A Michigan UCC congregation had a pretty hands-on way of celebrating Earth Day. After their pastor preached an award-winning sermon about how people of faith are called to be caretakers of God's creation, members immediately put that call into action, continuing Sunday worship outdoors using their hands and feet.
The Creation Team from Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ, Douglas, Mich., spent a few hours picking up trash on the roads leading into their community. The church applied to be part of the Michigan Adopt a Highway Program, because it's a mission that easily embodies the UCC's 3 Great Loves Initiative, with a tangible way members can honor Mother Earth, cleaning her up, showing their love for creation.
The Rev. Salvatore Sapienza was also honored this weekend by Michigan Interfaith Power and Light (MIPL). His Earth Day message was awarded first place in MIPL's 2018 Earth Day Sermon Contest. Preaching on Sunday, about Jesus, the Good Shepard, and linking that to the passage, 'The Earth is the Lord's and everything in it.' The pastor cited Diana Butler Bass' book Grounded, written around the premise that people of faith need to shift thinking of the Divine from a vertical understanding of God to a horizontal understanding of God. That Christians need to re-imagine the Church's 3-tiered vertical universe – with the devil down below, people on Earth in the middle, and God way up in Heaven – and embrace God everywhere in the world around us. Understand the kingdom of God is here and now.
"We, as people of faith, are called to be caretakers of God's creation, to be good stewards. The word 'steward' means 'guardian.' We are called to be good stewards, to be guardians of this garden, protectors of the planet. That is part of our Christian calling," Sapienza noted in his sermon. "And, when we begin to shift our view of God from vertical to horizontal, we begin to see God in everything. And we begin to understand that we hurt the environment, we are hurting God. We are here to honor our Mother Earth. We dishonor her when we turn a blind eye to issues of environmental justice."
Sapienza cited a recent Pew Survey that showed that just 6% of all Americans say that their faith influences whether there should be stronger policies in place to protect the environment. That there's a disconnect among Christians between loving God and loving the environment. He told the Douglas congregation that, "to grow spiritually, take time to see the presence of God everywhere," to shift from the 'Distant God' of conventional religion and experience an intimate sense of the sacred with us in the world.
A message church members took to heart as they hit the highway outside of Douglas, and collected 120 bags of trash.
"I'm extremely honored to win the Earth Day sermon contest, and I'm so very proud of our Douglas UCC Creation Justice Team for providing yet another practical way for us to put our faith into action, not just on Earth Day but throughout the year," Sapienza said. "The Adopt-a-Highway program makes our church a visible presence out in the world, extending one of our 3 Great Loves, the 'love of creation,' to the community at large."
The 3 Great Loves initiative, which runs through General Synod 2019, is a visible witness to the denomination's collective efforts in one uniting mission. It embraces the many types of ministry in which United Church of Christ congregations are already engaged, all working toward making a more just world for all as God's hands and feet. UCC churches and organizations are invited to discern and lift up the love of God, through their expressions of Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation in their community. Resources for the initiative can be found on the 3GL website.
"I believe it is our Christian duty to care for the environment, just as it says on our UCC 'Be the Church' banner," Sapienza preached. "Make your voices heard. Make them hear you. Make them see you. Make them know that Christians DO care about the environment. That's how we spread the Good News, by proclaiming to people that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It is here, and it is now. On earth as in heaven."