A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
By The Rev. Franklin E. Vilas, D.Min. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sermon for Pentecost 23, 2003
Church of the Messiah, Chester, NJ
"God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of glory and praise. At you command, all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home." BCP, Page 370Throughout the story of the human race, there have come moments of a breakthrough in consciousness-- a radical shift in the way that things are perceived. Certainly the discovery of fire, tools and language were such moments. So also was the discovery of the continent of North America by Europeans with the knowledge and technology to inhabit it.
The circumnavigation of the globe, proving that the Earth was round, and the Copernican revolution of the understanding of the solar system were such moments. At these times events ocurred which reached deep into the psyche of the human race and changed forever our percep-tion of reality. In our own time the discovery of the atom and the introduction of the nuclear age, coupled with Einstein's theory of relativity sent shockwaves through the collective understanding of the human race,
And a little over thirty-four years ago another event ocurred which has permeated the consciousness of much of the world's people, has changed forever the way we perceive our planet, and has reached into the popular culture. I am speaking, of course, of the landing of human beings on the moon-- and, most especially, of the vision of the Earth from space which that voyage produced. NASA pictures of that image have become standard fare in everything from tee shirts, posters and text books to popular religious cults.
And, as we have seen, it has even worked its way into the formal worship of the Epis-copal Church. "This fragile Earth, our island home" as a phrase in eucharistic rite C in our 1979 prayer book is a direct result of the 1969 venture into space. It is not that prior to that time we did not perceive with our intellects that the Earth was a small planet in a huge universe. But the image, the photo of the Earth seen for the first time at such a distance, struck deeply into our hearts and took on the power of a living symbol.
It brought with it not only a sense of the beauty and fragility of our planet, but also the immediate knowledge of what it means that all life here is interconnected and interdependent-- sharing the common fate of the spheres that comprise our environment. The atmosphere, the oceans, the land masses and the biosphere itself, the envelope of life surrounding the Earth, are seen from this perspective as part of the same, beautiful dance of planetary being.
But in our day this very interconnectedness has brought a threat to the planet never known before. The human impact upon the Earth has been dramatic and unprecedented. The destruction now present in all of the spheres is being increasingly documented by science, and the future qual ity of life is in real doubt. The prophetic words of Jeremiah from our lesson today seem to be fulfilled: "How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people say "He is blind to our ways."
The growth of world population and the insensitivity of our human culture pose immense problems that should be of concern to all Christians. The reason for our concern may be found in the scriptures, and in our belief that Jesus Christ, whose life, passion and resurrection we celebrate every Sunday, was indeed the earthly manifestation of the divine Creator.
The prologue of John's Gospel today identifies Jesus as one with the Word, the Divine Logos, the spirit of creation that brooded over the face of the deep at the very beginning of the universe. "Without him was not anything made that was made", writes John. "He was in the world, and the world was made through him."
This is the cosmic dimension of the Christ spirit, which is being rediscovered in our day. To reaffirm this dimension of Christ is not to deny the reality and the power of the historical Jesus and his sacrifice. But it carries us past his humanity to his essence-- the energy and the spirit that drives the universe itself.
According to both Hebrew and Christian scriptures and belief, the planet Earth is an expression of the love of the Creator and is in itself both beautiful and good. The human race was created for consciousness, creativity and the capacity for love-- that is, in the image of God. Then, in the biblical story, human beings are given "dominion" over the earth, and it is the interpretation of that phrase that has caused all of the difficulty.
For the human race is also clearly given in the book of Genesis from the first the task of stewardship of creation. Adam was appointed to till the garden-- not to exploit it! But for Jesus, and for Paul after him, the earth which was created so beautiful and good was under a curse. That curse was placed on the earth not by the capricious will of God, but by Adam's decision to turn from God, and the choice of the human race which followed him to live by domination rather than by stewardship of the Earth, which henceforth became the enemy and recently the victim of human conquest.
In the wilderness after his baptism, Jesus was tested with the ultimate temptation of power over the Earth. Satan shows him the kingdoms of the world and offers them to his control if Jesuswill worship him, the ultimate spirit of egocentric domination. Jesus rejects the temptation todom- inate the earth by power, and accepts instead the path of self-giving love. But the human race at that point in its evolution was not ready to accept this way, and Jesus died nailed to a tree-- the very symbol of the earth he came to heal and renew.
In his rejection of domination in the wilderness, Jesus becomes not only the servant of the human race, but a servant as well of the planet Earth. The gifts of his death and resurrection, and of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, were gifts to human beings, and to the Earth. Paul affirms this insight to the Romans in his wonderful words describing the creation's stake in the gift of Christ:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God... because the creation itself will be set free from the bondage of decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God..."Whatever the eternal and mysterious truth may be that echos in this passage, we can see the importance of its message to our present situation. For the Earth and its lifeforms are threatened today precisely because we have ignored Christ's example. We have chosen to reject the way of self-giving love and have accepted instead the way of domination and exploitation. Satan has offered us wealth, power and the highest standard of living ever known, if we will worship instead of the God of Creation the profit motive, the financial bottom line, technological achievement, material success and miltary superiority.
At this present time the laws that have promoted the stewardship of the environment in our country are under attack by lobbyists for special interest groups, who publicly and in secret have pursuaded the administration to roll back decades of progress in reversing the downward spiral of the last century. Though we claim to be a Christian nation, the United States-- which should be a leader in the effort to preserve the environment throughout the world-- has chosen instead the road of prolonged selfishness.
In the past, the major religions-- all of which have a belief in the sanctity of the created order-- have been all too silent on this subject. In the Episcopal Church, we have been embroiled in issues that have drawn our attention away from the call of our Lord to promote justice and to honor God's Creation. But gradually, in the last decade, there has been an awakening to the crisis we are in because of institutionalized greed, and movements have begun that promise to raise our sights to the long-range problems posed by our consumerist excesses Most certainly the Christ-ian church should lead the way.
For we affirm our faith in Jesus of Nazareth as a human being whose love for the created order of nature poured forth in his preaching and parables. The birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the mustard seed, the fields ripe for harvest, the fish of the sea and the wind of the storms were the images of his message. He saw in the eyes of children the soul of the human race, a window onto eternity. He was him-self, as we are, a part of the created order which he loved and came to heal.
But we worship also Christ as the Word of God, the divine energy of creation from the dawn of the universe, the Cosmic Being through whom all things were made, the origin and the source of life. And in both manifestations-- as human being and as divine Word-- the Jesus we seek to follow cries out to us through the present agony of the Earth itself. May we seek through our study, prayers, commitment and action to respond to His cry.
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