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Creation's Future

Sermon 7/17/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 8:18-25

The passage for our reflection this morning is from the eighth chapter of Romans, versus 18 through 25: 

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?Or by25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

It was several weeks ago that I introduced the theme for our Fall stewardship campaign this year:  "Generations of Generosity".  We talked about the offering that Paul collected among the congregations in Asia Minor that is mentioned in the 15th chapter of Romans.  An offering which more or less cost Paul his life, for it was in delivering that offering back to Jerusalem where he was arrested and then taken to Rome.  According to the tradition of the church it was there that he was martyred under Nero.

And so from that perspective it makes even the tithe that we may give look puny.  What is 10% of our giving in comparison to Paul, who puts his whole self, his whole life into the offering for the betterment of the church?  This morning I would invite you to reflect with me then on this theme, Generations of Generosity, from an even larger perspective (if that is possible).  That is, I want to look at, and to think about our stewardship in relationship not just to our individual lives but in relationship to all of creation.

I would suggest to you that there is a direct relationship between what we put into the offering plate and what we put into our rivers.  What we give back to God, and what we take from the earth.  

The apostle Paul, of course, was not an environmentalist.  It would be a stretch of the imagination to try to make him into one.  He was a Christ-centrist.  That is to say, that everything for him centered around his faith in Jesus Christ.  What one ate.  Whether one married.  How one lived.  Who one obeyed.  Everything is centered on Christ.

And so too, Paul's relationship with the created order.  Paul's reasoning here in the eighth chapter of Romans is really quite simple.  He says, in essence, that we, as children of God in Christ, must bear certain suffering now in this world while we await the redemption promised to us by God in the future, when there will be no more suffering, and the glory of God will be fully known by all.  And if that is true for us, as one small part of this created order, then it is also true, says Paul, for all of creation.  And thus John 3:16 is something we should take seriously -- that God so loved the world (and the word there in Greek for 'world' is 'cosmos').  God so loved the entirety of creation, that God sent his son into the world.  In other words, God's ultimate intent for the world is not to destroy it, as some claim, but rather to save it.  And that, by the way, is the way the book of Revelation closes -- not with the destruction of the earth, but with the new Jerusalem descending upon the earth.

Where most Christian environmentalists, then, base our responsibility as people of God for the care of the earth in the creation story (because God created the earth and called it 'good') and we are therefore called to be keepers of the earth, stewards of the earth.  Paul's radical centering in Christ and his constant looking to the future places our responsibility as disciples of Jesus for the care of the earth not in the beginning, at the creation, but at the end, in eschatology, to use a theological term for the notion of the end of the world.  And that seems almost like an oxymoron.

Rich Cizik, who is the Vice President for Governmental Affairs at the National Association for Evangelicals, says that on the judgment day, I don't think that God is going to ask us how he created the earth.  You know, give us a test to make sure that we know, that we can name all 6 or 7 days.  That's not the question.  But rather, the question is:  God will ask us what we did with what he created.  That's the question.

Only for Paul, the end of the world is not about the destruction of the earth, it's about the fulfillment of our destiny.  It's 'end' in the sense of that goal to which we are moving.  And so Paul speaks of the suffering of the world as labor pains -- the world 'groans' because it awaits the birth of a new reality.  Of a new creation, of Christ's reign here on earth once and for all.

So fast-forward then 2,000 years and Paul's vision of creation laboring in pain seems even more profound today.  Theologian John Cobb and economist Herman Daly joined together to write a book about 10-15 years ago entitled 'For the Common Good'.  And they began the book with three remarkable and disturbing facts that they considered to be scientifically indisputable.

First of all, that the hole in the ozone layer is growing.  The ozone layer is that thin layer of air that surrounds the earth and protects us from the harmful rays of the sun.  Without that ozone layer, skin cancer would increase dramatically, crop yields would decrease dramatically, and the human immune system would be seriously impaired.  And they say that the hole in the ozone layer is increasing.

Secondly, that carbon dioxide from our auto and factory emissions is creating unprecedented global warming, which unchecked will cause the greatest climactic change since the ice age.

And third, that the biodiversity of the planet is in steep decline, with the loss of 1 species every hour, 24 by 7.  

And so they conclude that the scale of human activity cannot be maintained if we are to survive on this earth.

Denis Hayes, who is the coordinator of the first Earth Day, I think back in 1974, says that by any criteria you name -- air pollution, water pollution, resource depletion, global warming, endangered species, and so forth -- that we are worse off today in all of those areas than we were when Earth Day was first created 30 years ago.

And so Christian groups associated with the likes of the National Council of Churches and others have been saying for decades that care for the earth is a key responsibility of Christians.  And now the National Association of Evangelicals has joined in that cause.  Last Fall they issued a strongly worded statement making sustainability and care for the environment a central concern.  I was very pleased when [Eugene] Mayor Kitty Piercy started the sustainability work-study group for the city of Eugene.  She invited clergy and representatives of churches to be a part of that conversation, to help shape that vision of how we can create a more sustainable community.

I mentioned the loss of biodiversity.  The ongoing destruction of the rain forest has the potential of eliminating one third of all plant and animal species on earth.  So we're not talking about the loss of a few rare butterflies, but an enormous reduction in the genetic pool which is one of the building blocks upon which life is built on this earth.  

But we don't need geneticists and biologists to tell us what that means.  The prophet Jeremiah says:  "I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruit and its good things.  But when you entered you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.  Be appalled, O Heavens at this.  Be shocked.  Be utterly desolate, says the Lord".

Recall for a moment the story of Noah, and the flood.  We all know that story, a story we learned as children.  But it is so much more than a children's story.  You talk about preserving biodiversity -- here's Noah collecting 2 of every animal.  And I suppose that means on down to the mosquitoes.  Why on earth God would want to spare mosquitoes, I don't know J, but 2 of every living creature.  And then, when it is all over, God sends a rainbow as a sign that the covenant that never again will God destroy the earth in a flood.  Four times the story says that this covenant is with every living creature.  Not just with us, it is with the entirety of creation.  

How can we have such a story in our tradition and not be concerned about the environment?  In the creation story, we're told at every step along the way that it is 'good'.  Jesus speaks of God's care for the sparrows and the lilies.  Paul speaks of God's redemption for all of creation.  We don't need scientists and environmentalists to tell us that we need to care for the earth.  We only need to remember our own tradition and to be faithful to God's call to us.

The deterioration of our environment, of God's creation, is an indication of the extent to which we have neglected our own faith and have become alienated from the source of life.  If we listened to God, and we listened to the earth, if we had paid attention to both the Creator and Creation, then we will become more responsible stewards of the earth.

I've more than a hunch that the deteriorating condition of the world is not a scientific problem.  It's not a technological problem.  It's not a political problem, it's not a economic problem.  It is fundamentally a spiritual problem.  And thus it needs a spiritual solution.  

John Cobb, who is the co-author of that book I mentioned earlier, just so happens in the last segment of the curriculum we have been using for Living the Questions this last week, said that 'worship of wealth is the greatest problem that we face in the world today'.  That we have made wealth the goal of all human activity.  And you see it is precisely the excesses of wealth which drives the scale of human activity, cited by Cobb and Daly, that is destroying our environment.

Just one example I heard this week on NPR radio, of an upscale community (I didn't hear where it was) where the latest fad in real estate is "tear downs".  Do you know what a 'tear down' is?  A tear down is a home less than 15 years old, 3,000 - 4,000 square feet, that are being torn down.  Why?  So that they can build bigger homes of 6,000 to 10,000 square feet.  Perfectly good homes, destroyed so we can build bigger ones. 

Now when we as a society cannot provide basic shelter for the poorest of the poor, while the richest of the rich expand their dwellings to enormous proportions, we have a serious problem and it is a spiritual problem.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of this in the 5th chapter, where he says 'Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.  The lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing, surely many houses shall be desolate.  Large and beautiful houses without inhabitants'.  It's a spiritual problem.

And the solution is not for the poor to rely more on God, the solution is for the rich to rely more on God.  And by the way when I say "rich" I mean that includes everyone in our society who has a home.  Because by the world's standards, you are rich if you have a home.  

God's vision for the world, you see, is a vision of 'shalom', of wholeness and unity and peace and oneness with the world.  And it's a vision that is attested to throughout scripture that includes the created order.  Isaiah speaks of the wolf that will dwell with the lamb.  Jesus of the birds that neither sow nor reap yet God feeds them.  Revelation of the new heaven and the new earth united in this vision of the city of God that descends upon the earth.  This vision is not just God's promise to us, it is our responsibility to future generations.  To live at peace with our world and in harmony with creation and the Creator.

So I am convinced that the more in tune we are, both with creation and with the Creator, the lighter our share of the burden will be on earth.  And therefore the more resources we will have, that are freed up to give back to God and to share with others.  Whereas the more we worship wealth, the more we acquire possessions, the more we spend on ourselves, the less we have to share with others and to give back to God, and the more damage we do to the environment.  So the National Association of Evangelicals said in that statement on our civic responsibility:  'We urge Christians to shape their personal lives in creation-friendly ways.  Practicing effective recycling.  Conserving resources.  Experiencing the joy of contact with nature.  We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduced pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats'.  

Now I have a modest proposal for something concrete that I think most of us can do to make a difference.  We all know about the benefits of recycling.  The importance of energy efficiency, insulating our homes and all of that.  A couple years ago we took a pledge -- the "123" pledge.  Anyone remember that?  Turn down your thermostat by 1 degree (in Summer turn it up 1 degree if you use air conditioning).  To drive 2 miles an hour slower -- would be good for us for many reasons, but would conserve fuel.  And purchase at least 3 compact fluorescent light bulbs to replace incandescent light bulbs, for more energy efficiency.

Well here's my proposal:  recognizing that cars are both the greatest contributor to air pollution and the biggest consumer of natural resources, I propose first of all (and keep in mind this is just a modest proposal -- I'm not suggesting you give up your vehicles) that each of us commit that when we replace a vehicle, that we always purchase one with higher gas mileage.  It's a modest proposal.  I figure the average American replaces their vehicle every 4 years, maybe 5 years.  Well, 10 in this church I guess, whatever the case may be J.  So you figure over your lifetime, you'll own 5, 7, maybe 10 vehicles.  If we all did that, and did that from the beginning, by now we'd all be driving vehicles that are 40 or 50 miles to the gallon.  

Now not everyone is average.  Some people replace their vehicle every 2 years.  Fine and good -- they'd be driving vehicles that get 100 miles per gallon by now, right?  The point is that we create that demand to produce such energy efficient vehicles by making our own personal commitment to always upgrade.

And then secondly, given that the production of vehicles alone is an enormous consumption of resources and drain upon those resources, my proposal would be that we squeeze an additional year out of that used vehicle.  Drive it a little bit longer.  Now maybe you're already doing that.  Keep in mind that I drive a 1987 Toyota with 190,000 miles on it.  I haven't made a car payment on that vehicle for about 8-10 years.  I haven't replaced anything other than the oil, the tires, and you'll be glad to know the brakes J.  So it has freed up a fair amount of resource in the Bryant family.  I figure with the pledge that I give to the church alone, I could purchase a very nice brand-new vehicle.  But when you see me in that junky old car with the paint peeling, just know that I'm driving my church pledge and give thanks to God for that J.

I plan to keep on driving it until the wheels fall off.  Not like the Volkswagen I had before that -- I loved that vehicle -- but man was it a lemon and cost me an arm and a leg to keep it running.  So this has been a great vehicle.  Doesn't get as good of gas mileage as a new vehicle, but by virtue of the fact that keeping it going has saved resources in not having to produce a new vehicle. 

Well, in sum:  I propose that we take seriously, in our lifestyles, the proclamation of the Psalmist.  That the earth is the Lord and the fullness thereof.  That we see ourselves not as those who posses the earth, but those who are stewards of it.  That we live our lives as if the children of our children's children depended on it.  

Paul says that creation waits with eager longing when it will be set free from its bondage to decay.  So do I.  How about you?


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