Seeing Stars

a sermon on Genesis15:1-6

Look to the Stars

As one facing childlessness, this reading of Abram feels burdensome to me. Why no child, God? God clarifies and repeats a promise. But, I have to ask, how does Abram encounter that promise and what actually is God’s promise today?

We’re beginning a second year of the Narrative Lectionary for Bible readings. Last week, we heard generally about earth and generic earthlings. Now the story takes a very different turn, from a broad statement of all creation and all humankind to this particular story, one person instead of the whole human family, one individual leading to universal benefit.

In a significant way, this is the start of our story, past the background stuff. (Though we might make the same point when we get into Exodus in a couple weeks. Or you probably even feel more that way when we get to Jesus and the New Testament in December.)

Still, for origins, you might know that the three great monotheistic religions trace back to Abram, whose relationship to God has been formative to Christians and Jews and Muslims, even as we emphasize and understand that differently. With over 4 billion combined adherents, over half of the world’s population, that is a big number.

But it feels hasty and unsatisfying to chalk that up as if God can hang up a “mission accomplished” banner after four millennia and say that the spiritual heirs of Abram have now spread out like the dust of the earth.

For one thing, it doesn’t address my own personal concern. Nor does it address Abram’s, which is the point of hearing and living again into this story.

To know the fuller narrative, Abram first appeared at the end of chapter 11. Barely has his family tree been named when we’re discovering it’s going to end up a stump. Four verses after he’s introduced, we’re told he’s unlikely to have any children, and not just because he’s already 75 years old.

But by the start of chapter 12, God is making promises to Abram, and keeps reiterating them, about the heritage for Abram’s offspring. Eight times in the following chapters, God voices reassurance of making good on this promise, even when everything seems directly to contradict it.

Now, for Abram the issue was different from how I consider it. For Abram and his time, a child meant life by offering necessary support in old age, that culture’s kind of social security. Descendants were also their version of eternal life—not that I personally would continue to exist, but that something of him would live on in future successors. This is also how God’s work would proceed, through the course of family generations and on in the Bible’s story.

But if the first problem was that this promise seems absurdly impossible, then a second problem is that it’s awfully gradual. We’re already three chapters along at today’s passage, and God is reiterating the promise a third time, and Abram is having to protest, to question, to raise his doubts: Hey God, you keep talking about this, but (in case you hadn’t noticed) I don’t have a lone child, much less plural like the sands of the beach. Right now my hired help is the closest thing I’ve got, and that doesn’t sound like what you keep yakking about.

This chapter reinforces that God will be responsible for making it happen, but it doesn’t move any closer to fulfillment. In the next chapter and eleven years later, Abram does have a child, but this won’t be the one who counts for the promise. It’s another thirteen years when Abram is 99 years old before Isaac is born, a name that means “he laughs.” It almost seems that the laughter wouldn’t be about joyful birth, but a disbelieving scoff that it actually happened, or even a sarcastic chuckle from God, smirking “see, I told you so.”

Abram continues mostly as the focus until he’s laid to rest in chapter 25, then remains the bedrock or roots or seed of this whole story. For the rest of the Bible, one of God’s main identifiers will be “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the first three generations of this myriad.

So there’s the sweep, but still, for the particularity today: even as God repeats promises, Abram doubts. We shouldn’t picture a patiently persevering patriarch of the faith. It’s not that he can stifle his concerns and assume God will work it out in God’s good time. It’s not that he has the self-confidence and fortitude to take matters into his own hands.

Perhaps, hear this passage with resounding grinding disappointment. Hear it as one who can only see literal dead ends, who simply doesn’t believe it can be possible. Hear it in the peculiar phrase Paul uses for Abram much later in Scripture, that he could only “hope against hope” (Romans 4). Hear it as prayer with nowhere else to turn. And maybe it’s fitting that Abram ends up looking up at the night sky, because he’s sure stuck out in the dark.

These are horribly hard moments when even the littlest things seem like an impossibility, when anything is too much to hope. It’s not just Abram. It’s life’s immobilization. That no matter how hard I try, it won’t work out. Things just don’t go how you want. That we don’t know what to do, so why bother. That progress is preposterous.

In such moments, I need to compliment Abram for voicing his grievance. I mostly end up wordless, with my head in my hands, tears in my eyes, staring out the window and unsure not only what I could do about it, but unsure of my very self. Abram at least can argue with God and not let a bland platitude pretend to be a promise. He won’t stand for God saying, Oh, Abe, Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be alright. It’ll work out.

Abram’s objection meets God’s exact identity: God always keeps God’s promises. And so it is good to know those promises. God clarifies and repeats. And God clarifies and repeats. And clarifies and repeats. Because we need to keep hearing it, especially when it is incredible, unbelievable, too good to be true, more than we can hope.

Still, I can’t but wonder if God goes a little overboard this time, telling Abram to go out and count the stars. When Abram is concerned about having no children, this is a ridiculous reply, a depiction reinforcing how outlandish God’s promise is. I gave it a shot this week on a clear evening. From my house, even with city lights and trees in the way, I could count 68 stars, plus two planets and an airplane. Setting aside if the extra planets and plane might mean a couple pet dogs and an aardvark, 68 stars says 68 offspring promised to a guy who had none. Figuring that Abram didn’t have to deal with light pollution, around 4500 stars are visible to the naked eye in a night sky. Or we might take the 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Or maybe God intended a full insight into the septillion or so stars in the universe. Clearly ludicrous to be transferable to God’s promise.

So does Abram take this as good news? Pretty much every commentary I read found encouragement for old Abe, that he had a nightly verification of what was in store. That’s optimistic analysis. From the shoes of a doubter, I wonder if he was feeling his nose rubbed in it. For 24 years, a nightly reinforcement that not only didn’t he have innumerable progeny, but had zilch. So is God sufficient? Abram seems assuaged by the end of the passage. How about you?

I admit this is a weird way to start this year of the Narrative Lectionary, and a weird way for the Bible’s story to get going. It certainly doesn’t mesh with instant gratification or our analytical minds looking for proofs and verification. We want results and we want them now. This isn’t satisfying. For all the confident reassurances, it doesn’t exactly feel very confidently reassuring. I admit that, while refusing to let God’s Word become a little pep talk so that you can go back out there from the sidelines and feel better. Maybe we do celebrate the eventuality of abundant goodness.

But for the most part, we have to recognize that all we’ve got is the promise. Faith. Trust. This is a desperate hope, a blind confidence, believing without seeing. This is a God who offers you the stars as reminder with diddly squat as factual evidence. This is a God in Jesus who says that his presence with you and everlasting life for you is in a bite of bread that’s gone long before you get back to your seat, much less feeling very tangible when you go back out to face fears and real doubts in these hard days. This is a God who continues to accept your concerns and frustrations and wonderings, who fully knows your struggles and sorrows and yet decides to work within those limitations and to reiterate goodness for you. God clarifies and repeats. Clarifies and repeats.

So what is this promise? Abram was supposed to go out and look at the stars and think about having children. But I can’t claim that applies from God to me. I can go out and look at the stars as a reminder that God keeps God’s promises. That ultimate promise is life. And God refuses to have that interrupted or disturbed by any circumstance, by your place in the generations, by foolishness or old age, by family trees or stumps, by lightyears of distance and continuums of spacetime, by apparent impossibilities, by our dim understandings, by doubts or disagreements, dead ends or even death, a promise of life that can’t be beaten by hurricane forces or rigid oppressions or sad endings, by the too-slow turn of history, or even by the too common Monday morning blues and frustrations of the week. That is the promise of life from God that Abram came to count on and is for me, for you to hear and hold and maybe deem right. And so again God clarifies and repeats.

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#RiseForClimate speech

(Woodland Park, Monona, Wis.) 41413813_10155856821403785_3385218520341020672_n

I’m Nick Utphall, a board member of Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light (WIPL) and pastor at Advent Lutheran of Madison Christian Community way out on the west side (and in spite of the distance, still pedaled my bike here like so many of you today). But this used to be literally my old stomping grounds, as I brought kids from Vacation Bible School at St Stephens Lutheran Church – ELCA – Monona, WI just up the block into these woods to explore creation and be connected to what they could discover in God’s world, because we grow to save what we love, right?

I remember when this was re-opened to be an oak savanna instead of having clogged and invasive undergrowth. We further remember that the oak savanna was a symbiotic relationship in this area generations before anybody claiming to be Christian or with my sort of skin color or ancestry arrived in the area, that native peoples burned the undergrowth to continue spurring this sort of mutual beneficial ecological community.

We’re here today encountering the far opposite end of that spectrum: a mutually _detrimental_ ecological community. Or maybe we need to replace all those words. It’s not mutual, since we decided that humans are more important than any soils, waters, plants, or animals…and Americans more than other humanity…and those with huge financial interest and investments in fossil fuel corporations more than the rest of us. It’s not community then, because we’re not living in it together, but suffering the breakdown of all kinds of relationships and dependencies. And it’s certainly not ecological, because this is not the logic of caring for our common home.

All of that selfishly detrimental economic fracture can feel frustrating, that everything is unhitched and going wrong and that we have little direct capability to change it. After all, it barely matters a smidge that I pedaled here. Or that we attend to science as the real news. It may feel like we’re such a small group for what a huge global problem this is.

But I’m here to testify on behalf of the underdog and the importance of small actions and movements that do change the world.

We’re frustrated at our government. We’re upset that the President and his EPA administrators seem hellbent on rushing in the wrong direction. But I also confess I was frustrated at the previous President, who did too little while still encouraging worse behavior, bits of better conservation while expanding efforts everywhere we could drill or mine. Sure, that was better than now. It still wasn’t enough.

But I’m here to testify that we’re not waiting for any President. Today is about all of us overturning an old system, fighting for and fulfilling in places like Monona and Middleton and Madison the international Paris Climate Agreement. Here in Wisconsin, not only for ourselves but on behalf of the globe.

And I testify this personally because I’m a follower of Jesus. He is the historic epitome of grassroots revolution. It wasn’t from Caesar and the centers of power in the hegemony of the Roman Empire that change was going to come, that values of compassion would take a turn for the better, that life would win. It came from the poor peasants and outcasts in a backwater village by drawing people together, and courageously and sacrificially seeing what they knew the world should be, and who went on to subvert the ignorant control of the world’s allegedly most powerful empire. With it came the proclamation that God is on the side of life. God is on the side of relationships. God is on the side of shared wellbeing. With this vision, as we struggle and strive, as we Rise Up for Climate, Jobs, and Justice, the God known in Jesus is present with us to restore, to renew, and to recreate a mutually beneficial ecological community, across the earth, and right here in this place, now and for good. Thank you.

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Mountain Sunday

sermon on Exodus33:18-34:8, Mark9:2-10, Psalm48 (and John Muir)

 

The mountains are calling and I must go…mountain

We could think with mountains just of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or the Mount of Olives. Or of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, the first to scale Mount Everest. Or Pachamama, the indigenous Peruvian mountain goddess who gets combined with the Virgin Mary. But for the voice of mountains, let’s hear from Wisconsin-raised John Muir, who led the call for protecting several of our earliest National Parks and camped with Teddy Roosevelt and founded the Sierra Club. John Muir’s words will guide our reflection today, in concert or dialogue with Scripture and our faith.

“The mountains are calling and [we] must go” is a good phrase from him to get us started. It may fit with God beckoning Moses up the mountain, and the retreat of Jesus and the disciples, to get away from pressures of labors for solitude and re-creation. Plus, that’s the vista where you can see visions. We are in this for a mountain-top experience!

You may know the feeling I had as a 6th grader flying over the Rockies, seeing a snow-covered range for the first time and yearning to go explore more. Or the sense of driving into Colorado or Montana and just waiting for the craggy peaks to appear in the distance. Or the return to flat land when clouds on the horizon make you look twice expecting that soul-filling grandeur.

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. Cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.

 Expanding on enjoyment, as stress and cares depart, this is often our reaction to mountains, of getting away on vacation. Muir also said, though, that “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.” This sense not only compels us to get out and explore, to find rejuvenation away from too-controlling and human civilization, but also propels us to preservation, that we need to be caring for these things. Hope for us, and for them.

Again, Muir could declare that few are deaf to the preaching of pine trees, that “Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts.” Those sermons, Muir said, are about not clear-cutting forests, so their preached message includes self-preservation, but also means conserving these wild places because they are good for us, too, like in this quote:

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountains are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

 Still, this highlights a distinction. Though I’d reject the strict Christianity of Muir’s father and am eager for us to hear his voice for our view of the mountains, it isn’t totally the same focus as what we say here in church. When he says the trees on slopes have sermons and the mountains convey “good tidings and Nature’s peace,” we have to ask if that’s the same tidings of good news proclaimed in a sermon or is different than the peace of Christ we share here. When Muir said Beauty is synonymous with God, we’d say love is more representative in embodying God.

Again, I share Muir’s message to try to bring some the feel of the mountains into this very tame and calm and orderly setting. But I remain unconvinced that you can get the same good news and hope by being outdoors on a Sunday morning. Moses couldn’t take the full terrifying view, but with his back turned had to trust proclamation, that our God intends to be known as a God of steadfast love and kindness, whose promise abides to the thousandth generation. It’s a perpetual question of where you look—or listen—for God. I believe you need to be here for a clearer word from God spoken in your language and into your own being that you can’t discern from a mountain message. The “fountain of life” isn’t simply what naturally exists around you, but at its heart the fountain of life is God in Jesus, and we should listen to his proclamation. We can extrapolate from Jesus to nature, but not so clearly the other way.

Still, from John Muir’s natural perspective and these Season of Creation weeks, we celebrate beauty with clarity that everything made is good, a unity of the whole. Here’s Muir on our place amid a much grander family than we usually recognize, and which Muir himself says he had overlooked:

[I had] never before noticed so fine a union of rock and cloud in form and color and substance, drawing earth and sky together as one; and we shout, exulting in wild enthusiasm as if all the divine show were our own. More and more, in a place like this, we feel ourselves part of wild Nature, kin to everything.

Those words of a divine show—a Godly spectacle!—were from Muir’s first year in the Sierra Nevada mountains, about a sunset on this very day 149 years ago: September 2, 1869. Because we so often separate ourselves and see creation as other, here’s another passage on the same theme of family:

Yosemite Park is a place in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers [and sisters]; one even learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds.

It’s interesting he’s able to see not just animals but also plants and waters and the rocks themselves as siblings. That can help us hear relationships when Jesus says that if we’re silent about these things, instead (as we sang last week) “every stone shall cry” out.

Muir also directly offers words from Jesus here—of “peace, be still,” from Jesus calming a storm. Yet that may show a distinction, since Muir favors the tempest and delights in the destruction. He sees death as no enemy. He learns to like the storms. He climbed to the top of a 100-foot pine whipping in a fierce windstorm so he could feel as the tree did and hear the music of the needles in the wind.

That, versus how we may be intrigued by extreme weather events, but only to a degree. At Holden Village, I liked snowshoeing up a snowfield alone, but was intimidated and ready to turn back from the crash of avalanche noise and the footprints of a mountain lion. I admit I enjoyed biking through the downpour after the Worship Team meeting Tuesday, but was also ready to change into dry clothes at home. You may wince at every forecast and dread it and look for escape rather than delight. That may seem a place for faith: that we seek in God shelter from the storm. Or, better, remember that God’s abiding and enduring love is so much more than terrors, as terrifying as they may be.

There’s another edge of faith, too, that’s not about escape, but about engagement. Here’s a bit toward that:

Here is the eternal flux of Nature manifested. Ice changing to water, lakes to meadows, and mountains to plains. And while we thus contemplate Nature’s methods of landscape creation, and, reading the records she has carved on the rocks, reconstruct, however imperfectly, the landscapes of the past, we also learn that as these we now behold have succeeded those of the pre-glacial age, so they in turn are withering and vanishing to be succeeded by others yet unborn.

This describes John Muir’s discovery that glaciers and not volcanoes formed the scenery of Yosemite. He was reading the clues left long before, that they slowly carved away the mountains. I pair that with words from Jesus, that faith can say to a mountain “be thrown into the sea.” We tend to picture that as meaning you could say a little prayer and move mountains. I’m favorably inclined to Muir’s geo-logic that sees the stretch of God’s work over eons, that mountains are indeed being carried into the sea, and the new mountains arise through the still-little understood process of plate tectonics, that these moving mountains are, after all, a vision of our faith, from 470-million-year-old Appalachians to eruptions in Hawaii, God still creating.

People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently.

Our task today has been to see these journeys not just as sightseeing or diversionary little outings, but reverently, as holy pilgrimages to encounter the mountains, and to encounter God. Finally, we return to the extended rest of our opening:

The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, incessantly.

With John Muir, then, on this Labor Day weekend, we remember that this isn’t escape. It’s not vacation. It’s not a peace just from pause. It’s a peace through engagement, from work, being aware of our place amid connections. Whether with Jesus we go back down from the mountain or with John Muir we work incessantly above, our vocations remain. God calls us to work. As we say at the MCC, this is the practice of living faithfully and lovingly with God, neighbor, and creation. That’s God’s work and labor, too. So one more good one, to let Mr. Muir have the last word:

Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born.

  

Quotes are from John Muir: Nature Writings (Cronon, ed.) and https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/favorite_quotations.aspx

 

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Sky Sunday

from Isaiah 13, Mark 15, Psalm 19sky

 

Did you know: thunder is the sound of God bowling?

Lightning is the flash of God taking your picture. Wind is God going <puff> across the map. Rain is when God is crying. In the most biblical form, thunder is the sound of God speaking. But what in the world is God trying to say? And are these just clever explanations, which manage to misinform both our view of God and our view of the sky?

That goes with these Bible readings to get us started on this Sky Sunday. Whether in jokey clarifications or in actual practice, we’re used to trying to read the sky for messages or revelations from God. If we want to take beautiful stars or a colorful sunset or the cheer of blue summer days as indicators of a good and gracious God, we’re left confronting cloudy days, stormy weather, destructive events and wondering how they relate to God.

I mentioned two months ago that as the ELCA Social Statement on human sexuality was being voted on at the Churchwide Assembly in 2009, a tornado went directly over the conference center. It’s a great example of a really ambiguous sign: does it mean God was against how this church graciously considers the fullness of sexuality? Or by the tornado not touching down, did God intentionally spare the assembly? Or maybe it had to do with summer air currents in a warm and humid metropolitan environment.

Our Psalm says the heavens declare the glory of God, that they proclaim their maker’s handiwork. So what in the world are they telling, declaring, proclaiming?

We have two Bible readings set side-by-side that would have almost opposite perspectives on what skies are saying about God. In Isaiah, the darkened sky is an indicator of punishment, because of God’s fierce wrath at evil. That omen is ominous. It’s not an uncommon perception of skies in the Bible, that they show portents as the moon turns to blood and the sky to sackcloth. If we’re looking for meaning and trying to find answers, we shouldn’t just write this off as ancient superstitions about eclipses. We should legitimately consider what a darkened sky may tell us about God and our relationship with God.

But we cannot simply say it’s a sign of punishment or that we have a vindictive God who will use weather patterns to unleash fury on us. Because the reading from the Gospel of Mark ostensibly is the opposite. We turn from a reading about skies darkening as a sign of violence from God to a reading about skies darkening as a sign of violence to God. We hear the verbal abuse Jesus receives on his way to crucifixion, from the authorities on down to people who are suffering the same fate as him, only making his situation worse by heaping insults on him. And Jesus dies and the sky goes dark and the curtain of the temple is torn in two.

That tearing is an interesting detail I want to examine. The other time that word comes up in Mark’s Gospel is right at the start when the heavens are torn open at Jesus’ baptism. It’s a powerful word, like ripped apart or torn asunder. When something is torn, it’s not easily repaired. So the tearing open of the skies at Jesus’ baptism is paired with the tearing of the temple curtain. These are often seen that the abode of God can no longer be closed off. The barriers that kept us from God have been irreparably split open. Nothing can any longer separate us from God.

I want to consider another aspect of it, though, too, which will keep us closer to our theme of skies. Much of the time this word for tearing or rending is for clothes, with lamentation. It’s about sorrow and grief, a visible outer sign showing internal feelings. So in some way, the temple curtain tearing could be seen as God tearing God’s own garments in sorrow. And when the sky is like sackcloth, that also is a sign of sorrow. The sky is mourning. M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G. That is why the darkness.

So maybe our readings aren’t opposites. Maybe we see them together. The sky is mourning. It mourns violence. It mourns the breaking apart of relationship. It mourns death.

This is a very different perspective than usual. We are more likely to think of the sky as having the initiative, as the instigator, doing something to us. But in these biblical ways, the sky is responsive. It responds to human brokenness and evil. It responds to the death of Jesus. It responds in sorrow.

When we stop to reflect on it, it should be obvious: this is a relationship. We keep reiterating this about creation: that we aren’t somehow separate. That it’s not only about us. We’re all in it together, inextricably bound in relationship. We easily recognize it the other way; I started writing down this sermon on a day with sunny blue skies, and I know that affected my demeanor, but finished in more somber rain. My mood and my writing were different because of the sky. Probably this is why lovers like moonlight. And why energetic people and birds like the sunrise. We’re in relationship. It affects us.

What we consider today is simply the other side of it. Not only that we are affected, but that we affect. As in any relationship, it’s mutual.

Again, we often consider only one side of this. This week certainly is a clear time to be considering skies. But not clear skies and the exuberant sun of the Psalm. This provoked the wondering about punishment and anger and violence, and a week that unleashed furious torrents on us may feel like the rain was out to get us. Or God was against us.  Not a few of us who were mopping the carpet of our basements or worse may have been asking, “What did I do to deserve this?”

One honest answer has less to do with the sky providing evidence of God’s behavior and more evidence of our behavior. The real and unfortunate answer for what we did to deserve it more and more clearly connects to a changing climate, where we’ve turned the sky more volatile and violent, to hold more moisture, to produce bigger storms and in less usual places, or made the sky fickle to avoid even a drop where wildfires scorch, as we’re reminded in glowing orange sunsets. What did we do to deserve it? We burned coal and drove cars, ate beef and flew jets and bought too many things from across the globe. We made the sky sad. And God with it.

In another way, those changes to the climate offer a fascinating view of this complex relationship. If our Psalm says the skies declare God’s work, I reflect on the composition of our atmosphere. We do what with air? Breathe. And we breathe what? Oxygen. Well, the air around us is only about 20% oxygen. That means most of each breath you take is not the part you’re trying to use for your blood cells to take from your lungs and offer to the rest of your body. About 80% of the air is nitrogen. It is part of amino acids in your DNA and that plants use to grow. It makes the air not be so combustible where total oxygen would be unstable and burst into flames. So is this part of God’s design?

It’s more glaring with our carbon dioxide emissions. This enormous globe has an atmosphere seven miles thick (at least the part with which we mainly interact), but our small human actions are able to have an effect because this is SO finely tuned. The carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is supposed to be about .00035%. It is now at about .0004%. What is that difference? It’s like a thousand charging elephants stumbling over a pile of 50 apples. It’s minute. But it’s so precisely balanced. Again, I don’t know if we call that part of God’s glorious handiwork of the heavens, or observe it as the precarious nature of our relationship with the sky, where it can go from normally calm to raging and violent and vindictive at the drop of a hat.

It may not seem we’ve arrived much closer to an answer on what the skies tell us about God. So I want to come back to relationship once more with a specific example. I felt less affected by the storms this week, not because my basement stayed dry but because my emotions were elsewhere. Some of you know that my dog, Douglas Fir, died this week, two days after getting hit by a car. As the torrents of rain stalled cars, his little body was suffering its own storm, and we were being buffeted by sorrow. Exactly a year before his death, he’d been along as we watched the solar eclipse, not a bad omen but a delight that somehow all is sized and in orbit so our moon exactly can block our sun. Now with Doug’s death, I’m not looking at the sky as the cause. But I do look for response, including where God is.

Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Catholic theologian, famously called God the Unmoved Mover, who set everything else in motion. But I don’t need one who blows clouds at me or is responsible for all the events that follow. That’s not my question.

I need one this week who won’t put up with evil, much less cause it, or who stood by carelessly. I need one who responds with sorrow at storms that ravage and batter life, one who will irreparably tear down barriers to relationship, and darken the sun in mourning and tears falling from above. God’s glory, then, isn’t in the serene beauty. Where God’s hands are working the hardest is when life is suffering the worst damage and death is threatening or seeming to prevail.

In Jesus is the promise that the breath of God isn’t working violence and death but is life-breathing Spirit, renewing the face of creation, directly against and through death. We look to the skies not for evidence that something is out to get us, but that we are in it together, and God is with us, through the mourning and on to a new day of life.

 

Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!

7Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt,

8and they will be dismayed.

They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame.

9See, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,

to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.

10For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light;

the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.

11I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity;

I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.

13Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place,

at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of fierce anger.

(from Isaiah 13)

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified Jesus. 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 29Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

33When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.
34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

(from Mark 15)

 

 

 

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Planet Earth Sunday

sermon on Genesis1; Psalm33; John1:1-5,9-14
planet earth

It’s one way of talking about this enormous thing, to say that it is well ordered and in harmony, that each part has its place and time, that all of this is good and doing what it ought, that there is fullness and intention about creation.

With Genesis, we’ve been warped for around a century to think it’s primarily trying to convey a timeline of seven days, and that that’s the detail trying to assert itself over against some other as the Bible talked about this enormous thing of existence on planet Earth. But let’s hold as most important the harmonious order and blessedness as what Genesis is trying to help us comprehend of creation: It is good.

Another way of talking about it, of course, is a story where the planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago, consolidating out of interstellar dust of a solar nebula, taking shape with gravity and volcanoes and tectonics, gradually over eons and eras, epochs and ages. It comes out of an even more enormous story, three times as long, across the expansive scale of an expanding universe. It resolves that we may in the end not be unique or alone, but we are rare: one planet with breathable oxygen and liquid water, in a Goldilocks zone of neither too hot or cold. Is this one also, then, a story about good order coming out of former chaos? Maybe. At any rate, it is another way of trying to help us understand this enormous planet.

Sure, it’s a different way of talking about this enormous topic of trying to comprehend planet Earth. Actually much of any overlap between the two versions could almost be a surprise, other than that they’re both trying to understand it all. For one example, the word “planet” doesn’t even appear in the Bible, since at that time they thought all of this was fairly well established and didn’t know we could be wandering through a solar system and so on. But neither was their perspective entirely limited; in the language of the heavens and the earth, they were still trying to comprehend the enormity of everything, as much as they could understand.

On the other side, we may appreciate the greater knowledge of the scale of a globe in orbit and delineated fields of study, but that approach is still limited in scope or capability since the audacity to claim or label or attribute or value “good“ is not a scientific category or term, much less themes of blessing and God.

So in the beginning of this Season of Creation with planet Earth, there’s something about trying to wrap our minds around incomprehensible enormity. The Bible talks about the “ends of the Earth” as the term for what is incredibly distant and different, but still as if we could eventually get there if we knew the right direction to point our camel or if we trusted our boat. We now talk about the core and mantle, seismography, atmospheric and oceanic currents, as if we could go there or know where they were going. By one measure, 99% of species that have existed have gone extinct—over 5 billion. By another estimate, there are 1 trillion species existing right now, and we have identified .001% of them and hardly know where or how to look.

Explorations, vacations, and learning may enrich us, but what finally do we do with this Incomprehensible enormity? Well, one thing is to shrink the planet to our scale. I only partly mean the scale model of globes and maps, though those do help us understand. More, I mean that I personally comprehend the planet Earth better by driving north. I got to do that this week, where at about Black River Falls it feels more like my neck of the woods, eventually on to where my dad and I fitted together some pieces of the Earth to build our cabin. The opposite for me is driving south and at about the Illinois border I feel out of place, the flatness feeling featureless, not its own problem but for me making the Earth less comprehensible. The deepest in my soul is at about Shell Lake heading north, where trees get bigger and thicker and the clouds are somehow the right white puffiness, or when winter hits, all imprinted on my identity (or so my hunch goes) from my Spooner birthplace.

In spite of that knowable location to feel secure amid the incomprehensible enormity, I’m not ready to concede our mobile society suffers from rootlessness, that we’re just tumbling weeds across a vacant landscape, at risk without connection to place. We are still and always earthlings from the earth, adams from adamah, humans of the humus, still and always part of this creation, amid the web, inextricably linked, no matter how well we recognize or comprehend it.

Nor, clearly, am I trying to say people shouldn’t move, that migration is unacceptably against our nature or that people would be best to stay in the place or country where they were born.

Maybe the two enormous stories we’ve been considering actually commend immigration to us, that there are reasons and explanations for why not only people or birds or whales or monarchs move around the planet, but also those air and water currents and cycles, and on bigger scale erosion and deposition, forming and dissolving the very rocks and whole continents, and the spinning planet Earth itself. We can explain but not control this far-from-stationary existence.

The Genesis story, meanwhile, encourages us to understand that our stations and movements are for good, in service of life, as a part of the whole. It may seem to be described as more ordered and ruled and domineering in Genesis—that everything is in its place, there are prescribed times of night and day and season, that the moon shouldn’t shine at day and a penguin ought to be in the air as a bird and so is in the wrong place if it’s swimming. It was written by priests, guys who liked classifying and defining and knowing what’s what, like the scientist who tries to explain and categorize her research.

So it’s left to the rest of us to live in the overlaps, the gray areas, the reality of life that can’t be fully explained or ordered or comprehended, that doesn’t fit easy descriptions or precisely narrowed categories.

But rather than that just returning us to our own small corner of creation, that we do the best we can to make sense of our individual lives, identifying the place we like, where we feel we fit in, ignoring all the distinctions and complexities for others, rather than being relegated to such a weak resolution, as if that’s the best we can do or understand and that the enormity of the whole thing is too much, let’s turn to the even more enormous—to take the complex incomprehensible gray areas, the uncertainties of life, of more than we can possibly know, even the unclear distinctions of good and bad and what really is our place and infuse that with the presence of God. That’s really when we lose track of being able to explain.

Yet this is the trustworthy message of Scripture: the glory and presence of the Lord fills the earth, spreads across and through it all. We are never separated from God’s love, least of all when we feel most overcome and defeated, uncertain and lost. The point of talking about the “ends of the Earth” in the Bible is that even as far away and different and unknowable as that might be, it is not out of God’s reach. There is nowhere to go apart from God.

You can bet that if the Bible’s authors had known planets or galaxies or space travel or paleontology of dinosaurs facing an asteroid or quarks and neutrinos or even something so obviously part of creation as the band at a biergarten as Karen Schwarz pointed out, then those authors would’ve included those among the certainties of God’s blessing for goodness.

If they could have comprehended your life more clearly, directly because the promise seems so incomprehensible, they would have more clearly offered assurances of God’s blessing and goodness for you.

Instead that’s why you come for sermons, for this weekly updating, confronting the latest incomprehensible complexities and disorder of your life—or sometimes the predictable routines—the stuff you see as good and the stuff you struggle with as not good at all, your explorations and investigations, all met with the renewed reassured promise of God’s goodness and blessing not only at the center of a solar system or layered across a planet or in generic life cycles, but specifically for you and with you. God loves Illinois as much as the northwoods, junkyards as much as wild canyons, you as much as the saints of old, even if in different ways, as unfathomably incomprehensible as that might be.

And that is also the place of faith, receiving the incomprehensible, receiving this one who comes for enlightenment, to dwell with you. You know it in Jesus, the Word who became flesh and lived among us, and you know it as he now is present in this Word, becoming flesh and living again in you.

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mini mini sermon for midweek outdoor worship

on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

This feels like endings. August already. The last of these great gatherings. Extra middle schoolers with us, leading to thoughts of the end of summer break. Disgusting! It’s like the good stuff is done and gone.

20180807_210834_resizedBut I have my huaraches on my feet tonight, a souvenir taking me back to a marketplace in a lake village of Guatemala, even as these shoes walk me ahead into the rest of regular life, a symbol of godly journeys changing us in ways that continue forward even when the trip is over and vacation is past.

Remember that for all the vibrancy and spiritual experience of the Exodus story, the whole point and goal was the ending, the arrival, the Promised Land. Home. Much more than Exodus (a road out), it’s about Eisodus—a road in.

God prepares and travels with us and opens our eyes to new sights and reorients, all for the point of getting home. God isn’t with you only in impressive vistas or excitements of exploring. And back to life is never just routine, but with vibrant stories to tell, with souvenirs from travels, and the best offering gift as the fruits of your life, still yourself but living in a changed renewed way, “and grace lead you home.”

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sermon on the ELCA Social S

sermon on the ELCA Social Statement*
and Jeremiah 4:23-28; Romans 8:18-23; Psalm 96;

 

This Social Statement is a sixth as long as the one on education, but death penalty and racism are shorter. Still, this gets bonus points in my book because it’s got to address—by definition—Everything.

This isn’t a confineable topic, even compared to the not-so-narrow topics of how society relates to the half the population of one gender, or what to do about wars that take up billions of dollars of our federal budget. Not that those are piddly things and this is frying bigger fish. It’s that they’re all in the same barrel. By definition, creation means everything that’s not the Creator. So it includes fish and barrels and humans of whatever gender doing whatever we do to each other on this little planet amid the inconceivably vast universe and maybe multiverses. All of that in 12 pages of Social Statement.

Remarkable economy, if you ask me. I appreciate lots crammed into little space, though I can’t quite manage in this sermon the proportion of this Social Statement to the long ones, because it would be shorter than the mini mini sermons for midweek worship and I’d already be done. So I’d better get going.

I explicitly connect this to other Social Statements so we don’t wind up with a sense that this is something separate, that when we talk about creation we mean gardens and forests and giraffes and climate change, but don’t as clearly mean farmers and young girls who have to walk farther to haul water and national security and genetics and how we treat people in prisons. But this is all connected. I really appreciate this Social Statement for understanding that. When Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical came out in 2015, it made a splash for tying together ecological concerns and human rights. Well, the ELCA has known intersectional ecojustice for a quarter century at least, not only caring for animals or separating out human needs as if they’re extraterrestrial, somehow disconnected to life on this planet.

Though the MCC regularly recognizes such relatedness of God, neighbor, and creation, still I expect the Jeremiah reading felt uncomfortable and kind of bleak. But don’t think of it as God’s wrath to start. Instead observe consequences to misbehavior and living apart from God’s intentions: God wouldn’t be very loving if there were no repercussions for how we lived, no possible mournful result, and having license to mistreat others wouldn’t do well to fulfill God’s intentions, either. When we ignore God, farm fields do indeed dry up and wither. When we attend to God’s ways, life flourishes.

At the Capital biergarten Bible discussion on Wednesday, Kathy Henning said Jeremiah reminded her of the start of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book. Here is an excerpt so you can hear what Kathy meant:

There was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings, in the midst of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. Even in winter countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow.

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. The doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example where had they gone? It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

Do you hear the resonance with Jeremiah? Rachel Carson wasn’t writing a spiritual fiction about punishment from God. She was describing the detrimental effects of our use of pesticides like DDT. Certainly we people of faith would say that God continues the creative work of songs and colors and life and so strongly disfavors the causes of mysterious maladies and sick children or dying chickens, the barrenness and blight that Jeremiah also pictured. The effects of our actions were harming God’s good creation. The Social Statement describes this as rebellion against God, which leads to experiencing “disrupted nature [as] a judgment on our unfaithfulness as stewards.”

But it doesn’t end bleak. Like the Social Statement, Rachel Carson moved from a description of destruction and lack of faith toward life restored, freed from the bondage to decay. Paralleling the glimmer of prophetic hope, where Jeremiah sees all has not been completely destroyed, the vision of Silent Spring fostered the turning of culture away from DDT, re-filling spring days in the countryside with song.

The book provoked a revolutionary environmental movement, eventually calling us into things like Earth Day, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Clean Air and Water Acts. We should remember, much of that was signed under a not-very-eager President Nixon under pressure.

Since then, other cries and other crises have arisen. When the Social Statement was written in 1993, the hole in the ozone was seen as a catastrophic problem. Yet a global agreement meant that what was eating away at our atmosphere to allow in harmful radiation would be banned and the air could begin to heal. God’s intention could be restored. Destruction was not the end.

Again, in 1993, global warming was seen on the same level as the ozone hole. We managed to address one problem with a global agreement, and needed another revolution on the scale of prohibiting chemical corporations to profit from DDT, but in climate change have chipped away at the edges. We read the—not bleak but urgent—words in our Confession that “action to counter degradation, especially within this decade, is essential,” but two and a half times that span has passed and we are still needing to compel ourselves and others to the essential action.

A revolution producing global agreement to preserve the life of vulnerable humans and prevent the extinction of thousands of species is certainly not easy. As with the other Social Statements, that’s recognized here. But our faith is never about simple solutions to small potatoes problems. This is always big stuff, life-and-death, enormous tragic wrongs countered with even more powerful love, destructive evils versus creative life, and all founded in our God who is “deeply, mysteriously, and unceasingly involved.”

Though facing similarly weighty and fretful ethical dilemmas as other Social Statements, this one may even more recognize despair, the sense that we can’t make a difference, that the crisis is too big, that the resolution is too far off.

Yet we are people of hope. The creation waits for us, groaning with eager longing. It is not only we who have faith, but the stones crying out, and dogs going into the kingdom of heaven, and valleys waiting to bloom and rejoice, and the trees to clap their hands, and everything in the seas with their coral reefs acidifying. They wait in hope, a glorious hope that may be unseen but will not disappoint.

And so we act. We act, Romans reminds us, even through suffering.

Now, I don’t know if Peter Bakken would say it was suffering to help write this social statement, but it certainly has helped bring important actions to birth. Rachel Carson faced loads of ostracism and even threats for her work. President Nixon probably had some of his own disgruntled suffering. For me, I can’t say that my biking to reduce fossil fuel use has been too much suffering this past week, with such pleasant summer days. It was no great struggle to be out with Kids in the Garden this week, and only slightly more to take an afternoon for a Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light meeting. My decision not to eat much meat doesn’t feel fitting for a metaphor of labor pains. Neither is my suffering of choosing to act analogous with those who suffer from inaction, whose homes are inundated by hurricanes or wildfires, whose song goes silent as they are overrun by a greedy economy, whose bodies are poisoned to the confusion of doctors or veterinarians or biologists.

But I do trust my kinship with all of these, knowing their need from sound science, trusting our relationship through Christ our sibling, with compassion breathed into us anew by the life-giving Spirit that compels our concern and energizes our action, the creative possibilities that stretch in front of us, founded by and resulting in God’s goodness, our true and vital source and goal, our sure home. That is the end.

We heard in the Social Statement’s conclusion: “The prospect of doing too little too late leads many people to despair. But as people of faith, captives of hope, and vehicles of God’s promise, we face the crisis. We claim the promise.” Vehicles of promise. That sounds like the most environmentally-sensitive vehicle there could be. And I rejoice in being aboard with you.


excerpt for reading:

We testify to the hope that inspires and encourages us. We announce this hope to every people, and witness to the renewing work of the Spirit of God. We are to be a herald here and now to the new creation yet to come, a living model.
Our tradition offers many glimpses of hope triumphant over despair. In ancient Israel, as Jerusalem was under siege and people were on the verge of exile, Jeremiah purchased a plot of land. When Martin Luther was asked what he would do if the world were to end tomorrow, he reportedly answered, “I would plant an apple tree today.” When we face today’s crisis, we do not despair. We act.
Given the power of sin and evil in this world, as well as the complexity of environmental problems, we know we can find no “quick fix”—whether technological, economic, or spiritual. A sustainable environment requires a sustained effort from everyone. The prospect of doing too little too late leads many people to
despair. But as people of faith, captives of hope, and vehicles of God’s promise, we face the crisis. It is in hope of God’s promised fulfillment that we hear the call to justice; it is in hope that we take action.

excerpt for Confession & Forgiveness:
Fac[ing] decisions made difficult by human limitation and sin,
we act, not because we are certain of the outcome
but because we are confident of our salvation in Christ.

Not content to be made in the image of God,
we have rebelled and disrupted creation.
A disrupted nature is a judgment on our unfaithfulness as stewards.
Alienated from God and from creation,
we become captives to demonic powers and unjust institutions.
In our captivity, we treat the earth as a boundless warehouse
and allow the powerful to exploit its bounties to their own ends.
Our sin and captivity lie at the roots of the current crisis.
Meeting the needs of today’s generations for food, clothing, and shelter
requires a sound environment.
Action to counter degradation, especially within this decade,
is essential to the future of our children and our children’s children.
Time is very short.

Sin and captivity, manifest in threats to the environment, are not the last word.
By the cross and resurrection of + Jesus Christ,
God frees [you] from [your] sin and captivity,
and empowers [you] to be loving servants to creation.
Although we remain sinners, we are freed from our old captivity to sin.
We are now driven to God’s promise of blessings yet to come.
Captured by hope, we proclaim that the Spirit of God,
“the giver of life,” renews the face of the earth.
Captured by hope, we dream dreams and look forward to a new creation. Amen

 

excerpt for Creed:
The creeds, which guide our reading of Scripture,
proclaim God the Father of Jesus Christ as “maker of heaven and earth,”
Jesus Christ as the one “through [whom] all things were made,”
and the Holy Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life.”

All creation, not just humankind, is viewed as “very good” in God’s eyes.
By faith we understand God to be deeply, mysteriously, and unceasingly
involved in what happens in all creation.
Central to our vision
of God’s profound involvement with the world is the Incarnation.
In Christ, the Word is made flesh,
with saving significance for an entire creation that longs for fulfillment.
The Word still comes to us in the waters of baptism,
and in, with, and under the bread and wine.
God consistently meets us where we live, through earthy matter.

We depend upon God,
who places us in a web of life with one another and with all creation.
In our time, science and technology can help us to discover
how to live according to God’s creative wisdom.
We look forward to a redemption that includes all creation. Amen


excerpt for prayers:
Creation must be given voice, present generations and those to come. We must listen to the people who fish the sea, harvest the forest, till the soil, and mine the earth, as well as to those who advance the conservation of the environment. We recognize obstacles of people lacking power [and] bombarded with manipulated information. We pray, therefore, that our church may be a place where differing groups can be brought together, tough issues considered, and a common good pursued.

We acknowledge interdependence with other creatures. Solidarity asks us to stand with the victims of fire, floods, earthquakes, storms, and other natural disasters. We recognize many ways we have broken ranks with creation in disenfranch[isement], degradation, and discrimination. We pray, therefore, for the humility and wisdom to stand with and for creation, and the fortitude to support advocates whose efforts are made at personal risk.

For all to have enough means that those with more than enough will have to change their patterns of acquisition and consumption. Sufficiency charges us to work with each other and the environment to meet needs without causing undue burdens elsewhere. We pray, therefore, for the strength to change our personal and public lives, to the end that there may be enough.

Neither economic growth that ignores environmental cost nor conservation of nature that ignores human cost is sustainable. Both will result in injustice. We know that a healthy economy can exist only within a healthy long-term sustainability of our planet. We pray, therefore, for the creativity and dedication to live more gently with the earth.

 

* http://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Caring-for-Creation

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