#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.

Advertisements
Standard

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)

 

 

 

Standard

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

Standard

I AM and you will be

sermon on John 11:6-8, 14-27, 32-50

 

Life and death, death vs. life. It’s the defining struggle. And this is a crucial moment.

The narrative of Jesus’ life obviously is accentuated as we get to Holy Week—from Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday and on into Easter—and we live in realtime through the final week of Jesus’ life. Today’s story happens not long before that, maybe just a few weeks before the end.

Yet it’s halfway through the Gospel of John. That interesting note is not unusual to John, that half of the story of Jesus is this stuff right at the end. He lived for somewhere over three decades, but most of what we relate to are these final moments of his life.

John tells today’s story as a crucial moment, a turning point, causing the lead-up to the end. This is the final major sign of Jesus, and is the final of the I AM statements we hear in our series, and it all points toward his death. But also, then, to life. Those two ends challenge each other intensely.

Let’s start at the beginning and find our way forward, from death into life. The story started while Lazarus was ill but alive, with the detail that Jesus waited to go to him, two more days. He then arrived four days after Lazarus had already died.

In the story, this emphasizes that Jesus isn’t working mere bits of resuscitation, putting a bandage on or a small cure. His healing is for wholeness. God’s work is best made known, Jesus indicates, by him not being there in this case.

There’s no reason to take that detail as more broadly applicable. It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t care about wellness in smaller ways. It’s not that God refuses to help until things have gotten to be so bad that only a miracle would matter. It’s not that Jesus ignores everybody in need, failing to show up for a few days. No, that’s not God’s normal practice or standard operating procedure, but just a revealing detail here to highlight the larger truth.

So Lazarus is dead.

Thomas rightly observes that going with Jesus back to Jerusalem will mean more death. By the end of today, it’s clearer than ever that that’s what’s in store for Jesus. But he goes anyway, goes to the sisters of the dead man (as Lazarus is called in the story, to reinforce the difficult fact).

With one sister, Jesus talks theology. They have a mini-Bible study to help her faith. She is able to look past the dreadful present circumstances toward something more, toward hope.

The other sister, not so much. She only weeps. Jesus doesn’t try to lecture her or offer explanation, to whitewash over it and say everything will be okay. Instead, he weeps with her.

That’s the kind of Jesus many of us first need in such moments, not a distracting from our grief but dwelling in it with us, in empathy. I try to practice that myself when I’m met with tears, not to explain away, but to reside in the sorrow with the person. It’s not about right answers and certainly not just to cheer them up. It’s recognizing the validity of sorrow, and sharing it.

Of course it can’t end there, though. A Jesus who only was compassionate could be consoling but wouldn’t offer anything to end the sadness. We need more from him, especially in the face of death.

So he continues to the tomb of the dead man and calls him out. The unbinding and letting him go isn’t only about unhitching the fasteners on Lazarus’ coffin, but is about freeing him for life, taking away the deadly confines so he may be released back to live fully and abundantly, as it’s supposed to be.

In that way, the next time Lazarus appears in the story is at the family supper table, restored to his place with his sisters, to companionship and camaraderie, to the nourishing of life, to support each other.

If this were a fairy tale, we could arrive at that conclusion and say “they all lived happily ever after.” The good guy faced overwhelming odds, but somehow saved the day. Death was vanquished. Loving relationships were restored.

But this is not a fairy tale. This is the reality of our world. Life was endangered. But death was not the end. But life will not yet be the end, either. Lazarus is raised, brought back to life. And yet death will not give up so quickly. No sooner is Lazarus out of the grave than the authorities confirm their resolve to put Jesus into a grave. They argue it’s better to have one man die. The logic of scapegoating abounds, but is never so finely tuned as it claims to be. Within a few verses, they’ll have discovered that Lazarus is a popular attraction, so they’ll also want to get rid of him, too. The cycle of violence can never be satisfied with one death, but keeps churning through more victims, and fails anyway to add authentic life for those who are caught up in it and perpetuate it. It’s a vicious rhythm that needs to be broken.

So it stands that Jesus meets death with life while the world responds over and over by obstructing life with death.

Looking for other models around us of this perpetual pattern, I’d suggest not to presume to look outside as spring emerges. The back and forth of seasons can mischaracterize summer as life and winter as death. Since it’s God’s good creation, we should better see winter also as part of God’s work for life, not a separation from it. Always in creation, God is striving to bring life from death, newness from where there was nothing.

We may look elsewhere for the meeting of life and death, where our creative God is bringing life from death, even while the world tries to counter with more deadliness and destruction.

In these weeks, probably a clearest portrait is in school classrooms, places of life, of learning, of growth. We should recognize God’s work there, because caring and sharing of knowledge, discovering our place in the world, nurturing talents, assisting the little ones—this work of teachers and students is the work of God giving life.

We’ve witnessed again as that was countered with death, as a school for fostering life was met with bullets and all classrooms became filled with fear. Death trying to take the place of life.

But the students stood up on the side of life. We heard from our own young people last Sunday that this has gone on too long, that enough is enough, that it needs to change. Students paused Wednesday to grieve 17 deaths, and then walked out to demand that their lives be valued and supported. That is godly striving for life over death.

We’ll see whether that specific struggle for life can be sustained, or whether it is squelched and death again tries to prevail as authorities ignore young people and discourage them, indirectly and directly harming their liveliness.

We notice the pattern in other places, that roads are for fostering our connections and vocations, but news of a bridge collapse brings death, and so godly striving would lead to improved infrastructure spending and well-studied engineers and safer streets.

Or that weather patterns provide for life on this globe, but hurricanes enflamed by climate change bring devastation, but God responds for life through noisy offerings for relief efforts and striving to mitigate the worst of global warming’s disastrous effects.

Or I reflect on how 15 years ago I was an intern preaching against invading Iraq, that the “shock and awe” of our God isn’t about violence against enemies but persistently and quietly and even now is for life and freedom.

Or this is also in gradual gains against nuclear threats; in the hope of North Korea talks, God works life over death.

Or God’s work as protecting life-giving water sources and wetlands against perils from pollution or short-term profit.

Or in hard family conversations to talk through difficulties: that is God working through death for life.

We notice God’s work for life over death even within our own bodies, of God’s constant renewal in healing your injuries, in expanding your possibilities, continuing to create you anew within each cell and with every breath. It may seem as you age and feel decrepit and wearing out and await a looming funeral that death will have the final word, but then especially we look to God’s promise of life.

See, we may notice this struggle everywhere and always. But it’s not in the individual cases of whether life can conquer death. We are all Lazarus and Jesus is always Jesus. So we trust the outcome, even though we somehow wind up acting like we don’t know the end of the story. We pretend like there’s still a question of whether godly life will finally be able to overcome death. Or we dismally forget and declare with news stories and our sad days that life has lost.

And this time of year in church may even tempt us that way further, to doubt by pretending we don’t know the end. As the authorities threaten Jesus, we figure again the nastiest powers and biggest bullies will always get their way. Bittersweet Palm Sunday cheers a king who will be killed, executed before the week is out. Good Friday feels like the most emotional day of the church year. At Easter two weeks from now, we feign surprise at resurrection, (if it even matters,) as if we didn’t expect Jesus to rise from the grave and thought death does rule and life might not win, that God had been beaten, that the victory was not for us.

But we know the end of this story. Like a favorite movie, we may still be moved as it continues on, still be swept up in the action. We know the struggle is real. We still take time to grieve together. We weep at death. But we also laugh in its face, because we know the end. We know Alleluias are waiting to burst forth. We know tears will be wiped away. We know it is not just Lazarus who will be restored, but all our relationships, all our fractured pains healed, all creation renewed.

I AM the resurrection and the life”—yes, we know this, Jesus. You are always and fully life for us.

We trust it.

We remember it.

We celebrate it.

We already live, alive, freed from what would bind us, freed from what confines us, freed to live abundantly, ceaselessly, boldly with love.

We are called out from death.

And we keep living into it, now and forever.

 

Hymn: The Word of God is Source and Seed (ELW 506)

Standard

on the moral imperative to care for the earth

for an interfaith rally for human rights at the Wis. state capitol

We begin with an important distinction too often missed in these days: we are people of faith, but our religious perspective does not confine us to the narrow either/or of a confidence in God versus a confidence in science. Such a perspective is no broader than saying you can use your eyes or you can use your hands but you can’t use and trust both ways of encountering our world.

So as faithful people who are reasonable and committed to the truth of values and truth of knowledge, we are concerned about our impact on this planet and what it means for future generations of our children, for the poor, for the sick, for other creatures, and—really—for our own wellbeing in this place. Approaching the spring equinox with the balance of light and change of seasons, we are again reminded we cannot control nature’s patterns, but are called to live within them.

We know the overwhelming consensus of scientific data shows carbon dioxide impacts our atmosphere. Climate change is real. Fossil fuel companies are worsening it. It’s already causing a severe crisis globally and right here. So we reject extreme foolishness and ignorance

And we reject the bondage to those wealthy companies that would roll back regulations. These protections are already benefiting our health and our economy and are being adapted and adopted by the automotive industry and energy providers. So we reject the muzzling of wise and carrying voices and whole government departments.

20170319_154739[1]

And we refuse to be quiet. To echo to the top of this capitol dome and beyond, we exclaim “no” in the face of voices that claim lives are expendable (no!), that endangered species are out of luck (no!), that we must put up with pollution (no!), put up with wanton waste (no!), put up with un-natural disasters (no!), that we can live without beauty (no!), or live without forests (no!), that we can do whatever we want (no!), that only short term profit matters (no!), that our brains don’t matter (no!), that our lungs don’t matter (no!), that our children don’t matter (no!), that our hearts don’t matter (no!), that the earth doesn’t matter (no!).

We say yes we care. There is a better way. Yes. There is a way forward. Yes. Life is worth it. Yes! We say it so it echoes today: yes. And reverberates tomorrow when leaders are here for work: yes. And resonates on into a better future: yes!

Standard

Inauguration Vigil for Climate Change

Reflection for Vigil of First 100 Hours of a New Presidency on Climate Change

A lot depends on perspective in these days, and so depending on your perspective, you might find it either a fitting coincidence or grotesquely ironic that this week ending in inauguration began with the observance of Martin Luther King day.

Whether good or ill, I’ve been considering the Rev. King’s words and example amid this moment. There are, again, things both more and less helpful.

Less helpful to me feels that grand reassurance oft repeated by Rev. King, that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. Overall, I have that hope in God’s blessing and promise. Yet we’re gathered in vigils around the country in these days particularly recognizing that we don’t have time for a long arc. We can’t wait for eventuality. The fate of so much wellbeing on our planet—on lives already as well as generations to come and the very shape of creation’s community as we know it—direly is demanding our concern.

On that note, Rev. King also impatiently resisted those who asked him to wait for more favorable conditions. He witnessed such revolutionary times where people all over the globe “are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression.” Almost 50 years ago he gave a famous speech explaining the challenge that resisting racism connected to resisting war. Or—in others of his famous phrases—that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

We see today a similar expanse of overlapping categories and the calling to a common cause. Climate change is about saving polar bears from extinction, but climate change is also about native communities in Alaska melting through the permafrost. And climate change is about refugees and low-lying cities that are already facing expensive emergencies, and climate change is about women’s rights as villagers have to walk farther and farther for water, and climate change is about rural lives, as agriculture in Wisconsin will be battling more and more pests, and climate change is about health care facing pandemics for the poor and elderly, and climate change is about recreation and tourism, and avoidably about the Department of Natural Resources and the Public Service Commission (and their websites) and climate change is about politics and is about the economy, both tied together in the shameless greed of fossil fuel companies trying to profit in the face of impending disaster. Climate change is about the fullness of who we are, which also means climate change is about religion, is about God, about the faith we practice, about our sin and our hope, is about the deepest of our beliefs and corest of our commitments.

I’ll conclude with words Rev. King delivered those 50 years ago which speak for us here, now, and invite our ongoing devotion:  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. [he said]… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response. … [W]hatever the cost … and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must [act] in this crucial moment of human [and non-human!] history.

Standard

Reflections on People’s Climate March for Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light webinar

Picture1

Thank you.

I’m really excited for this chance to share with you, partly for the effort of trying to take you on sort of a virtual trip to the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, but also it’s a great chance for me to re-live it.

Picture2

You know how getting to tell stories after you’ve been on a trip takes your memory back to that locale and in some way makes your body actually feel like you’re back there…well, that’s how this feels for me now.

And it’s a great thing to re-live, to have the happenings of that exciting weekend freshened and reinvigorated in my mind.

Picture3

That’s sort of our point of this webinar, to inspire you or to reinvigorate you, and to have that be motivation for our ever-ongoing work. We’re people who need occasional good news and refreshment and re-creation, so I’ll see what I can do.

Picture4

If I’m trying to put you in my shoes and take you to the streets of New York, it’s only fair first to load you on the bus with me.  Sierra Club helped fund buses all over the country, and for us in the Madison area, that meant three Van Galder coaches. My wife Acacia and I loaded up on Saturday afternoon with about 150 others and hit the road. We stopped late in the evening in Indiana to brush our teeth, at a rest area in Pennsylvania in the middle of the night with the season’s first glimpse of Orion, and then arrived in the morning in New York. Overall, we were gone less than 48 hours, and all but 8 of those hours were on the bus. Yipe.

Yet all that sitting and trying to sleep on the bus wasn’t the hardest part for me. What was most difficult was getting through the Lincoln Tunnel that morning and into lower Manhattan and trying to get to our dropoff point.

Picture5

It felt like it was taking forever, the city was so crowded. There were a bunch of good faith gatherings and worship services that morning, and I’d hoped to be part of that stuff, but traffic was just too thick and progress too slow. That would become a mark for the day, as we would discover.

Our dropoff, see, was at the back of the staging area. The plan was that it would go by bloc, or by shared interests or involvement. Many from our buses were connected to the Madison 350.org efforts against the Enbridge tar sands oil pipeline that is scheduled to ramp up through Wisconsin. (This slide shows the hovering pipeline octopus from our bus.)

Picture6

By now we’ve all heard the number 400,000, but originally we had no idea to expect anything like that. The organizers were sort of talking around 100,000, maybe hoping 150. There were more than 1500 organizations, though, connected and involved (including some other groups, I’m sure, that you each participate in), so with that spread, there was no real way to survey everybody and get good estimates on who was going to be there.

I just want to show you a little bit of the planned map.

Picture7

The whole length along Central Park West was just to get people ready.

Picture8

That’s a mile-and-a-half of staging, and Acacia and I started trying to make our way forward through it, since the interfaith groups were all gathering together way up at the front of the march, up at 59th Street by Columbus Circle.

Well, I’ll tell you now that we never made it. It took us almost two hours to make it that far, the crowds were so thick.

Picture10 Picture13Picture11 Picture12

So I’d intended to represent Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light along with the other states’ IPL groups, and the Lutheran advocacy group, and so on. But instead I got to represent Wisconsin IPL amid the vegans and socialists and students and wind energy advocates and people for indigenous human rights and Citizens Climate Lobby and brass bands and bicyclists and Seattle Raging Grannies and those calling for military reform and health advocates and clever signs and amazing art and kids and on and on and on.

Picture14 Picture17 Picture16 Picture15

That diversity was the most surprising and really the most exciting thing. I would’ve loved to have been among the religious sect and our focus of shared passion, but instead it was so amazingly hopeful to have the broad perspective. I mean, we interfaith folks have our own access point for this work, and it is probably among the most intimate and heartfelt of connections, to find this as a spiritual imperative and a connection to creatures and our shared Creator, with the vast communities of our congregations in prayer and inspiring each other.

Picture18 Picture20 Picture21 Picture22

But seeing all the ways others were also already addressing climate change was amazing. Instead of the meager and infrequent actions that our government musters, and even though we were there in New York to bolster the work of the United Nations as they were preparing to meet and have another round of conversations on international agreements, that has for too long failed to make much progress, really even with Obama’s China announcement today. But out on the streets were thousands and thousands of people who were excited about this work, who shared a pause of silence that day and shared cheering, who learned from each other and gave hope to each other, who were ready to make a difference and were already making a difference.

Picture19Which seems like almost a perfect segue into the next part of this webinar, except that I also want to tell you about the conclusion—or the non-conclusion—of the march. Along the way, it seemed appropriate to go past Trump Tower and get to show off how wrong and foolish deniers like him are. It also seemed meaningful to march past the memorial to Teddy Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History with an inscription to “a great leader…in love and conservation of nature and of the best in life and in [humankind].”

Picture24

But besides what we marched past was also what we didn’t get to march to. Altogether, from that far-back starting point to the destination would’ve been just under 4 miles. Not counting that distance of the staging area, the official route for the march was about 2.5 miles. Well, we only made it about half that distance.

Picture9 Picture23

One of my last photos shows a view just before entering Times Square. And at that point we were stuck. My phone buzzed with a text message from the march organizers, saying that the police were asking us to disperse. They had no place left to put us. The front of the march had reached the end, and there were so many of us we couldn’t even fit through the streets of New York. There was nowhere left for us to go.

Picture25

That seems like a good metaphor and also a beautiful vision for our work together. We haven’t reached our destination, we’re still on our way, and have a long way ahead of us in taking care of this earth and mitigating the worst of climate change. That’s the metaphor. The vision and my last words of hope and inspiration is in the idea that there are so many of us connected and abundantly engaged that we entirely overwhelm the system.

Thank you.

Picture26

Standard