Exodus 33:18-23; Mark 8:22-26
If you haven’t already noticed, we're celebrating Earth Sunday today. The liturgy, hymns and scriptures all point in that direction. It is increasingly important that as people of faith, and just as plain people, we pay attention to our responsibilities as stewards of creation. Frankly, our record on that as human beings is not great. The evidence of our neglect and harm is all around us. But Earth Sunday is not only a day for lament. It is a day for gratitude and commitment to action.
This morning I am thrilled to announce that Bishop Bruno has made available to this congregation the land just to the north of the Cathedral Center to create a Parish Garden. Two years ago the Bishop established a ministry of food justice within the Diocese called Seeds of Hope. We have already benefited from that ministry in the nutrition classes, Zumba and yoga classes, and in the Food Bank. “Seeds of Hope” has been facilitating gardens throughout the diocese as a way to cultivate food justice – more equal access to food across communities.
Now Seeds of Hope is partnering with St. Athanasius to launch a parish garden to grow food for this community. I have convened a group of people to coordinate the garden project. You can see their names in my article in this week’s Gazette. Their task is to engage all of us in caring for the garden. Today we are launching this new ministry of food justice. We will end the service today by processing to the garden and offering a blessing on the land. I invite you to join us this Saturday for a work day as we actually plant the garden in the shape of a labyrinth. The garden is to be a spiritual space where we can nurture our spirits by praying and walking the labyrinth, and where we can nurture the community by growing food. There is an easel at the entrance to the church with pictures of the layout and the creative form of planting we will use.
In this morning’s sermon I want to offer a way of thinking about the earth that may help us see it as the sacred gift of God that it is. One of the great ironies of the Christian faith as it has come to be practiced in the west centers around the body. On the one hand, the incarnation is the central tenet of our faith: God became human in Jesus. Add to that the bodily resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate during this season, and we see the importance of the body. But in practice the church has taught people to denigrate the physical world as temporary, creating false dichotomies between the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and eternal. The Bible doesn’t always help here. Paul writes, “What can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18) But right before that he wrote, “We are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (vs. 11)
Theresa of Avila wrote that Christ has no body now but ours. Some modern theologians take that further and say that the whole creation is the body of God. One wrote a meditation on today’s Hebrew Scripture where Moses asked to see the backside of God. The very idea that God has a backside seems ridiculous to those of us raised with the knowledge that God is a spirit. It is not ridiculous to children. I remember a book in Sunday school with a picture of a bearded Abraham. Before I knew how to read I was convinced that the picture was God, not Abraham. My child self had no trouble believing God had a body. But education took care of that. Now as a grown up I know that God doesn’t have a body.
Sally McFague suggests that maybe God does have a body, and that Moses’ getting close enough to see it is awesome. What if we imagined the universe as God’s body? It’s only a metaphor, like God as mother or father, and it doesn’t say everything about God. But maybe to imagine the earth as the body of God is at least to see the backside of God: “Not the face, not the depths of divine radiance, but enough, more than enough. We might begin to see the marvels at our feet and at our fingertips: the intricate splendor of an Alpine forget-me-not, or a child’s hand. We would begin to delight in creation, not as the work of an external deity, but as a sacrament of the living God, as bodies alive with the breath of God.”
To think like this doesn’t make us pantheist. This morning’s Psalm speaks like this: Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge…their voice goes out through all the earth.” The image of creation as the body of God may help us hear creation speak. Thomas Merton spoke of rain as speech: “The rain surrounded the cabin with a whole world of meaning, secrecy, rumor. All that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves…It will talk as long as it wants. As long as it talks I’m going to listen.”
How differently would we treat the earth if we believed we were stewards of God’s body? But belief isn’t enough. We need a spiritual path that includes contemplation, discernment and accompaniment. The story about Bartimaeus in Mark’s Gospel connects it all for me. The blind man was healed in two stages. At first Jesus put saliva on his eyes, touched him and asked if he saw anything. Bartimaeus looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like walking trees.” Jesus touched him again. This time the man looked intently and saw everything clearly. This story comes right after Jesus and the disciples were in the boat. Jesus warned them about the yeast of the Pharisees. The disciples thought he was talking about bread. Jesus confronted their blindness: “Why are you talking about bread? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Ears and fail to hear? When I broke five loaves for 5000, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect? 12. And seven for the 4000, how many baskets? 7. Don’t you see?
It’s not enough to go through life having experiences. We have to look intently. Mystics call it contemplation, expecting we have something to learn from everything and everyone we encounter. We need to listen to our bodies. When my body connects to the body of earth as subject to subject, I’m no longer confused by the debates about drilling for oil or fracking for coal. When I look intently, I see and hear the lament of creation as species after species becomes extinct.
Could it be that seeing the earth as the body of God will make us care for it differently? When we save water we are quenching God’s thirst. When we grow food we are soothing God’s hunger. Could it be that caring for a garden in the shape of a labyrinth could help us see and hear more clearly the way forward for creation? Could it be that helping to grow food for those who don’t have enough food in our community, including some in our own congregation, could give us new clarity about food justice? Our new garden is not just another ministry; another set of activities to keep us busy. Gardening could be the incarnation of our prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.”