(a sermon for Earth Day, Stewardship Week, and in response to a youth auctioned sermon on the theme “soil conservation”)
It seems like everyone and their brother is talking about “going green” these days. We can buy “green” organic food at the Big G. We can get rebates and incentives for buying “green” appliances and lightbulbs for our homes. “Green” cars are now a commonplace site, even on the streets of Marengo. With all of this recent emphasis in the world on the environment, you might get the impression that this protecting the Earth idea is a new one. But it’s not. From the very beginning of time – in fact, from the first pages of our bible, care for this world that we live in has been the core of our Christian tradition.
We already heard the familiar story of the creation with our kids this morning. This world was made by our God – and God declared it good. And then, that very same God formed us from the dust of the earth and gave to us a precious task… to care for the world God had made. From the ancient Israelites to the early followers of Christ, caring for the Earth was an important means of offering thanks and praise to God.
The General Board of Church and Society for the United Methodist Church has put out some wonderful resources for churches to us as we celebrate God’s Creation. They remind us that the “ancestors of our faith lived amid cultures that worshipped many different gods who were thought to control all aspects of nature, from fertility of the land to ferocity of the seas. Communities celebrated local gods that tended to their own particular climate systems and conditions.
But as the Ancient Israelites moved throughout the land, they encountered many climates, many different communities and religions. And as they saw the connections between all of those different environments, they began to realize that “the natural world was controlled not by many competing gods, but by one God who could be revealed through the unity of nature.”
“Along with their insights about God, the Ancient Israelites observed the ways in which interdependent systems work well when they are cared for and fail when they are damaged or neglected. In response to their understanding of God and the natural world, they created an ethos for living in healthy relationship with God, the Earth, and one another. People of the church today often refer to this ethos as ‘stewardship.’”
In the wider world, stewardship of the earth is also seen as just good old common sense. In fact, the National Association of Conservation Districts has established a National Stewardship Week – this year beginning on April 26th – in order to celebrate and remember the importance of protecting our natural resources.
According to the NACD resources, many people believe that had farmers and landowners “chosen to band together and implement proper agricultural practices, demonstrating good land stewardship, the devastation of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s could have been somewhat diminished. The good news is that Americans have learned from the past, and since the 30’s there have been severe droughts, but the same devastation has not been repeated because good stewardship practices have been taught, learned and implemented on the land.”
The goal is good soil. And good soil isn’t just something that farmers and gardeners care about. Soil makes our lives possible. How many of you slept on soil last night? Well, where do you live? What is your home built on?
How many of you are wearing soil today? Cotton grows in soil! Just check the label on your clothing.
What about eating soil? Just think about all of the foods that you have eaten this week that were grown in the soil, or medicines that were taken from the ground, or water that we have drank that has flowed through and been cleansed by the soil.
When the Ancient Israelites noticed that everything in this world is interdependent, this is what they are talking about. The dirt and the air and the sun and plant life and our lives are all interconnected and this beautiful system God created works – as long as we take care of it.
Jesus knew this too – and he used many parables that talked about the earth because they are grounded and real. Everyone can touch the ground and feel the dirt between their fingers or toes. Everyone knows what Jesus was talking about when he talked about the soil.
Our challenge is to figure out what it means to protect the soil and make it good. And in doing so – we might learn a little bit about what it means for this little plot of ground that is our church to also be good soil – ground in which we all can put down deep roots to grow and produce fruit.
First: good soil needs to be protected by roots (strength to tell stories)
This is the number one thing that we can learn from the Dust Bowl. With all of the vegetation stripped away due to the drought, and without roots to hold the earth in place, the wind blew away an estimated 850 million tons of topsoil in the Southern Plains alone. Roots hold the soil together and help prevent erosion and they also loosen up the soil so that oxygen can filter through the ground.
Basically, roots are like fingers. They dig down deep into the ground and give the earth the support it needs.
In the church – we need roots too. Without roots, we will be tossed to and fro by the winds of change and the latest fad. But we have plenty of things within our tradition that ground us and help us to find the stability we need. In the United Methodist tradition, we especially think of four deep running roots: the scriptures, the tradition of the church, well-thought reasoning, and the experiences of the saints. As we gather together and share all of these stories, we find ourselves firmly rooted in the past, and yet also able to grow and mature into our future.
Second: good soil must be abundant and unified (strength to accompany, convene)
This is not something that we often think about, but one little clump of dirt can hardly do much. All by itself, that clump of dirt would become dry and would not have the room for anything to take root within it.
But when one clump of dirt is surrounded by millions of other little dirt particles, then, it is something to be reckoned with! We know that the outermost layer of our planet is soil… but did you know that five tons of topsoil spread out over an acre of land would only be as thick as a dime? We need soil and lots of it to have abundant life.
In the same way, Christians can’t go it alone in the world. We need one another to help us create abundant life. That is the message that we get from so many of our scripture readings from this morning. In Acts especially – it was when the believers came together, with one heart and one soul sharing what they needed that tremendous fruit came forth.
While this may sound cliché – people need people. We were created to be in relationship with others. And as the church, we are invited to walk along with others through the difficult and the joyous situations in their lives. We accompany one another through times of illness, injury, death, birth, marriage, loss of jobs, and marital problems… and together – together – we can have life and life abundant.
Third: good soil is alive (strength to bless)
We think about dirt as dead matter, but in reality it is organic – full of both living and dead organisms. Fungi and bacteria help break down matter into soil and animals such as earth worms churn and nurture the earth. Without all of that living and breathing of the soil – life as we know it would cease.
In the same way, our congregations are alive and they are living and breathing things. In a world that is so damning and critical, the church is a place of blessing and acceptance for all. The diversity of silt and clay and minerals within the ground all have a purpose, and within the church, we can only be the living body of Christ if we affirm the gifts that every single one of us bring to the table. Some of us are teachers, some of us are prophets, some of us are evangelists – and all of us are needed within the body.
Fourth: good soil needs nutrients and moisture ( strength to connect – sharing resources)
Good soil cannot give life to plants without being full of nutrients and minerals and moisture. In fact, 25% of our soil is water, while only 5% is organic matter… which means that it has a lot to give to thirsty plants and hungry critters. But when the waters dry up and the nutrients are taken out of the soil, then the ground is not good for growth. Just ask any farmer who employs crop rotation in order to keep vital nitrates in the soil!
Our church too needs to be filled up before it can be poured out. The Holy Spirit brings us the refreshing waters of new life through baptism. We are fed by the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation – grain and grapes from the land. We are nourished by the Word of God. And as we find ourselves blessed and strengthened, we can share of our abundance with the world. The church has the ability to bring together the resources of our communities and peoples to help life to come forth out of the darkest places in people’s lives.