Summit Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2009
Earth Day Sunday
Psalm 148; Genesis 1:1 - 2:3
Everything of Every KindWhen I taught fourth grade, we often studied animals. As part of that study we'd ask what certain animals had in common with each other. Some animals had feathers: we call them birds. Some animals, produce milk: we call them mammals. Some animals have gills: we call them fish, and so on. We'd then broaden it to ask what all animals had in common -- what made an animal an animal? All animals breathe in their way, all animals eat plants or other animals; animals move. We'd then ask what did animals have in common with other living things - what made them living things? They needed oxygen, they depended on the sun. We could go further: what did living and non-living things - water, rocks, coal - have in common? Atoms and molecules: ultimately all are made of the same "stuff." But it never occurred to me - and not just because we can't preach religion in public schools - it never occurred to me that what we all had in common - all things now living and not - was a call to worship God.
That's what the psalm claims and does: it calls not only human beings, kings and peoples, men and women, young and old, but heavenly beings; not only the earth, but the sun and the moon and the stars; not only sea monsters, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying birds, but mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! It calls to worship not only every thing of every kind but also weather phenomena: fire and hail, snow and frost and stormy wind. And it's not only in this pslam we hear this universal call: in others oceans are called to roar, the floods to clap their hands, the fields to exult and the hills to sing together for joy. (96:11-12). All creatures of our God and King, with us lift up your voice and sing.
But how, we may ask - being a rational, inquiring people - do creatures - especially non-living ones - lift up their voice and sing? We're the only creatures who can open a hymnal, we're the only ones who can pray, read the Bible, preach and bring our offerings to God. Even if we take a broad view of worship to include service to God and love of neighbor, that's a human prerogative: as far as we know, no other creatures are conscious of their creator or know what it means to be a neighbor. (Not that all humans do!).
Thomas Merton says that a tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it's obeying God, . . "consenting" to God's creative love. It's expressing an idea in God so a tree imitates God by being a tree. My words now: a tree praises God, a tree worships God, by being a tree. The poet Christopher Smart, in the 18th century, wrote this about his cat: (there are some odd words in the poem but I think you'll get the gist).
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
A cat worships God by being a cat and brisking about the life.
We're called to care for creation not only as a matter of survival. Not only as a matter of justice. Not only for our grandchildren and not only in gratitude for the beauty, food and other blessings of God. We're called to care for creation - if I may put it in secular terms - under the First Amendment. For the sake of freedom of worship: so trees can be trees and cats can be cats and fish can be fish and rocks can be rocks and mountains can be mountains. And all can give glory to God.
Now you may be thinking: that can't simply mean live and let live. After all, isn't part of being a mouse being prey for a cat? Isn't part of being a plant being food for other creatures? Isn't part of being a tree being cut down so people can build houses or keep warm by the fire? And the answer is yes: death and change and even violence - creatures forcibly serving other creatures - is part of God's creation. But there's a difference between creatures serving and even dying for one another as part of God's created order and the way we size up each and every kind of God's creatures to see how we may use them: not only for our survival, but to give us pleasure or make us money. There's a difference between being a o-creator with God and working within creation to support and better human life -- and exploiting and destroying that creation. It's not an easy line to draw. But I have another poem! (You know I don't often read poems or quote extensively from other people in my sermons. But on Earth Day Sunday I thought I'd model "reusing.")
This is a song. It was written by an Australian named Leon Rosselson although I heard it through a recording by the singer Charlie King, who Americanized the lyrics (and I've adapted too). I will admit there's an undertone of vengeance in the song, but we're not to take it literally. And some Earth Day Trivia: Australians call Fish Sticks Fish Fingers. And a confession: I enjoy fish sticks.'
Whoever Invented the [Fish Stick] (Leon Rosselson) Whoever invented the [fish stick] ought to be transmogrified. Skinned mashed and boxed, into uniform blocks, then covered all over, from collar to socks, and frozen and finally fried. Because who'd do that to a fish, finning its way through the seas, Colours in harmony, perfectly poised, riding its flying trapeze. Whoever invented the National Enquirer, ought to be cut down to size. Pulped and reduced to a nauseous juice, and dried out and flattened 'til ready for use, Then covered in newsprint and lies. Because who'd do that to a tree raising its head to the sky Rooted in centuries, telling tall tales, breathing a green lullaby. Whoever invented the [soldier or terrorist], ought to be licked into shape. Toughened and trained, 'til the body's a cane 'til the arms are a chain, 'til the nerves feel no pain, 'til obedience rules and encircles the brain, With walls so he'll never escape.
Because who'd do that to a child, jumping with joy and desire. Floating in fantasies, drowning in dreams, Brimming with feelings of fire. It's one thing to catch a few fish and cook them for breakfast with your disciples on the beach. It's one thing to fish wisely and judiciously to fry fish for the many: it's another thing to empty the oceans of cod to make fish sticks. It's one thing to cut down a tree to make worship bulletins (although we may want to consider how many trees we've been cutting down); it's another thing to cut down a tree to write a torture memo. It's one thing to take the bones of our ancestors and the ancestors of all living creatures - that's what oil and coal are - to bring light and warmth and food and books to all - and quite another to lop off the tops of mountains - in mountaintop removal mining that they do in Appalachia - to fuel every desire of the wealthy and relatively wealthy, so we threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. And it's one thing to take a young person, and train and toughen and discipline them and order their lives so they may learn to read and do math and create beauty, build houses and lift boxes: it's another to train and toughen them so they can kill and be killed. So this is our task: to celebrate and care for God's creation so trees may be trees, fish may be fish, mountains may be mountains, cats may be cats oceans may be oceans: and people may be the people God has intended us to be. So that all creatures - everything of every kind - can lift up their voices and sing: Alleluia.
*From New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc., 1961); cited in Gabe Huck, Gail Ramshaw, et al., An Easter Sourcebook: The Fifty Days (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988).