A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 10, 2011
Mark 4:26-35 GNT
Is there any correlation between spirituality and one’s connection to the earth? If so, just what is it? And what do I mean when I use the term in the sermon title, “earth-minded person”? Is it possible to live and not be an earth-minded person? I think it is possible for one to go through life without feeling any real connection to the earth, and without being earth-minded at all. There was a time in my younger, teenage, years when I really didn’t feel the connection to the earth that I feel today and was not that earth-minded; at least, it was not evidenced by the way I showed respect and took care of the earth. At that time in my life, the earth was not really looked upon as a living organism to be respected and cared for; it was something more to be used for my own benefit. I was sort of blinded to the majesty of the trees, the wonder of the flowers, the gracefulness of the birds, and the awesomeness of the sunrise and sunset. But the older I get, the more earth-minded I become. Perhaps it is the same with you.
Speaking of one being earth-minded, such was the way with Jesus, I believe. I am inclined to believe that Jesus was very earth-minded; more so than most men and women are. Jesus’ earth-mindedness is evidenced by the many earthy parables he used to teach his message. The salt of the earth, the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, a tree and its fruit, the sower and his seed, wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, the pearl, the net of fish, the lost sheep, the vineyard, the grapevine and the branches, the fig tree, the sunrise and sunset—these are just some of the things of the earth that Jesus is said to have used to illustrate life and teach spiritual truth. If Jesus had anything, he had a keen observation of life, the earth, and the world in which he lived. He was one who was close to the earth. He often prayed under the olive trees of the Garden of Gethsemane. He and his disciples, no doubt, often slept out under the stars. His was a connection to the earth that is often missed by most contemporary men and women. Many of us tend to live “earth-sheltered lives.” Our lives are dominated by city lights which keep us from basking in the beauty of the stars. We live our lives mostly indoors in front of televisions, computer screens or other electronic gadgets. We are so busy we rarely take time to smell the flowers, take notice of the birds, or feel the earth between our fingers. Jesus, on the other hand, was an earth-minded man, an example that warrants consideration.
When you come to think of it, many of the spiritual giants of the ages and prophetic mystics have been earth-minded women and men. As Thomas Berry notes, “Religion, we must remember, is born out of the sense of wonder and awe of the majesty and fearsomeness of the universe itself. . . . Recognition of the divine as manifested in nature can be found in the teachings of all the spiritual traditions of the world…”1 I immediately think of Francis of Assisi, who left us that moving hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” The burning sun, the silver moon, the rushing wind, the clouds that sail along, the flowing water pure and clear, the fire so masterful bright that gives man both warmth and light—such are the earthy images that Francis brings to mind in celebration of God’s creation. It is said that Francis was so in touch with creation that the animals of the field came and listened to him preach. We often see Francis depicted in paintings and statues holding a bird in his hands. Clearly, Francis of Assisi was an earth-minded man.
I also think of someone like Albert Schweitzer who had a profound, as he termed it, “reverence for life.” Schweitzer said, “True knowledge of the world consists in our being penetrated by a sense of the mystery of existence and of life. . . . Mystery alone can lead us on to true spirituality, to accept and be filled with the mystery of life in our existence. . . . Formerly, people said: Who is your neighbor? Man. Today we must no longer say that. We have gone further and we know that all living beings on earth who strive to maintain life and who long to be spared pain—all living beings on earth are our neighbors.”2 Schweitzer, I would contend, was also one who was an earth-minded man.
And then there are poets who touch deeply on spirituality and religion by being keenly in touch with the earthy. One of the most celebrated poets of all times was Emily Dickinson. (Incidentally, I had the opportunity some years ago to visit Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she wrote many of her poems. It didn’t help me understand her poems any better, I am sorry to say. But it was a treat to get to visit there anyway.) At any rate, Dickinson’s poetry is littered with earthy references. Her huge volume of poetry begins with the earth, when she says, “Oh the Earth [capital E] was made for lovers. . . “ The sky, sea, birds, woods, daisies, roses, snowflakes, bees, butterflies, brooks—we don’t have time to chronicle the many earthy images that Dickinson uses to illustrate truth.
Finally, I must make mention of my favorite contemporary poet, Mary Oliver, the likes of which is unparalleled when it comes to being in touch with the earth. No one of our day, perhaps, has a keener observation and closer affinity with the earth than Mary Oliver. She can take the simplest of earth-related experiences and use them to illustrate some spiritual or vital-to-life truth. To give just one example, in her poem titled “Wild Geese,” Oliver says,
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
How many of us would think to pull spiritual truth from an earthy image like wild geese?
So, how does all of this connect with Earth Day that is coming up? Regarding our observance of Earth Day, I would again quote Thomas Berry who laments, “we now find ourselves on a devastated continent where nothing is holy, nothing is sacred. . . . Our most urgent need at the present time is for a reorientation of the human venture toward an intimate experience of the world around us. . . . We need to move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to a spirituality of intimacy with the natural world. . .”3
And so, we return to where we began. Is there any correlation between spirituality and one’s connection to the earth? Obviously I contend that there is. One can be spiritually-minded, I suppose, apart from any connection to the earth. But it seems to me that spirituality connected to the earth is one of the most vital forms of spirituality. And the older I get, the closer I see the connection to be.
And what do I mean when I use the term “earth-minded person”? I mean one who is learning to look at the earth—at the entire universe—with greater respect, a greater sense of wonder and awe, and with a eye for the Sacred or Holy that is present in the world around us. Another poet, William Blake, asked, “What do you see when you look out over the landscape? Do you simply see the sun rising or do you see the flaming forth of the deep mystery of the universe?”4
So, how earth-minded are we? I am inclined to believe that if we allow ourselves to get close enough to the earth, then we may just be able to feel the Divine pulse of the universe. So in the manner of Jesus, mystics and poets, may we look up to marvel at the stars. May we plant flowers in the earth. May we take time to celebrate the beauty of birds. May we listen closely to the croak of frogs. To experience wonder, awe, adoration and respect before the Spirit and Mystery of life all around us—that, I believe, is a lot of what religion is all about. Amen.
1Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe, p. 82.
2Albert Schweitzer, Thoughts for Our Times, pp. 16, 23, 39.
3Berry, pp. 171, 132, 133.
4Attributed by Thomas Berry to William Blake, but I was unable to find the reference.