Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA
As I’ve gotten to know you here at St. Andrew’s I’ve grown proud of you. I’m proud because there is a great amount of political diversity here: Left, Center, & Right. And the fact that we can all worship God together—celebrate the transformative resurrection of Christ together in unity—is a sign of the great peace of the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit among us. Because our national unity is in shambles.
If you remember back to our Lenten dinner church—when we asked what young folks were looking for in church—a brave teenager in our midst said this: less politics.
I imagine they said this because politics are divisive—Left & Right. Politics are synonymous with lies and disagreements, mismatched values and misinformation. But, unfortunately, pushing politics away won’t fix our problems.
In the end the word “political” just literally means people. People who organize themselves, who assign power somehow, and who devise laws to help keep peace.
So, as you might have heard, Monday April 22 was Earth Day. And, I did not know this, but Earth Day has been around for a while! In fact, the idea for a national day to focus on the environment came to a Senator from Wisconsin in 1970, after witnessing the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. So—you betcha—Earth Day came out of the politics and culture-wars of the late 1960s. And the environmental movement in the United States, and across the globe, has been an embittered debate basically ever since.
Some urge that the Earth is in peril, and it is the poor and our children who will pay the price. Others argue the planet is fine let’s make use the resources. I don’t plan on resolving that debate today. But I do hope to show that Scripture gives maybe a different perspective.
In any event, before I touch on the Earth, I hope it suffices to say that the Old & New Testaments are full of political intrigue & power struggles. You’ll notice in the Gospel of John we heard that when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week,and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were lockedfor fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
That’s politics, folks. The “Judeans” were the religious leaders who tried to destroy Jesus with the might of the Roman arm. These disciples were terrified they were going to be next on death row. Their doors were locked because the Romans had a habit of crushing rebellions with crucifixions—lots of them.
You might remember the name Spartacus—leader of a slave revolt against the Romans around 70 BC. Well, the general and politician Crassus crucified 6,000 of Spartacus’ defeated followers along public highways. Crucifixion was a public, political death.
And in the face of these power struggles the Resurrected Christ came and stood among his followers and said, “Peace be with you.” And then Jesus breathed his resurrected breath on them. Breath in the original Greek here is pneuma. And Spirit in Greek is pneuma. The great power of the Holy Pneuma is among us, Jesus’ followers.
So in light of Earth Day—and raging debates about climate change, and fossil fuels, and carbon emissions—How does God feel about politics, you might ask? What does Scripture say about keeping them out of church?
Well, take our reading from the book of Acts for starters. Acts is the story of the church, from the rag-tag church in Jerusalem, and how it spread—filled with God’s Pneuma—throughout the Mediterranean. Now, Acts tells us, Peter, despite the political danger of confessing Jesus publicly, was preaching and healing. So the high priest of the temple, Acts tells us, took action and imprisoned Peter and the apostles. But an angel opened their cells and they returned to the temple and preached anyway. So the temple police and the captains finding them in the temple again, brought them to the religious bigwigs for questioning.
Then comes Peter’s simple sermon we have heard today. He said, “We, the apostles, must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of all our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as the one true Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
There’s that pneuma again, that Holy Spirit that enables us to obey God, the Holy Spirit that witnesses to the power of Jesus’ death and rising, and urges us to obey God rather than human authority, Peter says.
So what happens if we take this very powerful, very dangerous idea, that we—as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus— must obey God over human authority—what happens if we think about Earth Day from this point of view? How do we obey God in regard to the Earth, our home?
Well, we would need to know what God says about the Earth, and about who we are, in the very first place. So, let’s dig into our reading this morning from Genesis chapter 2.
According to the 2nd chapter of Genesis: God causes all things to happen. God made the earth and the heavens—now the “heavens”, in this scheme, are just everything above the earth, and therefore the heavens is both stars and planets as well as the source of rain.
The 2nd chapter of Genesis is about cause and effect. The logic goes, God made the dirt and the proverbial heavenly watering can so, therefore, God made all the plants and trees too. This is also about relationships because water makes plants to grow, but there also needs to be someone to “till the ground.” The Hebrew word for “till” means more than just dig. It means to cultivate and to serve.The ground that God has made—and the rain that waters it—in this worldview is not enough without someone from God to serve the ground.
So, of course, God give the Earth the water and the tiller, the servant, it needs. And that servant, that someone, in this Hebrew worldview, is us, human beings. From this point of view human beings don’t use the ground, they don’t use resources. But instead to farm the soil, for example, means to serve it—to make it do what it does. The Earth is our older sibling whom we were created to serve.
Genesis goes on, then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Looking at the Hebrew language here makes two things clear. One is that, same as Greek as in Hebrew—life, spirit, breath, wind are all the same word. The Spirit that God breathes into Humanity, is the same that the Resurrected Jesus breathes into the Church. The second thing to notice is that the word for “ground” is adamahand the word for “human being” is adam. Adam’s name is Dirt, which is a way to say we belong to, we are from, the Earth.
The worldview of the second chapter of Genesis sees that life comes from God—without God’s breath-spirit, we’re just dirt.
So God plants a garden, not a farm not a factory, but an enclosed garden for this dirt-breath-servant named adam.God does this in Eden, in the East, which is code for: very far away, back in time, in a folk-tale sense “long, long ago.”
Then we have this, “out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good to evil.” Out of the ground comes human beings, out of the ground comes the fruits of beauty, food, life, and even ethics & freedom, the knowledge from good to evil. In other words, all human culture are fruits of the Earth that God created.
These things are all free, free gifts from God to us. But they also need human cultivation, service, and work. It’s no coincidence that “culture” and “cultivate” sound the same. Especially because those confusing verses about rivers and gemstones and whatnot are a way of saying that Eden is the source of all waters, and rivers in the ancient world were themselves sources of produce and commerce.
So this garden that God created is the center and source of all ancient cultures. In the worldview of Genesis chapter 2 to celebrate Earth Day would also be to celebrate everything that is good—in all senses of the word: beautiful, ethical, and tasty—and to celebrate Earth Day would be to worship God, who set these things in motion for us.
Genesis chapter 2 goes on, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Here’s the word “till” again; to serve. Here is also a new clue from God about human beings, we are to “keep” the garden. In Hebrew this is shamar.
Remember when Cain killed Abel? And God asked where Abel was? Cain said, “What, am I my brother’s shamar?” Yes, Cain! You are supposed to shamar your brother!
As a verb shamar can mean to observe as in laws, to watch like a younger brother, to guard like a city, to perform like duties, to be careful as in listening. God goes on to say that all the fruits of the Earth are ours to enjoy, all goodness of sight, of taste, all goodness of life. But not only ours to enjoy, but we are given a command, a command we are expected to obey. You could even say this is the first law. That human beings, made from dirt and filled with God’s Spirit, are to shamar the Earth—guard, watch, and preserve it.
Quickly, God gives another command, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now, I think we know what happens next—God’s plans went wrong. And the rest of the Bible is the heartbreaking story of God trying reconnect us to the garden. And, then, finally God’s Spirit created a new Adam in the womb of a woman. And a new kind of unusual tree sprouted from the Earth, a cross-shaped tree of death planted by the Romans, that bore the new fruit of life: Jesus, the anointed one.
I cannot solve political and economic debates about fossil fuels. But I can proclaim to you that God has created us to shamar the Earth, to observe, guard, and protect the Earth.
And despite our failures, despite our being expelled from the Garden, God has given us the new fruit of forgiveness to eat of, which is Jesus. And Christ has breathed again new Spirit into God’s people.
The Earth is our home, we confess in the creeds of the Church that God has shaped it; we confess that we are made from its atoms, its soil, and God’s own Breath. So may the Holy Breath of Christ guide us to shamar all that God has created and to obey God, and not human authority alone.
And may the peace of the Risen Christ be with us all as we get dirty in the process.