Romans 8: 21…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
I see that this message on Creation is just in time to be a week late for Earth Day, last Sunday. But if it helps, it would be true to say that I was doing much research lately on this topic: about a day and a half fishing and much time on horseback.
As the humorist, Dave Berry, often says, “I am not making this up:” Someone once bought a three-legged fryer in a supermarket. That’s a chicken cut-up for frying, with an extra leg thrown in so that your three kids don’t fight over two drumsticks. He came back the next day demanding either that he get the fourth and missing leg, or his money back.
I heard that story on a radio program about our growing distance and detachment from the natural world. Increasingly, people know more about Hollywood movie stars, than about the stars that bedeck the night sky. Increasingly we spend more time in video games and “virtual realities” of our own making, than we do in the woods, on the water, in the fields or the forest, or even just walking our neighborhood streets. Psychologists and educators are starting to call this state of affairs, “nature deficit disorder.” They say that it can lead to high levels of stress, depression and aggression, to which I would add a dangerous ignorance and arrogance about both human nature and of the rest of Nature.
And that when our planet most needs some respect and tender loving care, what with the climate going crazy, so much topsoil washing out to sea, and new generations of pests emerging to take advantage of the millions of miles of nothing but corn and soybeans in the Midwest, or for variety, soybeans and corn.
Some people blame the church, the gospel and the Bible for such environmental degradation. Before the gospel and the church, some people say, we were all innocent, peaceful pagans who wouldn’t dare cut down the trees for fear of offending their spirits. And so we lived in happy harmony with nature, until the Christian missionaries came along and said that God commands us to multiply, subdue the earth and have dominion over it. Then we logged off the sacred forests and exposed the topsoil, and bulldozed the mountains for coal, all in the name of Christ and commerce. And since Jesus was coming back soon, we didn’t worry about what we left for future generations.
Not only is that view of history simplistic and overblown, it doesn’t do justice to God, the gospel nor the Bible. Not if Jesus is our model for whatever is meant by “dominion.” Still, Western European and American Christianity bear some responsibility, not because of what we read in the Bible, but because of what we read into the Bible. We in the West have tended to read into the Bible the very ancient Greek tendency to separate spirit from matter, and to think that the whole point of being spiritual was to escape all that was earthly, material, solid and creaturely, into a realm of pure spirit, in order to become pure spirit. It led to those visions and ideas of heaven and salvation being a state of floating about, disembodied among the clouds or the stars, playing invisible harps. As for the world, the woods, the waters and the earth, at best we saw them as a platform, or a launching pad for our escape into a realm of pure spirit; at worst, we saw them as simply the bricks and walls of our spirits’ prison, to demolish, dismantle and use any way we like.
But that’s not the heaven we heard about earlier this morning in John’s Revelation (22:1-5). And in most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, and in those of John and Jude, this creation-negating, earth-denying, detached and disembodied spirituality so-called is directly challenged, and nowhere more so than in today’s reading from Romans 8. We typically go to Paul’s letter to the Romans to read about how individual souls are saved and go to heaven, and it will tell us that, marvelously. But Paul locates our wonderful hope of eternal life in something bigger than the salvation of our individual spirits. In today’s passage, he locates our salvation within the bigger picture of God rescuing and redeeming the entire cosmos from death, decay and the devil. In fact, he describes the Christian church and each redeemed Christian soul as the first fruits, or the pilot project, of the restoration of a sin-spoiled planet. And all Creation is watching to see how we do.
Based on this passage in Romans 8, and my experience with nature, I see God doing three things with his Creation and through his Creation that are in today’s message outline: 1) God makes of His Creation a partner in redeeming grace for us; 2) God makes of His Creation a channel of redeeming grace for us; and 3) God makes of His Creation a spiritual discipline for shaping, forming and teaching us.
First, for God making Creation our partner in saving grace: Paul says in today’s passage that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…” Why? Because, evil spoils more than just our souls. “The creation was subjected to futility,” Paul says, when we first gave in to the tempter’s lie, turned our backs on our created-ness, and tried to become our own Creators. Our fall into sin brought creation down with us. But Paul goes on to say that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” For “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”
That somehow, in ways known only to God and revealed to the prophets and apostles, Nature mourns its bondage to evil, death and decay, and is longing, along with us, for release and relief, I would not have known on my own, not without divine biblical revelation. When our cat is crying, it’s usually for more food in its bowl. Our horses look longingly…..but toward our pockets for carrots or apples. We have encountered a few horses who have even mastered the skill of grabbing our coat zippers in their teeth and pulling them down, to look for sugar cubes in our pockets. We don’t let them do that, by the way.
But could it be that we hear Creation groaning as storms grow in number and intensity, fires the size of Rhode Island consume the forests, and coastlines sink under the sea? Sin has something to do with that. I wonder if one might hear Creation sighing and groaning over human greed in the smell and the sound of waves on Lake Erie heaving vast mats of toxic blue-green algae onto the Ohio shoreline, because the water is over-enriched by fertilizers and the wastes of industrial-scale feedlots.
Creation’s mourning and longing for redemption is of a piece with everything we read in the Psalms and the prophets, about the hills rejoicing, the seas resounding, and the trees singing and clapping their hands, for their Creator comes to judge the world and rule the nations. While Creation is somehow our partner in suffering the effects of sin, so is it also our partner in hope. For our liberation from sin and death, and our glorification in Christ, is Creation’s liberation and glorification as well. And not just for the future. As we grow in grace and godliness here and now, in this life, that tells Creation what is coming for it as well. Hopefully, we also grow to treat it more responsibly. The church then is not just a people called out of the world; we are the first fruits, the pilot project, the demonstration plot, of a renewed and reconciled world.
While Creation is our partner in God’s redeeming grace, creation is also a channel of God’s redeeming, reconciling grace for us. That’s the second point in the outline: God uses his creation as a channel of his redeeming, reconciling grace for us. Everything that God does in our lives to bless us, heal us or transform us, involves some aspect of creation: whether it’s the sound of someone’s voice speaking the truth in love, the touch of someone’s hand, the sharing of food grown from the earth, the way those fresh fruits and vegetables taste, the healing release of laughter, the love that brings us all into the world, the effect of the colors of the sky or of flowers on our emotions, the inspiration that a mountain vista brings, healing through medicine made from God’s plants, the wisdom of a human brain, all of it comes from God through his Creation. The Creator does what we consider his spiritual work through a material Creation. Church sanctuaries are made of God’s trees and stones; the light of the sun allows us to read God’s Word; and hymns of worship are sung by human voices and animated by human hands and brains and breath, playing musical instruments.
Maybe that’s one way in which the hills, and the trees of the forests, praise God: when we mine the hills for metals to make horns and drums, and when we turn trees into violins, oboes, pianos and guitars, and then, with God’s gifting and guidance, they praise the Creator we share. That makes us not only stewards of creation, but priests of Creation, who invite and lead Creation in the praise of our shared and same Creator.
But the Creation also shapes and guides us. That’s the third thing I wish to say about creation: that God uses His creation as a spiritual discipline, to shape and to discipline us, similar to the ways in which other spiritual disciplines form and shape us, like prayer, fasting, worship or almsgiving. Nature requires of us, and often reinforces in us, godly qualities like humility, wisdom, respect, compassion and generosity, through the restraint, sacrifice and, yes, sometimes even the suffering that Nature imposes. For while the grace of God is free, it is not cheap, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. God’s grace and nature’s bounties come to us freely, undeservedly, but we can miss those blessings whenever we are hurried, careless, thoughtless, inconsiderate, self-entitled and self-absorbed. Nor does Creation long suffer willful ignorance or ingratitude. For the same powers that make God and nature so gracious and life-giving can also make them not to be trifled with, disrespected, misused, nor taken for granted. Nature especially has an uncanny ability to reflect back to us whatever we bring to it, for good and for ill. Thereby giving us honest, unflattering feedback on ourselves.
That’s how I got a broken nose a few weeks ago at the barn, because horses just are anxious, reactive animals. In a world of wolves, grizzly bears and cougars, they have to be. When I reacted to my horse’s sudden anxiety and reactivity with more of my own, your pacifist Mennonite minister learned what a left hook from a heavyweight boxing champion feels like. Fortunately, it was from her head, and not her hoof.
I have been learning, or relearning, that working with any Creation of God, especially one as beautiful and as powerful as a horse, is largely about training and managing oneself, recognizing and correcting one’s own laziness, mindlessness, distractibility, anxiety, arrogance, and assumptions, and cultivating their opposites. Nature is one of God’s school of virtues.
Being owned by a horse is turning out to be good for me in ways I did not anticipate. Before we bought Tess, I was hoping to get a mellow, compliant, push-button trail tank with a “whatever” disposition whom I could just get on whenever it suited me and go ride the wind. Those, I have learned, you find on another planet. The same one where fish bite every time you go fishing. But that’s more than okay. It’s turning out instead to be a spiritual journey requiring of me reverence, self-examination, repentance, humility, focus and self control. A sense of humor helps, too. But it’s also yielding great and surprising peace, joy, communion, release, discovery, gratitude, and yes, love. Becky and I spend at least as much time caring for the horses as riding them, like in grooming them. To calm her down while grooming her, or when she gets squirrelly and balky on the trail, I sing hymns and old country songs for Tess. Or just as likely, I sing to manage my own anxiety and reactivity, so that I don’t escalate hers. Or maybe she has figured out that if she calms down, I’ll stop singing. Whatever. Every so often, during a trail ride or groundwork, I get this flash of insight and recognition and think, “This must be what it’s like for God to work with me!” and “Lord, how often have I been that reactive, resistant, distracted, anxious, or lazy?”
Reconciling with Creation means reconciling ourselves with the fact that Creation is not all peaches and cream, warm sunshine, soft breezes and sweet birdsong. Nature not only nurtures and inspires us, she demands things of us, imposes limits on us, humbling us, and deflating our egos. That’s one reason why the biblical prophets often came from the wilderness, or spent long periods of time in the wilderness, because there a Creation bigger than our human projects, plans and preconceptions speaks to us of a Creator infinitely bigger than itself, and inspires in us awe, wonder and openness. That combination of sweetness and severity, nurture and hard knocks, may partly explain why Drift Creek Camp has been so important a place in many of our pilgrimages, and why it is such a vital and fruitful ministry for us to support. God uses the landscape, the animals and the elements to remind us who is God and who is not, and that we are not apart from His Creation, but a part of His Creation.
And those are the things that the Apostle Paul is seeking to teach his Roman audience through these words about Creation’s part in their redemption: gratitude, reverence, humility and trust. That, and the fact that our redemption is not just about us, nor just about people just like us. It’s about the rescue and the renewal of the whole of the cosmos and Creation.
So, if we’re wondering what these words about Creation and its part in our recreation tell us to do, we could start: 1) with recognizing, resisting and rejecting that tendency to think of ourselves and of our destiny as being totally separate from and superior to the rest of God’s created world. We live at the junction of matter and spirit, heaven and earth, so let’s reject and resist any tendency to separate them. The grace and goodness of God come to us through God’s created world. And they come to us on behalf of God’s created world, for the well-being of others, and not just for ourselves. Let’s get over our dualism of spirit versus matter, grace versus nature. Grace works through nature, and perfects nature. We’re spiritual by what we do with the material world, including our own bodies.
Secondly, we can receive humbly, gratefully and thankfully the gifts, the graces, the pleasures and the treasures that God gives through his Creation, and thank him, praise him and serve him with them. That sounds basic, but really, the only alternative is to think and act as though we are self-made gods and creators who are entitled to do whatever we like with God’s good world.
But if we receive and perceive Creation for the gift and the grace it all is, then that will lead us to the third thing to do: to respect it, serve it, treat it and care for it as those who know they are responsible to the gift, to the Giver, and to all with whom we share it, including and especially the generations to come. After all, we’re here because people in generations before us did it for us.
But something about modern American individualism resists and rebels against limits and restraints. We’re all into rights, but we’re allergic to restraints and responsibilities. When it comes to thinking about future generations, I’ve actually heard people ask, “What have my descendants ever done for me, that I should worry about them?”
But restraint, responsibility, and respect for limits is the moral of almost every fairy tale we heard as children. Accept the golden eggs from the goose that lays them. But don’t eat the goose. A poor scullery maid can go to the royal ball in a coach pulled by snow white horses, and dance with the prince. But she’ll have to be home by midnight. The moral of the story always is, if you want the bounty, you have to accept the boundaries, too.
But to know what both the bounty and the boundaries are, there’s a fourth thing we must do: value literacy and knowledge about God’s Creation as much we do about our own creations of concrete, steel and silicon; that we be as much the students of God’s World as we hopefully are of God’s Word, dwellers of real reality, lest we lose ourselves in virtual reality.
That’s what first endeared some folks in Kansas to me some years back, when I called them from our home in the Detroit suburbs for directions to our lodging in the country. The voice over the phone said, “Go south on I-135, take the HWY 56 exit east to the third shelterbelt of cedars on the south side past the first creek you’ll cross, and there turn south on the gravel driveway.” You who have gone to Hesston College can almost see the place, I bet. Directions like those require intimate attention, care and respect for the land and its living things. That was so different from directions I was used to in the burbs: Left, right, past the McDonalds, and if there’s a tree, who knows what kind it is? What does it even matter?
I hear much among us Mennonites about being “ordinary radicals.” But anymore, to be really radical means to observe, honor and appreciate all that is ordinary, like trees, soil, birds, water, like what the people in this painting by Pieter Bruegels are doing:
It’s a depiction of the ancient Greek story of Icarus. Icarus and his father, Daedelus, were imprisoned on an island, and had no way to escape until Daedalus fashioned large wings out of wood, and with feathers held on by wax, attached them to his arms, and learned to fly (Kids, don’t try this at home). He made a pair of wings for his son, Icarus, too. When the day came for their escape, Icarus was got giddy and over-confident, flew too high and too close to the sun, so that the wax melted. There went the feathers, and so Icarus fell to his death in the sea.
Looking at this 16th Century painting, can you see Icarus falling from the sky? I had to look for the longest time before I finally saw this little pair of legs sticking out of the water, as he fell into it, a scene that would barely last a millisecond. Most of the painting is taken up with people going about their normal, everyday business, totally clueless to the rise and fall of Icarus. What’s more, their normal, everyday business has to do with animals and the elements of God’s Creation: this man with an eye to the sky, while he’s shepherding his sheep (maybe he’s calculating how much more daylight he has before he should bring the sheep home, or what weather is coming in); these ships sailing by the grace of the wind; this man, closest to where Icarus has fallen into the sea, I think he’s fishing. Biggest, and most central of all, is the man plowing a field, behind a horse. All of these activities are made possible by the bounties and beauties of nature. They are also bounded by nature’s constraints. Is that Bruegel’s way of saying, We can try to fly as high as we like in power, prestige and pleasures, but we’ll never rise above the true health and wealth of the land, the air and the water, because those are the most important things, and not our outlandish ambitions to escape them. If so, Bruegel’s painting reminded me of this poem by Thomas Hardy, from England, over a century ago:
“Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.”