Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 20, 2015: Second Sunday in Creation — Humanity Sunday

Texts: Genesis 1:26-28  +  Psalm 8  +  Philippians 2:1-8  +  Mark 10:41-45

It doesn’t seem to be the case so much anymore, but I remember a time when care for the environment was thought of as a bourgeois concern. It was the kind of thing celebrities and upper-middle class white people could afford to care about, as it offered practical solutions (like recycling) and goals (like reducing carbon footprints) that, ironically, could be achieved with the help of a new range of consumer goods (like electric cars). It was the sort of cause attractive to optimistic activists, because it didn’t require us to examine our own hearts in quite the same way that decades of struggle in the civil rights movement had.

Today that kind of dualistic opposition of environmentalism to human rights has begun to break down due to a growing awareness that, in Pope Francis’ words, “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together,” that “the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.” (Laudato Si, 48)

800px-KatrinaNewOrleansFlooded_edit2One of the most obvious and dramatic examples of that fact in recent memory here in the United States was Hurricane Katrina.  It was ten years ago, right at the end of August, that Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and burst through the levees in New Orleans causing $108 billion dollars in damages and leading to the loss of almost two thousand lives. It was part of a season of tropical storms in 2005, the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history, and as such it came to occupy a special place in our collective consciousness as both a real event and a parable of human disregard for the earth and the poor. When the levees broke, it was the poorest areas of New Orleans that were hit worst and we likely all remember the scenes of houses and cars being carried away on the water, as people stranded on their rooftops reported seeing the bodies of those unable to flee floating by. Prisoners were abandoned in their cells as guards sought shelter on higher ground. Ecological crisis and human callousness came together in a horrifically perfect storm.

This tragic scene is playing itself out across the globe on a scale so large it can be hard to see.  Again, Pope Francis names the human contribution and the human cost to our disregard for the environment, citing the Bishops of Argentina.

“We note that often the businesses … do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural resources, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.” (51)

This is the distorted, dystopic view of humanity’s place within creation generated by a bad reading of the passage from Genesis we heard this morning: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28) One symptom of our sinful state is that we have for too long taken stories such as these as divine warrant to treat creation and the inhabitants of its seas, skies and land as objects that exist solely for our gratification.

That utilitarian reading of our sacred scriptures is short-sighted and ironic, since the larger story being told by the book of Genesis is the mythic imagining of how human life came to be so hard. The book of Genesis is a story of ruptures in the relationships between humanity and the rest of creation that begins with humanity fully at home in the garden and ends with the first family torn apart by jealousy, toiling on the land, and the first civilizations divided by different languages and at war with one another. If anything, the book of Genesis is a warning to humanity that when “dominion” becomes “domination,” violence and death will soon follow.

Pope Francis says it this way,

“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us … Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion ever the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (67)

But to say that we are not God still slightly misses the point, leaving the authority to dominate creation to a higher power; conceding that we are not the ultimate power, but that such a divine power does exist and with it a divine right.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians deconstructs that idea, presenting Jesus as the visible face of the invisible God who reveals God’s power and authority to be entirely different than we would ever imagine, encouraging us to understand our dominion in light of Jesus’ servitude:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)

The story from Mark’s gospel illustrates the same point with characters whose motivations are all too familiar.  The disciples, James and John, have come to Jesus literally asking to serve as his right and left hand men. In his teaching and his healing, they see a man of power and they want to secure positions near that power for the sake of their own glory, glory that would set them apart from the rest of the disciples. But it is that desire to set ourselves apart from one another that Jesus has come to heal, that definition of dominion that sets us over and above our kin in creation that he has come to correct.

Think of all the ways we work, each of us, to set ourselves apart from those around us. Imagine the inventories of items we surround ourselves with in order to feel accomplished, attractive, elite. Houses and cars, clothing and electronics, each at a cost to the earth and those whose labor makes them accessible to us. What price have we paid, in real terms, to put so much distance between ourselves and each other?

In Jesus, God shows us what divine power looks like. It looks like service to our neighbor. It looks like a self-emptying love. Are we able to imagine how such love, taking root in our hearts, might change the world? I mean, literally change the world. If love of neighbor were so strong that we might curb our cravings for excess such that manufacturing and agricultural practices might change, so that carbon production might diminish, so that extreme weather might abate, so that storms might surge with less power, so that levees might hold, so that lives might be spared. Can we imagine a love that powerful, or more appropriately, a power that loving?

We can imagine it because we’ve seen it, because it has claimed us in water and fed us at its table. We can imagine it, because it has taught us how to pray for daily bread, a serving size that meets our needs and allows our neighbors to be fed just as much. We have known love this great, so great that our most divisive cravings are satiated, that our hunger for power and privilege passes, and we are fed with the thing we most desperately need: communion, within and between ourselves and the rest of creation, of which we are and always have been an integral part.

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?

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?

Amen.

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