Taking your congregation out of the church sanctuary and into the sanctuary of Earth is a great way to integrate Creation-care into worship. This was a sermon I preached at R. B. Winter State Park near Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, for our church’s annual camping retreat in 2015. The texts for the day were: Revelation 7:9-17; Revelation 21:1-7; John 1:1-4, 14-18. With our own tents in the background, John 1:14 took on a different perspective as we thought about God “camping” among us.
“God Camped Out With Us”
We once had a famous singing group at our church who gifted us with wonderful hymns and songs of praise. At one point in the program they did a medley of what I call “old chestnuts” – the songs of faith that go back generations and have a soft spot in people’s hearts and memories. Songs like “In the Garden,” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
But there was one snippet of a song that gave me pause. The song is called “This World is Not My Home,” and it includes these lyrics:
This world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore
This world is not my home??
On the one hand, I can appreciate the sentiment of someone drawing near to the end of a difficult life and desiring to be with the Lord and see their loved ones who dwell in heaven. But the idea that this world – which we know God created out of God’s divine love – is not our home, and that we’re just passing through, is problematic. Because if this world is not my home, then I really don’t have a reason to care about it.
It’s like nothing but a hotel room on our soul’s journey to heaven, and we’re just here on a temporary stay.
When people go into a hotel, they expect that someone is going to clean up their mess, straighten up the clutter, scrub off the soap scum on the shower walls, and empty the trash. We have no attachment to that place. We’ve got no “skin in the game,” so to speak. And it makes no difference to us who will stay in it after we leave. This room is not my home.
Of course, if I had that attitude in my own home, what would happen? I would end up living in a filthy, junked-up mess.
Perhaps that partly explains the state of the earth in which we find ourselves.
A theology that teaches us that the world is not our home leaves no room for caring.
Such an attitude means that we have no attachment to this place and divorces our thoughts and feelings from how we treat the Earth and who will live here after we leave.
It’s no wonder, then, that we produce trash that is overflowing the landfills, choking wildlife, and creating entire islands in the ocean of floating plastic.
We mine and dig and extract the fossil fuels for our energy needs and end up poisoning our waterways, fouling our air, and blanketing Earth with carbon dioxide that is disrupting our planet’s climate cycles.
We live as if this world is not our home, that we are just a’passin’ through. That our treasure is not in these green mountains or pristine waterways, but “laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” It’s like we’re having a huge party in our hotel room with 7 billion of our friends, and we’re just trashing the place, expecting the maids to clean it up.
But of course there are no magical maids. There are just lots and lots of people left wallowing in heaps of trash, dying from cancers caused by environmental toxins, and fleeing their island homes because the waters are literally swallowing their coastlines.
Or perhaps we expect God to clean up our mess?
Are we counting on a Big Daddy in the sky to take us up to heaven with him, and let this world literally go to hell? There are many who read the Bible and derive this interpretation which guides their thoughts, words, and deeds on this planet. This leads to corporate decisions, government policies, and individual choices that reinforce the belief that this world is not my home.
But when we read the words from the Gospel of John, we get a very different impression about who God is, what’s important to God, and how God feels about this Earth:
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, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . .
And the Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1 – 5, 14)
Did you hear that? The Word became flesh. That means God actually does have skin in the game.
Jesus was a person who lived on this Earth, drank this water, walked on this soil. Jesus lived among us. The Greek word here is: skano-oh. In English we translate it as “dwell,” but the word literally means “to put up a tent.” Think about that for a minute. Jesus, as God’s Word made flesh, pitched a tent among us.
He shared meals around campfires and cooked fish on the beach for his friends. He took long walks with them and had meaningful conversations. He played with children. It would not surprise me a bit if he enjoyed the first century version of the game Capture the Flag (a favorite game of our youth)! And Jesus often encouraged his disciples to take time away from their work of ministry to simply enjoy the world God had made.
I’ve been thinking a lot about tenting this weekend as we’ve taken part in our church’s annual family camping retreat.Going camping is no easy task. There’s a lot involved with packing everything up, heading for the site, setting up the tent, planning and cooking the meals, and keeping an eye out for critters both annoying and dangerous. But there’s also something about setting up camp and sharing time in the woods with people who are important to you that is deeply meaningful. The shared meals around the campfire. The long walks exploring creeks and hiking trails. The time away from work and technology that opens up space for breathing, long conversations, and playfulness.
So if Jesus — the Word made flesh — tented with us, doesn’t that mean that he considered this Earth his home?
And if this is God’s home, do we dare trash it like a hotel room?
Revelation shares a vision of the world not as a place to be trashed and thrown away, but as God’s very temple and throne:
For this reason [the saints] are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:15-17).
Isn’t this the kind of Earth we want?
Where no one will go hungry because there is equitable sharing of food and resources. Where there will be no more thirst because waters run clean and pure, droughts are few and far between, and pollution is greatly reduced. Where the sun’s heat will not be trapped within the atmosphere by greenhouse gases, but is instead a source of power to generate our electricity. Where worshiping the Lamb – the vulnerable one – means caring for the most vulnerable lambs among us – unborn children, infants, children, and pregnant mothers. Where our decisions about what we buy and what we drive and how we grow our food and what chemicals we use will be governed by the needs of “the least of these.” This is the kind of world the prophet John envisioned.
Because as the Gospel of John reminds us: God so loved the world (John 3:16). This world. This soil. This tree. That bird. This human. They all say – the world, it is my home.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3).
God, indeed, is with us, and dwells among us. Jesus, the Word made flesh, beckons us to sing different words to the song:
This world it IS our home. We’re not just passin’ through.
Our treasures are found here AND beyond the blue.
The Spirit beckons us from Earth’s open door.
And we can finally feel at home on Earth once more.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).
Leah will be presenting at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Spring, NC, July 14 and 15! Her session info is available here: http://wildgoosefestival.org/sessions17-24/. Enter the special code BEMYGUEST for a 25% discount on tickets!
Click here to find 17 Ways to be an EcoPreacher and Help Heal Our Planet.
Also, here are some ideas for Welcoming Children into God’s Creation.
Opening photo credit: Huron-Manistee National Park. www.flickr.com. Public domain.