I submitted this sermon I preached last year to a contest for Eco-Sermons, to get it published in the Presbyterian Outlook. I think the only reason I'd have a chance is because few pastors preach on ecology.
Psalm 104 - The Glory of the Lord Revealed in Creation
Preached by Rev. John Creasy at The Open Door in Pittsburgh PA, an NCD of the Pittsburgh Presbytery
We’ve been talking for a few weeks now either directly or indirectly about the idea of “gift.” We’re coming at this broad and nebulous topic from a few different directions, God’s gifts to us, our gifts to God, our gifts to others, and vice versa. Today we’re going to talk about what I think is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given – the creation, all of the matter in the universe, in all of its beautiful forms. We’ll talk about creation and this physical world as God’s gift to us, and we’ll think about the responsibility that we therefore have toward that gift.
Some theology today can actually encourage us not to care for the God’s creation. Have you ever been exposed to theology that may have negated creation as gift, or even seemed anti environmental? Have you ever been exposed to theology that says this physical world will be burned by God in the end times, along with all people who don’t accept Jesus? That kind of theology is out there, it’s alive and well in popular Christianity, and so I think we need to point it out and discover why it’s not Christian. I want to talk about this world as if God loves what he created. Could it be that God actually abides here with the beauty of what he has created? I want to imagine that you and I are the appointed care-takers of a creation in which the actual presence of God is located – and then realize this is reality.
The theological problem in the church today is rooted in an ancient strand of religious thinking called Gnosticism. Many Gnostics believed their spirit was good, but their flesh was evil. They thought the physical world was so corrupted by sin that God had chosen to abandon it and care only about spiritual things. There’s similar thinking that remains today, thinking that says this world is dirty, completely corrupted by sin, and therefore of little worth. The Gnostics thought that God has separated himself from the contamination of physicality. This is more or less what many Christians believe today - God is spiritual and cares about our spiritual lives. Some Christians believe God has separated himself from the sin of this physical world and we can only come to God spiritually by accepting Jesus as our spiritual savior.
Many early Christians believed these kinds of things. They believed the physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good. The goal of Christianity for them was to deny their physical bodies and all things of physical creation, and focus on the spiritual. The physical body and the spirit were completely separate from one another, one good and one bad. These Gnostics and were deemed heretics by the church. A form of Gnosticism lives on today in popular Christianity that says our flesh, and therefore all physical things, are evil but our spirits can be saved and live forever. This over simplification of Gnosticism sets a good framework for understanding why Christians have neglected their responsibility toward caring for the creation God has given us.
True Christian thought is not overly dualistic like Gnostic thought. The Hebrew people did not split human beings into a dualistic body and spirit like the Gnostics of old or the neo-Gnostics of today. Instead our physicality and our spirituality were innately bound together. They did not believe God was removed from that which he had created. God’s spiritual being, they believed, was present in the physicality of this world. Let’s read our scripture for tonight and I think you’ll agree with my point.
Read Psalm 104 (insert text if desired)
To some degree I think the beautiful poetry of that Psalm can stand alone, but I’m going point out a few things that might seem obvious from this chapter. The first thing to notice is that God is the cause of creation. Without God there are no animals, no trees, no sky, no sea, nothing. If God created all things then all things are under his lordship, God is the cause of the creation.
The Second thing I notice is how intimately involved God is with his creation, he is not a creator who deserts his creation, rather he is the one who sustains it and gives it life. I love the language and imagery of God causing streams to flow, God providing the grains for the animals. God even provides the food for the lions, he is not a soft, naive God, but deals with the reality of creation in its goodness and in its seeming harshness. God is not only the cause of creation, he is the sustainer of every living and non-living thing, God is intimately involved with his creation as its sustainer.
Pastor BJ and I are taking a class together on Celtic Christianity. We’re both amazed at how the ancient Celts were able to understand God’s intimate involvement in all aspects of creation and all aspects of life. There was nothing too large or too small to have a poetic, trinitarian prayer written for. And these Celtic prayers were extremely earthy. It almost seems when reading these prayers as if you could touch God by touching the simple physical things of this earth. It seems that they believed God was so intimately involved in every detail of his creation that you truly could come to know him better through that creation, by worshipfully participating in this physical life. I think these ideas also come through in the Psalm 104. By participating in creation we can join it in worshiping God.
We can also know God more fully when we experience that which he has created. Saint Columbanus of ancient Ireland wrote “Understand, if you want to know the creator, created things.” His point was that if we revel in the beauty of God’s creation, we come closer to knowing God. In my last message to you back in Advent we talked about God as the artist and creation as his masterpiece. Like any great artist’s work, if you listen to it, study it, gaze upon it, you will come to know something of it’s composer or its painter or poet. I don’t believe this is the only way or even the primary way of knowing God, but I do believe it is a legitimate way to know the Creator.
Thirdly, and I’ve hinted at this point already, it is in the beauty of God’s creation that God makes his home. Krista Marshal, who is a regular at our weekly Midrash bible study, pointed out that God is even playful in this poem. God’s tent is the sky or the heavens, the clouds are his chariots, the beams of light reaching from the sky hold up his palace, and God rides in the wind. You may not have thought of God as playful before, but I think we should. God sees his creation as a place for enjoyment and play, God uses his creation as his home and place of enjoyment.
The fourth thing that I want you to notice with me takes only a light scratch on the surface of the poetic imagery to realize… all of God’s creation is in constant worship of its Creator and we have the opportunity to gaze at and through that beauty to join in that worship. This earth, the stars, the galaxies, and even the minute subatomic particles of this physical world are singing the praises of our God, we have the opportunity to join in that celebration. It’s obvious to me that the Psalmist sees creation as a major avenue for the worship of the creator. I would argue that anything beautiful in this world can be used as an avenue to worship of God. The Orthodox churches use beautiful icons as avenues to worship, we can use God’s creation as an icon, a window through which we see, come to know, and experience our Creator God.
What is the purpose of the Christian life? I would argue that our purpose is to know and worship God and through that worship to usher in his kingdom, here on earth as it is in heaven. If we are to worship God as Psalm 104 leads us to worship God, we must stop destroying the creation in which God chooses to abide, care for, and love. The destruction of the environment is a direct assault on the kingdom of God. I know it can be overwhelming when you think about things like global warming, the extinction of species, and destruction of the rain forest. Be encouraged to act locally, do your small part. God cares about the small attempts that we make to care for his creation as we show our appreciation for the gift that it is. As we join God in caring for his creation we in fact help to usher to this earth God’s Kingdom.
Part of our problem today is that we have very little connection with the earth. You and I can live our lives very separated from the rest of the natural world and so it’s easy to allow for destructive practices to happen for the sake of our comfort and consumption. It’s so easy to live inside our heated and cooled houses and apartments, watching our TV shows and working on our computers, only venturing outside far enough to hop into our cars or onto the bus. It takes a conscious decision and commitment of time to connect ourselves with the natural creation. I have to confess that I’ve spent little time in nature lately, I’ve used the excuse of being too busy to backpack, hike, or bike, all things that I love.
Think for a moment about our food. I think we’ve reached an extreme of disconnection from what we eat. Today its easier and cheaper to eat food so processed that we don’t even know what the natural ingredients are. If you’re up for it you can choose to eat food that actually grew and lived in a field, but its cheaper to eat chemically and artificially created food. Many people can’t afford healthy, natural food, they’re stuck buying over processed, terribly unhealthy food. These are issues of justice. Justice for the poor who are forced to eat cheap food, and ecological justice for God’s creation.
The issues of ecological justice and it’s connection to poor and disadvantaged are issues we can only touch on tonight. We all know the problems and could discuss them for hours. I want to ask what it will take to make a change. It will take a subversively simple lifestyle. The beauty of our world is being destroyed because of the way we live our lives. Our practices of consumption are killing this earth. It’s told to us that there is no other way to live, that the only way to be happy is to buy more stuff, and have the newest of everything. The only way to live in this American culture of consumption and not be a destructive force toward the environment is to begin living a subversive lifestyle where you, with other followers of Jesus, seek ways to undermine the system of consumerism, greed, and the need for the newest, fastest and sleekest.
The best part about being a Christian who cares for the creation is knowing that it’s not all up to you. We have a Savior who is making all things right through his all encompassing salvation. We are called to join in the work of Jesus Christ, the work of bringing his kingdom from heaven to earth. The ultimate acts of reconciliation have already occurred. The birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ have made reconciliation of the physical world, even you and me, possible. God has in fact become flesh for the sake of all that has been created!
Colossians 1:15 – 17 can be summarized by saying all things are held together through the power of Jesus Christ. Without the presence of the Incarnate One every molecular structure and every solar system alike would spin out of control. Our world, according Psalm 104 and Colossians 1, is reliant on the God of the universe for every moment of its being. The presence of the incarnate Christ holds all things together. And where Jesus’ presence abides, there also his redemption is set into motion. Every moment that Christ holds this world together, every moment that God feeds his people and feeds the animals of the field and birds of the air, is one movement closer to the redemption of all things. Sin is any destructive force against the presence of God and His Kingdom. Part of sin is the destruction of God’s creation. This church is interested in joining in the process that began at the beginning of time, the ushering in of God’s kingdom to this earth, for the sake of worshiping the triune God. By living a subversive lifestyle that puts creation care in important relationship with our theology we have a foundational reason to live subversively against the grain. We can continue to usher in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and deny the lordship of consumerism and greed. We can usher in his Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.