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Based on the Scripture readings:
Genesis 1:26-31, 2:18-14 

2006 October 8
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

The Green Grace of God

In my office just beyond that stained glass window, I keep a number of pictures and carvings that are meaningful to me. I have a photograph that I took twenty-five years ago in Maine, which shows the big sign in front of a non-denominational church called the Truth Tabernacle, and on the sign is written "Jesus Christ: the same yesterday and today and forever," from Hebrews. And nailed to that sign is another that says, "For Sale by Owner." I still haven't figured that one out.

I also have some plaques and a piece of the Berlin Wall, but over my desk is a simple poster that I bought in Italy, and it is a picture of Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds a few miles from where my family has traveled.

The Roman Catholic Church is just now celebrating 800 years since what they call the conversion of Francis. October 4th, last Wednesday, is his feast day, and this is the first year in several that I haven't blessed animals in his memory here, partially because two of our good organizers have moved. But I love Francis very much, and I can't learn enough about him.

Francis is giving the current Pope palpitations because he would dialogue with Muslims, and every decade there is a major multi-faith prayer gathering in Assisi, all of which causes Vatican headaches, but if you know his own story very well you know that Francis lived a mere forty-four years and that even though he had thousands of followers during his lifetime, he believed personally that he only had about five or perhaps ten effective years of accomplishing his own hopes, and after that everything was out of control.

The conversion experience that is cited, which began in 1205, was the result of his rather wealthy and privileged childhood and teen years, which led to his pursuit of honor though military service as a knight, yet each time he tried to go to war he got horribly sick, and so he fell into a giant funk, if not depression about his whole condition. And in that state he spent a lot of time in an abandoned church with a huge, beautiful cross which is still in Assisi today, and one day, alone, he heard a message from the cross.

This is a colorful cross with an upright Jesus whose eyes are open and who doesn't look terribly injured. It is an honest faced Jesus, and in this abandoned church Francis simply heard, Back to top"My house is in ruins. Rebuild it."

Francis' wealthy father, avaricious Bishop, and friendly Pope all thought he was either a little bit or a lot crazy. But he just started rebuilding the falling down church, humbly and patiently. And in his poverty, his simplicity, and his focus, he started rebuilding the entire Christian Church as folks from every part of it will acknowledge. He brought us back to essentials, by example. And part of his example was his harmony with nature, with animals, birds, sun and moon and earth, and he called them his sisters and brothers and family, identifying himself as perhaps the first environmentalist Christian.

This conversion that Francis underwent actually took years. It made full sense only in retrospect. If I'm going to hear a voice from a cross, I'd frankly like it to be clear and articulate, but even those who were writing to promote the strength of his vision when Francis was being canonized right after his death said that all he reported was that he heard "a tender voice." To this day we know pastors and presidents who affirm that they hear the voice of God with much more clarity than Francis claimed. He wasn't exactly sure about the call to repair God's house, but did his best to pursue it, even amidst many years of doubt, unanswered prayer, and questioning. Indeed he wrote very little to explain himself except for his poetry about creation and our relationship to all life and things beyond the immediate, such as the sun and moon and even death. He preached to birds, converted at least one wolf (it is said), and endeavored to leave a very tender footprint on the farmland where he lived as a point of reverence and love and peace.

Ultimately Francis wasn't sure if God's house meant the little falling down church or all the local churches or the Vatican or the faith. In the scriptures, similar words mean temple or community, but sometimes they mean all creation and even what is beyond creation, that is, heaven and earth. God's dwelling place is with people, we read, but also the heavens and all the earth. Thinking about this anniversary this past week, I wonder if Francis has inspiration and meaning to the emerging Christian environmental movement, which is getting most of its current steam from conservative and evangelical communities. I wonder if God's dwelling needs some care.

This Wednesday, ordained UCC minister Bill Moyers will run a special on PBS called Is God Green? He's going to look at the connection between Christian faith and new conservatism Back to topthat means conservation. And I'm very hopeful that this connection is a bountiful one, as it might be.

What has been happening in recent years is that folks who have been reading the Bible literally have honorably reckoned with the fact that what it says in Genesis in the creation stories, and what is implied in Revelation in the accounts of how the world is judged, if you will, calls for people of faith to exercise dominion not as a measure of domination, but like the deity. We are asked to be sensitive to creation as though we were partners with the creator, not prodigal like the bad son. Being made in the image of God was early understood to mean that we have a responsibility to the creation. And while it took many centuries for our self-regard (which is one of the simplest definitions of sin) to be dangerous to the planet, it has become so, and it's time to modify our ways.

Did you know that in order to satisfy our energy needs, in the state of West Virginia alone three million pounds of explosives are used each day -- each day -- to uncover coal, generally leaving open land sores? Did you know that the world's population now creates seven billion with a "B" metric tons, 7 billion tons of greenhouse gases each year?

Here's something scary that I did the other day. I followed the links on the PBS website to a calculator that asks how many miles you drive and fly each year and how much electricity and heating fuel you use each month. It gathers all of that -- totally leaving out your office, second home or farm equipment -- and it tells you how many tons of carbon dioxide you produce each year. Now, neither my wife nor I commute with a car, and we did insulate the pipes at the Parsonage and put on some new storm windows, yet my personal calculation is ten metric tons of CO2 each year. Many Americans produce twenty. But I make 147 times my weight in gas each year, which is embarrassing.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says that he lives in a very clean and privileged location, as safe as any in America, yet has several kids with asthma and asks, why is this? Back to topWhat have we done to our air and our atmosphere?

In 1970 I went to Lake Erie and did a high school photo essay as a science project recording commercial locations that were piping their refuse and sewage and chemicals right into that Great Lake. It took about two hours before I had more pictures than I could need, because the pipes were everywhere, so I quit early. Now our nation has quit that, too: today we have meaningful standards and practices, and many things have been getting much better since those bad old days, which is good news.

Today, many of us are environmentalists for political and philosophical or even economic reasons, and that is fine news, too. But Christianity offers a deeper call.

The stories of creation call us to live in harmony and almost paternal community with our environment. They ask us to express our reverence for God in our attention to creation. And the voice of Jesus prays that we will all be one, like liberals and conservatives finding faith's common ground in conservation. Our faith calls us to deep concern and care for our environment.

Last week I reflected on what a high percentage of people who counsel with me talk about how they find their spiritual restoration in nature, by the ocean, or upon a mountain. I believe we have a God-given, built-in association with our environment. As Eve came from Adam's rib in that one story, so Adam came from Earth, and it is in all of our fibers. On this weekend, when fortunate folks will leaf-peep, we affirm again our embrace of the wonders of the trees of life and the grandeur of God's good way.

So is God green? What else do we need to know about our theology and background to give us insight and inspiration in this arena? What else do we need to do?

I heard an intriguing statement on the radio about a week ago, although I didn't like the dichotomy. It said that one hundred years from now, what happens in Iraq may be long forgotten in the history of the world. But what we do about the environment in our time will literally shape that history.

The voice of faith calls us to be one, liberals and conservatives, finding common ground in both theology and conservation. And this tender voice is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, which frankly is good news for God's dwelling and for us. If we have ears to hear.


Copyright 2006 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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