Sermon Archives

This Sermon is Not about Squirrels

Rev. Reebee Girash
Sun, Jun 02

Earth Stewardship Sunday
Texts: Genesis 1: 20– 31, Matthew 22: 35-40

A preacher gave the sermon one weekend at a retreat center in the mountains. His sermon was a fine one, powerful, inspiring, rooted in the Gospel. He was coming up on his closing when a woman at the back of the open air sanctuary began to scream, in terror. Soon those around her were screaming, until finally something went scrambling into the trees, and the woman said, sorry Reverend, it was just a squirrel. The music director plucked out an impromptu chorus of a certain 1980s Ray Stevens’ tune about a church squirrel and everyone laughed and the preacher got back to the serious business of the evening.

One day a couple of months later, one of the folks from the retreat happened to run in to the preacher. “Reverend,” he said, “thank you for your powerful words at our retreat. I was so inspired by your sermon about the squirrels….” It really is true that you never know what people are going to take away from a sermon.

It occurs to me this morning, at the outset, to tell you: this sermon is not about squirrels.

Nor is it a sermon about monarch butterflies, whose habitats are endangered.

Nor is it a sermon about coral reefs, acidified though they have become.

Nor is it a sermon about polar bears, even in this year when their home is disappearing under their feet.

This is a sermon about people.

This is a sermon about Jesus’ greatest commandments, to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. This is a sermon about the love commandments, interpreted through the lens of climate change. This is a sermon about creation and neighborliness.

Let’s start in Genesis. It’s a good place to start.

Many of us are used to hearing Genesis 1:26 from the New Revised Standard Version translation, which goes like this:
“Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

This morning you heard Nathan Nettleton’s paraphrase, not exactly a translation:
    “We will make people in our own image,
        modeling them on ourselves.
    We will entrust to them the fish of the sea,
        the birds of the air, the flocks and herds,
            and all the wild animals and creepy-crawlies.”

I like entrust here rather than dominion, or sovereignty, or rule –the other common translations of the Hebrew word here, radah. I also like the Message translation, which says God wants us to be responsible, and I like Phyllis Root's children's book version, in which creative Big Momma God says to her children, "This is a real nice world we got here, and you all better take care of it."

Perhaps it sounds arrogant to say which versions I personally like better, but here’s why I do. Radah is also found in Hebrew scriptures describing the way human kings should reign. Like the king in Psalm 72, “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice…In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound… May he have dominion (radah) from sea to sea…” Creation is not simply a gift that we, at the top of the food chain, rule over for our own gain. Creation is something we are entrusted with, responsible for, and which is precious in its own right, not just our tool. I may be arrogant to say which translation of radah I like, but Barbara Brown Taylor does it, too. Among several interesting possibilities, she offers neighbor.

Let me put before you a new possibility for this verse:
Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them be neighbors of the earth.
~~
Who is our neighbor? And how are we called to love our neighbors? Nothing shy of the oceans and the wild beasts, and every human being, because we are neighbors of the earth, because we children of God have brothers and sisters and neighbors around the globe.

Now, let’s turn to the gospel text:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Many a fine sermon has been preached on reveling in creation, as the way we see and love God, and extending that love into creation care - because we will only save what we love.
But I find that that insufficient to the crisis of climate change. We all love the monarchs, and the polar bears, and the mountain tops, and God help us, I hope we love the children of Malawi where there is severe drought and India where there is extreme heat, and the children of Newtok, Alaska whose village will be underwater in 3 years. We love a lot of things and a lot of people.

And yet. From our individual choices to our whole society, we keep reinforcing an ever-expanding unsustainable economy based on fossil fuels. And the scientists and the activists tell us, we’re at a tipping point, there will be no going back.

We Cantabridgians and many other North Americans have a special responsibility here. As human beings, have we been entrusted with creation. We here are by random circumstance part of the world’s most privileged culture, and we have gained disproportionately from the earth. Not only do we have more wealth but we've got it because of longstanding disproportionate use of our natural resources. Our culture has done a lot of damage over the years to the earth. On the other hand, poor and vulnerable communities near and far have suffered disproportionately as the result of environmental harm, though they are not resposible for it. So right now, we should take responsibility proportionate to the needs of our neighbors.

In this moment, loving our neighbors has to intensify. I say, it's time to intentionally let our hearts break, in recognition of the wounds of our neighbors. Maybe that is what is required to change our lives in a foundational way, to advocate for the deep, systematic changes to our lifestyle, our economy, and our laws necessary to preserve a livable climate for our children, for all our neighbors.

In Luke, ‘love your neighbor’ leads Jesus to tell the story of the good Samaritan. Here’s one model for us. The good Samaritan saw a stranger, lying there injured, and he did not look away – he was moved – his heart broke. To care for the man he challenged the rules of his world, he sacrificed, he showed mercy, he was an agent in this man’s healing. It was not easy, but it was right; and it was born out of love.

This sermon is not about squirrels: it's about our neighbors, hurting, waiting for us.

Now, we have work to do, on a concrete level: conservation, mitigation, adaptation, moving toward deep sustainability, spiritually and economically. Some of us have changed the way we live, some of us are teaching our children new ways to live, some of us have been to the statehouse and the white house to stop a tarsands pipeline and to move off coal; some of us are refusing to profit from the destruction of creation, and others are working on building up renewable fuels. If you want to know what to do, let me send you back to Jesus for a moment. He ministered on an individual level: giving a blind man sight, and helping a bent over woman. But he also cast a vision of the way the world could be. The Kingdom of God. So, yes, reduce your individual carbon footprint - and yes, call upon your leaders to transition our system to renewable energy. Yes, insulate your home and yes, come to 350Mass meetings. Yes, bike or bus, and yes, look at your investments. Yes, teach your children to recycle and yes, join the Mothers Out Front climate action group. Want specific, concrete things to do today? Come to the Earth Stewardship fair.

The movement is diverse and it is building. But it’s an uphill climb
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I want to share another theologian’s take. Sallie McFague, writing in A New Climate for Theology, says her model for hopefulness is Jesus. “Jesus was not a despairing type, though surely his world was equally awful. Rather, he had a great deal of what some anthropologists have called ‘wild space.’…He was a wild man. He imagined the Kingdom of God, where [a] new pattern for living would come about…”

Now, let me say a word about Jesus. He was the one who said, terrible things are coming but I will rise, and through me you will have new life. He was the one who said, the Kingdom of God is like….and then said: you can build it. This is what I know: we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. We can even love our neighbors enough to heal this planet we share.

My friends, I believe the scientific consensus on climate change: Human activity has harmed our ecosystem. The fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the wild animals and maybe even the squirrels – and most definitely human beings, children of God – are already suffering as a result of that harm. Our deadline for the healing of the earth is fast upon us. I believe the science, but I also believe in something else: I believe in God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sustainer. Our source of hope. Our peace which passes all understanding.

I want to invite you not just to "hope for something, out there, in the vague and uncertain future, but to hope in God, now....because when we place our hope in God, it means that we align ourselves with God's purposes, God's values, God's ethics."

I hope in and believe in a God who hopes in and believes in us. Think again of the first chapter of Genesis. God takes delight in creation, models people in God’s own image, and calls us into the story of creation, redemption and resurrection, calls us to neighborliness, entrusts us with something precious:

    “We will make people in our own image,
        modeling them on ourselves.
    We will entrust to them the fish of the sea,
        the birds of the air, the flocks and herds,
            and all the wild animals and creepy-crawlies.”

So it all happened, just as God said.
    Everything God had made was there to be seen
        and God was delighted with it all.
Let us live up to the trust God has placed in us.

Amen.

To address institutional racism, please call your state representative and Senator, and ask for abolishment of mandatory minimums in sentencing. Ask them to contact the Joint Committee dealing with this legislation. For more background on this...