Twice a year, Eastminster has a Celtic Sunday. One feature is that special music that comes from the western edge of Europe. Those Celtic lands, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany in France and Galicia in Spain, have cultures that are shaped by the convergence of land and sea and mountains. And that closeness to nature has also shaped Celtic spirituality. It has given us a rich appreciation for how entwined we human beings are with those forces of nature over which we so little control.
This time of year we can hardly help but notice that there are things going on all around us that remind us of the beauty of God’s creation. We wake up to the sound of birds staking out territory for a new generation. The buds on the trees and the fields showing the faintest tinge of green remind us of God’s never-ending bounty.
Yet even as this week winter gives way to spring, the earth reminds us that it has another face. It’s not just the sweet, benign provider of hope and inspiration. Spring is a season of extremes. Melting snow and heavy rains make rivers overflow in the Midwest, leading to devastating floods. In Alabama, the change of seasons bred tornadoes that ripped homes from their foundations. New York City is making plans to extend the shoreline of lower Manhattan into the harbor and build a giant berm to keep out the sea as its level rises. Whenever we think we’ve mastered the earth, we’re reminded of just how menacing it can be.
Since the dawn of time human beings have wrestled with how to relate to the earth that both nurtures us and threatens us. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they encountered the Canaanites who tried to come to terms with the earth by worshiping it. Their gods, the Baals, were deities of fertility whom they thought controlled nature. Those gods were found in the trees and the soil and the rain. They didn’t make any ethical demands of their worshipers such as loving and caring for one another. They just wanted to be appeased. So, without any ethical guidelines the worship of Baal led to immoral acts, such as child sacrifice and orgies at the holy places that involved temple prostitutes. One of the great theological contests of the Old Testament was whether Israel would worship the God who created nature and reigns over it or the false gods who were found in nature and could be manipulated to give favors like rain and good crops.
So those, like us, who worship the God of Israel, have always had a healthy skepticism about the beauty and the power of nature. Like David who wrote Psalm 8, we see the grandeur and majesty of God spread across the star-spangled night sky. Like the author of Psalm 104, we marvel at how God has ordered the creation to provide for us. But we’ve always been wary of slipping over the line, of going from appreciating nature for what it shows us about God to worshiping nature like the Canaanites did. That’s why some Christians are not just skeptical of the environmental movement but actively opposed to it. They see environmentalism as akin to the worship of nature. And at some level, that concern is justified. How many people do you know who say, “I don’t have to go to church. I worship God in my garden.” Being outdoors in nature can definitely be a spiritual experience, but it can only go so far. Your garden or the beauty of the mountains can reveal the majesty and wonder of God who made them, but they don’t show us anything about the love God showed for us in Christ on the cross. Nature doesn’t tell us anything about how we are to love one another. Nature can’t form us into a community of faith that compels us to care for the poor and the outcast. Nature is an incredible gift of God as far as it goes, but it is no substitute for God.
Unfortunately, that healthy distinction between God and nature has often led us to act as if it doesn’t really matter how we treat the earth. We read the first chapter of Genesis that tells us how God gave human beings dominion over the earth and told us to subdue it and fill it, and we’ve heard that as license to do with it whatever we want, as if God were saying, “Here, it’s yours. I don’t care what you do with it.” Genesis tells how intimately connected we are to the earth. We were formed from dirt. God told Adam to tend the earth – not to conquer it or ravage it. The third chapter of Genesis tells how the man and the woman overreached their responsibility to care for the earth by eating of the forbidden fruit. That changed their relationship to the earth. They stripped leaves from the fig tree to cover themselves and used the lushness of the garden to hide themselves from God. When God expelled them from Eden, part of their punishment was a changed relationship with the earth. God said to Adam, “Because … you have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We still suffer from Adam and Eve’s adversarial relationship with the earth. We mine the earth to bring forth minerals in ways that cause the earth to give us back polluted water and earthquakes caused by fracking. We put chemicals into the soil to make it bring forth more food, and the seas rebel at the runoff from our fields by choking off fisheries because of the runoff. We burn coal to heat our homes, and the polar ice caps melt as a result. It’s right there in Genesis 3. It’s a sign of our separation from God that we treat nature the way we do and that nature repays us for our abuse. And as the population of the Earth approaches 8 billion, we approach a tipping point where we threaten to destroy ourselves along with the planet.
During this Lenten season, we look forward to Easter. Most of our celebrations at Easter center around what it means for us as human beings. We celebrate that Jesus has conquered the power of death so that we don’t have to fear what happens after we die. We rejoice that he has gone to prepare a place for us, and that we will live eternally with him. But Easter isn’t only about our own spiritual renewal. Jesus’ victory extends beyond the salvation of the human spirit. He brought new life to all creation. There’s something very physical about Easter that has implications for the earth and how we treat it.
When his disciples saw Jesus on Easter evening in Jerusalem, they thought they were seeing a ghost, a disembodied spirit. They were thinking about Easter the way many people still do. They assumed that Jesus’ spirit had been liberated from his body. That’s a common assumption about the resurrection. People think it’s only spiritual. But Jesus made a point of showing that his body had been raised as well. The flesh and blood that was dead is now alive. “Touch me and see,” he told them, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.” He showed them his hands and his feet, so they could see that they were the same hands and feet that had been pierced by nails, not some replacement parts. When they still didn’t believe it, he asked them for something to eat. They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it in their presence. Ghosts and disembodied spirits don’t eat. Jesus made the point very clearly: His was a physical resurrection, not just a revival of a spirit.
That’s what we prepare to celebrate at Easter, a physical resurrection. We proclaim it when we say the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Now, what a resurrection body looks like is a mystery. When we’re buried, our bodies return to dust. When we’re cremated, the molecules that make us up are reduced to ashes. The 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians explores that mystery of our resurrection bodies. Paul compares it to a seed that’s planted in the ground and then sprouts in the spring looking completely different from what was planted. And we’re not given those resurrection bodies right away. When Christ comes again, that’s when we’ll be raised with him and given those new bodies. In the mean time, we are with God in some dimension that’s beyond time and space as we know it, in a place that our limited minds can’t comprehend.
The promise of the resurrection is that the whole creation will be renewed. Romans 8 said, “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The whole creation is in this with us. It longs for redemption just as we do.
Jesus told his disciples that his death and resurrection fulfilled everything written about him in the Old Testament. Part of that fulfillment is a restored relationship between human beings and the earth. God warned Israel not to worship the earth, but God also commanded them to care for it. Among the laws of Moses was the Sabbath for the land. Just as human beings were commanded to rest every seven days in recognition of their dependence on God for all they had, Israel was to let the earth lie fallow every seventh year so it could have a Sabbath. The earth’s Sabbath was a way not only of replenishing the soil, but also of reminding the Israelites that the earth was theirs to use but not to exploit.
In the spirit of that earth Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe, there are things we can do to care for the earth. We can do lots of small things like recycle, drive less, take public transportation more, eat less meat, buy locally grown produce. The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry puts it like this, “It is not allowable to love the creation according to the purposes one has for it any more than it is allowable to love one’s neighbor in order to borrow his tools.”
But there’s more to treating the earth with respect than just good care for God’s creation. The way we treat the earth has implications for how we treat other people. Another one of the Old Testament laws was that farmers were not to pick their fields clean of every scrap of the harvest but leave what dropped around the edges for the poor to glean. God intends the earth to provide for them. There are political and moral implications along with our environmental concerns. Democracies that depend on oil to fuel their economies wind up supporting dictators in countries that supply that oil. When tax codes make it more economical for a power plant to emit carbon and mercury and other toxic materials than to make the investment in clean energy, the true cost of pollution is not borne by the shareholders who own the company or the consumers, like you and I, who use the product, but it’s shifted onto those whose lungs are harmed from breathing polluted air. How we treat the earth has implications for how we treat others.
All this is complex and overwhelming. You can’t help but ask yourself, What difference can I make? But when we care for the earth, when we take steps to live more responsibly and have a smaller impact on the environment, we’re participating in something bigger that’s already begun. We’re bearing witness to Easter. Jesus has renewed us body and soul, and he’s restoring the whole creation with us. The Bible ends with the vision in Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth. That’s the promise of Easter. It’s a promise of new life for you and for me, and it’s a promise for the earth. That’s a truly Celtic way to worship.