If you have ever hiked, ever huffed and sweat your way to some high precipice and stood staring out – feeling proud to have made it to the pinnacle and feeling humbled to see the mighty trees and magnificent scenes far beneath you, to see them as if through the eyes of a mountain, to see everything there in miniature, and so to see what is the smallness and the insignificance of your own little world; if you have ever flung yourself hard against a cresting wave and felt yourself whipped and thrown and buoyant, carried by a surge of force you could not fight, carried from out further than you can safely be to back to where you belong; if you have ever tried to fly – stood wobbling on the weak, upper branches of a tree your parents told you not to climb or dove off an overhang into what you hoped were deep waters below or lurched out of an airplane praying like you have never prayed before, that is, if you have ever leapt and learned what a thing gravity is; if you have ever gotten lost in the woods and been afraid, if you have ever stuck out your tongue to catch a snowflake and known the innocence we are restored to when being silly, if you have ever wished upon a star and for a split-second rested in a hope as simple as it is pure – then you already know more about this scripture than any sermon could ever show. You know what it means to lose yourself in a liminal moment, to feel the boundary between where you end and the world begins, to feel it blur. You know that the earth has its own mysterious life. You know that the world has a heartbeat. You know that the creation thinks and feels and speaks, in its way – and that there can be a kind of consonance between us, a communion of our spirits, a sharing together, a mystical sense of being at one.
And you may know that church is where we practice for being with nature, where we learn to sing – and I mean really sing, belt it out like life depends on it, no holding back, even if you’re tone deaf, none of this wimpy, under your breath stuff! – you know that church is where we learn to sing hallelujahs like Brother Sun with golden beams and Sister Moon with softer gleam, where we warm up and do ‘bumblebees’ so that we can join the choir that is the whole of creation in praising God with abandon. You may know that what we are doing in here is getting ready to take our place out there with the wind and the tides and the dawn and the sunset and the stars in declaring the glory of the God in whom all things hold together. Because, well, flip around in the hymnal; finger through the psalms: over and over again, we see what is supposedly inanimate and soulless worshipping passionately – the trees of the forests clapping their hands for God, the valleys and lowlands bending the knee, bowing down for God, the rocks crying out for God. Over and over again, we see that the creation sings and prays and praises, in its way – and that there can be a kind of consonance between us, a communion of our spirits, a sharing together, a mystical sense of being at one so that when we join in worship, all the world becomes one holy, catholic church. You may know this.
What you may not know is the earth pleads for mercy. What you may not know is that the creation begs grace of God. What you may not know is that the world, too, can weep and sigh and despair, that the world looks to and longs for God to deliver it from its pain and present suffering. This scripture, this passage from Paul’s letter to the faithful in Rome, this is one of the most remarkable and surprising and theologically imaginative in all of the canon. For in it, Paul writes that the creation groans for God, groans out in agony with a deep, guttural howling. Paul writes that the creation sighs, awaiting something akin to salvation. It is not entirely clear what the earth is to be saved from – certainly not sin for which it is culpable by any ordinary understanding; perhaps we are to imagine that the earth is to be saved from the fallout of the sins of others, perhaps from the violence and oppression visited upon it by its human inhabitants. We might well picture mountains mourning the destruction, the cutting down of their heights to support mining works. We might well picture the rainforests or the savannah or the coral reefs in lamentation. We might well picture soon-to-be-extinct species wailing bitterly, borrowing the words of Job: ‘Will the dead praise you in the underworld? No!’ Paul’s writing has resonance with our own moment, make no mistake.
Paul uses the language of bondage, suggests that the earth has been subjugated, has been made to heave and strain under a heavy yoke, has been forced into a sort of slavery. Paul uses the language of hard, coerced labor, which suggests that the dominion over creation God had given to the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve has proven cruel and punishing. But Paul goes on to speak of labor in another sense: of a woman being in labor, of a woman groaning as she gives birth. Taken together, holding in tandem the visions of bondage and of birthing, it is as if, with this imagery, Paul invites us to see the earth as a pregnant slave woman, about to be delivered, but unsure whether her present sufferings, unsure whether the ordeal she is to undergo, will translate into future good. Will what she is desperate and writhing to bring forth be a slave child, doomed to bear up under the lash or to be cut down before its prime? Or will there be liberation, be redemption – redemption, literally, a buying back of the enslaved body, a paying of the auction price and then cancelling of the debt hanging over one’s head? Will there be liberation, will there be redemption for the world, portrayed by Paul as in the same straits as a slave woman? Will there be liberation, will there be redemption for the world?
Amazingly, astonishingly, Paul says yes. Paul says that the creation will share in the salvation God accomplishes in Jesus Christ. Paul says that Christ’s salvation is cosmic in scope, says that Jesus saves not just you and me, but somehow, wonderfully, strangely – he frees the earth from the shackles of that dread fate which would otherwise await it. Paul says that the Son of God opens up sonship and daughterhood not only to all flesh, but to all things. Paul says that, by virtue of the Son of God’s becoming as one created, all of creation participates mystically in his singular, eternal parent-child relationship, and that we become, we ourselves and all the sundry plants and animals and protozoa of earth with us, we become together, the adopted children of God, and as children, also heirs to the riches of everlasting life. For God so loves the world, loves the world, the world, Paul says, that when the sun sets forever and the stars fall from the sky, it will be that the world no less than the women and men who have walked upon it shall share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that the world shall be given back to itself, shall be gathered into the arms of God, into an embrace so immeasurably broad that all creation shall cry – how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ! Indeed, one of the early church fathers, St. Athanasius, teasing out the implications of what Paul had written, held that Jesus was lifted up high on the cross ‘to purify the air,’ that, as there has been a kind of consonance between us, a sharing together, a communion of our spirits, a sense of being at one on this side of eternity, so too shall we live in fellowship, as family, with the new heaven and new earth – healed and whole in Christ. May all we do in the here and now herald this fuller, perfect kinship that is to come. And may our gentle, prudent ministry to the earth be a foretaste that points toward the great mending of all things.