Living in Awe

(Preached at St. Andrew’s United Church, Ripley, July 16, 2017)

Very recently, a group of Canadian scientists got together. They realized that with all the advances in genetic science, they could probably create life.

So they challenged God to a life-making contest. God, being a good sport said, “You’re on! Do your best!”

The scientists took their jars and went to the garden outside their laboratory to gather some dirt.

Then God spoke. “Oh, no you don’t! That’s my dirt! Go make some of your own…”

Would you pray with me and for me, please…

There are so many, many hymns I could have chosen for today’s service. I’ve chosen four, but I might just has easily have chosen “This is My Father’s World,” or “All Things Bright and Beautiful” or “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” or more modern tunes like “Our God is an Awesome God” or “In Awe.”

I could have had my choice of psalms, too. I chose Psalm 19, but I could just have easily preached this sermon on Psalm 8. “When I look to the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have set in their places, what are we mortals that you should be mindful of us, mere human beings that you should care for us?”

Or Psalm 139. “How deep are your designs, O God! How great is their number!”

Or Psalm 147: “God covers the sky with clouds, God prepares the rain for the earth, God makes the hills green with grass.”

And those are just three that I found without really looking hard.

In times past, human beings lived closer to nature, and they lived in awe. Not just the “Oooh! Look at that!” kind of awe, but the kind of awe that sometimes had them cowering under the bedcovers, fearing for their lives. Or peering anxiously at the skies, searching for the rain that hasn’t come to water the crops. Or shivering in their tents, wondering if the snow was ever going to stop falling, or if they were going to freeze to death this winter?

We’ve become very isolated from nature, so much so that when a human being in the developed world dies in an accidental encounter with nature, it’s headline news. Wildfires threaten homes. Bears maul an unwise hiker. A man drowns in Florida. An airliner disappears into the ocean, and years later we’re still looking for it.

But our daily lives are divorced from God’s natural world. When I was living in Guelph and going to school in Toronto, it was entirely normal for me to leave my front door, get on a bus in front of my house to go downtown, switch to another bus to go to Toronto, get off that bus and walk to the subway station to take the train to Museum station, and get off the subway, walk up the stairs and through the front doors of Emmanuel College, all without ever walking on earth, grass, or indeed any natural substance.

If you are an office worker in downtown Toronto and live in an apartment in Toronto, it is entirely possible that you could go for entire days without even venturing into open air. The heavens telling the glory of God and the sky proclaiming God’s glory in thunderstorms goes unheard.

In the psalmist’s time, nothing could be hidden from the sun’s heat, but with air conditioned buildings, well…

The heat and the snow and the thunderstorms are no longer even minor inconveniences. Unless the power goes out, of course…

I know the folks here in Ripley and Bervie-Kinloss are much more in tune with the natural world than the average Torontonian. Some of you garden, some of you farm, and there are no vast expanses of high rise buildings to block out the sun or the thunderstorms.

But even so, the effect of nature here is muted. We all (I hope) live in solid housing that keeps out the rain and the wind and even the heat for the most part. We’ve developed irrigation and pest control methods that alleviate some of the worst of natures depredations on our crops and animals, and we have greenhouses to give us year-round produce, even here in snowy Canada. We no longer live in the world of the psalmist, and I think we’ve lost a lot of that sense of awe and wonder that humans felt in times past when they witnessed the absolutely untameable forces of God’s nature.

We think that we are like the scientists in my joke, able to tame what God has created and improve upon it. Until we’re reminded in rather spectacular ways that we are really NOT in control.

The wildfires raging in British Columbia are particularly bad this year. It’s not just the hot, dry weather that may or may not be caused by global warming that has been caused by human activity on the planet.

It’s also the result, ironically enough, of increasingly effective methods of supressing wildfires. Wildfires are actually necessary for the regeneration of forests. In a natural situation, they burn over an area about every ten years, consuming dead wood and leaving the healthiest trees a little scarred, but alive. The ashes return to the soil, providing the living trees with nutrients. Some species of trees are renewed as the fire provides the heat necessary for their cones to open and release their seeds.

The bare patches left by the fire become filled with sun-loving plants such as blueberries that in turn provide food for animals.

But we humans are, rightly, terrified of fire. We jump on those wildfires, most of which are naturally started by lightning, and put them out as quickly as possible. The result is a build up of dead wood in the forest, and in a hot dry year such as the one currently happening in the interior of British Columbia, the forest can become one big furnace. Instead of simply burning off the old wood, the fire becomes hot enough to kill large, healthy trees. Instead of renewing the soil, the fire can actually sterilize it. The pine cones will open, but the seeds will be consumed.

The result is a dead zone which will take years to recover. All because we thought we were doing the natural world a favour by putting out fires…

Sometimes the word “awe” is translated as “wonder,” but it’s also translated as “fear.” But awe is both of these things at once, and more besides. Awe isn’t just about feeling wonder at God’s creation and God’s word, and it isn’t just about feeling fear of creation or God. Awe denotes respect—not the polite respect we demand of our children, but the cautious, deeply-felt respect we should feel if, for example, we meet a moose or a bear unawares on a hiking trail. Being awe-filled means enjoying what we see, but keeping our distance.

Many folks, I am sorry to say, no longer feel a sense of awe. Watching nature documentaries on television has replaced viewing nature in the raw, but not even a sixty-five inch high definition 3-D television can replicate the awe felt standing on the top of a cliff in Algonquin Park, viewing the Baron Canyon or the Lake of Two Rivers or a glorious sunset. For one thing, there is no weather—no wind to ruffle your hair, no sun to warm your face, no rain to cool it off. For another, and perhaps more importantly, there’s no fear. The danger of falling out of your easy chair is far less than the danger of falling off the cliff on the Lookout Trail in Algonquin.

Some become so afraid of the danger or so averse to the discomforts that they never leave the couch. My parents and brother and sister-in-law were nature documentary addicts at one time, and yet living as they did in the Kawartha Lakes district, all they ever had to do to view nature in all its glory was step outside the house!

Some, especially those who have seen too many tame cartoon animals dancing around befriending humans on their televisions, lose the element of respect. Some are so used to the comforts of the city—temperature-controlled swimming pools, tame animals, air conditioned buildings—that they have no idea of the dangers posed by the natural world.

When they meet nature in the raw, these are the folks who are most likely to be hurt. They want the closeup of the moose or the bear, they stray too close to the edge of the cliff, they forget, if they ever knew, that the lake is not a tame swimming pool and that currents can be deadly. Even for those of us who are educated and have been part of the natural world since birth, God’s creation demands caution and respect. For the uninitiated, it can be a deadly lesson.

And then there are those who have embraced the awesomeness of God’s creation, but are blind in quite a different way.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip with my mother and my youngest son to see a world-famous, UNESCO Heritage Site. We had a wonderful day, on a boat with the wind in our faces and sparkling blue waters reflected in our eyes. We met tourists from around the world—I heard smatterings of conversation in German, French, Japanese and Chinese. Some of those folks had spent tens of thousands of dollars and all of their vacation time just to see this beautiful natural wonder of the world.

I took lots of pictures, and when we got back to Guelph, I showed them to some friends from church. I had more than one person ask, “Where is that?”

“That” was Flowerpot Island. (You do all know where that is, right? I hope that you’ve all been on the boat trip around the islands at least once. Maybe even walked the trails?)

A day trip from my home in Guelph, costing us perhaps $250, gas, meals and boat trip for three included. And yet some would say, “It’s too far,” or “It’s too expensive,” all the while booking trips to Iceland to see volcanoes or Scotland to see old castles or Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone or Jerusalem to walk in the places that Jesus walked.

Too far??? Too expensive???

I think that sometimes we become blind to the awesomeness of God’s creation in our own country, desiring the wonders of other countries. We look at other people’s grass and say it’s greener, while failing to see the wonders that are right on our doorstep.

We’re kind of like the nine lepers in Luke’s story. They’ve been healed by Jesus, and I’m sure they’re properly grateful. But at this point, Jesus has been around for a while, and perhaps his wonderful power has lost it’s novelty. Only the foreigner returns, praising God for the miracle. Local wonders just don’t seem as wonderful, somehow, as those in far countries.

Last week, I gave you a sheet with some reflections so that you could perhaps find God in scripture. This week, I’m going to give you a different type of assignment.

Put down your Bibles and go out into the natural world. Not in Australia or Egypt or even the United States. Go here, in Ontario. Just for a day, if that’s all the time you can take.

If you can get out into the middle of Georgian Bay or Lake Huron, far from the sight or sound of other humans, do it! If you can find a trail that leads to a cliff top with an awesome view, do it! If you can get close but not to close to a moose or a bear or another wild animal, do it! If you can get to a place where the lights from the cities and towns of humans no longer hide the incredible wealth of stars in the night sky, do it!

Take your cameras and your life jackets and your bug spray. Stay a respectful distance from cliff edges and wild animals. Watch out for poison ivy. But do, please go out into the awesome wildness of God’s creation and meet God face to face.

Amen.

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Live With Respect

(Preached at Alma United Church, September 10, 2017)

Discussing the state of God’s creation can be somewhat depressing at times, so I’m going to start off with a joke:

Some Canadian scientists recently realized that they could create life, so they challenged God to a life-making contest.

God said, “You’re on. Do your best!”

So the scientists got some glass test tubes and went outside to collect some dirt, and God said, “Oh, no! That dirt’s mine. You go make your own dirt!”

Would you pray with me and for me please…

Thousands of years ago, when ancient Hebrew priests and scholars first started assembling what would become the Torah, they didn’t start with the riveting story of Abraham searching for a new home, or of Moses leading Abraham’s descendants out of slavery and into nationhood. Either one of these stories could have been seen as the proper place to begin, telling as they do the origin story of a people who would be among the first to worship God as a single entity who was greater in character than any human being.

Instead, they chose to begin right back at the beginning, with two stories about the creation of the world, and in the case of the first story, with the creation of the universe.

Now I’m going to tell you right now I don’t think either story is a literal depiction of what actually happened. The ancient peoples who told those stories were trying to explain what they saw and experienced in concepts they could understand. They did not have our advanced scientific knowledge, and scientists even today will tell you that they do not know everything about how the universe works. We simply don’t have the capacity to understand it now, and we probably will never understand it all.

But the creation stories handed down to us do tell us some very important things:

First, God created the universe and everything in it. We might have learned the secrets of DNA and how to engineer and maybe someday even to create a living creature, but it was God who made life possible in the first place.

Second, creation is good. God sees that the light is good, and the dry land and the seas are good, and the vegetation is good, and the sun and the moon and the stars are good, and the living creatures are good, and blessed.

Then God creates humankind, creates us in God’s own image. We again are blessed. And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

The second creation story, which is the one I read this morning, is quite different, and emphasizes a different aspect of creation. God is much more hands-on in this one. When I read this story, I think about being a little girl, playing in the mud at the side of the house, making mud pies.

The second creation story points out two critical things that we should keep in mind at every moment:

  • We are made from the earth. We are not just observers on this planet for a short time. We are an integral part of it.
  • We are animated by the breath of God, and we have been given the power to name and the responsibility to tend all of creation.

I think we need to keep all of those points in mind when we read today’s news. There is, of course, news about hurricane Harvey. A report I read yesterday, which is probably out of date, says that 50 are feared dead, more than 44,000 homes are destroyed or heavily damaged, and about 325,000 residents have sought federal emergency aid as a result of Hurricane Harvey.

What many articles don’t tell you is that a flood of this magnitude was predicted by environmental scientists as late as last year, and it was dismissed by politicians, who said that scientists “have an agenda” and that “their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense.”

The scientist who raised the alarm a year ago watched the waters rise and eventually force him out of his own flooded house.

Houston was founded on a swamp in the 1830s. The city is built low and flat along coastal bayous, and has always struggled with flooding.

But there was a natural buffer that kept the worst at bay: Prairie grasslands, which absorbed water in almost supernatural quantities. The problem is Houston has spent decades paving over those grasslands and building strip malls.

Many now describe Houston as an “island of concrete sitting on top of a swamp.”

Of course, we’re now aware that Harvey was only the “tip of the iceberg”, so to speak.

Hurricane Irma has flattened the tiny nation of Barbuda, flattening 95 percent of the houses there. What Irma left behind is likely to be destroyed by Hurricane Jose.

Three major hurricanes in a row with winds that are record breakers and damage costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and politicians continue to stick their heads in the sand and say that global warming is a myth and that environmentalists are fear mongers who don’t care about people’s livelihoods.

In other news, out-of-control forest fires continue to rage in British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta, Oregon and in other places around the world. About eighty percent were started by lightning, which leaves twenty percent caused by humans. A very few were started deliberately by arsonists, but most human caused wildfires were caused by careless discarding of smoking materials and improperly lit and tended campfires.

One BC man, given a ticket that will cost him $550 for throwing a cigarette butt out the window of his vehicle complained that he should be fined for littering only, not for improper disposal of a flammable or burning substance. Then he said that he had been ticketed before for littering, for the same offence. It isn’t just politicians that don’t get it.

We continue to destroy our natural environment at an alarming rate. A new report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development said that over a twenty-four month period in 2014 and 2015, 381 new species were found in the Amazon. The report comes the week after Brazil’s government passed a decree allowing mining in the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), a huge area the size of Switzerland which encompasses nine protected areas. While the decree has since been revised to clarify that mining will not be allowed in conservation or indigenous areas within the former reserve, following national and global outcry, challenges persist for the world’s largest tropical forest.

Another report closer to home found that human antidepressants are building up in the brains of bass, walleye and several other fish common to the Great Lakes region. Current wastewater treatment practices focus narrowly on killing disease-causing bacteria and on extracting solid matter such as human excrement. Antidepressants, which are found in the urine of people who use the drugs, are largely ignored, along with other common chemicals.

In other news, a baby dolphin died after being passed around and photographed by tourists who found it stranded at a busy Spanish beach. Curious holidaymakers flocked to examine the calf – some of them taking selfies with the creature – after it washed up in Mojácar, Almeira.

A mother runs into a fast food place, reporting a bear in the dumpster. She insists that the workers call the authorities, and escort her and her children to her car. After the workers escorted the woman to her car, they investigated and found that the bear in the dumpster was only a cub. By the time the authorities arrived to deal with the bear, the woman’s children were out of the car and chasing the cub, trying to pet it or get a picture of it.

We live today in a world where much of the population is so separated from the natural world that they have no real understanding of how it works. They leave their houses or apartments in the morning, get into their cars or hop on the bus or subway and travel to work or school, work or study all day in a building, and at the end of the day repeat the morning commute in reverse. You can live what seems to be a full and active life without ever having any meaningful interaction with God’s creation at all.

For much of the population, the main educator about the natural world is Disney, where dolphins can speak and people and animals all manage to escape the wildfire (which generally doesn’t burn for months on end) or the hurricanes (which aren’t followed by yet another hurricane).

People just don’t know that much about creation anymore, and we cannot really respect someone or something that we know nothing about.

If we don’t know how plains and swamps act as natural sponges for rainwater, we won’t see the value in saving this “useless land” from development. If we don’t understand that natural forest fires play a vital role in removing deadwood and renewing the life cycle of the forest, we’ll try to put them all out before they do much “damage,” thus leaving the forest much more vulnerable to the out-of-control conflagration we are seeing with today’s forest fires.

If we don’t understand the carbon cycle and how putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere causes global warming, we won’t make the effort to curb emissions and global warming will continue, melting ice cover and putting the world in more danger of flooding.

If we don’t understand that wantonly chopping down trees will cause forests to turn to desert, and destroy the habitat, perhaps forever, the biodiversity of our planet will continue to decline.

If we don’t understand that what we put into our bodies must eventually come out, and that what goes into our wastewater treatment plants, if not removed by processing, will eventually end up in our water, we will continue to place aquatic life at risk.

If we don’t respect that wild animals are wild, and were not placed there for our amusement, we will continue to kill and be killed for no excusable reason.

Living with respect in creation, as we members of the United Church are called to do by our New Creed, is a huge, overwhelming task. Sometimes we think it’s too big for us, and we give up before we start. If we do decide we want to do something, often we don’t know where to start.

Fortunately, there are a couple of examples we can follow that will help us to make a difference.

The first, of course, is the example of Jesus.

“Do not worry about your life, about what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

I would say, from my studies, that the number one excuse politicians and business people alike give against environmental sustainability is that it will cost jobs and hurt the economy.

Profits are king.

Until a hurricane or a forest fire comes along and wipes out an entire city, housing, jobs and all. Except in our backwards world, such events are actually a boost to the economy, because all the money spent on recovery efforts are added to, not subtracted from, the GDP.

Until a once lush forested island is turned to a desert which allows its citizens to eke out only the barest of livings.

It’s time we stopped worrying so much about profits and jobs, and started worrying about the actual lives of people and animals and plants, born and as yet unborn.

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus came that all might have life, and have it abundantly. We have a responsibility, given to us by our creed, by our Lord, and by the very first book of our scriptures, to learn about creation, and about how to live in it and heal it.

The second example I’d like to highlight is that of Jadav Payeng. He didn’t try to solve the environmental problems of the whole world, or of India, or even of his small island. He simply chose one action that was within his capabilities, and he did it, every single day.

Those of us who have land that’s degraded and deforested might want to follow his example and plant a tree or two every day, but for those of us who don’t, there are other actions we can take that will make a difference.

We can drink tap water instead of bottled water or soda. Or use reusable bags when we shop. We can walk some places instead of driving. We should all keep our vehicles properly maintained, and drive within the speed limit.

We don’t always need the newest and best of everything, and if we do want the newest and best, we can donate the older, still useable things to those in need.

There are hundreds of small actions that we can take that will reduce our negative impact on creation. Pick one. Do it every day. Then, when you’re ready, pick another.

I read a book on household management, of all things, that helped me to understand living with respect in creation in a different way. In her book, How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind, Dana White talks about her “project brain.” Projects involve detailed schedules, rehearsing, research. Then you do the project and you’re done.

Projects get finished, and then you move on.  You don’t have to redo them, you just start on another project.

We like projects. Our governments like projects. Results you can see in a short period of time, but without a long-term drain on the budget. Business people like projects, church people like projects, teachers and students like projects.

Projects are great.

But the problem is that cleaning up a house or cleaning up the environment aren’t projects. They have no end.

Instead, they need to be habits, little things we do every day without thinking. Like washing the dishes. Or planting a tree. Or drinking water from a glass or reusable water bottle.

The good news is that because they are habits, because we do do them every day, they have the potential to make a much bigger difference in the long run than any project we take on.

And in this day and age of depressing headlines, that is really good news! Amen!