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An Act of God

I once heard a story about a group of people in a pleasure trip aboard a ship. A major water leak developed in the ship threatening the well being of those on board. People were alarmed but one fellow trying to calm the crowd said, don't worry, the hole is on the other side of the boat. Sometimes people do not realize that a hole in the boat is a hole in the whole boat.

The story seems ridiculous yet there are people who see threats to the environment as a hole on the other side of the ship, the space ship, we all inhabit. Too many times we exhibit tendencies to separate our well being, and even our salvation from the well being of others in our planet and from the welfare of the planet as well. The apostle Paul made no such mistake, he saw the salvation of individuals inextricably connected to the salvation of the world, the whole creation. Personal salvation is indeed important, but personal salvation does not happen in a vacuum, it happens here, on the earth we inhabit. Personal salvation is the first step toward the redemption of all creation. Creation and Salvation are also intimately linked in the Hebrew and Christian stories. Adam is created by God near the end of the Creation saga. God takes dirt, clay, to shape humanity and Adam's name reflects this act and informs or, ought to inform, our perspective. In the Indo-european languages we have preserved the connection between the ground we step on and our very existence. The words humus and human share a common root. In addition the words humility and humor share in the common earth/dirt heritage of our human race.

The separation of personal salvation from the redemption of the natural world has also led people to talk about God's relationship to nature in a rather mechanical and whimsical way. People, especially journalists, use the term "act of God" to refer to a disaster where the forces of nature seem to make humans their target. The only true "act of God" in relation to nature is the loving act of redemption that the apostle Paul identifies in the letter to the Romans. The act of God is a redemptive act, an action that goes through humanity on to the natural world.

The wanton destruction that goes under the rubric of "act of God" is in fact, more often than not, an act of man, of unredeemed man. Take for instance the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch in Central America. This is the kind of event that is often referred to as an act of God, but as the authors of a now famous book on the Ecological Crisis, Jacob Goldstein and Daniel Faber, point out, this is more properly, an act of man. "A long history of development built on economic inequalities and disregard for local ecosystems had created a landscape on the brink of disaster...In Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, successive generations of squatters have climbed the hills that surround the city, clearing the land to make room for shacks and to gather wood for fuel, and rendering the hillsides extremely unstable. Meanwhile, thousands of peasants have settled on previously uninhabited riverbanks and flood plains at the margins of the city. When Hurricane Mitch hit, this settlement pattern proved deadly." These sociologists do not use the language of religion otherwise they might have said that the acts of unredeemed humankind make nature appear unforgiving. Oscar Jara, a Nicaraguan environmentalist put it succinctly, Mas que la naturaleza, nos matan la pobreza y los malos gobiernos. Poverty and bad government are deadlier than nature. Much earlier a Roman writer had observed the same preying behavior in men as that exhibited by wolves and wrote Homo homini lupus, man is man's wolf.

Closer to home, to my home in California, Mike Davis, has written a book entitled "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster". Davis argues a line similar to the one mentioned earlier about Hurricane Mitch. But he buttresses his argument by looking at the history and ecology of the region. Long periods of drought and major earthquakes have been ignored by modern urban planners. When the Big Ones Hit, long draught and major earthquake, people will again use the term "act of God" to describe it but it will be more the consequence of human greed, and selfishness. Yes, The "whole creation awaits eagerly for the revelation of the true sons and daughters of God". In the mean time Hurricanes, draught, earthquake and fire will keep on coming destroying in their path those who have taken whatever "left over" means to survive. This places an urgent task in front of those of us who know and understand the connection between personal salvation and ecological redemption. All the sociologists mentioned earlier understand that these disasters are not "inevitable". Sound social and environmental policy can radically reduce the human misery hurricanes cause" write Faber and Goldstein. Mike Davis includes his otherwise apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles future statements about learning to live with nature, learning nature's rhythms and tempos and adjusting to them rather that always attempting to conquer. These suggestions are more congruent with the Biblical vision of Shalom, the image which lies behind the poetic language of the letter to the Roman's. Isaiah's vision of the Messianic age is one where nature is in harmony, where predators and preys live in accordance with a redeemed order, one established not by humanity's techno-fix solutions but by the tenderness of a young child who guides and oversees all.

John B. Cobb, Jr., professor Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology has recently been using the term "Earthism" to refer to a vision and a way of life that sees the defense of the earth as "ultimate" or almost ultimate concern. This is by no means new, Cobb acknowledges as much, what is new is the theological language Cobb is now using. The Redemption of Creation through the "first born" redeemed ones cannot be achieved if the earth is destroyed, therefore the task now before those of us who claim ultimate allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ is the defense of this fragile space ship. This is the way to demonstrate that we are indeed "redeemed".

The task of defending nature is not without peril, United Methodist Bishops tried to direct the attention of the members of this denomination to the protection of the environment. The Episcopal Document they produced was called "In Defense of Creation" and were ridiculed by many who felt they were naive and "idealistic". While it might have been true that some of the statistics the Bishops used to energize church members to get involved in ecological concerns were flawed, the direction in which they pointed their flock was the most appropriate for our time and thoroughly congruent with Paul's belief that personal salvation and the redemption of nature are, in fact, two sides of one event.

Some of you are listening to this sermon as you travel from one place to another during your summer vacation. As you look outside your vehicle's windows a magnificent landscape appears. Perhaps you are remembering, or humming or even singing America the Beautiful. "O Beautiful for spacious skies...for amber waves" Others might remember Woodie Guthrie's "This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island" both of these songs have as a common theme the appreciation of the beauty of the land and the need to work to protect it from those that desecrate it constantly by putting profits ahead of the well being of its current inhabitants or of future generations. Woodie Guthrie wrote "this land was made for you and me" to counter the monopolistic greedy tendencies of many in his generation and Katharine Lee Bates included phrases in America the Beautiful to counter the warring tendencies which see saw looming ahead. She argued for "liberty in law", for "self control" and for "alabaster cities undimmed by human tears" in the prayerful vision of what is now the last (and seldom sung) stanza in her hymn.

May God bless you this summer and always and, if you are vacationing, may the grandeur of this land inspire you to become a defender of creation, an "earthist" Christian who can, with the Apostle Paul, hear the groaning pains of Nature waiting for the true sons and daughters of God to be revealed so that even Nature itself may be redeemed at last.