A Sermon by The Rev. Cynthia Bronson Sweigert on Earth Sunday at St. John the Evangelist
April 24, 2022
Oh, God of gracious embrace
when you fashioned the world
the morning stars sang together
and the host of heaven shouted for joy.
Continuously open our eyes to the wonders of and responsibilities to, your creation
to the honor of your glorious Name. Amen.
(A New Zealand Prayer Book, adapted)
When we were students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC (a seminary of the Conservative movement in Judaism) a friend named Moshe and I were walking around the Upper West Side one Saturday. It was a beautiful, warm day and I saw an ice cream shop. “Let’s get some!” I said and was about to enter the shop when Moshe said “I can’t go in.” When he saw my questioning eyes he went on. “On the Sabbath we are not allowed to carry money or spend it.” I don’t remember if I said anything or not but I was surprised. Moshe then said “We are taught that on Sabbath what we have is sufficient. What we have is sufficient.”
I was learning that these commandments are something far more than restrictive but rather that they impart important values. The Hebrew word for commandment is mitzvah, conscious acts of empathy and kindness, they are intended to promote a way to live meaningfully upon the earth. –While at JTS I learned that Sabbath is not only a day of the week with a special emphasis; people who keep Sabbath keep all days of the week differently in some way of their choosing.
Although we might think, consciously or unconsciously, that Jesus rejected everything about the commandments, there is no evidence for that conclusion. What Jesus did reject are those aspects which did not encourage wholeness, compassion, or healing; human beings, as we know, are more than capable of taking a beautiful concept and in some ways distorting it…certainly the Church has done so. Sabbath is intended to be a day of rest, of stopping, a day of restoration, of difference. It has also been described as a day to emphasize mindfulness – in a world which is often mindless. “On the Sabbath, what we have is sufficient.”
I’m sure it’s no accident that Sabbath is rooted in, and made the crown of, Creation; Humankind is not this crown.
The first Creation story of Genesis is often described as magisterial – we were reminded of this fact at the Easter Vigil when we heard it so beautifully proclaimed. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” What is the purpose of these opening verses? I am not sympathetic to the idea that they are concerned with the origins of the earth.
The verses 1:1-2:4a – while standing at the very beginning of the biblical text in fact need to be understood in terms of an older traditions of creation. But as biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann, writes, Israel articulated its creation faith by doxology, that is the public, liturgical practice where by Israel sings its awe and wonder about the glory and goodness of God’s creation. It is most accurate, then, to refer to these verses as part of a Creation liturgy. It has even been suggested that the words “…and it was good” is a congregational response in a litany. Where proclamation and response begins and ends exactly I don’t know…Although it is certainly related to other accounts of creation our biblical text has been shaped and reshaped as a vehicle for Israel’s faith.¹
An alternative way of translating the opening words of Genesis is “When God began to create…” – It is if God says “When the Sabbath comes, look at what I have made and consider that I am not finished yet…you can be part of my ongoing creative process.”
Sabbath is not only practice. It is a choice to live differently in the world than what our culture often asks of us.
The first reading for today from Genesis is the story of Noah and the Flood, or more accurately, the aftermath.
As with the opening verses of Genesis, there is a difference between the biblical Flood story and other, similar myths – the version we have has moral implications, a dimension other creation accounts did not. Whatever the history of an ancient, cataclysmic event might be, such is not the focus of this telling.
The Noah story describes what happens when humans plan their own future quite apart from the one desired by God.
Noah is often considered to be an extremely righteous man, in Judaism and in Christianity, but there is a dissenting view that such was not the case; rather, that there was nothing particularly exceptional about him, intellectually or morally… sure, he was considered righteous in his generation, but considering the behavior of that generation…If he had been born In Abraham’s generation he probably would not have been singled out. If you will recall, Abraham argued with God when God told him he was going to destroy Sodom.
This dissenting view is based on the silence of Noah. We never hear his voice at all, let alone in protest. He did not question the death sentence which would be imposed upon the world. But, still – the Midrash says that when Noah came out of the ark he was a changed man, a feeder and a life sustainer. Noah was considered to be saved not for who he was but for who he would be.
And God said “Yes! OK! Let us begin creating once again.”
Today is Earth Sunday, an Earth Sabbath, a day of mindfulness.
Here, too, liturgy as a vehicle for our awe and wonder. Rowen Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written, and I quote,
“Every Sunday in the creed, Christians confess their faith in God who created the world we inhabit. It’s God’s gift. As stewards of that gift, each of us has responsibility, both to God and to generations to come, to ensure that this remains a sustainable world. Placing environmental concerns at the heart of our Christian worship for this fixed time each year demonstrates our shared commitment to this end.”
As well as how this shared commitment may be shared and lived each day of the week in some way.
One of the reasons I joined St. John’s is because of the familiarity of the liturgy and the ability to let the lyrical language wash over me – not surprisingly, the sermon is often what jolts me out of this familiarity. There are times, though, when the familiar is less important. A professor known to both Jered and me and I were speaking years ago about a “non-BCP” service of some kind, I really don’t recall but he said with a laugh – “some liturgy has such an agenda.” Exactly! Today’s liturgy does indeed have an agenda in so far as it is focused upon a particular concern but it is lyrical and life-giving. Maybe not so magisterial, but …
Who will we be? As we look up at the ceiling of the Nave we are reminded that many churches are built – as this one is – with ceilings that resemble an upside down hull of a ship. It is a reminder that we are being carried in our own ark. We are called to be feeders and healers , sustainers of all forms of life, practitioners of resurrection. The creative process continues!
The foundational theological question for me, personally, is: “How can I live more compassionately upon the earth?” How can any of us?? WE must question the death sentence being imposed upon the world by largely our own making.
Today is a day for speaking, and may we embroider intention into all our days. Today is an invitation to mindfulness; a kind of specificity, a day of relearning that what we have is sufficient.
I close with a transition to Johannah’s remarks on how we may accept this invitation…
Notice in the liturgy that we are called to tend God’s creation treating this island home and all that is in it with care. We are also called to confess our rebellion, and our exploitation of creation.
Notice in the liturgy that we are called to listen to the Word, who was with God in the beginning, through whom all things came into being.
Notice in the liturgy that we are called to share what God has entrusted to us, offering the gifts of our life and labor for the healing and flourishing of all creation.
Notice in the liturgy that we are called to partner with God in the renewing of all Creation as we are sent out into the world as stewards of creation and ambassadors of the Gospel story.
(Adapted from a Liturgy Lesson published by The Church of the Servant, Christian Reformed Church)
- This paragraph contains the words and thoughts of Walter Bruggemann in his book
An Introduction to the Old Testament – the Canon and Christian Imagination. These thoughts were quoted in an article by Chris Benson in an online article about Creation and Liturgy.
Many of my thoughts were influenced over time by the books Studies in Bereshit (Genesis) by Nehama Leibowitz; The Beginnings of Desire: Reflections on Genesis; and several midrashim.