When Creation Cries

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It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon…. —Luke 15:29 
Earth Care Emphasis Sunday

Today’s gospel lesson is a fittingly somber text for the Lenten season. Jesus is crucified and the world turns darks. The connection between the two events is part of the Passion narrative. But if we were asked to summarize the story, we might not remember that the world turns dark.Our spiritual and moral training has taught us to think about how evil actions impact other humans individually and collectively.  We don’t focus as quickly or easily on the consequences of human evil for other parts of God’s creation.I observed this phenomenon a few years back when a short video was making the rounds of social media postings. The video portrayed what I would describe as an industrial-sized wood-chipper with a massive wood-chipping head. It was parked next to a large conifer tree, much like the old white pine stands I know from northern Michigan.  The wood-chipping head came down upon the crown of the tree, and, in seconds, sliced the entire tree into mulch.  Some of my Facebook friends were ecstatically gleeful about the power of the awesome machine. But I thought the video was rather sad. What it took God hundreds of years to grow, humans destroyed in a minute. And for no purpose more positive, it seemed, than to capture attention on Facebook.Some of you know that Therese’s dad Burt Barnes was a forestry professor, an expert in botany. Long ago, Burt added to my reading list a book and essays by J. Stan Rowe, who was a professor of plant ecology, but just as much an eco-philosopher.  Stan Rowe lamented certain aspects of modern thinking. He said that one unfortunate consequence of the Enlightenment was that the world came to be viewed as a great machine, subject to manipulation and control by humans as they discovered principles about how it works. Morality came to be viewed in only human terms: what is right or wrong for people, with no regard for wildlife and ecosystems.  A sense of reverence for Creation was diminished or lost. [i]If any story in recent months has displayed to me the loss of reverence for Creation, then it was one that I read just a week ago.  It was about a father and his adult son in Alaska, out poaching black bear. They didn’t know that they were being recorded by research cameras as they murdered a hibernating mother bear and her two terrified cubs, then shirtless and bloodied bragged about how no one ever would connect them to the killing.[ii]  There are things that are difficult to see or discuss, and this was one for me. What happens to God’s creation can darken my psyche for quite a while, and I know it can for you, too.  There is an emotional connection between God’s creation and human beings; what happens to one can affect the other.Maybe that’s why I noticed in the text the connection between creation and human action, and the way it is portrayed in that often forgotten detail about the darkness. We can get hung up in unproductive debate about the literal truth of this passage, whether the sun actually turned dark, and whether it was the result of a naturally occurring but fantastically timed solar eclipse, or whether it was an even more miraculous intervention of the divine with nature. Instead, I look for the symbolic truth in the telling of the narrative. That’s the way many early Christians looked at it, people who had no knowledge of today’s scientific method, yet possessed much wisdom about the connections between morality and faith, matter and spirit. They observe that some people perpetrate evil, and creation responds with darkness.  The sky turns black when Jesus is crucified. It is as if creation cries.I’ve spent a fair amount of my available time today with rather somber thoughts about problematic issues and events. In my mind’s eye, in my version of the preacher’s balcony of observers, I see some impatient finger tapping and rolling of eyes. Somewhere up there, I hear the question that you may be asking yourself: “So, preacher, what’s the good news?”  In part, the good news is that so many of us are concerned about what is happening to God’s creation: concerned enough that Robin P. went to great lengths to make sure our congregation documented its efforts to be recertified as an “Earth Care Congregation,” that she was able to recruit young people who are not only interested but passionate about caring for the world they’re inheriting. The good news is that someone like Samantha H., at her relatively young age, has conducted experiments and written a fabulous science project about microplastics, very tiny plastic particles that show up in our water.  With the help of family and friends, Samantha collected water samples from east coast to west coast, and in between. Using very fine mesh screening, and UV light, Samantha was able to count the plastic particles in the water samples. Among the things she taught me is that plastic waste isn’t just a problem for ocean creatures, it’s a problem for you and me.  In her samples, Glen Carbon tap water had more microplastic particles per liter than the sample from the Mississippi River, and two samples from the Pacific.[iii]The good news is that Samantha was inspired enough to show us.  The good news is that if the destructive actions of humans can make creation groan, then, with God’s help, the restorative actions of humans can make creation sing with joy!Early in my ministry, decades ago now, there was a news story about a couple living in a home in West Palm Beach, Florida, who told a film crew that it was okay to use the front lawn as a set for an episode of a TV action series.  They knew cars would be crashing violently in front of the house.  While the front yard was being blown to bits, the owner of the home was tipped off, and called from New York wanting to know what was happening to his yard.  Soon word got around to the producer, and filming came to a halt.  The people living in the house were only renters and had no right to allow the yard to be destroyed.We do the same if we live our lives as if Creation belongs to us: for our pleasure, our dreams, and our purposes.  The first fundamental truth of the Bible regarding Creation is that God is the owner and creator: “In the beginning … God created the heavens and the earth.” Everything belongs to God, and we are but temporary caretakers.Wendell Berry is a prolific author who writes with a combination of farming and philosophical wisdom. He once said in his book The Gift of Good Land:  "How can you love your neighbor if you don't know how to build or mend a fence, to keep your filth out of his water supply or your poison out of his air? How will you practice virtue without skill?  The ability to be good is not the ability to do nothing. It is the ability to do something well - to do good work for good reasons."[iv] May it be so for us.ENDNOTES[i]J. Stan Rowe, "The Importance of Conserving Systems," in Endangered Species: the Future for Canada's Wilderness, ed. Monte Hummel  (___, Key Pontor Books Limited, ___), p. 235.[ii]https://blog.humanesociety.org/2019/03/breaking-chilling-video-shows-poachers-slaughtering-hibernating-black-bear-mother-cubs-in-alaska.html[iii]Samantha Hangsleben, “Which Has More Microplastic? Fresh Water or Ocean Water,” undated 6th-grade science project.[iv]Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land, as cited in Leadership, Vol. 10, No. 3, p. 3.