A Sign, A Groan, and a Delight – Earth Day – 4/22/12 – Romans 8, Proverbs 8

Happy Earth Day.  I have a few specimens here. (picture below to give the idea)

This is garlic mustard.  I picked it Friday in the woods on our farm in Bellefontaine.  I think I wrote a couple weeks ago about how this is taking over the ground cover of the woods.  I stopped in briefly two days ago on my way up to Camp Friedenswald in southern Michigan for meetings with Central District Conference.

This is garlic mustard.  I picked it two days ago at Camp Friedenswald.  It is doing quite well in the woods of southern Michigan.

This also is garlic mustard.  I picked it yesterday in Ault Park here in Cincinnati right after coming back from Camp Friedenswald.  I knew it was there because two weeks ago Lily and I went for a walk in those woods.  I pointed out the garlic mustard to her and told her that it was hurting the forest, and I had to spend a good portion of the rest of our walk letting her know that she didn’t have to try and pull up every garlic mustard plant that she saw.

It has these pretty, small white flowers.  Some of them have fallen off already as the seeds have formed.  It smells a bit like garlic, but isn’t overpowering.  I’ve never eaten it, but read that the leaves can be chopped for salads or made into pesto.  It is native to Europe and west Asia and Northern Africa and was originally brought to North America in the 1860’s as a culinary herb.

Depending on your perspective, garlic mustard has done quite well, or quite horribly in North America.  It has been highly successful in colonizing forests, where it can suppress native wildflowers and quickly become a monoculture.  Deer don’t like it, our insects and fungi don’t eat it, and it produces lots of seeds.  Highly successful.  Highly invasive.

Jesus once said to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “When it is evening, you say, ‘It is fair weather, for the sky is red.’   And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’  You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”  (Matthew 16:2-3)  The people, it seems, had gotten pretty good at predicting what the weather would be for the next 24 hours by looking at the sky, but were not paying attention to the larger patterns at work around them, signs, speaking of other important realities.

Garlic mustard, we could say, is one of the signs of our times.  It’s a sign of the powerful force of globalization – people and things and ideas and animals and plants are less and less restricted to native territories, isolated pockets, geographical islands – even big islands, like continents.  It’s a sign that, for all of the benefits of globalization, not everyone, everything, is benefiting equally from the way it is happening – a story with some resemblance to past examples of colonization, where the natives are decimated by the powerful newcomers.  This plant and its effects on other plants and insects is a sign that we are living in the midst of the sixth mass extinction period in the earth’s history, the most massive loss of species and biodiversity since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.  It’s a sign that the planet is out of balance, and that we are out of balance.  Garlic mustard is, in some ways, a mirror held up in front of us, highly successful species that we are, giving us signs about the losses of beauty and diversity and vitality that we are participating in.

I don’t know about you, but this all feels a little heavy to me.  I don’t like the thought of any of those three beloved places I visited in the last couple days being overrun with garlic mustard.  I much prefer the thought of what would have been the case a couple hundred years ago.  That if we just leave these places alone, give them time to heal by not disturbing them, that they will indeed heal and thrive and come into balance.  But all of the people that I’m listening to who know about these kinds of things say this is absolutely not the way to go.  Sometimes I think about a past with the closed loop, self-renewing cycles of nature fully intact and long to live in a time like that.  But that’s a temptation, because that’s not the time we live in.  The words of the Cincinnati Mennonite covenant come into play here: “This time and this place are God’s gifts to us, and we are called to be God’s active presence to all those around us.”  What the signs of our times are telling us are that what we have participated in harming, we must also participate in healing.  The human element of management and careful stewardship is now essential.

When we reflect theologically and biblically about these kinds of things, there is a common and important path that we can go down.  It focuses on us as humans being caretakers of the earth, stewards, charged with tending and nurturing life and beauty.  This is rooted in the Genesis accounts of creation with the humans as the ones who bear the image of God, the created who possess inherent creativity to shape and form the world with god-like power.  A power to serve life and aid in its flourishing.

This is an important way for us to think about ourselves, and helps illustrate that we have a lot of work to do, especially in our time.  But I want to focus in a different place.  I want to focus more internally, on the longings, energies, desires within us, which enable us to do this kind of work in the first place.  What we are searching for is a spirituality of hope.

So I want to look at a couple different scriptures that point us in this direction.  The first is found in Romans 8 and the second is Proverbs 8.

Throughout Romans the apostle Paul has been speaking to a community in Rome about the human predicament: sin, our tendency to get stuck in religious legalism, getting unstuck and living by grace, and the way that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus expands the gift of salvation beyond just the Jews to include all people.  This is an expansive vision of who God is and who Jesus is for us.  But in chapter 8, he blows it even more wide open.  Up to now the focus has been just on people, humans, homo sapiens, but it’s about to get quite expansive.  In verse 19 he writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  Waiting, and eager longing are usually attributes given to just humans, but here Paul imagines that all of creation is filled with expectation and longing.  He goes on: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”  So, to waiting and eager longing, we add groaning – in labor pains.  A very feminine image.  Mother Earth is in pain and is groaning.  But it’s not just any kind of pain, it’s labor pain.  It’s the kind of pain that can lead to new life.  It continues: “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  We are groaning too.  And this has to do with our bodies, our physical, flesh and blood, eating, drinking, talking, walking, working bodies.  We do not groan for an escape from our bodies, but for the redemption of our bodies.  To add one more layer to this, Paul writes in verse 26: “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

So what we have here is a groaning creation.  We have humans as the lead groaners, the ones who feel deeply the pain and the longing of the cosmos.  And we have the Spirit who, as it turns out, is the groan behind the groan, the originating source of this unarticulated longing that is coming through us – sighs too deep for words.  Our groans, the groans of creation, are the very groans of God.

If we think of ourselves as a part of creation rather than separate from it, then another way of saying this is that through us, in the human being, within you, creation has become conscious of itself.  These feelings that we feel within us are the very feelings of the universe and of God’s own being.

It makes the boundaries fuzzy.  We can’t tell where outside creation ends and we begin.  Or where we end and God begins.  These longings for wholeness and hopes and groans are not merely the isolated desires of an isolated self.  You can accept these groans as a sign that you are alive to the Spirit’s presence and that the Spirit is moving within you to express itself in the world.  The real danger would be if you felt nothing.  Maybe we could say: I groan, therefore I am.

It’s a whole different form of energy than overwhelmed anxiety.  With that there is a scattering of energy that can happen.  Almost panic.  All we see are problems and we are drained of our vitality.  But we have the firstfruits of the Spirit within us, as Paul says; the first flowering and opening up and fruiting of the new creation.  And it sounds like a groan.  And it feels like labor pains.

Another part of this passage says: “For in hope we were saved.”  The groans within us find their basis in hope.  If there were no hope, we wouldn’t be driven to have these longings.  Richard Rohr says that hope is not logical but is a participation in the very life of God.

OK, so that’s the painful part.  I actually have no idea what labor pains feel like, but I love the idea that bearing this pain is something that we do for the new life that comes out from us and that this is what God is all about in our world.

But there’s another piece to this.

Thomas Berry was a priest, a historian, a geologist, a writer, and probably a lot of other things.  Until he died in 2009 at the age of 95, he was a leading voice in thinking about the place of humanity in an evolving universe that is 13.7 billion years old – speaking to some very old questions in the light our new cosmological understandings.  He emphasized over and over again that one of the key callings of humanity is to celebrate and be in awe of the universe and everything in it.  That’s our job.  To celebrate all that is around us.  The world is a glorious place, but it is in us that this glory is felt most intensely.  It is through humanity that language illuminates the glory.  Without humanity, the world would keep going on being a glorious place, but there would be no scientists to explore its depths, no poets or artists to reflect its beauty.  No elderly couple to go for a walk in the woods simply for the purpose of enjoyment.

Anyone who has ever created a piece of art, or had a child, or had a personal milestone, like a birthday, knows the power of celebration.  When someone is inspired by your work, or is delighted by your child, or celebrates your life with you, the whole world expands and becomes more of itself.

In this 13.7 billion year span, we are very much newcomers on the scene.  The universe has not always had celebrants in the way that we can be.  Except that for the writer of Proverbs 8, this is an unbearable idea.  For God to be bursting worlds into being and for there to be no one to witness and delight over it is not the kind of universe we live in, Proverbs 8 declares.

The chapter begins this way: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”  It goes on to record musings from Wisdom herself: “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of the acts of long ago.  Ages ago, I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.  When there were no depths, I was brought forth.”  The word for depths here, TeHoM, is the same used in the opening words of Genesis when it says that “darkness was over the surface of the deep, TeHoM, and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.”  Wisdom was created even before the TeHoM.  Proverbs goes on to name other acts of creation that Wisdom preceded – before the mountains were shaped, before the earth and fields, before the skies and seas.  Before all this, Wisdom is doing something remarkable: 8:30-31 – “Then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”  Wisdom is the prototype celebrator of the universe.  As Proverbs 8 sees it, there has always been a presence, a power, an energy, celebrating the wonder of the world, almost as if God would not want to make the world without this.  Before anything explodes into being, Wisdom comes forth as the one whose calling is to delight in all that will be.

Wisdom plays an important role in how early Christians came to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life, especially the opening chapter of John.  Jesus is wisdom in the flesh.  Wisdom crystallizing as matter, taking delight and wonder to a new level, a task that is passed along to the whole human race, Jew and Gentile, as Jesus commissions his disciples to continue in this great work.

And so delighting in the world, rejoicing in beauty, is a human calling.  Creation becomes more expansive and delightful and vital and alive and healthy when we delight over it.

That sounds like something we can do.  It sounds a lot more fun than groaning, although I think that’s going to be part of the picture as well for a very long time.  I confess that I have only recently started learning how to be delighted with the natural world.  For some reason, it didn’t seem to come very naturally.  If we struggle with being delighted, or being in awe, or even being interested, I think it’s OK to ask for it.  Invite delight in, or at least let Wisdom know you’d like her to teach you the ropes a bit.  And once we glimpse this delight, it has a power of its own.

Brian Swimme, for whom Thomas Berry was a mentor, writes this: “The history of life can be understood as the creation of ever more sensitive creatures in a universe where there is always another dimension of beauty to be felt and savored.  Think of yourself that way, as a supreme power of sensitivity surrounded by magnificence.  The paradox is this: the greater your sensitivity, the more unbearable the tension.”  (The Universe is a Green Dragon, pp. 79,80)  Part of that tension, no doubt, is the tension between groaning and delighting.  Think of yourself as a supreme power of sensitivity surrounded by magnificence.

As a closing thought, I want to point to the picture on the front of the bulletin – because it’s all about perspective.  We start with garlic mustard and we end with the Milky Way galaxy.  Our sun is one of 200 billion stars in this galaxy, and there are over 200 billion galaxies in the known universe.

We who are alive today are the first to have the technological sensitivities of the eyes of telescopes to know this much about where we live.  To have a sense of the scope of it all.  You are here, we are here, this time and this place, and here is a pregnant moment, in a remarkable place.  We have the tremendous gift of being a part of the unfolding story of the universe, and not just as bystanders, but as active participants.  This is remarkable indeed.