Stewards of All Creation

Passage: Psalm 8
Date: June 16, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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[By Mayne Ellis]
But haven’t we always known?
The shimmer of trees, the shaking of flames
every cloud lined with something
clean water sings
right to the belly
scouring us with its purity
it too is awash with diamonds
“so small that trillions could rest
on the head of a pin”
It is not unwise then to say
that the air is hung close with diamonds
that we breathe diamond
our lungs hoarding, exchanging
our blood sowing them rich and thick
along every course it takes
Does this explain
why some of us are so hard
why some of us shine
why we are all precious
that we are awash in creation
spumed with diamonds
shot through with beauty
that survived the death of stars
[* quotation found in a newspaper clipping on the subject]

On this lovely June day, we get to talk about creation – the beauty of creation, the hierarchy of creation, and God’s call to us to care for the whole creation – flora and fauna and homo sapiens.

The psalmist reminds us that all such talk begins with gratitude – gratitude to God the Creator for this gift of the created life. We praise God’s majesty and handiwork; we drive out to the middle of nowhere in the depths of a summer night, and look up at the sky, and say, “Oh.Wow.”

You know what I mean. You can see the constellations whose names you learned when you were a kid, and you can actually make out a bit of the Milky Way. If you’re lucky, you’ll see shooting stars. Or sometime in March or April you’re out walking and you smell something unbelievable – sweet and citrusy and pure and sure enough, there’s daphne blooming in the spot that had so recently been flooded by winter rains.

Or a sunset, or a sunrise, or the sequoia or praying mantis or river otter pups rescued and cared for at the zoo. Creation is amazing.And we get to be part of it.

Not only part of it, the psalmist would say; not only part of it, but the caretakers of it. We’ve been given dominion over these things. And we’ve had some interesting interpretations of what it means to have that kind of dominion, to care for creation. Perhaps when we lived closer to the land, we had a better sense of our responsibility for the earth. Then technology crept in – not that technology in and of itself is a bad thing – but as caring for the earth became easier with the plough rather than the hoe, with the reaper rather than hand-picking, with Round Up rather than pulling weeds – well, we lost touch.

Beryl Markham, one of the great aviators of the early 20th century, made a pithy observation about all of this. In her memoir West with the Night she wrote, “To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told – that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.” 

I think it has been a human tendency to become infatuated with inventing things and with becoming more efficient so that we don’t have to work as hard and we have more time. So we move from bayonets and swords to atomic bombs and drone strikes. We move from sending a canary into a coal mine before sending miners to fracking away mountains. We move from coffee klatches to group texts and Facebook posts which may or may not be read or liked.

And we’re starting to realize the cost of all of this. One of my daughter’s friends had the opportunity to speak to a committee of Metro about the proposed freeway expansion, and this is what she said. “Imagine if you were 13 years old, and instead of planning sleepovers, you were meeting with legislators in Salem, organizing environmental justice walkouts, and writing testimonies. I will be 24 years old when my climate fate is sealed. My classmates won't have a future after age 24. So we are here today, begging you to give us that future.”

I must tell you, the dire predictions from renowned scientists about the devastating effects of climate change are so terrifying to me, I have to bury my head in the proverbial sand rather than face the truth. And still I drive my car when I could walk to church, and still I buy things in plastic containers that can’t be recycled.

But perhaps – perhaps – worse than our callous treatment of the earth is our callous treatment of each other. Because sometimes in our work to care for creation we forget that human beings are part of creation – a highly treasured part, if the psalmist is right; so beloved by God that we rank a little lower than the angels.

And yet. The things we do to one another.

You may remember a few weeks ago when Chelle Hammer offered a Minute for Mission about the Pride Parade. She talked about walking amid signs that said, “God hates you” and “Jesus would bake you a cake.” When did Jesus ever say it was okay to hate people who were different from us? When did Jesus ever hate the outcast, the sinner, the unclean, the tax collector, the Roman soldier, the Pharisee, the child, the foreigner, the powerful, the powerless? When? Never.

So when did we get the notion that it was okay to hate? To separate? To shame? To ignore? How on earth does separating children from their parents at the border honor the human creation? How does allowing the people of Flint, Michigan, to continue to drink contaminated water indicate their status as little lower than the angels?

We’ve confused power with love, and we’ve confused judgment with grace, and we’ve confused consumption with joy. And the creation and its creatures suffer because of our confusion.

I honestly don’t know if we can turn the tide on climate change and all the horrific results. I don’t know if we’ll stop having weather extremes, drought and flood, polar vortexes and forest fires. I don’t know if we can atone to the earth for the damage we have done to it, especially in the last century.

But I do know that we can do something about the way we treat each other. This very day, some of the men in our congregation are finishing up their retreat, where among other things, they talked about living wholeheartedly (to borrow Brene Brown’s phrase) and embracing vulnerability. This very day, twenty folks from our Westminster community are marching in the Pride Parade downtown, witnessing that in fact the real church of Jesus is about love and not hate. This Father’s Day, people are thinking about their dads, about the men in their lives who were like fathers to them, about children whom they have been fathers to, and about how to show the love of God, who for many is best described as Father, to the children of the world.

I don’t know if we will ever erase the abhorrent stain of racism in our nation, but I do know a lot of people are working to call out hate and prejudice and to offer a different way. And I don’t know if we will ever eliminate the scourge of poverty, right here in Portland or around the world, but I know that many are mindful of the systems that encourage disparity and are working to dismantle them.

I don’t know if we will ever house the 3,000 people who currently live on the streets of Portland, but I do know many bright, committed people are working on it. Last week I attended a meeting of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty where we heard three speakers address how the city and county are responding to homelessness.

Cupid Alexander, the mayor’s senior advisor of policy development around housing, Seraphie Allen, policy advisor and oversight for homelessness and livability, and Marc Jolin, head of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, gave an hour and half of their time talking about this issue. What I heard, beneath their ideas and reports and frustrations and hopes, was a compassion for people who are not able to live fully because they live with mental or physical illness or disability, with addiction, with loneliness, and without a sheltered place to call home. They are heirs of God, part of the creation, as much as you or I.

Sam Wells, vicar of St. Martins in the Fields church in London, reminds us of the thread that binds all of this together.In his book A Nazareth Manifesto he writes, “The world was not created as a playground, to be tossed away when it became troublesome, tedious, or tired. Yet neither was it made as a project, a focus for constant upgrading, relentless improving, or perpetual tinkering. It was made as a theater of relationship – fundamentally relationship between God and humanity, and by extension human relationship with one another and the wide creation.” 

So if you really believe in God’s majesty, in God’s extraordinary creativity, in the beauty that God has given us, and if you really believe in the equality of creation and our divine call to care for the earth and to care for one another, then let me suggest you heed this challenge from Sister Joan Chittester.

“Try saying this silently to everyone and everything you see for thirty days: ‘I wish you happiness now and whatever will bring happiness to you in the future.’ If we said it to the sky, we would have to stop polluting; if we said it when we see ponds and lakes and streams, we would have to stop using them as garbage dumps and sewers; if we said it to small children, we would have to stop abusing them;…if we said it to people, we would have to stop stoking the fires of enmity around us. Beauty and human warmth would take root in us like a clear, hot June day. We would change.” (In a High Spiritual Season)

May it be so, to the glory of God.