It’s not generally a winning strategy to start a talk by lifting up a nostalgic image from mid-March of 2020, but one image comes to mind from those early days of COVID-19 which just won’t let me go.
It’s the image from Venice, Italy, of clear canals. For years, the waterways had been murky, both because of gondolas stirring up the mud and because some boats were being careless with their diesel fuel… but within days of the waters being freed from travel, the water was clear, people could see fish again, and many people around the world became deeply aware of the impact of human activity on the earth, skies and sea. Granted, the change was pretty superficial and temporary, but it did speak a word of hope into my eco-anxiety, affirming the earth’s ability and desire to be healthy and whole, if only us humans would leave her alone.
Download a PDF of this sermon: Sermon_10September2023
Today’s scripture reading includes one of the more visceral descriptions of a challenged earth: “the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labour.” (Romans 8:22 NRSV-UE). As an author often accused of misogyny, the Apostle Paul here memorably uses a universally understood, foundationally feminine experience, to describe the struggles that the earth experienced even then due to selfish and careless human activity, and the hope that the pain and struggle would be followed by the joy of new life.
Paul uses a very specific cosmology here, which may not fit many of our contemporary understandings but is helpful to know. In its simplest form, Paul sees the world as initially formed by God as inherently good: each day in the creation story in Genesis, God recognizes its goodness. Humanity, represented in the personages of Adam and Eve, mess things up and the healthy, organic relationship with God and God’s love-infused masterpiece, planet earth, is broken. Since that moment, earth struggled under human domination, broken in ways similar to the brokenness of human relations with other humans, and human relations with God. In Paul’s view, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a pivotal event in putting things right again: the birth pangs will lead to a rebirth, not just of human hopes and individual hopes of heaven, but of a rebirth of the earth itself, upon the second coming of Christ.
Admittedly, I struggle with the specifics of what Paul describes here, but the image of creation groaning in labour I find exceptionally helpful: not only because it acknowledges the pain, but because it has the promise of something new being birthed. The pain is intense and real, there is danger to be traversed by mama and the midwives, but there is a purpose, which will be evident for all to see as the groans of labour are replaced by the first life-cries of the newborn.
This metaphor, then, of creation’s labour pains, ties in with the image of a new heaven and a new earth we see in the book of Revelation (ch.21). Many of us find such apocalyptic images to be creepy or scary, but Fr. Richard Rohr writes that these images “are not meant to strike fear in us as much as [calling us to] a radical rearrangement. It’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of worlds—our worlds that we have created. [The Bible] is trying to describe what it feels like when everything falls apart. It’s not a threat. It’s an invitation to depth”. About a year and a half ago, I helped Green Exodus host an online series based on this, entitled Radical Rearrangement: Actually, this is just the beginning. Yes, creation is in labour, and it’s not been an easy pregnancy thus far, yet there is inherent in the process the promise of new life. As we continue to explore the Season of Creation next Sunday, Sarah Arthurs from Green Exodus will be here with me, seeking to articulate the ways that going deep with God can bring hope, without ignoring in any way the ecological plight of this planet.
We’ve got some big stuff going on here. In practical, manageable terms, though, what are the implications of this metaphor of creation and her labour pains?
I hope that one take-home this morning, which undergirds everything else, is a reminder that our faith is not something separate from our experience of reality. The Bible isn’t designed to be a roadmap to ignore the realities of life, dismissing the trivialities of human life in favour of the ultimacy of heaven; quite the contrary, it calls us to go deep into what’s going on here & now.
Long before widespread industrialization, the apostle Paul noticed the brokenness, not only of human relationships, but of the way we relate to the earth. How can we not, then, in our day, pay heed to what the natural world is telling us? Summer fires are now the norm, glaciers are receding, permafrost is melting in the arctic, heat records fall each month. As with the message delivered when the canals of Venice cleared almost instantly once humans stopped stirring things up, earth is shouting at us to be heard. The call is to rearrange, to realize that without a healthy planet we have nothing and we are nothing. As people of faith we need to attend to what creation is trying to tell us, and stop being so attached to our long-standing practice of treating the earth as nothing more than a storehouse of resources to be exploited for human gain.
The Biblical metaphor of this planet as a woman in labour challenges all of us to be midwives of that process, and yet it seems to me that the task at hand is so foreign to us that we might need some interfaith help – from our Buddhist neighbours – if we are to radically rearrange our ways of being. Quoting from a very accessible Zen Buddhist site (zenbuddhism.net, by a man named Fuyu), “In Buddhism, attachment is called upādāna, which means grasping or clinging. It refers to the human tendency to cling to people, things, or ideas in the mistaken belief that they will bring us lasting happiness and fulfillment. [Attachment, however] ultimately leads to suffering and dissatisfaction, as the objects of our attachment are inherently impermanent and subject to change. By cultivating non-attachment, we can break free from the cycle of craving and suffering, allowing us to live with greater freedom, equanimity, and compassion”. Many of the problem faced by this planet have been created by our attachments to the easy-breezy ways of consumerism; none of our good intentions or practical projects, not even the rooftop panels on Gordon Hall I am so proud of will make much difference by themselves until we break our attachments to our creature comforts, and find new ways of living within our ecological means, in partnership with this amazing planet.
In addition to being at least a bit Buddhist in relation to all this, I found an interesting article on the Baylor University website. Reflecting on the 8th chapter of Romans from a fairly conservative Christian standpoint, the author, Harry Alan Hahne, articulates the need for people of faith to act kindly toward the planet, and to advocate for laws to protect it. He then writes, “Christians should act in ways that anticipate the new creation. Far from avoiding involvement in the environmental movement, Christians should be leaders in it…. [caring for the earth, not] merely from enlightened self-interest that is only concerned for how it affects their quality of life and that of their children…caring for the earth as a stewardship given by God.”
Each year, the Season of Creation from the 1st of September to the early days of October, gives Christians around the globe an opportunity to pause, reflect, and re-set. Here in Canmore and Banff and surrounding communities, the imperative is shaped and accompanied by the unique gifts of living in a place where the landscape is bold, dramatic, breathtaking. We live in a place where we cannot help but notice our interrelationship with the trees and waters and wildlife. The beauty of this place we call home is a gift for us to celebrate on a daily basis, but to truly honour that gift is to embrace how precarious it all is. Living in this place of natural beauty, neighbours to all the creatures who live here, is a gift that comes with great responsibility.
Creation groans with the pains of labour, needing midwives to bring forth new ways of being: new ways between people, new ways between people and God, new ways of following earth’s lead in being whole again. As people of faith, the way we live on and in and with this planet is no small thing. May you, and we, find our proper place in birthing what God intends to come next. Amen.
Hahne, Harry Alan. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/106707.pdf
© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church. A sermon preached in Canmore.