I started by reading a story from Mary Oliver’s book, “Upstream.” The story is about a dog, Sammy, that chews through his rope and escapes everyday. They build a fence, but he just climbs over it. Eventually the dog catcher realizes that he doesn’t want any trouble, he just likes to go from door to door sitting in peoples’ yards and meeting people. Oliver ends the story with, “maybe it’s about the wonderful things that happen when you break the ropes that are holding you.” (1)
I wanted to begin today with some way we could listen to nature while still being inside on this chilly Sunday. I wanted a story that focused on some other part of creation than the one we usually center ourselves on— the humans. How often do we stop and listen to God’s creation? I also wanted to begin with this story because I relate to Sammy in having ropes tied around his neck every morning. I have been struggling about what to say today because, like Sammy, there are so many ropes tied to us that keep us from talking about God’s creation, about climate change, about how to care for the earth.
One rope that is holding us in, keeping us from talking to one another, is the idea that caring for our earth is political. That somehow because I am a Republican or a Democrat, a Conservative or a Liberal, I must think about the earth in a certain way, or else I can’t call myself by that label. This rope is holding us tight as a nation. It’s why the language of “climate change” was adopted— because one can argue that the climate is always changing, and thus it doesn’t seem so bad. But this rope isn’t helping us at all. When we accept the small, tight fitting rope of a specific political label, we forget to talk about the things we do have in common: that we see the earth as God’s creation; that we have found God in nature over and over and over again; that we want to be able to breathe and have access to clean water to drink and to eat food that has nutrients in it from the soil; that we want to continue to live in spaces that have breathtaking sunsets and beautiful lakes; that we, as Minnesotans, want there to be 10,000 lakes for our grandchildren to enjoy. Instead of talking about all of those things and how we can ensure a healthy future with the land, the rope of politicizing our views about the earth is strangling us.
Another rope that continues to keep us from listening well to God’s earth is our blatant misreading of Scripture. Since the Industrial Age, Christians have conveniently focused on the part of Genesis where God is said to give humans dominion over the earth, and we have pointed to that as though it gives us free reign to do whatever we choose. How strange a reading of that text when you consider that as God created the earth and the creatures and everything in it, God kept stopping to say “It is good.” How strange a reading of that text when you stop to consider that Adam and Eve got into trouble with God by trying to be God, and there’s almost nothing more like playing God than to think we can just change all of creation, as though it wasn’t good enough when God created it, and never think twice about the consequences of our actions. How strange, when oak trees, mustard trees, maples, pines, and cedar are mentioned repeatedly in Scripture— trees are mentioned far more often than laws. How strange when you think of how often Jesus used nature to make his point— whether talking about the lilies of the field or the birds of the air or the seeds that are planted or the fig tree that wilts... the list goes on and on. Genesis begins with a garden and Revelation ends with the Tree of Life that bears fruit and whose leaves heal the nations. The streets may be paved in gold, but it is the TREE that brings healing. You cannot read Scripture separate from God’s creation, the earth. As Paul writes in Romans, the earth is groaning. As Jesus said in his walk to Jerusalem, if people do not praise God the stones will cry out. We have often set these aside as metaphors. But spend any time in nature and you will see praise; you will begin to hear the groaning; dare to listen to those who are studying the earth these days and they will tell you how wild animal herds are down more than 50% in the past twenty years; how our earth is getting steadily warmer; how the polar ice caps that typically melt some in the summer and then refreeze in the winter are melting so much, that in a few years there will be no ice in the summer for the animals who live there. The earth is groaning. The stones are crying out. We are hanging ourselves on the rope of reading Scripture poorly. (2)
Unfortunately, Christian tradition is yet another rope— not entirely separate from that one, but yet another rope that’s holding us back. When John Wesley, in the 1700’s, began to preach in fields and near lakes and under the ground in mines, people called him vile. They called him that so often, in fact, that he began to wear it as a badge of honor. Everyone at the time believed that nature was evil. God belonged in a Sanctuary, not a prairie. They thought that to worship God outside was demeaning to worship. This idea of nature as evil, as sinful, as lesser than, as the opposite of God, continues to be with us, even, as I said a minute ago, most of us, when pressed to share a time when we’ve experienced God, would name a time when we have been immersed in God’s world. When I was in Seminary to be a Pastor, I was taught that after communion, if people do not consume the elements, that they should be buried because it was disrespectful to have some animal eating the body of Christ. And it made me wonder whether my seminary professor remembered her biology classes. I definitely don’t want to see God disrespected; and it is also obvious to me that whether I consume the elements of communion, or whether we bury them in the ground, or whether I throw them in the prairie— they will be consumed by all kinds of animals from bacteria to insects to squirrels and ducks. This idea, of burying the elements, came about in a time before we understood that there are thousands of bacteria in our stomachs. There are thousands of molds and bacteria in the ground breaking down whatever is buried there. But the practice is still in place, as though we didn’t know where the bread would really be going. This rope, of ignorant ideas, has been chewed on for a long time, and it is time to break loose.
In our Gospel this morning, which is a different version of the Easter story than the one we read last week (that one was from the Gospel of Luke and this morning’s is from John), Mary is walking by herself. She is the one who discovered the empty tomb and is the one who stays behind to ponder what it might mean. When Jesus does appear to her, Mary thinks he is the gardener. Think about that for a moment. A gardener. Mary does not mistake Jesus for a soldier or a teacher or a religious leader or even another grieving person at the graveside. Mary thinks Jesus is a gardener. This is a very intentional detail from the Gospel writer. The writer of John wants us to connect this gardener with the Gardener at the beginning of creation. Jesus is a creator; an embracer of life; a nourisher; one who helps all things grow. This is the view of creation that the Gospel writers and the early followers of Jesus had— that creation is part of the story; that creation has much to teach us; that God is not only reconciling us to God through Christ, but Christ has come to make all things new— and part of that is reconciling us to the earth. And what does Jesus say to Mary? Do not hold on to me. These words may sound harsh to our ears, but they are said in love, for Jesus is showing Mary that the ropes we had tied around him have been broken. The risen Christ is on the loose, free to scale the walls, free to break down the barriers we’ve put in place. And Jesus invites Mary to be part of this new reality where resurrection frames the entire story. He is no longer tied up; and we don’t have to be either. (4)
Just as we are learning that how we treat our neighbors and our enemies matters because our own humanity is wrapped up in how we treat one another; we also need to recognize that how we treat the earth matters, because our own humanity, our own relationship with God is affected by how we treat God’s creation. It is not too late to learn to listen. We can learn to listen to creation, and in doing so, hear the voice of God.
As Pope Francis writes, “This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Romans 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (2: p.87)
As people who follow Christ, as people who read the Bible and take seriously God’s commands to us, we are told time and time again to care for the sick, the widowed, the orphan, the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned. What we are doing to God’s creation, is both causing people to be sick, and orphaned, and poor, and hungry, and widowed; and it is also ignoring the fact that the earth can be just as vulnerable as our most vulnerable child— defenseless to protect itself and its inhabitants from such blatant misuse and abuse of its resources by us humans.
Some say it’s too late; others say we still have time. I don’t honestly know. I’m no expert. What I do know, is this: we created the habits that got us here, and we can change them. We can learn from Sammy, Mary Oliver’s dog, and chew off the ropes that bind us; scale the walls that are destroying the future for our children and grandchildren; and see what wonderful things happen when we break the ropes that are holding us to this destructive future. It is never too late to embrace God’s creation. May we have ears to listen well to hear God’s voice in the earth.
Resources Consulted: 1) Upstream by Mary Oliver 2) Caring for Creation by Mitch Hescox and Paul Douglas 3) Green Like God by Jonathan Merritt 4) Creating-Crisis Preaching by Leah Schade