God’s Good Earth (4/24/2016)

Watery Earth NASA photoA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Text: Psalm 121; Psalm 148; Matthew 6:19-21, 24-34

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

There is a profound sense in which this great poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins captures for me the dilemma with which we have wrestled throughout this Earth Month. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” “This is my Father’s world…“ “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” and, when it was done, “God saw everything that she had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God’s good earth.

And yet,

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Do we really see and understand this as God’s good earth, or have we taken the position that, while God may have created, creation itself was left for us to use and abuse was we will? What footprint have we left on God’s good earth as we trod across it, our heavy human boots searing and blearing, smearing and smudging? How do we reconcile the goodness of creation with some of the callous and careless decisions humans have made in the exercise of dominion?

My intent here is not to condemn progress. There is a place for human ingenuity or God would not have given it. Nor am I exactly on a back to nature kick (though there may be something for me to consider in that regard.) My primary concern here is for the disconnect, the ways in which we pit progress against nature in a false dichotomy that does not recognize sufficiently that all we have and are is gift from God. That is, God has given us certain abilities, among these a sort of intelligence that allows us to reason, to figure some things out, to build and even to create, in the image and likeness of God. God has also placed us in the midst of an amazing aggregation of resources. And God asks us to appreciate it all, to see its value, to delight in its goodness, and to care for it as an intricately interwoven whole of grand design. We approach it as Gordian knot, with sword in hand, at our own peril. “Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care,” urges Shirley Erena Murray.

My friend, Mark Liebenow is a wonderful writer. A good deal of his work is nature writing in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver. He has written a lovely book, Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, journaling his experiences in that wilderness. When he lived in California, Mark would spend a week at a time, almost always “off-season,” alone in Yosemite. October or January would yield beauty and mystery that the casual camper seldom experiences amid the crush of summer visitors. Of course, it also helps that Mark is dedicated to paying attention, as I suppose most good writers are.

After being awakened in the middle of the night by a bear rummaging around his campsite, he writes this reflection:

At 6:30 a.m., tired from conjuring danger from every stray noise and stiff from sleeping on the ground, I pull on clothes that froze overnight and step gingerly into the darkness, cautious of wild animals still prowling around. Leidig Meadow and the Merced River, whose waters sing nearby, are barely visible in the predawn light of the young moon. Night hides the canyon walls under a cloak of blackness while overhead thousands of sparkling, spinning stars, scattered like seeds across the infinity of the universe, dance in the dark silence that surrounds the earth. Into this wonder arises the crisp beauty of dawn, a narrow orange band of light that pierces the eastern horizon. The mountain’s scent condenses on my upturned face as I breathe in the valley and its peacefulness, then slowly exhale. My breath rises straight up in the still air.

As daylight floods over the mountains, the grandeur of Yosemite emerges and surrounds me with rivers, waterfalls, forests and sky. The fresh pine air quickens my pulse. I do not know where I am going now that I am here, but I know this is the beginning of something that has been waiting (pp. 2-3).

Surely “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and God is praised from the depths of valley floor to the heights of the sparkling heavens. “Let the whole creation cry, alleluia!”

As much as I love reading what Mark writes, I find it difficult to imagine myself spending a week alone, camping in Yosemite, at any time of year. In book group on Saturday, Hugh and I agreed that we would prefer to visit nature but stay in a hotel. I confess that something is most likely lost in this perspective. Maybe this is what Hopkins is critiquing when he rues that the foot cannot “feel, being shod.” What do we miss? What is lost when we distance ourselves from God’s good earth, enshrining ourselves in protective palaces that divorce us from the goodness of the creative order?

Our friend, Greg Griffey, has posted a couple times now on Facebook a picture of two legs, pants rolled up, feet bare, standing in the grass, seeming to revel in contact with God’s good earth. He writes of his own journey to feel at home in this new place, “4 months out and I’m only beginning to feel the ground beneath my feet in this place of bay, mountains, ocean, fog, city, and traffic.” He says, “I don’t know when I began the journey from getting here to being here, but my resistance to this beginning did not stop it from quietly forming, just waiting until I was ready to live more fully into it.” A place on God’s good earth. Praise God with ten fine toes that wiggle in the grass!

“Let the whole creation cry, alleluia!” Praise to God! This ought to be the beginning and ending of all life, ours included. If we start with praise and end with praise, how might our lives be different? How might we define or re-define our concept of dominion? How might we organize or re-organize our relationship to creation? How would we approach God’s good earth? As I’ve said before, it is difficult for us to see beyond our own self-importance. Perhaps this the curse of being sentient beings. Our self-awareness often blinds us to any thought that it is not “all about me.” Maybe that’s why I don’t want to hang out alone in a tent in Yosemite, ironically. My comfort and security are more important to me than anything I might learn by coming so close to God’s good earth. I’d rather keep my boots on than feel the “first dewfall on the first grass…sprung in completeness where God’s feet pass.”

You know, and I know, as the expression goes, “we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” We do experience anxiety and insecurity. We feel we need to short circuit any threat to our existence through hoarding resources, accumulating goods for our own personal well-being, building fortresses, and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. It’s pretty difficult to praise God from that position.

In Psalm 121 we are reminded that all the help we need “comes from the Holy One who made heaven and earth. Ultimately, it is God in whom we live and move and have our being. What more can we need? Jesus sits in the grass on a hillside, grounded in God’s good earth, and proclaims, “…where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He says, “…do not worry about your life…can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” “Look at the birds of the air…consider the lilies of the field…” If God cares for them, will God not also care for human creatures, made in her image and likeness? “…you of little faith,” he bemoans. Ouch, we didn’t want to hear that. We’re trying, Jesus. We want to be faithful. Sometimes it is so hard for us to trust, let alone take responsibility for right living.

We may live our lives somewhere between the glory of creation and the paving of paradise, but even in the deepest darkness of our fears, Hopkins holds hope for us. Our heavy human boots searing and blearing, smearing and smudging,

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

What if we focused our gaze on morning breaking, on the bright wings of the Spirit hovering over us, on the God who broods over us like a mother hen? What if we were to find our “treasure” in praising this God whose very essence is compassion and care? How would it affect our hearts, shape them, move them? How might our lives be transformed? If we were to stop and look around, where might we find creation praising God? Creation was praising God long before human beings ever came on the scene. What might we learn there? In that observation, the key to a renewed heart, one free of fear and insecurity, one made to sing God’s praise, can still be found. Think on these things. Pray about them. Let them become the ground –  God’s good earth –  from which you live your life.

Praise be to the Blessed One,
the very Breath of our breath,
the very Heart of our heart! Amen.

Mixon Muses: Earth Month

candle and globeThis month is Earth Month at FBCPA. You will see elsewhere in this Spire a variety of programming to lift up our love for the earth and care for creation. Thanks to Pastor Gregory for his hard work pulling all this together. We have a couple of books in the church library you might want to check out as resource for this month’s emphasis as well. One is A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism by Emory University history professor, Patrick Allitt. This book was recommended by Dan Cudworth and is the book we’re reading for this month’s Senior Connections Book Group. If you want to read it and join that discussion, feel free to, regardless of your age. We’d be delighted to have your input. The other is a book, suggested by Pastor Gregory, entitled Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. This is a collection of briefs essays and reflections by spiritual leaders in many different faiths.

As if all that is not enough, Pastor Gregory also loaned me his copy of John Cobb’s Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, and Justice to read as well. Cobb is a distinguished process theologian and advocate for eco-justice who taught for many years at Claremont School of Theology. We have seen and heard him more than once on a variety of episodes in the Living the Questions video series.

In the opening chapter, “Christian Existence in a World of Limits,” Cobb writes that, as Christians, we must recognize “1) the physical limits of our context, 2) the limits of our own capacities to envision needed changes or to adopt even those we can envision, but also 3) the openness of the future and the unlimited power of transformation that is the grace of God” (p. 11). I was especially struck by his suggestion that we live with limits –some of which are self-imposed – to our capacity to envision change and to our willingness to act on such a vision when we do catch it. It may be that clouded or shaky vision actually precludes our ability or willingness to see and accept the possibilities of God’s transforming power in our own lives and in the world around us.

In my Easter sermon, I suggested that Mary Magdalene is prepared to grieve, to spend her time mourning what is lost. She is heart-broken and feels alone. But neither she nor the rest of the disciples are prepared for resurrection. Their vision is clouded. It doesn’t matter that he has told them more than once that he would die and rise again. It is a claim that does not compute, has not registered in their reality, is not within the range of their vision. Do you think it would be any different for you or me if we had been in their sandals? That clouded vision, that lack of awareness is all too true today.

My friend Tim Phillips writes of death and resurrection, “Maybe the worst thing about death in all its forms is that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.” Isn’t this Mary’s truth in the early morning shadows? She couldn’t imagine anyone else. She assumed she was talking to the gardener. Tim continues to speak of death and its equivalents, “Addiction robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs of the energy to imagine some kind of wholeness beyond a cure. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that can put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive its hold on us” (Tim Phillips, “Resurrection Power,” The Spire, Vol. 80, No. 3, March 2016, Seattle First Baptist Church).

Isn’t John Cobb suggesting something similar? Cobb reminds us that “prophetic vision” is crucial to our Christian tradition. He argues that “we in the United States need a prophetic vision of an economic order that is viable and humane with respect to our own people without continuing economic imperialism and environmental degradation” (op. cit., p. 18). Is there anyone on the horizon running for public office on this platform? If not, why not? Is there nothing we can do to challenge and shape a political process that purports to elect officials who will represent us? Do we need to take a chance to open our eyes, our ears hearts in order to find the resurrection power that might make a difference?

Burdens of life interfere with our capacity to see beyond business as usual. The threat of death, ironically, robs us of the possibilities of new life. We get stuck in cycles of comfort and privilege and fail to see the potentially fatal consequences of our lack of vision for the whole of creation. What does rob you or me of vision, of our capacity to see God’s ability to work, even through us, to redeem creation and transform the way we understand the world and how it works? How many things do we accept as given, especially if they operate in our self-interest, rather than risking a challenge that might bring us closer to the realization of God’s Beloved Community? What might we have to lose in order to find true selves made in the image and likeness of God? What might we need to give in exchange for God’s promise of abundant life in Christ Jesus?

Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care… Let there be greening, birth from the burning, water that blesses, and air that is sweet,
Health in God’s garden, hope in God’s children, regeneration that peace will complete. 

Shirley Erena Murray

Pastor Rick