Uplifting the Sacredness of Creation in Worship

(By Jerry Rees, Chair of Environmental Action Committee of Village Presbyterian Church)

This year the Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition is hosting 100 Sermons for the Earth. Clergy of all faiths are being asked to give at least one talk or sermon sometime during 2013 dedicated to the importance of Earth Care as a spiritual, moral, and religious imperative.  As of this writing, about 50 Kansas City area clergy from a variety of faiths have made the commitment.

I think this campaign can have a huge positive impact on behalf of the earth.  After almost 20 years of being involved in environmental ministry at my church, I’ve concluded that the single most significant action that churches can take to foster earthkeeping is to address in worship the environmental crisis and its impact on God’s Creation and God’s People—especially the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable, the least among us who are most affected.  In dialogue with individuals and groups, I stress that for a church to respond faithfully and effectively to environmental degradation, resource depletion, and climate change, there must be a faith component that comes from worship.

Faith communities can play the unique role of taking us beyond our enlightened self-interest down an ethical, moral, and spiritual path that other institutions do not.  They are key in addressing the moral imperative of the environmental crisis, leading by example, by education, and by inspiration.  They can influence people to transform their way of thinking and believing, which can transform their way of living and acting.  This is what makes us different than Greenpeace or the Sierra Club.

Regarding the environment, I suggest that there is a constituency within most congregations: an untapped wellspring consisting of concentric circles of interest, support, and advocacy.  I suggest further that there are unchurched folks who would be attracted to a church that incorporates earth care into its mission and ministry.

During my years of environmental activism, my experience has been that whenever a house of worship presents an educational event on any topic, 10, 20, 50, occasionally 100 people may attend, whereas a worship service can reach many times that number.  In weekly worship, there is a recurring, ready-made, receptive audience.  This means the most effective way to deliver environmental education and inspiration is through worship, by incorporating elements of earthkeeping and environmental justice into our worship experience, by presenting worship services focusing on the sacredness of creation through song, liturgy, prayer, and sermons.

In the words of Rev. Peter Sawtell of Eco-Justice Ministries, “Worship is the central activity of the Church, the setting where we nurture faith and spirituality, and where we express in praise and in prayer those things that are closest to our hearts and souls. If our care for creation . . . is not present in our worship, then we are admitting that it is on the fringe of our faith and practice. If we do not sing hymns and preach/hear sermons, and pray in confession in ways that express our relationship and responsibility in this ecological world, then we are admitting to God and our congregations that we don’t really care from the perspective of faith. . . .”

People of faith increasingly regard global climate change as the overarching moral, social, economic, environmental, national security, and theological issue of our age.  Because it is happening more rapidly than projected even 6 years ago, some have suggested that this accelerating and worsening scenario goes beyond “our age,” that it is biblical in its scope, magnitude, and consequences–affecting the entire arc of human history.  The earth will survive; humankind will survive.  But life as we know it will not!  Civilization as we know it will not!

The reality of climate change is already upon us in the form of extreme weather events: more frequent and intense storms (thunderstorms, snow storms, wind storms, and tornado outbreaks), record heat waves, prolonged and widespread droughts, wildfires, flooding, and rising sea levels.  We are experiencing nonlinear feedback loops and may soon encounter irreversible tipping points.  In the words of New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman, we are racing toward a cliff in a fog, and we don’t know where edge is.

Unchecked climate change has been compared to a world war or a great depression. According to the UN, “There are at least 20 million environmental refugees worldwide–more than those displaced by war and political repression.”  This number could increase many fold. The effects of climate change disproportionately hurt the lives of the poor and vulnerable, those least responsible for the crisis.

Since the mid 1800’s in the US, major social change such the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the civil right movement has been fueled by religion and people of faith.  Will addressing climate change be the fourth time?

Among the world’s religions, there is general consensus and common purpose about protecting the environment and the natural world.  Religion fosters reverence, respect, and responsibility.  With such unified opinion among religions about the need to care for the earth, perhaps environmentalism can be the great unifying cause of our generation.

Borrowing words from Dr. Martin Luther King, we are called to confront “the fierce urgency of now.”  “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”  To move people from denial to awareness to hope to action, earth care is a message that must be proclaimed from the pulpit as well as taught in the classroom!