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Earth Day, Sunday, April 22, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Super, Natural Christians

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 104:1–4, 14–24
Luke 12:22–31

Ask the animals, and they will teach you;
   the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
   and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
   that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In God’s hand is the life of every living thing
   and the breath of every human being.

Job 12:7–10

Today is Earth Day. Earth Day began in 1970 in this country and became a global event by 1990, with 144 countries using the day to draw attention to environmental concerns and the importance of caring for our planet. Now nearly 200 countries participate.

Here at Fourth Church we have a Care of Creation Committee that actively engages in efforts to educate and organize for actions that protect the earth.

In our scripture today, Jesus says, “Consider the lilies.” Emily Dickinson once wrote in a letter to a friend that this was the only commandment that she never broke (Letter to Mrs. Joseph Sweetser, 1884, Letters of Emily Dickinson, quoted in Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians).

I think that I have broken this commandment, and I’m guessing that a number of you have too. There are so many times that I do not consider the lilies—how they grow, that they neither toil nor spin—and what that means for my life.

Jesus says in this scripture, “Do not keep striving . . . and do not keep worrying.” This is an especially difficult commandment as we live in a culture that encourages striving—for more and more and more. This striving is not just about trying to do a good job; it’s about growing and expanding and progressing without limit. It’s about breaking the limits and going beyond, and then going beyond that. Growth, expansion, profit. Striving for more.

We don’t usually talk about limits that would be good for us. We don’t measure success according to when we stop growing or expanding. We don’t tend to celebrate times when we have achieved sufficiency, when we can say, “This is sufficient. This is enough.”

In ecology circles there has been a bit of a shift from talking primarily about efficiency to also talking about sufficiency. Efficiency is good and important. More efficient light bulbs use less energy. More efficient engines use less gas and produce fewer pollutants, just to name a couple of examples.

But if we pair efficiency with perpetual growth, efficiency isn’t enough to turn around our ecological problems.

More efficient light bulbs can mean that we use even more light bulbs, light up bigger areas, keep the lights on longer, because it’s efficient, because we can afford it. More efficient engines mean we can fly bigger planes and use them more often.

Efficiency is good. I’m a big fan. But is there a point when our growth also reaches a point of sufficiency? Is there a point when our consumption—what we take, what we have, what we eat, what we buy, what we own—is sufficient for living a happy life? Would having a little less even be sufficient? Or will we always be chasing something more?

This is a spiritual question, and I think it’s a question that Jesus asks us.

When Jesus says, “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink,” I don’t believe he’s encouraging us to become passive or lazy, to give up on the basic necessities of life. I think he’s talking about focus. Instead of striving for these things, “strive for God’s kingdom” and you’ll get these things too. You’ll have food and the necessities of life if you strive for the kingdom of God.

“Consider the ravens,” Jesus says, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.” This is a reference to a story that Jesus just told a few verses earlier.

That story goes like this: There was a man who took in an abundant crop. It was so abundant that he didn’t have enough room in his barns to store it all. So he decided to tear down his barns in order to build bigger ones where he could store all his crops and goods.

But God called him a fool, according to Jesus, and told the man he would die before he could use these things. “And the things you have prepared,” God said, “whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). God asks a question that expands the man’s concern for himself to a concern for others.

Life is not all about us; we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and this world will go on after we are gone. How do we expand our concern beyond our own interests and trust that our care for ourselves is sufficient or even beyond sufficient? Are there barns in our own life that we can go ahead and tear down in order to distribute what we have to others?

Jesus interpreted his own parable by saying, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). The spiritual challenge is to find the abundant life that is not about abundant possessions.

There’s a reason that King Solomon is compared to the lilies. When Solomon became king, he famously did not pray for wealth or prestige. He didn’t pray for power or for honor. Solomon prayed for wisdom and guidance.

He asked for an understanding mind so he could govern and for the ability to discern between good and evil. God gave Solomon the things that he asked for, wisdom and discernment, but God also gave Solomon what he did not ask for, riches and honor all his life (1 Kings 3:9, 12–13).

Solomon sought first the kingdom of God. He did the work of being a good king, but he didn’t strive to secure his own comfort or to accrue riches and prestige. By focusing on doing the right thing, he actually had everything he needed. It was sufficient.

Similarly, the lilies do what they need to do to survive: they turn their leaves and petals toward the sun; they take in water from the earth. They do the work of living. But they don’t strive for more than they can use. They take what they need and use it. It’s sufficient, and they are clothed in beauty.

In speaking of ravens and storage barns, in speaking of lilies and King Solomon, Jesus tries to give us a perspective corrective. Doing our work is good, but there is a striving that goes above and beyond what is healthy. How can we tell when we cross over that line? What can we do instead?

As Jesus moves on from these great images and metaphors, he says, “Don’t be afraid,” and “Make purses for yourselves that don’t wear out. . . . [W]here your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:33–34). In other words, what we treasure we hold in our hearts. What we love is what we will treasure.

So can we love the lilies and the ravens? Can we love God’s creation that we spoke about in our call to worship? God created earth, land, and sea; sun, moon, and stars, fish, birds, and all the creepy crawly things, and finally human beings. God saw it all and saw that it was good.

We don’t have to be literalists to believe that God is somehow part of all of that. Whether we believe that this was all created in seven days or over the course of billions of years, we can still believe that it is sacred and that God calls it very good.

As Christians, we also believe in the incarnation—that God became physically present in our world through the person of Jesus Christ. The constitution of our Presbyterian denomination, in our Directory for Worship, says that “In Jesus Christ the Word became flesh, and God hallowed material reality” (W-1.3032). God’s holiness is fully present in this material world.

Sometimes we can think of religion as a way of understanding supernatural things, and Christian philosophy and theology do partly address matters of cosmic significance.

But with a God who took on human flesh in the incarnation, we also have a God who is not just supernatural, not just above nature or outside or beyond nature. We also have a God who is deeply in this world. We could say uber natural, extra natural. Our God is a super, natural God, who calls us to be super, natural Christians (Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature).

Having a God like this, an incarnational God, means that trusting God, knowing God, loving God, can’t fully be done by looking beyond this creation. We have to look at and in the creation, too.

If we’re going to orient our hearts to treasure the things that God treasures, then we’ll have to get to know the things that God treasures. We treasure what we love, and we love what we know. Without knowing something or someone, we can’t truly love them.

Sallie McFague is a theologian from whom I got the phrase “super, natural Christians.” In her book of the same title she describes getting to know a little park in her neighborhood. She writes:

My knowledge of the park was certainly not a mind’s-eye experience; rather, it was a body’s-eye one—my eyes reveled in the scurrying of a rabbit only a few feet away, the glory of a field of fuchsia sweet peas, the sight of a heron resting on one leg. And knowledge of this park involved my other senses as well—the smell of the salt water, the sound of bird calls, the touch of a flower’s petal. These are embodied senses, the ones that remind us that we are involved and open in our knowing: we cannot touch without being touched, or hear without listening to what comes to us. The initiative is not just ours. As I walked in this little park, soaking up its sounds and smells and sights, I came to know it—and love it—more or less as I would a friend. (McFague, Super, Natural Christians)

There’s a knowing, and a loving, that comes from paying attention. Our friends are familiar to us. We know them. And the deeper our friendship, the better we know them. McFague suggests, and I like this idea, that friendship can be a model that helps us honor God and protect God’s creation.

Can we deepen our friendship with the planet? To do that, we would have to encounter it deeply. To love it, we have to know it viscerally, through our senses, in our bodies. It has to be real to us in a tangible way.

Earth Day this year is focused on the issue of plastic pollution. You may have seen pictures of animals that have gotten plastic six-pack holders around their neck or around their body and can’t get out of it. Some fish have washed up dead on the shore with so much plastic in their stomachs that they couldn’t get enough nourishment to live.

The albatross is a bird that is particularly vulnerable to this kind of death, because they fish by skimming across the top of the water with their mouths open and they scoop up a lot of plastic trash along with their food. If you search for “albatross plastic,” you will see many, many pictures of birds that have died and photos of the horrifying content of their stomachs: plastic bottle tops, toothbrushes, lighters, broken chunks of plastic—a lot of stuff in a broad array of bright colors. Plastic that kills, in this case. I was changed by seeing these pictures and really thinking about it.

This is what I mean about knowing things viscerally, in our own bodies, through our own senses. It’s more real to me because I saw it. Maybe this is the beginning of a deeper love for creation in me.

Iris Murdoch once said that “love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love . . . is the discovery of reality” (Iris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Good,” Chicago Review 13, Autumn 1959, quoted in Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians ). That’s love that’s not based on a fantasy but on the reality of who the beloved is.

Maybe if we are really going to love the creation we will need to take a long hard look at what’s happening to it and not look away. Not looking away might be the hardest part.

I think we will need to show up for the earth in the way we show up when a friend is in trouble. It might not be convenient, but we do it because we care. We make a sacrifice for a friend. We make an extra effort. And the earth, our friend, is in trouble.

Perhaps the first and most fundamental thing we can do is to take up the spiritual question of sufficiency. What is sufficient in my life? How much and what do I need in my life to be satisfied?

At which points are any of us striving for an unattainable goal that is always moving further and further ahead? Is it possible to take some things out of our metaphorical barns and distribute them so that they can be used now rather than stored? Maybe we don’t need to build a bigger barn for storage or buy another bookcase or cabinets if we share more and reuse and recycle and refuse to get more and more.

If we can change our hearts and minds, we can begin to change our culture and our actions.

If one of us refrains from excess or recycles or reuses, that is valuable, but it’s small. But if fifty of us show up to recycle our sneakers and 500 of us turn off the lights and 5,000 of us use cloth bags instead of plastic, we begin to change who we are as a people, as a community, and we begin to have an influence on the future of our world.

Jesus said to strive first for the kingdom of God and the rest will come. Loving, actively loving, God’s hallowed, holy world, becoming a better friend of creation—this seems like a good step in the right direction.

May God open our eyes and our hearts and give us new conviction to be better friends of the earth.