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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a sermon for River Sunday

Season of Creation

on Genesis8:21b–22, 9:8–17; Psalm29; Revelation22:1–5; John7:33-34,37-39a

A lot of thisriver Season of Creation seems to have been confronting where our perceptions don’t square with the world around us as God created it. I hope those have been worthwhile considerations, but they have meant less living with creation this season.

So today I want to begin by taking you to Otter Creek. Otter Creek was down the slope from my house outside of Eau Claire where I grew up. It gave a chance to explore the woods, from ice cracking under my booted feet to the musky musty skunk cabbage as the first green thing in those woods, and frog song to crunching fall leaves. Among memories along those waters were jumping down sandy ledges and too many stinging nettles, slowly finding cool liquid relief. The best memory is the first trout I caught, still my biggest brown. I can recall how my spinner moved through the eddying water of that bend’s pool and still feel the surprise of that smooth skin and soft belly in my hands, after having only held fish with rougher scales. But as a reminder encounters with nature are not all splendor, it was beside our Otter Creek swimming hole that I tried chewing tobacco for the first time.

Friends and I regularly talked about following the creek up to its source, a project we never really attempted, partly because it was slow progress with so many meanders, but also because, why would we need to find an origin when already every place we found ourselves had so much to engage and delight us?

Still, for tracing to origins, I also go back to my family’s first house a block from the Yellow River up in Spooner, and continue tracing those flowing waters here along the Yahara River chain of lakes. In between, some of my identity and existence emerged from the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. Like when I lived in Washington, also where the Wenatchee River began to flow together with the great Columbia, confluences are said to temper the weather and have lore of serving as native American gathering places. From that pre-history, and long after rafts of white pine lumber floated past, below dams that generate power for our lives, these still are places of new beginnings as that merging of rivers in Eau Claire, for example, has given rise to Phoenix Park, from industrial wasteland to become again a gathering place to exchange goods like vegetables and artwork, and a new music center to serve for education, enlightenment, and enjoyment, all flowing up and emerging from the rivers.

I can’t take you for a tour of Otter Creek or soak you into my history with these rivers, but I’m hoping these stories call to mind your places, the waters you have known and how amid your life “a river runs through it.” As Al Heggen said at the Capital Brewery Bible conversation Tuesday, describing his own affinity for the Upper Iowa River in Decorah, we each hold dear such places where our lives have flown together with the streams. Carrie McGinley spoke of the Mississippi starting so small and visiting the Great River museum in Dubuque and maybe to travel the length of it. See, our very selves are part of the confluence.

Amid these currents that flow with our past, to now, and time yet to come, we know it’s not always peace like a river. There can be turbulence. It seems like a long time ago that earlier this summer I was complaining of the trickles of water soaking into my basement and my CSA farmer worrying if plants would survive in fields inundated and saturated by rainfall. Much more clearly, we’re holding horrors from Houston as rivers poured down streets and people you know were trapped by rising floodwaters.

Those news reports and images create for us another understanding of confluence. Rivers not only flow along with the story of our lives. Not only human culture has been at the confluence of waters, from the development of agriculture by ancient Mesopotamians (whose identity is summarized in the name that means “between rivers”), or those native Americans wintering in intertribal peace, or how our cities have arisen from the life of waters. Besides those forms of confluence, we also notice confluence in meaning of the waters themselves. They are not unequivocally peaceful or universally beneficial. In waters and with rivers, the value or worth mixes and intermingles, swirling to engulf with surprising depths beside the wading stone-skipping calms. The good and the bad flow together.

In simple natural terms, for example, we have to observe that flooding can’t be equated only with the bad, damage or destruction. The Mississippi was used to spring thaws that swept waste from the backwaters and renewed habitats for a whole ecosystem of plants and animals. As we’ve installed dams, we think we’re minimizing negative outcomes of ebbs and flows in river level, but our manufactured environment has meant loss of diversity and wellbeing in the river’s wetlands.

Again, the Nile was a dwelling place for civilization precisely because it was prone to flood. When the rushing waters rose, they carried along and deposited fresh soil on the floodplain. Sure, water was up in the fields. But that was what brought life, brought the nutrients that allowed another season’s fertile farming.

Such paradoxes or confluences of good and bad come in the Bible, as witness to the flow of our lives. Psalm 137 laments that it’s impossible to sing faithful songs of joy by the rivers of Babylon while in enemy captivity. But the prophet Isaiah (ch2) expects nations will stream together, and down by the riverside we ain’t gonna study war no more. These opposites co-exist.

With today’s readings, as we require fearful storms to gain the beauty of the rainbow, the terrifying story of Noah and the flood annihilating almost the entire earth in some way exists so we can get the promise. As people who didn’t have to live through that flood and as that calamity recedes into the background, we’re met mostly by the message of abiding love, the assurance of providence, that the good God intends for our lives will continue. That, and not devastation, is the focus.

At least that’s the intention. It’s rawer and a harder word this week when we’ve witnessed more stormwaters and are left wondering where God’s presence or intention has been in Texas, if God has forgotten, if the promise was true.

Or maybe the terrifying conclusion is that we can combat God’s goodness and drown out the blessing God voiced in Genesis and intended to continue. Maybe Hurricane Harvey is less an Act of God than an Act of Humans: climate change warming the oceans multiplied its power, coastal development tore out shoreline buffers, and harm is even in the way we construct cities.

Similarly of our ruin, the waters that give us life and gave rise to our civilization we not only pollute, but slurp to parched, causing goodness to wither. My vacation travels followed part of the course of the Colorado River, in many ways the lifeblood of the southwest. But we suck those waters dry, straining out all the goodness of life. The river is diverted to the desert to grow iceberg lettuce in California, and to gaudy fountains of the Las Vegas strip, and to evaporate from Lake Mead piled up behind the Hoover Dam. This river carved us the Grand Canyon, yet now infamously goes for years without even reaching its mouth, every last drop taken by humans along the way.

This may be a repercussion of our lives, simply of our existence, or it may be due to a result of our sins. But saying that means we must fearfully confront whether we’ve overruled God’s goodness with our badness, the promise with our curse, the intention for life with our deadly mistakes.

Of course, that is not the message of our faith, though. We proclaim that evil will never have the last word, that even death is not final, that God will not give up on life. Holding this tension, we have that peculiar observation that waters are neither unambiguously good nor explicitly evil. That is the message of your baptismal waters, as well. Those are life-giving waters, by also bringing death. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, in baptism “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned daily, and on the other hand daily a new person is to rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Drowning and new life, dying and rising, death and resurrection: two sides of the same coin. This is not merely the ending of what has been wrong in our lives and interactions with the world, but also the promise of a new creation. Neither can you have the new beginning without the end of the old. You can’t be cleansed and made fresh without being rid of old stains and rottenness. If you imagine you’d prefer not to die, then you won’t be met by new life. If you pretend you’re doing fine, then you can hardly imagine or begin to grasp—much less live into—the gracious goodness God is striving to bring about for you and for God’s earth by this way of living wet.

Our Revelation reading may be the Bible’s culminating picture in its final chapter, the river that flows out from God, nourishing the tree of life, without interruption bearing fruit to feed and heal. Again for paradox, even in this final image, we still need healing among nations, to reconcile relationships. But that opportunity is ceaseless. The flow of grace will not be stopped. The crystal clear and bright waters of the river contain no corruption, nothing wrong. Picture the Colorado, flowing and free.  Picture the Jordan River bringing life even into the Dead Sea. Picture a brook babbling and laughing with glee. Picture the green, stinky Yahara purged and joyful. Picture Otter Creek or your own streams, not only a memory but the locations of your future. Picture yourself, splashed clean and fresh, emerging from the water for new life and endless potential. Picture the confluence where your life mingles and flows with all of creation.

This is where God’s current is carrying us. All creation recognizes it. Already we know and expect it, we anticipate and believe it. We brim with God and all creation in this promise for life. Shall we gather at the river?

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a sermon for Wilderness Sunday

Season of Creation texts Joel1:8-10,17-20; Psalm18; Romans8:22-27; Mark1:9-13
Common question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Less common question: Why did Jesus go out to the wilderness?wilderness

I suppose some answer: it was to prepare for the rest of his ministry, seeing this time in the wilderness as a spiritual boot camp or something, that he had to go do his Ignatian exercises to visualize conquering the rigors to come, or that this tempting by the devil was spiritual weight-lifting to get him honed and toned and ripped, ready and rearing to go.

In a related but more substantial sense, some see this time alone in the wilderness parallel to native American (and other indigenous peoples’) practices of vision quests, a formative time of extraordinary experience in finding himself and coming back fully developed.

A totally different answer to the question “why did Jesus go out into the wilderness” is prompted by terms in the reading: he went because he didn’t have a choice; it says the Holy Spirit drove him out. Compelled him. Or directly in the original Greek, he was ek-balled, thrown out. It’s an interesting term, because when Jesus does exorcisms to get rid of the bad and unclean spirits, he is ek-balling them, throwing them out. But here the good Spirit, the Holy Spirit is reversing the process by ek-balling Jesus.

As Jesus gets exorcised from society, we could attribute wild explanations amid the Season of Creation and on Wilderness Sunday and looking for special meaning for non-human parts of the story. It could be, for all we attribute to civilization as marking positive progress, that instead city life contributes to our distance and separation from God, giving us false senses of security and misperceptions of what is good or right.

So, like a person is restored to wellness when an unclean spirit is thrown out, from this ek-balling of Jesus we might claim getting driven away from culture and back to the land, back to wilderness provides restoration of sanity, of spirituality, of our wholeness, healing us and our integrity, getting away from corruptions. We might also notice that out there in wilderness we have to face something so much more powerful and majestic than our small selves, which contributes to a better understanding of God.

That’s an easy view of wilderness, and one that Jesus also seems to have persisted in as the story continues. Later on, he’s not forced into the wilderness, but regularly flees up a mountain or out on a boat to pray, for quiet, to reconnect with God perhaps, or with his friends, to rest and rejuvenate when he’s drained by the demands of trying to love people. I like those reasons for “getting away from it all,” as we say, or maybe getting away from the constrained view of what our existence is. But more on that later.

There are also less “natural” explanations of why Jesus is driven to the wilderness. We might observe this is what baptism does to us: it gives us the assurance of connection with God, that you are called a beloved child of God, but then you’re also thrown out of your regular rhythms and are trying to muddle through what this promise means for life. Figuring out faith may persistently feel like a wilderness experience of being not-quite lost and not-quite in place.

That also points to echoes of earlier scripture. Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days. That number and location probably should make us think of the Exodus from Egypt and waiting to enter the Promised Land. This is exactly the image that John the Baptizer was also trying to foster, with the symbol of crossing through the waters of the Jordan River to live with renewed connection to God’s promise. Well, Jesus becomes the embodiment of the faithful experience: like Moses and Miriam and the people who spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness waiting for fulfillment, Jesus parallels that in his 40 days, embodying God’s commitment to bring God’s people into the promise, a sign of godly new beginnings.

Or maybe instead of the whole Exodus account, it’s a smaller portrait comparing Jesus to the prophet Elijah in the wilderness amid a drought, fleeing from enemies, being renewed for another mission, another sending back into society. In Elijah’s 40 days and nights out, he encountered God not in terrifying wilderness grandeurs of fires and storms and tectonic shifts, but in the sound of silence, while the ravens were with him to bring him food. (1Kings17:6, 19:1-17)

That prompts the next important direction this morning. I really cherish the detail about ravens bringing Elijah food because amid that same drought there’s a story about an angel that feeds Elijah. So I claim this gives reason to see black wise ravens as angels, as messengers and servants of God. That can feed into this gospel reading, too. Nothing says these angels are ladies with white wings and harps who show up to be deacons to Jesus, to be waitresses serving him some food. It could’ve been crows. Or raccoons.

For this transition, we have to adjust our sense of wilderness. Just like we have a rather confined image of angels, it’s the same of wilderness. We picture large and foreign places—snow-capped peaks, acres of forest, caribou tundra, forbidding desert, remote island. Those and their inhabitants we see as wild. A crow or raccoon we see as not quite that. Though they may not be domesticated, not house-broken, they don’t count as wild. We draw this line that wild things and wilderness must be stranger, purer, further.

There’s a line that hangs around national parks: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It might fit parks and wilderness designations, that if we set aside those areas, and in sufficient quantity (which premier biologist E.O. Wilson says needs to be ½ of the planet for the survival of our species*), then we’ll have preserved or saved the world somehow.

The thing is, though, that quote comes from Henry David Thoreau. Not so much a wilderness warrior like Teddy Roosevelt roughing it or John Muir who on his two little feet “walked away into the mountains with his old overcoat and crust of bread in his pocket,”** not some polar explorer or high adventurer, Thoreau is belittled for close proximity, that he only lived far enough away to make it home to see his mother. I read this week Thoreau’s specialty was to “focus on the human need for freedom in the beauty of ordinary places…The scenes he describes are on a smaller scale than most wilderness writers. He finds epic drama and wildness in the…overlooked corners of life, ants and mice, for example… Thoreau’s wild places…were his neighbor’s apple orchards and berry patches.”***

So today let’s expand our view of wilderness—or maybe I more precisely mean let’s contract it, to find it not just in the wild west and the great outdoors, but in the small weed cracking through concrete and the birdsong through a car window and in the day’s clouds and a houseplant. Those bits of wildness may be accessible and may be your preservation amid this world.

Beginning there also reorients another perspective: we’re so trapped into seeing wilderness as other. Again, the U.S. legally defines it as places “untrammeled by man.” But in this small world with its finite beauty and potential, we can no longer claim there are places on earth that are other, that are separate, unsullied, nor even that are bigger than we are.soc-a3-wilderness.jpg

In the Badlands, I wandered off into the official “wilderness” area, up slopes and down tight wash crevices, the sort of places we can imagine we’re pioneers, the first to set foot there. But everywhere I turned and stretched to climb, I found a piece of litter. The best find was this ballcap. There was no place that was isolated or inaccessible or pure.

Whether with our probing personalities or the proliferation of our pollution, there are few places we don’t find traces of ourselves. And as we change the climate, that soaks into soils and ocean deeps, into the wild diversity of coral reefs and under the bark of the forest. There is no place untrammeled by man. Nor are humans separate from the wilderness any place, even in urban life, as Houston knows: our weather cycles depend on ocean currents, the oxygen we breathe is breathed from the rainforest, we depend on the unexamined microbiotic systems in dirt.

So we need to see wilderness all around, because we’re connected to it. That was the meaning I took from the prophet Joel, who observed that all welfare—or its reverse in despair and suffering—are interwoven, the priests in the temple, the farmers and their cattle, and the burning trees in the wilderness. In Joel’s time, he was seeing that the sin, the fault, the failings of the people, and their lack of understanding in connection with God meant that there came a plague of locusts, seen even as a destroying army. In our time, we can easily frame this image as the repercussions of our burning fossil fuels, feeding the heat of Hurricane Harvey, hurting ourselves, our livelihood, and life far from us.

But I want us to hear today this connection is not only a matter of threat. As Jesus went to commune where the wild things are (and since, after all, there is no venue or site separate from his presence and love), I don’t want to leave you with the dire words of Joel, but pick up another better-known outlook from a prophet, seeing our bond with those same wild scenes, but looking toward God’s goodness. Here from Isaiah (35) are words of encouragement and hope, driven by the Spirit, for you and for the groaning creation that is waiting for you:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God who will come and save you.”

6then the lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

7the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

10And the ransomed of the LORD shall return with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

 

* cited in Terry Tempest Williams The Hour of Land, p359

** Greg Brown “Two Little Feet” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3-fh6cLvpo

*** http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/Thoreau

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sermon for Land Sunday

on Genesis3:14–19,4:8–16; Psalm139:7-10; Romans 5:12–17; Matthew 12:38-4020170806_100140[1]
As good as vacation was—and I’ll say more in a minute—I lament not being here with you last week.

Partly that’s just because I never like to miss. What we do here together is so important and so meaningful and so worthwhile that it’s hard to be away from your lives and our community and the growth of big bluestem in the prairie. I particularly missed being gone for the start of this Season of Creation. I would’ve loved to have been here for Larry Henning’s forest reflections and trust that you were well served by the Spirit’s work through his good words.

Had I been here, I would’ve probably done some explaining for you like this: the Season of Creation was developed by a Lutheran theologian in Australia intending to fill a gap with the usual lectionary, which can leave us thinking much too much about people. It’s not even theological at that point; it’s anthropological, not God-centered but people-centered. We close ourselves inside these doors, thinking about Jesus as fully human but not as fully creature of earth. We ignore that God’s work is almost infinitely more vast than us. As Psalm 8 declares, when we look up at the unfathomable cosmic distances it’s awesome that God could be mindful of us and relate to us and care for us, but God does! We need that promise, need it in the context of our small spot amid a creation that delights God and is delighted by God. It’s so faithfully vital for us, so vitally part of this faith. Without this locale and cosmic setting, our faith wouldn’t begin to be what it is. God wouldn’t be who God is. It’s not an add on, not just that we pause from other things to think about creation and nature and the environment for four weeks out of the year.

And yet, amid my excitement about celebrating these weeks of the Season of Creation and finding them so core to what we should be always understanding, still this week comes as a shock. Instead of setting out to explore the gift of land, of the amazing diversity of how it encounters us, how it is formed and re-formed, instead of the delights and the blooming desert in Isaiah or the quaking earth of Elijah or the fertile soils of the Promised Land or even the stuff that inches out to be separate from the waters in the beginning and is seen as good, instead I come back from vacation to a curse and a struggle. A double whammy from the book of Genesis. Gee, thanks Genesis.

It’s not just me being thrown into this on my return from vacation. The whole story could feel that way. Life had barely begun in the Garden of Eden. We would’ve preferred more time to lounge around in paradise before the problems, but that’s not the function of the story. I would contend it’s less of an origin story and more intended to portray the current state of things. It’s not trying to cast blame back to some prototypical Adam and Eve, but is simply addressing the realities we already know to be true, the struggles we regularly exist amid, voicing that things just won’t go right in our relationships. As it’s set up for us on this Land Sunday, the main focus is what our relationship to land ought to be, but also where that’s gone wrong.

The question about curse, then, traveled with me on vacation through all kinds of lands. For the most obvious, I was last at Badlands National Park. With a name almost verbatim declaring curse, there’s wide and long agreement on the badness of these lands. For hundreds of years the native Lakota referred to them as makoshika: land of bad spirits, or bad land. French trappers concurred with the name les mauvais terres. Park service publications say these names “invoke visions of a harsh and inhospitable landscape, where dangers lurk down every canyon.” While they do warn of rattlesnake bites (which I won’t overemphasize as connection to the serpent in Genesis), the broader set of safety concerns amid the Badlands listed includes thirst and sunburn and stubbed toes and slippery-when-wet slopes and getting lost.

None of that seems awful enough, though, to account for the curse in Genesis. Those lands aren’t bad just because they offer extremes of dehydration or risk of fall; these difficulties in the Badlands paradoxically highlight their endurance. We go to the difficult-to-traverse Badlands specifically to traverse them, to wander the trails, to strain our muscles and bruise our knees. Our nation hasn’t thrown them to the trashheap but has especially set them aside, saving and conserving them as a nationally celebrated location, drawing a million visitors per year.

But our relationship to these lands is also in portrayed by my favorite historical phrase about Bryce Canyon National Park from its original white settler: “it’s a helluva place to lose a cow.” Our stock phrase is that it’s a good place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. We are stuck with some view of land, then, as its utility or profitability to us. If farming can’t easily happen in the Badlands, that is precisely what makes them “bad.”

This tension is still sharper in Utah, with over a million acres of land set aside as wilderness, a term defined in law as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (Again, we’ll leave aside for today the connections to Genesis’ curse of that sexist language that doesn’t say anything about how long women might stay in wilderness.) We’d have to admit that the wild lands of Utah and elsewhere, though rich in beauty and sometimes fragile in ecological value, are mostly set aside because they weren’t viewed as useful to us otherwise. Basically, they didn’t have farms on them.

We could pause to say this has been an exceptionally long trend. This is mostly how the Bible parses land, as well: that there’s desert that isn’t a place for people but is a haunt of jackals and ostriches (eg, Isaiah 34:13). On the other side is good land, even Promised Land, with orchards and fields. We’ve simply gone on to transpose that sense into our setting. Here in “God’s country,” with the rich loams of the Midwest as garden to feed us, we figure we must be amid promise and not curse.

More ambivalently, Utah’s land is not farmed or dwelt in, not humanized, so it can be set aside as wilderness…right until it can’t. Then we fight over land’s meaning. I’ve been reading Edward Abbey describing Glen Canyon as the most beautiful ever* with all the animals that called it home, until we decided we could have our use for it, which was to destroy it under a reservoir and the beautiful canyon was dammed and damned. And we cherish Arches National Park and Canyonlands, observes Terry Tempest Williams**, until we find that there is natural gas we could mine under the park, and then we’re eager to get rid of the wilderness designation and make use of the place.

The point is to question cursedness. Instead of anything inherently making locations bad lands—the topography or soil quality—it’s about our relationship and when we try to claim away from it instead of preserving and caring for it as it is. Amid the struggle—these thorns and briars, we lose sight of the land as good and focus only on what we can get out of it. It’s not just western abuses, but how our corporate farming practices are extractive industries pulling life from the soil. That’s not God cursing the land. It’s us.

And then we finally pull our own life from the soil, extracting ourselves from the ground where we, too, were meant to be planted. That is such a fascinating detail in the account of Cain and Abel. Even when he’s dead and gone, Abel’s blood can cry out from the ground. Something of his life remains there in place. But Cain is displaced. Genesis is compressing generations of human development (or, as we usually call it, progress), where the lifestyle of the nomadic herdsmen goes away and the farmer comes to dominate, but then the farmer leaves the land and—in the last verse—moves away. The ultimate point in the reading is that he’s gone to the city, from rural and land-connected to urban and separated from God. Again, this is the pattern we still see. Ultimately in cultural conversation, it’s not a struggle between Wisconsin agriculture and Utah wilderness. Both are derided in the popular term “flyover country.” They’re diminished, as if only the cities are the place of culture, the place for humans, while the land—all land—is oddly separate and remote and problematic. That is the final characteristic of the curse: not only are our relationships with each other broken down, between genders, in families. The ground cries out as our very relationship with it is lived out as a struggle, as something to be overcome, as we see it not as garden gift but as curse, as something to get away from.

For the good of life, we need to realize our humanity with and in the humus, connected and dependent, as earthlings. But instead we’re quite literally uprooted. This has implications for our sense of place, for governmental policy, for the food we eat, and on and on. That’s huge and dire and I’ve said terribly little of good news.

Even though the readings leave us here, we know this isn’t the end. If we speak of curse without getting to redemption and reconciliation, our Christian message is incomplete. For brief forecasts of that blessing beyond condemnation, we might take it as actually good that “to dust you shall return,” that you aren’t forever estranged but in your end are reconciled with the earth and recycled and recreated. Maybe in the words of Jesus’ burial we see a godly replanting, that life is meant to be in and of earth for good, even then of God putting us back in our place, that God kills the curse and redeems death.

Finally, then, is the place of God in Genesis. I want you to notice that although all kinds of relationships—with neighbor and with creation—are seen as struggle, as broken down, as accursed, that is not a description of relationship with God. The relationship with God is not described here as cursed. Though Cain may stray and find himself in a place where the relationship is strained, and God’s presence feels further, God will not cut you off. Jesus comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found.

(Hymn of the Day: Joy to the World)

* The Monkey Wrench Gang, p64

** The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, p253-299

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sermon for Universe Sunday

(Season of Creation)universe

Proverbs8:22-31; Psalm8; Colossians1:15-20; John6:41-51
I invite you to pause for a moment and really appreciate where you are. Yes in church, in Madison. But also appreciate the wood of the chair you’re sitting on and light shining at you, in from windows and down from electricity. Appreciate the air you’re breathing, how it smells, how it tastes. And your surroundings, the clothes touching your skin, those gathered with you, and the trees and sky and soil surrounding you.

Now change your thought. Picture instead the farthest place away from here you’ve ever been. You may think of another country, or another geography, or another time and era. Recall how the people were different, and the birds you didn’t recognize, the weather that was unusual.

If that place seems far away, then think about this detail: six months ago, at the time we were celebrating Easter and resurrection, you were about 186 million miles away from here. Even if in this same sanctuary, you were located far away on the opposite side of the sun.

As the earth zips along its orbit at 66,000 miles per hour, even if you’re passing the time waiting for next year to be back to that same location, still you’ll be someplace new, as our solar system goes hurtling within the spiraling arms of our neighborhood in the Milky Way galaxy at 483,000 miles per hour. We won’t complete that trip of rotation around the galactic year for another 225 million of our years.

But even then you wouldn’t be back to an original location, because the whole of the universe has continued expanding at maybe 1.3 million miles per hour over the 13.8 or so billion years since the Big Bang.

If you’re trying to keep up with the math, these grand distances end up measured in lightyears, which are unbelievably great, since light moves at 186,000 miles per second, so the distance over a year is about 6 trillion miles. For that, we could say that you’ve covered a lot of territory in your life, but “territory” is still an earthbound word, for the terra firma of land. We don’t want to say that you take up a lot of space. Sillier still, this unfathomable scale has been summed up in a Monty Python song[1], so we need to dig deeper.

How about thinking of it this way: for the promise of resurrection to keep up with you since Easter six months ago, the Holy Spirit has had to fly after and keep trying to alight on you against the stiff breeze of million mile an hour solar winds and cosmic radiation. So, as our group prepares to travel to the Holy Land, we’re not reversing the spacetime continuum to go back to the Jerusalem or Bethlehem of Jesus, yet we must confess Jesus continues forward, not only the Lord of what has gone past but also the fullness of what’s to come.

Amid an expanse of his cosmic domain, let’s first pause for perspective at our nearest star, the sun. There’s been a sense for a couple hundred years that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” with survival of the fittest. Either that makes God our Creator a brute or else it plain doesn’t square with a Lord who was willing to die on the cross, emptying himself in love, in which case nature would (as old the old poet had it) “shriek against [the] creed” for those “who trusted God was love indeed.”2

Yet we need not be distracted by what goes violently wrong. We may still trust love as the shape and goal of the universe. With our detour past the sun, David Keesey-Berg shared an excerpt from cosmologist Brian Swimme,3 that the sun gives 4 million tons of itself every second for our life, using up and sacrificing for our warmth and light and photosynthesis creating food. And stellar fusion creates the elements that make up our bodies, perhaps a hint of life out of death. From this generosity of the self-giving sun, then, we see the shape of life not merely or even mostly in competition but as a symbiosis, sharing, life together, in relationship.

Trusting this is the Wisdom and guiding force present since before worlds began, we should be able to identify such fingerprints as godly indicators.

But the harder trust, the more incredible sense, may be to forecast that into the future, not only of origins but also of destinations, of goals. That requires the language of redemption, which the writer of Colossians understood must be entirely true to be true at all.

With that, Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran theologian, gave a famous speech at a World Council of Churches gathering in New Delhi 55 years ago in which he proclaimed with Colossians that some views are too small, with the error (he said) of “assum[ing] that there were ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and authorities’ which have a life and power apart from Christ, [assuming] that the real world was a dualism, one part… (ensconcing the power of evil) was not subject to the Lordship of the Creator in Christ.”4 Sittler highlights how Colossians won’t back down, though, emphasizing “all things” six times in these few verses. Sittler even says, in the aftershock of hydrogen bombs, that “When atoms are disposable to the ultimate hurt then the very atoms must be reclaimed for God and [God’s] will.”5 From the microscopic to the vastest unimaginable scale, this proclamation can leave nothing out.

So to be your redeemer and Lord, Jesus must be able to redeem you from your wrongs and sins, be able to redeem and restore fractured relationships, must offer salvation from illnesses and death. His message of resurrection must chase you through the stars and across the galaxy, and it must include not just small personal moments of human trust and doubt, of justice versus evil, of worries and endings, but must also include the eventual fate of the whole cosmos, or else it can’t be true. “All things, in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible.” He must be Lord of your very specific life on earth, simultaneous to being responsible for and committed to the nearly infinite details of the universe.

So the instances of interactions with our life simply must be everywhere. Trusting this fullness and Wisdom of Christ as Lord of all, for example, we attend especially in this time of stewardship to him as Lord of our finances and schedules. But it’s not just the microeconomics of families, but the macroeconomics of this household of earth. So his lordship must also include banks that steal from customers and fail in their role even as they’re too big to fail and he must redeem them and us from their failure. And the lordship of Jesus must save us from commercial capitalism that tries to convince us comfort and convenience are our kings and queens. Mortgages and markets must not ultimately control or own us. Jesus must be Lord for the whole economic system that pretends it can persist in depleting a finite earth.

With Professor Sittler’s word on evil authorities, we must once again proclaim that Jesus is Lord of the sad, disgusting politics we face right now, not just in claiming votes of those who believe a candidate is chosen by God, but Jesus is somehow redeeming even those who are deemed irredeemable, since no rulers or powers remain outside his reach.

In another separate aspect of his same realm, Jesus is Lord of zoology and climatology and astronomy, as we’ve noticed better in recent weeks of this Season of Creation, delighting in beastly monsters and abundant animals, and commanding even the weather. So, again, Jesus must be Lord not only of sunsets over serene mountain lakes but also in redeeming toxic waste and bringing good, raising new life from landfills.

He is Lord not just of morality and ethics, as is most often the presumption of the religious, not just for the innermost contemplation that guides future motives, but also Lord of the nebulae and galactic clusters farther away than our best telescopes can peer into the past. And as Lord, he must be expected to bring newness not only out of supernovas but also somehow to pull life out of black holes and the cold, lonely distance of expanding entropy.

This Lord Jesus came because God so loved the world, God so loved the cosmos (with that original Greek word), and—should we discover realities beyond ours—God so loves the multiverse.

He came down from heaven, as he says in John. We needn’t hold that as someplace up above the sky, beyond space. We might simply say Jesus came to the existence we know, even if we only know it in part, only dimly. He came to give you life now, and on the last day—whatever that means and whatever we expect—on that day he will still be giving life. This is his ongoing work, the will of God, even when we don’t really get it and fall back into the clutches of the other authorities or imagine life lacks his wholeness.

Yet again to remind and reconnect you, of the blessing and your role in it, to conclude here is another poem from Colossians Remixed. As I shared back in July, this stunning updating is an expansion of the reading we heard today:

In an image-saturated world,

a world of ubiquitous corporate logos

permeating our conscience

a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations

in which we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted

to be able to dream of a life otherwise

a world in which the empire of global economic affluence

has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations

in this world

Christ is the image of the invisible God

in this world

driven by images with a vengeance

Christ is the image par excellence

the image above all other images

the image that is not a façade

the image that is not trying to sell you anything

the image that refuses to co-opt you

Christ is the image of the invisible God

the image of God

a flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

image of who God is

the image of God

a flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

image of who we are called to be

image-bearers of this God

He is the source of a liberated imagination

a subversion of the empire

because it all starts with him

and it all ends with him

everything

all things

whatever you can imagine

visible and invisible

mountains and atoms

outer space, urban space and cyberspace

whether it be the Pentagon, Disneyland, Microsoft or AT&T

whether it be the institutional power structures

of the state, the academy or the market

all things have been created in him and through him

he is their source, their purpose, their goal,

even in the rebellion,

even in their idolatry

he is the Sovereign One

their power and authority is derived at best

parasitic at worst

In the face of the empire

in the face of presumptuous claims to sovereignty

in the face of the imperial and idolatrous forces in our lives

Christ is before all things

he is sovereign in life

not the pimped dreams of the global market

not the idolatrous forces of nationalism

not the insatiable desires of a consumerist culture

In the face of a disconnected world

where home is a domain in cyberspace

where neighborhood is a chat room

where public space is a shopping mall

where information technology promises

a tuned-in, reconnected world

all things hold together in Christ

the creation is a deeply personal cosmos

all cohering and interconnected in Jesus

And this sovereignty takes on cultural flesh

And this coherence of all things is socially embodied

in the Church

against all odds

against most of the evidence

In a “show me” culture where words alone don’t cut it

the Church is

the flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

embodiment of this Christ

as a body politic

around a common meal

in alternative economic practices

in radical service to the most vulnerable

in refusal of the empire

in love of this creation

the Church reimagines the world

in the image of the invisible God

In the face of a disappointed world of betrayal

a world in which all fixed points have proven illusory

a world in which we are anchorless and adrift

Christ is the foundation

the origin

the way

the truth

and the life

In the face of a culture of death

a world of killing fields

a world of the walking dead

Christ is at the head of the resurrection parade

transforming our tears of betrayal into tears of joy

giving us dancing shoes for the resurrection party

And this glittering joker

who has danced in the dragon’s jaws of death

now dances with a dance that is full

of nothing less than the fullness of God

this is the dance of the new creation

this is the dance of life out of death

and in this dance all that was broken

all that was estranged

all that was alienated

all that was dislocated and disconnected

what once was hurt

what once was friction

is reconciled

comes home

is healed

and is made whole

because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

everything

all things

whatever you can imagine

visible and invisible

mountains and atoms

outer space, urban space, and cyberspace

every inch of creation

every dimension of our lives

all things are reconciled in Him

And it all happens on a cross

it all happens at a state execution

where the governor did not commute the sentence

it all happens at the hands of the empire

that has captured our imagination

it all happens through blood

not through a power grab by the sovereign one

it all happens in embraced pain

for the sake of others

it all happens on a cross

arms outstretched in embrace

and this is the image of the invisible God

this is the Body of Christ6

[1] “Galaxy Song,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23Dm7sQ1C1E (viewer discretion, please)

2 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.” canto LVI

3 The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story p39

4  “Called to Unity” in Evocations of Grace, p39

5 p46

6 from Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmat, p85-89

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