Turn, if you will, to the text of today’s psalm, either in the leaflet or on page Today’s psalm, or on page 620 of the Prayer Book: I want to show you something really neat about this particular text. Psalm 29, you see, should really resonate with us New Mexicans, for it is a description of a summer thunderstorm: the kind that blow in from the west here in ABQ, pass over the city, and then disappear over the Sandias. In the case of the psalm, the poem describes a storm moving from in from the waters of the Mediterranean, passing over the land of Israel, and then dissipating over the desert to the east.
So have a look at the text: the psalm begins by ascribing to the Lord glory and strength, in a kind of lull before the storm, acknowledging that the whole creation is a revelation of his strength and beauty. Then in verse 3, “the voice of the Lord” is heard in the distance, far out upon the waters, the sound of thunder beginning to move toward the dry land. As the storm moves closer, its sound grows in intensity: by verse 4 the storm has become truly powerful, a voice of splendor that rattles the earth.
Suddenly the storm is upon us, and even the strong cedar trees are broken by the ferocity of its winds. The mountains themselves are made to skip like terrified animals by the storm’s intensity. Lightening bolts drop down as flames of fire, and the crash of the thunder shakes the wilderness. Now even the sturdy oak trees writhe in the wind and the rain … and the people, contemplating this display of God’s might, can only cry “Glory!, Glory!”, huddled inside the temple against the violence of the storm.
And then, the storm passes, and the psalmist is able to draw courage from the experience, knowing that the Lord who has displayed his power and might through the storm, is also the same Lord who will give strength to his people, and the blessing of peace.
It’s a powerful work of poetry, isn’t it? So what, we may ask, has it to do with us today, and with the occasion of baptism?
Well, I’d like to link it to a single line in the Baptismal Covenant, where we will be asked, “How will you respond to the creation around you?” This is one of the six questions that are part of the Covenant that I like to call the “so what?” questions—questions that help to flesh out the implications of what we affirm as our faith in the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed which makes up the first part of the Covenant. Okay: so you believe in God, in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit: so what?
What is particularly important about this last question regarding creation, however, is that today is the first time we are including care for creation as one of the “so what” questions: in the past there had been only five questions. The insertion of this sixth question was made at last year’s General Convention, sponsored by my own former Diocese of Connecticut. And given the concern which we have in our day for the environment and the future of the natural world around us, that’s a big addition. But let’s push right past that church talk and get to the larger issue of why one would ask about commitment to the creation, as part of baptism?
Well, in the very first line of the Baptismal Covenant we begin by affirming our faith in a God who is “creator of heaven and earth,” evoking the account in Genesis of God’s creation of all things. You will remember that the last thing God creates in that story is humankind (a.k.a. Adam and Eve), and that in giving them dominion over the earth, God also lays down a limitation: they are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of life.
From the very beginning, in other words, humanity is warned against assuming that everything is simply available for their consumption: the created world has boundaries and restraints that are necessary to protect and sustain the well-ordered world which God created. It is when Adam and Eve fall into thinking that they have a right to anything they want, and they eat of the forbidden fruit, that all the trouble begins.
So back to the question posed to us today: how will we respond to the creation around us? With the inclusion of this question, the baptismal covenant reminds us that at the heart of Christian faith is a keen awareness that we live within a created order that not only sustains us and our needs, but also demands our care and attention. We cannot, in other words, regard nature a if it were simply there for our unlimited use and exploitation. Like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, we have limits, and we disobey them not only at our peril, but at the peril of the well-being of the garden itself.
Jesus’ own baptism, which we celebrate today, is a reminder and renewal of this dimension of our creation. By being baptized, Jesus demonstrates that he is not just a sort of ghostly figure, walking around in our midst but not essentially flesh and blood. No, by engaging in the public rite of baptism—washing with water—he insists upon the full human, bodily nature of who he is, and that through him God is identified with the physical creation. Matter, matters. Nature, matters. Creation, matters. We can’t just ignore the demands that it places upon us.
And so when in our own baptismal covenant we now affirm a care and concern for the created world around us, we acknowledge both the gift that creation is, but also the restraints that it imposes upon us. Like Jesus, we take responsibility for the physicality of our own being, recognizing that it ultimately depends upon the care that we take of the physical world around us.
So next time someone asks you why you have a concern for the environment—however that manifests itself in you—tell them it’s because of your baptism. That’s sure either to be a conversation starter (or perhaps a show stopper), but at least it will put the discussion in the right register: it’s because we believe in God, creator of heaven and earth, whose glory and might and power is like that of a dramatic thunderstorm in the hot, dry desert of New Mexico. Amen.
© Joseph Britton 2016