Job 12:7-10Psalm 24:1-2
Today we are celebrating earth day, and the charge we have been given to be good stewards of the earth.
Today’s passages are all tied together by the truth that the earth and all that is in it belong to God. God created it, God brought it into being, God loves it, and it belongs to God. We are stewards of what God has created, called to take care of it, to love it, to share it. We are not called to hoard it or to abuse it. This is like when you leave a pet in the care and trust of someone. You expect the care person to be kind to your pet, to take good care of it, to love it, to talk to it. You expect the care person to make sure it has enough food and water, that it won’t die while you are on vacation. God expects the same of us as stewards of this lovely planet: that we, too, will take care of it, not abuse it, not try to keep it from others. And our response, of care, of love, is not just because we are dependent on the earth, which we are. It should not just be because it is our home and we need it, which we do. It should not just be because it is beautiful and lovely and gives everything that we need to us, which it does. Our care for this lovely planet should also be because we love God. God calls us to take care of the earth out of our love for God. Very simple. And yet, oh, so complicated in our current culture.
The word that we often translate “dominion” in the first chapter of our Bible’s when it says “fill the earth and have dominion over it” is better translated “stewardship”. It is a word in Hebrew that implies care, not over something wild and distant, but over that which we know. It is not a word that implies we must dominate or subdue (another mistranslation – better translated “cultivate”) an enemy or something chaotic, but instead, like a parent, like someone who loves and truly sees and understands the other, we are called to care for, tend to, bring out the best in, the world that God has given us. It is very similar to the way God works with us. God tends to us with love, with care, always working to bring out the best in us. We are called to do the same towards the earth that God loves.
We have been given the charge as people of faith to care for God’s creation, to watch over creation and each other, to love, to tend, to care for. We have been given the charge of loving rather than using the beauty that surrounds us. Not always an easy charge, especially because we often have very little to hold us accountable. It is easy to use and misuse that which won’t catch up with us. Like children who don’t think what they do is wrong unless they get caught, we have, for quite some time, been in a place where we could take what we wanted from the earth, use what we wanted of the earth, without consequence and without fear of recrimination.
But more recently this has begun to change. In the last century, we have started to become aware that even the way we care for, or fail to care for, the earth, has consequences for us as a people, for humanity as a whole and for each of us as individuals as well.
In terms of the earth, one of those wake-up calls came for Cleveland On June 22, 1969. On August 1, 1969, Time magazine wrote this about the Cuyahoga River:
Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly, "He decays". .. . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes." It is also -- literally -- a fire hazard.
Because of this fire, Cleveland businesses became infamous for their pollution, a legacy of the city's booming manufacturing days during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, when limited government controls existed to protect the environment. Even following World War II, Cleveland businesses, especially steel mills, routinely polluted the river. Cleveland and its residents also became the butt of jokes across the United States, despite the fact that city officials had authorized 100 million dollars to improve the Cuyahoga River's water before the fire occurred.
And this fire in 1969 was not the first on the river. The Cuyahoga had burned as early as 1868 and over the years about 13 more fires before 1952 had caused more than $1.5 million in damage. Humans had begun to pay for not caring for the earth. Still, until the 1969 fire, little attention had been paid to the river or the pollution.
The 1969 river fire was different, though. It attracted media attention like never before. And the results were very positive. Cleveland began to clean up the water. But the fire also brought attention to other environmental problems across the country, helped spur the Environmental Movement, and helped lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
The result was that the river has been and continues to be cleaned up. “When they checked the river at the time, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency found 10 sick gizzard chad. Period. About five years ago when checked they found 40 different fish species in the river, including steelhead trout, northern pike and other clean-water fish. Now, even the most polluted areas of the river generally meet aquatic life water quality standards. There is still work to be done, but it continues to happen, thanks in large part to the fire in 1969.
Change also came about through events such as Rachel Carson’s publication of her book, Silent Spring. Her book about the possible damage of pesticides such as DTT had a huge impact on our decision to study and study fully, the impact of the changes we make to our environment, including our use of pesticides. Combining her great writing skills with her work as a biologist and lab worker for the US fish and wildlife service, she was able to tell stories in a way that made people listen, pay attention. She saw with a clarity that few had seen up to that point the connection of all life, and that what affects one piece of our world will and does effect all of it, all of us.
What does this have to do with us, as people or as Christians? Well, in many ways I see the fire of 1969 as a Good Friday in Cleveland’s environment, and in our care for the earth. Our extreme use of DTT and other pesticides without proper testing was another such Good Friday. We had done such a poor job of remembering our connection to all things that the earth that supports us, births us, is part of us was in danger of being destroyed through atrocities such as a river burning.
But the resurrection is for all of creation. The promise of new life and new birth is for all of creation. Easter is for all of creation. When you remember Noah’s Ark, the animals were included, too. When the psalms lift up our voices in praise, they declare that the animals, the plants, the sun, the moon, the stars and the earth are also all of them praising God. The whole earth loves God and joins with us in praise. The passage from Job today emphasis that we have much to learn from the rest of creation; the animals are to be our teachers as well as our brothers and sisters. Reconciliation with God, life with God, love of God is for all creation.
Pastor David Rhoades wrote this, “I had this vision in a dream during sleep at night. I was in the front row of a cathedral looking at the scene before me during a service of communion. I saw the priest passing bread to the first person kneeling at the communion railing. As I looked, the next figure at the railing was a snake! It was curled at the bottom with its back arching up over the rail and with head straining forward to receive the grace of Christ. The next figure was another person. Next was a raccoon with paws up on the communion rail leaning forward to receive the grace of Christ. Then I saw a bird perched on the corner of the railing eating bread crumbs. As I finished surveying this scene in my dream, suddenly the side walls of the cathedral fell away and outside was thick foliage of forest and jungle on each side with all manner of wild animals roaming around. In this moment, it seemed as if walls of separation had been removed and there was a seamless web of all creation praising God and exalting in the grace of Christ. From the time I awoke from that dream until this day, I have never been able to think of worship in the same way again. I now see all of Earth as the sanctuary in which we worship, and I see myself invoking and confessing and giving thanks and praising God and offering myself in solidarity with all of life. May that vision also be your vision.”
And so today, as we celebrate earth day and the fifth Sunday in Easter, I want us to take some time to look at the resurrection of the earth as well. We created Good Friday for the Cuyahoga river, just as we killed Jesus on the cross. But out of the death, we see God’s active hand, creating anew, bringing new life.
God created the resurrection. But when it comes to the life around us, when it comes to the earth, we are invited to be part of ushering in the new era. We are called to be part of the resurrection that is for all of creation and all people. We are called to be part of the new creation that we celebrate at Easter.
The passages we read today all emphasize that this is God’s world, put at our feet to be loved and cared for. God created everything good, to be enjoyed, to experience delight in, yes. But when we abuse God’s creation, whether it be the earth or God’s people, we are insulting the creator, we are not honoring the God who delights in God’s creation.
We don’t actually have a lot of choice about it. Either we are part of the new creation, or we are part of the Good Friday that precedes it. Either we are part of destruction or we are part of creation and new life. This is not just about how we see the world, nor is it just about how we treat other people. This applies to how we treat God’s beautiful earth as well.
Changing the way we treat the earth takes education and it takes time. It also takes a commitment to doing things differently. This year at the Earth Day Event at John Muir’s home, our Interfaith Table was focused on plastic use. According to Fauna and Flora international, the huge amounts of garbage we see in our oceans are predominantly plastics that cannot be biodegraded and which are a serious threat to our ocean life. 8,000,000 tons of plastics reach our oceans every year. That plastic is a direct threat to 500 marine species. And the things we can do to help in this problem are many and are fairly simple: don’t buy water in plastic bottles. Actually, there are good health reasons not to do this as well as we are learning that mini fibers from the plastics end up in our systems. Don’t keep using plastic bags, and if you must, reuse them: don’t just use them once and throw them away. There are alternatives to things like saran wrap, too. There are also alternatives to plastic dish wear, as well as to kitchen garbage bags: alternatives that are compostable, bio-degradable and do not add to our landfills and ocean garbage. These are small and simple things that our Church is calling us to look at this year.
The bottom line is we are called to be stewards. Stewards of creation, stewards of humanity, stewards of love and care for the earth and for each other. We walk that by caring in each moment about how are actions impact others. We walk that by caring in each moment about who will be hurt and who will be lifted up by our actions. We walk this by choosing to be kind to all we encounter and that includes the beautiful earth God has given us. We walk this by living as Jesus taught us, with love, with generosity, with compassion, and with grace. Amen.