SERMON: Love God with All Your Heart

This sermon was given by John Dernbach at the Church of the Nativity & St. Stephen in Newport, PA on April 17, 2016.  It is reprinted here with permission.

john-c-dernbach[1]          Good morning.  I have known your rector, Rebecca Myers, for many years.  She has honored me, with her invitation to speak today, in ways I cannot express.

This coming Friday is Earth Day.  Every year since 1970, people in the U.S. and around the world have set aside April 22 to celebrate our environment, to learn about it, and to discuss how to protect and restore it.

I am going to respond to your Rector’s invitation by venturing an answer to a question that has concerned me for my entire adult life–What does our faith have to do with the environment?   This is a huge question, and one the churches have not—until recently—done a particularly effective job in answering.

I am from St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Harrisburg.  About fifteen years ago, at Stephen’s, we were planning to convert an old parking garage—one that used an elevator to move cars to various levels—into the home for St. Stephen’s Episcopal School.  Founded by the Cathedral in 1978, the school is the only religious preschool-8th grade school in downtown Harrisburg; it is our single biggest community service effort.   Inspired by our Environmental Stewardship Committee, the Cathedral decided to “green” the building project.  Jane Hoover, who I see here today, was an important member of that committee.  We became, we were told, the first church in the country to register a building project with the U.S. Green Building Council, and we later received a “silver” certification for this project from the Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

As a result, the school’s energy use has been about 30 % less than it would have been.  The various sustainability features of the project, including not only energy savings but water conservation and the use of sustainably harvested wood, serve as a platform for an active environmental education program at the school.  Since then, our Property Committee has engaged in a number of other efficiency and conservation projects that have reduced our energy costs by 40% in each of two separate—and older—buildings.  Our environmental stewardship efforts, in other words, have also made our church more attractive and less costly to operate.  But it was also a subtle miracle—an outcome made possible because a lot of things came together in an improbable and unexpected way.

And now, I am told, your Environmental Stewardship Committee, under the leadership of Kay Cramer and others, is considering how to make your church carbon neutral.  It is looking at action in three broad areas where the church has a significant carbon footprint: increased use of individual plastic water bottles, increased use of paper, and energy efficiency of the church building itself.  This is important work.

I’m going to suggest that the environment—and the work at St. Stephen’s and Nativity—are central to our faith.  My answer is not the only answer to the question about what our faith has to do with the environment, but it is simple and basic.  Today’s lessons can help us understand the answer.  But I first need to use another short text.

Three gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–record a story in which Jesus says that there are two great commandments.  According to Mark (Mark 12:28-31 (NRSV)):

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”

This teaching is fundamental to our faith.  Jesus says love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself.  And he adds that no other commandment is greater than these.

One way to read this passage is to say that our faith is about God and other people, and that it has nothing to do with the environment.  After all, there’s nothing in this passage about nature or animals.  Many Christians have read the passage that way, and it is pretty easy to see why.

But there is another and more profound way to understand the two great commandments.  Let’s ask about the relationship between each commandment and the environment.  Instead of assuming there is no connection, let’s see if there is one.

First, then, what is the relationship between the commandment to Love God and the environment?  We know God made the world and all that is in it.  At the end of each day of creation, God looks at all that God has made and pronounces it good.  We also know, from the Psalms and other passages in the Bible, that the Earth belongs to the Lord.   God made our natural environment; it belongs to God, and God has pronounced it good.

If we love God, how do we respond to that?

Chris Jordan, US FWS  source
Chris Jordan, US FWS source

If we pollute what God has made, are we showing our love of God?

If we permit endangered species to become extinct because they get in our way or are of no use to us, are we showing our love of God?

God does say, in Genesis (Genesis 1:28) that humans are to have dominion over the fish of the sea and every living thing that moves upon the earth.    But dominion is not the same as domination or degradation.  Dominion, I am told, is the English translation of a Hebrew word that means taking appropriate care or exercising appropriate rulership.  And God never, ever says “do whatever you want.”  What matters is what God wants, not what we want.

So the commandment to love God with all of our being also requires us to care for what God has made.  God’s creation also helps us understand this God we are called to love.

We can know the calming power of God in nature because he leads us, as the Psalmist says in today’s reading, to “green pastures” and “still waters” (Psalm 23:2).

We can know the creative and live-giving power of God when a child is born, when crops sprout from the soil, and when a newborn calf takes its first steps.

We can know the fearsome power of God from storms, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

We can know the protective power of God because, as the book of Revelation says of the faithful in one of today’s readings, scorching heat from the sun will not strike them (Rev. 7:16).

We can know the greatness of God from pictures of the far end of the universe–exploding stars, galaxies in formation.

image credit source
image credit source

We can know the beauty of God from the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers and the flowers on the altar.

The fact that creation can help us understand God is another reason to respect and care for what God has made.

The second great commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  So, people have asked me over the years, what’s this got to do with the environment?  Isn’t that just about people?

The most important thing to recognize here is that pretty much everything we do to the environment affects other people.  If we damage the environment, we hurt other people.  If we restore the environment, we help other people.  We hardly ever do anything of any consequence to the environment without affecting someone, somehow.

When God says in Genesis, have dominion over every living thing, he absolutely doesn’t mean to use the environment in ways that hurt other people.  But when we damage the environment, that’s what we do.

These effects happen in small and large ways.  People who throw things in the creek, including broken bottles, create a danger for anyone who walks barefoot in the creek, including my daughters and their friends.  I stepped on such a bottle in my college days, and had to get stitches.  The people who throw such things into the environment injure us, whether they intend to cause injury or not.  As an environmental lawyer, I can tell you that our laws recognize that air and water pollution, toxic chemicals, and waste cause many harms to humans as well as to the environment.

So our duty to love our neighbor also requires us to care for and restore the environment.

But who is our neighbor?   We have all been taught that our neighbors include strangers, the hungry, and the homeless.  But how about people on the other side of the world?  How about people who have not yet been born?  While our environmental laws have done a remarkably good job of cleaning up our air and water, and improving the way we manage waste, many other environmental issues loom.  Future generations will experience more severe effects from our actions than we will.  When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as our selves, what does our faith call us to do for them?

The commandment to love God and the commandment to love our neighbor put the environment at the center of our faith, not out at the margins.  When we ask God for forgiveness in our worship service, we say, from our Book of Common Prayer:

We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

The reality, then, is that we sin against God and against our neighbor when we degrade or pollute the environment.  This is a hard message.  Most of us were not taught this as children.  Many of us have never thought about or understood these connections.   *PopeFrancis-02

In his recent encyclical on faith and environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis urgently appeals for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.  He believes there should be a dialogue with all people about our common home.  He wants the encyclical to help us acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.

This call for a respectful and Christian dialogue is of enormous importance, and it is the single most important first step we can take.  Yet it can also one of the most difficult—particularly in a culture where many in politics and media demonize those who have opposing views, and in so doing encourage us to do likewise.

In today’s lesson from Acts, Peter performs a miraculous act by bringing God’s faithful servant Dorcas back to life (Acts 9:36-43).  This is not a subtle miracle.  Peter, of all people—who was constantly getting things wrong before Jesus was crucified, who betrayed Jesus three times—brings someone back to life.  If he can do that, then surely we can find a way—in this church and across the entire church—to have a Christian dialogue about how we can live in harmony with all life.  There are also, as I said at the beginning, subtle miracles—improbable things that occur in unexpected ways—and one can easily miss what is miraculous about them.  You are beginning an important dialogue here, and we are continuing one at St. Stephen’s.  I look forward to subtle miracles from those dialogues.

What, then, does our faith have to do with the environment?   We are called to love God and to love our neighbors.  We cannot do either without caring for, protecting, and restoring the environment.    We are called, as we prayed in today’s collect, to follow the Good Shepherd wherever He leads.

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