December 29, 2019
Rev. Canon Dr. Alan Hayes
When we praised God with Psalm 148 a moment ago, I hope you sensed its exuberant enthusiasm. It’s so particularly appropriate in this season of celebrating the birth of Jesus. A particularly distinctive thing about it is that it’s a psalm that calls upon all of creation to praise God, the sun and the moon and the stars, the mountains and the hills, the deep and the sea monsters, the fruit trees and the cedars. Is that more than the imaginative rhetoric of a poetic soul? I think that it’s at least asking us to consider that as we praise God we’re joining ourselves with the whole order of creation.
But before we get to that, a word about the context of the psalm. The last three psalms, 148, 149, and 150, close the book of Psalms with praise. They all start out with “Praise the Lord,” and since in Latin the word “praise” is “Laudate,” they are often called the laudate psalms. If you had been a Benedictine monk at any time in the past 1500 years, you would start every day of your life by saying the Laudate psalms together at sunrise, as part of a monastic office of worship which came to be called “Lauds” because it always included the Laudate psalms. You might want to try that yourself — saying the Laudate psalms at sunrise; and this is a great time to do it, because you can say the psalms at sunrise without getting up before 7 a.m.
Psalm 148 has been called a poetic version of the first chapter of Genesis, because it follows the order of creation as it calls on all natural things to praise God: The sun and moon and stars, the hills, the deeps, trees, and all the animal world. Have you ever had that feeling that nature wants to shout out? I sometimes have. Maybe when you’ve walked in a forest with its sweet smells and chirping birds and dappled sunlight, or climbed a hill and looked down on the amazing world below you, or stopped by a quiet babbling brook, or watched a sunset over the wide expanse of the prairies stretching to the horizon, you’ve sensed how the world that God created makes you feel so much more alive — how the world seems to be offering you part of its life. And you’ve maybe had that sense that since God created you and God created the earth, and since you both proclaim the glory of God, you and the earth are related. Times like that drive home to us that nature isn’t just a context for us to exist in; we’re part of it.
In church we talk a lot about God and humanity, but the Bible has a wider view of creation. As so often in the Bible, it has a story to tell, and it’s a story with three parts. First, God makes a beautiful world, and the first humans live in it in harmony, and everything is good. But, second, there comes a spiritual disaster called the Fall, where human beings rebel against the proper order of things, and conflict enters the world, and the ground is cursed, and people are alienated from nature. Then, finally, there comes the redemption of the world in Jesus Christ, which isn’t just about converting individuals; it heals the corruption of all of nature. St. Paul says that, with Christ, all of creation has entered a kind of childbirth, bringing forth something new, something that will “be free from the bondage of decay.” So the story is: first, paradise; then, the fall; finally, something even better than paradise, the age that we’ve already begun to move into.
Some of our Christian stories tell us that when people are really in tune with God, they’re in tune with creation as well, because God has begun to restore paradise around them. An example In the Old Testament is the great prophet Elijah. When he goes into hiding during the reign of the very bad king of Israel Ahab, God sends ravens to minister to him, bringing him food every day. An example in Christian history is St. Francis, who was so godly that he recognized all living creatures were his brothers and sisters, and actually not just what we regard as living things, but Brother Sun and Sister Moon as well, as in the Canticle of the Sun that he wrote in 1224. There’s a story that one day St. Francis went walking among birds, and suddenly realized that they weren’t flying away from him, which is what birds were sort of supposed to do when people approach. But they recognized who he was. And at that point he realized that he had not paid enough attention to them, and that he had failed to appreciate that they were his equal. So just as he had preached to people, he began preaching a sermon to the birds, which has come down to us from the year 1223. St. Francis advised the birds to praise God and give thanks because, although they neither sowed nor reaped, God made sure that they were fed from the good things of creation.
In Canada, we know that the experts on the harmonies of creation are the elders and teachers of the Indigenous peoples of Canada, who are so intimately connected to the land and the spirituality of creation. Here in Ontario, one of the best known creation stories is an Ojibwe story, which tells us that when Mother Earth was new, the Creator filled her with beauty, with birds that took the seeds of life in the four directions, with swimmers in the water, with creepy crawly things and four legged things. And everyone lived in harmony with everyone else. Then the Creator, the Great Spirit, Kitchi-Manitou, created human beings, the last to be created, as in Genesis. Kitchi-Manitou created humanity by blowing into the four directions with the sacred Megis shell, and from his breath in union with the sacred elements came forth the two-legged creature, the original human, the ancestor of The People, called in their language the Anishnaabe. But once people were created, soon the harmony was broken. Men and women disrespected each other. Families argued. Villages became alienated from each other. Kitchi-Manitou tried to be patient, but finally he sent a flood to purge the world, and much was destroyed. The surviving spirit of the human race, who was called Nanabush, then found himself floating on a log, and one by one the few surviving animals joined him on the log. They longed for a place of earth on which to stand. One of the animals, Muskrat, dove deep into the water and came back with a piece of earth, but it cost him a tremendous effort, and Muskrat had to sacrifice his own life to do this. A song of mourning and praise was heard across the water, mourning for Muskrat and praise for creation. Turtle came swimming up, and said, Put that piece of dirt on my back, and with Creator’s help, we can make a new earth. So they did. And winds blew from the four directions, and the piece of earth grew larger and larger, and Turtle continued to bear the whole load on his back. And as the winds died down, and as Nanabush sang and the animals danced, there came to be a huge island in the middle of the water, Turtle Island, the land where we live.
Do you find something familiar in that story, as I do? It sounds like our Biblical story — the harmony of the original creation, a fall into enmity and disrespect, a purging flood, a sacrificial depth to bring redemption and a new creation, all overseen by a great spirit and creator God whose love blanketed all of nature. When the Ojibwe first heard the Christian message, they were not particularly surprised by it. In their own way, according to their own revelation, they already knew it and believed it.
As Indigenous Christian elders and teachers offer their wisdom to those of us who are settlers, the Anglican Church of Canada has been recognizing what a huge resource this is. For many centuries Christians looked to great western philosophers and scientists to help them understand the gospel of Christ: a lot of our standard western Christian doctrine is the Gospel seen with the help of Aristotle, and in the Anglican world we add in some Celtic and Anglo-Saxon wisdom as well. Now in Canada we’ve recognized an equally great wisdom among peoples indigenous to this land: a wisdom that has a vision for the harmony of creation that we’ve been prepared to appreciate by the psalms of Israel and the visions of St. Paul. I’ve been in touch with the Rev. Rosalyn Elm, the rector of the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, who would be very glad to welcome us to visit there when spring begins to come, so that we can talk about some of these things with the elders there.
Here’s an example of an Indigenous Christian wisdom about Creator and humanity and land from the eastern Arctic. A couple of decades ago the Inuit in Nunavut and Nunavik began to sense that their land was sick. Most Inuit are Christian, without abandoning all their traditional teachings, and they realized that the land needed healing. And the reason that the land needed healing was largely spiritual. The land had been poisoned by generations of human misconduct. A particular source of that spiritual sickness, they realized, was the sexual exploitation of Inuit women in generations past by European and American whalers, which Inuit men frequently condoned. There were also wounds from government-ordered relocations of Inuit peoples to faraway places, and from disobedience to fishing quotas. So some Inuit Christians in their healing circles devised rites for the healing of the land, and because they read in Scripture that sin can only be atoned by blood, they applied the eucharistic wine to the land, along with sacramental bread and salt and oil and water, with prayer and repentance. In places like Resolute Bay and Rankin Inlet, after these healing ceremonies, they found that vegetation began to return to the barren land, and herds of caribou began to calf far more than was usual. The land is alive and has a soul and can grow sick and can be healed and needs to be free to glorify God.
Someone might say that ascribing life to creation is a primitive way of thinking, which we call animism, and that what we know scientifically is that most of the universe is inanimate particles and forces. But actually some modern scientists are questioning that scientific orthodoxy. Just one example is Donald Hoffman, a senior neural scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He says that the attempts to figure out how consciousness could arise from inanimate particles and forces like brain activity have reached a dead end. It seems far more likely to him that the universe is full of conscious agents, but that through millions of years of evolution, our human brains have filtered that out, just as it has filtered out the space-time continuum, as a way of survival — human beings couldn’t cope if they had to deal with all the complexity of reality. He uses the modern computer as an analogy. No way could we make a computer work if we had to deal with all its millions of integrated circuits and switches, so we use a simple interface with a blinking cursor and some hyperlinks and some pretty pictures. There are no cursors or hyperlinks inside the computer itself, just on the screen that we use. Similarly, our brain creates a screen for us as a kind of interface to a tremendously complex reality around us. The screen tells us that some things are animate and conscious, and other things aren’t, but for Hoffman, that’s an illusion. Everything around us has consciousness.
So when the psalmist calls on the land to praise God, and the animals, and the trees, and the fishes, and the hills, I think that maybe these are more than rhetorical flourishes. The psalmist, inspired by the Spirit of God, is maybe telling us that all of creation is indeed capable of praising God in ways that we can’t understand, because creation really does bear the imprint of God’s life and God’s gracious will. So maybe the author of Psalm 148 is right, and our Indigenous brothers and sisters are right, in recognizing that all the universe is longing to have our company in praising God, which we can do as we repent for injustice and hurt, and heal the land, and fill our hearts with thanksgiving for the redemption of our world through the God who pitched his tent among us. So for challenge to join our voices with the mountains and the stars in giving thanks and praise to our gracious and loving Creator, thanks be to God!