Sermon for Earth Day

Sermon for Earth Day

by The Rev. Franklin E. Vilas, D.Min.

Preached on April 21st, 2002, at St. Paul's Church, Paterson, NJ

"All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being..." John 1:3

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now--- For the creation awaits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.." Romans 8: 22,19

These are the texts which I have selected for my sermon this morning, which is being preached on Earth Day, 2002. It was thirty years ago that an international conference re-sulted in a new awareness of the importance of ecology to every human being. I have been asked here to preach today because I am the president of a Partners for Environmental Quality, a statewide, interfaith organization which is working for the healing of the envir-onment. But I am here not as an environmentalist. I am here as a committed Christian for whom these two texts from the Bible have come alive.

The first text, from the prologue of John's Gospel, which we usually read at Christ-mas, tells us something about Jesus Christ that it is hard to hear and to understand. It is telling us that Jesus was not simply a man, a special human being who received a unique gift from God. John is telling us that Jesus as Christ was the incarnation, the presence in history, of that very energy, that very power which created the universe from its beginning, and has worked through time to bring everything into being, including the planet Earth, and all its lifeforms.

The Spirit that we meet in the human being Jesus of Nazareth is the same who was present at the dawn of Creation. "All things came into being through him", says John-- "and without him not one thing came into being." With these words, John raises the ante in our belief about Jesus to the heavens themselves-- to the Big Bang, or whatever scientists of the future may discover about the beginning of our universe. When I realized in my heart and mind the impact of these words, my concern about the planet Earth and the gift of nature which God has given us suddenly exploded.

I had grown up in New York City, and knew very little about the natural world as a child. But as I learned more about nature, I realized what a gift had been given to us by God. When I read the Gospel of John I realized that as a Christian I had to be concerned about the creation God had made through the Word which came to earth as Jesus Christ. For my reading and my work had brought me into contact with the problems the human race is causing by its destruction of our natural world. In the early nineties, I was part of agroup of religious leaders that advised the United Nations Environment Programme in preparation for the Earth Summit in Rio DeJaneiro, and I learned of the extent to which we have destroyed the topsoil, the forests, the rivers, the creatures and the atmosphere of our planet.

As I became more aware of the damage we were doing to God's creation, the sec-ond text from Romans leaped alive. "The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.." From its earliest days, the human race has sought to tame and control the nat-ural world. Rather than a gift from God, it has often been seen as an enemy, and in the last 100 years it has become an object, a commodity to be used as a means of profit. Human greed has become the destroyer of nature, and every year thousands of species of God's creatures have become extinct at the hands of the human race.

As international corporations have moved into poor nations, the natural resources have been taken and the environment has often been poisoned in the process. The result is not just damage to the earth and the creatures of the earth, but to human beings as well. I believe that by the latest count of the United Nations, 12 million children under the age of six die every year over the world. Many are killed in conflicts such as those recently in Af-ghanastan and the Middle East-- but most of them die from starvation, polluted water or other environmentally caused conditions and diseases. While this is happening, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The gap between the richest people in the world and the poorest has never been greater.

You cannot have healthy people on a sick earth-- and not only nature but the hu-man race is groaning like a woman in labor. Here in New Jersey, the pollution of the water, the air and the earth is a major factor in everybody's life-- but again, especially among the poor. Lead poisoning most often effects the children of our urban areas, robbing their minds of the ability to learn. Those living in and around incinerators, chemical and power plants-- who are usually poor and people of color-- suffer a higher rate of cancer and other diseases-- while the rate of childhood asthma in New Jersey has doubled in the past decade.

For several years, Partners for Environmental Quality has brought the religious community together to warn the people of New Jersey that under electricity deregulation business interests as well as homeowners would rush to purchase the cheapest energy avail-able. That energy is produced in dirty coal power plants to the west of New Jersey, from where prevailing winds bring the resulting polluted air into our lungs. An article in the New York Times last week projected 6,000 premature deaths by 2007 from power plant pollution alone.

Pollutants from cars and trucks add poison to our air, and the federal government has recently acted once more in the interest of the auto industry by failing to demand cleaner cars, and by allowing private vans to continue to emit truck standard pollution. The result is breathing disorders and the radical increase in the number of asthma cases. Indeed, the whole creation--New Jersey included-- is groaning in labor pains. But what is to be born? A new generation of environmentalists? No. The Epistle to the Romans tells us that the creation awaits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. Who is that? It's us, folks! The children of God are those who have been born of the spirit, and who honor God as parent and the creation as the gift it was meant to be. The creation-- and we need to remember that as members of the human race, we are part of that creation-- the whole creation awaits the revealing of human beings who live not by the law of vio-lence and greed, but by the law of love.

I spent most of my ministry working in the areas of human healing and human justice. I was active in the civil rights movement of the sixties and the peace movement of the seventies. All through that time I worked as a pastor in the church's healing ministry, and as an advocate for the mentally ill. Then, in 1984, I heard the voice of my Lord and Saviour calling me gently to a ministry of healing the Earth.

That is what we are about on Earth Day. We are here to honor God in his Son Jesus, the Christ-- the incarnation of the Word through whom all things came into being. And we are here to heed the groaning of God's creation-- including his human creation-- which as the children of God we are called to love and to heal.

What can we do? There are many little things that we can accomplish in our homes and in our church building that will continue the movement which may help to heal the earth. In the context of this sermon, recycling or water and power conservation can become little sacraments. PEQ has reminded congregations over the past few years that if you purchase cleaner energy, every time you turn on a light switch is a sacramental rite.

Through the efforts of the Rev. Fletcher Harper and the Environmental Commission of this Diocese, the last convention endorsed a covenant with the State of New Jersey to seek to lessen greenhouse gases that poison our air and disrupt our atmosphere. St. Paul's in Paterson can also sign that covenant, and you can become one of many con-gregations in our state who are willing to stand up and be counted.

Form what PEQ has called a "green team", a small group in your parish composed of adults and young people who can study and promote environmentally sound practices in your church buildings, your homes and your community. Consider joining those in the Diocese of Newark and throughout the country who celebrate a "Creation Season" from St. Francis' Day in October for the eight weeks leading to Advent-- and use that season to raise awarness about the issues that face us all, and the way in which they relate to our Christian Faith.

Take these steps not because you are an environmentalist, but because you are responding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ-- and His call to serve and love the world which was created through the Spirit that dwelt in him-- the world he came to heal and to save.



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