I grew up in circles in which it was not uncommon to hear someone say, cavalierly and piously, “it’s all gonna burn anyway,” as if faith somehow supported a disdain for careful conservation of the earth. But on the whole, the conservative southern culture in which I was raised knew better than that: the earth was not just a warehouse of resources to be used at our careless beck-and-call, but a gift, and we its grateful stewards. Living on the edge of the Talladega National Forest, I grew to love long-leaf pines and the Appalachian foothills. I loved nothing more than a dark Alabama night with the starry host of the Milky Way arrayed above. And I loved singing in church about the beauty of that creation, which bore witness to the Creator’s love for all us creatures.
Songs like those by St. Francis of Assisi, friend of the poor and activist for peace, lover of trees and birds and lepers: “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing, Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam! Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in Heaven along…”
In continuity with such poetry, I discovered in time other theological trajectories that seemed to make a lot more sense than the cavalier “it’s all gonna burn.” For example, when those eighth century B.C. poets and social agitators spoke of judgment and burning, they envisioned the sort of burning that purifies gold and silver, burning away the impurities—that is, the impurities of greed and injustice and involuntary poverty and war and wanton waste; and that after that burning would arise “new heavens and new earth,” in which a certain equity and peaceableness would characterize all things – old men would live out a lifetime, women would no longer bear babies for calamity, everyone would sit under their own olive tree, and the environmental degradation which arises from greed and violence be done away. Or I discovered another way to read the garden story, in which the human was given so-called “dominion” over the creation: that is, that that story should be read in conjunction with the sort of dominion the Creator exhibits, namely, patient, generous, and suffering love, not high-handed exploitation and waste.
So tonight we look for tokens of story-telling such as this—tokens of care and patience and generosity, given in response to the giftedness of our existence. Welcome.