A Sermon for an Outdoor Setting
Text: Colossians 1:15-20; John 20:1-18
Preached at R.B. Winter State Park in Pennsylvania, in the outdoor Whispering Pines amphitheater
(This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit, available from Chalice Press for pre-order at http://www.chalicepress.com/Creation-Crisis-Preaching-P1550.aspx).
In honor of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Sí, this sermon takes its cue from the Pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. I reintroduce his idea of preaching to the creatures, flora and non-human others in Creation. In this way the eco-hermeneutical principle of proclamation for the other-than-human community of Earth is given a completely different conceptual framework. The Earth-congregation is directly addressed, and the humans are told they can “listen in.” Thus anthropocentrism is de-centered from the outset and humans are relegated to the margin. Moreover, the members of the other-than-human community are addressed not just as “Brother” and “Sister,” but are identified by their role within the liturgy of Creation, much the way humans have parts to play in the worship service as ushers, greeters, choir members, and lectors.
The ecological hermeneutic is also woven throughout the sermon by seeing the story of the Passion and Resurrection from the nature characters’ points of view. They are identified as witnesses to the events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and as co-sufferers in Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus the sermon, through both its form and content, enacts a creative actualization of the biblical story from Earth’s perspective and situates them as equals in the Divine drama of the Passion and Crucifixion.
The primary text for consideration alongside that of the Gospel is the hymn of the Cosmic Christ in the first chapter of Colossians. Here I drew on Joseph Sittler’s interpretation which contains seeds of an early ecofeminism, in that he identifies nature as “God’s sister”:
We must not fail to see the nature and size of this issue that Paul confronts and encloses in this vast Christology. In propositional form it is simply this: a doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God's creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is God's home, God's definite place, the theatre of God's selfhood, in cooperation with God's neighbour, and in a caring relationship with nature, God's sister.
While the ontological implications of such a relationship between God and nature (i.e., if they are siblings, who is their parent?) are worth exploration at another time, what I wish to highlight is the way in which Sittler expands a salvific Christology to be inclusive of nature. With this in mind, the middle of the sermon takes time to trace the contours of the story of the Cosmos’ and Earth’s ancient, primordial history in order to provide the memory of God’s steadfastness and love through the unfathomable reaches of time.
The sermon then returns to Holy Week. Earth is described as taking Jesus’ body into herself and birthing him from her womb as the Resurrected One. The Greek chorus of Creation is set in relief against the reaction of the women at the tomb on Easter morning. And just as the elements of Creation provide a unique witness to the crucifixion, so they also provide a fly’s eye, stone’s eye, and birds’ eye view of the risen Christ. The description of what they see is influenced by Catherine Keller’s description of an ecological resurrection: "[T]he old creation will remain, marred and scarred, to be mourned, healed, teased, its lonely phallic signifiers danced around like ancient maypoles."
St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecologists, preached to the flowers. He preached to cornfields, stones, forests, earth, air and wind. He considered them and all God’s creatures to be his brothers and sisters. He thought of them as his fellow worshipers of God and exhorted them to praise their Creator.
I think it is high time to revive his practice of preaching to our Earth-kin. So this sermon is not for my human sisters and brothers, it is for my other-than-human family. You are welcome to listen in. But as we stand in this cathedral of God’s creation, surrounded by the very presence of God in the midst of this congregation of trees, creeks, hundreds of varieties of plants and wildlife, thousands of insects, and microbes we can’t even see, this sermon is for them.
Brother Fern and Sister Porcupine; Choir of Cicadas and Altar Guild of Spiders who weave the fair linens of the forest; Lightning Bug Acolyte and Lector Bull Frog who reads to us the lessons of God’s Creation as the sun sets each summer evening: Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the most moving hymns that we humans sing on Good Friday is “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” Lest we forget that God’s very Creation witnessed to Jesus’ suffering and death, I want to acknowledge your presence at every point along Jesus’ journey to the cross, and that you witnessed his resurrection before any human eye beheld him.
Stones, your voices echoed the ringing “Hosannas” shouted by the disciples and crowds along the road to Jerusalem. Palm leaves, you laid a green carpet for Donkey’s hooves as he carried Jesus into the city. Olive Grove, you stood sentry over Jesus as he prayed at Gesthemane, knowing the suffering that awaited him. Sun, you hid your face during those torturous hours Jesus hung on the cross, as Nephesh, the Breath of Life, was forced from his lungs with each passing hour. And Trees, both of you felled in the prime of your life after having housed countless birds, insects, and children’s playtimes – they lashed you together crossways and forced you to become the scaffolding of death for Jesus. Each of you was there. Even you, Rocks, trembled and shook, fractured and split as Jesus breathed his last.
Yes, you were there. You suffered as Jesus suffered. And is your suffering any different today? Yes, it is different. For as man’s death-machine has become more sophisticated, so has his ability to violate your life processes become more complex and sinister. Brother Trees, you are massacred by the millions every hour to make room for human houses, strip malls, fields of human-designed genetically-mutated seeds, and drill rigs. Sister Rocks, you tremble and shake, fracture and split, as these rigs puncture you, inject you with biocides and chemicals to kill any and every living thing, as the essence of your ancient depths is extracted. Nephesh, Breath of Life, you are polluted with carbon dioxide, fumes, and the smallest particulates that find their way into our children’s lungs and cause them to gasp for air. Sun, your heat is no longer simply beneficial, but trapped inside the atmosphere of Earth, causing Brother Ice Caps to shrink, Sea to rise, and Storm to rage with irrepressible anger against us. The crucifixion of Jesus happened once in history. But your crucifixion, O Earth, is carried out daily.
It is no wonder that you groan, waiting for those of us who are Christian to claim our birthright and responsibilities as Children of God to finally stand up and say, Enough! We have done such damage to you, committed so many sins against you and our human brothers and sisters, I worry that we may have already reached the tipping point and that we are on a fast track to an environmental Good Friday, the likes of which none of us will survive.
But when I am tempted to give in to despair, I am reminded of a story that gives me hope. It is the most ancient of stories. It is your story – the story of the birth of the universe itself. Cosmos of God, you are nearly 14 billion years old. The story we hear in Genesis is of your creation, conceived from the great unfathomable depths of God’s bottomless, tehomic love. And the set of circumstances for life to begin and evolve on this fragile blue orb is so impossible, it can only be Love itself that would enable it to happen at all.
I am reminded that in Earth’s history there have been waves of catastrophic events which have threatened life on this planet. But again and again, the resiliency and creativity given to you by God has found ways to push through and around the crises and enabled life to flourish once again. I have to believe that God, who has brought us through 14 billion years of time, will not abandon us now. That somehow God is working through even this man-made catastrophe of global climate change, deforestation, massive extinction, and toxic poisoning to find a way for life to push through once again. And so I make the choice to believe – and act on my firm belief – that on the other side of the Good Friday of the eco-crucificion, there is an eco-resurrection waiting to surprise us.
Because when I remember that you were there at Jesus’ crucifixion, I also remember that you were there at his resurrection. Earth, you took Jesus’ body into yourself, into the very heart of your bosom. What did you witness there if not a birth from the womb of your body? Great Stone hewn from the cave, how light you were in the hands of the angels who rolled you away. Quiet Garden in which the women stood, uncomprehending of the miracle before them, how the Crickets must have laughed, how the Flowers must have glowed with joy, seeing the women’s faces behold the Resurrected One.
What did you see, Sister Flies, no longer drawn to a decomposing body? How did Jesus appear to you, Brother Birds who whistled the first “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”? He was the same, yet different. He was filled with new life, yet with scars remaining. So, too, will be your appearance, O Earth, when your resurrection is complete. For God so loved the world – the cosmos – that She gave her only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
I ask you, Sister Dolphin and Brother Arctic Moss, not to give up hope. Believe in the One who loves you, who created you, who suffers with you, and who will raise you up into new life. Do not give up on us, O Earth. There are humans who are teaching their children and others how to see the world not just from a human point of view, but from your point of view. We are learning how God sees the interrelatedness within all of Creation. We are learning from you, listening to your teachings, reintroducing ourselves to Brother Fox and Sister Salamander. We are drawing our faith from you, and repenting of our arrogance as that has oppressed you for so long.
You, our Earth-kin are grounding us in the universe story so we can see where we come from and what we come out of – this soil and water and breath - reminding us that we are all indeed one – of the same substance that exploded in that glorious instant of creation. You will help us to unfetter our imagination by asking: what does the world look like when we live within our means and see Earth as family? And you will show us what it looks like when all God’s creatures, including these Children of God, praise their Creator through worship and song and quiet meditation. As we learn to love you, O Earth, and love God, we are being moved to advocate for you and to be servants of the Most High God.
O Earth, I must believe that we can look forward to the Resurrected One calling our name and opening our eyes to your crucified body transformed to new life, even as we have done all we could in our faithful witnessing and ministering, and still fallen short.
Pray for us, Earth-kin, as we pray for you. It is no accident that you are here, that any of us are here. God has brought you to this place and God will guide you and lead you as you lead and guide us. Go forth with the faith that will sustain you and assure you that you are doing God’s work with your very existence. And God’s work never fails. Amen.
 Francis' first biographer, Thomas of Celano (1229) wrote: “When he found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart, as one who had already escaped into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.” (1 Celano, 81-82) [as cited in Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997). p. 210].)
 Joseph Sittler, "Called to Unity: Redemption within Creation," in World Council of Churches Meeting (New Delhi, India: 1961, reprinted 1985), 3.
 Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 179, 180.