If you have traveled along Route 2 in the northern panhandle of West Virginia you traveled through my home territory. Traveling on I-70 you can exit at Wheeling and travel north along the Ohio River for about 15 miles and you will come to my hometown.
If you have traveled that route you probably haven’t forgotten the scenery, which is not at all attractive.
Steel mills, almost all of which are now closed, line both sides of the river. Most of the area has been in great decline for years, but oddly, one thing has improved – the air quality. It is no exaggeration to say that as I was growing up we seldom saw a really blue sky. Most days it was a dirty grey color because of the tremendous amount of pollutants added to the air by the steel mills. In the mornings it would be hard to see across the river because the smog from the mills would settle in the valley.
Driving along the river through the northern portion of our county took you directly past a coke plant. Not the soft drink, but an element that is important in making steel. Coke is carbonized coal, and it burns at an extremely high temperature, which is ideal for making steel. Driving by that plant in the summers we would roll up the windows in the car, close the vents (we didn’t have air conditioning), and hold our breath. Oddly enough, right across the road was an ice cream stand – the Dairy Owl – where we would often stop for ice cream. You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten ice cream while holding your breath and trying to keep coke ash from landing on your cone. To be honest, I didn’t like living in that geographic area.
It’s uncomfortable for me to say that, because that is my home, and because steel is a part of my family heritage. My dad was a steelworker, my older brother was for a while, and my younger brother is still. The steel mills educated me, fed me, clothed me, put a roof over my head, and paid my medical bills. But the pollution became oppressive to me. From the time I was young I knew I wanted to move away from there and to a place that was more pleasant to live. One of the reasons why I so enjoy living in this area is because of the lack of heavy industry of the type that surrounded me when I was younger.
As we continue our series Faith in the Modern Age we come to the topic of Living On the Earth.
I am often puzzled at the contentiousness that erupts when the environment becomes a topic of discussion. Mention ecology or environmentalism and you will find that an argument can begin rather quickly.
As we talk about the beautiful world created by God, a world we have been charged to care for as stewards, I want to look at the question from some basic spiritual truths. My first instinct was to load this message with a lot of facts and figures and statistics, but I changed my mind. I think we get lost in them, even though there are many to share, and many of them are quite disturbing. But suffice it to say that with more than seven billion people now living upon this earth we have arrived at a tipping point about the future health and welfare of this world that is our home.
1. Scripture affirms the goodness and beauty of God’s creation.
Some of the most profound words of Scripture are found in the first chapter of Genesis – And God saw that it was good. Those words are the great affirmation of the writer of Genesis, given at multiple points as God continues his creative work. As God moved through the process of creation he continued to proclaim that it was good. As he formed the land and the seas, God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:10). After creating the plants and vegetation, God saw that it was good (1:12). Considering his handiwork in creating the stars and planets, God saw that it was good (1:18). At his creation of the sea life and the birds, God saw that it was good (1:21). Watching the tremendous variety of animals God again proclaims that it was good (1:25). After the creation of humanity and considering all of his work, God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (1:31).
And God saw that it was good. It was good. It was good. I’m afraid that was is more and more becoming the operative word – was. Past tense. I wonder what proclamation God would make today about his creation. I am certain he still affirms its goodness, but might he say, it’s still good, but it’s not in great shape.
2. God calls humanity to stewardship of his creation, not ownership.
Imagine owning a beautiful home, a home that is your dream home. Imagine you get a new job requiring you to move to another location, but you don’t want to sell your house so you lease your home to another family. You implore them to take good care of your home and you trust they will do so. Imagine returning to your home months later, only to find holes in the wall, broken windows, a yard that is overrun with weeds and neglected flower beds, and evidence of neglect and abuse are everywhere. How would you respond?
This is analogous to how we have treated God’s creation, I’m afraid. Given the blessing of living on this good, beautiful earth, humanity was charged with the care for God’s creation. We have confused caring, I fear, for owning and abusing. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that we own creation. The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it proclaims the psalmist. That’s a pretty clear statement of ownership. Scripture makes very clear that God is the creator and owner of the world; we are his stewards, charged with caring for this world in which we live.
Considering the precarious situation of our environment, we have been rather poor stewards of the earth, and are much like the poor tenant who does not care for the home of a landowner.
3. Simpler lifestyles will help to heal God’s earth.
I find that more often than not, I am thinking about how to get something else I want rather than thinking about what I can give away or what I can do for someone else. This is part of the difficulty in talking about caring for creation, because we are all intertwined with an economy of consumption that pushes us to use up rather than to conserve.
Living in a consumer-driven economy is tough, because it becomes almost a question of patriotism to go out and spend money and consume. If we stop consuming, the economy tanks.
But I fear that if we do not increase our move toward simplicity the choices we face will be imposed upon us by necessity. If everyone on earth could consume at the rate at which we do, the earth would be in truly great difficulty, as we would move beyond sustainability.
In Luke 12:13-21 we read the parable Jesus tells of the rich fool –
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
This parable is representative of the attitude of humanity for too much of history, especially recent history. In an attempt to gain more and more, little consideration is given to the consequences of accumulating as much as possible. The rich man of whom Jesus speaks exhibits an attitude that has little concern for anyone but himself.
In keeping with its emphasis on stewardship, the Scriptures remind us that accumulation is not to be the goal of life. In fact, it is the drive to accumulate and build a larger and larger abundance that has led to so much of the environmental degradation that we now face.
4. Stewardship is ultimately a spiritual issue.
I think stewardship certainly has political and economic implications, but it is really, I believe, at the heart, a spiritual issue. Looking through the lens of faith we are reminded the goal of life is not to accumulate, but to use wisely and to live lives of giving and generosity. Faith reminds us that we are not given the earth as a possession to use as we see fit but as God’s creation for which we are given the responsibility to tend and for which we are to care.
One of the troubling matters about today’s environmentalism is the absence of the faith community. Many churches are simply not involved in the work of caring for our world. More than anyone, it should be those of us in faith who are moved to care for God’s earth, because we recognize our call to be stewards.
As Disciples we are a little ahead of some other groups, but we still have some way to go. We do, thankfully, have the Green Chalice ministry that encourages us as individuals and congregations to take seriously the call to care for God’s creation.
I will close this morning with words from the great writer Wendell Berry –
Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.
...the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.
― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays.
It is also, I would add, our calling as followers of Jesus.