Sermon: Sunday, September 14, 2014: Land Sunday, Season of Creation

Texts: Genesis 3:14-19;4:8-16  +  Psalm 139:7-10  +  Romans 5:12-17  +  Matthew 12:38-40

It is not difficult to see how alienated we are from the land, probably more in this generation than in any previous one. As a child I mowed the lawn and picked the occasional weed, but that was about it. My father, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska, would make some noise each summer about how I ought to spend some time on my cousins’ farm up in Minnesota and get a feel for what real work is, which sounded like a prison camp to me. As far as I was concerned apples, cheese and ground beef all came from the grocery store, and that was good enough for me.

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2006). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision. New York: United Nations.

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2006). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision. New York: United Nations.

The shift in my own family from farm to city is emblematic of not only a national but a global trend.  In 1950, when my dad was still a boy, 64% of Americans lived in urban areas. By 1980, when I was a boy, 74% of Americans lived in urban areas. Today, 83% of Americans live in urban areas. The United Nations reports that between 1950 and 2005, the urban population of the world more than tripled, from under 1 billion to over 3 billion. Or, to pull back even further, in 1800 only 2% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today nearly 50% of all the people on Earth live in cities. All of which is to say that as a species, we are living in a time of rapid mass exodus from the land and our sense of daily reliance upon it.

These facts make it harder, I think, for us to relate to the passage from Genesis, in which humanity is expelled from the Garden of Eden with the accompanying curse that we will be forced to endure back-breaking toil in order to draw sustenance from the land. The advent of factory farming technologies has subjugated the land in ways the authors of Genesis could never have imagined when they heard God’s call for humanity to exercise dominion over the earth. Instead I think we hear these other words from Genesis with new ears, “cursed is the ground because of you.” (Gen. 3:17)

With increased urbanization comes increased consumption. For example, urban populations consume much more food, energy and durable goods than rural populations. These patterns of consumption have been shown to actually change weather patterns around cities, and the pollution created by these massive centers of human congregation flow out from the city to the countryside through contaminated waterways that infuse the land from which our food is grown. So the curse pronounced upon the land returns to the ones whose actions initiated the curse in the first place, as Genesis says again “and now you are cursed from the ground.” (Gen. 4:11)

42-17955034How has city life trained you to ignore the environmental consequences of your patterns of living?  Is it the gas consumed as you drive to and from work each day, refined from petrol pumped from the earth and shipped across the oceans? Is it the natural gas that heats your homes or fuels your kitchens, extracted from the earth by means of fracking? Is it the coal-powered electricity that runs the ever expanding array of household conveniences we plug into our walls, without imagining that the cost is measured in ways that stretch far beyond our monthly energy bill?

For me, it’s all these things and more. City life makes me a consumer. Because the food I eat, the energy I consume, the products I purchase all arrive to me in essentially the same way, at a checkout station in some shopping center, my relationship to the earth is reduced to acts of consumption. Gone is any sense of being co-created with the earth. Gone is any sense of being a part of the natural created order. Gone is any sense of kinship with the land as mother, with the sky as father, with the flora and fauna as sisters and brothers. It is all just product for human consumption whose value is determined by the market. In the end, the curse I lay upon the ground comes back to me, and my own humanity is diminished as I become nothing more than a consumer, another cog in the machine.

This is our present state of alienation, the state of being that Paul terms “sin” and describes as being under the dominion of death.  Paul goes on, however, to make the claim that even as death gained dominion over the earth by means of one person, Adam, that now a new abundance is available to us by means of one person, Jesus. This bold assertion requires some creativity, an act of imagination on our part, if we are to understand how the redemption we know by the name of Jesus might have any power to heal the land.

All our background and training inclines us to think of Jesus as the sign of our reconciliation with God in personal terms, or at most in collective terms confined to humanity as a species. Jesus is called Son of God and Son of Man, but not Child of Earth, though this little passage from Matthew opens our imagery up just enough to perhaps make that necessary leap, “so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:40b) Some of the creeds we have inherited across the centuries imagine that Jesus spent the three days between the crucifixion and the resurrection in hell, or among the dead, but this little fragment simply states “in the heart of the earth.” What a rich image, to imagine that Jesus’ saving action begins not with humanity, living or dead, but with the land that first bore our curse. That Jesus, the seed that falls to the earth, begins the cycle of rebirth in the ground beneath our feet.

As a community that bears the name “body of Christ” and who imagines ourselves to be called by our baptism to be God’s hands and feet in the world, what might it mean for us to act in solidarity with Christ, who begins the work of healing and restoration with the very earth under our feet? For we, who so often conceive of Jesus in political terms, as the one who resisted empire and paid the price, what acts of resistance are required of us now? What price demands to be paid? What are we will to give up, or to lay down, to give new life to the earth? What cross are we willing to bear to be part of God’s saving intention for the creation God calls good, the creation that groans as it waits its own redemption?

Someday our lives will end, that is one of very few certainties we each share in common. When that moment comes, whether we have been transformed into ash or laid bodily in the earth, we will all find our resting place in the ground. We will return to the land. What an awkward homecoming that may be.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps we will find the will to amend our lives and restore to the earth the dignity of its heritage as one of God’s good creations. When she opens her arms to receive us at the end, how good it could be to hear Earth say, “welcome home, child. Welcome home at last.”



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?

Waves of Lake Michigan

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?