Preacher: Jenn Hosler
Scpriture: Genesis 1:1-2:3, Luke 24:13-35, Romans 8:18-25
Date: April 23, 2023
Audio can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1378uwosRyidz5abvWXuKhvIr4PyIkvWE/view?usp=sharing
Yesterday was Earth Day. For several years, Washington City Church of the Brethren has intentionally marked Earth Day in our worship services, via sermons, tools, events, and calls to action. Looking back through the sermons I’ve preached, I found one from 2015, where I am certain I gave out bulbs for planting at home. Ruth and Mary Hoover took some home, while I planted some in the church yard, near where the Hill Preschool has their garden. 2018 was another year I preached and, through the eager contributions of one church member (Josh Ammons), we planted a fig tree in the church yard. We’ve harvested figs for eating over the past two harvest seasons, and I pruned the tree for the first time on March 21st this year.
Though it does not grace the lectionary with a special day in the church calendar, Earth Day is a day that is culturally and globally and ecologically important. Earth Day is marked across the country and around the world. In our own city of Washington, DC, thousands of pounds of trash are collected from grass and sidewalks, roadsides, and out of rivers. Last year’s multi-site cleanup by the Anacostia Watershed Society picked up 20.4 tons of trash – which is 40,800 pounds (AWS, 2022). Earth Day started in 1970, proposed by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Apparently an “ad man” of the era, Julian Koenig, came up with the catchy name “Earth Day” – which stuck well since it rhymes with birthday. By 1990, Earth Day was celebrated all around the world.
Celebrate the earth, care for the earth, assess our actions for how we can be better stewards and protectors of the earth: all these practices sound… biblical. We support for Earth Day because it’s message to care, protect, and celebrate fits with a biblical theology of Creation. God created something good. God entered into our world incarnate, embodied, as Jesus. Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and reconciliation bring all-encompassing reconciliation: between humans and God, between humans and other humans, and between humans and the earth. This is our Easter resurrection story: that God made the earth and it is good, that humans are called to protect and steward the earth, and that the work of Jesus brings redemption and reconciliation to all things.
What does it mean to be Good?
If we are looking at what the Bible says about the earth, a logical place to start would be at the beginning, at the Creation story presented in Genesis 1. In the Creation story in Genesis, God repeatedly calls the earth “good”. What does it mean to say that something is good? The word “good” has a wide semantic range – we use it for a lot of things. One of my Australian friends found my use of “good” to be very perplexing.
When waiting for him to finish something up so that we could leave and go sightseeing in DC, I asked him, “Are you good?” He replied, “Do you mean ontologically good? Am I in fact a good person, good by nature?” Cheeky. What I meant was, “are you ready?” Are you “good to go?” In North America, we say, “good to go” and shorten it to good, which can be a bit perplexing or funny for other English speakers. We use good in a lot of ways: it can mean favorable, righteous, or pleasant. It can mean something is suitable, adequate (or good enough), or even just “okay”.
The meaning here in Genesis 1 is much more than “just okay”. In Genesis, good is pleasing, pleasant, pure, and delightful. “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” God then creates the sun, moon, and stars, calls into existence the sky and land, gathers the waters, makes vegetation, plants, and animals, and after God is finished each one, God the Creator calls each of them “good.” God didn’t say, “meh,” about the trilliums or the bluebells or the Eastern Towhee or the cricket or the axolotl or the carpenter ant or the wolf spider or the dandelion or the blue whale. God created and said it was good.
The Creator gazes upon oceans and rivers and trees and streams and birds and mammals and fish and declares all of them pleasing, pleasant, pure, and delightful. From the beginning of our human story, we see that physical matter, the biological world around us, and the environment—they are all God-designed, God-crafted, and God-approved.
Genesis 1 also details the creation of human beings. Humans are shown to be in unique relationship with God, the only part of creation that is made in the image of God. When God is finished, God looks upon the humans and says that it is “very good.” Being made in the image of God gives us a special relationship with God—and also a special relationship with the rest of creation. Being made in the image of God brings with it a functional authority: there is a task to keep, guard, and protect the earth under human care.
While the words used in our English translation seem exploitative (fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion), the biblical understanding is anything but exploitative. By no means! Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann (1982) describes how “The ‘dominion’ here mandated is with reference to the animals. The dominance is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals… Thus the task of ‘dominion does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition” (p. 32). Securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition. From the start, humans are to have an ongoing relationship with the created world, caring for it, tending it, and protecting the earth and its creatures.
Sin Harming Creation
In Genesis 1, the beautiful creation story is presented at a macro level. In chapter 2, we get a closer look at human beings, with God creating people out of the earth itself, out of dust from the ground. Again, we see humans and the earth intertwined—physically this time. From dust we are made. Things get darker, however, as the book of Genesis continues. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rebel against God. The consequences of human sin proceed to spread across creation. These consequences include a broken relationship between humans and a combative relationship between humans and the earth.
Later, in the Hebrew prophets, the effects of human sin on the land are described in vivid terms of desolation and brokenness. The land is personified as mourning the sin of the Israelites. Jeremiah 12:4 reads, “How long will the grass mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For [Because of] the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away…”
The prophet Hosea proclaimed something similar in chapter 4, verses 1-3, “Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel; for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing [oaths], lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish, together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing” (Hos. 4: 1-3).
In the Hebrew scriptures, human sin is not just an individual problem. Sin affects the well-being of the community and the well-being of the environment. Greed and violence hurt humans and ecosystems filled with plants, animals, and insects. Since human sin impacts all of creation, so too does God’s salvation and redemption bring healing to all of creation.
I love how much the gospels are embodied theology, physical theology. Embodied. God in a body. The Word of God became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. God born in a barn. Fully human, fully God, feeding, healing, walking, hugging, living in the beauty of God’s good earth. Jesus looked to the plants and the animals to teach his disciples. Jesus walked among the fields and plunged into river water. Jesus ate bread and fish and turned water into wine.
The gospel is physical, embodied. Jesus died a physical bodily death and was raised to a physical, bodily resurrection. In our gospel text, the resurrected Jesus walks along a road, eventually making conversation alongside Cleopas and another disciple, who are distraught and leaving Jerusalem after the Passover observances and the crucifixion of their leader. They travel and talk, eventually stopping to rest for the evening. Jesus, Cleopas, and another disciple continue conversation over their evening meal. Jesus picks up the fresh loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it two these travelers. In the physical and embodied act of breaking bread together, the two disciples realize who this fellow traveler really is.
While this text is not the most likely or obvious one to connect with Earth Day, I chose to still use it because it stands in contrast to a gnostic or dualistic spirituality that says that our physical bodies or the physical earth are not important. In this text, God continues to be incarnate in the flesh. Jesus – even resurrected Jesus – participates in earthly life, walking along a road, breathing the air, hearing the swish of the grass and the chirp of the birds. Jesus joins with others in being nourished from the earth, by the bread. Later, in John 21, we see Jesus calling out out to Peter and other disciples from the shoreline. When they get to shore, the disciples find that Jesus made breakfast for them. Jesus hands them bread and fish that he cooked on a fire.
I bring this up and I use this text because I think it is important to say that Jesus did not disdain the physical world. We see that the apostles would later teach how the “saving” Jesus brings is not limited to our spiritual souls but extends to our physical bodies and even the created world all around us. Paul teaches that it is not only humanity that needs Christ’s redemptive power. The earth and all creatures in it also eagerly await the full reconciliation that Jesus will bring.
Paul writes in that “the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption [as God’s children], the redemption of our bodies” (8:19-23).
This created world, plants and animals and ecosystems, is tied up in the spiritual and physical fate of humanity. God’s plan of salvation does not just lead to souls being saved, but our physical bodies and the rest of Creation are also being redeemed. We stand in the resurrection power of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. We receive the first-fruits of the Spirit’s transformation, and together with the plants and animals and insects and reptiles, we work toward and await the fulfillment of Jesus’ work in this world.
Earth Day as a Time to Refresh Our Theology and Practice
Sisters and brothers, siblings in Christ, this is our Easter resurrection story: that God made the earth, and it is good, that humans are called to protect and steward the earth, that our sin harms the earth, and the work of Jesus brings redemption and reconciliation to all things.
So what? So what, you may ask. I think that Earth Day is a time to refresh our theology and our practice of that theology. How do we understand the world around us? Our relationship to the earth, to the trees and the plants around us, to the bugs inside and outside of our homes? How do our actions in our daily lives provide stewardship or harm, care or disregard for the world that we call home and that our Creator God called “good”? How can we make one step further toward being a good stewards of God’s creation? How can we reduce what we send to a landfill, maybe by recycling or composting or just buying less? How can we reduce pollution – can we go meatless one day a week? Can we drive less and walk, bike, or metro more? Can we carpool? There isn’t one set plan for everyone: the key goal is to understand how our actions impact the earth which has been entrusted to our care.
A question that I want each of us to consider is this: “As a church and as individuals, what are our next steps in reconciling ourselves to God’s good earth?” How can we lighten our load and negative impact on the earth? How can we connect more regularly to the goodness that is God’s creation? For starters, come to our garden party and pull some weeds.
Siblings in Christ, let us rejoice in the good news of the Gospel. The earth is good and beautiful. Jesus is reconciling us to God, reconciling us with each other, and reconciling us with this earth. We are not passive bystanders in this plan, but active agents of God’s reconciliation. May we be faithful to our call to guard and protect and tend God’s good creation. Amen.
Anacostia Watershed Society. (2023). After Action Report. https://earthday.anacostiaws.org/earthday2023/2022after-action-report-final.pdf
Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis. Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.