“Love the Trees”
The opening Scripture reflection in my sermon today comes from a sermon by Dr. Paul Ladouceur. Paul teaches Orthodox theology at the University of Sherbrooke and Trinity College in Toronto, and I know him personally through our involvement in the Canadian Council of Churches at which he is a representative for the Archdiocese of Canada of the Orthodox Church in America.
On a path on Mount Athos, the monks put up a sign for passing pilgrims: “Love the trees.” Father Amphilochios, an elder on the island of Patmos in Greece, used to say, “Do you know that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment ‘Love the trees.’”
“Love the trees.” Why should this be important for Christians?
The Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden contains two valuable indications of how humans should relate to the world around them. In the first chapter of Genesis we read, “God said to the man and the woman: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This may suggest that humanity stands at the summit of creation and that the rest of creation exists to serve humanity.
Why should this be so?
One line of reasoning points out that God created humans in his image and likeness – no other part of creation has the dignity of being in God’s image and likeness. But a different command for how humans should relate to the world is given in the second chapter of Genesis, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and keep it.” This suggests that humans do not own the garden – the world or creation – but that creation belongs to God, and human beings are its custodians.
God tells people “to till and to keep” the garden. “To till” suggests that humanity is to use the garden – all of creation – in order that creation may produce what is necessary for the survival of humanity – for the fulfilment of God’s command to be fruitful and to multiply.
But how are we to understand the command “to keep” the garden?
Both the Hebrew word (shamar) and the word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (phylassein) clearly imply the idea of “keeping” in the sense of guarding, watching over, caring for something. Not possession, but a watchful, caring, even cherishing custodianship.
The second chapter of Genesis suggests that humanity has a divinely-given responsibility for caring for creation, of protecting and fostering creation, as creation’s steward. Since the industrial revolution, humanity has acquired increasingly powerful means of transforming the earth for its own uses. Humanity has all too often concentrated on the first Genesis indication of “dominion” over creation and has neglected the second command of “keeping” creation.
This attitude has led to an unconscionable large-scale, self-centered exploitation and destruction of the natural world and the environment with all the consequences that we are aware of: pollution of land, water, oceans, and air; the disappearance of animal and plant species of all kinds; an increase in the temperature of the earth accompanied by melting of glaciers and permafrost; an increase in the level of the oceans; unpredictable climate change and more severe climatic conditions.
It is time to concentrate on our responsibility before God for the caring, protection, and fostering of God’s creation. Creation care is thus both a spiritual duty and a spiritual opportunity.
I’m sure we’ve all heard that September is Climate Action Month, and young people and elders alike are rising up in strike action to declare to the world’s political leaders that caring for the environment through radical changes in our practices and policies is urgently necessary.
Climate change refers to the human-induced increase of atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations beyond normal levels of variation. Although earth’s climate has always fluctuated, the average surface temperature has increased dramatically – by roughly 1°C – due to human activity since the industrial revolution.
The range of climate change impacts for Canada’s far north and coastal regions is striking; glacial melt, flood risks, seasonal shifts, more snow and rain in winter, and hotter, dryer summers. Still, no part of the country is immune. Earlier this year, communities in several provinces and many First Nations experienced extensive flooding. An intense annual wildfire season in British Columbia is becoming the new normal.
The March 2019 “Canada’s Changing Climate Report” indicated that a warmer climate will “increase the severity of heatwaves and contribute to increased drought and wildfire risks.” At the same time, “more intense rainfalls will increase urban flood risks.” Around the world, famine and natural resource wars threaten food and water security and contribute to increases in migration.
Climate change is leading to crisis, after crisis, after crisis. Those who are already socially and economically marginalized are the most vulnerable.
The 16 year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has drawn a lot of attention to the issue lately. She began by challenging her own parents to lower the family’s carbon footprint by becoming vegan and giving up flying. Then she began striking from school to highlight the climate crisis, making speeches at the UN Climate Action Summit and other events, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in a 60 foot racing yacht equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines (instead of flying in the plane, of course), and sharing her message in social media.
Greta points out that “The climate crisis has already been solved.” She suggests talking to the scientists because they already know what to do. “We already have the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.”
I’m embarrassed to say that while people all over Canada and around the world were striking for Climate Action, I was doing one of the worst things that a person could be doing for the environment – flying in planes across the ocean (a week ago on Friday) and across the country (this past Friday).
The awareness of that sad reality prompted me to look into carbon offsets, and I made a donation to the Climate Fund of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, but it still didn’t feel very good.
“What is the church doing about climate change?” you may be wondering. We have been doing a few things in recent years. In 2018, the General Assembly adopted a creation care levy to recognize the ecological costs of the annual meeting, and the church’s contribution to climate change. Set at $20 per ton of carbon, based on the carbon footprint of air and ground travel to Assembly, the levy took effect in 2019 and also goes to support the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s Climate Fund.
At the Assembly in 2019, care for creation continued to be on the agenda. I had the honour of presenting the “Cutting Edge of Mission” award to Dr. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an internationally recognized environmental, cultural, and human rights advocate. Dr. Watt-Cloutier’s speech to the Assembly detailed the impact of climate change on northern environments and those who live in the Arctic. She spoke of how connected and inter-connected our world is, and how all of humanity has a responsibility to what is happening in the Arctic.
Considerable work was also done by our church’s International Affairs Committee on environmental issues, especially as related to plastics. Congregations are encouraged to reduce their use of plastics and encourage their municipal governments to do the same, and to encourage the Government of Canada’s continued action on climate change, as well as take immediate action to reduce the Canadian contribution to carbon emissions.
Looking back at statements and actions of the General Assembly over the last few decades reveals numerous attempts to both speak out and to change policies in order to protect the natural environment, yet there remains much to be done. If you’re interested in a detailed theological reflection on the topic of climate change, a report titled “Caring for God’s Creation” was produced by the International Affairs Committee in 2010.
As a denomination, we can make statements, write letters, try to model better choices, and encourage local congregations to embrace change. It’s up to the people to make changes in our own communities, homes, and congregations.
We can reduce how much we fly or drive gas-guzzling cars. We can embrace new technologies for greener energy and reduction of pollution.
We can reduce, re-use, recycle. We can avoid single-use plastics, and make changes in our daily choices and practices that will make a difference.
And we can call upon our governments to support positive changes as well. For example, we can make it clear that it’s not acceptable for the Saskatchewan government to cancel programs that encourage solar energy. And governments at all levels should be investing in programs and policies that will help us all to make the necessary changes.
We know that there is a federal election coming up, and it is important that we participate in the process, engage with the candidates, and make sure that the parties and future government knows what is important to us as people of faith and people of good will. I received two excellent “Federal Election Guides” that include good reflections on important topics for the election and questions for the candidates. One is from the Canadian Council of Churches, and the other is from Citizens for Public Justice, another faith-based coalition concerned with social justice in Canada. There are copies on the table in the narthex if you would like to pick one up after worship.
So, today’s Scripture readings and theme remind us that creation care is a spiritual duty, but it’s also a spiritual opportunity. “Love the trees” is a wonderful commandment, because it invites us to go out into the world, to observe and enjoy the wonder and beauty of God’s good creation. I guess we’re supposed to be what people in the 1960’s used to call “tree huggers.” Go out and hug a tree and give thanks for the person who planted it in Regina. Or sit and wonder at the living skies of Saskatchewan, revel in the beauty of a sunset, listen to the sounds of the birds chirping and calling, or watch for a glimpse of a rabbit or another small animal hopping along.
Read through and reflect on that first Creation story in Genesis. Notice the continuing refrain “And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the next day.” Look around and see the natural environment as God’s good creation, and with God, declare that it is very, very good. What better way to get our hearts and minds and hands ready to do the work of creation stewardship and care.
Because yes, the Creation is groaning. People like Greta and young Indigenous leaders are expressing that groaning through their outspoken advocacy for the Earth and all its creatures. May we heed their voices for the sake of our children and grandchildren and the coming generations. And may we heed their voices for the sake of the world that God created to be very, very good.