God made us to love the world, and God made the world to be loved. So God rejoices when we are fulfilling God’s purposes by loving the world.
So says the 17th-century priest and writer Thomas Traherne. Traherne died on September 27, 1674, so this past week was the 342nd anniversary of his death. His writings demonstrate an expansive and joyous understanding of God’s love and grace immanent in the beauty of the natural world.
It’s a deeply Anglican perspective. Richard Schmidt argues that the Anglican theological heritage, which we share as Episcopalians, is profoundly incarnational. God becomes human and enters our world in Jesus Christ, and that moment of incarnation teaches us always to look for God present in the world, to honor God through with art and music, with human skill and reason, in the disciplines and duties of daily life, and in our love for the natural world.
There are Christians who see the world in other ways – as a resource entirely at our disposal, with no responsibility of care; or as inherently bad or flawed, over against a spiritual realm which is the true and good reality. But we Anglicans, we incarnational Christians, expect to meet God here, in this world, in these bodies; we expect to honor God’s grace and treasure God’s gifts; we expect to serve God in our daily living.
In seeking to know, honor, and serve God in the material world, and especially in the natural world, we stand in the current of a long and deep stream of Judeo-Christian thought. Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century saint whom we’ll honor this afternoon at our Blessing of the Animals service, is remembered for seeing animals and plants, sun and moon, as brothers and sisters within the created order. When I’m blessing the water up at the altar, I use a simplified version of a prayer of Francis: ‘I thank you, God, for Sister Water, who is so beautiful, humble, mobile, and pure.’
In the early 16th century, between Francis and Traherne, Martin Luther, the founder of our sister tradition, the Lutheran way of faith, wrote, “God is entirely and personally present in the wilderness, in the garden, in the field….even in the smallest flowers! … God is wholly present in all creation, in every corner, behind you and before you. Do you think that God is [just] sleeping on a pillow in heaven?”
There are so many witnesses to the possibilities of encountering, praising, and serving God in Creation spread across two thousand years of Christianity – and before that, in the Hebrew Bible, as well. The Creation story in Genesis, the book of Job, portions of the Psalms and the Prophets – there are many passages throughout the Hebrew Bible that describe God’s glory and generosity as vividly present and available in the natural world and its creatures.
Ellen Davis, my Old Testament professor, argues convincingly that the first covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, was triangular – connecting three parties in mutual responsibility: humanity, God, and the land. God’s people are called both to be faithful to God’s ways and to care for the land with respect and love. Davis says that in her reading of the Bible, that part of the Covenant is still in force.
God made us to love the world, and the world to be loved. But we are alienated from the natural world, which has diminished our love; and the love we do feel is shot through with grief.
I think the Anthropology Police would break down the door and take away my degree if I tried to romanticize pre-modern peoples and say that everything was better when we lived closer to the land. Before urbanization and mass production and a dozen other vast historical trends moved most of humanity away from small-scale farming and into lives in which the change of seasons is primarily a matter of wardrobe, and a bag of groceries is more likely to contain food from Chile and China than from Wisconsin. Modernity has a lot going for it – medicine, technology, mass education. I would not choose to go back to Traherne’s time, or Francis’s. I probably wouldn’t have survived the birth of my first child.
But: when I read Traherne’s euphoric praise for the gifts of the ocean, the hills, the skies, when I read Frances binding us in poetry and prayer to flower, cloud, bird and star, I feel a tug of sadness. I know those beauties less well than my ancestors in faith did; and I know them as endangered. Compromised, diminished, at risk.
Humans have always used and abused Creation; but the pace and the impact have increased sharply since the 19th century, and we see, and bear, the costs of those changes. Already by the 1870s, with the Industrial Revolution casting a pall of coal smoke over the world, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins voiced the grief we feel: “… All is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil, and wears man’s sweat and shares man’s smell.”
Today the lectionary brings us two songs of exile. Lamentations gives voice to the loneliness of the land, the city, with its people taken from it, and Psalm 137, one of the most poignant of the Psalms, gives us the voice of the people, grieving the loss of their homeland, the landscape of their hearts: “By the rivers of Babylon, we lay down and wept when we remembered Zion… we hang our harps on the willow trees, for how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” We had a place, says the song, a land that was ours; we loved it, it was beautiful; and we lost it. It’s gone.
That’s us. We live there, in that terrain of memory and grief. In the book Healing Through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan proposes that we are all living with chronic anxiety and sadness about what’s happening, what’s already happened, to the natural world. When I first read that, during seminary, I recognized it instantly as true for me. Does it ring true to you? … When I talk with you all about spirituality and where we feel close to God, a lot of you say, In Nature. And when we talk about Nature, there’s this shadow that comes across people’s faces. The simple joy and intimacy with Creation that we hear in the words of Frances and Traherne – sometimes we feel that for a moment. And then we remember how much we have lost; how much we still have to lose.
I don’t know how you live with it. For me, it involves a lot of denial, a lot of things I just don’t think about much. Because I don’t have time to fall apart like that.
God made us to love the world, and the world to be loved. But we are alienated from the natural world; our love of Creation is diminished and shadowed by grief. We know and feel that we are called to care for the world, but we lack the will.
In today’s Gospel, some of Jesus’ friends come to him and say, Increase our faith! He’s been talking with them about discipleship – caring for each other, forgiving each other, serving the poor, and so on. And reasonably enough, they think, All that sounds pretty hard. And maybe if we had more faith, it would be easier. So: Jesus, give us more faith. And Jesus says, Look. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree, Go jump in a lake! and then listen for the splash. When your slave who works for you does a full day’s work in the field and then comes home and serves you dinner, do you thank him? No, you don’t; because that’s his job. That’s what he’s supposed to do. So how about you just do the things you’re supposed to do?
It’s a Gospel lesson that can give us pause. Not because what Jesus is saying here is perplexing or hard to interpret; he’s just being a little blunt. Less warm and fuzzy and affirming than we like him. He’s a little fed up that the disciples think they still need something else. That in their laziness, they hope that maybe Jesus can just wave his hand and make discipleship into a cakewalk. So his reply is kind of a kick in the pants. He says, You don’t need more faith. You have faith, and you know what it means to live faith. You just need to make up your mind to do it. You don’t lack faith. You lack will.
Oh, boy, do I recognize that truth about myself. I have faith. I believe. And I know what belief demands of me, in my obligations to God, my neighbors, the common good, the created order. The things I don’t do, the places I fall short, are because it’s hard, and I’m weak and lazy. Fortunately God is gracious; I keep getting second chances. But when Jesus says, Faith is not your problem; just act on the faith you already have! – he’s talking to me.
This past spring we called and gathered a task force here at St. Dunstan’s, the Creation Care Task Force. Loving care of creation has been part of mission of this parish since its earliest years, when the first rector, Father Childs, worked to plant conifers from around the world on the church grounds. Over the decades, the trees, plants, birds and animals of this place have been part of our identity here, and have called us into awareness of God’s beautiful creation. In the parish mission statement developed in 2010, “Care for the environment” is named as one of the ways we strive to respond to God’s grace. But we have not had a consistent or clear witness on creation care. It’s in danger of being just another value that a church claims, but isn’t really sure how to live out.
So we called the Creation Care Task Force, inviting members of the parish with knowledge and passion around issues of environmental stewardship to gather to reflect on what it means for a church to be committed to creation care. We’ve been meeting regularly since the spring, and they’ve been such fruitful, insightful conversations; it’s truly been holy work.
We’re still at it – for a couple more months, I expect – but we’ve achieved one important goal that we’re sharing with the congregation today: a Creation Care Mission Statement. It names our hopes and intentions for living as people who still honor the First Covenant! – who see loving stewardship of Creation as an integral part of holy living. So far that Mission Statement belongs to the Task Force; but I very much hope that it will come to belong to the whole parish, that we’ll claim it and own it and live into it together, in the months and years ahead.
The Creation Care Task Force and its work are an example of doing what we know we need to do. We didn’t need more faith – we already believed that Creation matters, that the natural world is beloved of God. We didn’t need more concern for the earth, or more guilt or anxiety – we had plenty of that. We didn’t lack faith; we lacked will. We just needed to start somewhere. And so we started.
It’s just a start. This mission statement invites us into demanding ongoing work, as individuals and as a community of faith. It will be hard, and I, for one, am still weak and lazy. But – we’ve started. And – this is the part that gives me the most joy – we’ve come to some clarity about where to start.
God made us to love the world, and the world to be loved. But we are alienated from the natural world; our love of Creation is diminished and shadowed by grief. We know deeply that we are called to care for the world, but we lack the will. The path towards awakening our longing to protect and renew begins with cultivating love.
The path towards awakening our longing to protect and renew Creation begins with cultivating our love of Creation.
Ever since it first became clear that human activity was changing and harming the environment and the world’s creatures, we’ve been living with guilt, shame, and fear. Those feelings have shadowed us for decades – and a lot of us still feel paralyzed. There’s been some interesting research on environmental education with young children that concluded that it’s not a good idea to start too early with teaching about endangered species and threatened landscapes. The sense of impending loss can just make kids disengage. Why learn and fall in love if these creatures and places seem doomed? They can’t process the grief when they haven’t yet even had a chance to discover the joy. Instead, effective environmental education for young children focuses on developing curiosity, engagement, wonder, connectedness… love. I think that, while that’s particularly true for young children, it’s true for all of us. We need to renew and nourish our love for Creation.
Listen, when the Creation Care Task Force first gathered, I was hoping for outcomes like guidelines for what kind of dish soap to buy. And we may yet get there; this mission statement should inform those choices. But gathered around the table, walking around the grounds, in conversation and in prayer, we have discerned something much more foundational and hopeful. I’d like to use a word we don’t all know: charism. It’s a Greek word, a New Testament word; it means gift – but we use in the church to mean particularly a gift from God given with a purpose. A gift given to be used.
The Creation Care Task Force believes that this parish, St. Dunstan’s Church, has a charism for the restoration of the relationship between humans and nature.
This parish has a charism for the restoration of the relationship between humans and nature. Our grounds and the plants and creatures that inhabit them – our spaces for worship and fellowship that look out on nature- our heritage of planting and tending here – the joy our members and guests take in exploring, playing, foraging, wandering, praying here – the people God has sent us who themselves carry charisms, gifts, for teaching and advocacy and care for the natural world – these are all clues that fed our discernment that God wants this church to help people love the world.
And our grounds are our central gift and tool for that work. A core and distinctive part of St. Dunstan’s identity and mission is inviting people into loving engagement with creation, by practicing sustained compassionate attention right here on our little patch of fertile ground.
That local focus – using this place to learn to know and love nature together – that’s not navel-gazing or parochialism or escapism. It’s more like learning a skill in a classroom or workshop that you’ll take out and use in daily life. Our life here together, in this place, can be that classroom or lab where we cultivate a disposition of heart and mind that we’ll carry with us out into the world. Just as we practice love of neighbor here, to shape our daily interactions with others, we can practice love of creation here, to shape our daily living, buying, eating, voting.
What does that look like? Well, this is a brand-new thought; my prayer is that we’ll develop it together. I think there are ways in which we’re already doing it, have always done it. I think there are other ways we can take it on with intention, in our shared life of worship, learning, fellowship, and work. I heartily invite all of you to share your ideas, questions, hopes.
Today the Creation Care Task Force is offering the congregation three simple exercises to try out, in the spirit of cultivating our love of the natural world. These are exercises in abiding, practices of curiosity and compassionate attention. Please take a look at the Tiny Hike, Small Ecology, and I Notice, I Wonder, and give one of these practices ten or twenty minutes today, or this week, or anytime. Share with me, with each other, how they feel, where they take you.
God made us to love the world, and the world to be loved. Our love of Creation is diminished and shadowed by grief. But the path towards awakening our longing to protect and renew begins with cultivating love. I believe that we, as the parish and people of St. Dunstan’s, are called to that work of cultivation. May the God who has given us this desire and intention, continue to stir it up within and among us, equip and inspire us to live out our hopes, and prosper the work of our hands. Amen.