1968 was a momentous year. I turned seven that fall, and I didn’t realize at the time all of the significant events that were taking place. One thing I was aware of was that the St. Louis Cardinals lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers. I was in third grade, I remember that Eric Nickens was a big Tigers fan, and I took it hard.
I also remember watching TV with my sisters on our great big metal cabinet black and white TV when a special news bulletin came on saying that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. I was not really up to speed on the civil rights movement or all of the news of the day, but I remember how serious and somber the announcer was and ran to tell my mom and dad that something really bad had happened. Not long after that, Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles.
In January of 1968, North Korea captured the US spy ship Pueblo. In Czechoslovakia, there was an effort to bring about and democratic reform called the Prague Spring. The country was under Soviet domination and this did not sit well with the Soviets, who eventually sent tanks and 500,000 troops into the country to stomp out the resistance.
At the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two African-American athletes, staged a protest of racism and racial segregation as they raised their fists in the black power salute as they received their medals.
As the Vietnam War wore on, police clashed with anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Chicago 7 were arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot in connection with the protests.
In 1968, 747 jumbo jets were introduced, revolutionizing air travel.
1968 was arguably the most historic year in modern American history. One more thing happened that I want to mention. Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman, American astronauts on board Apollo 8, became the first humans to travel to the moon. They sent back photographs, including the iconic photo printed on the front of our bulletins today.
On Christmas Eve, as they orbited the moon, Bill Anders looked out a small window and saw the earth rising. He snapped this photograph that captivated the world. This was the first time anyone had seen the earth from space. This was the first time we had seen earth as it is – a small, beautiful, blue marbled globe. This photograph actually changed the way that people thought of our world. From this perspective, the constructs of political boundaries and differences among nations seem insignificant. We see the world as small and fragile and vulnerable.
Anders said, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
This photograph led directly to a rise in environmental consciousness and the very first Earth Day, in 1970. Nearly 50 years after that photograph was taken, we are celebrating today the 48th Earth Day – a day to remember our responsibility to care for this planet. Earth Day is not a religious holiday per se, but the impulse to care for creation is deeply religious.
Nine years after that first Earth Day, I went to college. I majored in chemistry. Part of the attraction of chemistry was that it was so elemental - well, of course it was elemental, a little chem humor there - but just so basic to life. At one level, at least, chemistry is about understanding the world and how life works. There are plenty of other levels, other ways to understand the world, but that is one level.
I majored in chemistry but I wound up with a minor in Environmental Science. And looking back, I think that somehow, perhaps even subconsciously, this represented a spiritual component of my education. Oh, I took several religion courses, and before I graduated I had plans to go to seminary, but the impulse to understand and care for and protect the earth is at the heart of it a spiritual impulse.
While for a lot of people that kind of concern may have been awakened, or reawakened by that photograph and the advent of Earth Day, it was as old as the scriptures.
From the first words of Genesis, we read that God created the heavens and the earth, the rivers and mountains and animal and plant life and finally human beings, and that God called all of it good.
And then God gave the humans the charge to “till and keep the earth.” When Genesis says that we are to “keep” the earth, it uses the very same word as that great blessing, “May the Lord bless and keep you.” We are to care for God’s creation in the same way that God cares for us.
The Psalms in particular are filled with descriptions of the wonder and glory of creation. Psalm 65 gets at some of that by describing God’s work in the cycle of seasons and the blessings of the natural world. After speaking of the power of the seas and majesty of the mountains, it reads:
You visit the earth and water it... settling its ridges, softening it with showers, blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.
John read for us the very familiar Psalm 150. It is a great Psalm of praise, used often as a call to worship. But it is interesting how it ends: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” It is not limited to the faithful few; it is not even limited to human beings. Let EVERYTHING that has breath praise the Lord.
I went to a pastors’ conference in Omaha this past week. We were getting over one snowfall and getting ready for another. It hasn’t been a typical spring. But I drove through fields and across rivers, and then along the Loess Hills for a while, and it just struck me the beauty of the countryside, even with spring slow to arrive. And if you really look, it’s not that hard to see the fields and meadows and trees and flowers and hills and valleys singing for joy.
We live in a beautiful world. It is hard not to be moved by the beauty and the power and just the sheer awe and amazement that creation can evoke.
If that photograph of the earth taken from space had an effect on people, imagine how actually being in space would affect a person. Astronauts who experience Earth from orbit often report feelings of awe and wonder, of being transformed by such a perspective. As Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell perfectly and succinctly put it, “Something happens to you out there.” For many astronauts, being in space and seeing the earth from that perspective is a deeply spiritual experience.
We may not get to have that experience ourselves, although if you have tens of millions of dollars lying around, space tourism and a seat on a future space flight may be a possibility. But we can all experience awe at God’s creation.
I have experienced it hiking in the Alps or looking over the vastness of the Grand Canyon or seeing the rugged landscape of the Badlands or experiencing the power of the ocean. But that can also happen watching geese fly overhead, or looking over an expanse of farm fields, or maybe just experiencing the plants and wildlife in your own backyard. Or in your home, for that matter.
It’s not that often that Earth Day actually falls on a Sunday, but even with that I have to confess that part of me hesitated to go with an Earth Day theme today. And that is because I don’t want to preach a sermon that is all about guilt, and it is pretty easy to turn on the guilt when preaching about care for creation, even without trying.
We are 93 million miles from the sun, which is exactly the right distance to give us the solar energy and light that provides for all living things. Our globe spins at a rate where we have a length of day and night that results in the balance we need-between dark and light, heat and coolness. We have air with just the right amount of oxygen for all plants and animals. We have a water cycle that moves water from sky to soil to rivers and back to the sky. We have an incredible array of life, ranging from bacteria to whales. We have reason and skill to protect and preserve this amazing world. And yet, we are not preserving and protecting this world – we are not keeping the earth.
I don’t need to tell you that the earth is in trouble. 17 of the 18 hottest years on record happened in this century. Sea levels are rising. I read just the other day about a traditional village in Alaska that had to relocate their entire town. Several families have already lost their homes to rising seas, and in not too many years the whole village will be underwater.
Researchers from Columbia University report that a boundary that divides the humid eastern U.S. and the more arid western U.S. has shifted eastward. John Wesley Powell first identified this boundary as the 100th meridian, which runs roughly through the middle of Nebraska and the Dakotas. To the east, rainfall and humidity allow farmers to grow crops like corn and there is more population and infrastructure. To the west, farms are larger and depend on more arid-resistant crops like wheat, or agriculture might involve very large ranches. The Great Plains, west of this boundary, are sparsely populated.
Because of an increase in temperature and decrease in precipitation, this boundary has moved about 140 miles east, to the 98th meridian – almost to Iowa. If nothing else scares you, imagine climate change turning Iowa into Nebraska.
Add to the list polluted waters, deforested lands, species extinction, and habitat destruction around the world, and it is not a pretty picture.
A lot has happened since that first Earth Day. People used to casually throw trash out the window of their vehicles. For the most part, that doesn’t happen anymore. We are much more aware of how our activity affects the environment. Cars and power plants are cleaner and more efficient. Lake Erie at one time actually caught fire – some of you remember that. We have made strides, and protecting the environment is at least on the radar.
But it is a continuing challenge. There is always the temptation to favor short-term profit over long-term care of the earth. Future generations cannot speak for themselves. And the issues that our natural world is facing today are much more daunting and complex than they were on that first Earth Day. The current picture is pretty bleak.
It would be easy for an Earth Day sermon to focus on ought-to’s, to be scolding and preachy and make us feel guilty. And I can do that. Americans have 6% of the world’s population and consume 30% of its resources. We need to live more simply. The city of Ames is offering shares in a Solar Energy project – we could all buy in on that. We could be more serious about recycling and reusing and repurposing. We could demand that our elected representatives work for the common good and work to protect the earth instead of devaluing environmental concerns. I could go on with a list of possible actions, but I don’t need to. We all know things we can do.
I don’t want to talk about guilt, and I don’t want to talk about ought-tos. Instead, I want us to think mostly about gratitude. Yes, gratitude. What if we focused on praise? What if we focused on reasons to be thankful for this world God has given us? What if we took delight in the natural world and the creatures in it?
I thought back on my college experience and how the impulse to both understand and care for creation maybe had something to do with what I chose to study. And it struck me that there is a connection between our work or study and care for creation for many of us. I think of our church and I think of soil scientists and foresters and farmers and Agriculture and Animal Science and Horticulture students. Not only that, I think of engineers and architects and veterinary students and food scientists and culinary students and chemists and biologists, all of whose work or study touches in some way on God’s creation – on the use of natural resources and plant and animal life.
And we could add to that human life – we are also a part of creation, right? We too are among the earth’s creatures – and we could add educators and Neuroscientists and psychologists and musicians and folks in business and the social sciences and yes, clergy, and I don’t want to leave anybody out, but whether it is through our vocation or not, I believe we all have within us an impulse to care for God’s world.
With a sense of thankfulness and gratitude for this world as a starting point, it seems to me that doing what we can to care for God’s creation will follow naturally. I want to share a poem from Mary Oliver, that may point us in the right direction:
Who made the world?The swan, the black bear, the grasshopper, the fields, you and me. Let all creation praise the Lord! Amen.
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous
and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms
and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I’ve been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?