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Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker, Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 19, 2009
Available online at: http://www.mpbconline.org/sermon.php?sermon=2009-04-19
Texts: Deuteronomy 33:13-16a; John 3:16-17
What would I want to say to my son or daughter on Earth Sunday? I would begin by saying that the form of Christianity that bequeathed to me so much grace, truth and faith failed me in my relationship with God’s creation. We were so fixed on saving souls that it was as if the physical world around me were an afterthought of God and therefore an afterthought of Christian concern.
I grew up reading the Bible indoors. In fact my whole spiritual life, as I then understood it, was an indoor occupation. Inside a room, inside a church, inside my soul.
Wendell Berry says that the Bible is in fact an outdoor book, what Thoreau called a “hypaethral book,” a book open to the skies. Berry says that it is better, truer read outdoors, “and the farther outdoors the better” (1). We should try it.
My eyes were blindered to the created world around me. We had little sense of the Celtic Christian notion that God has given us two sacred books: The Book of Scripture and The Book of Creation.
I bear no grudge against my religious forbears; they gave me all they knew to give. But God has given, is giving us more.
We are called by God to be partners with God in the savoring and saving of the world. By “saving” I mean its root meaning, to “heal” and make “whole.” And by “world” I mean not just “souls,” and not just persons, but relationships, communities, nations and the created world itself.
By “savoring” I mean the enjoyment of it, the tasting of it, the receiving of it in joy. A world not worth savoring is not worth saving. A world not savored is not easily saved.
E.B. White gave me the phrases for today’s sermon. In a New York Times interview in 1969 he said:
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
This pull between the desires to save and to savor is put there by God because the world is worth savoring and it is in need of saving. So let us be about both, savoring and saving.
We need the poetry of anguish and lament, of protest and rage to register a world that needs saving. But we also need the poetry of praise to capture our savoring of it. I quote poet Denise Levertov:
A passionate love of life must be quickened if we are to find the energy to stop the accelerating tumble …towards annihilation.
So “sing awe” she writes, and “breathe out praise and celebration.”2 Some of you may ask, “Why does Steve quote so much poetry?” To survive, I answer, and to find the God-given energy to join with others in the saving of the world, in the tikkun olam, repair of the world.
By coincidence of schedule my twin sister, Susan, is singing today and today is our birthday. (What is it, Susan, our 41st?) She has loved it, by the way, on some Sundays when she has sung, people have come up to me and said, “Your daughter sings so beautifully!” We were born six weeks premature, which back then was pretty dicey. We weighed just over seven pounds together. I suppose it’s a little miracle we made it, it feels like it, and here we are singing awe and breathing out praise.
And for me it is part of this calling to savor and to save.
I’ve told you before: I think of Jesus, especially his boyhood, in a very different way since I visited Galilee and Nazareth, his growing up habitat, and saw the rolling meadows, strewn with wildflowers, and the Sea of Galilee glistening in the sun. I hear his words “Consider the lilies” differently. They were not just an illustration in a sermon on a mount; they were a call to open our eyes to a world created and cared for, even enjoyed by God. The colors of wildflowers, the song of the birds of the sky, these were for God’s pleasure, not just ours.
And those words, “Consider the lilies,” were a moral injunction as well: Consider them, consider them, treat them and all the earth considerately. And we will not care for them, and for the birds of the air and for the animals of the forest, unless we joy in them.
Emily Dickinson, poet of Amherst, who discovered her own spirituality apart from New England Calvinism, and who was a genius of savor, wrote:
The only Commandment I ever obeyed – “Consider the Lilies” (3).
That’s not the only commandment we need, but it is a good start.
If you read Torah, the first five books of the Bible, you will find plenty of instruction about how to care for the land and care for creation. But we have our human difficulties in keeping Torah. Wendell Berry says of our industrial economy that it is “firmly founded on the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all ten of the Ten Commandments” (4). If not founded, I’d respond, it at least compromised in a deadly way. Did Southerners read the Bible as pro-slavery because they were bad people? I don’t think so. I think they did because they were in thrall to economic interests, captured by economic fears.
So the Hebrew prophets challenged their nation, which had broken the commandments and exploited both the land and the poor. Isaiah speaks of the pathos of God as a spurned lover.
Let me sing for my beloved
A song of my lover about his vineyard
My beloved had a vineyard
On a very fertile hill.
He broke the ground, cleared it of stones
And planted it with choice vines.
He even built a watchtower inside it
And hewed out a wine press in it.
For he hoped it would yield grapes.
Instead it yielded bitter fruit.
For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts
Is the House of Israel
And the seedlings God lovingly tended
Are the people of Judah.
God hoped for justice ( mishpat)
But behold bloodshed ( mishpakh).
God hoped for righteousness ( tsedaqah)
But behold a cry ( tse’aqah)
Isaiah 5:1-2, 7 (H.S.S.)
We turned the blessing of a world into a wasteland. God’s intended blessing of the world is beautifully captured in Moses’ final blessing to Joseph at the end of Deuteronomy. It is full of “savoring.”
Blessed of the Lord be his land
With the bounty of the dew from heaven,
And of the deep that couches below; [that is, the sea] With the bounteous yield of the sun,
And the bounteous crop of the moons;
With the best from the ancient mountains,
And the bounty of the hills immemorial;
With the bounty of the earth and its fulness,
And the favor of the Presence in the Bush. (JSB)
“The Presence in the Bush” is the presence of the liberating God, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and freed the Hebrew people from slavery. And we could add the Presence in the trees, and brooks and seas, the wind, the sun, the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
Yes, God calls us to savor and to save!
I grew up on John 3:16, one of the first Bible verses I memorized:
For God so loved the world
That he gave his only begotten Son,
That whosoever believeth in him
should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)
But I do not think I imagined how large that word “world” was. For God so loved the world, not just me and those like me, the world. Not for God so loved the church, but the world, and not just the world of people, but the world itself, the world described by the psalmist:
The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,
the world and all that dwell therein.
And then there was the next verse, John 3:17:
For God sent not his Son into the world
to condemn the world;
but that the world through him might be saved. (KJV)
You talk to some Christians, and they’ve written off the world. They seem almost gleeful to announce the end of the world. You almost see a smile when they talk of this terrible world about to meet its Maker and meet its End. Theirs is a world worth neither savoring or saving.
So here is my concluding charge: Go as God’s beloved into the world to savor and to save. Do your part, whether large or small. Minister “in the minute particulars” as William Blake put it. And I’d add, be not afraid to meddle in the big matters, the macro-systems where public policy can save lives and save life.
Global warming surely is one of the key moral challenges of our day. An overheated planet will bring devastating consequences. Thomas Friedman said at Queens University recently that all we’ve been having to this point is a “green party” when what we need is a “green revolution.”
We have the spiritual and intellectual capacities to make a difference. The question is whether we have the will. The question is whether we will have the moral imagination capable of considering not just our neighbors down the street, or down wind, across town or across the globe but the neighbor of the next generation. I believe our children and grandchildren are beginning to think in these categories. The care for creation is a form of the love of neighbor as ourselves. And neighbor includes the not yet born.
So, do what you can, not what you can’t. Every small thing is part of a larger thing. Save energy. Become a part of our nation’s developing alternative energy. Challenge our corporations and government to think beyond the bottom line and the ballot box to the life of the world. Join hands with all people of hope and good will to help us move from short term self-interest to long term self-interest — no small moral advance!
Make the best, truest witness you can; then trust God, who holds the whole world in His/Her hands and who calls us to hold it in our hands too, hold it as bread and wine, as a sacrament, hold it as a sacred trust we’ve been given by God to enjoy, then pass on to our children and their children, and to unseen generations. And don’t forget to savor! Mary Oliver in a recent poem called “Messenger” writes:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work.
Which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.(5)
Come, children of dust and spirit, let us receive the gift and answer the call we’ve been given.
1“Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” The Art of the Commonplace (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002), p. 311.
2Denise Levertov, “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival,” in New and Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1992), p. 144.
3Emily Dickinson, L. 904.
4Berry, op. cit., p. 309.
5Mary Oliver, Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), p.1.
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