Touch the Earth Lightly
Texts: Psalm 23; Colossians 1:15-20
Shirley Murray, a Presbyterian hymnwriter from New Zealand, died in January of this year. One of my favorite Murray hymns is based on an old aboriginal saying, “Touch the Earth Lightly.” In stanza one, she writes: “Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care: gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, trust for the children tomorrow will bear.”
Anyone at Cove knows that I should be the last in line to preach a sermon by this title. In fact, since arriving here, almost daily you teach me what it looks like to “touch the earth lightly.” In many of the pictures you sent to illustrate this sermon, I see ways in which you “use the earth gently,” in which you “nourish the life of the world in our care.”
When I hear the words “touch the earth lightly,” I think of Kelly and Gregg herding bees, the Riddervold family out strolling for mushrooms, Polly swimming in a Hungry Town pond, Maddie and Marilee, Renee and Peggy tending to their horses, and Tom and Ellen feeding their cows. I think of Allen and Jewell gathering eggs and Chris pruning vines, Beth Neville tending weeds like they are her long-lost friends, while Chris and Emma nurture a young goat into the world. I think of Susan and Fran and Kathy, and Libby and Pam arranging flowers from their yard for us to enjoy. Over these four years at Cove, you have taught me a great deal and I have so much yet to learn about nourishing “the life of the world in our care.”
In her poem, “Swan,” Mary Oliver asks a question with a thousand echoes at Cove, and long before Cove, a thousand echoes in Scripture. She asks: “Have you . . . finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?” (p. 62).
As I look back over a long career of preaching, Oliver’s question leaves me somewhat uneasy. I confess that I have spent too little time preaching about caring for God’s creation, far too little time celebrating the beauty of God’s, often breathtaking, handiwork. This is no small preaching oversight because caring for God’s creation is a topic about which the Bible speaks frequently and clearly from its opening poem to its final vision of a new creation in Revelation.
On those too rare occasions on which I have preached about our call to be stewards of God’s creation, I have often been chastised for not sticking to the Bible and just being politically correct. Maybe this critique has quieted my voice or distracted my preaching or maybe I simply have not had the tenacity to venture into that sermonic sea very often. At this point in life, though, as I think about the land and air and water that I want to bequeath to my children and yours, it is time to break an old preaching pattern and answer Mary Oliver’s question.
It just takes opening the Bible to get a running start on how to “touch the earth lightly.” In the first creation story, God forms the earth and all that dwells on earth and calls it “good.” In the story that immediately follows, God entrusts the care of creation to the man and woman. In Psalm 24, the Psalmist sings, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Jesus reminds his disciples that God tends even to the sparrow and calls anyone who would follow him to do no less. In the great creation hymn in the letter to the Colossians, Christ is heralded as the “firstborn of all creation,” the one through whom all the broken parts of creation will be reconciled. So, if you and I claim to follow the “firstborn of all creation,” then we must learn how to “touch the earth lightly.”
The Bible and human experience both teach that when it comes to matters of caring for creation, we are slow learners, as Murray warns: “We who endanger, who create hunger, agents of death for all creatures that live, we would foster clouds of disaster, God of our planet, forestall and forgive!”
When I hear these words, I think back to a time that must have been even more terrifying for my parents and grandparents than the current time of pandemic. The time was the Cuban missile crisis. I was a young elementary aged student and my maternal grandmother made a blanket for me to bring to school. It was actually a quilt that she had made from extra sturdy textiles. She wanted me well protected when the Russian nuclear attack occurred. Once a week, an unnerving alarm would sound at the Hidenwood Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia and students would scurry into the hallway, fall to the floor, and we would cover ourselves with blankets until the alarm ended.
Looking back, these Civil Defense Drills were ridiculously silly. No blanket, however lovingly made, was ever going to protect anyone from the deadly and devastating “cloud of disaster” of a nuclear explosion. Pretending then or pretending today that nuclear weapons just keep us safe and that nuclear power plants just provide clean, cheap, and safe energy is not unlike grabbing that blanket and heading into the hallway.
Now as soon as I say that, some will say: “Now Gary, the Bible does not address nuclear power at all, so why are you?” It is a fair question, but not necessarily a good one. The Bible does not address many issues that have emerged since its writing. Are preachers to remain silent about every issue not specifically addressed in Scripture, even if it is an issue that endangers God’s creation? I certainly hope not. The Bible invites us to think more creatively, expansively, and critically than that, especially when it comes to messing with creation and with all God’s creatures.
For instance, in the book of Psalms, there is a recurring theme that the entire cosmos is God’s and that includes the good earth. Psalm 23 celebrates the good green grass, clean water, an environment in which God restores creation and creation restores us. True, there is not one verse in any of the psalms that tells us to be wary of the proliferation of nuclear weapons or to be phenomenally cautious about the use of nuclear energy, but what we do find throughout the book of Psalms are repeated calls for us to steward God’s creation and never to be “agents of death for all creatures that live.”
Some might say: “Aren’t those lyrics in Shirley’s hymn a bit harsh?” If you think so, ask the albatross. This majestic bird is endangered now not due to natural causes, but because of lead based paint that has been dumped into the water and plastic trash that ends up in the Pacific? Bottle caps, pieces of plastic water bottles, and the like are mistaken for food by the mother and brought to her young. At their young age, they have no capacity to regurgitate the deadly “food” and over 40% of their young die unnecessarily every year. There is not one verse in the Bible that instructs us to care about the albatross or chastises us for our behavior that endangers its future, but to practice a tenacious care of creation is at the heart of the biblical story.
Like the Psalmist, in her hymn, Murray invites us to write a more life-giving end to the story. She writes: “Let there be greening, birth from the burning, water that blesses and air that is sweet, health in God’s garden, hope in God’s children, regeneration that peace will complete.”
Some sing that stanza and think, “What sweet images, but they mean nothing in the case of a nuclear event and the critical climate challenge before us is far greater than whether or not we compost or limit our carbon footprint.” I certainly never underestimate the human capacity to hurt and destroy, but with the Psalmist and with the hymnwriter, I have a far greater trust that it is God’s holy intention to restore creation and toward that goal, God enlists each of us in that holy calling.
If that is true, then Mary Oliver is channeling all the Bible, especially the Psalmist, when she asks: “Have you . . . finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?” Or, as Murray prays to close her hymn: “God of all living, God of all loving, God of the seedling, the snow, and the sun, teach us, deflect us, Christ reconnect us, using us gently and making us one.”
Thank you for teaching me how to “touch the earth lightly.” Thank you for the ways that you do and for the pictures you have shared. And now may the marvelous voice of Heather Hightower and the inspiring pictures that you have shared inspire us always to “touch the earth lightly.”