Sunday, April 22, 2012

Loving what God loves

Creation Care as Service to God
Genesis 1, 2, 9; Matthew 6:25-30

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Creation Care—
or, depending who’s talking, some other name it goes by,
like ecology, environmentalism, going green—
is a challenging topic, to say the least.
It’s arguably even more challenging,
in a sermon, in a Christian worship service.

Because it’s politically charged.
It’s divisive.
It’s complex.
It’s laden with moral and ethical judgements.
And therefore, 
it’s one of the easiest ways to make enemies of each other.

The church—as I said a few weeks ago on Palm Sunday—
is a political body.
In the pure and positive sense of the word.
That is, we are a body that’s intentional about
how we organize ourselves for our life together,
how we make decisions, distribute power and resources, etc.
But the church’s body politic 
takes its cues from the kingdom of God,
not American-style partisan politics.
We look to Jesus,
and the way Jesus lived and taught and demonstrated
how to live together in the world.

But when I say we look to Jesus,
no way does that mean we “spiritualize” everything.
Might be nice to focus only on so-called “spiritual concerns”—
like our devotional life, our personal relationship with Jesus,
our spiritual experiences.
We might get along better if we could separate out things spiritual,
and put all our attention there.
But we don’t have that luxury.

As the real body of Christ in the world, a Christian body politic,
we must work out our life together 
in a world that demands daily choices of us—
ethical choices, moral choices.
Choices about how we behave in the world.
Choices that have an impact on the common good,
on the well-being of other people, and of all creation.
It’s called Christian ethics.
And that is a spiritual matter.
Because God cares about how we live.

So this morning,
I want to help us re-frame this “hot” topic of Creation Care.
And maybe provide a model for re-framing 
some of the other politically divisive issues we face.

And it centers around a word that sounds extremely un-political,
emotional, inward, spiritual, touchy-feely.
But this word is absolutely political. 
The word is love.

As servants of God,
we are called to love what God loves,
to love all that God loves.

The first and second commandment, according to Jesus,
the law upon which every other law is built,
is the law of love.
“Love the Lord your God with all your
heart, soul, strength, and mind.
And love your neighbor as yourself.”

We are to love God, and love our neighbor,
with every ounce of our being,
pouring into that love all of our energy and resources.
Love of God and neighbor should be
the first thing that grips us when we get up in the morning,
the most powerful thing to motivate us during the day,
and the last thing we contemplate when we lay down at night.

This love should be all-consuming.
Is there any other way to interpret that phrase—
love with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, all our mind?

So let me suggest what this could mean for Creation Care.
And in this, I suspect, what I’m about to say
could be challenging and disturbing for all of us here,
including myself.
As proud as we might feel about ourselves as a church—
having an active Creation Care Council,
pulling off an innovative solar project,
doing an audit to reduce our energy consumption,
lowering our carbon footprint in our lawn care,
cutting back on paper, encouraging recycling—
as good as we might feel about ourselves . . . 
I’m not going to devote this sermon
to patting us on the back.
Nor am I going to do the opposite—
challenge us to do even more,
although, of course, we could do a lot more.

I’m going to challenge us in a different way.
because almost all of us, almost all of the time,
are tempted to get off-center on this issue—
no matter which camp we are in—
green or anti-green,
tree-huggers or tree-harvesters,
pro-environment or pro-development.
All Christians need to examine themselves, on Christian terms,
to see whether our words, attitudes, and actions on this issue
are shaped primarily by partisan politics,
economic interest groups,
or loyalty to certain schools of thought,
or whether our words, attitudes, and actions
are shaped primarily by this central love command
repeated and emphasized by Jesus himself.

We must re-examine our core,
and get re-centered on that core,
and then, and only then, re-join the debate.

You know, people of faith can honestly disagree
about the relative merits of various approaches to Creation Care.
But we should never disagree—
I rarely use the word “never”, but this time, let me repeat it—
we should never disagree about this—
God loves what God created,
and we are likewise called to love what God loves.

Plain and simple,
caring lovingly for God’s creation is a divine mandate.
Let no Christian ever argue with that.

In creating the universe, God acted out of pure and powerful love,
to create a world of beauty, diversity, and abundance.
Then God created humankind, 
and gave them a sacred duty—
to play God with creation.
Yes . . . that’s what I meant to say—we are supposed to “play God.”

I don’t mean replace God. I mean imitate God. 
To love what God loves.
To do what God would do.
Undermining creation, 
polluting the air and water,
cutting off mountaintops,
killing off species,
all for our economic ambition,
is not playing God.
That’s trying to replace God.
That’s working against God.

I think most Christians, including many of us here,
have unfortunately misinterpreted Genesis 1,
where God blessed the male and female humans he made, and said,
“Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it;
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.”

That text has often given, and continues to give,
some anti-environmental Christians 
an excuse to tread hard on the earth,
and do with it what they want,
because God said they could “subdue it”
and “have dominion.”
That text has also often been soft-peddled or ignored
by some environmentally-minded Christians,
who try to rewrite the words “dominion and subdue”
into something much weaker.
Both approaches grossly distort the text.

This dominion God gave us
is, in fact, a God-like power and authority.
We need to accept that and embrace it.
But that power is defined by, and limited by, the love command.
God loves this world dearly which God has made.
And God has entrusted its care into our hands,
has given us authority—not ultimate authority—
but strong authority, and strong responsibility, 
to act on God’s behalf.
God trusts us to love the earth and its creatures
the same way God does.

In Genesis 2:15,
we see God prepared the Garden for our enjoyment and use,
and we were put into it, “to till it and to keep it.”
Till and keep.
Despite how it sounds,
it doesn’t mean we have the right 
to make the land do our bidding,
to dig it up and throw it around and make it serve our purposes.

No, we are “keepers” as in, gate-keepers,
ones who guard and protect the treasure inside.
God appointed us treasure-keepers, earth-protectors.
And we are “tillers.”
When we hear that word, we right away think of digging.
But the Hebrew word translated “till” . . .
occurs countless times in the Bible,
and almost always it’s translated “serve.”
So when God tells Adam and Eve to “till” the garden,
it’s the same word as
when God tells the people of Israel to “serve the Lord your God.”
Exact same word—
till the garden, serve the Lord.
We are to treat the earth the same way we treat God.
With love, respect, reverence.
We serve God and the land.
To do otherwise, insults the creator God.

And in Genesis 9, we heard that since the days of Noah,
God is in a covenant with us, and with all living creatures.
A covenant not just with humans,
but with all the animals and birds,
with every living creature on earth.
We should think of that at least as often as we see a rainbow.
And last night some of you, like me, saw a spectacular one.
A little before 8:00, as the sun was setting,
a full, brilliant double-rainbow arched over Massanutten Mt.

It was a good reminder of how much God is in love with this world. 
This one, the one we live in.
God loves this earth and everything in it.
Even . . . the smallest things. 
Remember Matthew 6? Remember the song we sang?
The flowers in springtime, grass of the field, and birds of the air.
But even . . . in its broken state, God loves this world.

So let no Christian ever argue about whether God loves this world,
or whether God wants us to love it like God does.
That argument has no place in a community
that worships the God revealed in scripture.

Now . . . there are honest differences of opinion
about the relative urgency of various environmental problems
and the best kind of solution to address these problems. 
Faithful Christians can have different points of view 
about how “good” certain kinds of power are, in relation to others,
wind power or solar power or natural gas or nuclear or oil.
We can disagree about whether it’s more important 
to recycle or get a Prius or buy local produce or . . . you name it.

But clear-thinking, biblically-informed Christians
should NEVER disagree about, 
whether it is a matter of faithfulness to God,
and therefore a moral issue,
to be concerned about how we treat 
the created natural environment.

For the love of God—again, that’s what I meant to say—
for the love of God, let us love and care for creation.

And this is what I think is challenging for all of us here,
no matter where we happen to be on the continuum,
no matter what the environmental issue.
Whether you are a solar enthusiast or a solar skeptic.
Whether you garden organically,
or fertilize your lawn with chemicals.
Whether you eat strawberries from Hinton,
or grapes from Chile.
Whether you walk, bike, ride a Prius or an SUV.
Whether you drink out of styrofoam, or carry your mug.

All of us here are called to one main thing—love.
To gratefully and joyfully receive the unconditional love of God
as expressed in this beautiful, diverse, abundant,
and sometimes fragile creation.
And to love back.
To love what God loves.

I think if we adequately grasped how important this love command is,
we would relate to each other so much differently in the church.

Why is it, I wonder,
that on this issue (and other issues)
Christians can so quickly resort to dehumanizing the other?
On all sides of this issue,
we are guilty of jumping to conclusions,
of condemning someone’s motivations,
even without examining their motivations,
we are guilty of judging, of dismissing, of ostracizing the other.
We are tempted to make idols out of some things
and demons out of other things.
Things that ought to be neither.
One side is tempted to make
“organic” and “local” and “carbon neutral” a litmus test 
for personal morality and human goodness,
and “petroleum” and “chain stores” as evil incarnate,
and treat with disdain anyone who hasn’t seen the light.
The other side is tempted to worship profit and expansion,
convenience and efficiency,
to make economic growth the litmus test
of whether something is good and right
and demonize any tree-hugger who stands in the way of progress.

This ought not to be in the body of Christ.
Oh, let the honest debates continue.
Environmental science hasn’t answered every question, yet.
It keeps evolving.
We keep learning more.
But thanks to good science, we already know 
a huge amount about our world,
and how its bio-systems work.
And we need to listen to and respect science.
We know enough to let the love of God motivate us to act.

But as we make decisions to act, individually, or together as a church,
let this one thing motivate us,
let this one thing inform our thinking,
let this one thing shape our attitudes toward each other.

God loves us and delights in us.
God loves this world and delights in it.

At the end of the day, may love win out.
Let’s sing a hymn to our loving Creator God.
414 in the hymnal – “God who stretched the spangled heavens”

—Phil Kniss, April 22, 2012

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