Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
April 24, 2016
Sermon Text – John 13:31-35
It was Earth Day on Friday. I’m really excited that our four-year-old’s preschool class has been learning about composting lately and they are starting a three-week unit on recycling next week. Isn’t that cool?
You know, if you take out a Bible and try to search for passages that are about what we 21st century folks would call “being green” or “environmental stewardship” or “eco justice” you wouldn’t necessarily find those terms. There are a lot of themes that relate to justice that come up over and over again in the Bible. That whole “love God and love your neighbor as yourself” law encapsulates so much of our holy text’s teachings nicely. Time and time again we are told that we must care for the widow, the orphan, the alien. It’s clear that God cares deeply about the way we use our economic resources. The prophets of the First Testament, in particular, have a lot to say about the oppression of those living on the margins. And, of course, Jesus had a lot to say about economic justice, too – that’s why he was so very unpopular with the Roman Empire.
Another theme that comes up again and again, especially in the teachings and actions of Jesus and his early followers, is this idea of radical inclusion. That’s what the long, complicated passage from Acts today is all about. You see, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews – just like Jesus. They had no intention of starting a new religion. They were just seeking to follow God and be the best Jews they could be.
Things got complicated, though, because a lot of non-Jewish people (Gentiles) were also fascinated by Jesus and wanted to learn more about him – wanted to follow him. They didn’t necessarily want to keep all of the laws of Judaism though. For example, there were dietary laws about how Jews should eat….and they weren’t necessarily supposed to share meals with people who didn’t observe those laws. So it was hard for observant Jews to follow Jesus alongside these Gentiles.
The leaders in the early church spent a lot of time arguing about what to do with all these non-Jews who wanted to follow Jesus. And the passage from Acts is all about this conflict. Peter is in trouble with some of the other leaders because he’s been baptizing Gentiles – a big no-no. He explains his decision to the others by telling them about a vision he had while in a trance. Not once, not twice, but three times a voice told him to eat animals that were considered unclean by his religious standards. And when some strangers (Gentiles) show up and ask him to come on a journey with them, the Spirit gives him a message that permanently altered the entire future of Christianity. The Spirit said, “Make no distinction between them and us.”
Or the way Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Galatia (in modern-day Turkey), “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female….for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
This is major, major, major earth-shattering stuff. And when Peter tells this story to the other leaders of the Early Church….it works. After they heard his story, they “praise God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” They are convinced. And the entire future of Christianity is altered.
The entire Bible, it seems to me, is a story of humanity’s ever-evolving and expanding awareness of God’s limitless love. Because we, as humans, struggle with loving everyone, we tend to imagine a God that only loves certain people, certain groups. But time and time again, the Bible is clear – God’s love is for all.
And on this Earth Day, the story from Acts drew me into that boundless love that God has for his Creation and I pondered anew what it means to be a human being living with – not just ON – our planet. It’s just a tiny little different in phrasing… “I live ON the Earth” vs. “I live WITH the Earth.”
But that slight change in prepositions makes a world of difference. Do we see the Earth as something other and outside of humanity? It is something that exists for our use? Is our goal to dominate, control, conquer it? Or do we exist alongside it? Are we inextricably linked to it? Bound up together for good or ill?
That’s one of the things I love about the image of our Mother Earth. Because the earth is our source. Without it, we do not exist. It reminds me of the realization I had when Maitland was about one year old and we took him on a plane for the first time. I was worried that he’d fuss and freak out. And he did a little. But then he settled in to nurse and continued to do so for the entire flight and I looked into his eyes and realized, “Wow. No matter where we go, it doesn’t actually matter to him. I’m his home. We are connected in a way that makes him feel like everything’s okay as long as I’m there and steady.”
That same connection exists between all kinds of people, of course, not just mothers and children, but also fathers, grandparents, siblings, dear friends, lovers. When you are that deeply connected to another human being that their very presence makes you feel like you are home….that’s love.
If each of us were to nurture that same connection to the Earth, we would be living WITH not ON this planet together. The people of the Bible, of course, understood this more instinctively than we do. They would have marveled at the way we live now….it’s not uncommon for humans today to leave one air conditioned box (our home) to get into another air conditioned box (our car) and travel to another air conditioned box (our work or school or store) and sometimes can go an entire day without so much as looking out a window or spending any time even aware of our Mother Earth.
That’s not living with. That’s not love. That’s not recognizing the mutual dependence we all share with our planet.
I know many of us are well-educated, in an intellectual way, about what it means to care for our Mother Earth. In your bulletin, you have a lovely insert with 25 things we can each do to help care for our planet. And I know that, without even looking at those, we could easily come up with an even longer list of things we can do. We can drive less. We can fly less. We can eat less meat. We can reduce, reuse, recycle. What else? (responses)
And if you’re like me, sometimes being reminded of all those things makes you feel good. Like, “Okay. I’ve got this. I’m going to work on item #5 and then I’ll have done my part to help the planet.”
More often, though, when I ponder a big list of things I can check off a list, I start to feel a little overwhelmed. Like, “Doing all of this would be impossible. And even if I work really hard and give up my car and bike and walk everywhere, if everyone else is still driving the PLANET WILL BE DESTROYED!!!”
So if you hate those lists, please ignore the one that’s in your bulletin. If they’re helpful to you, please hang it up on your fridge.
Love your mother.
The earth, that is. Love the earth.
In today’s passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples, his friends: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus is, of course, talking about people needing to love one another. And God knows we are still working on that. We’re not even doing a very good job of it these days.
I think Jesus would also have us work on loving the earth, too. The arc of the story of humanity is one that is expansive. We began as people who lived in small family units and slightly larger tribes and groups. We expanded over time and began to organize in nations and regions. Advances in technology and transportation have made it so that we are now easily connected at a global level. And all along the way, the earth has been a part of it. So perhaps now is the time to intentionally nurture that expansive spirit that is our birthright as humans and more intentionally nurture our connection to the earth.
Remembering our inextricable connection to the holy ground in which we live and move and have our being also helps us remember our connection to the Holy and to one another. Unitarian Universalist theologian and environmental ethicist Ron Engle writes about the way Earth Spirituality connects us to the rest of humanity. Because regardless of where you came from or who you are, we all share one thing in common as humans: we are 100% reliant on the earth for our continued survival.
Every single culture grows and uses food. Every single group of people who has ever lived interacts with animals, planets, bodies of water, the air we breathe, the weather. So the next time I meet someone who seems very different than me and I’m having a hard time finding a connection, I think I’ll ask them, “Tell me about what the land was like where you grew up.” Because we all come from someplace and we all live with this planet.
And God is in the midst of all of that living. Our Mother God is inseparable from our Mother Earth. My dependence on the earth and my connection with nature reminds of my connection to the Holy and my reliance on God as the source of my being.
As we hear Jesus’s commandment to love one another, just as we have been loved, we are challenged to go forth and love our world in new ways. What might it look like to focus on loving the earth? Not just checking some items off on a list, but really getting to know the environment in which we live? I have some ideas. I know what helps me, but I am interested in hearing what helps YOU cultivate and grow that love for our Mother Earth. So I’ve created a bulletin board in Pioneer Blachly that has some information about how to love our Mother…but it’s going to be interactive. I’ve set out some slips of paper and markers at coffee hour and I invite you to write down the ways you love our Mother Earth. There are push pins there so you can hang them and in the next few weeks I also invite you to bring in or email the office your photos, poetry, art, reflections that we can hang to add to the collection.
This Earth Day, let us resolve to do as Jesus instructed and love as we have been loved.
In our Mother God we find our source and understand that we are fully loved beyond any boundaries we can possibly imagine. Isn’t that amazing?
Let’s share that love…not just with other humans, but with the entire planet. Amen.