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Sermons

The Human Earth

April 24, 2005

BibleReading

Praise the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great;
     you are clothed with splendor and majesty. . . .

You make grass grow for the cattle,
     and plants for humans to cultivate,
bringing forth food from the earth,
     and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
     and bread to strengthen the heart.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
     the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
     the stork has its home in the pine trees.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
     the crags are a refuge for the conies.

The moon marks off the seasons,
     and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
     and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
     and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
     they return and lie down in their dens.
Then people go out to their work,
     to their labor until evening.

How many are your works, O Lord!
     In wisdom you made them all;
     the earth is full of your creatures.

(Psalm 104:1, 14-24)

Then I looked, and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!"

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!"

The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshipped.

(Revelation 5:11-14)

Reading from Swedenborg

Every single thing in nature, from the smallest to the largest, is a correspondence. This is because the natural world and everything in it exists and endures from the spiritual world, and both of these worlds exist and endure from the Divine. . . .

Here are some examples to show what the correspondence between spiritual and natural things is like. Land animals correspond to emotions. The gentle and useful ones correspond to good emotions, and the vicious and useless ones correspond to bad emotions. To take some specific cases, cows and calves correspond to the emotions of the worldly mind, and lambs to the emotions of the spiritual mind. The various winged creatures correspond to the intellectual parts of either level of the mind. . . . Animals are emotions because they are alive, and emotion is the only source of life. (Heaven and Hell #106, 110)

Sermon

How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. (Psalm 104:24)

Today our theme comes from Earth Day and Arbor Day. With spring bursting out all around us, it's hard not to think about the wonders of the earth. Patty and I celebrated Arbor Day by going out and buying a nice Sugar Maple, which we will be planting near the road in our front yard. Our street is lined with beautiful maples; the one we plant will take the place of one that had to be taken down before we moved in. And so we will help to continue the cycle of nature, in which what is new and young replaces what has grown old and died.

Some people would see a contradiction in our tree planting. We plant a tree in an area where so many of the trees have been cut down to make way for human houses. Can we really talk about the cycle of nature where humans have so greatly disrupted that cycle? I remember visiting a friend in the city some years ago. As I arrived, he was busily hacking away at some runaway bushes that were spreading out from the fence separating his lot from his neighbor's. There wasn't much ground for anything green to grow in, but that bush didn't care--it was obeying the laws of nature, which say that where something can grow, it will grow. He paused to say hello, and laughed when I asked whether he had finished beating back the wilderness.

The joke is on us. No matter how much we do beat back the wilderness, it simply will not stay down. The moment our efforts cease--and even during our efforts--the wilderness is busily creeping back into our islands of civilization.

We could view this as it has been traditionally seen: as a battle between humans and nature. We humans do our best to carve out a corner in nature where we can live our lives in safety from the often cruel and certainly thoughtless ways of nature, while nature continually, implacably, reasserts itself wherever and whenever our efforts slacken. We have all seen old roads, old parking lots, old tennis courts where first grass and weeds, then bushes, then trees begin to reassert themselves from the edges and from every crack in the pavement. Even our great cities and suburban areas cover a relatively small fraction of the earth's surface--as anyone who has traveled across the vast, largely undeveloped areas of our earth can see and experience. Nature is still ascendant over humans throughout much of our earth.

Yet we need not see it as a battle. Certainly we humans do need to protect ourselves from the elements. We are not equipped with sharp claws and long teeth to protect ourselves using our bodies, as most of the larger animals are; but we are equipped with intelligence that enables us to protect ourselves in more sophisticated ways, with fences and walls and weapons. These days, though storms and earthquakes do break through our defenses from time to time, for the most part we are quite able to protect ourselves from nature. In fact, most people are more afraid of what other people might do to them than they are of what nature might do. In our times, after years of studying nature and learning of its wonders, we are more inclined to feel that we will do better by cooperating with nature as much as we can. Perhaps we can even learn something from the balance of nature that will help us to restore our human society to a balance we seem to have lost.

Whatever our relationship with nature may be, one thing is certain: as long as we live on this earth, we are inextricably linked with nature. Even city dwellers who spend most of their lives surrounded by human-made objects are dependent on rural farms where their food is grown. Our very civilization depends on energy sources that come from nature. Oil is pumped up from the ground--and it got there through the decomposition of trillions of tons of organic matter in ancient times. Electricity is generated from oil or natural gas or water or wind power or some other natural source of energy. Without the forces of nature, we could not run a single internal combustion engine or turn on a single personal computer.

The more we realize this, the more we understand that whenever we "defeat" nature, we are really defeating ourselves. If and when we succeed in putting nature on the run, we are putting ourselves on the run also, since we are destroying the basis upon which everything we do in this material world is built. No matter how removed from nature we may sometimes feel that we are, we humans, as physical beings, are still an integral part of the web of nature; and we damage that web to our own peril.

So far, I have not said anything that could not be found in an ecologically oriented magazine or a textbook in environmental biology. Though we certainly do continue to pollute and damage our earth in dangerous and sometimes disastrous ways, our culture is recognizing more and more that when we damage nature, we damage ourselves along with it.

What our culture may be slower to recognize is the source of this intricate web of life, and why we human beings are so intimately tied in with the cycle of nature. Our reading from Psalm 104 gives the most basic reason, in poetic language: It is the Lord who created both us and the earth that we live on; and the Lord created us to live together with this earth as long as we live in our physical bodies. "How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures." We are one of the creatures that the Lord has made. "You make grass grow for the cattle, and plants for humans to cultivate, bringing forth food from the earth." Yes, in God's plan, human beings and the earth are bound together in a cycle of life.

We need not stop at physical life in our search for the connection between human beings and the earth. We are dependent on the earth for our physical sustenance. But the earth provides so much more, if our eyes are open to perceive it! Swedenborg tells us, "All the things that occur in nature, from the smallest to the largest, are correspondences. This is because the natural world and everything in it exists and endures from the spiritual world, and both of these worlds exist and endure from the Divine."

As with everything God does, there are many levels of meaning and reality in nature. Things in nature correspond to--or express the nature of--things in the spiritual world, which, in turn, express the nature of God. This means we can travel up ladders of meaning from the wonders of nature through the wonders of spirit to the wonders of God.

It also means that everything in the created universe is unified and related to everything else in the universe through that one central, creative being of God. Do we have anything in common with a porcupine? Of course we do! We were both created by God, and we each express something about God. Swedenborg's radical idea is that as we are watching something in nature, spiritually we are watching the very same thing in ourselves.

Have you ever seen a porcupine waddle along, not too concerned about predators because it knows that predators do not want a mouthful of quills? That porcupine is not only outside of us, but within us as well. Each one of us is capable of making ourselves so prickly that nobody will come near us. It is one of the ways we protect our sensitive selves from people whom we feel may hurt us emotionally.

How about the tree Patty and I will soon be planting in our front yard? Like a tree, our spirit also grows slowly, gradually, from a tiny seed of spiritual longing and inspiration at first, through the stages of young and tender growth of understanding and effort toward living in a more loving and spiritual way, to a mature spirituality when we are firmly rooted in the earth of practical, good living, with our branches reaching up to the heavens from which the warmth and light of the Lord's love and wisdom shines on us, giving us the energy to continue growing and reaching out toward others in the fruitfulness of love and service.

The deeper message of our earth is that as we look at the world of nature around us, we are also looking at the human world of spirit within us. Our connection with the earth goes far beyond a cause and effect relationship in which the damage we do to the earth boomerangs on us and damages us in turn, while the good things we do for the earth rebound to us in richer harvests and healthier bodies. We have not only a physical relationship with the earth, but a spiritual one. Our actions toward the earth are another manifestation of the things we do to each other and to ourselves. If we are so intent on profit that we will pollute and damage the earth to acquire wealth, this is simply another way of expressing the damage we are willing to do to each other, and even to ourselves, in pursuit of our own advantage.

Similarly, if we care about the world of nature around us, isn't it the same care that we have for each other, and for all that God has created in the divine image? Our treatment of nature is an indication our treatment of each other and of God. Nature is a realm where we are at home because it reflects God's image . . . which is a human image. As we realize this, we realize that our treatment of nature is the same as our treatment of ourselves.

As we enjoy the beauties of spring, may we join the universal chorus of praise that John describes in Revelation: "Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!" Amen.

Prayer

Creator God, as we rejoice in the wonders of spring, open our eyes to see the deeper wonders within all of nature around us. As we delight in the returning warmth and the burgeoning life, renew our tired and wintry spirits also with the breath of your spirit, so that we may enjoy spring not only here but also in eternity. Amen.

Rev. Lee Woofenden