Our lectionary reading from the final verses of Matthew is called the great commission. Jesus gives his disciples the authority to act as his commissioned officers. Their marching orders are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that he has commanded them.
Matthew, who was there as an eye witness, says that when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Maybe they just couldn’t believe their eyes. Maybe they doubted Jesus. Maybe they doubted themselves. We don’t know. The disciples were often baffled by Jesus. He was always going way out in front of them in every sense of the word, and they were always trying to catch up.
The disciples sometimes seem ignorant about what Jesus is up to, but they are aren’t stupid. Ignorant is when you didn’t know. Stupid is when you don’t want to know. Ignorant is when the President says people shouldn’t be protesting. Stupid is when the protesters turn into looters. Ignorant is when white people see that placard, Black Lives Matter, and think no, all lives matter. Stupid is when they fail to see that BLM doesn’t leave anybody out. There is no way in hell that all lives will ever matter in America until and unless, BLM.
But Jesus is patient with human ignorance. He commissions the disciples anyway. He doesn’t say get lost to the ones who were doubting. He says, get going.
If I had been there I would have at least wanted to ask a couple follow up questions before he goes. I get the baptizing part. But to teach others to obey all of his commandments, I need to know what exactly those are. I’d want a list, in priority order please.
Jesus said a lot of things. Judge not lest you be judged, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, give to anyone who asks, comfort those in distress, do not worry or be anxious. He liked to speak in riddles and use sarcasm, hyperbole, and innuendo. But he only used the word commandment when he spoke about love.
A new commandment I give to you, he said, that you love one another as I have loved you. The greatest of all the commandments, he said, is to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.
So there it is: Love God with everything you have, love your neighbor as yourself, and love one another as I have loved you. This covers it all. Everything else he said and did can be seen as being in service to the love commandments.
Jesus was a carpenter, but he sounds more like a farmer. His teachings are full of illustrations drawn from the natural world—birds, crops, fields, rain, fish, trees. Seeds grow when they fall on good soil. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The lilies of the field neither toil nor spin. I am the vine you are the branches. To Jesus, all of creation is alive.
And when Jesus speaks of loving our neighbors and loving one another, he isn’t just talking about other people. He means loving all of God’s good creation. For Jesus, our neighbors include the trees, the oceans, mountains, the birds of the air and the beasts of the fields, Mother earth herself. In his worldview, human nature and the natural world are one and the same thing.
The native American theologian, Randy Woodley, describes this kind of worldview of creation as also being that of North American indigenous people. To the indigenous peoples of North America, he writes, our land and all it contains is the Holy Land. The land is sacred because it was given to us from the Creator, to be held in a trust relationship. The land is holy because God is holy. It is sacred because the land, and all creation, is considered to be a gift from God. Christians ought to be the first ones to realize this—after all, Christ is the Creator.
The land is sacred, to be held in a trust relationship. This is the heart of Psalm 8, where God creates human beings a little lower than God and gives them dominion over all the works of his hands. God authorizes us to rule over creation as faithful partners, responsible for making life on earth flourish, not only for ourselves, but for the welfare of all of God’s good creation.
I brought a visual aid with me this morning. It’s this houseplant. This is a Golden Pathos, also called Devil’s Ivy, because it doesn’t want to be used as food. It’s mildly poisonous. It won’t kill you, but you’ll never try eating it again. I’ve had this plant for four decades, having repotted it several times.
I brought it to show you, because this plant and I are in a long-term love relationship. A symbiotic, harmonious, reciprocal relationship. It gives me oxygen and filters the air in my room. I give it carbon dioxide and it has taught me exactly how it likes to be cared for. After four decades, it’s still thriving. It’s a happy plant.
I talk to this plant. Not long conversations, just hey there how you doing, you’re looking good today, can I get you anything? And I touch this plant. Scientists in the emerging field of plant neurobiology have confirmed what people with green thumbs have known for centuries—that plants respond to us, our presence, our touch, our voices.
God intends for us to have this kind of symbiotic, harmonious, reciprocal relationship with the whole community of creation.
Maybe it takes a pandemic for us to really get how deeply interconnected we are with all of life on this earth, from the mycelium in the soil to the tops of the trees, from the depths of the oceans to the rainclouds in the sky, from the fertile valleys below sea level to the thin air of the mountain peaks, all of life on this earth is deeply and profoundly interdependent. This pandemic is a wake-up call. Covid19 has hit the snooze button, giving us a little time to emerge from our sleep.
This pandemic is more than just a medical problem to be solved through clinical trials. As one ecologist puts it, the pandemic means that the planet itself is sick; it has come down with a fever. The planet is sick and it’s making us sick. This sickness is in the earth’s ecosystem, the consequence of air, water, and soil pollution, deforestation, overmining, and our general failure to regard the land as the holy land, and all creation as alive.
But while we humans were getting sicker and dying, the earth itself is actually showing signs of recovery.
Across China, carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by a third in the last few months. India reported the lowest level of springtime nitrogen dioxide on record. In Venice, the reduction in boat traffic has caused the murky, grey canals to become crystal clear again. The smog is lifting in places like Los Angeles and Mexico City, making skylines visible again.
Here in the Northeast, air pollution levels have dropped by 40 percent compared to a year ago, and more stars are visible in the night sky. Across the globe, seismic activity has dropped dramatically, with fewer trains, planes, buses, and people pounding the pavement, there is less rumbling on the surface of the earth, and much less noise pollution all over the world.
This is our chance to start over. We’ve been ignorant, but let’s not be stupid. Rediscovering a symbiotic, harmonious, reciprocal relationship with all of our neighbors in the natural world isn’t going to happen overnight. We have to start somewhere, and I suggest starting small. Plant a little garden, make friends with a tree, give someone a plant to care for, or adopt just a single houseplant yourself.
Don’t forget to talk to it and touch it. You might be surprised to find that caring for a single houseplant with genuine love and affection, can be a small but joyful spiritual practice. A living reminder that all creation is alive, and the land is the holy land.