Friday, November 1, 2019

“Keeping the Garden” - November 3, 2019

Text: Psalm 24:1-6

One day last week, I left for work and there was a scattering of leaves on the ground.  I came home that afternoon, and our front yard was just a carpet of red and yellow.  I love this time of year – not the early snow part, so much, but the fall leaves and the crisp days.  I love the beauty of the countryside during and after the harvest.

This truly is a beautiful world, and like many of you, I have been fortunate enough to see amazing things in this world both near and far.  Those who went on the mission trip to Puerto Rico saw beautiful beaches and coastal areas as well as the tropical rain forest.  And we saw the Flamboyant tree, with a wide canopy of orange flowers.  I had never heard of this tree before we went there, and it really was stunning.

I have been to the Grand Canyon.  Susan and I just stood looking out in amazement at the vastness and expanse and beauty and just overwhelming immenseness of that place.  Zoe and I hiked in the Swiss Alps, and some of the best photos were of delicate flowers alongside the trail, with the snow-capped Eiger mountain in the background.  We have seen the endless views and wide-open spaces of the grasslands of Montana – after being there I understand what they mean by Big Sky country.

We have enjoyed the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, and when the fog comes in they really are smoky.  I have seen amazing wildlife in Costa Rica – all kinds of birds as well as sloths and bats and crocodiles and iguanas and howler monkeys.  But then, I have also seen amazing wildlife in my backyard: squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and birds, including cardinals who built a nest right outside our bedroom window, and an occasional hawk.  And once in a while a possum or raccoon.  I have even seen amazing wildlife IN my house.  We had quite a collection of canines at our Blessing of the Pets a few weeks ago.

And it wasn’t a Flamboyant tree, but just this week – before the snow - we had a single daylily in our backyard defiantly blooming when by all rights it should have been shutting it down for the season.

I’m sure you have had similar experiences – experiences of the beauty and power and awesomeness and fragility of nature.  Experiences of transcendence - experiences of God in the midst of God’s creation.

We have been thinking about stewardship this fall in various ways.  We have thought about walking as a way of describing the Christian life, and the way we go about living each day.  We have thought about money – about our resources and the possessions we have, which are gifts from God to be used not just for ourselves but for the good of all.  We have thought about our attitude toward life, the way we look at the world - do we live fearfully in the midst of scarcity or do we live joyfully, trusting in God’s abundance?

This morning I’d like to think about the natural world.  What does Christian stewardship mean as we relate to and live in and are sustained by the world around us?

I don’t have to tell you that the earth is hurting.  The planet is in trouble.  Evidence is all over the place.

The number of birds in the United States and Canada has decreased by 29% since 1970.

Deforestation continues all over the world, destroying wildlife habitat and destroying ecosystems as well as removing trees that store carbon and breathe oxygen.

Weather patterns are becoming more extreme.  Globally, the twenty hottest years on record have come in the past 22 years.  There have been more violent storms.  We keep having 100 year and 500 year flooding events.  Sea levels are rising.  At the same time, many places are suffering from prolonged drought.

Fish and sea life in remote parts of the Pacific are dying because they are ingesting large amounts of plastics.

And then there are the fires.  Wildfires in the Arctic.  Wildfires across the western U.S. – devastating fires in California are in the news right now.  I can’t imagine having to suddenly flee your home fearing for your life.  We hear about this kind of thing in our country, but it is all over the place.  They have experienced terrible wildfires in Australia.  And then there is the Amazon, with fires raging.   The area is known as the lungs of the world, but the ability of the Amazon to capture carbon continues to decrease.

With habitat loss and a warming climate, many species are in trouble, if not in danger of extinction.

I could go on but some of you know all of this better than me.  Some of you work in fields that are impacted by such changes in climate.  These crises we are facing are caused by the way we have treated the earth and particularly by burning fossil fuels, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.  But what I want to think about this morning is not so much the science or the politics or the economics of it, though these are all certainly important.  But this morning, I want to talk about our faith.

The Bible is filled with references to creation and our responsibility to care for it.  Let me mention just three.  We read in our scripture from Psalm 24 today, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”  The world is not ours to just do with as we wish; it belongs to God.  Now self-interest is one reason to care for creation, and a good reason.  Our lives are dependent upon a properly functioning eco-system.  But Christians have a reason beyond self-interest for caring for creation.  The earth is not ours; it belongs to God.  We love and care for creation because of our love for the Creator.

And then in Psalm 150 we read, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”  When we sing the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise God all creatures here below,” we join our voices with the whole chorus of creation in singing praise to God.  All creatures - parakeets and poodles, humpback whales and snow leopards, emus and orangutans.  We are a part of God’s creation and we are to care for the created world so that all creatures may sing God’s praise.

And then in Genesis chapter 2 we read, “The Lord God put the man in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.” God has given human beings a special responsibility to care for creation.  The Hebrew verb “to keep” is the same word used in the familiar blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  We are to nurture, sustain, and care for creation the way God nurtures, sustains, and cares for us.  Think about that.  That is deeply caring for creation.

There is no lack of Biblical material pointing to our responsibility to care for the earth.  Caring for creation is a part of following Jesus.  But I am amazed at the attitudes some Christians have toward the environment – as though a concern for God’s world is somehow a terrible thing.

There was an opinion piece in the New York Times this past week by Katharine Hayhoe.  She is a professor at Texas Tech, where she co-directs the Climate Center.  This is the way the article started:
I’m a climate scientist.  I’m also an evangelical Christian.

And I’m Canadian, which is why it took me so long to realize the first two things were supposed to be entirely incompatible.

I grew up in a Christian family with a science-teacher dad who taught us that science is the study of God’s creation.  If we truly believe that God created this amazing universe… then how could studying his creation ever be in conflict with [God’s] word?

I chose what to study precisely because of my faith, because climate change disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable, those already most at risk today.  To me, caring about and acting on climate was a way to live out my calling to love others as we’ve been loved ourselves by God.
I have heard people say that Christians should stick to spiritual things and stay out of social issues - and they would put caring for the environment under teh category of social issues.  The problem is that that is an artificial distinction.  For Christian, care for creation is a spiritual thing.

Not only does our faith call us to care for this world, I don’t know that we can meet the challenges ahead of us if we don’t see care for creation as a spiritual issue.  Gus Speith, the dean of Forestry at Yale, was speaking to a group of religious leaders.  He said,
I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation and eco-system collapse, and that we scientists could fix those problems with enough science.  But I was wrong.  The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy.  And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don't know how to do that.  We need your help.
I have to admit, the challenges we face are daunting, to say the least.  It can leave us depressed.  In fact, I actually thought about pulling a switcheroo and preaching on some other aspect of stewardship this morning.  But that is usually a sign that something needs to be preached.  We can’t ignore the issue.

I found myself thinking about Ray Schellinger, our ABC missionary who works on immigration and with refugees.  I shared a few weeks back about Ray’s very difficult, sometimes heartbreaking work.  Given the challenges he faced, I asked Ray how he got up and went to work every morning.  And he talked about small victories.

The same might apply here.  In terms of the challenges facing us as Christians and as citizens of this planet, I have to say that there actually are a lot of small victories happening as we consider the challenge of climate change and caring for creation.

There is a movement toward more local foods.  Rather than trucking in foods from far away or flying it in from other countries, folks are trying to use locally raised food when they can.  People raising chickens in the backyard is actually a small sign of hope.

Here in Iowa, we see a lot of windmills producing electricity.  Some think they are an eyesore, but I see them as a sign of hope.  In Ames, we will be constructing a municipal solar energy farm next year.  Community members including our church have bought shares in the project.  It’s a sign of hope.

One of my college friends is a fish biologist who teaches at the University of Arizona.  With a great concern for the environment, Scott now powers his home completely with solar panels and his family drives electric vehicles.  He basically uses no fossil fuels.  Of course, everybody can’t do that – and this probably works better in Tucson than in Ames – but people like Scott are signs of hope.

Electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, geothermal heating, public transportation, eating less meat, repurposing, repairing, recycling, gardening – these are all signs of hope.  Every time somebody plants a tree, it is a small sign of hope.

Of course, all of these changes have been relatively easy.  There will be more difficult, more costly action ahead.

For me, a big place where hope may be found is in young people, who understand the issue in a much more existential way than those of us who are older.  Exhibit A might be Greta Thunberg, who as a 15 year old began spending her school days sitting outside the Swedish parliament.  She held a sign that said “School strike for climate.”

She started out all by herself in calling for stronger action to combat global climate change.  Before long, other students engaged in similar action in cities around the world.  This year, coordinated international actions have involved over a million students.  From 1 student to over a million in a year.  That is a sign of hope.

Other young people are working at solutions to environmental problems, including Boyan Slat, the young man who devised a way to clean plastics from the ocean.  There is hope for technological advances.

But ultimately, as Christians, our hope is in God, the God who created this world and cares for this world.  There is a lot of fear surrounding the challenges we face, fear that can lead to either denial or paralysis.  But the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that we have not been given a spirit of fear.  Fear is not from God.  Instead, we have been given a spirit of power, to act rather than to remain paralyzed with anxiety or guilt; a spirit of love, to have compassion for others; and a sound judgment - to use the information we have to make good decisions.  These are the very tools we need to address the challenges we face.
Today is All Saints Sunday.  It is a day to remember the saints who have gone before us.  And not just the “big name” saints, but all saints, including those in this congregation who have gone before us and been examples for us.

Maybe a question for us to consider is: years from now – when people look back on our time - what will be our legacy for our children and grandchildren and those who come after us?  May it be that we had a spirit of power and love and sound judgment.  Amen.

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