The sermon you are about to hear was first preached at my church during a worship service in honor of Earth Day, a service that focused around the theme of God's gift of water, and it included a ritual for the renewal of our baptismal vows. This service held a lot of meaning for my church because it was the first time we had celebrated Earth Day as a congregation. Thankfully, more and more churches are beginning to observe Earth Day, and more and more ministers are taking up the challenge of preaching on issues relating to eco-justice and our Christian call to care for God's creation. The day before our Earth Day service, our whole community had turned out for our first-ever Earth Day festival, a symphony of creative and inspiring activities that demonstrated our love for the Earth and many ways that we can care for creation and work to minimize our harmful impacts on the planet. The mood was celebratory and fun, as it should be. But Earth Day is also implicitly a recognition that something has gone wrong in our relationship with the natural world, something that needs fixing-something that we might describe in religious terms as a call to repentance, and even conversion.
Yet here we begin to tread on treacherous ground, because acknowledging the depth of the planetary crisis human beings have created is fraught with danger. I'm not speaking here of political danger, of the suppression of ecological truth by political leaders or business magnates desiring to preserve the status quo. I'm speaking of emotional and spiritual danger-the danger that recognition of the true magnitude of our ecological crisis will lead to paralysis and despair, which are the last things that either we or the planet need right now. A sign of that danger surfaced for me during our Earth Day festival, when in a casual conversation with someone I mentioned how striking it was that the issue of global warming is popping up everywhere in the news recently. To which this person replied, "Yeah, I know, and every time it comes on I just turn off the TV," because it scares me too much to think about it! I can empathize with this person, and you probably can too. If we are really paying attention, the drumbeat of news about environmental degradation and climate change not only evokes fear, but also a deep sadness. Because if we are tuned in, if we are awake, we sense on some level that the earth that we know and enjoy right now will not be the earth that our children and grandchildren inherit.
The signs are everywhere. Headlines scream at us: three-fourths of the rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay, the area where I live, are diseased. Glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic are melting much faster than expected. Warming temperatures over the next century could turn rich agricultural land into desert, dry out the rainforests, raise sea levels, extinguish countless species, and cause disastrous storms. In fact, most scientists now say that climate change is not something facing us in the future; it is already here. The debate over whether global warming is happening is over. The only question now is how bad will it get? Dr. Gustave Speth, Dean of the school of forestry and environmental studies at Yale, was asked recently if environmental damage due to climate change could be prevented. "No," he replied, "it's too late for that." But we may still be able to prevent catastrophic damage. He concluded, "This is our last chance to get it right. We have run out of time."
Speth and many other scientists and theologians are speaking a language that sounds off-key to our modern ears. But it's a language that biblical prophets like Ezekiel and John of Patmos would recognize. It is the language of apocalypse-the imagery of the end times and the mysteries of God. The environmental challenges that face us are beginning to look apocalyptic, except now the apocalypse is not a fantasy of fundamentalists, or the stuff of science fiction, but the edge of an abyss that clear-eyed scientists peer over and tremble at. And the threats we face are not orchestrated by God but self-inflicted.
It's hard to talk about these things, but we have to break the silence, especially within the churches, because here, above all else, we must speak the truth. As Daniel Maguire, a Catholic theologian, has said bluntly, "If current trends continue, we will not....If religion does not speak to [this], it is an obsolete distraction"(2). And so we need to speak about it, and we need to weep about it, because it's only when we allow ourselves to break through our defenses and actually feel what is going on that we will have the capacity to change it. As one ecofeminist theologian has said, "The capacity to weep and then do something is worth everything"(3). This is the purpose of apocalyptic literature in the Bible and the purpose of the eco-apocalyptic warnings of scientists and environmentalists-not to paralyze us with fear, but to spur us to act, and even, to invest us with hope.
The prophet Ezekiel, writing to exiles whose homeland had been destroyed, offered a vision of a new day-a dream of the time when they would return to their land and dwell in peace, when the land itself would be restored from its former desolation and bloom as if it were the garden of Eden. And the people who would dwell there would be different than the people who went into exile, because they would be transformed by their experience; they would have learned from their mistakes....and changed their ways. They will return, but not as the same people, for we are told that God has cleansed them from their idols...and so, "a new heart I will give you," says Ezekiel, "and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh." Isn't this what we so desperately need today? To have our hearts of stone removed and in their place to receive hearts of flesh that can hear the crying of the earth? For too long, Christianity has been prone to earth-denying tendencies and fantasies of mastery and control over nature. The new reformation being called for means, according to Rasmussen, that "all religious and moral impulses of whatever sort must now be matters of unqualified earthbound loyalty and care. Faith is fidelity to earth and full participation in its ecstasy and agony"(4).
But the question remains, can Christianity be converted to the earth? Can Christianity become what Rasmussen calls "an earth faith"? It not only can, but it must. We search now for earth faith and earth ethics, because as Rasmussen explains, "Society and nature together...is a community, without an exit. Whether we like it or not, it's life together now or not at all. Earth faith and earth community-this is humanity's next journey"(5).
Well, there is good news. The good news is that we do have it within our faith, and within the other faiths on the planet, to give us hope for the future and power to act and to change. The Bible itself is rich in resources, from its imagery of the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the New Jerusalem, which is a new kind of garden, in the book of Revelation, which holds out to us a vision of a different way to live. In fact, some people say that apocalyptic literature is not just about heaven; it's really about earth. Because apocalyptic literature is written to people who are in crisis, who are struggling and desperate, and who need hope. Another meaning of the word "apocalypse" is revelation-revelation of the divine mysteries. Apocalypse reveals to us a new vision, not of heaven as pie in the sky but as heaven on earth. Because if you'll notice in the book of Revelation, heaven is not something we are raptured up to, but heaven is raptured down to us! Heaven is on earth, and God dwells on the new restored earth, as poisoned rivers become the river of the water of life. You see, in apocalypse, sometimes we're taken through hell, but we return to Eden.
So today, I would like to suggest that we have to start reading the Bible backwards. That's where we start. We start with Revelation, not with the pristine garden. But, then, reading backwards with the saints of all times and places, we discern the possibility for a new beginning-we reach towards a new genesis, a new way of living in harmony with the earth, a change of consciousness and a re-rooting of all our religious traditions in eco-friendly soil. And we have this capability to envision a new earth, when people who have been sprinkled clean of their transgressions can be restored to a life of harmony with earth.
That was in abundant view at our Earth Day festival, when we saw the next generation turn out in force-most of the people there were under 20! And they're going to be our teachers; they will lead us forward, and as they learn new ways of living with the earth, we need to learn from them. And all of this is tied into what we're about to do, when we renew our baptismal vows in a few moments. As we have this opportunity to touch the water-the water of life-water which springs from the earth and is a gift from God-we have the chance to allow our consciousness to be transformed, to be converted to God and the earth, to be born anew, not only as children of God but also as children of the earth-as the new Adam and the new Eve who are committed to restoring creation, who are committed to serving the groaning creation with nurturing love. And so as you come forward today, let this clean water wash away any indifference you have, any despair you feel, any fear which clouds your vision. And let it symbolize the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a transformed people. Let it remind us of the thirst of the earth and the thirst of the people in many parts of the world who live parched lives. Let it remind us of the dream of children to dance and bathe and drink clean water. Let it remind us of the promise of scripture that streams will break forth in the desert, and that the river of the water of death will be replaced by the river of the water of life.
I would like to conclude with a poem by that great eco-poet Wendell Berry, who talks about how he deals with his despair and his fear and how he experiences grace:
When despair for the world grows within me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
1. The title of this sermon is borrowed from Anne Primavesi's book, From Apocalypse to Genesis: Ecology, Feminism, and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).
Cited in Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996), 10.
Greta Gaard, "Living Connections with Animals and Nature," in Ecofeminism, ed. Greta Gaard (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 3.