Back of the Bread is the Flour

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Evanston, Illinois - 4 September 2011
Genesis 2:4b-22 and Acts 17:22-28

For the four Sundays in September, St. Mark's will be celebrating The Season of Creation.  I wish I could say that we are doing this because, as rector, I was recently motivated to "go green" or that I've been on an ecology-kick all summer or - well, quite frankly, I wish I could say that it was motivated by any kind of environmental altruism whatsoever.  But, the fact of the matter is, in my day to day life, I don’t pay much attention to the environment or creation at all.  In fact, I take it all for granted. 
So, the reason we are celebrating The Season of Creation in September has to do with the launch of our new church school curriculum called Seasons of the Spirit.  One of its most promising features is that the lessons our children will study in the classroom are the same lessons we will be using in worship that day.  For most of the year, Seasons of the Spirit follows the same Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) that we have been using; however, for 4 weeks in September they follow a Creation Cycle – “a season of creation which invites us to celebrate earth as a sacred planet filled with God’s vibrant presence.”[i]
And so, it is really a practical reason that has led us at St. Mark’s to the Season of Creation.  But, having made this change, has moved me – forced me? - to consider more deeply the interconnectedness of our world; the myriad ways in which all of creation is connected through our rootedness in God.  In the Acts of the Apostles, we heard this morning a portion of Paul’s speech in Athens.  His speech is motivated by what verse 16 tells us is his deep distress over the number of idols throughout the city. An altar “to an unknown God” captures his attention and becomes an object lesson in the nature of God:
“The God who made the world and everything it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. . . he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him. . . For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”[ii]
The altar “to an unknown God” is completely unnecessary, Paul contends, because God is knowable.  This knowable God is the creator of all time, of all space, and of all boundaries.  Paul is well-aware of the human boundaries – cultural and political and economic - which seem at times to thwart the purposes of God but Paul insists, even these human boundaries are allowed their existence by God.  Paul also speaks of the natural boundaries – seasons and cycles which, along with the human boundaries, are part of God’s created order.  It is within these natural boundaries that all of us live within the intimacy of God.  Indeed, all creation lives and moves within that holy reality and all creation gives expression to God’s glory. 
Perhaps there is nothing particularly new to our ears in what Paul has to say to the Athenians - that God can be found in all of creation and that all of creation finds its life in God the creator.   But when we place Paul’s words in the larger context of Scripture, the implications of this understanding are powerful.  Looking to our reading from Genesis, we heard this verse:  “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”[iii]  This is the reason you and I are placed on earth – “to till it and keep it.”  The verb in Hebrew- ‘ābad - which is translated as “to till” is also used in scripture to mean “to serve”  as a servant might serve a master; so another rendering of this verse could be “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to serve it and to keep it.”[iv]  In this reading, you and I are here to serve the land, not to be served by the land; for all of creation, as Paul points out, has its life in God and all creation gives expression to God’s glory.  All of creation, then, is to be valued, to be treasured, and to be understood as infused with the life-giving breath of God.
 When we hold ourselves accountable to this understanding of creation, we cannot look at a loaf of bread in the same way.  A first step in serving creation for many of us might be a simple exercise in awareness.  You and I are on high-speed, on auto-pilot, and more often than not we miss the intricate inter-connectedness of creation.  On a very basic level, as I shared with the children this morning, saying grace before a meal is more than an act of thanking God for the food set before us; it becomes a way of acknowledging the entire cycle of creation --- the soil, the seed, the farmers, the sun, the rain, the wheat, the harvested grain, the workers in the mill, the flour, the bread --- and for giving thanks for its complexity, its richness, and our total reliance on God, the planet, and others.
In 2007, Annie Leonard created a short film called The Story of Stuff [click this link to view the 22 minute film on YouTube; or click the link at the left to order a copy of her book].  In it she explores the economic textbook description of our commodities system:  from extraction to production to distribution, consumption, and disposal.  Leonard’s film – which, by the way, I highly recommend (you can link to it on St. Mark’s webpage); her film, points out a couple of powerful things:
1)      The system is much more complicated than you might think and not all in the system are treated equally and
2)      The system cannot sustain itself because it is a linear system which assumes a never ending chain of “stuff” to be extracted for production. 
Like Paul’s speech to the Athenians, there is perhaps nothing new to our ears in Leonard’s film either. No new information and yet, for many of us, we continue to move through time as if we had no idea this was happening or with the assumption that nothing we do will really make a difference anyhow when the fact of the matter is this: if we continue to do nothing, a real difference will occur and is beginning to take place already. 
Let me be clear.  My research for this four-week Season of Creation has not turned me into an environmentalist, it doesn’t have me fired up to attend rallies or conferences on how to make the rectory or our church green; but it has caused me to stop and think about some of the little things in the course of my day like drinking water out of a plastic bottle and its impact on limited fossil fuels and discarding piles of “junk mail” received each day and the impact of all that paper on the forests.  But even with this knowledge, I’m not sure that I am ready to make that one small step toward change; I want to be honest with you.  But, there is a simple song that has taken hold of my brain recently, refusing to let go:

Back of the bread is the flour
And back of the flour is the mill
And back of the mill is the wind and the rain
And the Father's will.

Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[v]

[i] From Season of Creation charter from Seasons of the Spirit (Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2011).
[ii] Acts 17:24-28.
[iii] Genesis 2:15.
[iv] ‘ābad, in William L. Holladay (ed.), A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), p. 261.
[v] Prayer #40, “For Knowledge of God’s Creation,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 827.