Sermon for Creation 3B

Mark 15:33-39

In the movie “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” there is a scene where Indiana Jones and his companions are digging in the spot where they have calculated the Ark of the Covenant to be buried. And as they are digging, you can see the sky in the background getting dark, with lightning flashing and the sound of thunder booming. Whenever we watched this movie together as a family, and this scene would come on, my mother would always say, “God is not a happy camper.” From ancient times, human beings would look to signs in the sky to discern whether or not God was pleased with them, and things like comets appearing or solar eclipses have always been taken for omens in the history of human beings. It’s only natural, after all. We human beings are incapable of using our bodies to fly, and so the skies have been assumed to be where God lives, while humans are confined to the earth. When we see something in the sky that we cannot understand, we explain it by saying it is God’s doing, and we often give meaning to whatever the sign is by saying that God is pleased or displeased with us.
Today’s Gospel lesson is no exception. There are many places in the Bible where signs in the sky are explained as God’s pleasure or displeasure—for example, the rainbow in Genesis as a sign of God’s covenant that God will never again destroy the world by a flood. And today, in this excerpt from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, we see the sky turn dark from noon until three in the afternoon. Modern scientists have tried to explain this phenomenon. Some have suggested that it was a solar eclipse, and indeed in the Gospel of Luke, the Greek wording makes it sound like a solar eclipse is a distinct possibility. However, scientists will also tell you that solar eclipses do not last for three hours; solar eclipses last, on average, about 7 ½ minutes. If this darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion was not an eclipse, then, what was it? It may have been dark clouds, or it may have been a unique phenomenon that scientists will never be able to explain. But, what the Gospel writers, especially Mark, intended by describing the darkness that overcame the sky when Jesus was on the cross, was not to describe a scientific phenomenon. Instead, the darkness of the skies can be interpreted in two ways: First, that God was angry at the rejection of Jesus by humanity and the darkness of the skies showed his anger, and second, that the skies, representing all of creation, mourned at the death of their creator.
I’m going to go with the second interpretation today, and not simply because we are in the Season of Creation. Rather, it’s because I think we can run into all sorts of problems if we say that the skies becoming dark showed God’s anger and judgment, even if that interpretation is in line with some imagery in the prophetic books of the Bible describing God coming down from heaven to judge the earth. If we were to interpret the darkness as God’s anger, then that would give us permission to interpret almost any kind of weather phenomenon as God becoming angry with humanity, and then to name what it is God is angry about. We have seen this with certain evangelical preachers naming Hurricane Katrina as punishment upon New Orleans for loose morality, as just one of many examples. And when we become so certain that we know why God allows these things to happen, then we claim that we know the mind of God and we put ourselves on the same level as God, so that we can decree what we think is right and what we think is wrong, with God always on our side. Our Thursday morning Bible class should recognize this as what’s called a theology of glory. Therefore, I’m not going to go down that road of interpretation.
Instead, let us see today the skies becoming dark when Jesus was crucified as a sign that the creation is mourning at the death of Jesus. In my sermon two Sundays ago, I put forward the idea that the earth is not a dead piece of rock, but is rather alive—the Earth worked in partnership with God at the creation. God commanded, yes, but it was the Earth who brought forth living plants and living animals at God’s command. The Earth itself is alive in a way that we cannot completely understand. The Earth recognized, somehow, that in Jesus was the God who commanded it to bring forth life, and that this life-giver was now being put to death by the very creatures that God had created in his image. And so, the skies became black with mourning. Since, too, God’s realm was supposed to be in the skies, we can also say that God was weeping at Jesus’ death. And before anyone says to me that this interpretation is a little strange, there is another sign of God’s mourning Jesus’ death in this Scripture. “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” Yes, the traditional interpretation is that there is now no barrier between God and humans; that Jesus’ death has stripped away the barrier that was symbolized by the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. And that’s a good interpretation. But let’s also think about this: one sign of grief in Biblical times was for people to tear their clothes. Think of the curtain in the temple, which is God’s house, as part of God’s clothing, and God is tearing his clothes in grief at the rejection and death of his Son by those he created to bear his image. Yes, God and the whole creation mourn the death of Jesus, God’s Son.
So then, if the sky can mourn at the death of Jesus by the hands of humanity, can it also mourn at what humanity is doing to it and to the rest of creation? This summer, forest fires throughout the Western states were awful. The smoke obscured our beautiful scenery, including the sky, and the air quality was so bad in places that people had to stay indoors. And there was no rain. The drought in California, which has gone on for four years, has people praying for rain with little relief in sight. The snowpack in the mountains, which California has depended on to help supplement its water needs, has dwindled due to the lack of snow and rain, and warmer-than-normal temperatures. The dry sky cries out because it cannot help to give life to the creation, as God designed it to do. And we humans are, in part, responsible for the sky no longer being able to help us as it once did. The sky cries out in protest against what we have done, and God hears those cries.
But God does not leave us without hope. In the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, the darkness lasts only until the moment of Jesus’ death. And out of the darkness of death, God creates a new thing. In Jesus’ death is the promise of new life, of resurrection out of death, echoing the promise of the life that God created out of the chaos at the beginning of the Earth. Just as God brought light out of darkness when he created the world, God brings light and new life from Jesus’ death on the cross. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we will have new life with God through him.
If, then, God is ushering in a new age and a new creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we, too, are part of that new creation. Now, to be sure, that new age is not completely fulfilled yet, and will not be completely fulfilled until Jesus returns to this Earth. Yet the apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” I would like to suggest that part of what Paul is saying here is that, since there is a new creation beginning in us already, we ought to try to live as if that new creation has already been fulfilled. And that means not only caring for one another, but caring for the creation, including taking care of the sky.
In speaking of the care of our common home, Pope Francis writes in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating.” Those, of course, are not the only pollutants out there. I remember that, after spending 2 ½ years living in Taiwan, when I came home to Virginia (where my parents were living at the time), I was able to take a deep breath of clean air for the first time in those 2 ½ years. I still wonder sometimes if my time over there will one day catch up with me and result in breathing problems. So let’s think about this: even as we give to worthy organizations such as ELCA World Hunger, and the ELCA Malaria Campaign–which, by the way, reached its $15 million fundraising goal this week–, are we thinking of how we can help people in nations that don’t have as high of an air quality as we do to breathe in clean air? For air is just as necessary for people to live abundantly as is food and a lack of disease. What can we be doing to help promote use of cleaner energy that would help some of our brothers and sisters across the globe who are not as well-off as we are? We are, after all, connected: what we put into the air here in the United States will flow to many other places in the world.
Pope Francis writes that “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’. . . . We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth . . . our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” Just as creation mourned at the death of Jesus, so creation is mourning and is groaning at what we are doing to her, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. But just as Jesus’ death on the cross was not the last word, our damaged and groaning creation is also not the last word. God has given us hope through the death of Jesus: we are a new creation, and even though that new creation has not yet come to fulfillment, we have the opportunity every day to, as Luther said, drown the old Adam in Jesus’ death and rise a new creature, forgiven and able to live as though that new creation were already fulfilled. And part of that rising from the waters of baptism includes caring for the creation, and, in so doing, caring for those around us. Let’s not be afraid to do this, but let us go forth, helping all people to breathe fresh air, and working to help those around us see the beautiful skies shining down upon us. Amen.

skies shining down upon us. Amen.skies shining down upon us. Amen.last word. God has given us hope through the death of Jesus: we are a new creation, and even though that new creation has not yet come to fulfillment, we have the opportunity every day to, as Luther said, drown the old Adam in Jesus’ death and rise a new creature, forgiven and able to live as though that new creation were already fulfilled. And part of that rising from the waters of baptism includes caring for the creation, and, in so doing, caring for those around us. Let’s not be afraid to do this, but let us go forth, helping all people to breathe fresh air, and working to help those around us see the beautiful skies shining down upon us. Amen.

Sermon for Season of Creation 2B

Humanity Sunday

Genesis 1:26-28, Philippians 2:1-8, & Mark 10:32-45

“Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity.” So Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Laudato Si’, and for an encyclical that was supposed to be all about climate change, this is one of the things that surprised me as I read this. I think that one of the things that makes environmentalism controversial is that, since human beings are responsible for much of the damage that’s been done to the Earth, environmentalists often treat humanity as a plague, and disconnect humanity from an ideal of an unspoiled earth. And that’s what’s different about Pope Francis. While he does not let us off the hook, and in fact goes into great detail about all of the damage we have caused, he views humanity as much a part of God’s creation as is the grizzly bear or the wolf, and as greatly to be valued.

This valuing of humanity as something special comes from our Genesis text today, where it says that God created humankind in his image. Jewish and Christian scholars over many centuries have debated what, exactly, this Genesis text means when it says that we are created in the image of God, and they have come up with many different answers. But let’s consider this: this story of creation, while it was most likely told orally for generations beforehand, was probably not written down until the time the Israelites were in exile in the country of Babylon. So here they were, in a foreign country, surrounded by people who worshiped many gods and who made statues of these gods, while the Israelites worshiped one God and had a prohibition against making images of that God. Instead of having dead statues to represent God, as the Babylonians around them had, the Israelites affirmed that living and breathing human beings, each one of us, in our physical selves as we move around, are living, breathing expressions of the living God. Think of that for a moment and let that sink in: each one of us, somehow, in some way, contains the image of God within us. God presents his face to the world in each person who lives on this Earth. How amazing and awe-inspiring is that!

Yet, even though we do affirm that each one of us carries the image of God within us, we still have a hard time identifying what that means. And so, to help us with that, we move to our lesson from Philippians. Philippians 2:8 speaks of Jesus being “in the form of God,” or, in other words, Jesus is the very image of God. Whereas each one of us contains the image of God within us, Jesus is the image of God, both fully God and fully human. And so we look to Jesus to see what God looks like, and how God behaves. According to what Paul writes to the Philippians, even though Jesus is in the form of God, he does not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, or reached for. This is in contrast to Eve and Adam, who, when tempted with the idea of being like God, reached for and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead of doing something like that, Jesus emptied himself, took the form of a slave, and humbled himself. He became obedient to God, as we humans should be, and submitted to death on a cross for us. We can never fully understand what that is like. Jesus is God—the God who created the heavens and the earth, who said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, who has immense power—and yet, he let go of all of that and became a slave, submitting to death for the creation that he made, that all might be saved. It’s truly mind-boggling.

This is the image of God that we human beings are supposed to emulate. This image of Jesus as the slave of all, who would willingly submit himself to death, made no sense to his disciples. Even though Jesus, up until this point in the Gospel of Mark, has already talked about what is going to happen to him, the disciples just don’t get it. James and John still think that Jesus is going to march into Jerusalem victorious and kick the Romans out. The other ten disciples think the same thing—that’s why they get angry at James and John. It’s not because they understood what Jesus had been trying to say, and James and John didn’t. No, the ten get angry at them because they wish they’d thought of asking Jesus the favor of sitting next to him first. After all, they’re part of the inner circle, too—shouldn’t they get the same amount of honor and glory that James and John are going to get?

Well, this is a case of “Be careful what you wish for—because you might get it.” James and John will indeed share in the cup that Jesus drinks and will indeed be baptized with the baptism that Jesus is baptized with. But what that means is that they will not receive glory by the world’s standards, but will instead experience the same sufferings that Jesus is going to suffer. James will be killed by King Herod in one of his waves of persecutions of Christians, according to the book of Acts. Tradition has it that John is the one who was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. Death and exile were certainly not what James and John had been hoping for when they put that request to Jesus. But, by becoming servants of all and submitting themselves to death as Jesus had, James and John became great in the church, some of those first disciples whose names are familiar to us over 2000 years later.

So, what does all of this mean as we consider who we are both in relation to God and in relation to the creation around us? Well, let’s go back to our text from Genesis today. God’s command to humankind is to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it. There is just no getting around those words “subdue” and “have dominion” over. The English in this case is a pretty good translation of the Hebrew meaning: humankind in this chapter of Genesis is supposed to rule over creation as kings and queens. This verse has therefore been blamed for much of the destruction and damage to the Earth that we see today: if we are supposed to dominate the earth as God commanded, then let’s go ahead and do whatever we want, no matter the consequences. There may be something to this accusation, but it’s doubtful if we can determine how true it is with any certainty. In contrast to this, noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that the dominance meant in this verse of Genesis “has to do with the securing of the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.” Or, in other words, the dominion suggested here in this verse “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals.”

We who are Christians can also look to Jesus as the image of God to see how he expressed what God was like: “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” As we go about our lives and display the image of God, we are to follow Jesus’ model: to be first and to be great is to become the slave of all, and that includes serving not only our brother and sister human beings, but also all of creation. But just how do we serve all of creation?

The first thing that I would suggest is to respect life, no matter what form it takes. I think I’ve probably told this story to all of you before, but I ask you to bear with me once more. I have a deathly fear of snakes. You know how some people are afraid of spiders or of mice? Well, with me, it’s snakes. There’s nothing specific that I can remember to pin that fear to; I’ve simply always been afraid of them, whether they are venomous or not. When I was living in Virginia with my parents several years ago, I came home from somewhere and, when I turned into the driveway, there was a big black racer snake lying right in the middle of the driveway. I figured that the racer had just as much right to be alive and to be in that spot as I did, and besides, that type of snake feeds on mice. So, I managed to drive around the snake and park the car. However, when I turned the car off and looked up, the snake was now directly in the path that I needed to take to get from the car to the house. So, I sat in my car and wondered what I was going to do now. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a mockingbird swooped down and started dive-bombing the snake and drove it into the bushes. I watched in amazement, and then made a mad dash from the car to the house, sending up a prayer of thanks to God for sending the mockingbird to get rid of the snake. Respect life: if it’s not necessary to kill an animal, then don’t.

Besides respecting life by not killing when it’s not necessary, we can also do what Martin Luther says in his explanation to the Sixth Commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” I would like to suggest that we consider our neighbor to be not only our human neighbor, who bears the image of God just as we do, but also our animal and plant neighbors in creation. This is the idea that I mentioned earlier of the shepherd caring for the well-being of his or her sheep. God gave humanity the command to rule over nature, but not to rule with an iron fist. Instead, we are to rule as Jesus rules: with love and compassion, serving one another and serving all of creation. This includes such things as conserving and setting aside land for the use of our animal friends, and working to understand how those ecosystems operate. It also includes working to protect those animals and plants which are endangered, because their lives are as precious in God’s eyes as ours. I believe that God weeps when a species dies out because we humans did not exercise the care for that part of creation as we should have. At the same time, however, we do need to treat human life as precious to God, too, and we need to find that balance, that harmony between ourselves and the rest of creation that God desires for us.

Pope Francis writes, “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass, and metal and deprived of physical contact with nature.” Here in Wyoming, we are still blessed with much wide-open space and many opportunities to come into physical contact with nature. There is, however, the danger of cement, asphalt, glass, and metal encroaching into those wide-open spaces. As we learn of these issues that have the potential to threaten and degrade our environment, and as we approach these issues, let us bring our Christian faith with us. We are made in the image of God, but that image is not one of ruling nature and using it for whatever we will. Instead, that image that we strive for is the one that Jesus presents, coming not to be served, but to serve. Let us seek to find the best ways to serve God and to serve God’s creation by living, to the best of our abilities, in harmony with the rest of the creation. Amen.

Sermon for Season of Creation 1B: Earth Sunday

At Hope Lutheran Church, we observe a Season of Creation in September, following the lectionary listed in “The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary,” Norman C. Habel, David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire, Editors. More information can also be found at http://www.seasonofcreation.com.

Earth Sunday

Genesis 1:1-25 & John 1:1-14

Earlier this year, Pope Francis released the encyclical letter Laudato Si’, which translates from the Latin as “Praise be”, the beginning words of a hymn of praise from Saint Francis of Assisi. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs”, Saint Francis writes, and Pope Francis repeats as his introduction to this encyclical letter. This encyclical was highly anticipated before it was released as the letter that was going to be about climate change. Those on one side of the argument were expecting that at last, the church would have something official to say about the environment, while those on the other side of the argument were getting ready to circle the wagons and to fire shots to defend our current way of living. And after the letter was released, yes, there was and there still is much of this back-and-forth argument going on. However, I think that many people who have read the encyclical—and I have gotten through a good portion of it myself, but have not quite finished it—have found that, contrary to our expectations, this letter from Pope Francis is not only about climate change. It is instead a theological treatise on how God has called us to be stewards of the world which he has given us, how we as humans have failed that commission, how our society and our way of life does not promote being good caretakers of the earth, how we are lost in our sin, and, how, in spite of all of this, God still gives us hope for change through his Son, Jesus Christ. This encyclical is not just Roman Catholic theology, it is good Christian theology, and I encourage all of you to take the time and read through this letter.

In this letter, the pope begins with the state of the earth: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” The earth is not, in fact, an inanimate, dead heap of rock that we can take and use as we will. No, the earth is alive, and we see that even in our text from Genesis today. God says, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” God works in partnership with the earth, yes, but it is the earth itself that, at God’s command, brings forth plants. God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures . . .” Even the waters of the earth, in partnership with God, bring forth such things as fish, whales, octopus, and whatever else the phrase “the great sea monsters” includes. The waters of the earth are alive and bring forth more life at God’s command. And the earth even brings forth animals: cattle, pigs, and other livestock, bears, wolves, elk, antelope, deer, rabbits, and all kinds of wild animals. In chapter 2 of Genesis, which we will unfortunately not get to in this year’s Season of Creation, we see that God shapes us human beings out of the dust of the earth. The earth has given birth to us and to all living creatures in partnership with God’s word, and the earth therefore is our sister and our mother whom we should be treating with respect and with honor.

Instead, because of our sinfulness, we see the Earth and her creatures as something separate from ourselves, and something that we deserve to possess, to dominate, and to use however we please. Instead of seeing ourselves as intimately connected with the creation and a part of all life that we should value and treasure, we see ourselves as somehow above it, and we deny that anything we do could seriously damage the world that we find ourselves upon. But if we accept the premise that God has made us from the elements of the earth, then, as those earth-creatures, just like all other living organisms, it would follow that we could in fact affect the environment of the earth by the things that we do.

The truth is that the climate is getting warmer. Many of you have told me that you can remember when winters were much colder than they are now, and many of you have told me that there used to be more snow in the winter. This summer we have seen the dramatic effect of a warmer and drier climate in the number of forest fires taking place in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, even some as far away as Alaska and Canada, with the smoke from those fires blowing down into Powell, obscuring our beautiful scenery and destroying air quality for everyone. The air quality in some places in Montana was so bad recently that people had to stay indoors as much as possible. Many valiant firefighters have sacrificed of their time and some, their lives, to protect the rest of us and get the fires stopped. But they can’t finish the job without rain, which has been very slow in coming. And speaking of lack of rain, California is still suffering from a long-term drought. A colleague in California recently posted a thank you to a church in Wisconsin who learned about their situation and raised $300 in their VBS for drought relief—which will go to help purchase drinking water for 900 families who are without running water in their homes. Yes, climate change is real.

But why do so many of us resist the notion that humans can be responsible for climate change? It’s basic science, after all: when we burn things like coal and oil, more carbon dioxide goes into the air. At the same time that we’re doing that, we’re also cutting down trees, which would normally absorb the carbon dioxide. So all of this extra carbon dioxide is being trapped by our atmosphere and warming up the planet. And since God made all of the creation to be in relationship with one another, what we have done not only affects the atmosphere, it also melts the polar caps, causing the water to rise; it warms up that water, causing hurricanes to become more vicious and deadly; it causes the peoples in northern climates who depend on ice for their seal hunts to go hungry since they can’t hunt seals; and it causes places like Miami to flood because of rising sea levels. I even saw something about how the war in Syria and the refugees now flooding into Europe can be traced back to climate change: a warmer and drier climate caused a drought; the drought withered the crops, which then  forced people into the cities, causing large amounts of unemployment; the government couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to help; protests began; the government cracked down, and war erupted. Each thing that each one of us does has an effect on the creation, and the only reason I can think of for people to deny that basic fact is because of fear: fear that we might have to significantly change our lifestyle, and fear that we might lose the work that keeps us employed.

But we as Christians have no reason to be afraid. This is what John’s Gospel tells us today. This passage is one that we usually hear at Christmas time, as John’s version of the birth of Jesus. But John tells us much more here. John tells us that Jesus, the Word of God, was with God in the very beginning, when God created the Earth. It was through Jesus, the very Word of God, that everything that we see around us came to be. And somehow, mysteriously enough, even in that long ago beginning, you and I were already in the mind of God. And John also tells us that God loves his creation so much that he, Jesus, became flesh and “camped out” with us. Think of that for a moment: the almighty, eternal God, who has no beginning and no ending, thinks his creation is so good and so wonderful, that he did not want to lose any part of it, including us. And so he put on the flesh, the human body that he created, and became one of us: to teach us the way and to show us what love is: sacrificing himself that we might live, and live abundantly.

And so we have no need to be afraid of the changes that we will have to make, because we know that Jesus is with us. In his encyclical, Pope Francis speaks of Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who has long been an advocate for environmental issues. The Pope quotes the Patriarch as saying that we need to look for solutions to our misuse of creation “not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would only be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing. . . .It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed, and compulsion.” And isn’t this, after all, what Jesus calls us to do? To deny ourselves, take up the cross, and to follow him? In denying ourselves and in losing our lives, Jesus tells us, we will in some mysterious way gain it. With Jesus beside us, we have nothing to fear and abundant life to live.

This is the wonder and the joy of the Gospel: that no matter how badly we have messed up the creation, there is still hope. God still loves all of his creation: plants, animals, rocks, water, sun, moon, stars, you and me. There is still hope because of that great love of God for all of us. There is no reason to fear, and there is every reason to move forward with measures to enable us to live in harmony with the creation once more. I have a feeling that I will be quoting from the Pope’s encyclical in the weeks to come, but again, I encourage all of you to read it for yourself. The pope offers a vision for how we can live in harmony with creation and with one another, and that vision is inspiring. Pope Francis writes, “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” As we go from here today, let us indeed contemplate the joyful mystery of the world around us, and give praise to God, our Creator. Amen.