Sermon: In the World, but…? Earth Week pt.II

This sermon, by Geoff Martin, is a follow-up to our Earth Day service of April 25.

Psalm 96:11-13, 1 John 2:15-17

  1. Opening

On Christmas Day, 1996, I tore open the wrapping on my first CD player—top-loading with a double cassette deck and detachable speakers. Later that day, from my grandparents, my first CD, called Seltzer, a Christian Rock sampler album containing the era’s biggest acts.

One of my favorite tracks was by a band named Johnny Q. Public. In the images of the group, they wore fur lined jackets and rocked unkempt hair. And always: JESUS. in red block letters across a white T-shirts. I played that one song over and over. And in a fortuitous bit of luck, I found out months later that Johnny Q. was booked for the closing concert at an end-of-summer bible camp my friend and I were heading to in Northern Ontario.

The tour bus from Nashville rolled in to camp, spilling cased instruments, the band and sound crew, and a whole bunch of merch, like the “Johnny Q. Public Invades Canada” t-shirt I subsequently wore to shreds. I also finally had their full album in-hand.

One of their other tracks sounded quite different than their usual low fi grunge rock. Called “Reader’s Digest,” the song was a rock cover of a 1973 Dylanesque blues song by Larry Norman from 1973. Some of you may remember Norman, one of the early pioneers of Christian rock, who incidentally spent some of his childhood in San Francisco. In the middle of the original song, Norman sings:

It’s 1973, I wonder who we’re gonna see

Who’s in power now? I think I’ll turn on the TV.

The man on the news said China’s gonna beat us,

We shot all our dreamers and there’s no one left to lead us.

We need a solution, we need salvation,

Let’s send some people to the moon to gather information.

To which Johnny Q. updated certain lines, like:

It’s 1994,
Teen Spirit has become a bore

Both versions share the same catchy ending to the song, an ending long imprinted in memory for me:

Everybody has to choose

Whether they will win or lose.

Follow God or sing the blues, and who you’re gonna sin with

What a mess the world is in. I wonder who began it,

Don’t ask me, I’m only visiting the planet.

(Spoken: This world is not my home, I’m just passing through)

  1. Loss of Faith

When I left my Christian faith in my late teens and early 20s—a slow shifting that began my final year of high school—one of several objections I was accumulating in my pockets was against the kind of escapism expressed in the final line: an acknowledgement that ‘the world’ is in a real mess, but then a turn away from the call to respond. This notion of “only visiting” conjured for me the irresponsibility and disrespect of a tourist. And the hope for an imminent rapture began to seem like a woefully inadequate fantasy. For me, walking away from evangelical Christianity was to gain a different relation to the world and society and environment around me.

The command, like the one we heard this morning from 1 John 2: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world”—didn’t make sense to me anymore. Despite “the mess the world was in,” it seemed to me that there was a great deal to love about the world. And, anyway, I thought then (and still think now), don’t we need more love…not less of it?? 

I didn’t want to wait out for my “true home” in heaven. I wanted to find my way in this home, in this one wild and precious life I’d been given.

  1. And Yet

There are, of course, deep well-waters to the notion that this world is not our true home. Many spiritual traditions draw wisdom from the rock-hard ground of exile and homelessness, urging their adherents to be less attached to the things of this world.

The Anabaptist tradition, rather famously, has a wide range of separatist practices that frame the boundaries of a community on a specific spot of earth, with varying degrees of suspicion about “the world” at large, all while still holding fast to the idea of a true home in heaven beyond.

It’s also accurate to say that a certain sense of homelessness is a fundamental condition of our existence—”a personal and spiritual alienation that is irresolvable” (107). No matter how grounded we may be (and certainly no matter how rich!) there is a yearning that keeps us in motion, whether internally or externally, all the days of our lives.

And yet, there are increasingly obvious consequences for thinking about home and belonging in purely metaphorical or spiritual terms. In the past decade, many of the world’s religious leaders and organizations have attempted to confront—even apologize for—the damage caused by the world-denying elements in their tradition, seeking instead to cultivate a relation of respect for and love of the Earth and all living beings in ways that align with their faith. I’m thinking especially here of Pope Francis’s moving encyclical,Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” but also the Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, or The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change. And alongside this religious soul-searching: the resurgent, moral voices of many of the world’s Indigenous people, speaking forcefully and protectively about specific and cherished lands and waters.

  1. Douglas E. Christie

Home has been on my mind a lot. It’s a common theme that links my own writing together, and it’s been a near-daily question these past five years as I’ve moved from Chicago to Western Massachusetts to San Francisco, following my partner Colleen’s academic career. And wondering, all the while, just where—exactly—we’ll land next and when, precisely, we’ll know—or feel—that we’ve made it “home.”

I’ve also been thinking about this while reading through theologian Douglas E. Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. The book is Christie’s attempt to bridge the historical distance between our own emergent ecological crisis and those ancient Christian contemplative practices cultivated by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the centuries after the Christianization of imperial Rome.

I know very little about the Christian contemplative tradition, especially the long 1,000-year gap between Augustine and the Protestant Reformation, but Christie lays out several wisdom practices that emerged from these desert wanderers and early monastic communities.

The book articulates “a double insight” that “spiritual thought and practice is immeasurably enriched through being situated within the natural word,” and that ecological understanding is given added depth and meaning by extending the boundaries of ecology to include spiritual traditions and practices (5).

Essentially, he’s suggesting that we ground a contemplative spirituality in the actual ground around us, learning to pay deep attention to the web of relations between all living beings in our given places. And he’s suggesting that our contemporary ecological-scientific understanding of the world-in-crisis would be augmented by a deeper sense of wonder and grief and an emptied, unknowability at the irreducible complexity of our shared world.

  1. “At Home, Always a Stranger”

As for what home means, Christie says we should follow the desert fathers and mothers who accepted a permanent tension between being “at home” in the places to which they’d wandered and remaining “always a stranger” so as to see with the eyes of an exile.

“At home, always a stranger.”

I’ve lived now through two wildfire seasons here in CA, most of you have lived through many more. Combined with a global pandemic that has sent us into various lockdowns and self-quarantines, I think we are (re)learning something of that same tension. We are “at home” during this strange era, and we have also become exiles, strange wanderers in our daily lives—and not by choice. Some of you took to the road last fall seeking safety and better air quality, Ross Weaver literally lost his home to flames; others of us closed our windows and doors and awoke on Sept. 9, 2020 to a blood red dawn that grew darker through late morning as ash and particulate was pulled to earth. The familiarity of home has been made very, very strange to all of us this past year. 

The ancients have something to teach us, in other words.

  1. “Practicing Paradise”

The modern environmental movement has a few different origin stories, but one of them centers on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission and the decision to train the camera lens back on Planet Earth, sending home the first image of “the lonely planet,” “the blue marble,” the “pale blue dot,” suspended there in the midst of the darkness of space, looking utterly unique and paradisical and vulnerable. Suddenly, supposedly, we could see the limits of our planet.

It might be fair to say,” notes the narrator in “Feast II,” one of Beth Piatote’s remarkable stories from her book, The Beadworkers, “that since the mid-20th century, humans have seen things that were never within their visual grasp before. But do we have better dreams? Have we seen better things? I think I would give up my fridge magnet of Planet Earth…to see what our ancestors saw, to dream their vivid dreams, to come over a mountain with my mothers and sisters and suddenly see, in the wide open, an enormous blue meadow of blooming camas, an endless, unbroken field of periwinkle, lake, and lapis that today you could barely imagine, a land breathing and rolling with blue, a land so beautiful that you would wonder how to find your voice, find your offering, draw out a song on your breath and press the strength of your body to the earth, into the earth, into the deep wild blue” (8).

There is, here, a nearly unspeakable yearning after an emplaced/embodied knowing—own’s feet walking those wildflower meadows—and a painful sense of alienation or distance from such a place. Importantly, the narrator acknowledges the stunning perspective offered to us from the window of a spaceship but refuses to give it full credence. Even that picture—of the unique and vulnerable Earth—is not the whole of it. The perspective is still off.

Science and technology are offering us essential lenses on our world in motion: diagnosing massive climactic changes and nanoscopic virus mutations, but that knowledge alone isn’t sufficient enough to ground our being and relations in the world. 

Christie concludes with the idea of “practicing paradise,” which involves amongst other things, living into the tension between making home and being a stranger. We might agree with Larry Norman and Johnny Q that the world is a real mess, but the choice is not whether we will “follow God or sing the blues” (surely, we can do both, no!?). In fact, the ancient Jewish and Christian wisdom traditions affirm that “heavenliness and anguish exist together” (351). And holding on to that complex mystery “must lead,” Christie argues, “to a willingness to stand within that anguish and to seek meaningful forms of resistance to the patterns of thought and ways of living that continue to diminish and impoverish the world” (352). 

Which makes me think of that verse from 1 John, on not loving the world or the things of the world. If by “world” here we mean not the earth and our life on it, but “the patterns of thought and ways of living that continue to diminish and impoverish that world,” then I think I understand it better. We are called to resist those habits and structures of ruination—as the Climate Action Group ritualized for us last week in their “breaking up with your banks” card-cutting action.

Part of that resistance, too, no matter the anguish we feel at the brokenness of the world, is to seek out and encounter “the heavenliness of things” in our daily lives, for the mystery of paradise is present for us now, where we sit, whether we are home or away.