Sermon: Sunday, September 29, 2013: Fourth Sunday in Creation — Cosmos Sunday

Texts:  Proverbs 8:22-31  +  Psalm 148  +  Colossians 1:15-20  +  John 6:41-51

We are all stardust. This is most certainly true.

Writing for the famous PBS science series, Nova, Peter Tyson explains,

Every single atom in your body — the calcium in your bones, the carbon in your genes, the iron in your blood, the gold in your filling — was created in a star billions of years ago … You and everything around you, every single natural and man-made thing you can see, every rock, tree, butterfly, and building, comprises atoms that originally arose during the Big Bang or, for all but the lightest two or three elements, from millions of burning and exploding stars far back in the history of the universe. You live because stars died; it’s that simple.

Every atom of my body has traveled the stars, exploding with limitless potential energy in the first nano-seconds of creation.

I wasn’t sure, initially, how to preach on a theme as large as the cosmos. The gift of this task has been to discover in my research how interconnected all of creation is. Not just us and the oceans, or us and the animals, or us and the climate; but us and the stars in the sky, where God forged the atoms from which we are built.

I was given a timely and unexpected opportunity to think about this a week ago today when Kerry and I were in Los Angeles celebrating the installation of Bishop Guy Erwin in the Southwest California Synod. On the advice of friends, we drove up into the hills to Griffith Observatory, best known as the setting for famous scenes from such movies as Rebel Without a Cause and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, but also a very fine planetarium in its own right.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory

Inside the observatory Kerry and I browsed exhibits on the rotation of the earth, the role of astronomy in the evolution of human society, and the science of photographing the universe.  As we wandered through the observatory, one display really caught my attention.  It was a series of short films explaining the life cycle of the sun and its relationship to the rest of the galaxy.

Accompanied by scenes of our solar system set against the larger galaxy, the film explains that

Long ago, the sun was smaller and cooler. In the future, it will be very different from today. More than 4 billion years ago, the sun formed from a collapsing cloud of gas and dust. The cloud’s center grew very dense and hot. Gravity pulled the cloud into a spinning disk, where planets formed. As the sun grew more massive, pressure triggered nuclear reactions. The increased energy drove away the remaining dust and gas.

Then the scene shifted from a view of our solar system among the stars to one of our star, the sun, seen from the vantage point of the earth.  The film continued, “today then sun is a stable, middle-aged star.”

That’s what caught my attention.  I was startled to realize that we have that in common, me and the sun, that we are middle-aged.  Granted, the sun has figured out how to be both middle-aged and stable, but it’s had 5 billion years to work on that.  I’ve had only forty, so I feel entitled to a little slack in that department.

The film continued,

In a few billion years, it will run out of fuel. It will become a “red giant” star. Its heat will melt the Earth’s surface. After a few million years, the sun’s outer layers will escape to space. When the Sun’s nuclear reactions end, it will collapse to become a “white dwarf” star. It will provide little light or heat to any remaining planets. The sun we know is just one chapter in the long story of our star’s life.

NASA image of the Omega Nebula

NASA image of the Omega Nebula

It’s not just that we are like the stars, but that they are like us as well.  They are born in stellar nurseries at the center of the galaxy; they burn brightly, but eventually they die as well, their elements returning to the rich, dark sea of interstellar space.

Even then, nothing is wasted. You’ve probably already learned at some point along the way that the light we see when we look up into the night sky has actually been traveling for millions of years before it ever reaches our eye.

So, the light and heat released during those final epochs of our own sun’s life will race through the ever-expanding universe traveling, perhaps, to some unimagined future eye which will behold it.

Our own lives are like the stars.  The light and heat of our witness travels forward in time long after we are dead.  This morning we catch a glimpse of the light cast by the ancient Israelites who imagined the wisdom of God as if it were God’s only begotten daughter; the first of God’s many creations; the order that organizes the structure of creation to make life possible; God’s great delight, assisting God in bringing the rest of creation into being.

Other points of light in this constellation of scriptures saw the story of Jesus reflected in the image of Lady Wisdom, echoing the story of creation with a new story of re-creation and reconciliation achieved on a cross, at a tree cut down but restored to life.

Jesus, the image of the invisible God, shines brightest of all, the light of his life blazing so brightly it pierces the vast darkness of the heavens above and sheds new light on all of creation.  And just as nothing is wasted in the death of a star, so nothing of what Jesus experienced in his sojourn through creation was wasted as well.  Even the scorching heat of the crucifixion that desiccated his body proved, in time, to be the super nova that propelled his life-giving presence throughout the known world, transgressing borders and crossing seas.

You live because stars died; it’s that simple.

Jesus tells his followers that he is the bread that came down from heaven, mixing metaphors, playing with our expectations just as wisdom rejoiced in the inhabited world and delighted in the human race.

Jesus, the image of the invisible God, show us who God is and how God wants to be with us.  Jesus, naming himself the bread of life, invites us to consume this bit of cosmos wrapped up in flesh.  To wrap our own flesh around his light and to be transformed, lifted up and brought to life.

Considering the miracle of life among the vastness of the cosmos, Vicky Balabanksi and Shirley Joh Wurst, two Australian theologians, write,

The cosmos as we know it, both through revelation and through science, is characterized by an impulse to life. One of the great scientific puzzles of our time is the way in which the very nature of the cosmos seems to be intrinsically shaped — even fine-tuned — by the fundamental forces through which the particles of matter interact to make the emergence of life possible. For example, if the weak nuclear force that controls disintegration processes in atomic nuclei were only very slightly weaker or stronger, then supernova explosions would not occur and the stardust of heavy elements essential to life would not have been available to form Earthlike planets. Or, if the strong nuclear force between the proton and neutron were only slightly weaker or stronger, the sun’s processes would have been different from what they are, such that life on Earth could not have developed…

The order of the cosmos reveals an impulse to life. We might use another term for this reality, namely, “grace.” We most frequently think of grace in relation to God’s acts of salvation and redemption, but the fact that we exist at all, in a cosmos imbued with life, is itself a demonstration of grace. God’s grace is the reason there is a world instead of nothing at all or only a swirl of random matter.

So much of the season of creation has been focused on the deep peril now faced by our planet.  We’ve studied the oceans, the animals and the storms — each time being brought face to face with the damage we have done and the need to repent, to reverse course, to act.

But we end this season of creation with a celebration of the cosmos, a name for creation so vast that the ancient Israelites and early Christians could barely imagine the multiverse it suggests.  Even we, with our satellite telescopes that can paint the mysteries at the center of the galaxy, where stellar nurseries give birth to new stars, have only begun to grasp the vastness of creation.

The cosmos cannot be broken.  In its infinitely expanding, accelerating propulsion it precedes our great commission, sending itself ahead of us, testing our ability to dream even a fraction of its reality.  The cosmos dwarfs our weapons of mass destruction with infinite creation.

Before it we can only wonder.

In the explanation to the first article of the apostles’ creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” Martin Luther writes,

What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, field, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

Surrounded, gifted, by the beauty and goodness of God’s creation — all of it born among the stars — what else can we do but thank and praise, serve and obey God by whose grace we and all the cosmos exist, by whose wisdom life emerges from the forces that bind atoms together, by whose love the world is given to us and we are given to the world — all of it a single, vast, interconnected, whole.

We are all stardust. This is most certainly true.




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?



Sermon: Monday, December 24, 2012: Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20


Our worlds begin and end when a child is born.

314585_10200222683877889_1546527754_nIt seems dangerous to say anything about the end of the world after the Mayan apocalypse, scheduled for last Friday, failed to produce anything too spectacular.  I saw an editorial comic on Saturday that read, “Same job. Same friends. Same everything. Um… this afterlife really sucks.  Stupid Mayans!”  That about summed it up as far as I was concerned.  Lots of hype, but no real change.

Do you suppose that’s the reason doomsday predictions get so much attention?  That, deep down, people are longing for the world to end, or at least to change?

These days the predictions seem to spring up every other year or so.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the end of the world in 1975, then again in 1984.  Back in the 70’s, Pat Robertson predicted the world would end in 1982.  In the early 1990’s, Louis Farrakhan saw the first Gulf War as the beginning of a final war of ArmageddonHarold Camping has raked in millions of dollars over the years with doomsday predictions falling three times in 1994, then again in 1995, and yet again twice last year in 2011.  There were plenty of predictions of chaos and destruction in the year 1999, with everyone from Nostradamus to the Nuwaubian Nation weighing in — though pop/funk musician Prince seemed sure it was all going to be a big party.  

Looking ahead, there are already people who’ve gone on record saying that 2013 will be the year of Christ’s return. But most Christians will do that one better and say that today, this very night, God’s future breaks into the present once again as God takes on flesh in Jesus Christ, and that because of this eternal birth, the world as we know it has come to an end.

As much as Hollywood may prefer a fiery, explosive apocalypse, the rest of the world understands that there is no better sign or symbol for the end of one way of life and the beginning of a new one than the arrival of a baby.  Gone are the days of sleeping through the night, or spontaneous late nights with friends, or disposable income.  Everything is re-evaluated with reference to this new reality.  There is a baby in the house.

The birth we celebrate this night is the arrival of the baby of Bethlehem, who will be given many titles throughout his life.  

“He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace…” (Isaiah 9:6b-7a)

The prophet Isaiah imagined a child who would come and signal an end to the world as he’d known it, a world defined by wars and conquests and occupations.  A world defined by violence.  The child Isaiah imagined would bring an end to war and usher in a new age of peace.

As we sit among children and grandchildren this Christmas Eve, we are all too aware of how fragile life is and how dangerous the world around us can be.  We are shocked by the increasingly frequent violence that has invaded our homes, schools and neighborhoods.  We grieve with those whose Christmases this year will be defined by their losses and we pray that this world, this one we’ve too quickly grown accustomed to, would end.

Some have proposed that our world will only become safer when each of us is as armed as the most dangerous among us.  That is not a new solution.  In times of fear, people have always been tempted to look for their security in the power of arms, armor and armies.  We look to kings and presidents and generals for assurances that we will be safe, that we will be saved.

The Christmas story gives us just the opposite.  During a time no less dangerous than our own, when families were torn apart by the violence of war and torn down by the economics of empire, God ended the world as we’d known it by setting aside power and wrapping God’s own self in flesh, to live a life like ours.  At a time when emperors and kings held all the power and called all the shots, God chose to be born into the world among the poor, far from home, surrounded by strangers.

Tonight each one of us is invited to see by the glow of our tiny candles that the world is not the same.  The future is not defined by the past.  The end of the world doesn’t take place all at once, but in each new moment as God takes on flesh in you, in me, in our church, throughout our neighborhoods, across the world.  In the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, and in each new life that enters this world, God chooses creation instead of destruction as God’s preferred method of ending the world as we’ve known it.

My prayer for each of us is that we might leave this sanctuary tonight, filled with the light and the life of this new world; that we would approach the new creation outside these doors with all the love we normally reserve for a newborn child.  Touch its wintery woods, smell its snowy air, pay attention to its firsts, encourage its faltering steps toward motion, snap photos of its growth, surround it with our love and protect it from all harm.

Our worlds begin and end when a child is born. 

Tonight the world is born again. 

O come, let us adore it.

Merry Christmas, and Amen.