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Earth Day, Sunday, April 22, 2018 | 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 104:1–4, 14–24
Give us peace in our days, O God.
Let us live in harmony with one another.
Let us care for the earth and its creatures. . . .
And let us protect the peace that belongs
To the whole of creation.
J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure: Daily Scriptures and Prayer
Our scripture reading this morning from Luke is actually part of a more extensive passage. The passage that we didn’t read is a story of a rather sad, even pathetic man who took a bumper crop that resulted from the perfect storm of sun and rain and good gifts of God and his careful tending and built huge storage units for the crop. Jesus uses this story, if you recall, in response to someone approaching him to settle a dispute over an inheritance.
“Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me,” a man pleads. Jesus responds knowingly, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” But then Jesus launches into the story that actually doesn’t address the question of inheritance at all. Rather, Jesus tells of a rich man who winds up with a bumper crop.
The man asks himself, “What shall I do with the crops. I have no place to put the abundance.” He responds by saying, “I’ll tear down the barns I have, build bigger ones, and then lean back, looking at all I have amassed. I’ll eat, drink, be merry.” And then Jesus’ point comes flying: the guy is a fool—that very night he will die, and he won’t take all he has with him, because it isn’t his anyway. The crop is God’s. This is Jesus’ rather off-topic response to the inheritance question. The issues are security, self-aggrandizement, greed, and, quite plainly, the underlying assumption of consumption and hoarding. But all of this arises from a scarcity point of view.
Jesus then turns to the disciples in today’s lesson. In a more pastoral moment, he addresses other hot-button topics—anxiety and worry—and he turns the disciples’ gaze to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Cop out? We can imagine the disciples finding these images to be nice, yes—who doesn’t think that lilies are pretty, and birds might be carefree, even those that are the scoundrel birds that eat the garbage on the beach or out of the dumps. But the response doesn’t seem so compelling. How could lilies and birds have anything to do with deep anxiety and worry about where the next meal is coming from? And what about the poor people who are naked and hungry? And what about these disciples who have given up everything to follow Jesus? Sounds sort of like the jingle “Don’t worry, be happy.”
But this longer passage combining the story of the rich fool and the worrying strivers comes to us on this Sunday that this church has designated as “Creation Cares” Sunday. Both these stories take us into the territory of our care for life, ours and others, and are instructive for us as we consider the way, as Christians, we can engage in caring for creation—which includes the care the Creator has for us and all the created order. I want to take the powerful message of these two passages and focus on three thoughts related to our life on planet earth today.
The first thought arises from the parable of the rich fool and a word that is not a household word in our time but certainly holds a concept that is highly relevant. The word is concupiscence. It means the desire to center the world on oneself and to infinitely consume the finite. Concupiscence assumes that life is here to be consumed by humans. It places the human being at the center of the world, even the universe. It has nature serving human needs and has humans unapologetically hoarding the world for our own ends. It is as theologian Paul Tillich says, “The desire to cram the world into one’s mouth.”
The concupiscence of the rich fool is highly relevant to our times. Amassing resources, fencing off what is “ours,” conspicuous consumption, never-enough mentality, imposing designer lives on children, and creating assumptions that things will satisfy our cravings are patterns of our culture that we may not participate in but the culture values. But material consumption has its price. Not only is there an individual price, in which a person holds onto more than his or her share, assuming, like the man in the parable, that it is his to guard, it is his security, but there is a collective price as well resulting in overproduction and overconsumption.
It is a fact that we are running out of space to dump the garbage we have produced; we know that the oceans are filling up with plastics, for example. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch located in the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California is the largest ocean garbage site in the world. This floating mass of plastic is twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life six-to-one.
We know that many of us are trying to be responsible with our consumption, but then one faces the fact that pollution and environmental warming trends, including too much or too little water, have put whole populations at risk as well as created a world of ecological refugees. In other words, this is a gigantic problem. In some ways, extending the parable of the rich man with the bumper crop to global giants amassing and denying responsibility for others seems right. All of us, even those skeptical about climate change, live in the world and wonder about the grey skies and unswimmable seas.
Living with scarcity and fear drives one to amass great stores. It also drives us apart from one another, into isolation, away from the inextricable interconnectedness of life, away from a deep and penetrating sense of community and connection.
So if concupiscence or trying to cram the world into one’s mouth might be seen as the symptom, then my second thought is that anxiety may be the disease. In today’s lesson, Jesus begins by addressing anxiety or worry. “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life.” Not only did Paul Tillich have a lot to say about concupiscence, but he had even more to say about anxiety. He suggested that anxiety has three dimensions: the anxiety of fate and death; the anxiety of guilt and condemnation; and the anxiety of emptiness and nonbeing. It seems the rich man, who built bigger barns, did so to secure himself against the threat of nonbeing. If he could just have enough, he might stave off the emptiness. He was a very anxious person, indeed. And he is not alone. Many of us live with anxiety and worry. As a matter of fact, anxiety is the number one mental illness diagnosis among college students today. This pervasive sense of anxiety may boil down to feeling immobilized to do anything to turn the tide of environmental degradation, overconsumption—the very global economy is built on it—and the toll on poor people as well as the new poor, the very depleting earth itself.
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” Is Jesus advocating denial of all that is overwhelming? Absolutely not. Rather, he is challenging us to avoid reacting and to do so by acting in a courageous and trusting way. He is putting us in our place among the birds and flowers. He is asking that we live with God’s good pleasure, God’s deep regard for, God absolute insistent love for the created order. This grounds our ungrounded anxiety; this gives us courage to live as engaged earth-dwellers; this gives us the capacity to, even momentarily, become intimately engaged observers and considerers of the utter particularity of our lives in relation to other creatures, organisms, and ultimately to God!
I admit to being stunned by a story told by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard, related to a very small affection and wonder for her goldfish named Ellery. Dillard’s power of observation gives way to a powerful relationship with that fish. She says,
This Ellery cost me twenty-five cents. He is a deep red-orange, darker than most goldfish. He steers short distances mainly with his slender red lateral fins; they seem to provide impetus for going backward, up or down. It took me a few days to discover his ventral fins; they are completely transparent and all but invisible—dream fins. . . . He can extend his mouth, so it looks like a length of pipe; he can shift the angle of his eyes in his head so he can look before and behind himself, instead of simply out to his side. . . . When he opens his gill slits he shows a thin crescent of silver where the flap overlapped—as though all brightness were sunburn.
. . . . For this creature, as I said, I paid twenty-five cents. I had never bought an animal before. It was very simple; I went to a store in Roanoke called “Wet Pets”; I handed the man a quarter, and he handed me a knotted plastic bag bouncing with water in which a green plant floated and the goldfish swam. The fish, two bits worth, had a coiled gut, a spine radiating fine bones, and a brain. Just before I sprinkle his food flakes in to his bowl, I rap three times on the bowl’s edge; now he is conditioned and swims to the surface when I rap. And, he has a heart. (Quoted by Sallie McFague in Super, Natural Christians, p. 31).
Indeed, I am stunned by the juxtaposition of a quarter and the mystery and miracle of a goldfish. But what is even more stunning is Dillard’s recognition that this very overlooked wet pet, bought by money in the change cup, is absolutely miraculous. She pauses; she is haunted by the wonder of it. And she focused on what is often overlooked or ignored. It is a singular moment, an astonishing one. And not so different from Jesus’ bidding to the disciples.
Jesus didn’t point to the whole of creation when he called the disciples to arrest their worrying, their anxiety. He asked them to consider the lilies, how they grow, and to fix their eyes on the birds of the air and to awaken to the deep and abiding care that God has for us.
I suspect many of us in this church today hold much anxiety for the state of the world—the environmental reality—and we also, to some extent, find ourselves overconsuming. But I also suspect that you, like Annie Dillard, have had moments of rapturous awaking to this world, times when you realized the sheer gift of it all and recognized God’s grace in it. For me, one such time was in 1982. That year, Paul Winter, a musician, and his consort engaged in a wonderful connected piece of music called Missa Gaia or “The Earth Mass.” Infused with recorded voices of whales, loons, and Artic wolves, among other voices, this was the first time I ever experienced the connection between Christianity and the earth, writ large. I recall attending a performance of Missa Gaia in Seattle at St. Mark’s Cathedral and hearing the haunting cries of wolves with response from Paul Winter’s soprano saxophone; the loon cries during the Kyrie—“Have mercy”; the chorus singing out St. Francis’s acclamation of brother sun, sister moon; seeing the light that shone out of a dark cathedral; organ blaring; whales hopeful. And as I sat in my seat that evening, I knew that were I to encounter those wolves, those whales, and even the loons, I would need to respect them, not only because of their overpowering strength and my anxious vulnerability, but also because we are all inhabitants of earth. That night I heard the call to honor our common journey, our daily struggle and the attendant trust that our brother and sister creatures and plants have of us.
Something awakened in me, and it was far from romantic or sentimental. I experienced a sadness, a worry, a longing for every creature to have its place in the order of life, and a wonder of how it might be on the horizon if we recognized our relationship with creation. When I read Annie Dillard’s account of her connection with Ellery the goldfish, the same longing, sadness, reaching, wonder showed up, but I think it is more. There is a longing for relatedness—relationship with and being a part of the created order.
Jesus knows about these responses. Indeed, the issue at hand in the Gospel story was worry for food and clothing. But Jesus redirects the disciples’ view away from a lack of trust to ravens and lilies, and he admonishes those who stepped out of the crowd with the question of inheritance to check their controlling and consuming impulses at the door all call us to the Creator’s love and care for us and for all of creation. It is the same impulse that comes from the Creator of it all, who went looking for the first man and woman, when they were hiding from God; who called the creation good; and who longs for us to live in harmony with it all.
Jesus calls the disciples to pay attention to what is in front of them: the intricacy, the splendor, the incarnation-infused, the revelations, and the difference between their existence and that of the other, the daring call “to love nature.” This call asks that we delight in the particular and peculiar of the other. And we may just find ourselves being touched, being delighted, being enjoyed, and committed to extending our love for nature to working for justice with bounty and deep trust and heightened relationship for those under our watch and that which God clothes, feeds, and so much more simply loves.
We are God’s beloved. We are connected to the whole of the created good, and we have tasted of God’s realm through the powerfully awakening order of things. And we are part of it all, this earth, this universe, this gaze in this place, with those next to us and with the waters beyond our door. Step away from fear of nonbeing; put aside your anxiety. Befriend what is unfamiliar, and know that the realm of God is here and there, underfoot, overhead, and in your heart that beats for justice and care for creation as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Make your life an instrument of beauty, holiness, and rooted in the knowledge, as Julian of Norwich says, “that all shall be well, yes, all shall be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”