Earth Day

Genesis 2:4-9 & 15, Isaiah 55:6-12, April 23, 2017


Every year before Christmas there is a drive to collect donations in the Chicago area, called The Neediest Kids Fund. Every day in the paper there is a story about a child who has been helped in past years, or about a child who desperately needs help this year. Most of these stories have gotten sort of blurred in my memory. Each is intended to encourage givers to make a difference in a child’s life—it’s a worthy, respected charity.

One story, that I heard more than 40 years ago, however, I have carried with me. The prior Christmas a little boy, I’m guessing six or seven years old received clothes that he needed, of course. But he also received a ball like this one. This is a great toy. It’s so versatile. I play kickball, ball tag, bombardment with balls just like this when I was in first grade. You can play basketball or soccer with it too. Some recesses we played “fancy tricks” and bounced the ball between our legs or passed it behind our backs.

The boy who had gotten the ball a year ago played with it, of course. And he took good care of it. It was precious to him. Every night before he went to bed, he would go out into the backyard of his apartment building and hold the ball up to the sky. So God could see it. So he could thank God for it, and also to show God that he was taking good care of his ball.

The little boy was thankful, proud and responsible.

I remembered him as I looked at the creation story from Genesis this morning. This is not the most familiar creation story. That’s the one that begins “In the beginning…” This one’s different, there’s a different sequence of what gets created by God. And “Man” is created in order to tend the garden that God had made. There’s some nice word play here. The Hebrew word for soil is “adamah;” the name of the first person was “Adam,” because he was formed from the soil. “Clay” might be a good, modern equivalent for “Adam.” In Hebrew class, the professor suggested in all seriousness that it would be appropriate to call the first man “Earthling.”

The first person’s purpose was to tend the garden that God created for him. Take care of this precious gift God has made him responsible for. Now you know the story takes an unfortunate turn right after this…it involves the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil…but I’m not going to go there. Not today.

Hang onto the goodness of the earth, and that soil, and air, and water are essential for life. God breathed into the one made of soil, and he came to life. And there had been no vegetation until God sent water into the garden.

April is Earth Month, because yesterday was Earth Day. Early in April I received an email from the Board of Pensions, those are the people who take care of insuring Presbyterian ministers and their families. The Board of Pensions regularly sends out messages and I generally ignore them. This one got my attention “Take a hike” was the subject. The Board of Pensions wants us to be healthy, because it’s cheaper to insure healthy people. They have campaigns periodically to encourage healthy living. In April they encouraged us to get out in nature. Walk in the forest, or on a trail or along a river or lake. Get away from your desk and cellphone, surround yourself with nature. And so I did. I took another hike, sort of, yesterday. I’ll talk about that in a minute.

The lesson from Isaiah is sort of a hiking story too. That poem, or song, was sung as the Jews left exile in Babylon and returned after more than 60 years, or about three generations, to Jerusalem. When Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians, the Jews were permitted to return. And they were filled with joy and anticipation. Remember, they had only heard about Jerusalem, they had only longed for it. They sang, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept.” But now, at last they were coming home!

They sing that God’s love is abundant; that God’s greatness is higher than the sky. And they know that because God cares for the people with two really, really important things: water and the word. Did you catch that? There in the Old Testament is a solid understanding about the cycle of water. It comes from the sky, waters the land, and returns to the sky. It is essential to life. (But you knew that, you remembered what God had done before making Adam to tend the garden.) God’s word follows a similar cycle to water. God sends it to people, who use it, learn it, and return it to God, after it has achieved God’s intention.

The peak of the joy the refugees expressed is in the last verse of the reading:

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field
shall clap their hands.

The people were so filled with joy, it felt like the mountains and hills were skipping and the trees were clapping their hands. I had two conversations about this image last week. We talked about trees that have been important, or at least memorable for us. I think everyone has a story about trees, and how they are beautiful and sturdy. For example, just down the street from my college dorm room was an elm tree that turned a shocking shade of yellow every autumn. It practically glowed. I took a picture of it which I still have. Some of you go on special trips to see the fall colors. They are glorious, even transcendent. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine trees clapping in their autumn beauty. Which brings me to yesterday’s hike. I walked to the library from my house, which is about a mile and a half. I was delighted to see so many people outside. Kids were playing; people were working in their yards; families were riding bikes. I even saw a badminton game. I walk to church regularly during the warm months. I never see so many people outside. Now I walk during the week, not on Saturday, but people just do not go outside as much as they did a generation ago—we’re wired and entertained, or at least occupied—by social media and the internet.

I was delighted to see people outside. I passed a house on Merritt with a sign in the front yard that said, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…” Yep, I was totally feeling that. But it’s what I heard that really got my attention. Five different times I heard woodpeckers. And each of them had a different rhythm and sound. I imagined that maybe clapping trees were literally what Isaiah meant—he just forgot to mention the woodpeckers.

I’ve got one more point I need to make. You understand that Creation is a great gift, we should be grateful for it, and be responsible as we care for it. You understand that joy can be revealed and expressed to us by God through nature.

Early Saturday morning, I found myself awake and remembered there was a meteor shower. I’d gone to bed about 9, and the shower was supposed to peak around midnight, but I decided to look out the window anyway. I saw four, long, beautiful meteors in just a few minutes. You know what meteors are, don’t you? They’re tiny bits of sand or pebbles. They are the debris from comets whose orbits have passed through the atmosphere. They give off light as they disintegrate burning up because of the friction because they’re travelling so fast. It’s when they die that they are most beautiful. Sort of like the autumn leaves that we enjoy every year. As trees start to take nutrients from their leaves as they store energy to survive winter, the green leaves the leaves, leaving reds, oranges, yellows and browns. The trees are at their most beautiful as they are shutting down, going dormant, as they’re dying so they’ll be ready for new life in the coming spring.

At first I thought those two thoughts about the meteors and the leaves were too depressing for an Earth Day message. But then a minute later I realized that death is an essential part of life. I remembered that there is no resurrection without death. Our Creator is so wise, kind and loving, that all we have to do is look around to know how precious creation is, and we should be humbled and grateful to be part of it, or as we will sing to close worship this morning, “Lord, how thy wonders are displayed, where’er I turn my eyes, if I survey the ground I tread or gaze upon the skies.” Amen.