A Meditation for Earth Day
Genesis 2:4b-9, 15
April 22, 2012
It was 1969, after three years of working in college administration, I was scheduled to begin seminary in the fall. I’d gone to Europe the summer before, and wanted to earn a little bit of money at something that wouldn’t be too taxing prior to the rigors of full time graduate study.
A college friend, Ralph Smith, had a severe leg injury from his military service in Viet Nam, and was the Executive Director for what was then called the Baltimore League for Crippled Children and Adults. The League had a summer camp for children – Camp Greentop – right next to Camp David in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland . Sounded like a good place to spend a couple of months.
That’s where I was on July 20, 1969. If you are more than about 45 years old, you may know where you were on that date too. Late at night, a bunch of us staff members assembled in the camp dining hall where a black and white television set had been rigged up to allow us to watch Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon.
We have all seen the photographs of that “giant leap for mankind” many times; it’s part of American history. But it was a number of photographs taken some six months earlier that, I think, has had an even greater impact on our earth-bound psyche.
The event was described by a British journalist [in The Independent] in this way:
“They went to the Moon, but ended up discovering the Earth. The crew of Apollo 8 were the first people to leave Earth’s orbit and pass behind the far side of the Moon. They had been drilled and trained for just about every eventuality, save one – the awe-inspiring sight of seeing our own planet hanging over an empty lunar horizon.
It later became known as ‘Earthrise’ and the image of the world rising in the dark vastness of space over a sun-lit lunar landscape became an iconic reminder of our lonely planet’s splendid isolation and delicate fragility. The image was captured during Christmas Eve 1968…. It was an image that would eventually launch a thousand environmental movements, such was its impact on the public consciousness.
The three-man crew of Apollo 8 – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – were carrying out the necessary groundwork for the later manned landing on the Moon and were the first people to orbit the Moon, flying around the far side which is not visible from Earth.
They were also in effect the first people to lose complete contact with their own planet, not being able to see or radio Earth for the duration of their journey behind the Moon. It was only when they completed the orbit that they could regain contact. Ironically, for the first three orbits, the crew had their backs to the Earth as it re-appeared over the lunar horizon and did not see the iconic view that would change their lives.
It was only on the fourth orbit that one of the men turned round and saw the spectacle for the first time. ‘Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Isn’t that something?’ he said, his words captured for posterity on the on-board tape recorder. They quickly scrambled for a camera – the first couple of images of ‘Earthrise’ were in black and white, subsequent photos were taken in color. It is these color photographs that became the iconic images of the environmental movement.
They showed the stark contrast between the grey, desolate landscape of the lifeless Moon and the vivid blue-and-white orb of the fertile Earth – a symbol of warmth and life in a bleak desert of deathly coldness… Sir Fred Hoyle, the great British cosmologist, rightly predicted in 1948 that the first images of Earth from space would change forever our view of our own planet. ‘Earthrise’ encapsulated the fragility of a place that seems so immense to the people who live there, but so tiny when viewed from the relatively short distance of its natural satellite…
The American astronomer Carl Sagan captured the mood well when another picture of Earth was taken from space, this time in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft at a distance of 3.7 billion miles. In this picture, the Earth appeared as a ‘pale blue dot’ surrounded by the vastness of space, like a tiny mote of dust caught in a sunbeam. ‘Look again at that dot…… That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives,” Sagan said in 1996.
He continued, ‘Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. And so it took catching sight of our own place in space to realize that the Earth is the only home we have, and we had better look after it.’”
While I admire and agree with much of what Sagan has to say (after all, Carl and I did graduate from the same high school) there is a point on which we diverge. He said, “there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves…” There is HELP. There is God’s help, for if we listen to the words of scripture there is wisdom for our aid.
Some people think that this movement concerning environmental consciousness and action, such as our Green Team and our work toward being designated as a “Green Sanctuary”, even Earth Day itself is a fad. [Earth Day worship resources – Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition of Greater Kansas City]
If so, environmental consciousness has been a fad for a very long time….. all the way back to Biblical times… All the way back to the second chapter of Genesis, when God placed the human creature in the garden “to till it and keep it.” What does it mean to be a faithful steward of God’s creation – blessed with the gift of earth? Good question. Fortunately the Bible provides guidance – Clearly this direction from God means we have the authority, if not the responsibility, to till the Earth in order to make its productive powers flourish.
But we also have the obligation to “keep it” which means to sustain it, conserve it, perpetuate it – to “keep” the Earth by protecting its God created life systems and life forms.
In the modern age, of course, “when to keep and when to use or use up” is usually a political call. And the world of environmental politics can be complicated and frustrating. In environmental conservation work it is often said that all victories are temporary and all defeats permanent. And most of the time it’s true. Yet, despite the frustrations, we dare not give it up – for God has given us this responsibility.
We hold the welfare of the earth in our hands. We have the text from Matthew about the Temptation of Jesus to remind us that we are tempted….. tempted by temporary satisfaction, temporary achievement — “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” the text says – the temptation to have what we want right now.
The passage we read from Matthew has three strong temptations presented.
(1) Jesus, you are incredibly powerful; use that power to meet your own needs. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will not be able to take care of anyone else. On top of that, if word gets around that you turn stones into bread, think how many folks would follow you. Everyone can use a little extra bread. Who could have blamed Jesus for doing something like that?
(2) The second temptation was equally enticing. Let folks know beyond the shadow of a doubt that You are the Messiah, the Chosen One of God. What a spectacular stunt to leap from the Pinnacle of the Temple, drop the 450 feet straight down into the Kidron Valley, and land unharmed. God’s angels will protect you. People will surely listen to your message when they hear what you have done. Would anyone legitimately reproach Jesus for deciding to take that course?
(3) The third temptation was enormous – unchallenged political power to right all the wrongs…all the kingdoms of the world. How incredibly simple, Jesus: you can ORDER folks to listen. You can ORDER justice and an end to all oppression. What a wonderful opportunity! All it will take is a tiny compromise, an ever-so-slight division in your loyalties. You do not have to stop worshiping the God of heaven, just spread that worship around a bit. Jesus, this is the offer you cannot refuse. Who could have blamed him for accepting?
How did Jesus avoid giving in? Scripture. After each of the temptations was offered, he quoted scripture, and by those statements reaffirmed his relationship to God:
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Somehow, I had never heard of Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, until she was recently highlighted by Quinn Caldwell in the UCC’s StillSpeaking Daily Devotional.
Also a mother, also a scientist, also the first East African woman to earn a Ph.D., also the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Also a Christian.
When Wangari Maathai, looked around her native Kenya in the 1970s, she saw two things: she saw millions of women with almost no way to support themselves or their families in a patriarchal culture.
And she saw arid death taking over her homeland; decades of poor land management had allowed the desert to advance further and further, swallowing thousands of acres of formerly arable land.
She began paying women to raise and plant tree seedlings. Many (mostly men) laughed at her at first, saying that what those women put into that dead, arid place would be swallowed by it forever.
But the trees slowly took the dead places and made them green and full of life again. They grew, the programs grew, the women grew and became the Green Belt Movement. Now the trees aren’t holding the desert back any more; these days, they’re driving it back.
As Wangari Maathai said:
“The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price… In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.
Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.
“We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life.
All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. It must be this voice that is telling me to do something, and I am sure it’s the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet – at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet.
We hold the welfare of the earth in our hands, and we have been given authority and responsibility to maintain the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This year, as we observe Earth Day, we need to reclaim the reality of our interdependence…. and acknowledge that too often, our individualism—whether as persons or nations—has led us to act as if we can meet our personal needs, sustain our lifestyles, conserve a little when it is convenient and use as much as we “need” for our comfort.
This spring, in this season of rebirth and renewal, this planet, as never before, depends on us.