I wish to thank The National Cathedral for once again letting me stand in this historic pulpit. The Cathedral asked me to preach here last Earth Day–and I suppose it didn’t go too badly because here I am again. Actually, something very important came out of that Sunday.
First of all, let me tell you that this city and this cathedral are special to me. I first came to the National Cathedral on a school bus in 1963 from dairy farming country 35 miles away. I was dazzled by the place. Someone said the work would be completed well before the year 2000. I used my little mathematical mind and calculated that I would be dead before it was finished. So it is a great thrill and a testament to my poor math skills that I stand here alive today. I attended medical school in this city, and then went off to raise a family and work in a hospital in New England. Eventually, I quit my job as an emergency room doctor because I felt called by the Lord to work on a more pressing problem: the health of the planet.
In so doing, I have been blessed beyond measure. I’ve been allowed to learn what the Bible says about the environment. Teaching the biblical call to care for the planet has opened the doors to mega churches, home churches, colleges, and seminaries across the land.
Along the way there have been highlights. One that has happened again and again is to see hearts change. It is nice to preach to the choir but it is even more important to see an institution turn a hundred and eighty degrees.
Until I came here a year ago, the most heartwarming feedback I may have gotten resulted from talking to at elementary school in Saint Johnsbury, VT. I promised the children that I would do everything in my power to keep their world beautiful.
A week later, I received thank you letters from the students. One seven-year-old wrote that she thought I should be made a saint. I have kept the letter in my desk ever since. With this letter in hand, maybe I have a chance. After all,it was a Catholic school!
When I stepped into this pulpit last year, I told the congregation that the biggest problem in the world is that the planet is dying. I did not use graphs or statistics—I find they don’t work that well in church. Instead, I spoke of indisputable signs. There are no elms on Elm Street, no chestnuts on Chestnut Lane, no caribou in Caribou, Maine. The most numerous species of bird on the planet has gone missing; the most numerous fish in the great lakes has been fished out.
Since last year, there have been so many tornado watches and warnings that people in my area have started to ignore the sirens, and winter didn’t happen in most of the country. But for me, the big environmental news turned out to be from here. Something happened in this Cathedral last year that surprises us when it occurs—even though it is the very reason we go to church: the Lord showed up. The Holy Spirit began to move. A seed was planted and began to grow.
This Cathedral and the ministry I work for—Blessed Earth—caught a vision. What would it look like if we could design a year of teaching, preaching, and events where every month we brought together the elements needed to wake up the church? What would it look like if the church began to weigh in on all those vanishing birds, bees, and winters?
What if we could bring writers, poets, farmers, activists, journalists and the heads of organizations working to save the planet all under this huge roof? Luckily, on this Sunday, all we had to do to cover all those bases was to invite my friends Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben.
I believe that unless the church becomes deeply involved in the world’s environmental problems, not only will something bad happen, but the church will miss a miraculous opportunity. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, his enduring observations of our country. He said that if people ignore religion in trying to understand America, they do so at their own peril. I believe that this has largely been the case with the environmental movement. But it is also true that if the church ignores the problems of the world, it risks becoming something less than what Jesus called it to be when He commanded us to love one another.
As we move forward over the next year studying creation care, we will be kindling a fire in the heart of the church. We will recognize the role of science and politics, but we will also focus on the gifts that only the church can bring to bear.
Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth. But which government agency tells us to be meek? The Sabbath commandment tells us to stop our commerce one day out of seven. Who else but the church can advocate for 24/6 in a 24/7 world?
I believe that the Lord brought this Cathedral, Blessed Earth, the nation’s seminaries, and all of you gathered here for a purpose. It is sublime and fitting that we meet in one of the largest cathedrals on the globe.
This cathedral stands atop the highest piece of ground in our nation’s capitol. Teddy Roosevelt laid its cornerstone 105 years ago, and President George H. W. Bush presided over the setting of the final pinnacle stone. The founders of this magnificent temple built it with the express desire that it would function as a house of prayer for all people. It has born witness to much of our nation’s history. It has been constructed during times of peace and prosperity and has grown heavenward during two world wars, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement. It mourned for the nation after the 9/11 tragedy. This Cathedral has not only lived through history, but by claiming the high moral ground, it has changed history.
When Desmond Tutu and Billy Graham preached from this pulpit, they did not bring a message designed just for Episcopalians, Baptists, or Methodists. Instead they brought God’s truth to the people. Not all truth is immediately recognized or embraced. In 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon from this very pulpit, his message was rejected by many from outside and within the church. Truth is not always popular or easy to hear. It may not win out in a single lifetime. But this Cathedral has never shied away from the search for the truth.
From its magnificent sculpture Ex Nihilo over the west entrance, to its Jerusalem Altar behind me, this Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul boldly tells the story of God’s creative and redemptive story. And that is how we will look at the year ahead: through the eyes of God.
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is among us. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for earth to look like heaven. We know what heaven looks like from the scripture reading this morning in Revelation 22. God is on his throne: unpolluted water rushes from that high place and forms the River of Life. In the center of heaven, at the terminus of the River of Life, stands the Tree of Life. Under that God-sized tree, all the nations are healed.
We in the church just celebrated our most holy of Sundays two weeks ago. On that first Easter, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb stricken with grief. As her eyes burned with tears, she mistook Christ for a gardener. This was not a mistake.
One of my favorite paintings is a Rembrandt portrayal of this scene. Christ is illuminated by the rising sun. He has a big straw hat on to keep him from being sunburned later in the day. In his right hand, he grasps a gardening shovel. A gardener’s knife is tucked into the left side of his belt. His feet are bare and sunk into a carpet of grass. This is one of the most theologically accurate paintings on the planet.
Christ is resurrected as the new Adam. He is a gardener. He has come to help us heed the call of Genesis 2:15 to tend and protect the earth.
Two thousand years ago, Saint Paul sent a letter to the Washington, D.C., of his day. His letter to the Romans is the magnum opus of Christian theology. Paul was trying to get the capital city of the world to sponsor his missions trip. They did not know him and so, as in no other place in the New Testament, Paul clearly and systematically defines the orthodoxy of his faith. In Romans 8 he says that all creation groans like a woman trying to give birth to a breached position baby. Christ has come to act as midwife to nature.
In the upcoming year, we are going to look at our relation to animals, food, farms, and Sabbath. What does the Bible have to say?
In his “lilies of the field” discourse, Christ tells his disciples that God is a flower lover. He says that God groans when a single sparrow falls from the sky. We want to jump to the next line that says “How much more does God love humanity than a sparrow?” But what Jesus is also saying is, “How can you understand how much God loves you if you can’t get your head around how much He loves a bird?”
In the coming year we will examine our responsibility to animals from the perspective of a God who took the form of a baby and whose birth was attended by cows, chickens, and goats.
We will look at the issue of food through the eyes of a King whose bassinet was an animal feeding box—a Savior who called himself the very bread of life, and was born in a town called “Bethlehem,” which literally translates from the Hebrew to “house of bread.”
We will consider the world’s forests, keeping in mind that the Bible begins and ends with a tree, the first Psalm tells us that a Godly person is like a tree, and that, although we don’t have physical descriptions of virtually anyone in the Bible, we do have the details of the species of trees that Abraham was sitting under when the angels came along, the species of tree that Deborah held court under, the species of tree that Jonah had his hissy fit under, and the species of tree that Zacchaeus climbed up to get a better look at the Messiah.
Time and again, I have been invited to give the first environmental sermon a church has ever heard. When speaking with these churches, it is my observation that they are not so much anti-environmental as lacking a working biblical vocabulary on the subject.
I do not believe the job of the church is to make parishioners better scientists so much as to inspire them to be better Christians. We need to remind them that Christ’s parting words in Mark 16 were to preach the gospel to all the creatures of the earth.
Some of the biggest choices humanity will ever make are going to be decided in the next decade. History has shown that the poor are not consulted when the wealthy and powerful make tough decisions. If the least among us are vulnerable, consider the plight of those who will not arrive on this planet for another ten, fifty, or one hundred years. Who will speak for them?
Traditionally, the church has been the only institution with the capability of thinking long term. Not one person who was present at the laying of the foundation stone of this cathedral lived to see its completion. It is the nature of the church to embark on long-term projects. The Bible tells us that when we sin, the consequences affect four generations. But when we do the Lord’s will, the blessings flow to a thousand generations. When Gabriel heralds the coming of the Lord, he says the hearts of the fathers will turn to the children; with Christ in our hearts, we will no longer think of ourselves, but of all those generations to come after us.
Blessed Earth’s work with the Cathedral over the past twelve months has not been easy. We have had to overcome obstacles of distance, communications, and resources. At times it feels as if we have been hit by an earthquake. Oh, wait a second—we were!
But always the element of grace has prevailed. The working model we are building will act as a blueprint for other churches—large and small. We are especially grateful to the Cathedral for having the courage and foresight to host this first year; I wish to personally thank the staff, worship team, choir, and you who faithfully attend and support this sacred place, the nation’s spiritual home.
Lastly, we must think about the next generation of pastors. Who teaches the men and women who run America’s 300, 000 churches? The answer is the seminaries of North America. During the last year, we visited a vanguard group of America’s finest theological institutions. We met with their presidents, deans, and faculty. We put before them a vision of becoming deeply involved in the problem of creation groaning.
At one school we found a president who supported this effort, but he was unable to sway his faculty. In order to join the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, we require institutional buy in and consensus. When a seminary signs the SSA Covenant, they agree and pledge–before each other, before God, and before the future generations–to live, preach, teach, model, and hold each other accountable for biblically based stewardship. This is not just another document.
The seminaries signing today are among the largest and most influential in America. They are geographically spread across our land: from the sunny shores of southern California at Fuller Theological to the rocky coast of New England at Gordon-Conwell; from the buckle of the Bible belt at Asbury to the windy city at Garrett-Evangelical. These seminaries represent a broad range of perspectives–from Baptist to Methodist, from Reformed to Lutheran to independent evangelical. We are starting with these flagship seminaries and we will work until we have meaningful change. Eventually we will sign all seminaries that, in good faith, can commit as an institution to this Covenant.
Over the last year, I have seen the Lord move mountains. Let us imagine what can happen over the coming year. Everyone here has a purpose and a role to play. For some it will mean writing a song, for others a check. For some it will mean recycling a paper, for others penning one. For some it will mean planting a tree, and for others praying beneath one, like the disciple Bartholomew. With mere human agency the task before us is too great, but with God all things are possible.
Those of you who are willing: please stand and join me in a prayer of support for the work we have begun here. Rise up from your chairs as we bow our heads in prayer.
God, you alone know our hearts. You know the dark places, and you know our dreams. You see all our good intentions that turned into nothing. You understand every cell within our hearts, but now we ask you to turn things around: Allow us, dear Lord, a glimpse of your heart. Allow each of us to see what you would have us do in the coming year to care for your creation. Don’t allow this to be just another forgotten Sunday. No matter how small, no matter how big, give to each of us something to do!
We pray for the presidents and leaders of seminaries gathered here today. Help them to be like you. Help them to run the good race, fight the good fight, and keep the faith.
Be with this Cathedral, and make every piece of art, every carving, every window speak your will and encouragement to them.
We pray for people of all faiths—and no faith—who work to make your world a better place.
And lastly, we pray for our enemies, those who through greed, pride, or ignorance would destroy and exploit this gift of life we call earth. God help them, and God help us. Amen.