Lent 5: Paul the Ecologist
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday Lent, April 2, 2017. This was the fifth in a series of sermons on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The rather tame image below is from Columbia: devastating floods in Columbia and Peru earlier in the week claimed hundred of lives and affected millions. Just before the sermon we sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” My title was borrowed from the newest volume in The Earth Bible Commentary Series.[i]
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit groans with sighs too deep for words (with inexpressible groans). And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit groans for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s good purpose. For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom God predestined God also called; and those whom God called God also made just; and those whom God made just God also glorified.
I have to ask, because I don’t watch a lot of sports: Do people still hold up signs at games with John 3:16 written on them? That used to be such a thing. You know passage:
For God so loved the world
that he gave his only begotten son
so that whosoever believeth in him
shall not perish
but have eternal life.
(That’s right, most all of us memorized it in the King James Version.)
We like to think this about us, but it is about the whole world.
Christ came into the world not because God loved us, human beings, but because God loved, and loves the world. The Greek word here is kosmos – the whole creation that God made and called good.[ii] This includes what Paul calls “all things visible and invisible”, and what the Creed describes as “all that is – seen and unseen.”[iii] God loves the world, the water, earth and sky; the creatures swimming, walking, crawling and flying. We are a part of that world. God loves all things living and growing, and all things dying and decaying, all things, intimately, tenderly, without condition. In scripture,
the animals glorify God by being animals, and the trees by being trees,
even the rocks proclaim the glory of God;
all God has made speaks of God, all nature sings,
and all creation groans for the fulfillment of God’s purposes.
God loves creation for its own sake, not just for its role in sustaining human life, and God became flesh, incarnate in world, so that all flesh, all creation might be saved and enjoy eternal life. The idea here is a very Hebrew one – taken right from Genesis. God made the first human, the adam, from the earth, the adamah. This word-play works in English too, a human being is one made from the humus, the earth, and our proper vocation is one of humility, of being grounded, of knowing our proper place in God’s creation. We might also say that God so loved the world that God became earthly so that all the earth would be saved.[iv]
Our Christian discipleship and our Lenten journey would benefit from “paying attention” to such “earthly things.”
So often when we think of salvation we think about it individually: God saves me, an individual, from sin, from death – but that’s actually not how the Bible talks about God’s saving work. God doesn’t save individuals, God saves whole peoples; and God doesn’t just save people, God loves and saves the whole creation.
In our passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, now our fifth week of studying this letter together, you’ll notice that it is the whole creation that is groaning for redemption. That means us, but it means us-as-part-of-world, and other non-human creatures, the trees and fish and seas and air, all that God has created groans for liberation. It means that God loves the horse, and the star, as much as God loves us. God loves the rivers that flow as much as God loves the newborn baby. In the Biblical vision, while people have a special role to care for creation, to serve and preserve it, we are not separate from creation but rather a part of it.[v]
And so in Romans, when all of creation is groaning, that means we human beings are groaning, longing, not only for our world but for ourselves; and it means that all the earth is groaning, longing, for release so that it can be what it was created to be.[vi]
As Thomas Merton famously said:
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means
it to be it is obeying God. It “consents,” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love.
It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from
the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”
Through our baptism, we are incorporated into God’s New Humanity, recalled to our higher purpose and our responsible place in this world, set free so that we might set others free – even the earth itself. Three realities meet here – the non-human creation, the human, and the divine – all yearning together for the fullness of our redemption. We see it here at the font: the substance of water – the essential element, for water is life – on a human forehead, as a sign of divine action – for the healing of the world.[vii]
We might summarize Paul’s point in this way:
“The hope of God the Creator is that liberated human beings will in turn liberate the creation that has suffered the ravages of [our] exploitation and devastation. But that, Paul attests, will occur only when God’s sons and daughters have begun to act in accordance with the paradox of [our baptismal] identity as participants in God’s New Humanity who are being what they have become and are becoming what we already are” as children of God and stewards of creation.[viii]
On Tuesday evening, our church council gave the “green” light (the pun is intended) to installing solar panels on the church. This is an idea that was voiced at a congregational meeting two years ago. The panels will be installed by Chris Hale and his team at Sun Blue Energy of Sleepy Hollow, and we’re really excited. Our hope is that they will be in by the summer solstice, the sunniest day of the year. There will be 167 separate solar panels on the flat roof of the education building and on the south roof of the chapel capturing the energy of the sun and converting it into electricity. These panels will supply 75% of our current electrical needs, though with some work I am sure we can improve even that. In making this decision, we as a congregation are living out the commitment we made when we became a GreenFaith congregation. As we put it at that time:
“In this time of dramatic climate change, persistent poverty, and global connection, we pledge ourselves to our community and to future generations thirty and three hundred years out, that starting right now we will live responsibly on God’s earth, that we will dedicate our lives to correcting those natural, corporate and human systems that have placed our planet and its people in such precarity, and that we will raise the youngest generation of Christians to do likewise.”
By getting our energy directly form the sun, rather than burning fossil fuels, will be saving 48,000 pounds of CO2 emissions a year, the equivalent of taking five cars off the road every year, or preserving 3.5 acres of trees. For those of you more financially minded, it’s a savings of more than $12,000 a year, the panels pay for themselves in a little more than seven years, and will over the life of the panels yield an almost 14% return on investment.[ix]
I want to be clear. This is not just a green thing to do, or good thing to do, or a financially sound thing to do. The Apostle Paul would have us see it in the largest terms possible, as nothing less than the arrival of the sons and daughter of God, participating in God’s work of redeeming the world – the non-human and human world groaning together with God’s own spirit.
At the very end of scripture, in the Book of Revelation, there is an image of a Green City, because any sustainable future will require sustainable cities. The trees-whose-leaves-are-for-the-healing-of-the-nations in a New Jerusalem (the trees we will see again on our Palm Sunday Banners next week) are part of an urban greenway made possible by a river. The orchard along the banks provides abundant food year-round. Land and labor are liberated from futility. And when Christ finally appears, as the Lamb of God, an animal himself, “A whole chorus of animals, sea creatures and creatures under the earth burst into songs of praise.” (5:13). All creation is been waiting for this moment when God’s home will again be on earth, “dwelling with creation and renewing it.”
My friends, “God’s work in creation is too wonderful, too ancient, too beautiful, too good to be desecrated. Restoring creation is God’s own work in our time, in which God comes both to judge and to restore.”[x] Let us embrace the widest possible understanding of our baptismal identity, and gather strength as we are nurtured at this table with the gifts of the earth as the gifts of God, that we may and take up God’s work in our time. This will be the sign of Christ alive among us.
Sermon Hymn 360: Christ is Coming!
Christ is coming! Let creation from its groans and labor cease;
let the glorious proclamation hope restore and faith increase.
Christ is coming! Christ is coming! Come, O blessed Prince of peace.
[i] My title is taken, with gratitude, from Sigve Tonstad, The Letter to the Romans: Paul Among the Ecologists. The Earth Bible Commentary. (Sheffield, 2016).
[ii] The Gospel of John uses kosmos, while Paul speaks of he ktisis groaning. In that context he ktisis can only mean non-human creation. See Tonstad, Paul Among the Ecologists, p. 242ff.
[iii] The Nicene Creed, adopted in 325, Article 1.
[iv] For an accessible introduction to these ideas, see Patricia Tull, Inhabiting Eden: Christians, The Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. (Westminster John Knox, 2013).
[v] Robert Jewett, “The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Reading Rom. 8:13-23 within the Imperial Context” in Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, edited by Richard Horsley (Trinity Press International, 2004).
[vi] On exegetical grounds, Sigve Tonstad argues that “Non-human creation is subject, not object, speaking as a sentient being that is capable of experiencing suffering and expressing hope.” Paul Among the Ecologists, p. 243. For a compelling articulation of what it might look like to take this seriously, see Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents, edited by Jonathan K. Crane. (Columbia, 2016).
[vii] This worship service importantly included the baptism of two girls, eight months and twenty-eight months. The perichoresis of human, non-human, and divine reality in the sacraments was highlighted throughout.
[viii] Herman C. Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Destruction of the Law. (Sheffield, 2011). p. 219-220.
[ix] Maria Elena, Chile, “While Trump Promotes Coal, Other Countries are Turning to Cheap Sun Power.” Washington Post, March 31, 2017.
[x] From “Call to Restore the Creation.” Adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1990.