When I was a freshman in college I went through a short but rather intense phase of deciding that I when I grew up, I was going to be an environmental activist. I had no idea what that really meant, or how an environmental activist would even make a living, but I thought I was pretty serious about it. I read every book I could find on environmental protection, I was deeply taken in by Henry David Thoreau, and I spent a lot of time finding God in nature. It all came about because of an alternative spring break trip that I took that year. I traveled with a small group of students to a tiny town in Montana. I don’t even remember the name of the town, but it was on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park—it was the kind of town where it was not unusual to see multiple elk walking down the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon. We were technically there to help restore a historic dude ranch outside the park, but I was much more enthralled with my majestic natural surroundings. Having grown up in the flatlands of Iowa, it was the first time I had seen real mountains. One of my favorite memories from that trip was the night we spent sleeping out under the stars. No cabins. No tents. Just me in a sleeping bag, staring up at the stars in the middle of big sky country. It was absolutely enchanting, and it cast a spell upon me. The experience called to mind the words of the psalm that we opened our service with this morning— “the heaven’s are telling the glory of God.” Out of that moment, came a deep and stirring desire to want to preserve and protect the beauty that surrounded me.
I imagine that many of us have similar experiences we could share. Maybe not experiences that made us want to become environmental activists, but experiences of being in nature in which we were completely overwhelmed by the glory and beauty of it all. Experiences where we are completely overcome by the sense of how vast creation is, and how small we are in comparison. Experiences where we are confronted with such incredible natural beauty, that we can have no doubt that the world must have an intelligent creator— because such amazing beauty could not possibly be some random accident. Such experiences may not move us to immediately to become lobbyists for the Sierra Club, but hopefully, they do inspire us to want to do our part to preserve and protect God’s creation for future generations. Which, as it turns out, is not just good environmental stewardship, it’s also pretty good theology.
Consider this— Jesus tells his disciples that the most important commandment in all the law is to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Now this command to love God can sometimes be perplexing because it’s hard to know how to love something as intangible as God in a really concrete way. But theologian Sallie McFague has suggested that we view the created world as God’s actual body, and therefore, that one of the best, most tangible, most concrete ways we have to love God, is to love the world God made. “We love God,” she writes “by loving and caring for the world.” And this means not just loving other people, but loving all of God’s creation— from the tiniest insect to the most majestic mountain lion—from the fish that swim in our ocean’s waters to the moss that grows on the forest floor— we are to love and care for all of it as if it were God’s very body. Another contemporary theologian, Brian McLaren, puts it this way— he writes that this view of the world “doesn’t see every mountain as a potential site for strip-mining operations. Nor does it view forests as feet of marketable lumber. Nor does it asses a spring-fed wetland as a lucrative site for a housing development.” We see everything as part of God’s body. Therefore, to allow for destruction and devastation of our any part of our planet is to neglect God’s body and to neglect God. When you start to think about the world in this way, loving God becomes a whole lot more concrete and immediate.
But it’s not just how well we love God that is at stake. It also has a whole lot to do with how well we love our neighbors, which is, of course, the second part of that great commandment. So when millions of people in poor coastal communities are at risk of losing their homes because of melting glaciers and rising sea levels, that should matter a great deal to us, because we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. When millions more have no access to clean drinking water, or live in communities that are polluted with toxic waste, that should matter a great deal to us, because we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. When scientists tell us that six generations of humans have burned over half the oil and gas reserves that nature took tens of millions of years to create—when current rates of consumption put future generations at risk—that should matter a great deal to us, because we are to love our neighbors— even our future neighbors—as ourselves.
One of my other favorite memories from my spring break trip to small town Montana was our trip up to the top of a mountain. Now to be honest, it could have been just a very large hill, but to this Iowa native it seemed like a mountain at the time, and so that’s how I’m going to remember it. Our hosts for the week drove our small group up to the top of the mountain in a pick up truck. Once there, we were told to enjoy and explore our surroundings and to meet back at that spot in half an hour to head back down. I went off on my own and found a spot next to a mountain stream and sat down to take everything in. The air was clean, the sounds of nature were all around me, the view was outstanding. I quickly became engrossed in the natural beauty surrounding me, and I completely lost track of everything else, including how much time I was supposed to be spending on my own. At some point I looked at my watch and realized that way more than half an hour had gone by. I panicked, jumped up, and hurried back to the spot where we were supposed to meet up. There was no one there. It was clear what had happened. They had forgotten me and I was left at the top of the mountain alone. There was nothing to do but start walking. Luckily there was a very clearly defined road, so I started down the mountain, and it wasn’t more than 10 minutes before I heard the sound of a truck rambling uphill towards me. A rush of apologies were given on both sides— the host for not realizing one of the group was missing, and me for not being more mindful of the time. But at the end of the day, all was right in the end. And aside from the moment of panic when I realized I was alone at the top of a mountain, this is one of my favorite memories from the trip, because it was a moment in which time stopped, and I was completely caught up in the beauty of God’s creation. I like to think that the psalmist had a moment like this when they wrote the words of today’s psalm--
“You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.”
My mountaintop moment was a moment of deep reverence, as I recognized the majesty of what surrounded me. But it was also a moment of deep humility as I recognized my smallness in contrast to the vastness of creation.
Reverence and humility. Perhaps these are two qualities that we all need to cultivate more deeply, if we are to love the world as if it were in fact the very body of God. Because it’s a little too easy, sometimes, to forget our deep connection to the natural world. We can go for days, if not weeks, without stepping foot on a trail, or stopping to ponder the beauty of a flower, or taking a moment to listen to the song of a bird. We spend more time taking in the news of the day on tiny little screens than we do taking in the beauty of the natural world around us. And so maybe that’s how we can identify the first step towards getting things back into balance, because if we truly appreciated and celebrated the glory of God’s creation, perhaps we would be less inclined to stand on the sidelines as that glory is devastated and destroyed. If we felt a deeper sense of reverence towards the natural world, and a deeper sense of humility about our place within it, maybe we would be be more inclined to want to tread lightly upon the earth— aware of the impact we are leaving behind for future generations.
And so to help cultivate and inspire our own sense of reverence this morning, I thought we might take some time to write our own psalm of praise for God’s creation. In your bulletins this morning, you all received a small green leaf. In your pews there are pens and pencils. I invite you to write down on your leaf some aspect of creation that causes you to feel reverence and awe. It could be the majesty of the mountains or the vastness of the ocean. It could be the simple beauty of a flower or the complexity and diversity of life. Whatever it is, I invite you to write it down as if you were composing your own psalm of praise— as if you were composting a love letter to God’s very self. And then come forward as the music plays, and add your leaf to the tree using the magnets that are provided. Together we will create a psalm of praise to God—a love letter to God— and together, our words of praise will bring this tree to life. Together, our words of praise will cultivate a sense of reverence for this beautiful world that God has given to us. And maybe, just maybe, that can be the first step towards a healthier and more sustainable world for all of God's beloved creatures.
A time of reflection followed the sermon, in which members of the congregation wrote their words of praise and thanksgiving for:
- white flowers that speak of love
- childhood brooks that brought smiles, wet feet, and creatures
- watching a garden come to life and saying hello to the plants
- the raw beauty and tranquility of Iceland
- the beauty of nature that captures our souls and inspires us
- the feel of warm sand and the smell of salt water
- the eternal ocean waves
- small gentle brooks and stream that appear as the winter frost disappears
- fields of wildflowers— God’s gift to us!
- flora and fauna that sustain our minds, bodies, and souls
- tulips springing forth after a long winter
- the ocean’s beaches and beauty within
- the engineering marvel of a bumble bee
- all the flowers that grow
- the feeling of the glorious sun shining down on us
- snowy, majestic mountains
- the diversity of the rainforest
- the colors of the sunrise
- singing loons
- the vastness of the universe
- the beauty of all the mountains and lakes
- the peace of the birds
- the smell of the cool, fresh, clean air
- the beauty of the ocean in winter and waves crashing against the beach
- the mystical beauty of the northern lights flashing on a bright winter’s night
- clean water
- a cool breeze on a summer night
- moonlight and crickets
- the beauty of a sunset
- the smell of a freshly mowed lawn
- new life in our gardens
- the beauty of shooting stars
- the wonder of the smell of rain
- the sun that God shines upon us which brings light, warmth, guidance, life and smiles
- a tree being grown from a seed
- the glory of God in the mountains and the seashore
- the universe reflected in the eyes of a child
- the light of the stars and the moon
- trout swimming in rocky mountain streams
- the multitude of life in the oceans of the world
- the scent of fresh spring air