Praise is the Purpose – An Eco-Theological Reflection


greenfaith_generic_blog(The following is a sermon preached by Tami Seidel on September 13, 2015)

The last time I preached, back on August 9th, in anticipation of our upcoming vacation, I showed some pictures of the place my family has been going for vacation for the past 50 years. Four cabins on a lake in southeastern Ontario. The accommodations are nothing fancy or luxurious. We only just got electricity 4 years ago, and we have limited indoor plumbing. But the lake makes for a great bathtub – very refreshing! Cell service is spotty, but that’s why we go to Puzzle Lake – to unplug ourselves from our devices and many of the other demands on our time and our lives.

One of my favorite times of day at Puzzle is just after dinner. I like to sit on the rocks overlooking the lake and watch evening approach. With the sun setting behind me, I watch it illuminate the far shore of the lake. The granite rock ledges glow in brilliant corals and moody grays. The birch and oak trees seem to shimmer with golden color against the deepening blue sky. Skeletons of scrawny pine trees dot the rock ledges. If the water is still, I can watch the fish jump as they come to the surface to feed. If there is a breeze, I listen to the waves lap against the shore and feel the cool, clean air on my face. I smell the crisp, sweet fragrance of the pine trees and of the delicate water lilies that are closing up for the night. I look for the family of loons that likes to visit our end of the lake in the evenings, and I am mesmerized by their haunting calls. I am surrounded by a staccato symphony of crickets and frogs, often interrupted by the loud whine of a mosquito circling my head. Woodpeckers and whippoorwills lend their voices to the mighty chorus, as the pale moon slowly rises and tiny stars begin dot the horizon.

In that moment, every creature and every created thing, every plant and animal, every rock and star, seems to be doing what God made it to do. Completely committed, they can do nothing else but this. In their very existence, these creatures, these created things glorify God.

This glorious symphony never fails to fill me with awe, to remind me that I am but a small part in this creation, and intimately related to it. My very survival depends on so many of the elements of nature before me, the air, the water, the plants and animals, and the invisible biological processes going on to sustain life. The beautiful scene before my eyes will continue whether I am here or not. For you see, creation has no choice but to do what it was created to do.

I, however, have a choice. I can choose to participate with the creation in glorifying my Creator, or I can choose not to lend my voice and my actions to this universal chorale. Being human, we are the only elements of creation that have this choice, but we still have the same God-given purpose. As the first question in the Westminster Catechism states, “[Humanity’s] chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”

Our psalm this morning points us in the same direction. As the psalmist celebrates, all of creation — animate and inanimate, celestial and terrestrial, human, animal, vegetable, mineral, meteorological and mythological — all are summoned and exhorted to praise their Creator. As one scholar explains, “Just as a fine piece of craftsmanship brings glory to its craftsman, so the destiny of the created world is to glorify [God] by reflecting his power.” The inclusion of all the elements of creation in the call to praise points to Gods greatness. One or two elements are not sufficient to lift up adequate praise. Not even a majority of the creation can do proper homage. The scholar continues, “Only with the concerted voice of all [God’s) creatures can a significant attempt be made to reflect God’s majesty back to God.”

Simply put, when creation does what it was made to do, it gives glory to God. When fish swim and birds fly, they give glory to God. When green plants exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration, they witness to the incredible ways God has provided his breath of life for us. When bees pollinate flowers and fruit trees, they are worshipping God. When cold mountain springs bubble up to the surface and then travel downhill to join ever greater streams and rivers, finally reaching the mighty oceans, they reflect the intricate majesty of the Creator. When volcanoes spew forth fiery lava and living earth to create new land forms, they testify to God’s awesome power. And the amazing thing is that the creation can do nothing else but what it was intended for — Unless we human beings interrupt and prevent it from doing so — we to whom God gave dominion over the earth, we who have the choice to join in the universal chorus or not — unless we quell that mighty song of praise from the creation to its Creator.

By the end of our two-week vacation in paradise, I’m usually ready to return to civilization — to hair dryers and hot showers, computers and cell phones. Rested and renewed, I plunge right back into the fray of my busy daily routine. Occasionally I catch a glimpse of a pretty sunset or some budding flowers, and then I feel a twinge, I remember the awesomeness of that symphony, that moment when I realized my place in the creation and my responsibility toward it. But I am so surrounded by conveniences and so accustomed to the human-made world as I know it, that the twinge is just that — a momentary pang and it fades quickly.

So I go back to my lifestyle of convenience and privilege. I use flush toilets that use twice the amount of water necessary to do the job, when over half of the people in developing countries do not have access to safe drinking water. I buy fish from an industry that has irresponsibly overfished most of the world’s most plentiful fisheries and that leaves miles of worn-out plastic driftnets floating in the ocean, needlessly trapping and killing large fish arid sea birds. I eat fruit, vegetables and grains produced by unsustainable farming techniques that erode the valuable topsoil and use fertilizers and pesticides which will eventually end up in streams and rivers and endanger our coastal wetlands. I continue to buy disposable products packaged in excess plastic and cardboard, contributing my 5 pounds of garbage per day to the 250 million tons of garbage Americans produce every year. I live in a country that constitutes 5% of the world’s population, but consumes 25% of the world’s resources and produces 50% of the world’s solid waste. I live in a world that has destroyed 30% of its natural environments in the past 30 years, cutting down forests, eroding land and polluting oceans so fast that it is causing the extinction of at least 1000 plant and animal species every year, although many scientists believe the number to be much larger than that.

Back in college, I minored in environmental science, taking many courses on ecology and marine biology, and spending a month in Latin America studying two of the globe’s most threatened ecosystems, coral reefs and rainforests. After college, it was toss-up whether I would pursue a career in environmental science or the ministry. I know that what we are currently doing to the earth is abusive, exploitative and downright tragic. It is also completely illogical if we are at all concerned about the future generations of humanity. And yet, I, along with most of the human race, still participate in the very systems and structures that allow this wanton destruction to continue.

Why? As the history of human use and abuse of the creation has shown, we humans tend to operate as though the sole purpose of creation was to serve us. After all, Genesis does tell us that God gave humanity dominion over the earth and intended humanity to use the earth and the creatures living on it for our sustenance. That is simply part of the created order. And I certainly understand that we must use creation to some degree to stay alive, “to be fruitful and multiply.” But our faith and our scriptures offer a serious challenge to our human-centered assumption about the purpose of creation.

When I was in seminary, my whole way of thinking about this was challenged by of all people, a conservative evangelical preacher and professor named Tony Campolo. In a lecture he gave, Campolo presented a new twist on what true stewardship of God’s creation means. Over and over again, he emphasized that creation is God’s, not ours. As Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.” Stay tuned, because this is going to be our theme as a church this fall – to reflect on what this really means for our faith and how we live our lives.

As scripture attests, creation is a gift entrusted to us, to use for our survival, “to till it” at Genesis says, but also “to keep it.” The Presbyterian Church’s Eco-Justice Task Force wrote, “keeping means tilling with care.” “God’s garden was not planted exclusively for human tilling. It has its own beauty and integrity apart from that. Keeping means respecting and cherishing the whole of it — ensuring that the cycles and seasons may continue as the Creator intends, and that the wind and the rain, the bees and the bacteria, may continue to do their “work” as components of the natural systems whereby all life may flourish.”

Tony Campolo takes this a step further, however. We need to protect the creation not only to guarantee that all life on earth continues to flourish, but because creation has a higher purpose, as well. That purpose is to glorify God. Campolo writes, “We humans are by no means the only creatures who can worship God. All of nature was created for this end. The catechism may say that the main purpose of God’s people is to worship Him and adore Him forever, but such a calling belongs to all His other creatures, too.”

All of God’s creations were spoken into existence primarily to glorify God, which means that our stewardship of creation should sustain nature’s worshiping capacity. When we exploit and damage the earth, we are keeping it from fulfilling its God-given purpose of worship. And we deprive God of the glory that is due our Creator. Campolo offers this example:

“Whales sing, and if there were no human beings on this planet, whales would still have a function that is glorious: that function is to sing hymns of praise to God…If a species of whale is made extinct because of human irresponsibility, it is not just that we’ve lost an interesting creature from the face of the earth. As tragic as that is, the full reality is even more troubling: We have silenced a special voice of praise to the Almighty.”

As Chief Seattle wrote to President Franklin Pierce in 1855, “One thing we know which the white man may one day discover. Our God is the same God… This earth is precious to him. And to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.” Prophetic words from 140 years ago.

So I ask you, how can a seal or a sea turtle glorify God when it has been strangled by a plastic six-pack holder that someone left on the beach or tossed into the ocean? How can sea birds praise the Lord when they are covered with thick, black oil that spilled out of an oil tanker or an underwater well? How can chickens cackle to the glory of their Creator when they are crowded wing to wing in cages over a conveyor belt on an egg farms or in broiler houses where they are raised for precisely 60 days, fed an unnatural diet engineered to produce bigger breasts, never seeing the light of day, then slaughtered in inhumane ways so we can have cheaper chicken to eat? Is this what God intended for them? How can the tremendous plant diversity of the rainforests sing praises to God, when it is being destroyed at a rate of 80,000 acres every day? How can the mighty lion roar and the other beautiful creatures of the African grasslands glorify their Maker when they are hunted for sport or for the ivory of their tusks? How can little children revel in God’s love for them when 29,000 children under the age of five die every day, mostly from preventable causes such as malnutrition and diarrhea, often resulting from a polluted environment. Or as Al Gore asked in his book, Earth in the Balance, “How can [we] glorify the Creator while heaping contempt on the creation? How can [we] walk humbly with nature’s God while wreaking havoc on nature?”

I don’t ask these questions merely to discourage or depress us. For I tell you that there is hope for the creation. God has spoken a Word of good news to the creation also. Despite everything we humans do to the natural world, God has promised that all of creation is included in God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to the Colossians says, “Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on the earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Through God’s abundant love and grace, through the sacrifice of his Son, all of creation will be restored to wholeness and new life.

However, we cannot simply live in this future hope of a restored creation. In the meantime, we are called to till and keep the creation with care, to be good and faithful stewards of this tremendous gift God has entrusted to us. We do this not simply because it makes good sense to sustain the life of this planet, but because all of creation is called to praise and glorify God. As Frederick Buechner writes,

“The whole of creation is in on the act—the sun and moon, the sea, fire and snow, Holstein cows and white-throated sparrows, old men in walkers and children who still haven’t taken their first step. Their praise is not chiefly a matter of saying anything, because most of creation doesn’t deal in words. Instead, the snow whirls, the fire roars, the Holstein bellows, the old man watches the moon rise. Their praise is not something that at their most complimentary they say, but something that at their truest they are.

We learn to praise God not by paying compliments, but by paying attention. Watch how the trees exult when the wind is in them. Mark the utter stillness of the great blue heron in the swamp. Listen to the sound of the rain. Learn how to say “Hallelujah” from the ones who say it right.

As children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called not only to watch, listen and learn, but to work to make sure creation can to fulfill its God-given purpose. That is why our church has enrolled in the GreenFaith certification program. Together we are going to learn how to be more responsible stewards of this wondrous gift God has entrusted to us, so that we can join together with all of creation in holy worship of our Creator.

I would like to close with a prayer written by Basil the Great in the 4th century:

“O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals [and all creatures] to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of humans with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that all creatures live not for us alone but for themselves and for thee, and that they love the sweetness of life.”

As people and as a church, may we live and work so that all of creation may revel in the sweetness of life and offer joyful praise to the God and Creator of us all. Amen.