Sermon: September 17, 2023

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.” John 1:1-4

Last week I challenged us to think about the ecological catastrophe in which we are living, not as a catastrophe of science and technology (though it is also this), but instead as a catastrophe of the spirit. A failure of correct vision and understanding of ourselves, God, and creation. I said that we have forgotten who we are, where we are, and whose we are. We view the world through a market-oriented, consumer-focused and individualistic lens, in which humans are at the top of the pyramid, and everything else exists for our use and pleasure. Nature is a resource to be sued and thrown away. The earth is a stage upon which to enact our personal dramas. God is in His heaven somewhere far away from us, communicates to us only through our personal inner life and intervenes in the world only on an as-needed emergency basis. The earth is not really our true home, heaven is, and someday we will die, and if we lived a good and pure life, we will be with God in heaven, our true home. It is a view that doesn’t fit with what we have learned from modern science about how the systems of the earth work. And it is a view that is destroying our planet and will soon, if left unchecked, destroy us all as well. 

This week I want to talk about a different view of the world that I hope will help us to understand our true place in the order of things. Now you might wonder if my theologizing and philosophizing really matters in the face of the enormous challenges that we are facing. Isn’t it all just an intellectual waste of time? Well, obviously I don’t think it is, as I am standing here in front of you today to philosophize and theologize. You see, I think the lens through which we view the world matters. If you walk around with the wrong glasses on your face, you will get a headache, be unable to drive or read, and you might even fall down. Well I think the same is true of the theological and philosophical lenses through which we view the world. Even if we are not aware that we see the world through a particular lens, it will influence the way we live and move and have our being. And I happen to think that without even being aware of it, the lenses we have all been wearing are not serving us well as we seek to meet the challenges of our day, particularly our ecological challenges.

Now, I am not an academic philosopher or theologian, though I am like every human being an amateur in these fields. All of us think about the meaning of life and God, at least from time to time. Indeed when I read philosophical and theological tomes, I usually get a headache, I call it intellectual brain freeze. So instead of attempting to lecture to you today, I am going to tell a story. It is the story of everyone here today. Indeed it is the story of all creation, the entire universe.

Our story begins 15 billion years ago with one infinitely hot and infinitely condensed bit of matter that weighed approximately a millionth of a gram. Had we been there to see this piece of matter, we would have seen nothing, it was so small and so seemingly inconsequential. Into this infinitely hot, condensed and infinitesimally small piece of matter, the creator of all that was, and is and shall ever be, the energy of pure love, breathed the divine breath, the divine spirit and an enormous bang occurred. A bang bigger than any bang we could ever imagine, because the pure love and breath of the creator of all could not be contained in that infinitesimally small bit of matter, but had to expand its boundaries. 

Within about a second after this big bang the temperature of this spirt-filled matter fell to about 10 thousand million degrees, which is about 1000 times hotter than the sun. Protons, electrons, neutrinos, neutrons and their antiparticles, drifted aimlessly about, the breath of the creator flowing in and around them. About two minutes after the big bang the temperature dropped to one thousand million degrees, and the tiny little particles started to combine to produce helium and hydrogen. But within a few hours the production of these gasses stopped and nothing more formed for the next million years. The universe just kept expanding and expanding and expanding, and cooling and cooling and cooling, until the temperature dropped to a few thousand degrees.

In this relatively cool and much more spacious environment, atoms began to form, and gravity began to bring these atoms together to create new forms of matter. These new forms of matter were brought together by gravity again and again to create the first stars and galaxies. Over time these stars would collapse in on themselves, creating a supernova, and through many tremendous explosions, new stars and new galaxies were created, and the elements essential for life, carbon and iron, were sent careening throughout the universe. And the creator’s breath, the creator’s spirit was in all of it, not as a controller or a director, but as the source of being and existence.

About 5 billion years ago, our star, a second-or-third-generation star, formed from the debris of a supernova. The clouds of gas and matter circling this new star came together to form planets that circled this new star that we call the sun. The third planet from the sun, the one we call earth, began to form an atmosphere as it cooled. It was an atmosphere very different from the one we know today. It was made up mainly of hydrogen sulfide, methane, and carbon dioxide. After about a half a billion years the surface of the earth had cooled enough to begin collecting water on it, and it was in that water, in the oceans of the earth, that the earliest forms of life began.

About a billion years ago through the chance combination of atoms, macromolecules that had the capacity to reproduce and multiply were born. In some cases when these macromolecules reproduced an error would occur in reproduction. A few of these errors produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves and these gained an advantage over the old macromolecules. The process of evolution had begun. This process led to the development of more and more complicated self-producing organisms. These organisms produced oxygen which changed the composition of our atmosphere, allowing other forms of life to evolve. This led from unity to diversity and increasingly complex life. Life that eventually evolved to create you and me. Every bit of life on this planet has a common history and every form of life depends on all other forms of life. And all began with the breath of the creator which dwells in every life form that ever lived, moved or had its being. 

It is an awesome and wonderful history that we share with the entire universe, and we are but a small speck in this creation story. If we conceive of the approximately 4.5 billion years of the Earth’s past as though recorded in 10 volumes of 500 pages each, so that each page records a little less than a million years, the story of all the plants and animals of the Cambrian period occupies only the tenth volume. Warm-blooded animals don’t appear until page 465 of the 10th volume. Finally on page 499 of the tenth volume, the very last page,  the human species appears. The last two words on the page recount our story from the rise of civilization six thousand years ago to the present. Throughout the last two volumes life proliferates, growing richer and richer and more and more diverse, creating an environment in which more and more complex forms of life could emerge and prosper. Humans entered the scene on a planet that was biologically very rich indeed, and we humans owe our existence to all the life that went before us. Unlike the life that went before us, humans have contributed very little to the biological richness of the earth, and when we reach the last letter on the last page of this 10 volume set, we see humans begin to turn the tide against life. 

We humans are not the center of the world. We are not the reason for creation. Too much happened before us for this to be true. We are not lords over creation, but we are products of its process. We are interconnected and interdependent with all life that has gone before us and that lives with us on our island home right here and right now. The earth is not a stage on which we enact our human dramas, or a warehouse from which we use whatever resources we would like. It is a web of interconnected organisms who need space, air, food, water, and protection to live. It is a community of infinitely diverse organisms who were all breathed into life by the same creator and therefore all share the breath of the same God, the breath that enables all life to be. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.” John 1:1-4

On this planet we call home, this planet on which we evolved to exist, there are certain rules. The quantity of energy remains constant, but the quality decreases as it is used. Coal cannot be recycled back into coal. All life needs energy to live. We would run out of usable energy if it were not for one very fortunate opening in our otherwise closed planetary system, and the opening is the sun. Plants, the producers,  are able to use the sun to produce food in the form of carbohydrates, the primary fuel source for so-called “higher” life. The health of the planet depends not on the quantity and vitality of humans but on the health of plants. All the higher forms of life need plants in order to live and move and have their being.

But all life, though coming from the same origin, is not the same. Every form of life is individual and unique and has a particular role to play in the web of life on our planet. Humans don’t contribute space, energy, air, food, or water. So what is our role, especially now that we realize that it wasn’t all created for us? Well, we appear to be the only life form that knows the story of our creation and knows that we know. We have the ability to learn from the life around us and to make choices. We are able to partner with the creator in creation, for good or for ill. We are not the center and goal of creation, but we do have a particular role as God’s partners in helping creation to grow and to prosper.

And as followers of Christ, we are also to follow Jesus’ model which teaches us that we must live and act in solidarity with the oppressed of this world, which includes, today, all the non-human lifeforms on this earth. And Jesus has taught us that to follow him, to do justice, to stand up for the oppressed, will involve sacrifice. It will involve letting go of our own desires to be special, to have the most, and to possess worldly power. It will involve letting go of the idea that we have been given the privilege to live outside of the rules that the rest of life must follow.

So, will we embrace this new way of seeing the world? It is a way of seeing that recognizes our interdependence with all living things and helps us to live accordingly. It is a way of seeing that accepts the rules of this planet. It is a way of seeing that encourages us to live appropriately within the scheme of things. And it is a lens that helps us to see how amazing it is that we exist at all. When looking through this lens we will be filled with gratitude for our existence and cease looking for a better life beyond the grave. It is a way of seeing that can help us think differently so that we will behave differently. And, God willing, when we behave differently healing will come to our very wounded planetary home. 


I relied on the wisdom of smarter people than I for this sermon. Here are the books that influenced me as I wrote:

Karen Armstrong. Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World. Alfred A. Knopf NY 2022

John Cobb. Is It Too Late?: A Theology of Ecology. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. 2021.

Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 2013

Victoria Lorz. The Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us Into the Wild. Broadleaf Books. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 2021

Sallie McFague. Blessed Are the Consumers. Fortress Press. Minneapolis, MN Kindle Edition. 2013.

Sallie McFague. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Fortress Press. Minneapolis, MN. 1993.

Norman Werzba. From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World. Barker Academic. Grand Rapids, MI. 2015.

Norman Werzba. The Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK 2021.