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Celebration of Creation Homily
April 30/May 1, 2011
Oh, Great Spirit, Make me wise, so that I may understand what you have taught my people and the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and each rock. ~ Prayer of the Ojibwa People
Well, I really needed this prayer while I was preparing this homily. Because the subject that came to me just wouldn’t back off, and it wouldn’t give me easy answers.
You see, I was called on this Earth Day celebration to search for the lesson God had hidden in the rock off the eastern coast of Japan. The rock of the tectonic plates that crashed together in a 9.0 earthquake; raised up the ocean floor; and caused a killer tsunami of terrifying dimensions. That ravaged dozens of villages and cities; left over 26,000 people dead or missing; and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, from Sendai to Santa Cruz.
Maybe this tragedy haunts you, too. And raises hard questions.
It’s easy for me to see God in all things bright and beautiful; to appreciate the version of nature that suits Clare Novak. All seems in perfect, divine order when the natural world delivers just what I prefer: sunshine in April and chipmunks scampering in my backyard. But when I’m hit instead with snow on Easter Day and bears trying to break into my house, I’m just plain indignant. I call this “Nature Gone Wrong. “
And I’m deeply torn about cataclysms of nature that kill and destroy, like the recent horrific tornadoes in the South. We call them “acts of God,” but what are we meant to learn about the Creator in these events? What can they teach us about our relationship to Him? And about our relationship to nature?
Well, if you struggle with these questions along with me, we’re not alone. They’ve troubled humans from recorded time—and were again raised worldwide following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.
Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara, was quoted as saying, “I think [the disaster] is tembatsu”—a Japanese term that means “divine punishment.” He suggested that the tsunami was meant to wipe out the rise of egoism in his country. But then he quickly apologized and retracted his statement.
Understandable: his comment was harsh. But it was also odd for his culture: asking “Why?” after a disaster is unusual in Eastern traditions. According to Brian Bocking, an expert in Japanese religions at Ireland’s University College Cork, “It’s very important in Japanese life to react in a positive way, to be persistent and to clean up in the face of adversity, and their religions [particularly Buddhism and the ancient Shinto tradition] would emphasize that. They’ll say we have to develop a powerful, even joyful, attitude in the face of adversity.”
By contrast, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are often preoccupied with causes of disaster: the question of why God would allow an earthquake, for example. A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service after Japan’s tragedy showed that Americans are caught in contradiction about this question.
Most people surveyed—76%—said they believe in a personal God who is in control of everything that happens in the world, a fairly standard orthodox theology. But they resisted connecting that belief to God's direct role in natural disasters.
Only 4 in 10 (38%) said they believed earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters are a sign from God. Even fewer (29%) agreed that God sometimes punishes nations for the sins of some of its citizens—as Pat Robertson did after the Gulf Coast destruction following Katrina.
Well, I understand the contradiction reflected in this survey. We have a God we name as Creator of all. A God we perceive as in control of the version of nature that serves us. But is He also in control of its destructive powers?
In the case of earthquakes, this power originates deep in the Earth’s core—in the churning heat left over from the Big Bang that keeps convection currents moving upward through the molten mantle layer above. This movement causes the plates on the Earth’s crust to grind against each other, slip, and eventually release the accumulated stress as earthquakes.
So do we label this underlying thermal flux at the Earth’s core a destructive power? Yes, it’s the source of earthquakes, but it’s also the source of our planet’s magnetic field—which shields us from solar wind and its irradiation. And if the Earth did not have this hot center, if its core and mantle were to gradually cool, we would become a cold, dead planet like Mars.
Earth would not be Earth without this hot core—that both sustains life and makes it perilous. And Earth would not be Earth without the life-giving elements—earth, air, fire, and water—that at times become intense, extreme, hazardous.
What if we truly accepted these dual properties of nature? What if we truly accepted Creation as it is—its elements, powers, conditions—as both bright and dark? Beautiful and dangerous? Able to both nurture and harm humanity?
And what if we truly accepted that no system of obedience to a controlling, judging God would guarantee us safety in this world of blessings and hazards?
To do this would mean letting go of a lot. We’d have to let go of a sense of entitlement from nature. A sense that we’re above it, separate from it, able to bend it to our will. We’d have to let go of the arrogant notion that we can take advantage of the Earth without increasing its hazards.
We’d have to accept that we, too, at our core, are like all of God’s complex creations—with a capacity for the bright and beautiful and the dark and dangerous.
But letting go of the notion that nature is divided into good and bad also frees us to be in stronger connection with it, with other humans, and with God. In the face of disaster and loss, we’re not locked in a spiritual preoccupation with “Why did this happen? Are we bad? Is God punishing us?”
We’re free to ask different questions: “What can I do now? What can I do to accept, to heal? How can I find comfort in God’s love? And prevent any damage from worsening?”
In asking these questions, I believe we come closer to understanding God and who we are meant to be in His Creation.
Let’s look again at the familiar story of The Great Flood we heard this morning. Its author, like us, is looking for the spiritual lesson hidden in a tale of massive destruction. Where is God in this cataclysm?
First, the author sees Him as the judge in control of all, weighing the corruption of His original Creation. There is no appeal for its beauty. He is “grieved to his heart” by the way humans have made the Earth violent and imperfect. His absolute verdict is destruction: “I will blot out from the earth the humans I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Yet God is able to see the dual nature of just one human—Noah. To accept both his righteousness and his humanity and to offer him connection. Connection with all the other animals of the Earth—literally on the same boat. Connection with God.
It is this loving connection that then transforms the Earth and all its relationships. In this new vision, the author now presents God not as the source of divine punishment, but of saving grace.
When the waters settle, this compassionate God blesses the duality in His Creation, as it has unfolded. He accepts that humans are both made in His image and inclined to evil. He allows both threatening clouds over the earth and uplifting rainbows. He lets go of absolute judgment to make an enduring covenant of love with every living creature on the earth.
Here the author gives us a new image of a God in connection with His Creation, but not through a system of control and punishment. He gives us an evolved story of God not as a destroyer, but as a healer who will comfort us in sorrow.
And he gives us a model for who we are meant to be to other humans who suffer and to this planet that sustains us.
We are meant to live out God’s covenant of agape love. Stay connected to our planet, respecting and accepting all its elements and conditions.
Stay connected to all living creatures, sharing both our vulnerability and our strength.
Stay connected to each other—with power, joy, and love—even, and especially, in the face of adversity.
And stay connected to God, whose gift of this Earth, both peaceful and perilous, is the source of all life.
This, I believe, is the lesson hidden in every leaf and each rock: true “acts of God” are acts of love. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Interfaith Minister, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
 “On the Thermal Evolution of the Earth’s Core,” Journal of Geophysical Research, 101, No. B4 (1996) [http://www.agu.org/journals/ABS/1996/95JB03539.shtml]; PhysOrg, “Probing Question: What Heats the Earth’s Core?” 3/30/06 [http://www.physorg.com/news62952904.html].