Anglican Church of Canada
September 13, 2020 First Sunday of Creation
It was last summer, when I was in Vancouver for General Synod, at Sunday service at a lovely little Anglican church in south end Vancouver, St. Faith Kerrisdale, that I first remember hearing this song. Perhaps I had run across it before, but it first captured my imagination last summer. Perhaps it was being in this new place, touched so often in those two weeks by the beauty of a new and unfamiliar landscape: the forests of giant cedars, the wonderful riot of life forms, the jellyfish and starfish and sea otters at the aquarium. The West Coast can have that effect on you, and it was my first and only visit there.
Against the background of the wonder that coloured those days, this song hit home for me. Its simple, gentle, moving tune touched me, as it still does. And the words. I don’t claim to understand all the words. This song is written as poetry. It is not straightforward, the words are elusive, hard to pin down to a single meaning, yet reaching towards a fullness of meaning, sounding deep chords in the Christian tradition. It is a poetry that struggles to speak of something bigger and more mysterious than the words we have. Which, when you think about it, is how we really ought to be speaking of God, reaching out to a reality we cannot fully grasp, but only seek with longing to encounter anew.
This much I understand of this hymn: it speaks of the beauty and sacredness of the world. It speaks of a world that is sacred, precisely because it is beloved, because it is cradled by the long arms of God. And before, long before the love of God we see in creation, lies the eternal foundation of this ancient love.
The song reminds us that all of creation is ultimately rooted in love. It’s not a hard idea to understand or accept. I’m sure we agree. God created the world, and God is love – these are two of the most basic things we know about God. Put them together: the creation is born out of the love of God. Pretty elementary theology!
But I’m not sure we always do put them together. Some of the ways we have been taught to think about God tend to pull God apart. We associate love with Jesus, who showed us the love of God, or if we talk of the love of the Father, sometimes it seems like being our loving Father is a different side of God than the serious business of creation. As though creation were what our father does at the office. In the worst case, we can put all the love on Jesus, who stands in for us against the wrath of the Father – a really twisted theology that splits God in two and turns our faith into something fearful and unhealthy
In recent years, though, the church has been turning back to its roots and discovering a healthier way to talk about God hiding in plain sight, in the doctrine of the Trinity. We are being taught by the Eastern Orthodox churches, who have kept the original memory of the Trinity alive better than we have in the Western churches. Instead of playing Father, Son, and Spirit off against each other, this tradition begins with their essential unity of relationship as the eternal cosmic dance of mutual love and praise and delight.
The first reading we heard from the book of Proverbs gives a hint of this vision of the essential nature of God. God the Creator is not thought of as a lone, solitary figure, but one accompanied from the beginning by another. Proverbs calls this figure Wisdom; the Christian tradition later identifies her with Jesus, the Son, or as John’s gospel says, the Word that was in the beginning with God. The point is not so much to identify which it is (how could you pin anything down in that eternal dance of cosmic energy?) but to hear how she is described:
I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
“Delighting”, “rejoicing” – “playing” as another translation has it, with the wonderful image of a child delighting her father by her exuberant joy: creation is here not just a job to be done, the work from which God rested on the seventh day – it is play, and joy, and delight. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas captures something of this glee and exhilaration of childhood, connected with the very heart of creation, in his great poem Fern Hill:
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass. . .
. . . it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
This too is a central truth of our faith: at the foundation of creation is love, and that love is not all grim duty, but joy and delight. That is why it is so important for us to come back to spending time thinking about and celebrating Creation each year at this time: because that truth is not rooted firmly enough in our hearts.
We love God’s creation – who does not? And sometimes we remember the delight and freshness of childhood, and perhaps we need to be reminded again how important that is. But because we are adults, we know also that there is more to love than this. Any great love – a good marriage, the love of a parent or grandparent for a child, a truly deep friendship – is rooted in delight, but it is lived out as both laughter and tears, as tenderness and compassion, in the good times but also in the hardship and pain that life brings. We fell in love perhaps with that dashing fresh face once upon a time, but the real depth of love involves also the shared pain and disappointment, the compassion we have for one another’s vulnerabilities.
In the same way, the love of creation is not just about the beautiful calendar pictures of sunsets and mountains. It is a love rooted in fierce delight, the passionate delight of our Creator that is the ground of the universe. It is a delight that drives us to pay attention to sights and sounds and smells, to learn more, to wonder with amazement at the complexity of life, to sit in stillness and let ourselves become one with the world around us. But it is also a love that will awaken longing and compassion and sorrow. It is a love that will break our hearts, more and more each passing day: when we think of the California wildfires, or the bleaching of the coral reefs, or right here at home the destruction of our hardwood forests by aerial spraying. The grief and outrage and anger that we feel at what is being done to our planet: that too springs from love.
That is, I believe, the most important thing we can do: to love God’s creation, to love it as God our Creator loves it, with delight and with sorrow and yes, even with anger. Of all the things we can do and have to do to save the world, all the reducing, reusing, recycling, all the search for green alternatives, all the political engagement, all the things that we must do and that overwhelm us with despair, one thing is needful. That we practice loving creation, loving it more passionately, with more delight, more longing, more sorrow. That is the only foundation, and that too takes practice and intention and work. But it is the one essential thing, because all else will follow from that – that we wrap our healing arms to hold what her arms held, as this ancient love, this aching love rolls on.