Father Stephen Freeman of the Orthodox Church of America is Rector of a church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He had a good article about Pentecost and Creation and I will begin my sermon with his opening paragraph: “Earth is a wondrous place – no matter where we go – how deep, how far, how high, how hot, how inhospitable – in this place we find life. Everywhere we look on our nearest neighbor to earth– Mars – we find – no life. We want to find life. We hope to find life. We theorize life. But we have yet to find it in the universe.”
There is something about life, at least in our earthly experience, that is “inevitable.” Any individual case of life may be fragile, but life itself endures. In the Genesis account we are told that “God blessed this planet and said: Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.”
Just like in other Christian traditions, in the Orthodox Church (similar to Catholicism,) Pentecost celebrates the birth of the Christian Church as the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus’ disciples. Soon they begin to speak in other languages with the purpose of those gathered around the house hearing their ecstatic speech so that the teachings and the promised salvation that came in Jesus Christ will begin to spread. There is a twist on, what I will call today, the first Pentecost story I just described to you in the Book of Acts, chapter 2, in the eastern Orthodox tradition. The feast they have commemorating Pentecost focuses as much on the work of the Holy Spirit in God’s creation as it does on the Spirit’s work in the Church. Using their example of the celebration, there is a definite juxtaposition between a celebration of Earth Day and Pentecost, the very thing I had hoped to find in my research for this sermon for today’s service .
In our 2nd Scripture Lesson, found in the Book of Acts, we are treated to another type of Pentecost experience as we read that Peter baptizes Gentiles not merely with water but with the Holy Spirit just as the Jewish followers received on Pentecost. We begin to see the spread of the followers of Jesus Christ to those other than Jews: “And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” And: “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.”
On Pentecost Sunday, Orthodox churches are decorated in green and the Russian Orthodox Church has birch branches scattered around, freshly cut grass on the floors and flowers everywhere. Our concession today is flowers and nature items on the communion table along with our Lord’s Supper elements, to show a connection between Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s creation as it was meant to be good. The Orthodox Church believes, as do I, that there isn’t a separation between the gracious, dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the church that follows Jesus Christ and God’s good Creation itself. The Orthodox feast is a great reminder to their members that those two are not separate for God, in the Holy Spirit, is the Maker and Redeemer of all life. The Holy Spirit was with God in the beginning. Genesis 1 states: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good…”
In various passages of Scripture, the wind is equated with God’s Spirit. In Acts chapter 2, we often picture a great wind rushing through the house where the disciples were because scripture explains that a “sound like the rush of a violent wind” in the house as the divided flames of fire of the Spirit rested on the disciples. We have the concept of wind as part of that Pentecost experience. Wind, as equated with the Spirit, is found in the beginning of creation and in the Pentecost story, in Acts chapter 2, and they are inextricably linked.
Rev. Freeman gives this explanation: “Just as the Spirit moved over the face of the waters in the beginning of creation, so the Spirit moves over the face of all things at all times, bringing forth life and all good things. Though I am frequently assaulted with bouts of pessimism,” he says, “despairing over various aspects of our distorted civilization, the truth is that like the planet itself, civilization with its drive for beauty and order seems relentless. The history of humanity is not the story of a fall from a great civilization with increasing instances of barbarism and cave dwelling. Great civilizations have risen and fallen, but civilizations continue to occur. Some may already have begun in the ruins that surround us now” (in this world.)
Freeman continues: “The story told in Scripture is not the story of collapse and decay. There are certainly dire warnings of terrible trials and great catastrophes. But these things do not reveal the mystery of God’s will. These things are cracks in the pavement while life continues to burst forth so that in the letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1, we read: ‘God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will, according to (our Lord’s) good pleasure which (the Creator) purposed, that in the dispensation (here meaning special consideration) of the fullness of the times, the Lord might gather together, in one, all things in Christ- both which are in heaven and which are on earth– into Christ, our Lord and Savior.’”
Yes, it is true that God’s will is known to us, as best as we are able to interpret our mysterious God through the Word. That Word includes all of creation. We are not separate from, better than or superior to creation; we are a part of it, an important part as per our relationship with God, but still only a portion of all the Almighty has created. Yes, we are to be caretakers of it and have dominion over it however, that is caretakers (stewards) who are watchful of, show continual and compassionate attention to, and gently nurture all of creation. Our dominion is to be benevolent as God is benevolent with us. If we truly believe Genesis chapter 1, God is the Creator of all that is good. My question for all of us is: do we intentionally and carefully treat all of creation as if it is God’s and not ours? When we pollute, when we ignore (and yes I’m going to say it) global warming, when we overfish, fill in natural watersheds for more housing, kill animals for sport (not the same as for food,) when we use more than our fair share of the water of this earth while we let it run while we brush our teeth or wash our hands or the dishes, when we leave all or most of the lights in the house on even when not in those rooms, so burning more polluting fossil fuels, are we preserving or destroying God’s creation? Well, I’m sure you can tell what I think the answer is. We are systematically destroying God’s good creation as our dominion is abusive, subversive and oppressive. You do it and so do I, far too often.
When we remember that we are to live as intentionally as we can into the Apostle Paul’s marks of Christianity, heard in part in our third lesson for today, we will better be able to care for God’s creation. Again, I lift up a couple of those verses: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” A definition of the word “harmony” is my sermon title- that which is clean and good, not to be profane.
As compassionate, kindly and generous caretakers of God’s earth, we are to foster harmony and live peaceably, within our own ability to do so, not worrying about what others are or are not doing, with all that God has created, all human beings, all animals of the land, birds of the air, fish of the ocean, plants, air, the land and water as we possibly can, in the ways we can. I say “the ways we can” because if we look at this task God has set before us, we will feel overwhelmed but we each can and ought to do our small part, wherever we are, and not give in to the temptation to ignore our signs of abuse of creation. On our part, we are to work in the power of that same Spirit who was “in the beginning” of creation. We are to show the marks of good Christianity, and we can know what they are by reading the Gospels and the Epistles in order to better God’s creation, drawing it closer to the good God intended from the beginning. We are strengthened and enlightened to carry out our portion of the whole in the care of creation. We do so with the mark and seal of the Spirit given to us in baptism.
Creation Justice Ministries, of which the PC(USA) is a part, has Earth Day resources up on its website. Their theme for 2018 is “Sense of Place.” The theme is centered in living in harmony and peace with all of creation. They discuss living in harmony with local ecosystems and watersheds, and rightly, instead of resentfully, appreciating diversity in different peoples and beliefs and cultures as we treat them with respect, compassion, and equality. Treating people equally, for God shows no partiality, means that we don’t allow food deserts in areas of our country, places where people can’t get to good, affordable, and fresh food easily enough, without making changes for the betterment of those situations by the way we vote, the mission projects we chose, and the way in which we work in the community. It would be easy enough to argue that there are areas of food deserts in Paris and the surrounding areas. Equal treatment means that we seek ways for everybody to have fresh water, not merely ourselves. This happens as we take care of and preserve our watersheds, the various forms of water like rivers, creeks, run-off ponds, reservoirs, ponds and swamps. And too, it means not creating harm to certain groups of our population by building in certain places pushing out people already there or, denying jobs or homes to people because of the color of their skin. And finally, treating others equally means doing away with the institutions or harmful aspects of the institutes that prefer and cater to one group of people over another.
Our celebration of Earth Day in worship and with our dig-in-the-dirt day and the celebration of Pentecost, the birth of the Christian Church with the giving of the Holy Spirit, go hand in hand. They too are harmonious. As we remember that God is the Creator of all, we know we are to be concordant with it and live as peaceably as we possibly can with creation as caretakers of all. May we all be aware of ways to fulfill that responsibility. May we prayerfully consider the changes we need to make in our own lives to fulfill our responsibility to God’s creation while living Christian values as Jesus and Paul teach. Of course, we never follow through with this alone for it is in the strength of the Holy Spirit, given to us at Pentecost, that we may and will be able to fulfill our job as caretaker. Alleluia! Amen.