I never saw a sunset until I moved to Oklahoma. I grew up in north Florida. North Florida is a beautiful place—lots of trees…and lakes…and The Swamp. But, because you can’t see the horizon—all those trees get in the way—you don’t really notice sunsets.
Oklahoma’s landscape is different. I transferred to OklahomaBaptistUniversity in Shawnee my sophomore year. I remember calling my mom to tell her about this strange new place. It was flat. The wind blew all the time. (Hence, the greatest line in all of musical theatre: Cue choir– “Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…”) And there was only one tree on the entire campus. One short tree…that leaned, due to it being in “Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…”
Moving to Oklahoma was a shock. There was so much open space; so little elevational diversity, if you know what I mean; so few trees….
Once, the Bisonette Glee Club in which I sang (Go ahead. Get it out of your system—Bisonette, Bisonette, Bisonette) went to Houston on tour. I remember looking out the bus window as we approached the city, seeing all those tall pines and thinking “This looks just like home!” At the same time, some of my fellow Bisonettes who hailed from even barer parts of Oklahoma and Texas exclaimed: “All these trees make me nervous!”
Yes, Oklahoma was very new for me and was, I quickly realized, much inferior to my home state of Florida.
That’s what I thought, anyway, until I saw my first sunset. Walking around campus early one evening, I climbed the steps of Raley Chapel, turned to the west and saw, really saw, my first sunset. With nothing—and by nothing I do mean no thing—to disturb the horizon, I could see the bright ball of the sun slip down toward the ground and smoothly disappear beneath the horizon. The sky seemed so big! And it was so full of color! When I saw that first sunset, I wondered how I’d lived my whole life without seeing one.
What happens when you look at the sky, especially a blue sky…or a sunset sky….or a sunrise sky? There’s something about sky that triggers our imaginations, doesn’t it? The shapes of clouds, the colors, the vastness of it all…
Allen and I have a Sunday morning ritual…we stop by McDonald’s for breakfast, then we drive off into the sunrise. It’s a mile farther to come to church that way (Don’t worry. We shorten other trips during the week to make up for the extra gas.)….but experiencing the beauty of the sunrise somehow feels necessary to us. Allowing ourselves to be awed by the beautiful sky is our first act of praise on Sunday mornings.
When I started this sermon series, I was determined to preach it, you know? Like the prophet Jeremiah, I was going to give you the unvarnished truth, paint dire pictures of what we’re doing to our planet, and challenge you—challenge us all—to get to work changing our lives so that we can heal the planet. And I did that. In two of the most depressing sermons I’ve ever preached, I gave you the truth about the state of creation. Jeremiah—also known as the “weeping prophet”– would have been proud.
But in my eagerness to Preach It, I forgot something really important—the reason for tending to earth’s healing. Why care what greenhouse emissions are doing to the atmosphere? Why care about the increasing salinity of the oceans? Why care about the melting ice caps? We care because this world is beautiful. We care because creation is full of complexity and diversity and life. We care because caring for the earth is the best way to praise the Creator.
Whoever chose today’s Scripture lessons understands the important balance between preaching it like it is and praising the Creator. The passage from Jeremiah is a vision of what the prophet sees is going to happen if Judah doesn’t change its ways—basically, creation is going to be un-created (or, to use our new word, de-created). This hard prophetic text is then balanced with the classic praise of creation Psalm, Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world…”
Look at the world, today’s anthem says—look at the world and see its hurt, yes, but don’t neglect to notice its beauty, as well.
This pattern of looking at the brokenness of the world one moment and praising God for its beauty the next, is crucial. It’s a pattern I experienced on my visit to the monastery a couple of weeks ago. While there, I was working on that first creation sermon I preached two weeks ago—the one with all the depressing statistics in it? That was the acme of my prophetic zeal. I was working hard to preach it!
Trouble was, just about the time I’d really get into writing this prophetic sermon, the bells would start ringing, calling us to prayer. Prayer in a monastery can be very annoying. Interrupts all kinds of important work!
Especially my last night. There I was, almost done with the sermon, when the bells started chiming. I sighed. And debated. Since I had a long drive back home the next day and really needed to have the sermon done before I left the monastery…yes. I should skip prayer and finish the sermon. But praying is why I came to the monastery! It didn’t make sense to skip it…except that I really did need to get this sermon done. Back and forth I went.
Eventually guilt won out. I made my way to the chapel. (The monastery’s bell-ringing lasts for several minutes. It gives you plenty of time to vacillate.)
Evening prayer always begins with a hymn. Guess what the hymn was that night? “For the Beauty of the Earth.”
I took it as a sign from God. The prophetic is important; but so is the praise. Taking earth’s illness seriously is crucial…as is celebrating its beauty and strength and diversity and life. The prophetic without the praise can lead to hopelessness.
Praise without the prophetic isn’t realistic enough to do any good. The key to true earth care is an equal balance of the prophetic and praise, praise and the prophetic.
And so today, in this moment, I invite us all to do a little praising…as Willie sings… as Monty plays and sings, imagine beautiful skies you’ve seen, remember how you felt, what you thought. You might even like to turn around and look out the back windows to see if you can catch a glimpse of the sky.
And as you remember, as you imagine, as you think, as you enjoy the sky, whisper a thank you to the one who created it.
(Monty: “Blue Skies”)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
26I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.27 For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. 28 Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament* proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice* goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens* he has set a tent for the sun, 5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hidden from its heat.