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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 11, 2016: Season of Creation, Ocean Sunday

Texts: Job 38:1-18  +  Psalm 104:1-9,24-26  +  Luke 5:1-11

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To begin, consider closing your eyes and picturing the ocean. Have you been to the ocean? Have you walked barefoot along its shores, shoes dangling from your hand? Have you heard that sound, the ceaseless tide, washing the land with its salty waves? Have you sensed its infinite depths?

Standing at the edge of the ocean is like standing at the border to a country most people never truly enter. Our bodies ride the waves at its very edges like the tiniest pieces of flotsam and jetsam, not even driftwood, as its wet gravity takes us wherever it wants. Our boats skim the surface of its unseen interior the way dandelion seeds ride the currents of our breath without ever seeing the insides of our lungs.

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Next to the oceans, our continents seem petite. The oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface, and the ocean floor extends miles below its waves. The land covers only 29% of the earth’s surface, and we live our lives on the thinnest crust of earth and sky. Imagine the largest animal that roams the Earth’s lands, the African bush elephant (weighing in at 3 tons), next to the largest sea creature known to humanity, the blue whale (weighing in at over 150 tons). But the oceans do not dwarf the continents only in terms of size, but in their diversity as well. For every massive blue whale there are an infinity of delicate coral reefs, surreal squids and octopi, strains of life that predate humanity by millennia, yet look like they must have come from another planet. Beyond the sandy beaches, beyond the metronomic waves, there is another world filled with neighbors we have yet to meet, though they have already been introduced to us.

Just yesterday afternoon, as Erin and I were preparing for this morning’s worship service, a man walked through the front door carrying a cardboard box and wearing an irritable frown. As I greeted him I could see that his box was filled with our trash: last week’s bulletins, copies of old newsletters, discarded mail. It was all clearly recyclable. In fact, we had tried to recycle it, but the trash bins in the alley are so full that neighbors have resorted to dumping their waste wherever they can find space. Failing that, they are setting it on ground, where the winds carry it away, blowing it down the alley. This is how our new neighbor met us for the first time, through our trash.

The same is true for our oceanic neighbors but with far worse consequences. By now it’s no longer news when we hear once again that “ships on the high seas routinely dump trash and sewage into the ocean,” or “that plastic pollution has permeated the entire ocean forming massive gyres, with plastic pollution being found even in the once pristine Arctic Sea.” But, beyond our trash, the massive levels of carbon dioxide generated by our automobiles and other fossil fuel consumption — coal, natural gas, and oil — are “dissolving into the ocean, making it more acidic.” Meanwhile, rising global temperatures have bleached vast swaths of the world’s coral reef in a matter of just a few years, endangering shoreline protections from ever-more-severe tropical storms and eliminating natural habitats for endangered species.

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The hubris we have displayed as a species threatens our very existence, but it is not new. In fact, it is the topic of perhaps the oldest piece of biblical literature in our holy scriptures, the Book of Job. If you’re at all familiar with Job, you know it concerns his quarrel with God over the justice of human suffering. Rather than answer Job’s complaints directly, God addresses Job’s mistaken notion that he is even capable of comprehending the wisdom by which God has ordered creation:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements — surely you know!

Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb?

and said, ‘thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?” (Job 38:2,4-5a,8,11)

When we hung these rainbow banners back in June it was partially in recognition of Pride month, as a sign of our embrace of the sacred value of every human life at a moment when our nation was grieving the loss of those 50 lives that ended in a shower of bullets at the Pulse nightclub. This morning they speak to us of a different kind of biodiversity and remind us of God’s promise to Noah not to end the world by means of a flood. If only we had made the same promise in return. Instead, our lack of wisdom, our failure of resolve, our climate-change-denying “words without knowledge” (Job 38:2) have brought us to the precipice of a global disaster from which there may be no turning back.

60ed9c8ef85b5bbd6ea848b2411557261d6f4960In an essay published by The New Republic titled “A World at War,” Bill McKibben — environmental activist, educator, and prophet of the climate crisis — cries out for the world to wake up to the hour that is upon us, and to band together to address the devastation we have begun before it brings an end to us all. I’ll post his essay this afternoon, and encourage you all to read it closely as we begin this Season of Creation, as it offers more than a diatribe, but also a roadmap to guide us out of the wilderness. Or, perhaps more apropos to the day, a constellation of bright ideas by which to navigate our way safely to the shore.

The true north star of his piece is the observation that for us to have any hope of survival, we must agree that we are fighting for our lives and that we intend to win the fight. We need to move beyond optional, feel-good, individual responses to environmental degradation and demand that the world’s nations and leaders take swift, decisive action to reverse global warming and all its deadly effects. Which means “a fracking ban, a carbon tax, a prohibition against drilling or mining fossil fuels on public lands, a climate litmus test for new developments, an end to World Bank financing of fossil fuel plants.” Which means we need to get organized.

organize-fish-400x250One of my early images of the idea of organizing came in the form of a poster that hung in classrooms and on campuses when I was a high school and college student. It showed a school of tiny fish swimming in the shape of a giant fish chasing down a single fish that, while larger than any of them individually was clearly no match for them together. Under the illustration was the single word: Organize.

That image comes to mind as I hear the miracle story told in the gospel of Luke. Here again, we learn that the more things change, the more they stay the same, as Simon Peter tells Jesus that the people have been fishing all night with no luck. Just as factory fishing in our day has stripped the oceans of fish at an unsustainable rate, so in Jesus’ day the Roman Empire had transformed Galilee from a place of subsistence farming and fishing into an export economy to feed its legions in a manner that had impoverished the people and drained the sea of fish.

Then Jesus tells those who would follow him to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4) When they did as he said their nets were filled with so great a haul that their boats nearly sank. At that moment Jesus drew a parallel between the power of these tiny fish, which alone were barely a meal but together could sink a boat, and the people of Galilee, who alone were dying of poverty, but together could change the world. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “from now on you will be catching people.” (v. 10)

The hour has come for us to lose our illusions and to shed our fear. The moment is upon us to set out into the deep waters, the ways of being and becoming that we have sensed are possible but have seemed too difficult. Now it is time to get organized, to fight not only for life on this planet but for the life of the planet itself, its lands and its waters. To fight like the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has fought to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from defiling sacred lands. To fight together. Organized into a body greater than any special interest, organized for the self-interest of the Earth itself.

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Amen.

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Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope Francis says it this way,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 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.

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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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