Christianity and the Environment: An Earth Day Sermon

I was privileged to give an Earth Day sermon on Sunday, April 24, 2022, at my home church, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The sermon is set out below.

 

The Dean has honored me, with her invitation to speak today, in ways I cannot fully express. I thought about attending seminary after college, but went to law school instead.  So for me, this is taste of a road not taken.

This past Friday was Earth Day.  Every year since 1970, people in the U.S. and around the world have set aside April 22 to celebrate our environment, to learn about it, and to discuss how to protect and restore it.

I am going to respond to the Dean’s invitation by venturing an answer to a question that Earth Day prompts: What does our faith have to do with the environment?   This is a huge question, and one the churches have not—until recently—done a particularly effective job in answering.

I’m going to suggest that the environment is central to our faith.  My answer is not the only answer to the question about what our faith has to do with the environment, but it is simple and basic.  Today’s lessons can help us understand the answer.  But I first need to use another short text.

Three gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–record a story in which Jesus says that there are two great commandments.  According to Mark (Mark 12:28-31 (NRSV)):

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.

This teaching, of course, is fundamental to our faith.  Jesus says Love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself.  And he adds that no other commandment is greater than these.

One way to read this passage is to say that our faith is about God and other people, and that it has nothing to do with the environment.  After all, there’s nothing in this passage about nature or animals.  Many Christians have read the passage that way, and it is pretty easy to see why.

But there is another and more profound way to understand the two great commandments.  Let’s ask about the relationship between each commandment and the environment.  Instead of assuming there is no connection, let’s see if there is one.

First, then, what is the relationship between the commandment to love God and the environment?  We know God made the world and all that is in it.  At the end of each day of creation, God looks at all that God has made and pronounces it good.  We also know, from the Psalms and elsewhere, that the Earth belongs to the Lord.   Today’s Psalm (150:6) even calls on “everything that has breath” to “praise the Lord.”  God made our natural environment; it belongs to God, and God has pronounced it good.

If we love God, how do we respond to that?

If we pollute what God has made, are we showing our love of God?

If we permit endangered species to become extinct because they get in our way or are of no use to us, are we showing our love of God?

God does say, in Genesis (Genesis 1:28) that humans are to have dominion over the fish of the sea and every living thing that moves upon the earth.    But dominion is not the same as domination or degradation.  Dominion, I am told, is the English translation of a Hebrew word that means taking appropriate care or exercising appropriate rulership.  And God never, ever says “do whatever you want.”  What matters is what God wants, not what we want.

So the commandment to love God with all of our being also requires us to care for what God has made.  God’s creation also helps us understand this God we are called to love.

We can know the calming power of God in nature because he leads us, as the 23rd Psalm says, to “green pastures” and “still waters” (Psalm 23:2).

We can know the fearsome power of God from storms, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

We can know that God will reward the faithful by protecting them from the most challenging and difficult things in nature so that, as the book of Revelation says, scorching heat from the sun will not strike them (Rev. 7:16).

We can know the greatness of God from pictures of the far end of the universe–exploding stars, galaxies in formation.

We can know the beauty of God from the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers and the flowers on the altar.

The fact that creation can help us understand God is another reason to respect and care for what God has made.

The second great commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  So, people have asked me over the years, what’s this got to do with the environment?  Isn’t that just about people?

The most important thing to recognize here is that pretty much everything we do to the environment affects other people.  If we damage the environment, we hurt other people.  If we restore the environment, we help other people.  We hardly ever do anything of any consequence to the environment without affecting someone, somehow.

When God says in Genesis, have dominion over every living thing, God absolutely doesn’t mean to use the environment in ways that hurt other people.  But when we damage the environment, that’s what we do.

These effects happen in small and large ways.  People who throw things in the creek, including broken bottles, create a danger for anyone who does something as simple as walking barefoot in a creek, whether they intend harm or not.  After a long bike ride in my college days, I stepped on such a bottle in a creek, and well remember the ride to the hospital in the back of a pickup truck to get stitches.

As an environmental lawyer, I can tell you that our laws recognize that air and water pollution, toxic chemicals, and waste cause many harms to human health as well as to the environment.  Those who seek environmental justice are seeking relief from precisely such problems.

So our duty to love our neighbor also requires us to care for and protect the environment.

But who is our neighbor?   We have all been taught that our neighbors include strangers, the hungry, and the homeless.  But how about people on the other side of the world?  How about people who have not yet been born?  While our environmental laws have done a remarkably good job of cleaning up our air and water, and improving the way we manage waste, many other issues have not been addressed effectively.  Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are now as high as they have been in the last three million years.  This is already contributing to greater heat waves, heavy downpours, and sea level rise.  Future generations (including our children and grandchildren) will experience more severe effects  than we will.  When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as our selves, what does our faith call us to do for them?

The commandment to love God and the commandment to love our neighbor put the environment at the center of our faith, not out at the margins.  When we ask God for forgiveness in our worship service, we say, from our prayer book: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

The reality, then, is that we sin against God and against our neighbor when we degrade or pollute the environment.  This may be a difficult message to hear.  Most of us were not taught this as children.  Many of us have never thought about or understood these connections.

Today’s Gospel lesson (John 20: 19-31) offers a way of thinking about, and acting on, these connections.  In that lesson, Thomas had to see the actual wounds of Jesus with his own eyes and touch these wounds with his own fingers.  Jesus permitted that, and Thomas believed.   His belief was based on the power of his senses.

Jesus appears to be saying that it would have been better if Thomas had simply believed without the physical evidence.  “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

But Jesus permitted Thomas to examine the evidence.  Jesus doesn’t object, I expect, because Thomas could have said that he wouldn’t believe even if he saw the evidence.   Thomas was open to the possibility that the evidence would change his life and faith.

On this first Sunday after Easter, Thomas offers us a surprising and unlikely role model.  He wanted to see the evidence.  Having seen it, he acted.  Like Thomas, we need to be open to the evidence, and to act on what we learn.

The most basic first step is to talk with each other about these connections.  In his 2015 encyclical on faith and environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis urgently appeals for a respectful and Christian dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.  This call for dialogue is of enormous importance.  Yet it is also one of the most difficult—particularly in a culture where many demonize those who have opposing views, and are in turn demonized. To be honest, that makes a lot of us a little nervous.

And yet we already have experience here at St. Stephen’s showing our love of God and neighbor on a major environmental project. And we did it after a lot of internal discussion and discernment.   Some twenty years ago, as many here know, we converted a parking garage into the primary building for St. Stephen’s School.  As part of that project, we became the first church in the country to register a green building project with the U.S. Green Building Council.  You can see in the school building the certification we received.

The building project is a model of Christian stewardship for the environment.  It is energy efficient, uses recycled, nontoxic, and recyclable material, and uses natural lighting as much as possible.  It has saved us tens of thousands of dollars in energy costs, and has also reduced our carbon footprint.

We continue to be called to love God and to love our neighbors.  We cannot do either without caring for, protecting, and restoring the environment.  As a church and school community, and in the wider world, let’s renew and strengthen that dialogue.  Let’s discuss the connections between our faith and the environment, what they mean, and what we should do.