Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 11, 2016: Season of Creation, Ocean Sunday

Texts: Job 38:1-18  +  Psalm 104:1-9,24-26  +  Luke 5:1-11

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To begin, consider closing your eyes and picturing the ocean. Have you been to the ocean? Have you walked barefoot along its shores, shoes dangling from your hand? Have you heard that sound, the ceaseless tide, washing the land with its salty waves? Have you sensed its infinite depths?

Standing at the edge of the ocean is like standing at the border to a country most people never truly enter. Our bodies ride the waves at its very edges like the tiniest pieces of flotsam and jetsam, not even driftwood, as its wet gravity takes us wherever it wants. Our boats skim the surface of its unseen interior the way dandelion seeds ride the currents of our breath without ever seeing the insides of our lungs.

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Next to the oceans, our continents seem petite. The oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface, and the ocean floor extends miles below its waves. The land covers only 29% of the earth’s surface, and we live our lives on the thinnest crust of earth and sky. Imagine the largest animal that roams the Earth’s lands, the African bush elephant (weighing in at 3 tons), next to the largest sea creature known to humanity, the blue whale (weighing in at over 150 tons). But the oceans do not dwarf the continents only in terms of size, but in their diversity as well. For every massive blue whale there are an infinity of delicate coral reefs, surreal squids and octopi, strains of life that predate humanity by millennia, yet look like they must have come from another planet. Beyond the sandy beaches, beyond the metronomic waves, there is another world filled with neighbors we have yet to meet, though they have already been introduced to us.

Just yesterday afternoon, as Erin and I were preparing for this morning’s worship service, a man walked through the front door carrying a cardboard box and wearing an irritable frown. As I greeted him I could see that his box was filled with our trash: last week’s bulletins, copies of old newsletters, discarded mail. It was all clearly recyclable. In fact, we had tried to recycle it, but the trash bins in the alley are so full that neighbors have resorted to dumping their waste wherever they can find space. Failing that, they are setting it on ground, where the winds carry it away, blowing it down the alley. This is how our new neighbor met us for the first time, through our trash.

The same is true for our oceanic neighbors but with far worse consequences. By now it’s no longer news when we hear once again that “ships on the high seas routinely dump trash and sewage into the ocean,” or “that plastic pollution has permeated the entire ocean forming massive gyres, with plastic pollution being found even in the once pristine Arctic Sea.” But, beyond our trash, the massive levels of carbon dioxide generated by our automobiles and other fossil fuel consumption — coal, natural gas, and oil — are “dissolving into the ocean, making it more acidic.” Meanwhile, rising global temperatures have bleached vast swaths of the world’s coral reef in a matter of just a few years, endangering shoreline protections from ever-more-severe tropical storms and eliminating natural habitats for endangered species.

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The hubris we have displayed as a species threatens our very existence, but it is not new. In fact, it is the topic of perhaps the oldest piece of biblical literature in our holy scriptures, the Book of Job. If you’re at all familiar with Job, you know it concerns his quarrel with God over the justice of human suffering. Rather than answer Job’s complaints directly, God addresses Job’s mistaken notion that he is even capable of comprehending the wisdom by which God has ordered creation:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements — surely you know!

Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb?

and said, ‘thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?” (Job 38:2,4-5a,8,11)

When we hung these rainbow banners back in June it was partially in recognition of Pride month, as a sign of our embrace of the sacred value of every human life at a moment when our nation was grieving the loss of those 50 lives that ended in a shower of bullets at the Pulse nightclub. This morning they speak to us of a different kind of biodiversity and remind us of God’s promise to Noah not to end the world by means of a flood. If only we had made the same promise in return. Instead, our lack of wisdom, our failure of resolve, our climate-change-denying “words without knowledge” (Job 38:2) have brought us to the precipice of a global disaster from which there may be no turning back.

60ed9c8ef85b5bbd6ea848b2411557261d6f4960In an essay published by The New Republic titled “A World at War,” Bill McKibben — environmental activist, educator, and prophet of the climate crisis — cries out for the world to wake up to the hour that is upon us, and to band together to address the devastation we have begun before it brings an end to us all. I’ll post his essay this afternoon, and encourage you all to read it closely as we begin this Season of Creation, as it offers more than a diatribe, but also a roadmap to guide us out of the wilderness. Or, perhaps more apropos to the day, a constellation of bright ideas by which to navigate our way safely to the shore.

The true north star of his piece is the observation that for us to have any hope of survival, we must agree that we are fighting for our lives and that we intend to win the fight. We need to move beyond optional, feel-good, individual responses to environmental degradation and demand that the world’s nations and leaders take swift, decisive action to reverse global warming and all its deadly effects. Which means “a fracking ban, a carbon tax, a prohibition against drilling or mining fossil fuels on public lands, a climate litmus test for new developments, an end to World Bank financing of fossil fuel plants.” Which means we need to get organized.

organize-fish-400x250One of my early images of the idea of organizing came in the form of a poster that hung in classrooms and on campuses when I was a high school and college student. It showed a school of tiny fish swimming in the shape of a giant fish chasing down a single fish that, while larger than any of them individually was clearly no match for them together. Under the illustration was the single word: Organize.

That image comes to mind as I hear the miracle story told in the gospel of Luke. Here again, we learn that the more things change, the more they stay the same, as Simon Peter tells Jesus that the people have been fishing all night with no luck. Just as factory fishing in our day has stripped the oceans of fish at an unsustainable rate, so in Jesus’ day the Roman Empire had transformed Galilee from a place of subsistence farming and fishing into an export economy to feed its legions in a manner that had impoverished the people and drained the sea of fish.

Then Jesus tells those who would follow him to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4) When they did as he said their nets were filled with so great a haul that their boats nearly sank. At that moment Jesus drew a parallel between the power of these tiny fish, which alone were barely a meal but together could sink a boat, and the people of Galilee, who alone were dying of poverty, but together could change the world. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “from now on you will be catching people.” (v. 10)

The hour has come for us to lose our illusions and to shed our fear. The moment is upon us to set out into the deep waters, the ways of being and becoming that we have sensed are possible but have seemed too difficult. Now it is time to get organized, to fight not only for life on this planet but for the life of the planet itself, its lands and its waters. To fight like the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has fought to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from defiling sacred lands. To fight together. Organized into a body greater than any special interest, organized for the self-interest of the Earth itself.

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Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 15, 2013: Second Sunday in Creation — Fauna Sunday

Texts:  Job 39:1-12,26-30  +  Psalm 104:14-23  +  1 Corinthians 1:10-23  +  Luke 12:22-31

A plot of the Lorenz attractor for values, a visual representation of chaos theory that looks remarkable like ... a butterfly.

A plot of the Lorenz attractor for values, a visual representation of chaos theory that looks remarkably like … a butterfly.

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, right?  Aside from being the title of a mediocre Ashton Kutcher movie from a decade ago, the butterfly effect is the popular name for a phenomenon described by the field of mathematics known as “chaos theory.”  The butterfly effect refers to “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” or the observation that even minute variations or fluctuations in a system can produce vastly and powerfully different outcomes at a later state. The effect gets its name from the now well-known example of a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on the coast of South America resulting in a hurricane across the Atlantic.

The point, of course, isn’t whether or not the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, or even a preacher’s lips, can produce significant changes in weather (or behavior), but the idea that systems are deeply interconnected on levels that we can barely begin to understand.  That even small changes produce significant outcomes, but most importantly that we can’t know or forecast what those outcomes will be.

This is a challenge to our hubris as human beings.  Despite the fact that our knowledge of the world’s workings is constantly changing, that we are constantly replacing old ideas about how the universe works with new ones on the basis of new information, humanity generally tends to act as though it already knows all it needs to know to go traipsing off into God’s creation, crashing through the rain forests or drilling into the ocean floor, making not just small changes but massive ones at every step of the way that have created massive disruptions in the world’s climate and ecology and threatened the ecosystems for virtually every species of life on this planet, including our own.

So, the butterfly becomes a symbol of the power of something small, something frail and fragile, to effect great change in a system.

But as our preacher last week, Pastor Hector Garfias-Toledo, pointed out to us, there is a difference between knowing facts about something and having a relationship with it.  In his beautiful sermon about the ocean, he reminded us that 70% of the world’s population lives just miles from the sea, and that people who live close to the sea develop a relationship with it, not just ideas about it.

The same is true for the world’s fauna, its creatures.  Certainly people with pets understand the kind of bond that can emerge between human beings and domesticated animals.  Farmers and hunters can have a profound respect for their inter-dependence on the breeds of animals they raise and hunt. Biologists and preservationists help us all to understand the marvel and mystery of species that exist beyond our experience, that we relate to in the most abstract manner — like the massive, 11 ton whale sharks that live in the warm equatorial seas and live off of plankton, but have become an endangered species because of the unintentional damage done to them by boat propellers.

But the truth is, we don’t even know what we don’t know about the incredibly diverse array of creatures, of fauna, of species that fill the earth.

When God speaks to Job, in response to Job’s preoccupation with his own plight, God asks,

“Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe as its home, the salt land for its dwelling place? It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver. It ranges the mountains as its pasture, and it searches after every green thing. Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will it spend the night at your crib? Can you tie it in the furrow with ropes, or will it harrow the valleys after you? Will you depend on it because its strength is great, and will you hand over your labor to it? Do you have faith in it that it will return and bring your grain to your threshing floor?” (Job 39:1-12, 26-30)

The Book of Job reminds us that human arrogance has imagined ourselves as the center of God’s creation since the beginning.  In the invitation issued in the Garden of Eden to join God as stewards of God’s creation, we misunderstood the mandate that came with our vocation, and have treated the earth and all its creatures as if they exist solely for our benefit.  Even as Job laments his own deep losses, God reminds him that creation does not exist for his benefit.  The wild ass becomes emblematic of all God’s creatures who did not come into being simply to serve humanity, to be farmed, or yolked for labor.

This season of creation, which we are now celebrating for the third year in a three-year cycle, is very new.  It grew out of the Lutheran Church of Australia, but has become a global, ecumenical movement that intentionally interrupts the Revised Common Lectionary we share throughout much of the Church in order to draw our attention to the urgent, unprecedented ecological crisis in which we now find ourselves.  A crisis which threatens our climate, and therefore every species on earth in one form or another.

Season of Creation commentaryOne of the features of the theological work being done by these eco-theologians has been the development of a “hermeneutic of creation,” or a way of reading scripture that attempts to dislocate humanity from the center and to recognize the subjectivity, or perspective, of all of creation. In their introduction to the preaching resource that accompanies this season, theologians Norman Habel, H. Paul Santmire, and David Rhoads, the emeritus professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, write,

“We are seeking to read the relevant Bible texts also from the perspective of Earth and of members of the Earth community. We have become aware that in the past most interpretations of texts about creation — Earth or our kin on this planet — have been read from an anthropocentric perspective, focusing on the interests of humans. The task before us is to begin reading also from the perspective of creation.” (“The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary,” p. 11)

With that hermeneutic of creation in place, we are encouraged to hear even texts like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians with new ears.

 “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’  Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:10-13)

Paul is addressing himself to the problem of privilege and prejudice in the Corinthian community.  Some members of the congregation have come to imagine themselves as more important, more central, perhaps even more blessed, than others because they were baptized by Paul himself.  It is the basic human sin, to distance ourselves from God by distancing ourselves from one another, to harm our relationship with God by harming one another.

The hermeneutic of creation isn’t only applied to texts about wildlife, or the environment, but all of scripture. So when we re-read this passage from First Corinthians, we are encouraged to ask not only how we may be creating false distinctions between ourselves and the people sitting next to us in the pews, but also between ourselves and the species that surround us, between ourselves and the rest of creation.  Do we imagine that our commissioning at the dawn of creation, the dominion God gave to the first people over Creation’s fauna, has not only set us apart from, but above, the needs of all that God has created and that God loves?

That may, indeed, be the wisdom of this world, where corporate entities consolidate our individual appetites for consumption into engines of expanding markets that treat everything like a commodity to be purchased, packaged, and sold for our pleasure.  It may well be the wisdom of this world that says that environmental degradation is the necessary evil, the price that must be paid for human progress. Nevertheless, Paul speaks to us as Christians, as people saved from the powers of this world by the foolishness of the cross, the saving power of God, which makes itself known in the frail and fragile things of this world.

The cross teaches us about the folly of empire, the foolishness of placing our trust in systems of power, production and consumption that, in the end, will only enslave us, consume us, and destroy us.  In fact, aren’t they already?  Don’t you already sense that so much of our modern life has diminished our ability to enjoy what it means to be truly human?

Do you really think we were created for fifteen-hour work days, or weeks without sabbath?  Do you really think we were created for canned vegetables and powdered potatoes when the earth is erupting with fresh fruit in its season? Do you really think that reality television and the never-ending parade of digital distractions on your smart phones and tablets are any substitute for what is actually happening in God’s reality, for the waves of Lake Michigan crashing against the lakeshore and the wild play of children and animals and sunshine and trees?

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Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Jesus said to his disciples,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body about more than clothing … And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:22-23,29-31)

Sounds like foolishness, doesn’t it?  How are we to stop worrying about our lives, our next meal, our shelter and our clothing? Still, there is wisdom in this foolishness. Imagine the sabbath the earth and all its creatures would experience if we could curb our unceasing appetites and live lighter upon the earth.

Monarch ButterflyConsider the beautiful monarch butterfly, another of Creation’s endangered species.  It neither buys nor sells, but through the innate wisdom implanted in it by God its creator, it migrates unimaginable distances from the United States to Mexico each year, traversing national boundaries to make its home among people divided by wealth, ethnicity, language and power. Consider the monarch butterfly, in its frail, fragile beauty, which enters the tomb of its cocoon as a caterpillar and emerges ready to flutter, to fly, to become more than it had ever been. If God so equips the monarch butterfly for its future, how can we imagine God in her infinite compassion, would do anything less for us?

Amen.

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