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Earth's Goodness

Sermon – 4/24/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Genesis 1:1-20

The text today for our reflection is Genesis 1, a familiar story from creation, actually it's verses 20 through 25, and this picks up at the beginning of the 5th day of the story:  

20 And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good..

I want to begin this morning with a couple of quotes and see if you can tell me who they are, but I'll give you a hint -- I'll tell you who the two are, but I won't tell you who said what.  You tell me which.

The quotes come from the late Pope John Paul II (may he rest in peace) and Pope of talk radio Rush Limbaugh (may he rest free of drugs).  And the quotes are:

"Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation".

"A tree is the most beautiful when you cut it down".

Yeah, the second one was Rush Limbaugh.  He's said some good things, it's a provocative statement -- I actually heard him on the radio when he said it.  I know different people listen to Limbaugh, don't mean to demean him in any way.  But I want to reflect on the contrast between those two.

John Paul reaffirmed this basic principle of the intrinsic value of creation in 1995 and 1996 when he began speaking about the importance of developing a culture of life to honor and preserve the sacredness of all life.  A theme that you may recall was picked up by President Bush in his election campaign, reiterated by him after the death of Terry Schiavo.  John Paul affirmed that the culture of life is the basis and the inescapable presupposition for the development of every aspect of an authentic ecology of creation. 

For us as Christians, as well as for most other faiths, such an ecology of creation is rooted in the creation story as an affirmation in the goodness of the earth as the work of God.  Now note that I intentionally stopped reading in that story half way through the sixth day, before it reaches its climax in the creation of human beings, male and female, in the image of God.  I think too often we focus on that as being the only point of the story, and this morning on earth day I would like us to focus on the rest of God's creation, especially that which we know here on earth.

Pope John Paul II called on us to show the same respect to the earth as we show for human life.  Now either we have ignored that call, or, we do not show much respect for human life.  And sometimes I'm not sure which it is.  

You've heard various statistics on the state of the environment, I'll just cite a couple.  It took from the beginning of that creation of the first human being to 1950 to come to 2 billion people living at one time.  And then from 1950 to 1999, just 49 years later, from that 2 billion to 6 billion -- tripling in size.  And experts tell us it will only take another 31 years to add the next 4 billion to that population.  So if you're doing the math and should, God willing, I live as long, in my own lifetime we will go from 2 billion people to 10 billion people.  Quite a phenomenal growth if you stop to think about that.

Ironically, however, in terms of resource consumption and waste, the problem is not those large, vast, growing, developing countries, but rather the problem is here.  Chicago, with a population of 3 million people, consumes more energy and produces more waste than the entire nation of Bangladesh, with a population of nearly 100 million.

When I was in school, I remember studying (about 6th or 7th grade) that the oceans would be the future of food production for the world, that it was considered to be an unlimited resource, almost, in providing food to the world.  Today, 70% of the fisheries of the oceans are considered to be in serious trouble.  Of course when I was in school, nuclear energy was considered to be safe and clean and would provide all of our energy needs, and look where that has gotten us so far.

Lastly, global warming is gradually increasing as biological diversity is rapidly declining.  Both are well established facts within the scientific community even if not recognized by some administrations.  

One of those scientists is Oregon's own Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State, who has received numerous awards and served on various government commissions (federal and state) including Governor Kulongoski's advisory group on global warming which she co-chairs.  She spoke at City Club a couple of weeks ago about ecosystems services.  And I'm just curious, how many of you have ever heard that term, that concept, of an ecosystem service?  No one in our first service either.  It's a fairly new concept, evidently, although when you stop and think about it, it's something that you're probably very familiar with.

You stop and think of the McKenzie watershed.  What does that provide for us?  Well, obviously our water.  But it also provides other services -- timber, fishing, recreation, and many services that an ecosystem provides that benefit us.  And the point that Dr. Lubchenco was making is that we often undervalue those services or we don't understand them adequately and we end up destroying them.  

The example she gave was of mangroves.  Mangroves are in tropical climates where rivers meet the ocean, typically very swampy areas with trees with these root systems.  Very smelly, not pleasant places, lots of mosquitoes, just not good for human habitat.  So they've been converted into shrimp farms, urban development of various kinds.  The services mangroves provide are first of all sediment filtering -- they catch the sediment that washes down from the rivers.  And they filter pollution from the runoff.  They provide hatcheries for all kinds of marine biology.  One of the results of destroying the mangroves is that of coral reefs -- sometimes a mile or more out into the ocean -- have been destroyed because now the sediments and the pollutions are allowed to just continue on into the ocean.  

But the surprising service of the mangroves was illustrated in the tsunami on Dec 26th (2004).  Where the mangroves were intact, there was almost no devastation.  Where the mangroves had been converted into civilization of various kinds, the devastation was enormous because the mangroves are nature's shock absorbers.  So that's just an illustration of what happens when we don't pay attention to such things.  

And this is the folly of that kind of Limbaugh-esque thinking.  That a tree is more beautiful when it is cut down.  Why?  Because then we can make things with it.  We can make homes, we can make furniture, we can make pews.  And that's what gives its value and usefulness to us.  But in fact, the best and highest use of a tree is often simply to let it grow, to do what it was created to do.  And that's not to say that I believe, you know, no tree should be cut down.  But rather that we need to carefully consider all the trade-offs, not just the immediate financial benefit that we gain.  To show that quality of respect for life of the natural world that we expect for the human world because to do any less would be to destroy the culture of life to which we are called by God.

Ecological devastation is simply the flip-side of social injustice.  One is the systemic sin we commit we against the poor and oppressed, the other is the systemic sin we commit against the earth.  Both are equally contrary to the will of God.

The good news is that we do have an alternative.  We can choose to live in harmony with the natural world just as we can choose to live in harmony with our neighbors.

I was very pleased to sit in on a conference this week called for by Mayor Kitty Piercy to explore sustainable economy here in Eugene.  The kinds of things we can do to promote sustainable concepts.  There were over 100 community leaders from all segments of our community -- education, business, public life, from all political spectrums, met over at Rexius Forest Products, appropriate for a couple of different reasons, to brainstorm on the things that we can do to create sustainable ways of working and living that are good for business, good for the land, good for the air, good for the water, good for all citizens.  So I invite you to watch for the news of what comes out of this effort as task groups are formed and ideas are created.

In the meantime, what can we do?  A lot of attention has been given in recent years to the choices we make for the cars we drive.  What would Jesus drive, right?  Because petroleum is the single greatest contributor to the production of carbon dioxide, which in turn is the primary cause of global warming.  Our choice of the vehicle we use is perhaps the single most important purchase we make in terms of energy consumption and pollution.  Most of us, however, don't go out and buy a car everyday.  At least I know I don't -- I'm still driving one that was made in 1987 for heaven sakes.

But there is another purchase that we make nearly every day which has potentially even a greater impact.  Do you know what that is?  It's food.  Poet, theologian, and author Wendell Berry said "How we eat determines to a considerable extent how the world is used".  How we eat determines how the world is used.

A couple of facts to illustrate this.  Today we produce enough grain to provide 3,500 calories for all 6 billion people on this planet every day.  So why is it that anyone goes hungry?  Because the majority of that grain goes not to feed people, but to feed cattle.  It takes 7 pounds of grain, on average in our market the way we grow beef, to produce 1 pound of beef.  This makes beef the most inefficient form of protein that we consume.  Thousands of acres of rain forests are lost every year to feed the North American addiction to hamburger.  And consider this:  the food on your table, if purchased from local supermarkets, travels on average nearly 2,000 miles to get to your table.  Think of what that means in terms of fuel consumption and pollution.  

Meanwhile, while we're enjoying our fruits and vegetables from half way around the world, our local farmers are struggling to survive.  And those who are paid to harvest their crops are among the lowest paid labor force in this country today.  Family farms are literally being run out of existence by the market forces as a result of our buying habits.  Most depend on incomes from other jobs in order to survive -- the Rothauge's a great example of that, nice little farm, both of them working (Linda got to retire this year--yeah!) to get outside income to support the farm.  

Less than 1 percent of our population is engaged in farming.  There are 2 mega international corporations that control 50% of the global food supply.  If you listen to NPR Radio, you hear "ADM--supermarket to the world".  Archer Daniels Midland -- it literally is true, they are a huge, huge business that controls a major section of the food supply.

It does not have to be that way.  The good news is that there is a growing movement in our country to reduce this trend, to restore the family farm.  It's called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and we have the display over here.  It is a subscription method of supporting local family farms.  Thanks to our colleagues over at First United Methodist Church just down the street the CSA system here in this community is perhaps the best church-supported CSA system in the country.

By buying a share of a local farm's produce, you get quality and in most cases organic, locally grown food, that provides direct support to that local farm family.  By contrast, consider that 50 to 70 percent of your dollar spent in the supermarket goes to someone else besides those who grow the food.  

That's my farmer program -- the faith community's effort to support local CSA's now has signed up over 300 families who participate in the program.  First Methodist Church has 50 alone, so we've got some catching-up to do to match that.  Their goal is 500 families, and if 500 households participate in the program that will keep $100,000 in the local economy in direct support of local family-owned farms.

At the conclusion of our service today, Liba Stafl is going to share a little more information of how we can participate in the CSAs.

In addition to the CSAs, we of course have our own harmony farm that Phyllis Weir brings in produce every Sunday off of the farm.  She tells me that she's pretty much as maximum capacity of what she can provide.  But she says if there are others who would like to join her out in Monroe she could certainly probably provide more, so you can talk to Phyllis if you have any interest in that.  I've noticed that others throughout the years have brought in products and sold some of their goods -- and that's a good thing that we need to do more of, supporting one another.

I want to close simply by calling attention to this table grace that is in your bulletin on the bookmark, that opens (by Rabbi Shapiro):

"All life is holy, sacred, worthy of respect and dignity.  Let us give thanks for the power of heart to sense the holy in the midst of the simple".

To sense the holy in the midst of the simple.  What an incredible gift that is -- to sense the goodness of God, the goodness of the earth, in something so simple as the taste of bread and wine which is the gift of life from the earth.  And for us as Christians, of course, it is also the gift of life that comes to us from Christ that we celebrate every Sunday.

So I invite you this week to use this grace at every meal.  To say it together, to share it, or simply to read it yourself, to ponder the sacred gift that has been given to you through the life of the earth, that you are blessed to receive each and every day.  

This is God's gracious gift, provided for us, and it is good. 


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