Leave it Better than You Found It: Earth Day Sermon
This Earth Day sermon based on Psalm 8, reminds us of our environmental stewardship responsibilities to leave things better than we find them.
Bible scholar Marcus Borg talked about “thin places,” which are physical places or experiences where your heart opens, and it feels a bit easier for you to connect with the realm of God—as if a veil has been lifted. Some people find it on a mountain top or the Grand Canyon. In Psalms such as Psalm 19 and Psalm 8, the writer liked going out at night (before they invented light pollution) because the stars reminded him of God and led to questions about our place in this vast universe. Psalm 8:3-4 asks,
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are humans that you are mindful of them,
mortals[a] that you care for them?”
I wonder where your thin places are, occasions when you felt especially connected to God in nature. For me sticking my toes in the ocean is mystical. I think about the waves and the immense expanse of water that hug the entire globe and how the same molecules of water that touch my toes have been around throughout history. A few of them may have even flowed through the Jordan River when Jesus was baptized, or they might have been in the Red Sea and piled upon other molecules to allow Moses and the Israelites to escape to freedom. My mind wanders as the salty sea laps at my ankles. I feel connected to history, creation, and something larger than myself.
What is it for you? Perhaps something similar happens for you in the woods, climbing a mountain, listening to the birds, or watching a busy ant colony. Maybe you’ve seen a pod of orcas or the northern lights or get mesmerized by fat snowflakes. Do you know that feeling I’m talking about? When we pause long enough to feel that sense of connection, we realize that the ground we walk on is holy, like Moses did. When that happens, we connect with the divine Spirit that flows through everything.
Spiritual Practice in Nature
Spending time in nature is vital because it trains us to access a sense of awe and reverence. We feel connected to our bodies, intuition, and imagination. Something is healing about being outside, and science backs up this religious insight.
There are many ways that science tells us that it is good for us to go outside. Two examples:
- Exposure to sunlight can help boost our mood. Sunlight helps to increase the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood regulation. Studies have shown that people who spend more time outdoors tend to have lower rates of depression and anxiety.
- Being in nature can help reduce stress. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can help to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels. It can also help to improve sleep quality and cognitive function.
Nature teaches us about the Realm of God
Nature is the great teacher of how God works—the complexity and interconnectedness of life.
When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he spoke about it not just as heaven after we die but as something we can experience in this life. He often used things in nature to tell us what the kingdom of God is like describing it as a mustard seed, a bush, a vine, and a tree. He talked about being the living water and told us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies in the field. That is, nature points us to God, which is God’s realm.
Like nature, the kin-dom of God is made up of complex networks of interdependences and cycles of life and death and new beginnings. Jesus talked a lot about improving relationships, seeing the other as connected to us, and how essential interrelationships are. He said not only should we love our neighbor. That sounds good until we realize our neighbor is nosy George, who can’t mind his own beeswax. That’s why Jesus followed it up with the love of our enemy, too.
Inspired by the prophets, Jesus promotes a vision of a peaceable kingdom. Even if lions and lambs don’t share the same field in the animal kingdom, humans can learn to live peaceably together.
Pernicious Propositions Against Environmentalism
Given all of this, one would think that Christians could at least agree on taking care of the planet. We would all share a common sense of stewardship about God’s creation. You would think that, but it is not the case. Maybe everyone cares about the environment until it conflicts with economic interests or gets framed as part of culture wars.
I remember when I first discovered this. I was talking to my wife’s uncle, a devout evangelical Christian. He was as evangelical about geothermal heating as he was about Jesus. He even made a late-career switch, and digging geothermal wells was his business well into his 80s. Dayna assumed he was an environmentalist. She was wrong. He was only interested in it because it could save people money. “I’m not tree-hugging, environmentalist whacko,” he said. He explained that Genesis 1 says we have dominion over the earth and can do with it as we please; plus, Jesus is coming back soon, so what difference does it make. You think it’s a mess now? Wait until you see what God is doing to do to it!”
Somehow, we can trick ourselves into all kinds of justifications to side against God’s creation. The main three pernicious propositions promulgated by pious people are:
- We have dominion to exploit the resources. That it was all created for us to use. This position sees humanity as the apex of God’s creation rather than a part of creation. I always figure that if you want to talk about dominion, you ought to model it on God’s dominion of us. That is, lovingly, caringly. Somehow, they forget the first story about humans is that we come from the earth—a mixture of dirt and water, mud. The first lesson is that we belong to the earth, not that we can abuse the planet to make our lives easier.
- The apocalypse will be much worse (Do a search on the popular Christian website Got Questions about should Christians recycle it advises not to be too concerned because Jesus is coming back soon.
- The emphasis on saving souls made concerns about our planet secondary. Many churches despise any sense of social justice issues. Don’t get political—keep it spiritual.
Unfortunately, all these positions skew us away from engaging and making this a high priority. Fr. Richard Rohr identifies the roots of our environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis. We have detached ourselves from what is good, and until we reestablish that sense of connectedness, we will continue to fail.
Boy Scouts lessons to leave it better than found it.
I remember hiking as a young Boy Scout. The scoutmaster, Mr. Rasmussen, walking behind me, tapped my shoulder and pointed to a wadded-up piece of paper on the trail I had just stepped over. “It’s not mine,” I said. He looked at me like a mountain of trash had fire-hosed out of my mouth and onto the path. That was the day I learned a lesson he reiterated like a mantra. “Leave every place better than you find it.”
It does not matter who made the mess. If you can do something about it, take responsibility and do it. This lesson has served me well in more areas than just the environment. Leave situations, relationships, jobs, and neighborhoods better than before you arrived. We will be talking about that as our church. How do we leave it better than we found it?
What is our generational report card for how we are we doing on the environment?
Lousy. That’s how we’re doing, and we all know it. I searched about environmental issues facing Long Beach and read all kinds of depressing news about how much air pollution is from our ports—although everyone is trying hard to do much better. I heard about how our airport (the best airport in the world!) is the 2nd worst airport in the country for lead emissions. There are sewage issues and runoff into the oceans. Our friends on the peninsula keep an eye focused on global warming and sea level rise.
Looking for Inspiration in the Positive Actions
But those things get so big and depressing. When I read about all of them, I want to give up. I’m more motivated by the good stories of people doing the little things they can. From solar panels to recycling projects to people hanging their clothes out to dry, it’s all inspiriting. David Reed, one of our newer members, is working on ways to turn waste into energy and protecting the pollinators—he has several beehives. I read about people cutting meat consumption in half to do their part. Peter Singer says, “Fix your diet, save the planet.”
I see the Aquarium of the Pacific and its efforts to educate a new generation. I know someone who rides his bike to work once a month or takes public transportation. When I hear about these things, I want to do my part. A famous example of how far we have come was shown on the TV series Madmen where a family in the 60s made a huge mess on a picnic. When they were finished eating, they just got up and left, leaving behind a disgustingly littered site. Not a second thought about it. Now it would be unthinkable.
Environmentalism is a Spiritual Practice in Neighbor-love
Ever since I learned that the poorest people in our community and the poorest people in the world are the ones who are usually most adversely impacted by environmental abuse, I’ve seen caring for the environment as an expression of neighbor love. Jesus said the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Our neighbors are people who are impacted by the environment, and our neighbors are successive generations.
It is said that some cultures have a sense of thinking about decisions not just in terms of their immediate effect but also thinking about how they will impact your descendants in the subsequent seven generations.
May we recapture a sense of that connectedness to nature. May we get out and be healthier and connect more deeply with God. May we remember that we belong to the earth. May we practice small practices of environmental stewardship to love our neighbors, especially the poor and successive generations. Most of all, may we find the inspiration to leave it better than we found it.