Each year, our cousin organization, Michigan Interfaith Power & Light, promotes an Earth Day sermon contest. This year, I set out to craft a sermon to submit, but couldn't finish it by Earth Day. So, here is the sermon I would have preached on Earth Day if I had the chance. Please note: I am a member of a conservative Christian denomination, so the language of this sermon would fit the audience to whom I would preach it. So, for example, the use of male pronouns for God would be normal in that context. If you're coming from another point of view, I hope you'll not see these things as distractions, but as cues specific to another culture. In the end, I hope this sermon blesses you no matter what your faith background. Grace and peace, BT Irwin
This year, I found out how awkward it can be when Earth Day falls during Christian Easter and Jewish Passover.
VEJ, being a faith-based mission organization that helps communities of faith care for creation, wanted to host an interfaith prayer breakfast on Earth Day. It just made sense.
But, as I said, Earth Day this year landed the day after Easter Sunday. That happens to be the day a lot of Christian pastors take off for vacation after working overtime during Holy Week. So, Earth Day wouldn't work.
So, we looked at the Thursday or Friday after Earth Day.
One of our Jewish friends, however, pointed out that both of those days fall during Passover. She made a joke about how Matzo for breakfast didn't sound too appealing.
So, we ended up moving what was supposed to be our Earth Day prayer breakfast to the next week and scheduled it for the National Day of Prayer (May 2).
All this to say: How can I get into the pulpit on Easter Sunday--the most important Sunday of the whole year for Christians--and not preach an Easter sermon?
An Earth Day sermon on Easter! Where I come from, that could get you fired (or worse).
But, wait a minute.
Let's stop and think.
What if it's not such a stretch to preach an Earth Day sermon on Easter Sunday?
What if the spirit of the Easter story is not so far from the spirit of Earth Day?
What if an Earth Day sermon actually works as an Easter sermon?
Since you're here, why don't we give it a try?
I grew up in a Christian tribe that, among other beliefs, held these two:
The first is that the death of Jesus Christ is more important than his resurrection. I know this because we spent 99 percent of our time talking about the cross of Christ.
Think about that. If you spend 99 percent of the time at the cross of Christ, you are spending 99 percent of your thoughts on sin, punishment, and death.
This suited us just fine because, well, we were fundamentalists. And nothing gets a fundamentalist's pulse racing like suffering and wrath.
So, the Christian tribe that raised me taught that our faith was about life, but most of our language and stories and symbols were about death.
The second belief is that the "material world" is bad and the "spiritual world" is good.
You could say that we believed that matter doesn't matter to God and neither should it matter to us. We can take this another step: If matter doesn't matter to God, it must be opposed to God. Therefore, matter is evil and sinful in and of itself. Matter applies to our bodies (where fundamentalists believe nothing good can dwell). Matter also means Earth and all earthly things.
When you take this point of view of Earth--that, at best, it is disposable and, at worst, it is evil--you will not blink or blush when it comes time to exploit it. As I once wrote during my fundamentalist years: "God is going to burn it all up anyway."
By the grace of God (and the good Earth, I might add), I grew and matured in my faith.
Here is what I learned over the years:
First, the ancient Christians--the first people to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ from God--talked and thought mostly about the resurrection of Jesus--not his death. They were busy anticipating and preparing for kingdom come. They believed the resurrected Christ was the "firstborn" or "first fruits" of the age to come--the age for which all human beings are longing (1 Corinthians 15:20).
In short, the defining belief, the theme of ancient Christianity, was Resurrection.
Believing in resurrection as they did, those ancient Christians turned the world upside down with their selfless acts of generosity and kindness and mercy. They felt no need to attack or exploit or hoard or oppress. When you believe resurrection is coming to you, you are free to give and give and give some more.
But their belief in resurrection went far beyond their own souls in the "sweet by and by."
Those ancient Christians believed that God meant Resurrection for all things.
The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church of Christ in Rome:
."..creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).
My old fundamentalist way of thinking was: Jesus died to pay for the sins of humankind. He died so that people who follow the right rules could go to heaven when they die.
But the Good News--us Christians call it the Gospel--is that Jesus was raised from the dead. Not only because God is making it known that he intends to raise us all from the dead, but that God intends to raise all creation from the dead, too (Romans 8:21).
What does that mean?
It means you matter to God. You matter so much so that God laid down his own life and then took it back up again to start a chain reaction that ends with your own resurrection. God's will is for you to live. Really live. For him, that's what this is all about.
And it means that all of creation matters to God. Jesus Christ himself told his people to "go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to all creation" (Mark 16:15).
What is the Good News? That the love of God is imminent, unconditional, universal. The sign of that love is redemption from all that enslaves us and resurrection to a life of pure and unending love. And that Good News is not only for humanity; it is clear that God means it for "all creation."
This changes things.
"Every man for himself" becomes "every person for all others, every person for all things." Just as Jesus Christ was for all things.
When you're afraid of death, when you don't believe there is love for you in the universe, you will do moral things out of fear, out of obligation. This is fundamentalism.
But when you believe in Resurrection, when you believe that love is unconditional, universal, you do good as a free-flowing expression of joy, peace, and thanks.
Earth Day, then, is not a call to be pious or progressive; it is a call to come home. It is a call to return to right relationship with the world God so loves. And we come into right relationship with it, not in a spirit of fear, but in a spirit of great joy and thanksgiving.
Because God, in love, raises the dead. God makes everything new.
It is for you. It is for me. It is for everyone. It is for everything.
Easter and Earth Day. Earth Day and Easter.
Grace and peace.
VEJ Youth Club is back for summer, making ecology fun and hands-on for kids K-5.
The club meets at Hope House & Gardens, 15894 Greydale Street, Detroit, every Thursday from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. until August 15. All kids kindergarten through fifth grade are welcome. The program is free. A parent or guardian must sign a waiver and stay on site during the program.
"[Garden program leader] L'Oreal [Hawkes-Williams] leads a fun class that gets the kids really involved in using all five of their senses to learn about ecology," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "You know it's good when kids from down the street come by every day asking if it's 'Youth Club Day."
For more information, call (313) 355-6042 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The last week of June, about two-dozen Catholic teens came from places like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin to learn and serve at VEJ's Hope House & Gardens.
The teens came as participants in two annual Catholic youth service weeks in Detroit: Catholic Heart Work Camp and Young Neighbors in Action.
"Hosting these teens for a week each summer at Hope House & Gardens is one of the highlights of our year," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "It is really special to get to see how they grow as people over the course of the week."
Irwin said it is also a big blessing to VEJ and the Hope Park neighborhood. The teen volunteers get a lot of important work done at Hope House & Gardens while spending a lot of time with neighbors on Greydale Street.
Projects the Catholic Heart and Young Neighbors volunteers got done at Hope House & Gardens this year, included:
Irwin said his favorite part of the week was watching how the teen volunteers included the children who live around Hope House.
"You could see how the neighbor kids and the teens were bonding as they worked together. It was a beautiful thing to witness," said Irwin. "The neighbor kids were learning that love is there for them even from total strangers and the teens were learning how much love they have to give and what a difference it makes."
In addition to working with their hands, the teens also put their hearts and minds to work. VEJ garden leader L'Oreal Hawkes-Williams added classes, demonstrations, meditations, and reflections to the daily schedule.
At the end of the week, teens filled out anonymous surveys about their experience. Comments included things like:
Irwin said that if there was one drawback to the experience, it was that none of the teens who volunteered is likely to return any time soon.
"We can do this with local groups just as well as we can do it with groups from out of state," said Irwin. "We can do this with groups of any age, any education level, any faith background. When we host groups from metro Detroit, it creates opportunities for lasting learning and relationships that can build over time with repetition."
If you would like to come learn and serve at Hope House & Gardens--either on your own or with a group from your club, company, house of worship, or school--please call (313) 355-6052 or email BT Irwin at email@example.com.
VEJ's friends recently set several records for supporting VEJ's mission and organization.
Friends of VEJ gave a record 192 gifts in the fiscal year that started July 1, 2018, and ended June 30, 2019. That more than doubles the old record of 80 gifts (2017 - 2018).
Friends of VEJ also set a record for non-grant unrestricted gifts, meaning gifts that did not come from foundations and could be used to meet any financial need. Gifts of this kind added up to $33,657, beating the old record of $22,262 set in 2015 - 2016.
"Our donor friends deserve so many thanks for their accomplishment," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Donors do as much heavy lifting as if they were doing VEJ's hands-on work themselves. They are a big, big part of the mission and when they give more, they accomplish a lot more."
In addition to "unrestricted" gifts that came to VEJ from businesses, houses of worship, and persons, major "restricted" gifts of $36,000 came to VEJ as well. Those funds are set aside to support programs like Community Dinners, Organic Sustainable Gardening, and Wonder Walks.
Irwin said that donors are one of the "vital signs" that help measure VEJ's health, strength, and sustainability as a mission organization.
"There's this line in 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' where Ebenezer Scrooge, after he changes his life, sings: 'If you want to know the value of a man, you simply count his friends,'" said Irwin. "That holds true for VEJ, too. If you want to know the value of VEJ's mission and work, simply look at who is making it their own by giving their energy, money, and time. These friends are just as much part of VEJ as any board or staff member."
Looking ahead, Irwin said the goal is not so much to raise more money, but to include and serve more people in the VEJ community.
"When you're doing good and meeting real needs, the money takes care of itself," said Irwin. "Of course we think about the funds we'll need to do everything we want to do over the next year. But our real focus is on who we're going to do it for and who is going to do it with us. This is how we know that next year is going to be even better than this year."
To join the VEJ community and partner in the mission as a donor, click here.