Date: May 15, 2022 Earth Sunday
Scripture Lesson: Psalm 148
Sermon: Here to Praise
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Tonight there is a very special lunar eclipse. Apparently the positioning of things and the timing means that there will be a red glow to the eclipse. Very rare and beautiful. So, if you can, head outside tonight from 11:29 until 12:54 a.m. Hopefully it won’t be cloudy! And most of us won’t have scheduling conflicts.
This special show put on by the moon is the moon doing what it is supposed to do. Playing its part in the drama of Creation. The Psalmist recognizes this as praise to God. Nature praises God when it fully functions as it is intended to. Blossoming, shining, flourishing, fossilizing, flowing, adapting, all as it is created to do – with abandon and abundance.
We read the psalm together and heard how the psalmist celebrates the praise of:
the heights, mountains and hills
the shining stars
the waters above the heavens, rain and the needed life sustaining moisture that comes
from the sky
the skies giving us the night and the day and clouds and weather
the earth, the soil, the rocks, the sand, the hills and valleys, all providing habitat and
resources to sustain life
the sea monsters like whales and fish and manatee
the deeps and all that is contained in the oceans
fire and hail, heat, lightning,
snow and frost, winter weather providing water and dormancy to promote growth
storming wind – gusts, gales, hurricanes and tornadoes with their incredible power
mountains, hills havens for life forms and purveyors of beauty, evidence of deeper
forces within the earth
fruit trees for food and drink
cedars for shade and habitat and construction
beasts of the forest, wild animals that populate the woodlands cultivating the land with
their activities and providing food
cattle and domesticated animals which provide sustenance and companionship
crawling things like worms, insects, microbes, fungi and all the little life forms that
keep the whole system of life awhirl
flying birds with their beauty and their niche in the system of life
All these aspects of the natural world are celebrated in the psalm for praising God. And they do that by flourishing and fulfilling their role is the complicated mysterious design of nature. All have an important role to play. Even the ancient writer knew the importance and interconnectedness of the natural world. In our religious tradition, nature is not only life sustaining, it is sacred. It is the self disclosure of God, of Divine Love. It is to be appreciated and revered.
But the psalm does not just assign the task of praising God to what we would call the natural world. The human species, too, is called upon to praise God. And that command is made with some specificity. It’s not just that people are responsible for offering praise. It is:
rulers and all people
old people, men and women
All are to offer praise. All of us. Every single human being. All stations and strata of society. How do we do that? Well, we come to church and we pray and sing our praises. Notice there are 7 hymns in today’s service. Plenty of praise being offered!
But like nature, we also praise by fulfilling our role in the greater scheme of life. By doing our part as the waters and weather and animals and plants and soil and land do their part in contributing to the ecosystem that sustains life.
And what is our role? The Bible, our sacred text, gets quite specific about that in the first book of the Bible, the book of beginnings and origins, Genesis. That is where we are told that our role in the grand scheme of Creation is to function in the image of God, taking care of the whole system, tending it, keeping it, stewarding it. We are care takers. We are to care for the whole system of life so that all of its parts can praise as they care intended to – so that they can fully function in their role. We are to oversee the whole thing and keep it healthy. That is our role. And when we fulfill our role, we are offering our praise to God, to Divine Love, to the source, the genius, the mystery. We offer our praise by caring for the whole of nature making it possible for nature to offer its praise.
How are we doing? Is our praise ringing through the mountains, sounding over the waters, echoing in the valleys, resonating over fields and forests, reverberating in the skies? Ask the Florida scrub jay – heading for extinction. Or the manatee – dying out of starvation. Shall we ask the vanishing butterflies? The bleached corals? Shall we ask the dead fish ravaged by red tide caused by fertilizer run off? Shall we consult the chemically laden fields and lawns and golf courses? The downed forests and trees? Shall we ask the waters tainted by industrial waste? Or the air laden with pollutants? How are we doing with our praise? Fulfilling our role as care takers?
A member of the congregation recently suggested a book to me, Wilding by Isabella Tree. I listened to it. And then I read the actual book. I think about that book every single day. Literally. It is the story of a 3,500 acre estate in England that was a farm. And the owners, a couple, over time decide to no longer use the land for agricultural purposes which have proven completely unprofitable. Instead, they undertake a decades long process of rewilding the land. This involves restoring the soil, restoring natural water ways and wetlands, letting native trees and weeds and bushes and bracken to grow. It involves introducing wild animals to re-inhabit the land. It is a very involved process that they pursued extremely carefully and with a lot of consultation from scientists and naturalists from various fields. The book begins with a reference to a verse from the Song of Solomon: “Flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the Turtle is heard in our land.” [Song of Solomon 2:12] This is a reference to the turtle dove which is approaching extinction in the United Kingdom. But as the wilding proceeds at the estate, called Knepp, the turtle dove returns as do many many other species of plants and animals and butterflies and countless other creatures. All offering their praise as they thrive in the newly rewilded environment.
The project at Knepp certainly is well received by nature; the flora and fauna flourish and create balance as they increase in numbers. But there are other problems. The main resistance to the project comes not from nature but from the neighbors. Charlie Burrell and Isabelle Tree who are pursing this restoration tried to share their dream with their neighbors. They had a gathering with a presentation and provided dinner to about 50 neighbors. The result was not what they expected or hoped for. Tree recounts some of the responses they received.
“When Charlie stood up to show how he envisaged the landscape of Knepp changing over the next few years, the tidy Sussex fields and manicured hedges devolving into rampant scrub and untrammeled wetland, the room erupted into a dissident murmuring and shaking of heads. It wasn’t simply that our neighbours (including some other members of the family) thought this wasn’t right for them. Chatting to them afterwards, Charlie and I realized it was more visceral than that. It was an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.” [Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, Isabella Tree, p. 98.]
As the wilding process continued, local support did not materialize. Tree writes: “Our area of the south-east is, according to the authors of The Kent and Sussex Weald (2003), ‘beautifully man-made.’ It is ‘one of the longest-running and best recorded examples of the unremitting labour of generations of farmers to clear and settle a great expanse of wild country.’ It was not surprising, then, that locals who had gazed all their lives on what they considered the epitome of English landscape, the picture postcard of resolute agricultural endeavor, were out raged when Knepp [the estate] was invaded by scrub. . .” [Wilding, p. 129.]
Nature loving neighbors simply did not think that it was an appropriate use of land in their domain. They thought the land looked like a mess, abandoned, like the owner had died and the land was abandoned. Tree explains: “Abandoning the land to nature, on the other hand — letting it go — smacked of laziness, irresponsibility, even immorality. It was uncivilized, a ‘backward step.’ To some it was ‘wanton vandalism.’” [Wilding, p. 130.]
So this amazing re-wilding project runs into NIMBY. Not. In. My. Backyard. We love nature. It’s great to learn about all the wild animals and nature biomes. On TV. From a documentary. In a book. Or on a trip. But at home? That’s another story.
We know that story. We want to support the natural world, but not if it means restricting development and the tax base that pays for schools and roads and EMS services. We love nature, but we don’t want to pay more for food grown locally using sustainable practices. We like our neighborhoods neat and tidy. And we idolize our freedoms: It’s your yard, you have the right to cut down all the trees. Nature is fine until it creates friction with some of our long held beliefs and assumptions and rights. The poet Rumi reminds us: “We rarely hear the inward music but we are dancing to it nevertheless.” [Wilding, p. 150.]
In our Western Christian tradition, we also want to own the fact that we have intentionally moved away from nature. In our industrialized, advanced, modern society, Christianity moved away from devotion to nature. Love and reverence for nature was associated with animistic, aboriginal religions. It was considered primitive. There was a racial component involved in looking down on cultures that venerated nature. Western industrialized society was thought to be superior, with nature considered a big bank from which to make withdrawals to fund the exploits of capitalism. So our religious heritage has had a decided bias against the veneration of nature for economic and racial and cultural reasons. We now see the need to atone for this prideful abusive attitude that was fostered by western Christianity. And we are beginning to appreciate all that we have to learn from original peoples about living in harmony and balance with nature.
So this Earth Sunday we think about our praise. Will it be limited to the singing of hymns on Sunday? Or will we truly embrace our divine calling as part of Creation and become the protectors of nature that we are intended to be? Will we take the drastic measures necessary to protect the planet? Or will we just sing hymns in church? At one time, taking care of the Earth was considered the purview primarily of those in agriculture but now we have come to see the wisdom of the psalmist – this is the responsibility of every single human being. Leaders, young and old, men and women, literally everyone.
In the Hindu scripture, the Artharva Veda, written about 1200 BCE, we are told, “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter, and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.” [Quoted in Wilding, p. 268.]. This could have come from our own scriptures which echo the need to care for the land so that the land can support our lives.
We have so much to be grateful for. To offer praise about. May we not limit our praise to this sanctuary. But may the earth be our sanctuary, the dwelling place of the reality of God. All the earth and the universes beyond.
We are far more likely to take care of and defend and protect what we cherish and adore. A colleague has this quote at the end of his email signature: “If you fall in love with the Earth, you will fight to save the Earth.” [Rev. Bob Shore Goss] So, set your alarm for 11:25 tonight. Get up and head outside with a chair. And settle in to watch the show put on by the moon and the earth, dancing their praise. And remember the poem by 17th century Japanese poet Masahide:
Barn’s burnt down –
I can see the moon.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.