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Sunday, May 5, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.
Care of Creation
"Big Questions" Sermon Series
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
As we heard in the announcements, today we begin a sermon series to address questions that you, the congregation, have asked. For a number of weeks, we collected questions that congregants said they would like the clergy to address in our sermons. Over the next two months we’ll address one of these “big questions” in our sermons.
Today’s question is “Why care about creation? Isn’t God in control?” We put this question first so we could think about it on the day we recognize Earth Day, a day we call Care of Creation Sunday. Earth Day is always on April 22, and this year that fell on Easter Monday, the day after Easter. Today we celebrated that by making an extra effort to compost the dishes we used in Coffee Hour.
Why care about creation? we ask. When I think about creation, I’m so aware of this looooong spring season we’re having. I think about that feeling of spring that pops in and out of our days, the warmth that will flash in for a day here or there, just as it did on Easter day and just as it’s doing today!
There’s a wonderful fresh smell to the air on those warm spring days. There’s the feeling of sun on our backs, taking the chill out of our bones. The bright, light, green leaves pop out of the ends of gray branches and fill the blue sky with green. The tulips and daffodils begin to blossom, splashing color down the medians of the city streets.
And the birds pick up the pace with their chirping and singing. Things are coming alive again. This is God’s creation. As the psalmist says,
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great. (Psalm 104:24–25)
We can care about creation because of the joy it brings us but also because our own survival depends upon its survival. Maybe that is the easiest way to care about it. If we deplete it or destroy it, then we ourselves may not survive. We care about it for our own sakes.
It’s a bit harder to care about it for its own sake. It’s harder to love the creation altruistically, based on its own inherent value apart from us.
That’s something to think about, isn’t it? Suppose suddenly all the human beings were removed from the earth but all the other animals and plants remained. Would the creation be just as beautiful and valuable without us?
It’s a good exercise to decenter ourselves, to take ourselves out of the spotlight, and to think instead about the beauty and the worth of the creation separate from how it serves us. If we could hold on to the awareness of how beautifully valuable a single butterfly is, for example, maybe we would serve it a bit more, rather than always thinking about how the creation serves us.
One teacher has a delightful way of helping his students experience the intrinsic value of creation. He wrote,
In teaching about butterflies, I frequently place a living butterfly on a child’s nose. Noses seem to make perfectly good perches or basking spots, and the insect often remains for some time.
Can you imagine the child looking up cross-eyed to the butterfly on the nose? The author continues,
Almost everyone is delighted by this, the light tickle, the close-up colors, thread of tongue probing for droplets of perspiration. But somewhere beyond delight lies enlightenment. I have been astonished at the small epiphanies I see in the eyes of a child in truly close contact with nature, perhaps for the first time. This can happen to grown-ups too, reminding them of something they never knew they had forgotten. (Robert Pyle, The Thunder Tree, p. 147)
The epiphany experienced when we encounter nature close-up can help us experience the glory of God’s creation. And when we experience that glory and beauty, we tend to care more.
The second part of our question today asks, isn’t God in control?
I have heard some people ask this question in order to suggest that it doesn’t matter what we do. After all, they would say, God’s in charge, not us. If the polar ice caps melt, that must be God’s will, they would say.
Or they might say that if the temperature of our planet is rising and climate patterns are changing, that’s not because of anything we humans are doing. That’s just God’s doing, because God is in control, they would say.
So when we ask, “Isn’t God in control?” we also might be asking, “Does it matter what we do?”
To begin to probe that question, let’s turn back to our scripture. Our story today tells of Jesus’ third appearance to his disciples after his resurrection.
Jesus guides the disciples in their work, even when they don’t recognize him. Try something different, he says; throw your nets over the other side of your boat. Even though they are fatigued and despairing of catching any fish, the disciples try it, and it works. They now have food to eat. Jesus guides them, and Jesus feeds them.
When they join Jesus on the beach, he is already cooking fish and bread to share with them. Then begins his conversation with Peter.
Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Jesus. And three times Peter says yes. We often speak of this as a reversal from Peter’s triple denial of Jesus after Jesus was arrested. You may remember that Jesus told Peter at dinner on the night of Jesus’ arrest that Peter would deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed. And Peter did deny him.
So it’s quite possible that Peter saying “Yes, I love you” three times reverses his three denials of Jesus. But there’s something more here. Peter denies Jesus in all four Gospels, but this conversation with the three yesses only happens in the Gospel of John, and Peter’s denial of Jesus is also a little different here in John’s account of it.
When Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story, Peter denies Jesus by saying, “I do not know this man; I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The questions asked and the answers given are about Jesus.
But in John’s Gospel, Peter is asked about himself. “Aren’t you a disciple of this man?” he’s asked. And Peter says, “I am not.”
In John’s version of the story, Peter is not only denying Jesus, he is also denying himself. He is denying who and what he is. I am not a disciple of this man.
So when the resurrected Jesus meets him later on the beach and asks him about love, it seems to me that Jesus is reminding Peter who Peter is. Peter is a disciple of Christ, and as a disciple of Christ, he is called to love and care for that which Jesus loves.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. “Then feed my sheep.”
When Peter affirms his love and embraces this job that Jesus gives him, Peter becomes more fully what God created him to be. Yes, Lord. You know I love you.
Here on the beach, Jesus is preparing his disciples before he ascends into heaven and leaves this physical earth. He can’t be the shepherd that he has been, not in the same way. And so he hands over that mantle, that role, to his disciple, Peter. He’s essentially saying, “Now it’s up to you, Peter. Feed my sheep.”
God the creator made a similar move way back in the book of Genesis. Remember the creation story?
So God created humankind in God’s own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female God created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27–28)
God created humans and gave us power and responsibility.
On a spiritual level, God still walks with us in this garden we call home, but we have the very real power to do good or evil. We have the very real power to betray Jesus as Judas did and to deny Jesus as Peter did. We have the very real power to kill and humiliate and destroy, as the Roman Empire did.
But we also have the very real power to join together and care for God’s creation. We can care for it because of its inherent value, or we can care for it because we need it. But one way or another we are faced with decisions every day that have real repercussions on creation.
Is God in control? I believe that God uses God’s power to persuade us, to teach us, just as Jesus taught Peter on the beach that day. It just doesn’t happen with words in the same way.
God is present in our intuitions and sudden insights. God whispers to our hearts, niggles our conscience, and nudges us to do good. God also gives us each other to help each other, just as Jesus gave Peter to care for his lambs, to take Jesus’ place as shepherd and caregiver.
We can always resist and turn away from God’s persuasive nudges. We have the very real power to choose. We can be disrespectful of our planet, throw trash out the window or sewage into the lake. We can turn on all the lights in the house, even when we’re not in all the rooms. Or we can turn toward God and God’s creation. With seriousness and devotion we can pick up the role that God gave us at creation and that Jesus gives us as disciples, as he gave it to Peter. This job of caring for creation is a responsibility based on love of God and love of Christ.
Do you love me? Jesus asks us. If yes, then feed my sheep. Share that love with my world, he says. Feed my lambs.
Do you love me? Jesus asks. If yes, then love what I have given you. Feed my sheep.
“Why care about creation?” Because God does, and God needs us to use our hands and feet and hearts and minds to tend the garden in which we live.
This is one very important way that God is in control today, by giving us a job rooted in love. God, through Christ, tells us what to do, commands us to express our love of God through caring for God’s creation. If you love me, feed my sheep.
May it be so. Amen.
Thanks to Karoline M. Lewis at WorkingPreacher.org for the great insight about the unique way John’s Gospel recounts Peter’s denial and raises questions about his identity as a disciple.