Touch the Earth Lightly
Texts: Psalm 23; Colossians 1:13-20
by Rev. Gary W. Charles, Pastor of Central Presbyterian Church-Atlanta
This morning we will sing our way through my sermon. So, I invite you to find a hymnal and turn to hymn 713. This is a hymn written by the New Zealand composer, Shirley Murray, and is based upon an aboriginal saying, “Touch the Earth Lightly.” Pay close attention to the words as we remain seated to sing stanza 1: “Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care: gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, trust for the children tomorrow will bear.”
Over the entire course of my ministry, the church has debated most over the issue of how best to understand homosexuality. I have engaged in countless hours of study and long, protracted debate over seven texts in Scripture that may speak about homosexuality, seven texts out of the vast entirety of Scripture. In reality, Scripture says next to nothing about homosexuality and Jesus says absolutely nothing on the subject.Meanwhile, I have spent precious little time focused a topic about which Scripture speaks frequently and clearly from its opening poem to its final ode. In fact, whenever I have preached about our call to be stewards of God’s creation, I have been told that I was just joining the politically correct bandwagon. May God forgive me for not preaching about caring for creation often enough.
Did you listen to the lyrics of the first stanza of the hymn we just sang? “Touch the Earth Lightly” is a phrase from an Aboriginal tribe in New Zealand, but it is also a song sung throughout the Old and the New Testaments. In the first creation story, God creates the earth and all that dwells on earth and calls it “good.” In the creation story that follows, God entrusts the care of creation to the man and woman. The Psalmist sings, “The earth is the Lord’s.” Jesus reminds his disciples that God tends even to the sparrow and calls us to do no less. In the great creation hymn in the Letter to the Colossians, the author celebrates Christ as the “firstborn of all creation” and the one through whom all creation will be reconciled. So, if we claim to live in Christ, then we are also called to “touch the earth lightly,” to be good stewards of God’s good creation.
The song goes on. Listen carefully to the words of the second stanza as Kim Long sings: “We who endanger, who create hunger, agents of death for all creatures that live, we would foster clouds of disaster, God of our planet, forestall and forgive!” My grandmother made a blanket for me to bring to school. It was actually a quilt that she had made with extra sturdy textiles. It was around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and she wanted me well protected when the nuclear attack occurred. Once a week, the unnerving alarm would sound at Hidenwood Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia and students would scurry into the hallway, blankets in hand, and hug the floor with blankets covering us until the alarm ended.
Looking back, these Civil Defense Drills were ridiculously silly. No blanket, however lovingly made, will protect anyone from the deadly and devastating “cloud of disaster” of a nuclear explosion, just ask those still living near Chernobyl. Pretending that nuclear weapons keep us safe and that nuclear power plants provide only clean, cheap, and safe energy is not unlike grabbing that blanket and heading into the hallway.
Now, some would say: “The Bible does not address nuclear power at all, so Gary, why are you?” It is a fair question, but not necessarily a good one. The Bible does not address many specific realities that have emerged since its writing. Are we to remain silent about every issue not specifically addressed in Scripture? I hope not. The Bible invites us to think more creatively and critically than that, especially when it comes to messing with creation and with God’s creatures.
A recurring theme of the book of Psalms is that the cosmos is God’s and that includes the good earth. Psalm 23 celebrates the good green grass, clean water, an environment in which God restores creation and restores us. You will not find a verse in Scripture telling you to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons or to be phenomenally cautious about the use of nuclear energy, much less a verse telling to compost or to restrict your carbon footprint. What you will find is the Psalmist celebrating: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1).
What you will find are repeated calls for us to steward God’s creation and for all God’s creatures living within, not to be “agents of death for all creatures that live.” “Now, Gary, aren’t those lyrics in Shirley’s hymn a bit harsh?” If you think so, ask the albatross. Vicki Murdoch at Union Presbyterian Seminary reminded us this week that this majestic bird is endangered not due to any natural causes, but because of the plastic trash that you and I dispose which ends up dumped in the Pacific? Bottle caps, pieces of plastic water bottles, and the like are mistaken for food by the mother and brought to her young. At their young age, they have no capacity to regurgitate the deadly “food” and over 40% of their young die unnecessarily every year. Caring about such matters as the endangered albatross is not politically correct; it is at the heart of our calling to be stewards of all God’s creation.
The story of the albatross or Chernobyl does not need to be how the story ends. Let us remain seated to sing the 3rd stanza now: “Let there be greening, birth from the burning, water that blesses and air that is sweet, health in God’s garden, hope in God’s children, regeneration that peace will complete.”
Our new chef, Lo Clark, has worked with local farmers to provide the Low Country boil to be served at our Block Party today. He is also working with local farmers to buy food for all our Sunday lunches and even to help us grow some of our food here at Central. He hopes to involve guests in the Outreach Center and to involve children from the Child Development Center to not only grow food but to appreciate how to care for the plants that provide our food.
“Now, Gary, that is a sweet story but it is going to do nothing in the case of a nuclear event and the challenge before us is far greater than individual acts of stewardship.” I fear that growing up with almost a daily warning of nuclear disaster led some of us in my generation to live mainly for today and to live primarily for ourselves, to despoil the environment for our own benefit not necessarily because we are greedy and callous, but because the end is bleak and imminent. As I have grown, I never underestimate humanity’s capacity to hurt and destroy, but I have a far greater trust that it is God’s intention to restore creation and has enlisted us in that holy calling.
If that is true, it does matter what we do individually and collectively to insure that our children, like young Blair soon to be baptized, experience “water that blesses and air that is sweet.” It does mean that stewards of God’s good creation do not see the despoiling of that creation as someone else’s problem or as an intractable problem to let those who will follow solve. You and I are the ones who are to model what it looks like to “touch the earth lightly.”
For those of us who live within the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is a profound theological issue for us. Do we see earth as disposable, a playground for our careless consumption, because our eyes are set only on heaven? If we do, we need some corrected lenses, the corrected lenses of Scripture. For Scripture resounds with the reminder that the earth is a precious, good, gift entrusted to our care and keeping. So, perhaps it is best that I end this sermon with a prayer for us to be what God has called us to be and to do with the earth what God has given us to do.
Join me as we rise in body or spirit to sing and to pray the final verse of “Touch the Earth Lightly”: “God of all living, God of all loving, God of the seedling, the snow, and the sun, teach us, deflect us, Christ reconnect us, using us gently and making us one.”