Apr 24th, Earth Day, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
Apr 24th: Earth Day, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
Take a deep breath.
Consider for a moment the breath you just took is sheer gift. I mean, the very air we breathe is sheer gift. It’s so easy to take life and the many gifts inherent in life for granted. What might happen if we stopped asking each other, well, what did you do today? What did you produce?
What did you accomplish? How far did you go? How fast did you do it? And instead we learned to ask, what did you notice today? What surprised you?
What amazed you? What humbled you? What filled you with gratitude? What took your breath away? The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common Bush a fire with God.
But only one who sees takes off their shoes. The rest of us sit round and pluck blackberries. The Psalmist expressed it this way in Psalm 19. The very skies declare the glory of God. The Earth proclaims God’s handiwork.
Abraham. Heschel said, Faith. Faith doesn’t begin with knowledge or belief, but with reverence, awe, wonder. The spiritual life is to take nothing for granted, to live with radical amazement, embracing all of life as a gift. It says in Genesis one that God saw all that God had created and declared it very good.
The Hebrew we translate as very good is Tove meod, which is better translated as God looked upon creation, all of it. And it took God’s breath away. Overcome by the beauty and wonder and sacredness of creation, God was speechless. And the very first job that God gave us, after declaring all of creation so very good, God gave us the job to be the ones responsible to cherish, protect, care for creation, and to make sure God’s Holy Earth stays so very good.
Now, you don’t need me to cite statistics of rising temperatures, melting ice caps, extreme weather, raging fires, catastrophic storms, ravaged rainforests, contaminated water, drought stricken land, and a growing number of animals threatened with extinction.
To know that we’ve not been doing a very good job of treating the Earth as a gift and making sure God’s Holy Earth stays so very good. Just a few weeks ago, more than a thousand renowned scientists from 25 countries from around the world were arrested protesting the way we are treating the Earth, trying to wake us up to what they regard. These are top renowned scientists, a thousand of them around the world to what they regard as an environmental crisis and emergency.
Now, I believe the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis. Honestly, we won’t fight to save what we take for granted. We won’t fight to save what we arrogantly assume exists to serve us. We won’t fight to save what we see as separate from us rather than something intimately connected to us. We won’t fight to save what we don’t love deeply.
Psalm 24 says, The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.
But we seemingly have divorced creation from the Creator and in many ways we’ve lost our sense of humility, reverence, gratitude, and our souls are the poor for it. And God’s Holy Earth is suffering and crying out to us. Scientist Gus Beth said, I used to think this is the top scientist. And he said, I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. And I thought that with 30 years of good science, we could solve these problems.
But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy. And to deal with these problems, we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that. Jewish philosopher Bart Boomer says, There are two ways of relating to others.
I it where the other is an object to be used for our benefit. This is when we see and we treat others merely in terms of how they can best serve our needs and make us happy. And the other way of relating is I Thou, where we treat the other as Holy and sacred. What a difference it makes in our relationships when we treat others with respect, not just respect, but reverence. I think the most important question we can ask, do people feel important and valued in our presence?
Now imagine if we treated our relationship with the Earth in the same way, rather than an it that simply exists to serve our needs, an object to be, to be used, abused for our pleasure and greed, and then discarded.
What if Earth was a sacred thou and to be revered? What if we ask ourselves, does God’s Holy Earth feel valued, respected, revered in our presence?
I think we know the answer to that question. In order to keep God’s Holy Earth so very good, we need to change and heal our relationship with the Earth. There’s an Indigenous saying that says, May you have such humility of spirit that your feet kiss the Earth with every step you take.
Humility of Spirit I wonder what might happen with our relationship with the Earth if we decentered ourselves. And we didn’t see creation apart from us, where it exists to serve us.
But we saw creation as a part of us, where we are given a special job, a unique job to protect and preserve the gift of creation. I mean, God declared all of creation as good. God didn’t pronounce us. We humans better or more important.
It’s true. It’s true. In Genesis 126 to 27, it says, Then God said, Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness, and let them have Dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the cattle, over all the wild animals of the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the Earth. So God created humankind. It says in God’s image.
Now I think the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis, partially because of how we’ve interpreted that word Dominion can we understand that word in a new way? A traditional interpretation, and quite frankly, a very kind of human centered, arrogant interpretation is where Dominion suggests that humanity is superior to nature, given the right to do with nature whatever we choose. In this view, everything was put here for a human benefit and disposal.
You don’t have to ask a tree before you bulldoze it for a subdivision. You just knock it down, you push it into a pile with the corpses of other trees and you set it on fire. Or if the trees block your view of the river, just cut them down, of course. And the next time the river floods, the banks will collapse. Without those living roots, the river will silt up until you can push a sharp stick 3ft down in the Sandy bottom without ever hitting what used to be the river bed.
But what the heck, what the heck, if Trout died, you can still go buy some at the grocery store wrapped in plastic, take them home in your plastic grocery bag to later to be discarded and become part of the 8 million pieces of plastic that find their way into the ocean every single day. But hey, we’re the Lord of this playground, right? Didn’t God say so? It’s all for us.
This posture of lack of humility, this posture of arrogance and disregard for the sacred value of the Earth, was one of the reasons Earth Day was initiated in 1970, and from there we slowly began to understand Dominion as implying we are stewards, not superior necessarily. We’re divine servants. We’re divine servants of creation and trusting, entrusted with the care of the Earth. Now, in this view, as stewards, you can still build your subdivision, but you’re going to have to save all the trees you can and plant two trees for every one you cut down.
The idea of being a steward means, as the Psalmist suggested, that the Earth, the Earth doesn’t belong to us. We’re caretakers.
Now that’s certainly an improvement in how we understand Dominion. But if you look close, it’s still rather utilitarian.
We do not care for Rivers, fields and skies as divine creatures in their own right, independent of their usefulness to us.
We care for them because we need them to survive. We care that perhaps out of guilt, because we’ll get in trouble with God. If we don’t, we act from a sense of duty really may not be enough to save this warming world of ours. We will not fight to save what we do not deeply love and experience a sheer gift. We don’t simply need a kind of a transformation of the mind where we become more aware, more educated of the need for change in our behavior.
We really need a transformation of the heart. Barbara Brown Taylor she wonders whether seeing ourselves in the role of priest comes closer to what God had in mind for our Dominion. A priest is someone who might see the Earth, all of the Earth as an altar holding God’s good gifts, waiting to be blessed. A priest would see not just bread and wine, but all of the Earth as a Sacrament holding the very presence of God. As the poet said, the Earth, the Earth, all of the Earth is crammed with heaven, every common Bush, a fire with God.
And our role as priest is to bless the Earth, not to simply use the Earth for our purposes, but to live on the Earth in a way that we bless the Earth. But then Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that that doesn’t even go far enough, and she offers the model of neighbor, noting, Jesus taught us to love our neighbor well. Who is my neighbor? Do only the two legged variety count? Or do our neighbors include the four legged ones, the winged ones, the ones with fins and fur?
Does God’s compassion stop with human suffering? Or does it extend to every creature in need of mercy, especially the creatures with no voice of their own to cry out for help, like the Good Samaritan and the story Jesus told?
Who will be the ones who will pour oil on the wounds of the ravaged rainforest or pour oil on the melting ice caps? Or the Emperor Penguin, who’s in danger of extinction? Or the trout? Who is my neighbor? A 17 pound Beagle named Bell received a Good Samaritan Award when Bell’s owner, Kevin Weaver, suffered a diabetic seizure.
Bell the dog, the Beagle saved his life by biting nine on his cell phone to dial 911. She was trained to do that, but Belle figured out all by herself how to read Kevin’s blood sugar by licking his nose. If she senses anything out of whack, she paws and winds at him until he does something. And Weaver said, every time she paused at me like that, I test myself. And she has never been wrong.
Or what about the whale who was set free? Some fishermen saw this whale that was all entangled in these fishing nets, and they Dove down with wire cutters and set the whale free. And this whale swam alongside the boat with the fishermen who rescued her, seemingly trying to thank her for being a good neighbor, thank her for rescuing her. Maybe being a good neighbor is close to the role that God has given us to keep creation so very good. But Barbara Brown Taylor suggests she goes even a little further.
It might be kind of an odd word for us in this context, but she suggests lover is probably the best word and the best way to understand our role as those who have been given Dominion over the Earth.
Because God’s Dominion is one of love and we are made in the image of God. So if we are on this Earth to be a reflection of God’s image, then the only Dominion we can possibly exercise is the Dominion of love and Jesus showed us what God’s love looks like and it’s a love that is humble, self, emptying, sacrificial. It’s a love that reveres the other. It’s a love that cares tenderly. Cares for the most vulnerable.
What if we exercised that kind of love in our relationship with the Earth? Which brings us right back to the beginning that the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis, a heart crisis. Do we love enough? We will not fight to save what we take for granted what we don’t Revere as a sheer gift. We will not fight to save what we arrogantly assume exists to serve us.
We will not fight to save what we don’t deeply love. Some of the most hopeful words in the Bible are the very first words the very first words in Genesis we were taught. It says, in the beginning God created, but the Hebrew actually says, in the beginning God began to create and God continues to create. Thank God that God is not finished with us or finished with the world yet. God continues to create, restore, renew, and heal all of creation and we are called as partners in that Holy work we are called to live as the expression of God’s love on the Earth as the expression of God’s love for all of God’s creation so that God might once again be moved to exclaim Tove.