First Creation

Psalm 104 (selected readings)

Ecological activist and author Bill McKibben suggests that “environmental devastation stands as the single great crisis of our time, surpassing and encompassing all others.”[I] If he’s correct, or even close to being correct, then Psalm 104 may be more important now than in all its centuries of existence. In a word, McKibben’s proposal for beginning to move toward solutions through Creation Justice is this: “Humility, first and foremost.”[ii]

Psalm 104 puts humankind, as it were, “in its place.” To be sure, biblically speaking, humanity occupies a special place in the created order, but not the only place! Psalm 104 is an eloquent reminder that we human beings share our space with a vast array of God’s “works,” including an “earth … full of [God’s] creations,” Humility then, lays at the heart of the Psalm that we have before us.

And it is with a humble spirit that we are invited to approach one of the Psalmist’s greatest creation poems. Psalm 104 reminds its early readers and us still today, that the Bible has a deep interest in the wondrous creation of God. And this is an important reminder, especially in this time of environmental peril and continued cosmic destruction.

When I was in elementary school, we paid very little attention, if any, to matters of the environment. I do remember, however, the first time we observed Earth Day in our school. We went out to the “back-forty” and planted trees, which was a good thing, but it was also an all-too-brief time concern. Other concerns crowded saving the planet out of our minds. Our newly planted forest became just a backdrop to a newly-constructed baseball field.

Society seemed to forget also. The “Me-Generation” of the 1980s, the rise of non-state terrorism in the ’90s, culminating in the attacks of 9/11. We were, of course, concerned about and aware of all those crucial events, and rightly so. But all the while the environment and this emerging understanding of global climate change, got very little attention from Western Culture as a whole.

But, a few years back, something interesting began to happen. Some of us in the faith community, clergy and lay alike, began to understand climate change as a theological and as a justice issue. We began to understand that this planet, and all that lives upon it, are beloved by God. We began to understand that while climate change is a problem that will affect all of us, it will devastate the poor of this world disproportionately. And we began to understand that if we, being the good people of this earth that we are; that if we do nothing, then, as Edmund Burke warned, “evil will triumph.”

Unfortunately, more broadly, the Church still paid very little attention to climate change and ignored the Biblical mandate to care for creation. I read somewhere that this was because pagan devotion, as found among the Canaanites, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians of the ancient world, was focused on nature. Their centeral theme was on the changing seasons, and the life-giving or life-threatening weather that these seasons produced. So, in an attempt to “not-be-like-them” it was concluded that the Israelites should primarily worship a God of history, the One who saved Israel from exile, and who finally, through the new covenant, gave humanity the gift of Jesus. All good things! But as a result of this historical focus, nature was reduced to a backdrop in the human saga.

But here we are in 2019 and the landscape is changing, quite literally. So, it’s time now to shelve this truncated idea about God’s relationship to nature. God is not only the creator of human beings, but God created the whole world; its plants, its hills and forests and oceans, its wild and domesticated creatures, everything! That’s why this “updated” way of thinking is called a cosmic understanding of God. Cosmic in the sense that God is in, around, and through all things.

Now, we don’t have to look very far to see that the Bible reinforces this idea. Let me give you some examples. Do you remember John 3:16? John’s famous football verse that seems to flash between the goalposts at every NFL game. Well, John 3:16 isn’t only about you and me. In fact, the most accurate Greek rendering of that verse is, “God so loved the cosmos that God sent God’s only son in order that all might be ‘made whole’ again.” And it’s no coincidence that we find this same cosmic concern in Paul’s epistles to the Romans and the Colossians. And even in the final chapter of infamous Book of Revelation we see the natural world play a primary role.

Which leads us back to Psalm 104. It’s a virtual catalogue of the wonders of Divine creation. It’s a cosmic overview of the world’s wind and water, and plants and animals; from birds, to cattle to mountain storks, and of course – goats. Goats are awesome!

Annie Dillard, the author of a wonderful book called A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, says that “God, loves pizzazz!” I like that thought. Indeed, God loves, adores creation, all of it, all the clacking and the buzzing, the whistling and the howling, the shouting, the laughing and the weeping, and yes, the pizzazz of it all. And so should we.

If we are to help save our aching earth, if we are to repent, which literally means “turn around”, and make the necessary life-changes to begin to restore this beautiful creation that we have been blessed with, then we must first love it, as God loves it.

Do you remember when God said to Job, in a glorious, but at the same time, frustrated response, “It is not all about you, Job! It is about mountain goats, (there’s goats again) and ravens, and even ostriches.” You see, Job had demanded that God execute Job’s version of justice, and God’s response was, “Have a look at my ostrich!” Now, even though it might seek like God’s answer came out-of-left-field, it actually didn’t. I think it’s important that we all take a longer look at God’s ostrich, at God’s soil, at God’s mountains. And we must love them all. Because if we don’t, God’s great gift of creation will wither, and retreat, and dry up, and we will have destroyed our home. [iii]

One final thought, climate change is a local issue and it’s a global issue; it’s an individual issue requiring a personal response, but it’s also a community issue, calling for a unified voice of responsibility. Unfortunately, global climate change has also become a political issue, and therefore by definition in our time, a divisive issue.

But, even so, the time to deny climate change is now past. There’s no debate on whether global climate change exists and whether or not humanity has played a significant role in causing these changes, it does and we have! So, instead of denying the problem it seems to me that we should face it head-on. The actual debate should be “who will go the furthest?” Who can go the farthest in working to transition our society to new forms of energy, and methods of production in both manufacturing and agricultural settings? Who will go the furthest in changing their everyday living habits? Who will come up with the most innovative and imaginative ideas about how to move forward? Who will honor God, and God’s creation by loving the earth? And finally, who will restore hope to our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s children? The question is finally rests with each of us my friends, and the question is this: “How far will you go?”

Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Bill McKibben, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation  (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2005), 15.

[ii] Ibid. 32

[iii] John Hobart. A Song for Creation (www.pathos.com) 2011

Resurrection Joy

Easter Sunday 2019

I would like to begin today by sharing Joy’s story. Joy was a typical high school junior. She worries about things like cheerleading, grades, what other girls posted on social media, and, of course, about prom. Joy had a new boyfriend, Tommy, they had gone out a couple of times, he seemed nice, and he had asked her to the prom.

But suddenly, everything changed. During a routine physical the doctor found something she didn’t like. After a cat-scan and a biopsy, Joy was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery replaced cheerleading and chemotherapy eclipsed any thoughts about the prom. That is, until the morning of prom rolled around, and Joy awoke to discover that she had lost all her hair. She we inconsolable. There was no time to have a decent wig made, and she dismissed any talk of buying a costume wig, or wearing a scarf, or a hat. Instead Joy insisted she was going stay home. She called Tommy to share her decision, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “I’ll be there at 5,” he insisted, “be ready to go.”

Well, Joy reluctantly put on her prom dress and waited for 5pm to roll around. And, right on time, the door bell rang. It was her date, dressed in a black tux with corsage in hand, and to Joy’s shock and amazement, her date, standing there in her doorway, had not one stand of hair on his head. You see, he had shaved his head so Joy would not feel out-of-place. But that’s not the end of the story. He then invited her to step out into the yard, where the entire cheerleading squad, along with their dates, were waiting for her. And like Tommy, they too had all shaved their heads. It was in that moment, for the first time since her diagnoses, that Joy didn’t feel alone.

As we consider Joy’s story this morning, I can’t help but this of Mary Magdalene as stood before the empty tomb. Like Joy, I think she must have felt alone, isolated, hopeless. Grief does that. Grief isolates us, it causes us to turn in on ourselves and build walls to keep others out.

But I can also imagine the look on Mary’s face in that moment of epiphany; that moment when Jesus spoke her name, “Mary.” One word, and she knew. One word, and Mary know the power of resurrection. And it was through one act of extravagant kindness, that Joy came to know the power of resurrection as well.

You see, for us here in the 21st century, the resurrection narrative doesn’t end with an empty tomb; isn’t finally about angels, or gardeners, or even about physical resuscitation. Resurrection is about the presence of God within, around, and through all of life. Resurrection is about taking those places in our lives, those dark and painful, isolating places, and exposing them to the healing and light and life of the Spirit.

After Mary left the tomb and went back to the disciples and shared what she had witnessed, they too became convinced that Jesus was a living and present God. The Apostle Paul thought so as well. In Paul’s writings the Living Christ and the Holy Spirit are never separated; for Paul the two are the same. So, when he says, “Not I, but Christ who dwells within me,” he is talking about the same Spirit that you and I can experience in our lives.

And, my friends, this is way I believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as some distant event in the past or dusty old doctrine, but as a very real presence.  William Slone Coffin expresses this same theological understanding in his book Credo. He says that “…today, on Easter, we gather not, as it were, to close the show with the tune “Thanks for the Memories” but rather to reopen the show with the hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”[I]

So, here’s the pressing question surrounding all this: How do we know that resurrection is something we experience? How can I tell that the Living Christ, the very Spirit of God is present in the world today?

Well, the presence of God, what we pastor types like to call the revelation of God, comes to us in many ways. We can experience God in nature, for example. Who here hasn’t felt the veil between God and humanity become a little thinner on a beautiful fall day in the woods? We can also experience God through relationship, through the other people we encounter as we walk this earth. God can also be revealed through art, through music, through communal worship or personal prayer, or whenever we take a moment to quiet our minds and open our being to listen for the still-small voice. My friends, God is Still-Speaking in the world today, our task is to listen and then respond.

I’m going to conclude my remarks today by focusing on our response. Specifically, our response to the resurrected presence of God as a faith community. Community is the key word here. Like the girl from our opening illustration, Joy’s disease isolated her from her primary community. And we all know that there are many, many people in our midst who feel isolated, alone, outside the love of God. It’s true. For any number of reasons, many people they feel they are not worthy of God’s love, and therefore by extension, not worth of the Church’s embrace. That why our calling as a faith community is to reach-out with an extravagant welcome to all people. No one, people, no one is outside the Grace of God, period. And it’s our task, our calling as a people of faith to share that message.

How? Well, when we become an Open and Affirming congregation, (Well, when we grew into a congregation that opens its arms to embrace everyone,) we said to LGBTQ people, you’re not alone. When we support the food pantry, we’re saying to those who are hungry, those whose bills have out-distanced their pay-check, those who have had to choose between medication and food, you’re not alone. When we give to our United Church of Christ special offerings, I’m thinking especially about OGHS, we’re saying to those here in our nation and around the globe who have been displaced by natural disaster or war or famine; you’re not alone. And when we invite someone who’s on the outside-looking-in, for whatever reason, we, like the bald-headed-cheerleaders who embraced Joy, are saying; you’re not alone. And there are so many more examples I can’t even list them all. But the essence of what I’m saying here is that when we open our arms and hearts to a wide diversity of people, we’re saying to anyone who will listen, “even when you’re by yourself, you’re not alone.”

My friends, as we continue to live-into our resurrection calling, may we do so with the Grace of God, the Compassion of the Christ, and in the Presence of the Spirit. My prayer for each one of you here today, is that if you feel isolated from your community, for whatever reason, if you feel like you’re the one whose on the outside-looking-in, that you will indeed experience the presence of the Divine, feel the nearness of the Spirit, and that you will hear the cry of this congregation, saying to you, “you’re not alone.”

My friends, it is with great enthusiasm, and passion, and with a hopeful spirit that I wish all of you, a very meaningful and joyful Easter. Amen, and the people of God said, “Amen

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[i] William Slone Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pg. 28

Shouting Stones

A Celebration of the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Luke 19:28-40

I wonder if we give Palm Sunday its proper due?

Why? Well, the story of Palm Sunday, often referred to as the “Triumphal Entry,” is featured in all four gospels. The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the eve of the Passover celebration, the story of a humble donkey, of shouting crowds, branches, coats and cloaks spread like a carpet upon the road, this story has center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Now, making the cut in all four gospels, that’s a big deal, biblically speaking anyway. I mean, Christmas didn’t even make it into all four gospels for crying out loud. We find birth narratives only in Matthew and Luke. The prayer that Jesus taught his followers, the prayer the church has recited over the course of more than two thousand years; the Lord’s Prayer. It only made the cut in two gospels. The parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are found only in Luke’s account. And finally, The Beatitudes, you know, blessed are the peacemakers, the meek, blessed are the poor; only two gospels. But the Palm Sunday story, the story of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, this story is retold in all four gospels. [I]

Which makes me wonder if we’ve overlooked the importance of this event in the past. I mean, over the course of the past couple of decades, there’s been a movement in protestant churches to piggy-back the passion story with the triumphal entry. It’s actually listed in the Revised Common Lectionary as Passion/Palm Sunday. And I can see the rational. Some have called it the “celebration to celebration” problem. In other words, many people come to church on Palm Sunday, like today, and it’s a time of celebration. Most then skip the holy week services altogether, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and then return to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ on Easter. The challenge here is that we miss the darkness of Christ’s journey through holy week. The Passion Story is a journey that takes us through the upper room, into the anguish and betrayal of the garden, and deposits us on the steps of the Temple to witness Christ’s arrest and trial, his humiliation and suffering, and of course, the heart-ache of his execution on the Cross. So, many-a-theologian has thought, “Hey, let’s cram it all into the Palm Sunday service.”

But, as you can probably tell from my tone, I’ve never been a fan of Passion/Palm Sunday. I think we need to celebrate for a while. I think we need to bask in the joy of this moment. I think we need to let the Triumphal Entry story stand on its own. Why? Well, in order to answer that question, I think we need first to set-the-scene.

The ancient city of Jerusalem during the annual Passover festival was a lot like Cable during the Burkie. Our town swells with visitors from all over the world. It’s alive, abuzz, international, exciting. Every possible room is rented at a premium price and Rondeau’s have stocked their shelves to capacity. There are vendors selling their wares as nearly everyone makes their way to the starting area. It seems like the whole world has come to Cable; or rather, to Jerusalem. Expectation was in the air.

Now, this is why I think the Triumphal Entry story is so important! Up until this point in the gospel narratives, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers, largely passive, reflective. I mean, when Jesus argued with the religious officials, I can imagine the disciples watching, tense and riveted. When Jesus defended a prostitute, they must have gasped. When he conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, they winced. When he defied the Sabbath laws, they cringed. When he declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and challenged the commonly held understandings of the day; understanding of clean and unclean, of rich and poor, of outsider and insider; I can imagine the disciples quickly glancing around to see who was listening. When Jesus heals a leper and as he restores those with mental illness, with broken bodies or spirits; the disciples must have whispered to each other with fascinated awe.[ii]

But on that first Palm Sunday, with the gathering crowds all around them like Cable at Burkie time, we see a shift occur; we see a transformation begin to take place. As they enter Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers became leaders. Yes, there would still be challenges as they grew into this new role. Most of the disciples would scatter later that week and Peter would deny even knowing Christ three times. But despite these setbacks, Palm Sunday, in my mind, is the day that the followers of Jesus found their voices, summoned their courage, and assumed their role as champions for God’s Reign of justice and peace; vessels of Christ’s compassion, grace and forgiveness, and tellers of the Divine story. And here in Luke’s version of events, in recognition that the disciples had found their voice, Jesus says, “I tell you, even if these bystanders were to keep silent, the stones themselves would shout!”

So, where does this leave us? As today’s disciples, as post-modern leaders of this ever-changing, ever-evolving entity with call the Church, what are we shouting

Now, at this point, I need some help up here. I want all the young people to come up here once again, no rabbit this time, but I want you all to be our “shouting stones.” Every time I say, “can I get an amen?” I want you to shout, “amen.” Let’s practice. Can I get an amen? Amen. Okay. Here we go.

We’re shouting stones when we open the door for someone who’s on the outside looking in; when we provide an extravagant and wide welcome to everyone. Can I get an amen?

We’re shouting stones when we us our voices to speak-up for the oppressed, when we speak-out against racism, against hatred; when we use our voices to speak for the voiceless; the immigrant, the refugee, the child in a cage on the border. Can I get an amen?

We’re shouting stones when we seek justice for all of God’s people; when we celebrate the diversity of humankind, our many colors and languages and faith traditions; we become shouting stones when we live in peace and harmony with one another and encourage others to do the same. Can I get an amen?

We’re shouting stones when seek environmental justice. When we use our voice and our vote, our hands and our feet, to work toward conserving creation rather than destroying it; when we make sacrifices to limit the lasting effects of global climate change for our grandchildren and their children. Can I get and amen?

And finally. We’re shouting stones when take the gospel seriously. When we attempt to live-into and reflect Christ’ command to love one another; to love God with all our being and to love our neighbors, including our enemies, as ourselves. Can I get an amen?

My friends, Palm Sunday is a time of celebration. A time when we celebrate the beginning of Christ’s journey through the darkness and into the light of the Resurrection. May each of us here today, symbolically, take this trek as well. May we emerge from whatever darkness is surrounding us into the Light of Easter; into the restoration and healing of God; into a Resurrection of Life.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen& amen.

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[i] Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor Players and Protagonists in the Kingdom of God (www.Day1.org) 2016

[ii] Ibid. Taylor

Weathering Storms

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Who has ever heard of Wikipedia? Show of hands. Well, if you haven’t or aren’t really sure what it is: “Wikipedia is a multilingual online encyclopedia with exclusively free content, based on open collaboration through a model of content edit by web-based applications like web browsers, called wiki. It is the largest and most popular general reference work on the Web.”[i] Do you know where I go this information about Wikipedia? Wikipedia.

Now, this isn’t humanity’s first attempt to accumulate “all-knowledge.” There was the Great Library of Alexandria, for example. It was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. The Library was part of a larger research institution and quickly grew by acquiring a large number of papyrus scrolls. Now, it’s unknown precisely how many scrolls were housed there, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height. And because of this great gathering of information, Alexandria became known as the capital of knowledge and learning in the third and second centuries BCE.

Side note: Despite the widespread modern belief that the Library was “burned” and instantly destroyed, the Library actually declined gradually over the course of several centuries, starting with the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145 BCE. Given, the Library, or part of its collection, was accidentally burned by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, it’s actually unclear how much was destroyed and it seems to have either survived or been rebuilt shortly thereafter.[ii]

Anyway, burned or declined, the Library of Alexandria was, historically, one the great attempts to gather all knowledge. By the way, guess where I got this information on the Library of Alexandria? That’s right, Wikipedia!

But what do these attempts to gather knowledge have to do with Jeremiah and the New Covenant? Well, Jeremiah says in this passage, “They will no longer need to teach each other to say, ‘Know the Lord!’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” And, according to the Prophet, God will do this by putting God’s Instructions within us and engraving them on our hearts.

What a powerful image! I mean, think about it! God’s instructions, God’s law it says in some versions of the Bible, IS actually engraved upon our hearts! In other words, according to Jeremiah, we should know what God wants us to do; we should know right from wrong, good from bad, innately. Deep within in our very being, we should know when something is ethically questionable or morally corrupt. The very Instruction of God is within each and everyone of us.

So, what happened? Why is the world so corrupt? Why does the human experience range from ethically questionable to down-right disgusting? When did humanity lose the ability to access these engraved instructions?

Well, I would contend that we haven’t. Instead, it’s a matter of keeping things in proper perspective. Do you remember the Genesis story about the Tower of Babel? Humanity tried to build to tower to make themselves equal with God, which, of course, isn’t possible so, the tower fell. By the way, I didn’t get that one from Wikipedia.

But the point of this teaching is that however we view God, whether it’s as a being, or a consciousness, or as the energy that lies within, thru, and around every atom of the universe; God by definition must but be, at least partially if not mostly, beyond our comprehension. Jeremiah didn’t say, “all the wisdom of God would be given to us, but instead, that God’s Instructions, God’s law, the moral and ethical understanding that we need to be better people who desire to make this world a better place, would be installed within us, engraved upon our hearts.

Which brings us back around to the accumulation of knowledge. The Library of Alexandria, and Wikipedia for that matter, are not bad things in and of themselves. On a personal level, I have dedicated most of my adult life to the pursuit of gaining a better understanding moral philosophy, humanity’s relationship with the Divine, and all things Spiritual. And I feel like what little knowledge I have gained through the years has been a worthy endeavor. And on a broader scale, I firmly believe the rise of anti-intellectualism that I have witnessed in my lifetime is one of the greatest dangers we face as a nation and a global community. It’s easy to deny a problem or blame it on someone else in a tweet. It’s a far greater thing, however, to think our way through the challenges that face us, and then act to correct them.

But that being said, if we try to put our accumulation of knowledge above the deep-seated instruction of God, we get into trouble. Like the tower-builders of old, it all comes tumbling down. Why? Well, think about it! If I think I know more that God then I kind of set myself up as a god, right? And if I’m a god than my self-interest, my self-fulfillment, will naturally lead to my grabbing all the power and wealth and notoriety that I can.

The Instruction, the law, that God engraved upon our hearts, however, leads us in the opposite direction. God’s instructions, which we can come to understand through the teachings and actions of Jesus, include things like humility, the pursuit of peace and justice for everyone and all of creation, faith and hope, reconciliation and restoration, …resurrection. The Apostle Paul expounded upon these virtues in his first letter to the Church in Corinth, when he said in essence that faith, hope, and love abide within each of us, but “the greatest of these,” he said, “is love.”

And my friends, that’s where we’ve come in this great evolution of God’s covenant with humanity. God is love. And our task as individuals, as a faith community, and as people in general, is to reflect God’s love in the world today. We are called to live-into God’s engraved instructions in all of our relationships; with those in our own home, with those who live next door, and with those who live across the globe. The greatest knowledge we can pursue, my dear friends, is the Love of God and how to share that love, every day.

And if we do that, if we share God’s Love consistently, both as individuals and as a people, God says to us, “I will be YOUR God, and YOU will be my people and I will forgive YOUR wrongdoing and never again remember YOUR sins.”

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

[i] www.wikipedia,org

[ii] www.wikipedia,org