(Note: as “Earth Week” draws to a close, I offer this edited sermon text from two weeks ago. You can actually hear the slightly modified spoken version by clicking<here.)
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!”
— Jesus of Nazareth
The first time I ever had full blown anxiety attack, I was living in the small town of Mason, Texas in the Texas Hill Country. I had just moved to Mason from Dallas, straight from the campus of Perkins, to begin a year-long internship among the fine people there.
I really loved my time in Mason. Folks there are are very provincial in many ways. They are insular in many ways. But they are among the kindest people I’ve ever known, and they taught me a lot.
Mason is precisely 100 miles from Austin, 100 miles from San Angelo, and 100 miles from San Antonio. So yes, crassly, it’s 100 miles from anywhere. Those distances have allowed it to avoid many of the changes that have come upon the rest of the Texas Hill Country. Unlike Fredericksburg —the next town due south– it’s too North and too far West to have yet been invaded by the city folks who buy up the main street shops, hoping to live out a “Green Acres” episode.
Mason is 43 miles from the nearest real hospital and 70 miles from the nearest major medical center. And it was perhaps these last facts that contributed to my first real anxiety attack. For you see, one night, very early in my stay there, I found myself unable to sleep. I found myself completely awake, heart racing, and breath quick. I could not settle down.
I got up, I looked through the screen door into the black abyss of night, and that just made it worse. And I had an anxiety attack. Because I suddenly realized that I WAS 100 miles from anywhere.
I suddenly realized –perhaps for the first time in my life– that the vast majority of God’s green earth was, well, GREEN. It wasn’t made of concrete. It wasn’t made of streets. The grass wasn’t contained in little small square containers. The trees weren’t manicured and maintained by landscaper.
As I stared off into the darkness of that night, realizing that I was surrounded –for hundreds of miles in any direction– by nothing but cattle, cactus, armadillos and rattlesnakes. And I freaked.
My anxiety did not go away overnight. As I look back on it now, it gradually went away as I came to know and appreciate those people and their land.
They invited me to their ranches, and we would walk the pastures. I saw amazing sights there; like the day 40-50 white tail deer leaped over a barbedwire fence with the synchronized elegance and grace of a ballet company.
On my days off, I often drove the 30-some-miles over to Enchanted Rock, and sat on the top of that big boulder, reading Thomas Merton, feeling the wind on my face, watching hawks circle lazily above my head like long-lost friends. Folks from Mason invited me to see the marvel of an actual ”bat cave” at dusk; where thousands of bats trail out of the cave, and into the night sky, like a long strand of twirling DNA.
I learned that if I found myself getting anxious late at night, I could drive about a quarter mile out of town, park my truck on the side of the road, and stare up at the stars….an incredible carpet of stars that stretched out before me. Seemingly infinite. Every single night out there, I saw no less that five shooting stars.
Eventually, I learned to appreciate the vastness of the great outdoors. To listen to it. To learn from it.
The people of Mason taught me about it too. One of my first Friday nights in town, there was, of course, a high school football game. EVERYBODY in town went to the high school football game. So, I did too.
The Mason “Punchers” (short for “cowpunchers”) were playing some 2-A rival from somewhere. There was a storm forecast for that night, and it had apparently been a while since it had rained. Somewhere around halftime, I got bored and decided to walk around the stadium. I was just getting to the visitor’s side, when I heard the biggest yell of the night come up from the crowd, as if some kid had just broken off a 90-yard run.
But, no. The crowd rose to it’s feet, cheering and yelling, as rain swept in silently across the field. A POURING rain moved across the stadium lights, like a theater curtain drawing back. And as it progressed across the field, the cheers got louder and louder; such that, at the end, as the entire stadium stood in the midst of a drenching gulleywasher, I saw an amazing sight: the crowd giving the rain a standing ovation.
I had never in my life seen people happy to be in the midst of a rainstorm. But they knew that their fortunes, and the fortunes of their land, were tied up with getting rain. It was not a nuesance to make them ten minutes late in a traffic. It was a necessity of life, lived off the land.
So, the people of Mason taught me something. The land taught me something.
What they taught me is that the earth itself is a SPIRITUAL teacher.
Earth Day is about remembering the earth, and remembering what we have done, or can do, to save the planet. I’ve always been especially proud of our church, and the things we’ve been able to do to become environmentally sensitive.
Our church’s Church and Society Commission has crafted a very simple and direct position statement on the environment during the Fall of 2006.
Citing the scripture “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” it calls on each member to:
“Conserve and protect our Earth’s natural resources,
Promote the sustained use and development of renewable energy sources, and
Persuade our elected representatives to implement public environmental policies that respect and support our world.
Just as God calls us to the action of loving our neighbor, so too God calls us to action in loving our planet. In a very literally sense, environmentalism is a stewardship issues. Stewardship means managing the resources that we have been given, and managing those in a appropriate ways. And one of the most visible ways God calls us to stewardship is through our care of the natural world.”
So, our church has not just put out a statement, we’ve put our money where our mouth is. Every year, for the past four years, on the Sunday we celebrate Earth Day, we have the “Northaven Car Show.” That sounds counter-intuitive, perhaps, on Earth Day.
But, see, a Northaven Car show is a Hybrid car show. We ask our Hybrid owners to park their Hybrids around the circular drive in front of the church, pop the hoods, and allow others to peruse the technology.
The first year, we had five or six Hybrids. The next year, we maybe had ten. I think we had twelve last year.
Two weeks ago, the 2008 Northaven Car Show featured NINETEEN Hybrids and high-mileage vehicles. (Including one Vespa scooter, which tops out at 100 mpg!!!)
We have documented at least 20 households that own Hybrids, which means that more than five percent of our member-households drive them!!! That’s really exciting.
Northaven is also one of the only churches in the entire State of Texas to use 100 percent renewable energy. Last year, when our Board of Trustees entered into a new three-year energy contract, they decided that for a very small premium of a few percent more, they would provide our church with 100 percent renewable energy.
A few months back, a reporter called to ask me about this. He started by reminding me that the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church had chosen to require it’s electricity provider to include 10 percent renewable energy to all its member churches.
So, a DMN calls and says, “So, I hear Methodist Churches also have the choice to buy 100 percent green energy, and I wondered if you all had done that.”
And I said, “Yes, we have.”
And he said, “Yeah, I figured you all would…”
Then, he told me that he could only find three churches in the entire state that had committed to 100 percent green energy!!!
But I want to also commend what our annual conference did. Many times, we at Northaven find ourselves at odds with the greater United Methodist Church on a variety of social issues. But on the environment, I hope we can rejoice with them. Because the reporter also told me that he could find no other judicatory, no parish…no annual conference, no diocese, in any denomination, that had collectively bargained for a renewable energy requirement in an electricity contract. (Some might argue that 10 percent is not enough. Well, the contract’s up in three years. I trust it will be more next time…)
That kind of collective bargaining and organizing, on this issue of renewable energy, shows how churches can put their values into action, challenging the society to change.
Moving away from the practical, however, I want to get back to the theological and the spiritual. Because I want to suggest that there is a deep-level spiritual reason to save the planet.
Sure, there are scientific reasons. But there are also spiritual ones too. Saving our planet is also about saving our spirituality.
The truth is that the WORLD itself speaks the WORD to us, if only we will listen. Listen to this, from an early Christian saint:
“Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead (God) set before your eyes the things that (God) had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?” — St. Augustine
Many people wrongly believe that Christianity is a religion that condones the domination of the world. And, in one sense, some of historical Christian theology HAS done this. And we should repent of that. Some people mistakenly read the passage Genesis story as not only a beautiful hymn of the creation of the world, but also as free reign for Christians to use up the world’s resources.
Add to this, Christian fundamentalists, who often believe that the end of the world is very near, and question the whole assumption of Global Warming. (If the world’s about to end, why bother?)
Ironically, there are also scientific fundamentalists in our world today, who believe it’s their duty to save the world from fundamentalist Christians!!!They see the battle of “saving the world” as one that pits modern science and “enlightenment” against ignorant and harmful religion. You know, “enlightened science,” don’t you? You know, the folks that brought us the gas engine, every smelter in Midloathian, every styrofoam cup you’ve ever used, and every nuclear reactor every built.
Yep, these were not invented by theologians, but by the most enlightened science of the time. The truth is, our science has rarely been much more enlightened than our theology. And, ignoring their own technological sins –just as much as Christian fundamentalist often ignore their theological ones– modern scientists and Christian fundamentalist engage in a “yin/yang” battle over so-called “creationism.”
But what if we looked at it differently? What if we said to ourselves that modern science can give us the scientific reasons for why we should fight global warming –the beautiful story of evolution and how creatures work together in an amazing harmony and unity, and the search for a science that respects this– but Christianity can give us a moral and spiritual compass? Spirituality can remind us that God moves in and through all creation. In fact, as the beautiful poem from the first chapters of Genesis suggests that God moves in and through the very ACT of creation. And it stands as a marvelous hymn to creation, not a replacement of scientific evolution.
“God writes the Gospel, not in the bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” — Martin Luther
The fact is that the early story of Christianity is tied to the natural world, not an enemy of it. Jesus spent most of his ministry in a rural setting, preaching on the tops of mountains, by rivers, and by the lakeshore.
Jesus told story after story that used the environment as a backdrop for making a spiritual point:
“The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”
“I am the Good Shepherd…”
Jesus told parables of workers in the field, not workers in a factory. And unless you realize just how difficult it is to spend all day sweltering in the hot sun, you likely cannot understand just how unfair it seemed when everybody got paid the same.
Many of Jesus’ stories and teaching used the metaphors of the earth; trusting that his audience would understand the Gospel message because they too were connected to, and understood, the earth.
“Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus says.
“Consider the ravens of the air,” Jesus says.
And in this, I truly believe Jesus didn’t just mean, “hypothetically, conjure up the image of a bird in your brain.”
No, I think he more likely meant:
“Get yourself outside and watch the hawks circle Enchanted Rock. Watch their lazy paths, back and forth across the sky…and allow them to speak to you.”
Jesus would say, “Get yourself down to Ennis and “consider” the bluebonnets…notice how the redtailed hawks and the bluebonnets do not spin nor toil…yet God takes care of them. And if God takes care of them, will not God take care of YOU?”
You see, what I finally learned in Mason, Texas is that the natural world –cause of that initial attack of anxiety– would also be the very think to lead me away from worry!!!
I learned I could watch the clouds move across the night sky –unilluminated by light pollution, moving in still silence– and I learned to trust that God was caring for the world through the rain that could come from them. I learned to listen to the hawks, and “consider” the bats, and trust that the shooting starts were messages about how, as Indiana poet Max Erhman once said, “the universe is unfolding as it should.”
But here’s the paradox: If we do not take care of the earth, we not only LOSE the earth as a natural resource, we lose the earth as a SPIRITUAL TEACHER!
You see, this is the final, terrible irony. God tells us to consider the ravens of the air as a way to learn not to worry. God DOES care for the natural world. God is working in and through our ecosystems and evolutionary processes to create an amazing message of the Gospel.
But we human beings have the power to destroy those ravens…the only creature with the power to ruin the metaphor is US!!! And, as we lose our natural world, we paradoxically lose that opportunity to calm our worries by considering the lilies!!
“Consider the lilies of the field” is not just a call to save an ecosytem. It’s also a call to honor the earth as a spiritual teacher. We must save the earth not out of some dull and dry scientific duty to avoid greenhouse gases, but because our spiritual destiny is tied up with the Earth’s destiny. As Luther said: God speaks the Gospel through the birds, and the trees and the stars.
So, let us save the Earth, not just for the Earth’s sake, not just for the sake of our physical health, but also for the sake of our own souls too.