour forth your Spirit of imagination, creativity, love and joy as they lead us.

God of creation, our beloved creator, we offer to you our praise and thanks to you, our God of glory.

The earth, O God, and all in it are yours. Lead us to care for the world as our spiritual duty, discipline and calling.

Now joining together with the whole creation, let us pray the prayer that Jesus has taught us all to pray, Our Father…

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