In the summer of 2004, Kathy and I and a group of parishioners from the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania spent several weeks in the African nation of Malawi. We were there to evaluate agencies working with AIDS orphans for a parish outreach project that is, I’m happy to say, still going strong. Eight of us traveled by van around the entire country for three weeks, visiting a dozen AIDS agencies and choosing to work ultimately with five. It was hard, disturbing, and inspiring work.
Near the end of our trip we wanted to take a break, so we arranged to spend a weekend at a wilderness camp in a national park there. The camp, Mvuu (Chichewa for “Hippo”) Wilderness Camp, sits on the shore of the Shire River in Liwonde National Park. To get there you cross the river in a rickety boat dodging hippopotami and crocodiles as you go. Once there, you lodge in quite luxurious tent chalets, each with a deck that looks out over the river.
The first afternoon we were there, Kathy Hall made some tea and sat out on the deck, hoping to enjoy the serenity of the river scene. As she read her book, she had the feeling she was being watched. When she looked up from her book, she discovered about 150 vervet monkeys were standing on the deck railings and hanging from the surrounding trees, staring directly at her. That night, when we went to bed, in addition to the sound of the gently flowing river we heard the sounds of natural selection at work. All would be quiet, and then suddenly you’d hear: Thunk! Splash! Scream, Scream, Scream! Munch, Munch, Munch! And then it would be quiet again.
Those of us who live in urban/suburban settings tend to think of “nature” as placid, peaceful, serene. Get to know nature, though, and you realize that there’s a constant struggle going on there beneath the postcard vistas. Our trip to the wilderness camp in Malawi reminded me of the great American nature writer Edward Abbey’s description of the Great American Desert:
Survival Hint #1: Stay out of there. Don't go. Stay home and read a good book, this one for example. The Great American Desert is an awful place. People get hurt, get sick, get lost out there. Even if you survive, which is not certain, you will have a miserable time. The desert is for movies and God-intoxicated mystics, not for family recreation.
It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals. Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity. The soft evolve out. [Edward Abbey, “The Great American Desert”, from Desert Solitaire}
Edward Abbey, of course, was trying to get you to stay away from his beloved desert. He was one of the original movers behind the radical environmental group, Earth First! Like many of the Earth First!ers, Abbey believed that when it came to ecology, human beings are the problem. We are the problem, in their eyes, for two reasons: because we essentially mess up the place, polluting and exploiting it to our own purposes. And we’re the problem because we are sentimental about it, valuing, in theologian Sallie McFague’s words, “snow-capped mountains and pandas” while shunning the insects, rodents, and stinkweeds that also make up a valuable part the natural world.
Today is Earth Sunday, the second Sunday we have set apart to observe the season of Creation. In the course of my working life in the church, from the 1970s to now, the environmental movement has had an enormous effect on Christian theology. And it’s good that it has. For most of its existence, the church has read Genesis 1:28 as a warrant for doing whatever we want to the planet:
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.’
Since the 1960s and 70s, the increasing awareness of the environmental catastrophe that we humans have brought on the Earth—pollution and overpopulation, originally, now global warming and chaotic climate change—that awareness has caused many in the church to try to understand stewardship of creation in a different, less exploitive, light. Still, those who think about the environment have become conflicted about the role we human beings should play in the overall scheme of nature. Does nature exist for us? Are we the problem? Or is there some other way to understand how we and the earth relate?
The Earth First!ers might take some comfort from our Old Testament reading, the creation story as recounted in the Book of Job. As you remember in that story, Job is a prosperous person whose life suddenly turns upside down. Job complains to God about his suffering, and God responds “out of the whirlwind” with today’s account of the depth and mystery of creation.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: . . .
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know! [Job 38]
Although God loves Job and hears his complaint, the point here seems to be that the mysteries of life—from human suffering to the origin and purpose of the universe—are beyond human comprehension.
However you understand God’s words to Job here, there is a point being made in them we need to hear. Whenever we think of the world as the mere raw material for our commercial or aesthetic processes, whenever we think that nature is here simply for us to use for our own ends, whenever we treat the natural world as ours to do whatever we want with, then we are not honoring the natural world on its own terms. When I treat nature merely as a place to mine raw materials, support arguments for my version of reality, or provide placid vistas to enhance my own serenity, I am not doing justice to the natural world as it is in itself. The world is not here for my exploitation. It has its own integrity and meaning and purpose. It is, in theologian Sallie McFague’s metaphor, “the body of God.” As she says, “The world is the bodily presence, a sacrament of the invisible God.” [“The World as God’s Body” in The Christian Century, July 20-27, 1998, pp. 671-673] The point here is that the world is God’s body, not ours. It deserves the respect we would give to God’s incarnate presence in Jesus. We should treat the world as we would treat our incarnate God.
But lest we overvalue the earth at our expense, we also should realize that human beings deserve a particular kind of respect, too. In our treatment of the world, of God’s body, we have “erred and strayed like lost sheep” in our exploitation and misuse of the world. But just because we have overzealously run with God’s gift of dominion does not mean that we don’t matter. If one point today is that we should treat the world as if it were Jesus, the other point is that we should treat one another that way, too. As Jesus himself says in Matthew’s Gospel this morning,
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. [Matthew 25]
Just as we can become sentimental about snow-capped mountains and pandas, we can become Romantic about how human beings express the divine image. As Linus once said to Charlie Brown in Peanuts, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” Nevertheless, Jesus reminds us of a central truth of Biblical faith. God created human beings in God’s own image. That means that together and separately we express, we represent, we embody something uniquely divine. We Christians may have used this truth, selfishly, as a warrant for doing what we want to the planet, but the misuse of the truth does not negate it. God is involved in us and we in God. God is involved in the world and the world in God. We are precious and we are responsible. It’s not that everything else is an imperfect version of us. It’s that everything exists in its own integrity and we are the caretakers, the shepherds, the stewards whose principal task is to love it all for exactly what it is.
So this morning, on Earth Sunday, our tradition and our faith tell us two powerful truths. Truth one: God made and loves the world. Truth two: God made and loves us. We do not own the world, but we do belong here. The best image might be of a fabric, a texture, a web woven to include the humans, the monkeys, the crocodiles, the stinkweeds, even the snow-capped mountains and pandas in one seamless garment of life.
When I was in college, almost everyone I knew had a copy of “The Desiderata” tacked up on their wall. It’s a sappy poem that begins,“Go placidly amid the noise and haste” and sounded better to mind-altered teenagers then than it does today. But it does have one line that says something profound: “You are a child of the universe; no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
On this Earth Sunday, let us remember that the world and we are incarnations, embodiments, enfleshments of the divine. We all, together, are the body of God. Treat the world as you would treat Jesus. Treat everyone else—the poor, the sick, the imprisoned—as you would treat Jesus. Treat yourself as you would treat Jesus. It is too simple to say either that the planet matters or that we do. Everything matters, because everything that is somehow expresses the love of the One beneath, behind, and before it. As the Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich said when contemplating the hazelnut, that One is the maker and the keeper and the lover of all things. That One who makes and loves and keeps us now invites you to this table. As we come forward, may we be made open to seeing all creation—even ourselves—as threads in the fabric of God’s body. Amen.