Once there was this guy on a bridge who was about to jump. Another guy spotted him and said, “Don’t do it!” The first guy said, “Nobody loves me.” The second guy said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” The jumper said, “Yes.” The would-be rescuer said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” The jumper said, “A Christian.” And the rescuer said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” The jumper said, “Protestant.” And the rescuer said, “Me, too! What franchise?” The jumper said, “Baptist.” The rescuer said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” The jumper said, “Northern Baptist.” The rescuer said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” The jumper said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” And the rescuer said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” The jumper said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” And the rescuer said, “Me, too!” Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” The jumper said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” And the rescuer said, “Die, heretic!” And then pushed him over.
That joke is actually considered to be the best religious joke of 2014. It’s pretty funny, but why is it so funny? The scenario is not at all uncommon; it is a reflection on real life. When we meet someone for the first time we look for our commonalities. We get excited if the person comes from our hometown. Right away we feel as though we can trust them. We want to know what neighborhood they lived in. Maybe we knew them when we were children. Maybe we went to the same church… The more we have in common, the more excited we become. But eventually we stumble upon a difference and the excitement begins to wear a little thin. Oh, I see, you went to South High School. I went to North. We’re enemies. “Die, heretic!”
According to the “World Christian Encyclopedia,” – “There are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups, and many smaller ones. 34,000 separate Christian groups have been identified in the world. “Over half of them are independent churches that are not interested in linking with the big denominations.“
That’s pretty messed up when you think about it. And the implications are enormous. In the last 500 years since the reformation, Christians have fragmented into so many different denominations that it is hard to keep count. I have heard tallies as high as 41,000. If we don’t agree with each other, we go off and form our own denomination. And it’s not just Christians; we, all of us, divide ourselves off into countries, states, cities, towns, families, religions, races, political groups, tribes and circles of friends, forming isolated pockets of people who are constantly at odds with each other and unable to work together toward any sort of a common purpose. We don’t trust each other; we don’t listen to each other; we discount each other’s ideas, we go to war with each other; we steal each other’s land and resources; we execute each other, but we seldom talk about it other than to say “Die heretic.”
When there are lines drawn all over the place; when we don’t talk to each other, when we allow ourselves to be swayed by “group think,” it’s easy to go along with some really horrendous ideas because that’s what everyone else is doing. When we cut ourselves off from each other, it is easy to believe that taking land from Native Americans is justified because they are nothing but savages anyway, or that enslaving people is justified because their skin color makes them less than human, or that destroying rainforests on the other side of the world is okay because the people who live there don’t really matter. It’s just too darn easy to close our eyes and ears to the injustices and the pain being inflicted on people we don’t know – when everyone we do know is doing it – and we are all benefitting from it. So when a prophetic voice comes along and illuminates what’s really going on, it’s not too terribly surprising that the first thing people want to do is shut them up.
But today there is a prophetic voice speaking out that people cannot silence or ignore. In the first ever papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. He makes an appeal to “every person living on this planet” for an inclusive dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. He calls on the church and the world to acknowledge the urgency of our environmental challenges and to join him in embarking on a new path.
This is big! This is huge! This is a call to all Christians everywhere, to remind us that being a Christian is about working together as one body to take care of each other and to take care of our home. We are slowly coming around to acknowledging the need for a change in our consumptive habits; every day it becomes more obvious that we are destroying our environment, but as we learn from the story of Cain and Able, disregard of our duty to cultivate and maintain proper relationships with our neighbors, for whose care and custody we are responsible, ruins our relationship with ourselves, with each other, with God, and with the earth. God asks Cain: “where is Able your brother?” Cain answers that he doesn’t know, but God persists: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground.”
God hears the voices of blood crying from the ground. We are cursed from the ground. “When our relationships are neglected; when justice no longer dwells in the land, the bible tells us that life itself is endangered.”
In a letter written to “All People” in the 1800’s, Chief Seattle said: “Will you teach your children what we have taught our children: that the Earth is our mother? What befalls the Earth, befalls all the sons of the Earth. This we know: the Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the Earth, he does to himself. “One thing we know: our God is also your God. The Earth is precious to him, and to harm the Earth is to heap contempt on its creator.”
200 years later, somewhere in Rome, squiggly lines are written all over a paper that begin to take shape into ideas – revolutionary ideas that speak of unity and offer hope. Francis acknowledges that: “we need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family,” that a true ecological approach takes the form of a social approach integrating matters of justice, and amplifying not only the cry of the earth, but the cries of the poor as well. Like Chief Seattle, he points out the relationship between the human environment and the natural environment, how they deteriorate together, that whatever we do to the earth we do to ourselves.
But even that is only the tip of the iceberg, because creation is not just made up of humans. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity causing a tremendous impact in ways that are not readily discernable or easy to trace. Little things like fungi, algae, insects, reptiles, microorganisms, or even worms. We don’t give a whole lot of thought to worms except of course when it rains and there are dead worm bodies strewn all over the sidewalk. But life as we know it would disappear without worms. They help with the process of decomposition, by turning dead matter into life-giving soil. The worm’s digestive process filters out harmful substances and adds and retains nutrients that are important for healthy plant life. To put it bluntly, worm poop is a critical component of healthy soil. But the theological plot thickens as we discover that we also have a deeply spiritual and physical relationship with worms.
Genesis 2:7 says that “the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” The original Hebrew makes this relationship between the soil and the man even more clear. The word for “man” is adamah (or Adam), and the word for ground is adamah; adam is formed from adamah. In the NRSV, adamah is translated as “ground”; but it is better understood as “arable soil,” or soil that is good for farming. Which brings us back to the worms. We know that the wild animals and birds were not created until after the first human, but worms could have existed first so that they could generate some of that good soil that the first human was made of. It’s just a thought but it makes sense because later, in Gen 3:19, God tells Adam that he will return to the soil, for “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” When humans die, their bodies feed the worms, and worms help decompose the bodies to create soil that is food for plants. In turn, the plants do their photosynthesis thing, turning energy from the sun into food energy that the rest of the food chain can use. And then all of these plants and creatures die in their turn, and are decomposed into the soil, renewing the connection between death and life. It kind of makes you wonder why we would want to risk being cursed from the ground.
In 1961, a man named Lorenz was using a computer to run a weather prediction. He decided to take a shortcut on the numbers he was entering and he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full decimal which was .506127. The result was a completely different weather scenario. He published his findings in a paper noting that if his theory was correct, one flap of a butterfly’s wings could change the course of weather forever.” From this point forward, we had what is now known as “the butterfly effect”. What this means to the science of meteorology is that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere which could ultimately alter the path of a tornado. While this theory is impossible to prove, the idea that a small act can lead to big changes is certainly true. And many small acts by many people with a shared goal can have an enormous impact. We here in this room have the capacity to lend ourselves to small acts that lead to big changes. We can no longer afford to wait for someone else to deal with it. It is up to us – each of us – even when no one else wants to hear it because the choices we make today will affect the sustainability of life for countless people and other species. May we open our hearts, and minds, and lives to finding our true place within this community called earth.
And now I would like to end with the same prayer Francis ended his encyclical with…
Let us pray…
Father, we praise you with all your creatures.
They came forth from your all-powerful hand;
They are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.
Praise be to you!
Son of God, Jesus,
Through you all things were made.
You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,
And you gazed upon this world with human eyes.
Today you are alive in every creature
In your risen glory.
Praise be to you!
Holy Spirit, by your light
You guide this world toward the Father’s love
And accompany creation as it groans in travail.
You also dwell in our hearts
And you inspire us to do what is good.
Praise be to you!
Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
Teach us to contemplate you
In the beauty of the universe,
For all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
For every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
To everything that is.
God of love, show us our place in this world
As channels of your love
For all the creatures of this earth,
For not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
That they may avoid the sin of indifference,
That they may love the common good, advance the weak,
And care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
Help us to protect all life,
To prepare for a better future,
For the coming of your Kingdom
Of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!