Why God?

sermon on Psalm 8, Holy Trinity Sunday
Clouds, sleepiness, and other factors have complicated things so far, but I’ll keep trying (maybe in the darkness of the Boundary Waters) to see Jupiter four times brighter than the brightest star in the sky. It’s so close (relatively speaking, of course) that the four Galilean moons should be visible with binoculars. Those moons were first spotted by Galileo 400 years ago, the biggest of around 79 moons Jupiter has. There may even be a chance to see the Great Red Spot, a centuries-old storm that had been three times the size of our entire planet, but has calmed by 20% in the past month, and nobody knows why.

It’s so phenomenal, and fits exactly with the Psalmist’s neck craned heavenward to the sun, moon, and stars that the Creator set in their courses. Like the composer of Psalm 8, we may be struck by a feeling of insignificance. Thinking on that scale, particularly enveloped by wilderness night sky, we ask “What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?”

I was hearing that Ben, three-year old brother of baptism baby James, is fond of asking Why? Sometimes even 20 consecutive answers and explanations still prompt a 21st “Why?” His dad Mike matches that with his own perspective on God, asking lots of Whys, always wondering, wondering, wondering.

And that’s what’s in our Psalm today. Looking up across lightyears, trying to fathom the unfathomable, pondering our place: Why would God care for humans?

The Psalm seems to have one answer for what makes us special, which might strike us as pompous and domineering. It presumes a hierarchy and finds our uppity place in it. This view draws a chart with God at the top, then angels or divine beings, and humans still pretty close to the top, going down from there to good animals maybe like gorillas or dolphins or pet dogs, followed by lower animals like blue jays and salamanders and hermit crabs, and then slugs and jellyfish and mosquitoes, on down to trees and flowers, which are still higher than dirt and rocks and a muddy puddle.

That tiered system may try to label what’s alive or not. There’s also food chain elements to it. And it involves a perspective on complexity, that your eyeball is more evolved than a jellyfish belly.

But it seems slightly suspicious to claim I’m better as a human being, while an oak tree hundreds of years old is nothing, or a structured colony of bees, or even my dog who understands my language though I don’t understand his at all. Not to mention claiming that I’m alive means I must be favored over (possibly) lifeless Jupiter, even though it’s 2.5 times as massive as all the other planets in the solar system combined.

Not only is it slightly audacious and dubiously defined to stake out that position for ourselves, but it comes with a terrible risk. For some reason, we wind up quick to abuse our territory, claiming we can lord it over other creatures, can trample them and do what we like without regard for others.

We should clearly realize that this Psalm is far from giving us permission to do harm or use up this earth. After all, creatures declare God’s majesty. A lake with its fish poisoned, a sky too polluted to see stars, a dead field that holds soybeans but harbors no life, diminish the praise of a majestic God.IMG_2299

Even in this sanctuary, when it’s too focused on humans, loses the best and most authentic praise. I’d really like to get a bird to sing Alleluias with us. But at least for the summer we’ve got plants and fish that rightly expand our praise.

I believe the place of humans is not better or worse, but different. See, birds sing their praise without instruction. Plants grow and bear fruit. Fish naturally know their place. Jupiter doesn’t need to be told how to be a planet. But humans need the reminder. Unlike the rest of creation, it seems, we need to be re-placed in these relationships, to be set right.

So instead of ranking it in a hierarchy to make winners and losers, instead of carving out our niche as haughty trampling tyrants on the one hand, or falling from the moral high ground into lament and despair of the damage we’ve done and how difficult it sometimes seems it is to do right, to be well, to live life as we should—neither placing ourselves abusively above nor so low and feeble, instead today we have a different perspective, and it comes to us from James Robert, or maybe with him.

“What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, O God, human beings that you should care for them?” That question remains. As a remarkable mark of mindfulness and care, God gives the promise in baptism.

God has claimed a place of prominence for James Robert. God has offered eternal assurances, tying him to the resurrected and unending life of Jesus. James Robert is clothed in the very presence of God, chosen for God’s mission in the world of right relationships of justice and peace. He has been sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Clearly that is a gift. Sure, we could say that James Robert is plenty cute, especially when he’s smiling. But God didn’t choose him for his looks.

It’s not because of his singing voice or because he knows the answers and can speak for God, though the Psalm says God’s praise and defense comes out of the mouths of babes and infants. I don’t expect the next time he’s wailing in the middle of the night it will feel like he’s praising God. Yet God must not need our articulate words, our songs pitched to praise. Even with a small sob, God wants to be identified.

Even more clearly, then, the status of humans generally and James Robert particularly is not from his potential, because he’s so powerfully capable. This is the really amazing thing about baptizing babies: it’s not their choice. It’s not their ability. It’s not their response. It’s not the good they have done or the bad that they’ll try to stay away from. It’s only and totally because God wants him. What are human beings that God is mindful, we little people that God cares? Well, with baptism we have the clear proclamation that our place is beloved. It’s not anything we are or aren’t but is because of what God is, a God of love, of relationship, a God of reconciliation and compassion, a God striving for life.

On this Trinity Sunday, maybe that’s what we notice, a God not of lording it over, not of power and might, but a God of possibility and life, even beyond death, a God delighting in creation, a God who is somehow with us right now.

We ask why. And we can’t fully know. We ask how, and we can just trust. We may only have that our tradition has been able to discern this God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, the Father of Jesus, God incarnate suffering to make it right, God’s Spirit invisible but still bringing Jesus to be with us as she leads us into this truth. And all that because God wants you to know your place: you are loved.

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lectionary 27b Care for Creation Commentary

20th Sunday after Pentecost in 2018

 

Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 8

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

 

Sometimes the lectionary offers passages that seem tailor-made for reflecting on creation care, on God as Creator, on how we worship with other creatures and share our place on this planet. It can feel almost as if the periscope is intentionally cut from the broader cloth of Scripture exactly to reveal and highlight these possibilities and connections.
And yet sometimes even that perfect garment is obscured by a single stain, no longer offering precisely fit clothing, but only drawing attention to one small bit that threatens to overwhelm all the rest.

 

For this Sunday, the readings include humankind of all genders and ages, placed intentionally and with delightful expectation amid the birds and animals, both wild beasts and domestic companions. The readings envision the migration of whales and bustling coral reefs. They declare the repetitive praise in the glorious display of the God who made this: “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:1 & 9)! They foster an opening for classic Christian reflection on the Trinity and the second person as the Word that spoke creation into being, as Hebrews declares it is the Son “through whom [God] also created the worlds” (1:2).

 

And yet for those many opportunities to celebrate majestically how we and our faith relate to “all” the earth (a view of creation in the Psalm that not only encompasses everything on this globe but also includes the praise of the stars—see verse 3), the possible connections are probably immediately subsumed in the thoughts of a congregation when Jesus has to address the question about divorce. It’s intended as a “gotcha” question, a wedge issue, putting Jesus on the spot. But it also ricochets and reverberates through lives today, bearing lots of weight on “what does God think about divorce?” That complexly includes both the pressures for one who may feel a helpless victim cast off and one who may live with guilt for having caused a fracture, or—most likely—all these conflicting emotions within individuals.

 

So it seems that the task with this set of readings is how to be able to consider the question and answer about divorce without totally losing the opportunity to consider and celebrate wider creation. Thankfully, it seems that the texts themselves offer exactly that path forward.

 

For the starting point, it could be helpful to reflect on how we consider ourselves, including our very identity as humans created by God. We have been conditioned to view marriage—and meaning in this way marriage between a man and a woman—as the standard in society, and also as prescribed by God. Yet when we look around our congregations, we should quickly realize that this is not wholly normative, nor should it be definitive of what it means to be human.

 

Amid the congregation on a Sunday morning, there will be babies, infants, and toddlers, those celebrated in the Psalm as having mouths that serve as a bulwark “to silence the foe and the avenger” (v2). However we interpret that—whether their loud crying drives away violent hoards or that God is operating through them even without study and wisdom and strong speech—we must note that these youngest among us are potent and to be cherished as they are.

 

We next hold onto the end of Jesus’ words of blessing for children (again, at risk for getting lost as a cuddly little addition after the difficult divorce discussion); clearly we can’t say that the youth among us are only waiting to grow up and when they get married then they’ll really be doing what God wants. Just the opposite, Jesus says the adults among us need to become like children in order to belong to the kingdom of God.

 

As we look at adults around us, we’ll realize there are adults living vibrant lives as part of our congregation and community who are sustained by a wide variety of relationships other than marriage. We recognize and celebrate these wonderful humans who may have always been single, who are widowed, or who are divorced.

 

With that, we’re also overdue as Christian community to notice and celebrate the relationships that aren’t the stereotypical marriages of male and female, husband and wife. In fact, we won’t be able to understand Jesus’ perspective on divorce unless we see more than old cultural presumptions.

 

The best place to start for that (with a trajectory toward addressing Jesus’ statement on divorce) is to look at the Genesis passage as accurately as possible, while refusing the old cultural presumptions that either have arisen from that reading and come to define our cultural perceptions or, in the reverse form, have imposed the biases of our society into the reading and handed it on to us in its current form in most versions of Scripture.

 

Here’s an effort at a better translation to depict the relationships Genesis is actually striving to portray:

Then Yahweh God said, “It is not good for the earthling to be alone. I will make a fitting companion for it.” So from the earth Yahweh God formed all the various wild beasts and all the birds of the air and brought them to the earthling to be named. The earthling gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals. But none of them proved to be a fitting companion. So Yahweh God made the earthling fall into a deep sleep, and while it slept, God divided the earthling in two, then closed up the flesh from its side. Yahweh God then fashioned the two halves into male and female, and presented them to one another.

(Genesis 2:18-22, translation a compilation from Inclusive Bible, Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p78, and Nick Utphall)

 

This passage has wordplay throughout in the original Hebrew: God took earth and made an earthling. For that, the first word to know is adamah, which means earth. The second Hebrew word is already familiar to most: adam. But it’s not a proper name, “Adam,” the way it has been often communicated. Neither is it at all helpful to translate it as “man,” (compare, for example, the New Revised Standard Version which substitutes “man” immediately in verse 18). That fails to portray the creative work of God sculpting us from natural, earthly materials and disconnects the human from the humus, separating us from the land as our origin. Too often, that pre-eminence of “man” has further gone on to be applied in putting men (meaning males) first, before all the rest.

 

Since the King James Version at least, that male-centered application of this passage has dominated and become an enormously influential example of how patriarchal structure and sexist presuppositions warp our understandings of God, the Bible, and ourselves. Translators did their own picking and choosing to invent things that weren’t in the Hebrew. Right away they started putting in the word “man,” and eventually there gets to be a capital-A guy named Adam. In that telling, after this primal version of masculinity is done tilling up the land and categorizing the beasts, he goes on a hunt for a wife as a helper. She gets subordinated as being made from a small piece of her husband.

 

Notice the striking difference from the above version where it is not an etiology of how a man finds a domestic servant to do laundry and make supper, but as human beings being the most fitting companions for each other. A paraphrase of the point of Genesis might be that while a dog may be man’s best friend, that pales next to general human relationships. From what was originally a gender-neutral passage about our connections to earth and the goodness of shared companionship with each other, it has been instead twisted it into a domineering masculine blueprint which, by the end of the next chapter, is applied to blame females for all evil and brokenness.

 

That cultural circumstance is also some of what Jesus was trying to address. Note well that this was not simply a question about when a relationship faces difficulties or fractures. In that society, divorce could only be initiated by the male (see, for example, Deuteronomy 24, with some of the language from Moses about “a certificate of divorce” as mentioned in the Gospel reading). So this was a question about men having more power, being able to dismiss a wife simply at their own choosing.

 

Jesus refutes that by telling us to take the relationships more seriously. This is weighty and difficult to address in a congregation, because there will be some who have been hurt and feel wronged by a divorce, even as there are others whose wellbeing was significantly aided by a divorce. This isn’t simply a question “Is divorce allowed? Is it good or bad?” It’s an answer from Jesus that says our relationships—particularly our closest relationships where our love is most especially practiced on a daily basis—are not to be taken lightly. These relationships are fundamental to our very nature as creatures of God, as human beings. In that way, though it may be most particularly and commonly known in a congregation as heterosexual married partnerships, this value of human relationship should be taken seriously and mutually, and not simply set aside with selfish license.

 

Again, here we come around to note especially that in our time it does not do well to preach this as a passage as an endorsement of heterosexual marriage or binary gender identity. If anything, it is highlighting that males with “hardness of heart” have laws set up to stop them from taking advantage of and oppressing women or those who are extra vulnerable and at risk. But in a fuller expression toward the positive commitments to loving relationship, it is well worth including all gender expressions and all marriages and partnerships.

 

From there, we may also expand the perspective beyond marriage. Perhaps that is where we can tie back in children mentioned in the next part of the Gospel, since children were as vulnerable as women in ancient society (such as the standard of Old Testament justice being defined as caring for widows and orphans). And then we may expand to the mutual relationships with other creatures, as these were made from the same earth as the earthling to be “helpers and partners” (Genesis 2:19, 18; note the same terms used eventually for the fellow human being as the most fitting companion).

 

That may well be enough to address, but the 2nd reading allows still further or varied consideration. The phrase in 1:3 that the Son is the “exact imprint of God’s very being” may call to mind the creation declaration in Genesis 1:27 that “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created, male and female” (a phrase quoted by Jesus in the Gospel reading). If Jesus reveals for us the exact image of God, then we’ll first of all not be able to take it as an endorsement or definition of heterosexual marriage. We probably would, however, take it as a clear vision of sacrificial, self-giving love.

 

Though Hebrews ventures into yet another small bit threatening to overwhelm the rest in the pronouncement about being made “perfect through sufferings” (2:10), for now let’s avoid the question of redemptive suffering or particular substitutionary atonement theories. In these verses of Hebrews, that suffering mainly stands over and against the risky view extrapolated from the Genesis creation stories or Psalm 8 (as cited in Hebrews 2:5-8) that we humans want to be domineering and in control. Instead, with the mention of suffering and following Jesus’ Gospel model of taking the relationships seriously, we observe that the love in any of these relationships – with close humans, in marriage, in family, with children, in caretaking for domestic animals and livestock, in being responsible for the identities and wellbeing of other creatures on land, air, and sea – the giving of love in these relationships means giving ourselves away.

 

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Carol Stories, week 1

Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245, stanzas 1 & 2)

 

With this first one, there’s double trouble in claiming we’ll sing your favorite Christmas carols. A: it’s not in the Christmas section. B: it may not be a favorite. I picked it after reading a passage for staff devotions from this Advent Sourcebook. To start the book, it says, “for many, Advent would not be Advent if introduced by any other” carol. That says something about it being a favorite.

Yet I was surprised it wasn’t even in the Advent section of our old green LBW hymnals. There, in the “Christian Hope” section, it has a totally different translation that goes, “O Lord of light, who made the stars, O Dawn, by whom we see the way, O Christ, redeemer of the world: Come now and listen as we pray.” I think the translation in ELW has more ring.

And speaking of translations, the Sourcebook said that the original Latin word we have as “stars” was actually way more. It also included “sun and moon and planets and all the constellations and comets and meteors, these mysterious heavenly bodies that in some unfathomable way could affect human destiny. The point was not just some lovely nightfall scene studded with gently glimmering stars.”

That huge perspective is helpful in, again, reorienting us as this season starts. We love these quiet nights, and reflecting that Jesus will be born as a baby, because we can wrap our minds (and our arms!) around that. A tiny infant we can handle. But at the same time, this God who created the entire immense universe really is unfathomably big. I started to look up a scale model, of the sort like “if the sun were the size of a basketball, earth would be a grain of sand” and that the nearest star would be hundreds of miles away, which is even more shocking when we remember that our galaxy alone has at least 100 billion stars and there are at least 100 billion more galaxies. Yowser. That quickly becomes more math than I can do. And it can make us and our troubles seem awfully small.

Yet the original version of our carol describes the Savior’s sorrow for a “curse / that should doom to death a universe” and so came to “embrace / our gloomy world, its weary race.” It’s a remarkable understanding, that out of everything—the hugeness of the cosmos, the complexity of existence, the vast stretches beyond comprehension—that God should care for us. It’s like words we’ll hear from Psalm 8 in a bit, “When I consider your universe, what are mere mortals that you should care for us?”

Yet that is exactly what we understand of God and the arrival of Jesus. And, in another (though smaller still) amazingly expansive stretch, Christians have been singing the words of this carol to these same notes since at least the 800s. So let’s join them. Let’s sing.

 

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295, stanzas 1 & 3)

 

Our second carol is more likely a favorite, at least for me and Brent Ruffridge.

Its sound may parallel the ancient chant plainsong we just sang; indeed, this is another old, old tune that’s been sung for hundreds of years, though it’s not as ancient as the words themselves. The words are by a man who has been called “the original Christian poet.” He was writing at about the same time that our Nicene Creed was composed, and we may sense some similarities between the two. Prudentius was a successful lawyer and judge in northern Spain, appointed to his position by the emperor. But he came to see life as too temporal or temporary, that what we work and strive for and build on all too soon collapses and disappears. So he gave up his position and wealth and moved to a monastery to write Christian poetry.

His words here also try to contain some of the enormous scope of the cosmos and all of history that we encountered in the last carol. Here it includes the term “Alpha and Omega,” again as we heard on Christ the King Sunday, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In a way, it reverses the idea that Jesus was a baby who would fit in our arms; this says that we are entirely in his embrace. So just as we’d say there is nothing before A and nothing after Z, within God’s reach and never outside God’s control is everything we know and have experienced and could ever be. The ancient prophets. The highest angels. The worst thing you’ve ever done. The Big Bang. Death. The things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see—Jesus is holding all of it and working to love and redeem it all. It sure does make our existence now seem temporary by comparison.

Speaking of knowing only in part, the version of this carol in our hymnals includes just five of ten original stanzas. In the full version, there are words about Jesus creating earth and heaven and depths of ocean and all that grows. There’s our frail and feeble bodies, doomed to die and departed souls. From Psalm 148, there’s the praise of elders, youth and maidens, and even infants, plus the praise of all creation—storm and sunshine, stream and forest, night and day. These are different words for what we have portrayed also in nativity scenes, that all come to worship the tiny, fragile, holy infant who is ruler of all times and places, from donkeys to angels, rich and wise kings down to poor ugly shepherds like goofy Gustav. For his sake and along with all creation, let’s sing.

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