50th Anniversary of Earth Day

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Professor Jim Martin-Schramm gave the following chapel talk today, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

 

Good morning.
 
I’ve chosen Job 12: 7-10 as our text for today—the 50th anniversary of Earth Day:

7    “But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
     the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
   ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
     and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
9    Who among all these does not know
     that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10    In his hand is the life of every living thing
      and the breath of every human being.

Job 12:7-10 (NRSV)

I was reminded about this text by some students in my Environmental Ethics class. It is a wonderful text. We have much to learn from the birds of the air, the plants of the earth, and the fish of the sea.

And what do they want to teach, tell, and declare to us? That God is the Creator of all who has given life to every living thing.

This text de-centers us as human beings. We tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of creation and as the wise species. After all, this is the name we have given to ourselves, homo sapiens. Recent events have revealed, however, that we are more ignorant and arrogant than we are sapiential, that is, wise.  

We need to be reminded by these creatures who we normally regard as “beneath us” that the origins of life are not found in us but rather in God. The birds of the air, the plants of the earth, and the fish of the sea provide a theocentric corrective to our anthropocentric assumptions.
 
This text also reminds us about the fragility of life in general and human life in particular: “In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.”

The fragility of human life and our utter dependence on our next breath has become all too clear as the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic. In a matter of days and even hours, human beings have found themselves gasping for breath and needing the assistance of ventilators to breathe. To date, over 2.5 million people have been afflicted by the virus and over 172,000 have died from it.

And what has brought us to our knees? Something so small that it can only be seen on an electron microscope. Something so insidious that it thrives in the very respiratory systems that give each of us the breath of life.

And where does this virus come from? The leading scientific theories trace the origins of this Covid-19 outbreak to “wet markets” in China where wild, exotic, and endangered animals are sold for human consumption. Not surprisingly, one of the places where the virus is spreading the fastest is in meat processing plants here in the Midwest, where thousands of animals are slaughtered each day and carved up by men and women working side by side along conveyer lines of animal flesh. In many respects, we have only ourselves to blame. We have not respected Earth’s animals. We have destroyed their habitats and commoditized their bodies.

How does the virus persist? On the one hand, it takes advantage of what is best about us—our yearning for sociability, physical touch, and our fundamental inter-relatedness. On the other hand, the virus grows exponentially by taking advantage of what is worst about us—our selfishness and arrogance. We can only defeat this disease by working cooperatively and making sacrifices together.
 
I admit this homily is a bit of a downer on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but Martin Luther said a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. The good news, however, which churches proclaim throughout the liturgical year and especially throughout this Easter season, is that life ultimately triumphs over death.

Fat robins tweet this message all around us as they build their nests where they will soon hatch their chicks. The trees whisper this good news via their swaying branches painted ever so slightly with their green buds. Increasingly larger herds of deer, young and old alike, nibble at the growing grass and shrubs on Luther’s deserted grounds. Finally, lots of young squirrels who are missing all of their Luther student friends are playing with each other and celebrating life as they scamper across the ground and chase each other up the trees.
 
How do we know that life triumphs over death?

7    “. . .  Ask the animals, and they will teach you;
     the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8    ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
     and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
9    Who among all these does not know
     that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10    In his hand is the life of every living thing
     and the breath of every human being.

Job 12:7-10 (NRSV)

I’d like to close with the following prayer, which is being prayed all around the world this week by people of faith who want to be good stewards of Earth as we grapple with another global crisis—climate change.  The prayer is titled, “We Hold the Earth.”

We Hold the Earth

We hold everyone who suffers from storms and droughts intensified by climate change.

We hold all species that suffer.

We hold world leaders delegated to make decisions for life.

We pray that the web of life may be mended through courageous actions to limit carbon emissions.

We pray for right actions for adaptation and mitigation to help our already suffering earth community.

We pray that love and wisdom might inspire my actions and our actions as communities. . . so that we may, with integrity, look into the eyes of all living beings and truthfully say, we are doing our part to care for them and the future of the children.

May love transform us and our world with new steps toward life.

Amen.

Jim Martin-Schramm

Jim Martin-Schramm

Jim Martin-Schramm joined the Religion faculty at Luther College in 1993. He is an ordained member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and has a doctorate in Christian Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Most of his scholarship has focused on issues related to ethics and public policy, and a lot of his recent work has been in energy and climate policy. He spent most of his youth growing up in Germany and South Africa because his father worked for John Deere. Those years gave him a global perspective that has influenced his career in various ways. He has been involved in various campus sustainability initiatives at Luther and is active in organizations in Iowa working on climate change and energy issues. He currently serves as the Director of Luther's Center for Sustainable Communities.

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