When I was a little boy growing up in England, hedgehogs were a familiar feature of the countryside. They aren’t very spectacular creatures. They’re small and prickly, they tend to go out at night and sleep during the day, and they aren’t especially smart. They’ve never handled traffic very well; I’m pretty sure I saw more of them dead on the road than living in the grass. But they were everywhere, and they were loved.
And now they’re dying out. Numbers are hard to estimate, but a 2006 study suggested that the population might have dropped by 50% since the 1990s, and by 2025, they may well be extinct. It’s hard to pin down a single cause for this: removal of hedges, paving over of gardens, use of chemicals have all been suggested, and it’s likely that a combination of factors is behind it all. But one thing is clear: all of these factors are to do with human activity.
Closer to home, let’s think about the woodland caribou in Jasper National Park. This is also a population in decline. There are four separate herds, three of them quite close together in the southern part of the park. Two years ago, numbers for these three herds were estimated at just over fifty animals. One of them, the Maligne range herd, was down to three animals. Two of the biggest factors were road collisions and packed snow trails – both of them related to human activity. And yet, people routinely ignore speed limits designed to protect these animals. I’ve driven on the Miette Hot Springs road at 50 kilometres per hour and seen cars speed past me doing at least 80.
Why am I talking about these things today? Why is it important to us, as people of faith?
Today is Thanksgiving, possibly the one festival in our church year that is firmly connected to the natural creation around us. In many countries Thanksgiving is actually called ‘Harvest Festival’, a time to give thanks to God for the fruits of the earth and the goodness of the Creator who provides for our needs. And given the speed with which we humans are wiping out other species and destroying the natural environment around us, developing a good theology of creation isn’t a luxury for us; it’s vital for our survival. To be blunt: we need Thanksgiving just as much as we need Christmas and Easter. ‘In the beginning…God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1.1). Before God was our Saviour or our Redeemer, God was first of all our Creator. And that mattersto us as Christians. It matters a lot.
This morning, let me suggest to you five biblical virtues of people who know themselves to be created by God and placed in a world created by God.
The first virtue is humility, and it’s especially important to our concept of ownership. Listen to the words of Psalm 24:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers. (Psalm 24:1-2).
If I create a work of art, it belongs to me unless I sell it or give it away. The same applies if I’m a developer or builder and I build a house. This principle is universally acknowledged: if you create something using your own resources, what you have created is your property.
And yet we human beings refuse to recognize this principle when it comes to the Creation itself. We talk about owning land. Premiers of Alberta have been known to announce that the oil under our feet ‘belongs to the people of Alberta’, as if we created the dinosaurs and the process by which they died and were fossilized. We assume that we have the right to decide the fate of animals and birds, as if we designed and created them and have kept them alive by our own skill.
A biblical theology of creation starts here. The earth does not belong to us. Buy and sell land all you like, that doesn’t make you its owner. God has never sold it or given it away. Genesis teaches us that God has entrustedthe earth to our care, but that’s a different thing altogether, something we’ll come to in a minute when we think about the meaning of stewardship. But the caribou belong to God. The hedgehogs belong to God. God took a lot of care in designing them, and they matter to him. What does that mean for how we approach them? Does it make a difference? If not, why not?
So the first virtue is humility.The second one is attentiveness.
In our gospel reading for today Jesus says “Look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). I’m a casual bird watcher myself, so I’m delighted to find Jesus recommending my hobby to his disciples! Seriously, I know that’s not the point Jesus is making: he’s wanting us to learn trust in God from the creatures around us. But I note that he assumes his followers will noticethe birds around them. Nowadays, I don’t think that’s necessarily a sure thing.
We are the most connected generation in the history of humanity – in one sense. Through the wonders of Facebook I’m connected to friends and relatives all over the world; I can see their family photos, read what they’re up to and join in their political arguments to my heart’s content! But in another sense, we’re the mostdisconnected generation. Few of us grow our own food anymore, so we’re disconnected from the natural processes of life. Few go out in the country for walks. And even in the city, I’ve been amazed how many people just don’t look around them. The path that leads down from the LRT station near my house goes past some beautiful trees and shrubs, and in the Fall the colours are spectacular. But most people seem far more interested in their cell phones than the colour of the oak leaves!
God is the Creator. If we love God, shouldn’t we take an interest in what God has made?
There was a time when theologians used to talk about the two books of revelation God has given us: the book of scriptureand the book ofcreation. Yes, we learn about God from the words of the Bible, but we also learn about God from the colours of a sunset, or the vast distances of space, or the amazing creatures that live at the bottom of the sea. If we’re just not interestedin these things, surely there’s something missing in our spirituality?
So let me encourage you to be attentive to God’s creation. Enjoy the colours of Fall. Learn the different species of birds. Delve into the amazing mysteries of DNA and how it works. Walk a woodland trail in the river valley. Smell the smells of the outdoors.Pay attentionto what’s going on in the natural world around you. After all, our lives literally depend on it.
So the first virtue is humility, and the second is attentiveness. The third, of course, is gratitude.
And surely we Albertans have more cause to be grateful than almost everyone else on the face of the planet! Our province contains some of the most amazing scenery in Canada. And I’m not just talking about the mountain parks, although they’re spectacular enough. I’m talking about the amazing sunsets we get on the prairies. I’m talking about all the places in our province where you can go canoeing or swimming, or cross-country skiing, or sailing, or hiking through the bush. Last week Marci and I went to visit Elk Island National Park with my aunt and uncle from Ontario: they were wowed by the sight of a whole herd of bison, which they described as ‘magnificent creatures’.
We can see all this. We can also enjoy the benefits of oil and gas reserves buried beneath our feet, reserves that have given us the highest standard of living in Canada. Children growing up in our province today live in luxury that would have been unimaginable to children three generations ago, and we take it for granted. And, of course, we enjoy a level of safety and security billions of people around the world can only dream about. Few of us expect to be caught up in a civil war or an incident of ethnic cleansing.
In 1 Thessalonians 5.18 Paul says ‘Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’. Notice that he says nothing at all about our feelings. He doesn’t command us to feelgrateful. He commands us to dosomething: to say thank you. He knows that the act of saying thank you, and making a habit of it, has a transformational effect on us. Yes, our words often reflect what’s in our hearts, but they also have power to changewhat’s in our hearts. If we build thanksgiving into our daily prayer time, whether we feel like it or not – If we make it a daily habit to think of things we’ve received and to thank God for them – in the end we’ll feel more thankful and more positive.
By the way, this doesn’t only apply to saying thank you to God. To give a smile to a waiter in a restaurant and say “Thank you for looking after us so well” can make that person’s day – but it can also transform ourmood as well. I can tell you from experience that when I say that word of gratitude, it makes mefeel better, not just the other person.
We’re talking about the biblical virtues of people who know themselves to be created by God and place in a world created by God. We’ve talked about the humilitythat acknowledges that the world belongs to God, not us. We’ve talked about the attentivenesswe cultivate as we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We’ve talked about developing the habit of gratitudeand the effect it can have on other people and on ourselves.
The fourth habit is care. Genesis 2.15 says ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’ (NRSV). The word translated ‘keep’ has the sense of ‘take care of’, ‘guard’, ‘protect’. The Revised English Bible translates it ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and look after it’.
There’s a word in common use in churchland today that’s intimately connected to that word ‘care’: ‘Stewardship’. Simply put, a steward is someone who looks after someone else’s property for them and runs it on their behalf. So, in the middle ages, if the lord of the manor was away for a while, his estate would be entrusted to the steward who would run it in his master’s name and on his behalf. He had all the authority of the lord of the manor, but the estate didn’t belong to him: he was entrusted with it, and was responsible to the Lord of the Manor for how he took care of it.
So the symbolic language of the book of Genesis says ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and look after it’ (Gen. 2.15 REB). In other words, our first call as humans made in God’s image is to look after Gods earth on God’s behalf. Before our call to love one another or care for the poor or share the gospel, the first call given to humans is the call to be good stewards of God’s creation.
So you see, what we refer to today as ‘green’ issues aren’t something peripheral to our call as Christians. God has taken great care to fashion this earth and everything in it. For millions of years it got along without humans, but then the time came when God decided to fashion us in his image and entrust us with some of his authority. I expect this was a bit like parents asking their small children to help them with some project; God knew he could do it better, but he wanted us to grow and learn, so he entrusted it to us. And so as we make decisions today about our carbon footprint, about the sort of cars we drive and the number of flights we take, about how we look after animal habitat and whether or not our actions are helping drive wildlife species to extinction – well, these are spiritual issues. These are discipleship issues. When we see the Lord face to face, this is one of the things we’re going to be asked about: ‘How well did you do in taking care of the earth I entrusted to you?’
So we’ve talked about the humilitythat acknowledges that the world belongs to God, not us. We’ve talked about the attentivenesswe cultivate as we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We’ve talked about developing the habit of gratitudeand the effect that can have on other people and on ourselves. We’ve talked about learning to be responsible stewards, to take goodcareof this good earth that God has entrusted to us.
The fifth habit is generosity, and it surely needs very little explanation to people in this congregation, because you are amazingly generous! Perhaps, though, the connection with thanksgiving needs to be explored.
We give thanks for something we receive as a gift. We give thanks for our food because we know so many factors in its production weren’t under human control, beginning with the existence of life itself, the gift of a breathable atmosphere, the fruitfulness of the earth, the gift of abundant harvests and so on. Yes, human energy and expertise were involved, but in the last analysis, our food comes from God.
This weekend many of us will enjoy family feasts with tables piled high with delicious food. We do this to celebrate Thanksgiving, and we thank God for all these blessings. Well, if we thank God for them, we surely can’t ignore the loud and clear teaching of the Bible that God is especially the God of the poor and needy, and he calls those who have much to take care of those who have little. This was a major element of the teaching of Jesus. He even went so far as to say that when we refuse to help those in need, it’s really him we’re refusing to help.
So we can express our gratitude to God this Thanksgiving not just in showering our love on our families but also in looking for ways to help those in need. Once again, this isn’t a peripheral activity for those who like that kind of thing. In Matthew chapter six Jesus lists three basic disciplines of people of faith: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. It never occurred to him that anyone would embark on a journey of faith without practising those three disciplines.
Let’s go around this one last time. We Christians are human beings who know ourselves to be created by God and placed in a world created by God. Therefore it’s appropriate for us to cultivate an attitude of humility, reminding ourselves that the world belongs to God, not us. We cultivate the habit of attentivenessas we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We cultivate the habit of gratitudeas we practice saying ‘thank you’ to God and to the people around us. We cultivate the habit of responsible stewardship, taking good care of this good earth that God has entrusted to us. And finally, we who have been given so many good gifts by a generous God also learn from God the habit of generosity, learning to find joy in giving to those in need and seeing it as a way of serving Jesus himself.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s think of these things and resolve to put them into practice. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.