This sermon is part of a Lenten preaching series on “Growing a Rule of Life.”
Rules of Life & the Rhythms of Nature – Br. James Koester
Our Relationship with God – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Our Relationship with Self – Br. Mark Brown
Our Relationship with Others – Br. David Vryhof
Our Relationship with Creation – Br. Keith Nelson
Living in Rhythm and Balance – Br. Luke Ditewig
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More information here: SSJE.org/growrule
Genesis 2:4b-8; 15-19; Psalm 8; Mark 1:9-13
In a small wooden box in my cell here at the monastery, I keep a few simple mementos: physical objects I can hold in my hand, objects that anchor or center me in the remembrance that I am beloved of God. The simplest and most treasured of all is a cow bone from the desert near Moab, Utah. My best friend and I went camping in Utah a few months before I came to the monastery as a postulant. The trip was a pilgrimage into a landscape wonderfully strange to us both. In the desert, we hoped to taste something of God’s vast, untamed power, just as Jesus did, and just as generations of saints have done from the ancient Israelites to the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt. Perhaps because our eyes and ears were opened by this intention, this expectation to meet this desert God and to travel as fellow pilgrims into our own inner wilderness, God came to meet us everywhere we turned. Every horizon held our gaze and enlarged it, beckoning us beyond that vanishing point where endless blue sky and rippling red stone merged. As we hiked about this desert paradise we wept or fell silent or laughed in wonder, as unselfconsciously as the shooting stars or lightning that flashed in the night sky or the rainbows that shimmered in the rare desert rain. Each moment, we could have echoed the sentiment of author Annie Dillard as she wrote from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains: “I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.” [i]
Tonight’s sermon is the fifth in our Lenten preaching series, entitled “Growing a Rule of Life.” We’ve heard sermons on our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others. We now turn to our relationship with Creation, so often and so easily a meeting point between God’s blue sky and the heart’s red earth, between the Spirit’s clean wing and the beaten bell of the soul. Encounters with God in the midst of Creation around us are as common as cow bones in the Utah desert, but a cow bone rarely merits our attention unless we look and listen for how it speaks a word of Life.
We are creation, as much as the cow and the cow bone, the shooting star and the rain drop. Humans are creatures alongside non-human creation. But Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis, and the Psalmist’s question “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” capture the paradox of human creaturehood. “The human creature is both small and great, humble and lowly, mortal and immortal, earthly and heavenly,” writes St. Gregory Nazianzen.[ii] In Mark we read about the newly baptized Jesus, who was there in the wilderness “with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.” This terse account suggests Jesus’ nature as a New Adam in whom the animal and angelic kingdoms converge. We who are baptized into Jesus are likewise called to take our place as Mediators between worlds. From that unique threshold between earth and heaven, where we are both gloriously and precariously balanced, we are divinely commissioned as stewards and protectors of creation, to be diligent caretakers of the Garden. Even as we remember the common soil from which all life is formed, we are empowered to behold the inner nature of creatures and rejoice in them by giving them Names. A basic respect for all creatures is essential for Christians, but we are clearly called to so much more. It is urgent that we claim our role as stewards and protectors, and cease abdicating this authority over creation to political leaders and corporations.
But even as we re-awaken to the rightful authority and responsibility of our stewardship, we humans also need to re-learn about the life of God from non-human creation. We are now in a position of need to sit humbly at the roots of the redwood, to study the flight of the red-tailed hawk, to emulate the stillness of the deer at the edge of the field, or to breathe in rhythm with the ocean’s tide. We must become students of the air, the soil, the waters, the birds and beasts, whose simple being is prayer. From them, we must re-learn how to live well and live deeply in union with the Creator. Human cultures and peoples in mutual relationship with non-human Creation have known these skills for centuries, most especially indigenous peoples. It is only relatively recently in human history that they have been neglected on such a massive scale, largely through colonial land-lust and the genocide of native inhabitants.
When we violate, abuse, exploit, or even simply ignore non-human creatures, we are rejecting a core dimension of our humanity and of God’s calling for us. We are crucifying the earth. We are interrupting, speaking over, or bickering with God’s gentle language of love, in which each creature is like a syllable of the living Word. Each creature is an instance of Divine Gift, God’s gift to Godself, the love language of the Trinity. We believe God became a Creature in Jesus Christ and redeemed Creation from the inside out so that we creatures can participate directly in this infinite pattern of God’s giving-and-receiving.
A balance of authoritative stewardship and humble interdependence in our attitude toward Creation can help shape the practices we incorporate into a rule of life. Individual and family lifestyle choices that help reduce carbon emissions are a good place to begin. The global climate crisis is urgent and the solution is undoubtedly complex, but if we wish to see change and bequeath a healthy and living earth to our children, we must begin with our own behavior. We brothers are carefully examining and fine-tuning our own collective practices to reduce our carbon footprint. Our community’s dear friend, the Rev. Margaret Bulitt-Jonas, is a passionate authority on this subject, and I’d love to share her suggestions during the question and answer session afterwards, as well as hear your own practices for safeguarding the integrity of creation.
A rule of life might also include a commitment to a specific piece of God’s creation or a specific creature or creature species. It could be your own garden, or a state or national park, a local mountain, field, shore line or water source, a commitment to learning the local bird or flower species, or a commitment to an abused animal from a shelter. Practice stewardship by learning how human creatures threaten or ignore the life of that plot of soil, that mountain or river, and then take action to stop it. In the meantime, learn all that you can from it as a fellow pilgrim and relate to it as a microcosm of nonhuman creation. Give it a name. Ask it to teach you. Ask its forgiveness for never noticing it before. Thank God for the dignity of its existence.
Finally, a rule of life might include regularly asking God’s help to unlearn habits of consumerism and to re-learn how much is enough for you to live happily but simply. In our own Rule’s chapter on Poverty and Stewardship in Practice, we acknowledge that “the movement toward simplicity puts us at odds with our culture, which defines human beings primarily as consumers, and gives prestige to those who have the power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste. As a community and as individuals we shall have to struggle continually to resist the pressure to conform.”[iii] We face daily temptation to consume beyond our creaturely need. A rule of life can keep us honest and wise in our acquisition of clothing, technology, food, travel, and experiences. It can motivate us to seek sustainable, organic, or recycled goods. And it can sensitize us to the needs of those who truly do not have enough and to share what we have.
When guests at Emery House return from the fields and forests with the feathers of hawk, turkey, or blue jay, river stones, deer antlers or dried flowers and lay them before an icon or on the hallway credenza or tuck them in a book, I’ve come to believe they are practicing their own priesthood. I’ve come to believe that that’s what I am doing when I hold that cow bone, and the holding is prayer itself. Our priestly relationship with Creation is expressed whenever we offer back to God those creatures which are God’s already. If we left the wheat in the earth or the grapes on the vine, they would no less belong to God than they will in this Eucharistic feast. But God delights that our time, our labor, our secret hopes, and our capacity to create in the image of the Creator all be folded into this bread and poured into this chalice, so that we can receive his Creation back again, and with it, his own Life.
[i] Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. c. 1974 by Annie Dillard. 14.
[ii] Gregory Nazianzen. Orations. 7.23
[iii] The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Chapter 7.