Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Creation

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Creation

Baptism of Breiyah Raye Bonander

Genesis 8:20-22, 9:12-17 (Matthew 28:1-10; Revelation 22:1-5)

“There’s a fella by the name of Noah, built an ark. Everyone knows he built an ark, say, what did Noah do, well, he built an ark. But very few people know about the conversation that went on between the Lord and Noah.” With these lines, Bill Cosby starts one of his funnier comedic routines, imagining Noah disbelieving God’s command to build an ark and put animals on it, even having him ask God if he is on Candid Camera. (If you’re too young to remember that show, think of it as the precursor of all these reality shows where people are playing pranks on one another.) We are fascinated with the story of Noah, and how he could have gotten all of those animals on the ark and kept them from destroying one another. We think it’s a children’s story, and decorate our Sunday school rooms with pictures of cute little animals marching merrily onto a cute little ark, with a cute little picture of Noah with a white beard herding the animals onto this boat. And then earlier this year we saw a very different image of Noah with Russell Crowe playing him in the movie by the same name. Whatever else you might think of this controversial movie, one thing it did was to remove the story of Noah from the pages of the children’s story Bibles and make it real. The flood was a catastrophe. The people and animals that didn’t make it onto the ark drowned, clawing onto the last bit of land in a desperate but unsuccessful bid for survival. Noah is afflicted with survivor’s guilt, wondering why God chose him and his family to live through this great disaster. Noah’s story is not such a happy one after all.

But yet . . . the story does end with hope. And we see that today in our two little snippets of the Noah story that make up our Old Testament lesson. God makes a covenant with Noah, promising that he will never again curse the ground, even though the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth, and that he will never again destroy every living creature as he has just done. And not only does he make the covenant with Noah and with Noah’s descendants, he makes this covenant with every single living creature on earth. For if we read the whole Noah story carefully, we find that God’s heart was grieved that all of creation, and especially humankind, had turned away from him. In a moment of sadness and frustration, God decides that he is going to wipe the slate clean and start all over again, preserving only Noah, his family, and a selection of animals from the earth. But as the story progresses, we find that God suffered pain because he had destroyed so much of his creation with the flood. God was sad about the whole incident, and so God had mercy upon Noah and all of humankind, and swore, “Never again,” setting his bow in the clouds as the sign that he would, indeed, remember his promise to us.

The thing to notice about this covenant with Noah is that it is all one-sided: God promises never to destroy the earth with a flood again. We human beings, however, made no such promise back to God. In the time of Noah and in the time of the Old Testament, no one would have ever thought that we human beings possessed the capability of destroying the entire earth. Yet, the prophet Isaiah warned the people that this was indeed a possibility: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.” In the past three weeks, we have examined instances of how human beings have violated boundaries God has set in place: wantonly cutting down forests without thought to how they are necessary for our survival, engaging in mountaintop removal mining for the sake of easy access to coal without thought of the effects this has on the environment and upon our health; and not always respecting boundaries of wilderness that should be left as wilderness. Today, because of human activity and because we have not respected boundaries that God has put in place, we see water levels of rivers and oceans rising because of how we human beings are causing the atmosphere to warm. Miami Beach, Florida, now floods even on sunny days due to rising levels of water. They are expecting to have to spend $400 million on an elaborate pumping system to cope with this. With warmer weather, snowpacks will melt sooner in the spring, causing rivers to flood more frequently, which will affect the people who live along the rivers and use the water from the rivers to farm. Everything in the environment is intimately related with and connected to everything else, and when one thing becomes out of balance, the whole system becomes out of balance. As the Apostle Paul writes, “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” as it “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”

Make no mistake: Just as God regretted how he had destroyed the creation in the flood, God is saddened at how we are destroying the creation today. But God does not leave us without hope. In our Gospel lesson today, we hear just how much God loves us and the whole creation. Of the four Gospels, only Matthew writes that not only was there an earthquake when Jesus died on the cross, there was also an earthquake on Easter morning when the angels rolled the stone away from the tomb. Not only did the earth shake at his death, the earth participated in Jesus’ resurrection by shaking itself. Here is the hope that we have: Jesus has risen from the dead, and one day, we too will rise. And when we rise, we will experience a new creation coming out of the old, with the river of the water of life and the tree of life, as described in our text from Revelation today. God loves the earth, and will remember us. Just as Noah stepped out of the ark to a new creation, so we too will rise one day to a new, pristine, life-giving creation, where God will dwell with us.

This is the promise that God gives us in Holy Baptism. This is the promise that God makes to Breiyah today as she is baptized. In just a little while, we will say what is commonly known as the “Flood Prayer” because of this line: “Through the waters of the flood you delivered Noah and his family.” Just as Noah and his family were saved from the waters of the flood by the ark, God saves us through our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our old, sinful self is drowned in these waters by God, so that we may one day rise to new life in him. Baptism is not something that we do, but it is a sign that God loves us and God comes to us and claims us as his own. I pray that Breiyah will remember that all of the days of her life: that she is God’s child, and no matter how bad things may seem, she and all of us are dearly loved by God.

As we conclude our observation of the Season of Creation, God’s love for us and for this world is the note that I want to end our meditations on. And to do that, I would like to borrow some words from Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic who lived in England in the late fourteenth century. She writes:

I saw that God is everything that is good and energizing.

God is our clothing that wraps, clasps, and encloses us so as to never leave us.

God showed me in my palm a little thing round as a ball about the size of a hazelnut.

I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself, “What is this thing?”

And I was answered, “It is everything that is created.”

I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing.

The answer came, “It endures and ever will endure, because God loves it.”

And so everything has being because of God’s love. Amen.

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Sermon for the Third Sunday in Creation

Mark 1:9-13

Nine years ago in July, my mother and I made the journey from St. Louis to Wasilla, Alaska, for my deaconess internship. We prepared for the journey: I had bought the latest edition of “The Milepost,” which detailed what could be found at each mile marker of the Alaska Highway. Since we are not campers, we had planned out how far we would go each day and made reservations at hotels along the way. We heeded the advice of people who had driven the Alaska Highway before and made sure we had plenty of music CDs to play in the car for when there would be no radio stations, which we understood would be the situation for much of the trip. We made sure we had a cooler for storing food on the days where people had told us we would most likely not find a place to eat for lunch. My mother and I knew—in our minds—that this would be a journey unlike any either of us had made before. But knowing in your head what something is going to be like is not the same as actually experiencing it. I don’t think either one of us had traveled for so long before without seeing any signs of civilization other than the road upon which we were driving. After a few days of driving, we got excited when we saw a bridge, because it meant that human beings had actually been there and built a way across. Believe me, there were times when we couldn’t see where the road was going and, panicked, thought it had ended and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. But then we crested the rise or turned the corner and were relieved to find the road continued on. Between our stops in small towns for the night, we often saw nothing but the road and many animals on either side. And the mountainous landscape was beautiful, but it was unsettling as well, for we knew that if something bad happened, we were solely dependent on whoever would drive next down that road, because cell phone reception was very spotty, too. For us, this was our first experience with true wilderness: beautiful and frightening at the same time.

Mark’s Gospel today says that as soon as Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him immediately into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan and surrounded by the wild beasts. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Jesus. In Hebrew, the word for wilderness is midbar, which also suggests a place without words. The wilderness was seen as a place where God was not; a place where God did not speak; a place where demons dwelled. It was also seen as a place of un-creation, a place of chaos where life could not flourish, and, as in our Gospel lesson today, a place of temptation and testing. I imagine Jesus going into this wilderness full of fear and trembling. But then again, there are experiences where God’s voice is indeed heard in the wordless wilderness: the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament, for example, went into the wilderness after Queen Jezebel threatened his life, and heard the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence. In this wordless wilderness, therefore, God is not completely absent. And many Christians throughout the years since Jesus lived on earth have also sought to hear the voice of God in the sound of silence which can only be found in the wordless wilderness where no other humans dwell.

Being humans, though, and being creatures of community, there is something about the wilderness that frightens us. And, being made in the image of God, we too have an urge to create, to fill the void of “un-creation” with the creature comforts of civilization. We don’t always see the value of having a space where there is a residual element of un-creation, of chaos; a place where we can get away from civilization, to test who we are as human beings, and to listen for God’s voice claiming us as his own and giving us some direction in the questions that we have. That’s probably one reason why, 50 years ago, the Wilderness Act was created and signed by then-President Lyndon Johnson. There were people in this country who recognized the value of having different places that were not civilized; places where we could go to get away from civilization and technology; places where we could remind ourselves of our relationship with nature and where we could listen for the sound of God’s voice speaking to us. They sought, with the Wilderness Act, to protect those spaces. And 50 years later, we are thankful that there are still people working to protect those spaces.

We are blessed with such wilderness areas here in Wyoming: some of them are fertile, green, and mountainous, while others are flat, desolate desert areas. I know many of you campers out there have experienced one or more of these wilderness areas over the summer as you have spent time outdoors with your families. But there is one more area in the state of Wyoming that groups like the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, and even the Wyoming Association of Churches are advocating for to receive wilderness designation and protection: the Red Desert. The Red Desert is a high elevation desert located in the southwest corner of Wyoming. Its geography includes the Continental Divide, where water plays and runs both east and west, as well as reddish sand dunes, the traditional idea of a desert. It is rich in history: there have been traces of ancient Native American cultures discovered there, and stagecoach trails such as the famous Oregon Trail once crossed part of this desert. Despite its desolate appearance, the Red Desert is home to much plant and animal life, including the largest herd of desert elk in the United States, and the largest herd of migratory pronghorn antelope. And, like many other areas in the country, this ecosystem is threatened by energy development and all of the roads, pipelines, trucks, noise, and other marks of civilization that go along with it. The Red Desert is, unfortunately, without much legal protection from such development, whether that be restrictions on what type of development can take place or restriction on all development altogether. And it seems like this is a place that needs protection from civilization.

Last week, we talked about how we as human beings are in relationship with the land. As I was learning more about the Red Desert this week, I found the following quote by a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe: “As Native Americans, we have a unique perspective toward this land that ecologists and conservationists do not have. Because we have lived here for so long, we have bonded with the land. In a way that is often overlooked by others, we have special ties to the plants and animals. All this is sacred to us, because we are spiritually connected to it. We cannot be spiritual beings, without preserving the very environment that made us spiritual in the first place.” The man who said this, Yufna R. (Mark) Soldier Wolf Elder, goes on to say that those companies who are extracting oil and other minerals from the ground are not only continuing to destroy their way of life, they are also causing sickness in the tribe from polluted water, air, and soil. If we think that the process our ancestors began of marginalizing the Native American people is over and is now a part of history that we would rather forget, we need to take another look, because it is still happening in how we are treating this particular part of our environment.

When Jesus came out of the wilderness, I imagine that he came out with a sense of accomplishment. I imagine that Jesus came out of the wilderness a bit thinner, a bit hungrier, and a bit thirstier, but confident that God’s word to him at his baptism, that he was God’s Son and that God was well pleased with him, was indeed a true word. I imagine that he came out of the wilderness knowing that if, with God’s help, he could survive that, then with God’s help, he could go forward with the task that God had set before him: teaching the people and making disciples, suffering misunderstanding and scorn, and finally, suffering and dying on the cross for our sins. It is not that Jesus conquered the wilderness or that he waved his hand and transformed the wilderness into a beautiful garden. No, Jesus came out of this piece of “un-creation” as a person transformed by the wilderness and newly empowered for his mission here on earth.

Many times new Christians believe that, once they are baptized and claimed as God’s children, everything in their life will be wonderful. But that is not the case. As Christians, we are often thrust into a wilderness where we experience temptations and we wonder if God is really there, still present with us. But we can learn from the experiences of Jesus and many others that God will still speak in the sound of sheer silence. We can learn from the experiences of Native Americans who have that deep, spiritual relationship with the land and learn how to reclaim our spiritual relationship with the land as well. And, like Jesus, with God’s help, we can come out from the wilderness with a renewed sense of who we are—God’s children—and with a renewed sense of the task which God has given us during our time on earth.

It’s not too late to undo the damage we have done. It’s not too late to listen to those who love the wilderness and who want to protect places like the Red Desert. We have hope that one day in the future, Jesus will come again, bringing justice and restoring all things. That hope speaks to us here in the present, compelling us to work for what restoration we can now while waiting for the greater fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return to this Earth. May God give us the wisdom to know where the boundaries are and to show us the best way to steward the gifts of this land that he has entrusted us with. Amen.

Sermon for Second Sunday in Creation

Genesis 3:14-19, 4:8-16

My ancestors on my mother’s side of the family arrived in America from Germany in 1836, drawn by the promise of inexpensive farmland in the state of Indiana. My grandparents still lived in Indiana as I was growing up, and many summers, we took long car trips out there to see them. I remember that once we hit Columbus, Ohio, the landscape went from rolling, forested hills to completely flat fields of corn. And more corn, and more corn, and more corn, as far as the eye could see, until we hit the city of Fort Wayne. These car trips are the stuff of legend in our family. In 1992, we took our first family trip to Germany, and at one point we returned to the village where my mother’s family had come from. I remember that we drove up over a ridge and looked into the valley spreading out before us, to see another flat landscape filled with fields of corn and other crops. And I said to my mother, “Well, at least we know why your family settled in Indiana now. It looks just like their home here in Germany.”

Last week, when we talked about forests and trees, we talked about how God made us to be creatures of relationship—we are even in relationship with the trees, as they give us the oxygen we need to survive and we give them the carbon dioxide they need to survive. Today I would like to put before you this idea: we are also in relationship with the land, and I believe that each person has a particular type of land or landscape that God has called him or her to be in relationship with. I have several stories and experiences that seem to back this idea up. Here is one: This week my parents and I visited the Heart Mountain Relocation Center Museum, and learned how the U.S. government rounded up the Japanese people on the West Coast and brought them here to Wyoming. The reaction of most of the internees was one of shock and despair when they saw this area for the first time, because to them it looked absolutely desolate. I contrast that to my reaction when I came out here to interview, and how stunningly beautiful I thought it was, even though there was a lot of haze covering the area from the summer forest fires. I know that, throughout my life and through all of the many places I have lived, I have always felt most comfortable in areas where mountains are close by. So I believe that God has called me to be in relationship with a mountainous landscape. And from stories I have heard from those of you who have traveled back East, I know that many of you are relieved to come back to an area of the country that is not so heavily forested and where you can see for miles and miles. So, perhaps God has called you to be in relationship with this landscape, too.

We saw in last week’s reading from Genesis how God commanded Adam to till and keep the earth, or, in the literal Hebrew translation, “to serve the earth”. This week, in the story before these few verses we have read today, Adam and Eve have reached forth their hands and eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, exhibiting a lack of trust that God knows what is best for them, and knowing things now that God had never intended for them to know. As part of their punishment, God curses the ground, so that it will be difficult for Adam and Eve to till and keep it, to serve it. But, at the same time, God reminds them that, even though the relationship between them and the ground is now dysfunctional, they do still have that relationship: they are made from the soil of the earth, and when they die, they will return to and become one with that soil once again.

Noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman, in writing about our text from Genesis today, says that one of the purposes of this passage of Scripture is to reflect on “how to live with the creation in God’s world on God’s terms. The narrative appears to be a reflection on what knowledge does to human community.” We are in a relationship with the land. We have the knowledge of what we can do to the land, but just because we can do something to the land does not mean we should do it. Because dysfunction and disorder have entered into that relationship, our desire for what we want to have often clouds our judgment of whether or not we actually need the things we want to have. And so, as I said last week, we human beings, who are a part of creation, often rush to take the place of God and judge some parts of creation bad and disposable in order to get what we want.

This week, I want to focus on something that is going on in the Appalachian Mountains on the East Coast of this country: mountaintop removal mining. In traditional mining, an underground shaft is dug into the side of the mountain so that people can mine the coal while leaving most of the ecosystem on top of the mountain undisturbed. Yes, this traditional mining has its dangers, as we periodically hear about miners who are trapped in the shafts and die as they are overcome by methane gas. So at first glance, mountaintop removal might seem to be a safer alternative. In this method, the entire top of the mountain is removed so that it is easier to get at the seams of coal in the ground and remove them by the truckload. It begins by deforesting the entire mountaintop and either selling off the lumber or burning it. Once this is done, miners use explosives to remove what they call the “overburden,” or the land that is covering the seams of coal. This “overburden” is then deposited into valleys, often filling up streams in those valleys, thus contaminating the water that people need to drink. The coal is then removed. Now, technically, after the coal mining has been finished, the mining companies are supposed to reclaim the land by replacing it and reseeding it with grass. But, very often they get waivers or find loopholes in the regulations so that they do not have to do this, thus leaving hideous scars on the face of the earth where once deeply forested mountains existed. Even if they do reseed the land, the ecosystem has been permanently disrupted and will not return to the way it once was for many years, if ever.

There are so many things wrong with this mining procedure, it is hard to know where to begin. There is the disruption of the ecosystem: trees are cut down, producing more carbon dioxide that warms our atmosphere; animals and other plant life that lived in the shadow of those trees are evicted from their homes and may die. Drinking water is contaminated. Blasting at these sites expels dust into the air; this dust contains sulfur compounds which corrode structures and create health hazards for people living nearby. There are greater levels of hospitalization of adults for chronic pulmonary disorders and high blood pressure. Rates of lung cancer and chronic heart and kidney disease are elevated. There is a higher rate of birth defects. And the list goes on and on. And yet, even though greater awareness of the dangers of mountaintop removal mining has risen, and more people are speaking out against it, it is still continuing to happen. And somehow this is supposed to be “safer” than the traditional way of mining. This is definitely a dysfunctional relationship with the land. Did you notice that the technical term for the land that is removed is “overburden”? We have judged that land to be bad and to be an obstacle to what we want, so we rename it as a burden. We have crossed boundaries that should not be crossed, and we will pay a price.

So, how do we take the “dys” out of dysfunctional? How can we turn from this wanton destruction of land, in the Appalachians and elsewhere, and find a better way to live in relationship with the land? Some theologians today suggest a theology of “re-place-ment”. Too often, land is considered incidental—one piece of property is much like another, and we don’t have that relationship with the land or any feeling for it. I, for example, have moved from place to place for most of my life, and I do not know what it feels like to be rooted in one place for a long time. I’m hoping that I can begin to understand what that feels like, and to continue developing a love for this place that I am in, Powell, Wyoming, located in the Big Horn Basin. It is said that only love for a specific land can motivate us to struggle on its behalf. Do you love the land on which you are located? Do you know its ins and outs, what makes it sick and what makes it well? Do you love the plants that grow on it? If you farm, how do you care for your land? Do you keep up with new ways of farming that not only produce the crops you need, but also keep the land healthy and continuously fertile for the future?

In places you have visited, for example, West Virginia or any part of the Appalachian Mountain range, or the Tetons here in Wyoming, where you have experienced deep love for the beauty of the place, do you keep up on what’s happening in that area? Do you advocate for good and gentle use of that land? Do you listen to the struggles and the feelings of the people who live permanently on those lands, and work with them to make their relationship with the land better? Most importantly, do we pray for God to give us the wisdom to use the land that he has given us in the best way possible?

All of this may seem like a tall order. I will tell you that, when I was taking a class at the seminary called “Ecology and Stewardship,” I came out after each class feeling depressed and hopeless, that the earth was so far gone that there was little we could do to fix the problems that we had caused. But God does not leave us without hope, and I think that hope comes today in our reading from Romans. The Apostle Paul writes, “For, if the many died through the one man’s trespass (that is, Adam), much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.” Through Jesus, Paul says, we have hope that the curse that Adam and Eve received from God and that we inherited will be reversed. And that includes the curse on the land. So let us go forth with that renewed hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us trust in God and listen for God’s voice as we contemplate how best to use the gift of the land that he has given us. Let us not do something simply because we can, but let us respect the boundaries which God has given us. And let us look to the future with hope in Jesus’ return, and that when he returns, all things will be set right once more—including the land. Amen.

Sermon for First Sunday in Creation

Genesis 2:4b-22

When I was a little girl, we lived for about 4 years in a town in New Hampshire called Keene. It’s a town of about 25,000 people, and it’s a town where nothing really ever changes. I remember returning there to visit after the events of September 11, and feeling comforted that this town remained almost exactly as I had remembered it, even as the outside world was in uproar. In this town is a public park which has a small pond which is surrounded by a forest. And in the forest there are trails where you can walk around the pond and then deeper into the forest. In my mind, I can still smell the scent of the leaves, and feel the quietness of the place as I walk further away from the noise of children playing on the playground. I used to imagine that the trails through the forest would lead me to a different world, or perhaps a portal that would take me to a different period of time. There was something special and magical about that forest, as well as something peaceful. When my family moved back to Keene when I was a student in college, I would return to those forest trails when I needed to gain some quiet and to think about things.

Trees are some of the first things that God created, according to today’s account in Genesis. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Before animals were created, trees were there. God made human beings to be creatures who need relationships, even relationships with trees. Science tells us that the trees take in the carbon dioxide we breathe out, and in return, the trees produce oxygen that we need to take in. Since we know that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, we know that having more trees is good, since they will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and thus keep the earth from becoming too warm. Psychologically, we need trees as well. Just think: each year, in the depths of winter, we bring in a pine tree from outside or put up a replica of a pine tree and decorate it with ornaments. Did you ever think about why we do that, aside from the fact that it’s a tradition to do at Christmas time? I believe that it feeds a need we have to continue to see something growing even when snow is blowing deep and nothing much seems to be alive.

Today marks the first of four Sundays where we as a congregation will focus on God the Creator and God’s creation, the gifts that God gives us through creation and the challenge that God gives us to care for the creation. The first commission that God gives human beings when he puts Adam in the garden is to till and keep the earth. The Hebrew word translated “till” here can also mean “to serve”. So, what would it look like for human beings to “serve” the earth as we keep it? Let’s look at this in relationship to the two trees specifically mentioned in this chapter, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Noted theologian Brian McLaren suggests that each of these trees represents different things. The Tree of Life, he says, suggests, “health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigor, and all we mean by aliveness.” In contrast, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation—all of which God considers good—as evil.” The danger, McLaren says, is that, while “God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative,” our judging is “frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory and devaluing.” McLaren asks what gives us the right, as part of creation itself, to judge what parts of creation are good and worthy of preservation, and what parts are bad and worthy of destruction? Even though I and many other people question God’s creation of the mosquito, for example, and would be very happy to wipe it off of the face of the earth, the mosquito does serve a purpose in God’s good creation: it serves as food for birds and for reptiles, for example. If we were to take away the mosquito, other species that we judge to be good might go extinct.

So, the questions we ask are: How do we choose the Tree of Life, choose health, strength, and aliveness, rather than choose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, judging parts of creation to be good and parts to be evil, despite the fact that we ourselves are a part of creation? How do we properly till and keep the earth, especially as regards forests and trees, in an age where our need for tree products is growing, but also in an age that is seeing an increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants that having more fully-grown, mature trees would help to alleviate?

Let’s first start in our own yards. I don’t know about you, but most of the time I generally don’t notice the trees until they either cause a problem or there is some change about them. Since I rent an apartment, it is the landlord’s responsibility to care for the trees, so I don’t have too much say over what happens with them, unless they cause some kind of problem for me. But for those of you who own your homes, what are the trees in your yard? Do you notice some more than others? How do you care for them? If you have to remove a tree because it is growing in the wrong place and getting in to your plumbing, do you plant a new one to replace it? (By the way, I’m very happy that the trees we removed on the side of the church building were replaced with others.) If you don’t plant a new tree in your yard to replace the one you removed, or are not able to plant a new tree in your yard, do you make the effort to plant a tree somewhere else?

Let’s next move out from our own yards to the community of Powell. Powell has lots of trees, and for the most part, they seem to be well taken care of. Just recently downtown, though, in front of the post office, I saw a sign attached to a tree saying, “Emerald Ash Borer—don’t move firewood.” The emerald ash borer is a green beetle native to Asia that has made its way to our shores. According to Thursday’s Powell Tribune, the emerald ash borer has already been discovered in Colorado and may have already been sighted in Cody. These beetles kill ash trees, and, if an infestation is found, the ash trees need to either be treated or be removed. The City of Powell owns 500 ash trees, and the newspaper article gives an estimate of $300,000 either to treat the ash trees or remove them. If the city of Powell decides to remove the ash trees, one thing that we can do is to advocate for the replacement of those trees with other trees that are not susceptible to the emerald ash borer or other insects. If trees need to be removed—and yes, sometimes they do—then they should always be replaced. The trees here in Powell are not only to be valued because they are beautiful, but also because they are life-giving.

Finally, from our own backyards and the city of Powell, we need to look and see how trees and forests around the world are being treated, and how we can best advocate for people to care for them. All around the world, forests are being harvested for various reasons: burning for fuel, use of wood in furniture, use of the trees for paper products, etc. This is the point where you might expect me to say, “Save the rain forests!” I’m not going to do that, although that is a very good thing to work towards and advocate for. What I’m going to talk about is something a little closer to home, across the Canadian border: Save the boreal forest! The boreal forest is a large swath of forest in Canada that is being clear cut so that oil companies can access tar sands and extract oil from them. The boreal forest supports a large variety of animal life, and it is a source of clean water for many people of Canada. It is home to many of the people of the First Nations, who we would call Native Americans, and these have been just as marginalized and ill-treated throughout history as our tribes have been. The First Nations depend on the boreal forest for their lives and their livelihoods. But, of greatest importance in preserving this forest is this: it is a vast storehouse of carbon dioxide. Cutting down these trees would release about 47 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air. And the cutting has already begun.

We human beings have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We have judged that our dependence on oil is more important than preserving the vast forests of the earth, and so we are continuing to destroy those forests to feed our addiction to oil. What will it take for us to turn and eat from the Tree of Life instead? I realize that oil is an important industry here in Wyoming, and that it provides a livelihood for many people, both here in the congregation and around us. But what happens when all of our oil is gone and the planet is destroyed? Our judgment that one part of creation is good and the other part is disposable will have not only destroyed the environment, but it will have destroyed us and our children as well. Can we not begin to advocate for not just flirting with renewable energy sources, like sun and wind, but also to seriously research how we can transfer our dependence on oil into a dependence on sun and wind? Can we not begin to transform jobs for people who make their livelihood from oil into jobs for them in a renewable resource industry?

A derogatory word for environmentalist is “tree-hugger”. I propose that we, as stewards of God’s good creation, turn that word from a derogatory usage to one that we proudly own. After all, our Genesis reading today speaks of trees as one of the first things that God created and commanded us to care for. Without the trees, we and most other life on this earth could not exist. So, why wouldn’t we want to “hug” the trees and care for them as the precious resources they are instead of as something we can dispose of at will? Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “If I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” Let us go, then, to plant trees, to care for them, to walk and to rest in their shade, to wonder at their awesomeness, beauty and mystery, and most of all, to thank God for providing them for us. Let us choose the Tree of Life. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 12A

Matthew 16:21-28 

 

Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last week’s Gospel.  Last week, we heard Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and we ourselves reflected on our images of Jesus and who we think Jesus is.  Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, in last week’s Gospel lesson, and Jesus blessed him for this confession and told him that “on this rock,” he would build his church.  Peter must have been flying high on that kind of praise.  But this week, we see a startling reversal, as Jesus begins to show his disciples what being the Messiah means.  And not only will Jesus undergo great suffering and be killed (the disciples seem either to have not heard or not understood the “be raised” part) he calls on all who wish to be his followers to take up their cross and follow him.  This is serious stuff.  When we looked at the different images of Jesus last week, when I put this one up on the screen one person said that it made him uncomfortable, because that’s what Jesus is calling us to do. 

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Being a Christian is not just about dressing nicely and coming to worship on Sunday mornings.  It is about getting down and dirty, expecting suffering in life, and denying one’s own desires in order to follow what God wants of us. 

Before we get into what taking up your cross and following Jesus means, I want to first be clear on what it does not mean.  We have this phrase in English that says, “That must be your cross to bear.”  Sometimes this phrase is used rightly, but more often than not, it is used wrongly.  Most importantly:  women, if you are in any kind of abusive situation with your husband or significant other, that is not your cross to bear.  Abuse is not the kind of suffering that Jesus is talking about, and if you are in that kind of situation, you have a right to get out.  And there are many resources available to help you with that, including Crisis Intervention Services here in Powell.  So please, never, ever think that being in an abusive situation is simply “your cross to bear.”  On the opposite end of the spectrum from abuse, we also use the phrase “our cross to bear” in a flippant manner, as if putting up with an annoying co-worker is “our cross to bear.”  Taking up our cross and following Jesus is a lot more serious than that.  So, somewhere between abuse on the one hand and everyday annoyances on the other lies the meaning of taking up our cross and following Jesus, and we’re going to take a look at this today. 

So first, what does it mean to deny ourselves?  During Lent, many of us have a tendency to deny ourselves simple pleasures like chocolate or other sweet things.  But here in the context of this gospel reading, Jesus is talking about a different kind of self-denial.  Peter has just rebuked Jesus for talking about suffering and dying, because this does not fit what Peter’s idea of the Messiah is.  The Messiah was supposed to be a mighty leader who would kick the Romans out and restore rule of the kingdom to the Jewish people, and that kingdom would be even better than that of the ideal king, King David.  Jesus, though, is teaching that the Messiah is not going to be like that.  He calls Peter Satan because, through Peter’s words denying what Jesus knew he must do, Jesus is hearing the temptation of Satan to actually be the kind of Messiah that Peter and the rest of the disciples expect.  And Jesus knows that he must resist that temptation. 

We too have our own ideas of how God should be working in the world.  When a 4-year-old has to undergo chemo treatments and blood transfusions because of cancer, we think God should come down, click his fingers, and make the cancer disappear instantly.  When fighting erupts anywhere:  Palestine and Israel; Russia and Ukraine; ISIS in Iraq and Syria; we think God should speak the word, “STOP!” in a loud voice and that everyone should cease what they’re doing and live in peace with one another.  When we see pain and suffering anywhere, we think that if God would just come down to earth and cause everything to miraculously cease, then we could really get behind that God and believe in him.  But, that’s not the way God works.  And to deny ourselves means that, in the words of Professor Jeff Gibbs at Concordia Seminary, “we will not assume or believe that God’s way of working in the world will conform to our expectations or definitions of success or efficiency.”  In other words, we give up the illusion of control and we submit to God’s ways, which are very different than the ways we would run things if we did indeed have control. 

Related to this, Dr. Gibbs writes, is when a disciple of Christ “desires to exercise power over others, especially over fellow disciples, so that he (or she) can accomplish what he (or she) believes should be done.”  This is the “If I were in charge, I would do everything right and we’d be getting along great,” syndrome.  We’re all guilty of this.  Sometimes we pastors think we have this power over our congregations, and one of my professors at Gettysburg warned us that any time we think that, we are supposed to shoot ourselves in the foot.  The Christian life is not about each one of us as individuals, it is about how we live together in community.  And when we live together in a Christian community, we are told repeatedly in the Scriptures that we are not to lord it over others, but to think of others more highly than we think of ourselves, and to submit to one another in Christian love.  This giving up of our illusions of control and submission to one another in love is what denying ourselves is all about:  It is denying our desires for power and for control, giving those up, and actively seeking the good of the other person. 

So, now that we have an idea of what self-denial is all about, what does it mean to take up the cross?  First, when Jesus originally said these words, there is a strong probability that he was being literal.  He knew that he would be crucified, and he knew that several of his disciples would be killed for following him, some of them also by crucifixion.  In early Christianity believers were not supposed to seek out martyrdom, but, if you were killed because of your belief in Christ, it was considered an honor and a blessing given to you by God.  As an example, an early account of two female martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas, recounts that while the two of them were in prison awaiting execution, Felicitas was worried that she might not be able to be martyred with Perpetua because she was pregnant, and the Romans did not execute pregnant women.  It turns out that Felicitas did have her baby, and she and Perpetua were martyred together.  But, can you imagine the idea of wanting to be martyred, and then wanting to be martyred with a friend of yours? 

Today this concept of martyrdom is foreign to us here in the United States, although it still happens elsewhere around the world.  We know in theory that we might have to die for our faith, and we hope that we would be able to stand up to the test.  But in reality, the deaths we die will most likely not be deaths of martyrdom.  So, how do we take up our cross and follow Jesus?  If we have started with denial of self and the desires of self, thinking others better than ourselves and submitting to one another in Christian love, then that is a start of taking up our cross.  Denying self and the sinful desires of the self is never easy, and we will never get it perfectly right, so as disciples of Jesus, we should keep working at this day by day.  Martin Luther himself wrote that this is the life of a baptized Christian.  In his Small Catechism, he wrote that Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new person should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”  Sinfulness is something that happens daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute, and that self-denial is a daily struggle that we as Christians must engage in.  This is part of what it means for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. 

And that self-denial can lead to suffering, or, at the very least, looking very different from those around us.  I would like to lift up a recent example of something that’s been going on:  the ice bucket challenge.  For those of you who don’t know what this is, people have been challenging one another to donate money to help fund research for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  In order to make this challenge fun, people are supposed to continue challenging one another by dumping a bucket of ice water on themselves, and posting a video of this online, with the names of people they want to see do the same thing.  Now, on the one hand, this has raised a lot of money for ALS research, which is great since this is a disease that generally gets left behind in charitable donations.  But on the other hand, this really is not self-denial, but is instead another gimmick that we here in America do.  We think that it’s okay to just waste water and look ridiculous on the internet so we can get people to look at us and laugh at us, when around the world, and even here in the U.S., for example, California, there are people who are suffering drought and simply cannot take a bucket of ice water and dump it on themselves.  What if everyone who dumped water on themselves had instead not only donated to organizations that fund ALS research, but also donated money to organizations that provide clean water for places that do not have it?  Wouldn’t that instead be denial of our sinful desire to have other people admire us for the good we’re doing?  Wouldn’t this be thinking of others as better than ourselves?  And wouldn’t that be a way in which we can heed Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him? 

I heard a sermon on this idea of taking up your cross and following Jesus when I was in seminary.  And what annoyed me about the sermon that I heard is that the preacher told us what taking up your cross was not about, but she never told us what it was about, and I was left to wonder.  Now that I’ve had a chance to look at this passage, I think I can give you some guidelines:  it is not about suffering abuse, it is not about an annoying person in your life; it is about self-denial and an expectation of suffering in this world.  God is not going to come down and snap his fingers and make our lives just wonderful simply because we believe in Jesus as the Messiah.  No, it is because we believe in Jesus as the Messiah that we should live lives of self-denial and expect suffering to happen, just like what happened to him when he was here on earth.  But what I can’t tell you is the specifics of what that self-denial and suffering is going to look like in our lives.  What I can promise you is that God will be there for you throughout any suffering you may encounter, and the Christian community will be there for you as well, all of us loving and supporting you.  Amen.