Listening to the Earth

A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, April 22, 2018

Text: Psalm 100; Job 12:7-10; 19:25-27; from 38 and 39

“Ask the animals.” That was the original title of this sermon. “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.” Job uses these words to challenge the wisdom of his so-called friends. But in the end, Job, his friends, and we ourselves might do well to ask the animals, to consult creation, to listen to the earth to hear what they might have to tell us, to discern if we might be missing some message from the Holy One. If nothing else, it could be an important exercise in the practice of humility.

As Job asks his friends, “Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Holy One has done this? In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” Maybe he would be better off asking “Who DOES know that the hand of the Lord has done this? That “In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” “Know that the Holy One is God; it is God who has made us and not we ourselves,” the psalmist sings. If we really understood this, believed this, practiced this, how might our lives and the life of the planet be different?

In Adult Spiritual Formation, we have been studying, with John Dominic Crossan, the difference between retributive justice and distributive justice. Distributive justice is based in this claim that God made all that is, including us. We may own that degree of freedom with which God has graciously blessed our being, but, in the end, we come from God and we return to God. If this is so, how ought we to live our lives while we are here? Do we hold in human understanding everything that we need to know, or would we benefit from listening to the earth? Does creation have things to teach us over which we have too-long ridden roughshod?

We find distributive justice embedded in the creation story as it has come down to us in our scriptural tradition. It is predicated on an understanding that all of creation belongs to God. “It is God who has made us and not we ourselves.” Through the centuries of human existence, certain mighty monarchs and powerful potentates, big time businessmen and clever charlatans have claimed control of all or great parts of the earth and its resources. At times, they have even used the biblical word that God gave “dominion” to human beings, to justify control and abuse of creation.

But this is a basic misinterpretation of what God meant in choosing to share care of creation with us. To have dominion is to love creation as God loves it. It entails a good deal of listening to the earth and it requires that none do without. God is a profligate and imaginative creator. One who has provided for our every need. As Jesus maintained, we are, everyone of us, in debt to God for all that we have, indeed for all that is. And as God has been abundantly and graciously compassionate toward us, we are to practice that same compassion towards God’s creation. A big part of our listening to the earth is to be sure that we distribute or share its resources with fairness and care. This is what God intended from the beginning. Pay attention, friends. The earth comes with great resources – and greater responsibility.

Touch the earth lightly,
use the earth gently,
nourish the life of the world in our care:
gift of great wonder,
ours to surrender,
trust for the children tomorrow will bear.

And not only for “the children tomorrow,” but also for our neighbors now and for the sake of the earth itself.

In the beginning of his ancient story, Job spends a good deal of time justifying himself. Apparently, his righteousness was real and his goodness genuine. Why would God single him out for such suffering, for such seemingly arbitrary punishment? But, you see, Job, like his friends remained ensconced in a world shaped by a sense retributive justice, a system of rewards and punishments. Kathryn M. Schifferdecker comments that “Job thought that the world ran by a strict system of retributive justice: the righteous are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished. And Job was the most righteous person of all, as God himself acknowledges (1:8) (Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41],” October 21, 2012, workingpreacher.org). So, Job continues to call on God to come forward and explain God’s self. Perhaps Job should have considered more carefully what he asked for. “Then the Holy One answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’” Oops! This may be a little more than Job had bargained for.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determines its measurements—surely you know!” comes the thunder and lightning from the whirlwind. “Well…uh…no…not exactly, your holiness.” The scene would be almost comic if it weren’t so terrifying and unrelenting in its assault on Job’s oh-so-limited view of the world. What I love about this encounter is that God takes Job seriously enough to make a response. Terrifying as it may be, something inherently relational is going on here. Job may not have God in his pocket, but he has God’s attention.

Of course, God will still be God. Schifferdecker continues, “God’s answer breaks open Job’s world and expands his vision to include places and creatures Job never imagined in his former life. God speaks of freedom and grace rather than reward and retribution. God gives his creatures the freedom to be who they’re created to be, wild and beautiful. God also maintains order by placing limits on forces that could plunge the world into chaos: the Sea, Leviathan, even human wickedness.” It’s not at all what Job was expecting. God maintains a certain order within creation, but it is God’s own order – beautiful and awful and beyond our desire or ability to manipulate.

Ask the animals, Job. Consult creation. Listen to the earth. You may learn something. Schifferdecker argues that, among the lessons Job must learn, “The world is not centered on human beings, according to the divine speeches. It is not an entirely safe or predictable world, but it is beautiful and good nonetheless. And God invites Job to live in that wild and beautiful world.” Through Job, are we not issued the same awesome and gracious invitation – to live in God’s wild and beautiful world?

Listen to the earth. Can we count on it to communicate with us truly? Is there a “mystic harmony, linking sense to sound and sight?” ”Does nature speak?” asks Melissa Sevier. “Definitely,” she affirms. “In ways that we cannot, it points us to ancient truths and rhythms, to the eternal word spoken when the universe was formed, to the simultaneously fragile and durable essence of the cosmos” (Melissa Bane Sevier, “Joyful Noises,” November 15, 2011, melissabanesevier.wordpress.com). The question is, are we listening? Are we even willing to listen? If you decided that you were ready and willing to listen to the earth, where would you go? What would it tell you? How would you respond? Does God have to come to us in a whirlwind and rattle our cages to get our attention? Or could we develop a discipline of listening to the earth on our own?

Schifferdecker, once more, concludes that “…these speeches of God at the end of the book of Job accomplish something profound. They move Job out of his endless cycle of grief into life again. They enable him to live freely in a world full of heartbreaking suffering and heart-stopping beauty, and to do so in a way that reflects God’s own care for the world.” Could listening to the earth, along with the Holy One who dwells at the heart of it, do the same for us, enable us to live freely and compassionately in a “world full of heartbreaking suffering and heart-stopping beauty” for which God deeply cares.

Either by coincidence or synchronicity or movement of the Holy Spirit, one of Richard Rohr’s reflections for the week shared a beautiful and dramatic personal piece of writing on listening to the earth, of paying attention to creation and what might come of such an exercise. I close with Terry Tempest Williams’s “Desert Quartet”. I hope it speaks something to you of the value of listening to the earth and embodied spirituality.

“Earth. Rock. Desert. I am walking barefoot on sandstone, flesh responding to flesh. It is hot, so hot the rock threatens to burn through the calloused soles of my feet. I must quicken my pace, paying attention to where I step.

For as far as I can see, the canyon country of southern Utah extends in all directions. No compass can orient me here, only a pledge to love and walk the terrifying distances before me. What I fear and desire most in this world is passion. I fear it because it promises to be spontaneous, out of my control, unnamed, beyond my reasonable self. I desire it because passion has color, like the landscape before me. It is not pale. It is not neutral. It reveals the backside of the heart.

I climb the slickrock on all fours, my hands and feet throbbing with the heat. It feels good to sweat, to be engaged, to inhabit my animal body. . . . Once I enter the Joint Trail . . . it is dark, cool, and narrow with sheer sandstone walls on either side of me. . . . The palms of my hands search for a pulse in the rocks. I continue walking. In some places my hips can barely fit through. I turn sideways, my chest and back in a vise of geologic time.

I stop. The silence that lives in these sacred hallways presses against me. I relax. I surrender. I close my eyes. The arousal of my breath rises in me like music, like love, as the possessive muscles between my legs tighten and release. I come to the rock in a moment of stillness, giving and receiving, where there is no partition between my body and the Earth. . . .

I touch the skin of my face. It seems so callow. Moving my fingers over the soft flesh that covers my cheekbones, I wonder what it means to be human and why, at this particular moment, rock seems more accessible and yielding than my own species. . . .

I . . . focus on breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. The attention of breath in love, two breaths creating a third, mingling and shaping each other like clouds, cumulus clouds over the desert. . . . My body softens as I make my wish to follow my breath. It settles on the backs of swallowtails. We are carried effortlessly through the labyrinth of these labial canyons. . . .

Inhale. Exhale. . . . I am dizzy. I am drunk with pleasure. There is no need to speak.

Listen.
Below us.
Above us.
Inside us.
Come.
This is all there is.”

Terry Tempest Williams, “Desert Quartet,” Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Vintage Books: 2001), 195-197, 199, 210-211.

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