As part of a year-round focus on stewardship (which is an effort to move beyond equating the word "stewardship" exclusively with giving money to the Church), we recently observed an "Environmental Stewardship Sunday" at the Cathedral I serve. This topic is probably not my strong suit, so I was a little nervous about what to say and how it would be received. I'm not sure I really addressed the idea of environmental stewardship adequately. But I've been humbled by the responses of the people who heard this sermon. (You can listen to the sermon here.)
Growing up on a cotton and soybean farm in the Mississippi Delta was in many ways a boy’s paradise. I can remember spending countless hours playing outside with our wire-haired terrier Grover. Stepping out of the house, we could wade through a field of cotton to a ditch filled with tadpoles and crawdads. Sometimes we’d go back behind the house to the orchard where apple, pear, and fig trees stood like sentinels around my dad’s garden filled with tomatoes, green beans, and squash.
If we didn’t want to stray too far, Grover and I would cross the street to go down to Beaver Dam Lake where cypress knees, moss, mosquitoes, dragon flies, snakes, turtles, and fish make their home. While there, we might visit Peanut, the pony who lived in the pasture by the lake and who loved to eat the green horse apples that fell from the trees and that looked like cantaloupe-sized Martian brains. At night, I could hear the deafening chorus of frogs, katydids, and crickets from the lake as I went to sleep. When the moon was full, its soft light was so bright you could see your shadow on the ground. And in the summertime at night, the fireflies lit up the landscape as though the stars had descended to earth from heaven.
Those boyhood days were wonderful times, offering unique ways to experience the natural world. However, there were signs that not all was well in paradise. One instance in particular made an indelible imprint on me. It was the time of year when turtles would come up from Beaver Dam Lake into our yard to lay eggs. One day a particularly large turtle was crossing the road in front of our house when a pickup truck came barreling down upon her. Rather than slow down and change lanes to miss her, the driver ran right over her, crushing her shell into fragments and scattering broken eggs across the road. There was no doubt in my mind that it was a deliberate act. And even though I was only about 10 or 11 years old, as I looked at the gruesome carnage left in the road, I felt in the depths of my being that I had witnessed a cruelty that can only be described as evil.
We read in the book of Genesis that, from the very beginning, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). As one Eastern Orthodox theologian points out, “the world has been called and chosen by God to be beautiful” (John Chryssavgis, "The World as Sacrament," p. 7). And we human beings who have been made in the image and likeness of God are called to care for and enhance the beauty of the world.
But down through the ages, we have marred the world’s beauty with ugliness. We have violated the sacredness of life that God, from the beginning, calls good. Sin has dulled our capacity to discern in creation the holiness of God and the gift of a moral order in which all beings find their rightful place and purpose. Instead of a beauty with it own intrinsic, God-given value, we too often see only opportunities for satisfying our greed.
And so while we as Christians affirm that creation is good and expresses the divinity of God, we must also acknowledge the tragic truth that everything has been corrupted and perverted by human sin. God’s creation is good, but fallen. And because “everything is fallen,” it follows that “absolutely everything requires transformation” (John Chryssavgis, "The World as Sacrament," p. 7). As the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, the whole creation “groans” and “travails” in its longing to be “set free from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21, 22). Creation yearns for redemption.
The fallen state of God’s good creation, coupled with our capacity for using science and technology as forces for both good and evil, confronts us with a critical choice (cf. Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars, pp. 124-125). Shall we treat the world around us as “an image that reflects the presence of God” such that “nothing whatsoever can be neutral, [and] nothing lacks sacredness” (John Chryssavgis, Light Through Darkness, p. 111)? Or shall we treat the world and the living beings in it as an impersonal, chance collection of matter propelled by blind forces that we can manipulate as we are able and see fit?
For the guy who deliberately ran over the turtle in front of my house, the turtle was just a thing, just matter in motion, there to be used or abused and killed as we humans see fit, and without any second thoughts or qualms of conscience. After all, it’s just a turtle.
But is that how God sees it?
Perhaps you recall a few weeks ago when we heard John 3:16 read in our worship service. The first part of that verse says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” God so loved the world. The Greek word for “world” in that verse is kosmos, meaning everything that is: the universe, stars, galaxies, planet Earth, rocks, glaciers, trees, oceans, clouds, rain, frogs, slugs, bugs, dogs, cats, people, turtles – you name it. If it’s a part of creation, God loves it so much that he gave his only Son.
God’s creation is good, but it’s held in bondage to decay due to the pervasive effects of human sin. The Good News at the heart of the Christian faith is that everything in the world is redeemed, sanctified, and glorified by the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus come among us in the flesh as the unique God-Man, crucified and bodily raised from the dead, shows us what God desires to do, not just for Christians, but for the entire kosmos. God wants to redeem, sanctify, and glorify the whole world. And in Christ raised from the dead, we see the dawning of God's new, redeemed creation. God's kingdom is coming on earth as it is in heaven. Justice will be done. Peace will prevail. Eternal life will swallow up death forever. Sin and evil will be no more. Physical creation will no longer be subject to decay. And in this new, redeemed creation, even a lowly mother turtle will be safe to lay her eggs.
Our unique task as stewards and caretakers of “this fragile earth, our island home” is to participate in the unfolding of God’s new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 370). We fulfill that high calling when we use “the power of [our] love to bring the world alive, to give things the love, care, and use they need for their fulfillment” (Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars, p. 108). We do it when we live lives of simplicity rather than extravagance, responding to ugliness with beauty, and combating hatred with love. And we do it when we care for the least of these among our fellow human and non-human creatures, treating not only human beings but all living things and the earth itself with gentleness and respect.
“The heavens declare the glory of God,” the Psalmist writes (Psalm 19:1), and “the loving-kindness of the LORD fills the whole earth” (Psalm 33:5). The whole world reflects the divine mystery of God’s loving providence and God’s desire that all creatures great and small thrive. As stewards and caretakers of creation, may we have eyes to behold the divine mystery of God’s glory reflected in this world. May we have ears to hear the groaning of creation for redemption and hearts filled with the infinite love of God for a good but fallen world. And may we always be willing to respond with the self-giving love of Jesus in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s great plan of salvation: a renewed creation in which “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habbakkuk 2:14).