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: Saturday, April 4, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — The Vigil of Easter

Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a  +  Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21  +  Isaiah 55:1-11  +  Daniel 3:1-29  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  John 20:1-18

JFK_Assassination2It was a Friday in November, 1963 when the nation found out that their president, John F. Kennedy had been killed. News of his assassination spread quickly as televisions in lunchrooms and living rooms flickered on to share minute by minute coverage of the events taking place in Dallas. All across the country people dropped whatever they were doing and waited for any bit of news that might make sense of this shocking tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was in meetings that afternoon when the news came to him that Kennedy was dead. The two men were friends, and Bernstein was a frequent guest at the White House. So it was perhaps not unexpected that Bernstein was approached the following day, Saturday, by CBS to create a memorial program that would air the following day, a Sunday. Bernstein accepted and worked quickly to select the music.

The obvious choice would have been a requiem, and many orchestras across the country did just that. Bernstein, however, went a different route. On Sunday, November 24, just days after the president’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum of New York in a nationally televised memorial featuring Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Speaking the following evening at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, Bernstein explained his decision.

“There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March […]? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of [humanity] that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of [humanity], strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished.”

Near the end of his remarks he said this,

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

brooks-circular-thumbLarge-v3This story came back to me after my dad shared David Brooks’s column from yesterday’s edition of the New York Times (04/03/2015) titled, On Conquering Fear.” In it Brooks reflects on the power of art to rouse us from the apathy and skepticism that are the byproducts of living in a constant state of terror and learned helplessness. He begins by offering a commentary on the story of the Exodus read in Jewish homes on Passover, the ending of which we’ve already heard tonight (Ex. 14:10-31;15:20-21). He writes,

Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

That is what we’ve been doing here tonight. Telling the old stories of salvation inherited from our Jewish sisters and brothers, stories of God’s hand in history creating us in love, liberating us from oppression, providing abundantly despite our fear of scarcity, accompanying us through the times of trial.

These are the stories the followers of Jesus knew by heart, the stories they’d heard passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions and songs and plays and dances and dramas. These stories were in their blood.

These were the stories that Jesus himself drew on as he gathered women and men around him to dream of a world made new, a world in which the hard lines between empire and colony, master and slave, man and woman, Greek and Jew were softened, blurred, obliterated. Stories that reminded us that in the beginning we were all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26).

These were the stories the disciples would have heard echoing in the miracle of loaves and fishes multiplied until all were fed. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1)

These were the stories the followers of Jesus might have remembered as he was led away by the Roman guard to be tried by Pontus Pilate. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him.” (Dan. 3:28)

jesus-crucifixion-1127718-galleryThen the news came on a Friday that the man they’d loved, and trusted, and followed, was dead.  He wasn’t just dead, he’d been killed, and not quietly, not out of sight, but on a cross on a hill, in plain view for everyone to see.  The message was clear: be afraid. Do not be fooled by this dreamer. The world as it is is the world as it ought to be. The empire rules and you are its subjects. Obey and live. Rise up and die.

Rome thought that would be the end of it. That the people would mourn, perhaps even riot, but they knew how to deal with that. That’s what crosses were for. What they were not expecting was Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection symphony.  They were not expecting the insurrection only artists can lead, the kind that begins with a story and ends with a new creation.  Somehow, somewhere, on that Saturday between the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb God, the artist who spoke creation into being with a word, whose image and likeness is imprinted on every soul, moved once again over the waters. The story spread quickly. The cross on which the teacher hung was as empty as the grave in which they laid him. The empire is unmasked! Death, where is your power now?

These are the storied waters by which we baptize, and tonight we celebrate with our brother Ryan who has responded to the call of the Holy Spirit to come and die. To come and die to the numbing death of conformity to a culture of violence. To come and die to the wasting death of complicity with a culture of scarcity. To come and die to the corrupting death of privilege in a culture of supremacy. To come and die to the tragic death of waste in a culture of consumption and degradation. Ryan has heard the call to die to all that is killing us, and to rise with Christ, the firstborn of a new creation. So we celebrate with him, and his family, and his beloved, Rachel, and with the whole church, the rebirth of a new disciple, a new storyteller, a new artist in the commonwealth of God, the anti-empire, the reign that has no end.

Sisters and brothers, there are so many reasons to weep. From the senseless massacre of human lives in Garissa, Kenya to the racialized violence that plagues our streets and swells our prisons. The sources of our grief are always before us, terrorizing us, numbing us into submission to a nightmare passing as reality. What we need is a story, a song, a symphony to rouse us to life. Jesus said to the weeping woman, to Mary whom he loved, “do not hold on to me … but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  Mary went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (John 20:17)  So I say to you: do not hold on to this story, this life-giving work of art, but go and tell anyone who will listen that you have seen the Lord, who is not dead, as they claim, but alive and being born again and again in you and me, in these waters and all who emerge from them.

This will be our reply to the cross: to proclaim the gospel more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

Amen.

Credit where it’s due goes to the Leonard Bernstein Office’s website for details shared in this sermon.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 7, 2014: Forest Sunday, Season of Creation

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-22  +  Psalm 139:13-16  +  Acts 17:22-28  +  John 3:1-16

GivingTreeIt’s been 50 years since the publication of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree back in 1964.  How many of you have read it?  Did you know that Shel Silverstein grew up here in Logan Square?  Went to high school at Roosevelt, attended the University of Illinois.

The Giving Tree had a hard time making it to print.  Publishers thought it was too sad for kids and too simple for adults. Fifty years later it remains something of an enigma. Some people see in the story a parable about a mother’s self-sacrificing love for her child. Some see a story of narcissistic consumption. Some have called it a story of friendship, others a parable of Christ’s love. One reviewer called it a sado-masochistic fairy tale in which abuse is elevated to a virtue.

As we enter into the Season of Creation once again this year, a season in which we are encouraged to read scripture with a hermeneutic of creation or through the lens of God’s pronouncement at the end of each day that all that was made was “good,” I’m inclined to give the story a more straight forward reading as the tale of humanity and its relationship to trees.

The very fact that we might be inclined to read the story as an allegory for human relationships with one another, mother to child or friend to friend, shows how disconnected we have become from our sense of intimate interdependence with all of the rest of creation. The book of Genesis describes humanity and trees as coming from the same place,

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being … Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… (Gen. 2:7,9)

Like twins born of the same mother, humanity and the trees (which seem to stand in for all plant life) are fashioned from the same stuff. Furthermore, the author of this creation myth imagines that man was placed in the garden “to till and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15)  This sounds a little different than the creation myth that precedes this one, in which humanity is given dominion over the earth. Perhaps that’s why we give that other story precedence. Perhaps we prefer the idea of dominion over the more modest proposal that we simply take our place within creation as caregivers.

tree

Shel seemed to retain that memory of common origins. At the beginning of his book the boy and the tree take delight in one another’s company. They play with one another, rest with one another, love one another. Anyone who uses these features as evidence of some deeper allegory really ought to spend more time watching children play outside. If you have, then you know that it’s perfectly normal to observe children taking deep delight in a tree, even loving one.

As the boy grows older, he loses interest in his first love and becomes preoccupied with other concerns. He needs to earn a living, so he takes the tree’s fruit.  He needs to build a house, so he takes the tree’s branches. Then, somewhere in the middle of his life, he finds that he has become deeply unhappy and he wants to escape, so he takes the tree’s trunk and builds a boat to get away. Stripped to a stump the tree is as unhappy as the boy.

McLaren_WeMakeTheRoadByWalking_smIn his new book We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren discusses the tangled roots at the heart of our environmental crisis. He reminds us that billions of dollars are spent every year making us unhappy, which is the first step in getting us to spend our money on the solutions being proposed. “Wish you had a brighter smile? Ask your dentist about Zoom teeth whitening!” Well, I didn’t realize I wanted a brighter smile, but now that you mention it… Over and over again, in a million little ways, we’re being told to find fault with ourselves and to spend our time and our money chasing after the new and improved.

But it’s not just our pocketbooks or our time with family that takes the hit when we spend long hours slaving away as we sell those apples to buy that house, or that boat. It’s the forests, and the land, and the air, and the oceans that suffer right along with us. There is no way to address the environmental crisis in which we now find ourselves without addressing the addictive and exhausting cycles of mass consumption that degrade not only our souls but the planet as well.

I should say, by way of a plug for some of our fall programming, that McLaren also believes that one of the great gifts of our Christian faith is that it offers us practices, daily and weekly and seasonal and annual disciplines, that are meant to re-humanize us, to fortify us in the face of so many destructive messages that push us toward consumption as the answer to all our problems. If that’s a conversation you’d like to dive into more deeply, I can offer you two options.  One is to join the adult forum for the next six weeks from 9am to 10am, where we’ll be using a series of short video clips based on Brian’s book to structure our conversations about Christian faith, practice and identity. The other is to head to the bulletin board in the back of the sanctuary after worship and sign up to be part of a small group that will be reading We Make the Road by Walking together. But more on that later…

I suppose I read The Giving Tree as both descriptive and cautionary. To the extent that it describes humanity’s relationship with trees and the rest of God’s creation pretty accurately, it is descriptive.  Like partners in a crumbling marriage, we have grown apart from the rest of God’s creation which we were given to love and to cherish, to honor and respect. But it’s a children’s book as well, which suggests that Shel was aware that a new generation might make a new choice. That the boys and girls we seat on our laps as we flip the pages might notice how sad that man grew to be, how lonely he looked as he sat slumped over on his amputated friend’s stump. That our children are strong enough and sophisticated enough to handle a story that doesn’t resolve neatly. That its haunting images might linger with them, they way they’ve lingered with you and me for fifty years now. That we might remember how much we have loved the trees in our back yard, on the trail, in the forests, around the world. That we might repent of our rampant consumption and return to our roots, that place where we remember that we and all the rest of God’s creation come from the same ground.

It’s been a number of years now since our friend Sally Levin had her funeral service here at St. Luke’s. I thought of her as I read Paul’s words to the Athenians from Acts,

The God who made the world and everything in it, [the one] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is [God] served by human hands, as though [God] needed anything, since [God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (Acts 17:24-25)

As her body gave way to the pancreatic cancer within her, Sally and I talked about how she would have wished that her funeral could have taken place outside, among the trees, where she loved to spend her days. She knew that the God who made her and loved her wasn’t locked behind the doors of the church, but in and throughout everything that grows up from the ground. She believed there was nothing we could build that could improve on what the Creator had already planted. Even as her body released its hold on life, her mind was already being renewed. She had a sense of that second birth that Jesus was trying to describe to Nicodemus, the being born that happens after we have grown old.

Since we could not hold her funeral outdoors, we decided to bring the trees inside, and as her friends entered the sanctuary on the day of her funeral they processed carrying fallen branches from the trees all around this neighborhood where she had raised her children, the same neighborhood where Shel Silverstein grew up. Who knows? Maybe even the same trees they had both loved.

As we move through this season of creation; as we chart the journey of creation, alienation, passion and new creation that is our story as Christians; as we reconnect and reconcile with our siblings — the forests, the land, the wilderness, and the rivers — we are invited to open our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit, which is always reaching out, working its tendrils into the spaces between our past and our future to renew and restore us here and now.

Amen.

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