Category Archives: Sermons

Finding Community in our Holy Waters During a Time of Isolation

While many are anxious and isolated during this time of response to a pandemic, we offer these reflections on this week’s readings. (If there are other recordings you wish to share as a balm to soothe and inspiration to act for the common good please submit them here.)

March 15, 2020 – 3rd Sunday in Lent (John 4, 5-42) – Woman at Well – Pr. Susan Henry – House of Prayer, Hingham MA

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation’s Easter Message

Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30

Sermon from Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church,  Hingham MA

More than Just Weird

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.  It’s “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and there are clear references in it to the book of Revelation — which is where 666 and all that “mark of the Beast” stuff comes from.  In the third verse of that hymn, we find, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing . . . To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”   So there, 666!  “To God and to the Lamb” we will sing, we will sing.  You can’t scare us!

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, a seer named John who is in exile on Patmos, likely for being a thorn in the side of the Roman empire, writes to seven churches in what’s now Turkey about a heavenly journey he experienced in a series of strange visions.  Through what John has received, he wants believers to find hope and courage so they can live faithfully in even the most difficult times and circumstances.

John’s visions are weird stuff, to put it mildly, although the meaning of the coded language was clearer in its own time and culture than it is to us.  Rome was an oppressive empire, and it expected blessing and honor and wisdom and power to be given to Caesar, the ruler Nero at that time.  It was dangerous not to do that, but Christians then (and now) rightly give honor and blessing and glory and might to God, not to imperial rulers or authoritarian leaders.  Just as Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was sometimes referred to as “He who shall not be named,” Nero was alluded to by believers in other ways.  For example, since Jewish numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet, when you spell out Caesar Nero, you get – ta-dah! – 666.   He who shall not be named.

The book of Revelation was controversial enough to be the last book accepted as part of the Bible, and Martin Luther was never convinced Revelation really belonged there – although he felt free to appropriate some of its imagery to viciously attack the pope.  Revelation has been used and misused throughout the centuries, and the current iteration of misuse is the well-known series of Left Behind books and movies.  In them, born-again Christians get “raptured” up to heaven out of their beds, cars, or planes, leaving behind their clothes, glasses, hearing aids, and maybe even their hip replacements.  The rest of us get left behind.  Lutheran scholar and professor Barbara Rossing recalls how her seminary students once left clothes carefully arranged on their chairs for her to find when she came to class.  Nobody got raptured, she said – “I found them in the cafeteria.”[1]

The whole rapture thing, she insists, “is a racket.”  It was invented back in the 1830s as part of preacher John Nelson Darby’s system of biblical interpretation.  The word “rapture” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible, so the concept got pieced together from a verse here and a verse there.  The Left Behind books are grounded in Darby’s system, and they lead to what Rossing sees as a preoccupation with fear and violence, with war and “an eagerness for Armageddon.”[2]  For fundamentalist Christians – who are politically influential right now — all of this has significant implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East, which should give us pause.

It’s only on All Saints Day and during the Easter season every three years that we hear readings from Revelation, so it’s a perfect time to leave behind the misuses and abuses of it and wonder how it might be the word of God addressed not just to first-century Christians, but to us today.  It’s full of rich images for worship that are meant to be read more as poetry than prediction.  And while John hears about the coming Lion of Judah – fierce and violent – what he sees is “the Lamb who was slain” – vulnerable and victorious.

As I was studying Revelation this week, I found myself thinking about the baptismal font in the church where I grew up.  It was white marble and on its cover stood a little lamb with a tall, thin pole leaning against it.  At the top of the pole was a narrow signal flag.  Oh, I realized, that’s “the Lamb who was slain [who] has begun his reign.”  And we who got baptized in the water in that pure white font were washed in the blood of that slaughtered Lamb.  It’s a shocking image that we’ve thoroughly domesticated, and of course it’s not meant to be taken literally.  However, it bears witness to how life is stronger than death and how God’s vision is about new life, restoration, renewal, and healing.

When chaos threatens, people of faith can live as people of hope, enduring through struggles and suffering because we trust that ultimately God’s power is greater than any other power, God’s grace is stronger than the world’s sin, and God’s reign has already begun, even if we don’t see it.  Revelation is a pretty bracing witness – encouraging us to not give up or give in to whatever is not “of God.”  We sometimes pay lip service to how a life of faith is a counter-cultural way of life, but Revelation amps that way up and exhorts us to resist the cultural and political forces that work against God and seek to thwart God’s desire for an end to violence and oppression.  The Lamb who was slain becomes the shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and springs of water, and through places of danger to where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  John wants believers to listen in worship to his visions so that they will find courage and discover strength for the present because they have hope and trust in God’s future.

A week or so ago, Kris Niendorf came to the Thursday Bible study with a bunch of origami peace cranes she’d made as signs of hope while watching the not-so-hopeful news on tv.  It seems to me that, through these tiny symbols of resistance to the world’s injustice and violence and oppression, Kris was refusing to give in to the despair that I suspect can tempt us all.  Images, gestures, and actions can embody hope and offer strength in anxious times like our own, and worship itself is full of such images and actions.  We come to remember who God is and who we are.  We come to be put back together after the past week so that we can be signs of peace and hope in the week ahead, bearing witness to God’s power to sustain and encourage us and to lead us to live ever more deeply into our identity as people of faith.  Revelation speaks as powerfully about our call to live with hope and courage in the face of injustice and violence as it did in the first century.

Revelation offers us a word from the Lord in another way, too.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear a reading from Revelation in which John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.”  He hears a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”[3]  In John’s vision and God’s plan, the earth matters.  We don’t go up to God; God comes down to us and makes God’s home with us.  If we took that image seriously, how might it affect how we care for the earth and for all life on this planet we call home?

The language of Revelation is filled with images of all creation being restored and redeemed, and of all who make earth their home singing praises to God.  As part of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy during the Easter season, I say, “And so, with Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all its creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. . . .”  Did you catch that?  It’s not just us who sing but it’s the earth itself, the sea, the creatures who walk and swim and fly.  We all sing “to God and to the Lamb” and “millions join the theme” as we sing, as we sing.  We’re part of a cosmic chorus.

We humans are smart but not necessarily wise, and technology allows us to exploit our planet’s resources faster than the earth can renew itself.  That has never been true until now.  We who are called by God to care for and protect what God has made are surely called to repent — not only for what we have done but also what we have left undone in caring for God’s creation.  From the beginning, we were created for partnership with God, for joining all creation’s song of praise.  We were not made to wreak havoc on creation, which humankind increasingly is doing.

In that holy city that comes down from God, the water of life that we know in baptism flows through the city from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  John sees that “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  Can you picture in your mind God’s new creation where water flows freely, all are fed, and healing marks all kinds of relationships?  Where our allegiance is to God alone?

That’s the vision John describes, and we are called to live into it, to let God’s future draw us to it and to work for its fulfillment.  A clear-eyed look at the forces, fears, appetites, and institutions that resist what God desires makes it clear that courage and hope will be crucial if we are to live faithfully.  A community of worship that sings “with earth and sea and all its creatures” and receives the Supper of the Lamb will help sustain us.  The book of Revelation – which, as you see, is not just weird — will ground us in a deep ecology that is the word of God addressed to us today.

And so, let us be faithful people of hope and courage, of strength and healing.  Let us be faithful people together in worship and praise.

Amen.

 

[1] Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing:  The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Revelation 21:2-3

God in Forests: Who is Jesus for Chipmunks?

A Service In and For the Forests – Feel free to share this worship service or get ideas – we appreciate acknowledgement!

Click here to download bulletin.

Pentecost Creation/Forest — July 15, 2018
Homily by Pastor Susan Henry, House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Who Is Jesus for Chipmunks?

For maybe twenty-five years, I’ve mulled over a theological question that makes me feel a little foolish. I never raised it in a seminary class or talked about it with a professor, and when I’ve tentatively mentioned it to a colleague or two, they’ve looked at me like, “What???” But this question keeps coming up for me, and that kind of insistence in my life is sometimes God’s way of nudging me to stick with something that matters. So, even though you’ll probably laugh or give me the “What?” look, I’m going to share my theological question with you: “Who is Jesus for chipmunks?”
Stated more broadly, I guess this is a question about Jesus’ relationship with life other than human life – with chipmunks and vultures, worms and whales, Easter lilies and Queen Ann’s lace, cornfields and baobab trees. Who is Jesus for the rest of God’s created world? Does other-than-human life need Jesus, just as we do?

Martin Luther taught that “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Luther must have thought that something important about being saved, about being made whole, is written right on creation itself. And Luther perceived God as “entirely and personally present in the wilderness, in the garden, in the field.” Imagine that! In suggesting that the gospel is not only proclaimed in Jesus but also revealed somehow in creation itself, maybe Luther too had been wondering about who Jesus is for chipmunks.

I don’t have a definitive theological conviction about this chipmunk thing yet, but over the past couple years I’ve felt something shifting in me that makes me way more attentive to all of life, not just human life, and to God’s relationship with life itself on the planet we all call home. Where I’ve been, who I’ve met – especially Phoebe, and what I’ve read has given me new and helpful vocabulary about “the web of life” and about “other-than-human life” and about how everything belongs, everything is connected, every kind of life matters.
Throughout my ministry, I’ve talked about the Bible as the long story of God’s loving way with God’s people, and although that’s true, it doesn’t seem quite sufficient anymore. I see how I’ve skipped over the part of the Flood story where the rainbow is a sign of the covenant God makes not only with humankind, but also with all the creatures of the earth. God saves life. People matter, but we’re not all that matters to God.

When I was on sabbatical a couple years ago, I invited you all to “notice and note” the created world around you with the hope that you (and I) would really see more, would care more about what we noticed, and would be moved to care for God’s creation more faithfully and intentionally. While you were here noticing the world around you, I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan noticing and noting the national forest in which I could drive at least ten miles in every direction and maybe only cross one road. It was amazing, dense, dark, humbling. I was fascinated by all the life around me at Carrie’s cabin – the jackpines with cones that only open under intense heat so that new life can begin after a forest fire, the trees with straight rows of woodpecker holes in them – like corncobs, the eagles that dove for fish in the lake in front of the cabin and took their catch home to the eaglets in their massive nests. I saw more, I learned more, I cared more. I felt more connected to creation and to all life.

For days, I tried to identify some other huge birds that I knew weren’t eagles and didn’t seem like osprey or hawks, either. Finally, I saw one – then another, and then a third — land in a couple dead trees fairly nearby. I grabbed the binoculars, zeroed in on those birds, and discovered that they were huge, ugly, disgusting, bare-headed, hunched-over vultures. Ha! I laughed out loud because I was expecting beauty and grandeur but I got these less-than-lovely scavengers who nevertheless are a really important part of the web of life. We need those vultures!

In the UP, I saw the startling, bare, ruined earth where land was being clear-cut for the sake of more and more new construction, for joining house to house to house, despite its cost to the life of the forest community. I learned a little about woodlot management where mules or horses are used to haul out what is selectively cut, instead of using massive machinery that makes it necessary to cut more in order to sell more in order to pay back the massive loans on that incredibly expensive logging equipment. It’s a pretty vicious cycle and a pretty grim story.

Right alongside all this, I was reading Earth-Honoring Faith, Lutheran ethicist Larry Rasmussen’s urgent call to sing faith’s song in a new key – an unfamiliar key that no longer treats the earth only as something to be used, even exploited, by humankind, but in ways that foster the well-being of all creation, ways that “sing to the Lord a new song.” Spirituality and ecology become allies in this transformation, for the sake of the world God created and loves.
Back in 1971, Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax, and it’s still a call for voices that will speak for the trees and for people who will act for the sake of nature’s well-being. In a way, it’s even a call to what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann names as “a new ecological perspective in which the earth and all of the creatures of the Earth are treated like covenant partners who are entitled to dignity and viability. Every acre,” he says, “every squirrel, every radish, every whale, every cornstalk is entitled to viability and respect.”
The Lorax calls us to speak for the trees and act for the sake of creation, but scripture, creation itself, theologians, and ethicists call us to do so because we are people of faith, because we know Jesus, because we love the world that God loves. “God so loved the world” – the cosmos, the planet, the people, the trees, the oceans, the creatures, even the chipmunks – that God came and lived among us on this beautiful blue marble that is life’s home. And not just for our lives, but for all the life we know.

When our fallenness, our sin, our very human unwillingness to let God be God in our lives compromises other life and maybe the life of the planet, God’s saving work in Jesus matters, and our faithful response to God’s grace matters, too. Never before has human life had so large an effect on our planet, and that just might call for an enlarged understanding of what it means to live faithfully. Our assumption that human life matters most to God might be challenged by the gospel written in trees and flowers and clouds and stars; in beauty, wonder, well-being, fullness of life, and harmonious relationship with God and all creation; in life together that’s more like life in the kingdom Jesus came preaching.

It may be quite a shift for you to take that “new ecological perspective” Brueggemann describes “in which the earth and all of the creatures of the Earth are treated like covenant partners who are entitled to dignity and viability.” I’m still in the midst of that shift myself. You might wonder about, be drawn to, challenge, or even resist such a new perspective, but perhaps we can’t sing in a new and unfamiliar key without a new perspective. It won’t be easy, but it might be necessary for us as people of faith. If Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly, such abundance surely includes respect for the life of, as Brueggeman puts it, “every acre, every squirrel, every radish, every whale, every cornstalk.”
Every chipmunk, too.

Amen

Sources: 

Attributed to Luther, cited in Awakening to God’s Call to Earthkeeping, elca.org

 LW 37:61, ibid.

Genesis 9:9

Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Larry L. Rasmussen, Oxford University Press, 2013

 Walter Brueggemann, “Jesus Acted Out the Alternative to Empire,” posted June 22, 2018, sojo.net

Microscopic – Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise

Micro-Creation Service Bulletin – Click here – free to share! (wonderful readings, music, etc.)

Homily by Pastor Susan Henry, House of Prayer Lutheran Church – Hingham MA

Pentecost 13 B Creation  – –  August 19, 2018

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise

Because I was appalled at the prospect of dissecting a frog, I never took biology. My study of living organisms hasn’t been academic, but it has led me to love life, to stand in awe of God’s creative impulses and energy, and, lately, to feel more and more connected not just with human life, but with all of life.

I wasn’t in a biology lab, but I learned about dinosaurs, insects, and sea creatures because I was teaching four-year-olds about them. I know chicken anatomy because whole chickens are cheaper than chicken parts, so I long ago learned how to cut them up. I’ve milked goats and stirred a microbe-rich culture into that milk to make yogurt, and I’ve watched and smelled yeast at work in fragrant, rising bread dough. Most of what I know about plants comes either from gardening, being in the woods, or drawing what I see around me. Really, what I know about biology is more like having a pocketful of seeds, twigs, and shells than knowing where everything fits in a grand scheme. But, as a hymn puts it, I’m “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

This is the third of three summer worship services that have been turning our hearts and minds to God the Creator “of all that is, seen and unseen” – the God of galaxies so vast and so distant it’s hard to wrap our minds around them, the God of forests that breathe in the carbon dioxide we have exhaled and then breathe out the oxygen we will inhale, the God of a fungal network so infinitesimal that 800 miles of it runs through the soil beneath just one footstep that we take. Really, the mind boggles!

The biblical writers knew nothing of micro-organisms, of course, but they too were lost in wonder, love and praise: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” “How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep!” Both worship and study can draw our attention to what we might often take for granted about God’s awe-inspiring, gracious, creative work made known in human and other-than-human life.

At Bible study Thursday morning, we read today’s verses from scripture, and then we sat in awe of how our bodies are able to heal when we get a cut or break a bone. We laughed in amazement at the number of cherry tomatoes a mere three plants can produce from three tiny seeds. We pondered what we can see through a telescope and what is far beyond our seeing. We caught a glimpse of how everything is connected, how everything belongs. We were lost in wonder, love, and praise.

It’s good for us to intentionally focus on the marvels of creation and on the Creator of all that exists. It’s good for us to contemplate how interrelated all of life is, so that we can honor, respect, and protect what God has made and continues to create. It’s good for us to acknowledge how the Earth suffers when we fail to care for God’s creation, so that we can confess “what we have done and left undone” and so that we can change our ways.

Our reflection today about “the zoo in you” comes from Larry Rasmussen, a Lutheran ethicist who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He too is lost in wonder, love and praise when he considers the sacredness of the web of life of which we are a part. But out of a passion for the well-being of that whole web of life, he is calling us to a life of faith that honors not only human life, but the life of the Earth itself. We’ve not been very good at that. We humans most often see our planet through the lens of how it can be useful to us, and we’ve gotten quite adept at consuming Earth’s resources – often without considering the consequences of what we do. Never before in Earth’s history have human actions been able to have such a massive impact on the web of life on Earth. That is no small thing.

People of faith bring a perspective to this situation that is grounded in knowing and loving God who creates, redeems and sustains us. And although we do think of God as the creator of all life, we probably haven’t thought much about God’s redeeming and sustaining work for the sake of all of life, for the sake of the web of life itself. Even less have we considered what it might ask of us to honor God’s desires for the well-being of all life.

Well-being, wholeness, fullness of life, flourishing, completeness, harmony, peace – this is the future God is drawing us toward. Scripture uses the word “shalom” to speak of this kind of life. We can also recall Jesus’ many parables about the kingdom of God. People kept asking Jesus, “What is the kingdom of God like? What is life like where what God desires is how life actually is?”

One time, Jesus said, “[The kingdom of God] is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Now, you may find that as enigmatic a response as the Bible study group did, but that’s the nature of parables. Jesus didn’t hand out easy answers but instead left his hearers puzzling over his words, taking them back home with them, pondering what yeast is and what someone did and what the result was – and what all that has to do with wholeness and well-being and flourishing.
Among other things, perhaps Jesus was calling his followers to be leaven in the loaf of their society, to help create something life-sustaining and God-honoring. People of faith like us today can be the leaven mixed into critical discussions and decisions about the well-being of the Earth and about the flourishing of all life – the leaven, the soil, the wheat, the baker, and those who share the bread. In living out such an Earth-honoring faith, we may discover that the kingdom of God has come near.

Amen

Creation of the Cosmos: “Of All that is Seen and Unseen”

Creation of Cosmos Service – Feel free to download and share this bulletin.  Please don’t forget acknowledgements.

Creation: The Universe  – – June 17, 2018
Homily by Pastor Susan Henry, House of Prayer Lutheran Church, Hingham MA

Of All That Is, Seen and Unseen

In the summer, it would be hard not to notice the goodness of God’s creation. Long days and starry nights; fruitful gardens and gorgeous flowers visited by bees and hummingbirds; picnics and cookouts; backyard sprinklers and ocean waves; time outdoors with families, friends and pets; vacation plans or memories – such things immerse us in the created world around us. On one Sunday in each of the summer months, we’ll turn our hearts and minds in worship to God whom we know not only as our Creator, but as the Creator of the vast, expanding universe, of the human and other-than-human life that’s all around us, and of the vital microbial life far too small for us to see.

We Lutherans are occasionally criticized for “an idolatry of the Second Person of the Trinity” – in other words, for so much emphasis on Jesus that we don’t pay enough attention to the Father and the Holy Spirit. It’s a critique worth considering. So, today, let’s affirm our belief “in one God, the Father, the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”
I am thankful for all that God has made, but I too often take God’s ongoing creative work for granted. I water the herbs on my deck and Rae tends to the vegetables in his garden, but we know we ourselves don’t make them grow. In gardens and farms and vineyards everywhere, God keeps creating. Episcopal priest and chef Robert Farrar Capon once remarked on how next year’s wine depends on God saying, “Mmmm. That was good. Let’s do it again.”
The sun continues to rise and set, rain falls, the moon waxes and wanes, and I do nothing but stand in wonder now and then. Maybe you do, too. Poets, like the writers of Proverbs, Psalms, Isaiah 40, and the prologue to John’s gospel, all give voice to my wonder and yours. Together in worship today, we get to delight in Wisdom’s companionship with God. We get to imagine how the sun, the moon and the stars themselves praise their Creator. Seen from God’s perspective, we who look like grasshoppers have to wonder how it is that the God who called light and life and all creation into being cares about us churchgoers in a little town on the South Shore in Massachusetts. It’s stunning, really.

The ancient worldview seems quaint in relation to our knowledge about the universe today. Only relatively recently have we been able to see our own planet from beyond it. You’ve probably seen the iconic photograph of Earth, the “Blue Marble,” that was taken by astronauts on their way to the moon. Like the biblical writers, scientists too stand in awe and resort to poetic language to describe what the Apollo 17 astronauts saw: “Earth is revealed as both a vast planet home to billions of creatures and a beautiful orb capable of fitting into the pocket of the universe.”

It’s hard to get my head around what that lovely image describes – our planet spinning in a spur near the edge of our galaxy where a look at the night sky gives us a tiny, fuller glimpse of God’s ongoing creation. Out there, stars are born and die. Galaxies collide and trigger starbursts. Bright and dark nebulae, supernovas and black holes reflect the creative energy of the “maker of all that is, seen and unseen.”

I can barely get the vocabulary right, let alone comprehend the expanding universe that reflects our worldview. I’m happy to live with some mystery as I contemplate God’s creative energy and God’s astounding creation. This is more frenetic than poetic, but it might be a theme you recognize:

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait. . .
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery,
That all started with the big bang!

Awesome work, God. Now, one of the things I love about being the Lutheran kind of Christian is that we read the Bible as a book of faith. We don’t turn to it as a science book, and we recognize that the history it tells is told by people of faith for the sake of faith. We can still join our voices with people who held an ancient worldview that knew nothing of Earth’s place in the Virgo Supercluster. We can join our voices with all creation – sun, moon, stars, planets, galaxies – in praise of our Creator. And since we ourselves are literally made of stardust, we can truly “join in the hymn of all creation.”
As astrophysicist Karel Schrijver and professor of pathology Iris Schrijver put it, “Our bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. All the material in our bodies originates with that residual stardust, and it finds its way into plants, and from there into the nutrients that we need for everything we do – think, move, grow. And every few years, the bulk of our bodies are newly created.” In more than one way, God is always creating, renewing, feeding, and transforming us.

When we consider God’s heavens, the work of God’s hands, the galaxies that God has created, who are we that God is mindful of us, that God is concerned about us? The mind boggles. And yet – the witness of scripture is that God does indeed care about us and for us, that God cares so much that God came to live among us in Jesus, stardust himself, like us. So intimate was Jesus’ relationship with the Creator of the whole universe that Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father, Daddy. . . .” We who know Jesus as our brother may also pray, “Abba, Father, Daddy. . . .” And perhaps, as we stand awestruck by God’s creative power and saving love, we can pray a simple prayer. German mystic Meister Eckhart famously said that if the only prayer we ever prayed was “Thank you,” it would be enough.

So, let us pray. Creator of the universe . . . maker of all that is, seen and unseen . . . Abba, Father, Daddy . . . thank you. Amen.

Where are We? From the Microscopic to the Cosmos: Services and Sermons

Over the summer of 2018 Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church in Hingham Massachusetts decided to try something a little different.  After reading several books about the human relationship with creation over the years she wanted share some of these perspectives that may not come up in the typical lectionary cycle. The following are three services and sermons that she has graciously shared with our Lutherans Restoring Creation community. Feel free to use the material, but kindly be sure to credit the original authors as she has done.

Photo Credit - UnSplash - David Sandvik

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation's Easter Message Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022) Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30 Sermon from Pastor Susan ...
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God in Forests: Who is Jesus for Chipmunks?

God in Forests: Who is Jesus for Chipmunks?

A Service In and For the Forests - Feel free to share this worship service or get ideas - we ...
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Microscopic - Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise

Microscopic – Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise

Micro-Creation Service Bulletin - Click here - free to share! (wonderful readings, music, etc.) Homily by Pastor Susan Henry, House ...
Read More
Creation of the Cosmos: "Of All that is Seen and Unseen"

Creation of the Cosmos: “Of All that is Seen and Unseen”

Creation of Cosmos Service - Feel free to download and share this bulletin.  Please don't forget acknowledgements. Creation: The Universe  ...
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Sermon on Public Witness

On the Way

Pentecost 17 B / Proper 19                             September 16, 2018

Isaiah 50:4-9a    James 3:1-12   Mark 8:27-38

Pastor Susan Henry – House of Prayer Lutheran Church,
Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

We’re right smack in the middle of Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus, but let’s look back to the start of it.  There, Mark writes that this is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  We’ve known who Jesus is from the very first verse of Mark’s gospel.  But Jesus’ disciples and the crowds who seek him out don’t know who he is – yet.  Some of the demons do, but nobody pays attention to them.  Peter and the other disciples have heeded Jesus’ call to follow him, going where he goes, crossing the Sea of Galilee again and again, watching and listening as his ministry unfolds, as he heals people, feeds them, delivers them from what torments them, and teaches them.  The disciples think they have a pretty good idea who Jesus is.

But they don’t, really.  Today’s gospel testifies to that.  Jesus is headed north to Caesarea Philippi, beyond Jewish territory, near some of the places where the Roman emperor is worshipped.  “On the way,” Mark says, Jesus wants to know who people think he is.  The disciples report that some think he’s John the Baptist come back from the dead or Elijah who was taken into heaven or one of the prophets of old who’ve come again.  Any of them could have “a word from the Lord” for those with ears to hear.

But then Jesus asks a harder question:  “But who do you say that I am?”  It’s “you” in the plural – “you all” – but Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”  You are the Anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah of God – which is the “right” answer.  But then, instead of congratulating Peter on his insight, Jesus “sternly order[s] them not to tell anyone about him.” This confuses us – and I suspect it confused them, too.  If they’ve got it right, why wouldn’t they share it?  Isn’t this what people are waiting for?

We might imagine that Jews in Jesus’ time were all anticipating the coming of the Messiah, but Judaism then was more diverse than we used to think.  Some Jews did expect a powerful leader from King David’s line who would throw off the oppressive rule of Rome and instead establish a reign of peace and an era of holiness.  Some longed for a messianic age of religious purification.  Others no doubt recalled how not only kings but also prophets and priests were “anointed ones.”[1]  Maybe “Messiah” was a word like a Rorschach test – what you saw said more about you than about anything else.

Peter has the right word about Jesus, but we’ll soon see that he has the wrong meaning.  Maybe that’s why Jesus shuts the disciples down:  “Don’t go around talking about something you don’t really understand.”  When Jesus says that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again,” Peter is appalled.  He doesn’t want to hear anything remotely like that from Jesus.  And, anyway, what kind of Messiah would suffer and die?  It makes no sense, and Peter takes Jesus aside and starts to reproach him for saying such a thing.  Jesus, however, comes back at Peter harshly, saying, “’Get behind me, Satan!’  You’ve got your priorities confused with God’s.  Follow me, don’t get ahead of me because I’m not going where you want me to go.  Back off, Peter!”

Where Jesus is going is no longer back and forth across the lake or around the villages and cities, but toward Jerusalem.  From here on, he is on the way to rejection, to suffering, to death.  And even though he has told the disciples that he will rise again, I can’t imagine they could hear that, let alone envision it.  Whatever expectations they’ve held about a coming Messiah have been shattered.  Within those diverse understandings among Jews, none include rejection or suffering, death or apparent failure.  Surely any Messiah will come with strength and power, in glory and triumph.

While the disciples are still reeling from Jesus’ words, he gathers the crowd in with them and he tells all of them that following him will be costly.  It won’t lead to glory or wealth or success or power or whatever else the world counts as “winning.”  Our egos can be seduced by all those things, but if we define ourselves in terms of what our egos are desperate for, we will have a false sense of who we are.  That false self is what Jesus will call his disciples to deny so that they can live with a true sense of who they are — formed in the image of God, made for relationship, called to freedom, meant for serving, created for love.

When we talked in Bible study about what it means to “deny ourselves,” we struggled to understand what Jesus was asking.  If the disciples gave up everything to follow him, is that what Jesus calls us to do, too?  Do we have to abandon the people we love or the work we do or the joy we find in life?  Now, surely among God’s gifts to us are the people who love us and the right use of the abilities God has given us, so that can’t be what Jesus is talking about.  When the word “priorities” came up, something shifted from fear about what we might lose if we follow Jesus to curiosity about what we might gain, even as we reckoned with making some sacrifices as we get our priorities straight.

In denying our false and inadequate selves, we may see our true selves more clearly.  In acknowledging our own brokenness and in letting go of our selfishness – maybe only little by little — we will glimpse more of the full humanity God intends for us.  In following Jesus more faithfully, we will be drawn deeper into the world’s suffering, into Jesus’ suffering for our own and the world’s sake.  These are good things, but hard things.  They remind us that, while we might not get the God we want, we get the God we need.

We get Jesus, who knows that our false selves get in our way and lead us to worship all the wrong things in all the wrong places.  We get Jesus, who sees the messy, broken places in our lives and meets us there.  We get Jesus, whose story ended not in his rejection, suffering and death, but in new life which is ours as well.  And we get Jesus, who continues to love us out of our resistance to following him more faithfully, so that we can more fully experience life in him, in community, and in the kingdom of mercy and grace that is already but not yet here.

There’s hard stuff in the gospel today, for the disciples long ago and for us today, but let’s gather our courage and go where Jesus wants to take us, praying on the way that we may “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day.”[2]

Amen

[1] David Schnasa Jacobsen, “Mark,” Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2014, p. 120.

[2] Richard of Chichester, 12th century

The Stewardship of Creation: A Theological Reflection

by David Rhoads

Steward is a biblical term that refers to a manager who is responsible for the goods and property of another. A steward is not therefore an owner, but one who has a responsibility to an owner to treat property with care and respect. Stewardship is a term that refers to the responsibility of a steward to manage wisely. The unjust steward was one who took advantage of his position to aggrandize himself (Luke 16:1-13).

Stewardship has come to be used in the Christian community in a broader sense for our responsibility to manage wisely the goods and property that are in our possession. The assumption is that we do not really possess or own anything. Rather, the world, including us, belongs to God, and it is arrogant for humans to think otherwise. Therefore, we are not owners but stewards of all that comes into our arena of responsibility—income, assets, property, goods, time, talents, and our very selves. Religious stewardship is management as sacred trust.

In recent times, the concept of steward has been applied in its most original and fundamental meaning to refer to our human responsibility to care for the Earth itself (Gen 1-2). Our human failure to be responsible stewards of Earth has led to the current ecological crises threatening global climate stability, the ozone layer, and the diversity of plant and animal species. Ecological problems also include the pollution of air, the despoiling of land, the degradation of fresh water, and threats to the health of the oceans. The loss of forest and arable land in alarming proportions has tremendous implications for food security. Human population, now approaching seven billion, is placing stress on every ecosystem on Earth. As Christians, what is our responsibility?

Stewardship of Creation Is Our Human Vocation

The Bible is a good place to find guidance. The concept of environmental stewardship originates with the first of the creation stories, in which God gives humans dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the animals of the land (Gen 1:1–2:4). Traditionally, Christians have distorted the mandate to “exercise dominion” to mean that creation was made for human beings and that we have a right to dominate and exploit creation for our own wants and needs. This has led to incalculable abuses of nature.

What we now know is that the Hebrew word for dominion does not mean “to dominate” or “to exploit.” Rather, it means “to take responsibility for,” as a ruler would be responsible to assure the well-being of those in the realm. In this first creation story, human beings were created last, not as the so-called “crown of creation,” but in order to exercise responsibility for the well-being of the garden Earth. According to Genesis 1, exercising responsibility as part of God’s creation is the main reason humans were created. Therefore, being stewards of creation is foundational to what it means to be human. Caring for creation is not an add-on, not a sideline, not related just to part of our calling. It represents our proper human relationship to Earth. This portrayal puts human beings squarely in a caretaker position in regard to environmental stewardship.

We Are Called “to Serve and to Preserve”

The second creation story goes even further in clarifying the concept of environmental stewardship (Gen 2:5-15). In this story, God put Adam and Eve in the garden in order “to till and to keep” the land. However, the words translated as “till” and “keep” may be misleading. The Hebrew word for “till” is a word used to depict the service that a slave gives to a master. And the Hebrew word for “keep” means to preserve for future generations. Hence, the mandate “to serve and to preserve” the land places human beings not in a hierarchical position over creation but in a position of service to it.

Just as the later Christian message depicts Jesus as a servant-king, so humans are challenged in this creation story to assume a similar role: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Care for creation is to be exercised not to serve our own wants and desires but to serve the best interests and well-being of all Earth-community together, including ourselves.

All Creation for Its Own Sake

This stewardship role for humans as servants of creation is reinforced by the idea that creation was made for its own sake. After God created each part of creation, God saw that it was “good” in its own right—even before humans were created. Furthermore, in the first creation story, God mandated not just for humans but also for the animals to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” God wishes for all species, not simply human beings, to survive and to thrive. In Psalm 104, the psalmist celebrates creation and explains that the grasses were made for the cattle and the crags for the mountain goats; all of creation has been arranged by God so that all animals receive “their food in due season.” If we are to be good stewards of Earth, there is a foundational reverence we need to bear toward all of life for its own sake, because it is God’s creation and it is filled with God’s glory.

The biblical writers invite us to delight in creation, for delight is the right basis for our use of it. We will preserve that in which we delight! And we are called to love creation. We will care for that which we love! Even more, we are invited to love creation as God loves it: not in the abstract, but concretely in terms of caring for life. The biblical Sabbath regulations require that humans give rest to the animals every seven days; and in the seventh year they must allow the land to lie fallow, free slaves, and remit debts (Exod 23:10-11; Lev 25). As good stewards, we are called to take these kinds of actions in order to serve and to preserve Earth-community.
Hence, all our actions of stewardship are to be done as part of our service to the larger will and purposes of God. In some sense, we humans are partners with God in being responsible for creation. As humans, however, and not gods, it might be more appropriate to say that we are responsible to creation. Most fundamentally, however, we are responsible to God to care for creation. This is our vocation under God.

So often we make our plans and ask God to bless them. Instead, we are called to discern the plans of God and then to ponder how we can bring our lives into conformity with them. According to the Scripture, God wills for creation to thrive in all its diversity. God wills for air, sea, and land to bring health and well-being to all creatures. God wills care for the vulnerable. God wants there to be peace and justice in the land, for humans and non-humans alike. We need to see anew the purpose of our lives within the context of God’s larger purposes for the world and to exercise our stewardship in the context of this more embracing vision.

The all-embracing vision of God for creation is violated, when there is injustice by humans against humans. The biblical authors know the close relationship between the ways people exploit Earth and the ways people exploit the poor. In the Bible, when people are oppressed, the rest of creation suffers too—the land languishes and the grains fail (Jer 2:7; Isa 24:4-7; Joel 2:2-20). We are called to steward resources not only in ways that generate sustainability for Earth’s resources but also in ways that sustain life for the poor and vulnerable. In biblical terms, we are to act out of God’s compassion for “orphans and widows.” We are called to care for the least and the lost—human and non-human alike—just as Jesus “came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Yet there are pitfalls here, and we need to face them if our vocation as stewards is not to end in the arrogant and paternalistic role of the privileged few exercising control over the world and “the poor” to serve their own interests. If the task of stewardship is to serve as a sacred trust on behalf of all Earth-community, we must be willing to go beyond our own wants and desires in order to see creation through the compassionate eyes of the God who empowers the weak and makes common cause with the most vulnerable. It is only as servants of Earth community that we avoid paternalism.

Our Oneness with the Rest of Creation

Fundamental to such a wise and humble exercise of stewardship is the experience of oneness with the Earth-community we serve. God’s covenant with Noah and all creation affirms that all living creatures are in solidarity with each other in covenant with God (Gen 9:8-17; Hos 2:18). This experience of creation’s oneness is affirmed by the admonitions throughout Scripture for all creation to worship God: “Let the sea roar and all that fills it; let the field exult and everything in it. Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy” (1 Chr 16:29-34). All parts of creation together—human and non-human creatures and the rest of the created world—are to “praise the name of the Lord” (Ps 148).

There is a wonderful scene in the book of Revelation that portrays this common praise. John the seer says: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth , and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, “blessing and honor and glory and might to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be forever and ever” (5:13). What a vision! We are in solidarity with all creation; and if we do not care for Earth-community, the whole creation will not able to celebrate together in praise of our creator.

Moreover, we are also called to be at one with future generations to establish and maintain a sustainable life on Earth—to leave creation healthier and more resourceful than it was in the previous generation. There are some Christians who claim that we do not need to worry about the future of Earth because Jesus is about to come to deliver the saved from Earth. Others claim Jesus will come and rescue Earth from any problems we may cause for creation. Others see personal salvation as so important that heaven is all that matters; Earth is but a brief pilgrimage for individual souls. There may be some truth in some of these beliefs, but in no way do they begin to tell the whole biblical truth.

The Bible says unequivocally that God’s purpose is to restore all creation. The whole notion of incarnation—God becoming flesh (John 1:1)—is that the divine movement is not an escape from Earth but a movement toward embodiment in creation. Jesus became flesh to bring “new creation” (Gal 6:15). Paul testifies to this vocation when he claims that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” ready to “be set free from its bondage to decay,” as it “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:18-25) who will care for each other and for Earth. We are called now to be those children of God who exercise stewardship in relation to all creation.

There is an affirmation of creation in the biblical writings that cannot be denied. The vision of the end-time in the book of Revelation is that God will come to a renewed heaven and Earth and will dwell here among people (21:1-27). The vision of the New Jerusalem is a vision in which nature is in the midst of the city. In this vision, the river of life flows right down the middle of the city streets; it is clear as crystal and it is available to all, free of charge, so that none may be deprived of fresh water. And the tree of life is thriving on either side of the river; and it yields fruit twelve months of the year, so that no person will be hungry. God will dwell here with them and will wipe away every tear from their eyes. As we lean toward the salvation of God, this is the vision that we as stewards are called to live out in our lives and to foster in others.

Implications for Our Life and Times

In our modern culture, we have been ruthless and unjust stewards of Earth. We too often place profits above people; we put security for ourselves above security for all; and we act as if the world is there for our use alone. Much of our contemporary global economy is based upon the most efficient ways to strip resources from the land and to pay the lowest wages without regard to the health and well-being of workers. We have reduced land and people to commodities that serve financial markets. We have pursued a standard of living without regard to its impact on nature and people. Furthermore, ecological disasters have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable people—third world countries, the poor, people of color, the sick, and the elderly. These also happen to be the ones with the least resources to respond. We have a responsibility to discern our immoral and destructive ways, confess them as sins, and turn to a new way of living.

Our Stewardship of Creation Today

So what does this mean for us in the twenty-first century? Clearly, it means that we need to embrace stewardship of Earth-community at a collective and a personal level. We need to change the system and we need to change our personal behavior.

The Collective Trust. First, we need urgently to act collectively as stewards in our responsibilities to creation at the local, state, regional, national, and global levels. We need to support laws and policies and systems that promote the health of the environment—promoting cooperation with global treaties, strengthening legislation that secures clean air, safe water, and productive land; advocating for policies that reduce energy consumption and assure species diversity; placing limits on land use and on waste; and investing in environmental technologies. In addition, we need to reverse the process of economic globalization toward the use of local products and services. We need to find ways to encourage the greening of business and industry. We need to redirect the whole economy toward technologies, industries, and services that foster a sustainable lifestyle for the Earth-community. Commitment to ecological justice demands that we attend especially to the poor and vulnerable, the ones most affected by ecological degradation. This collective transformation of society is crucial, for if Earth-friendly treaties, laws, policies, and common practices are not in place, the changes we make in our personal lifestyle will be much less effective than they might be otherwise.

Also, as congregations committed to stewardship of creation, we can collectively renew our beliefs and actions to bring about a reformation in the church as an institution—transforming our worship and directing our educational programs toward creation-care, making our buildings and grounds Earth-friendly, observing best environmental practices at coffee hour and meals, and teaching our children to be Earth-keepers. We can incorporate environmental stewardship into the full identity and mission of our parishes, such that care for creation becomes part of the ethos of our life together. Thereby our congregations can become flagship communities that serve as witnesses in the towns, cities, and regions in which we are located.

The Personal Trust. Second, we need to become responsible stewards in our personal behavior, particularly in relation to that which is directly in our care. Each of us has a small piece of creation for which we are directly responsible, namely our living space—an apartment or house and perhaps some land. We are called to see our responsibility for this parcel of creation as part of our vocation as God’s stewards. Consider this: your living space is connected to virtually every environmental problem we face—the emissions from your furnace, the food in your refrigerator, the coal from the electricity you use, the water that goes in and out of your house, the products you purchase that are shipped from a distance, the treatments you give your lawn, the gas in your automobile, among other things. The choices we make about these everyday matters have a direct impact on the well-being of Earth and Earth-community. We can make a difference, every single day. We have it in our hands to make daily choices that can lighten our negative impact on Earth and help to restore God’s creation. What is more, these same practices can be extended to our places of work. We are stewards of our own local environment as a sacred trust.

There is a concept of environmental tithing that is relevant to our vocation as stewards of creation. Most people are familiar with the biblical concept of tithing, the giving of a “tenth.” The biblical tithe has been used as a marker of responsible stewardship. This tenth is given back to God—to the church, to the poor, to other causes deemed expressions of God’s will—as a symbol that the whole belongs to God. We can also apply the tithe to the stewardship of our personal resources of Earth. Can we reduce our electrical use by ten percent? Can we reduce the gas for heating by ten percent? Can we reduce the water we use by ten percent? Can we eat ten percent less food that comes from a distance? Can we eat fewer meals with meat? Can we travel ten percent less than usual? Can we invest a tenth of our financial resources in funds that contribute to sustainability? Can we set other goals to reduce our impact on the environment by a tenth—or more? And if we can, could we then contribute the money saved toward further efforts at restoring Earth? Tithing is just a beginning as we contemplate all we can do on a daily basis at home, at work, and in society to foster and maintain a sustainable world.

Our Spiritual Discipline

Making these choices as God’s Earth-keepers may involve sacrifice on our part as we seek to live a simpler lifestyle and walk lightly on Earth. In our Christian life, the key to making our world sustainable is viewing our change of behavior and our sacrifices as acts of love and kindness toward all creation—toward other people; toward other creatures; and toward the well-being of land, sea, and air. In doing these things as part of our spiritual discipline, we exercise our vocation as stewards of creation not out of fear, guilt, shame, outrage, or despair. Rather, what makes this journey sacred is that we act with a gratitude nourished by the fountain of God’s grace, an inexhaustible source of “living water” that will sustain us for a lifetime of loving creation, and that will enable us to be stewards of creation with hope and joy!

 

 

 

Within Limits: Remember the Sabbath

Jim Martin-Schramm
Luther College Chapel
October 7, 2011
Exodus 23:10-12 (or 31:12-17)

Within Limits: Remember the Sabbath

Our reading this morning is from the 23rd chapter of Exodus:

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:10-12)

One of the problems that has plagued the modern era has been a self-defeating anthropocentrism. This brief passage from Exodus is remarkable for its breadth of moral concern. The injunction to let the land lay fallow every seven years reflects God’s concern for the landless poor who needed access to food, but it also reflects God’s concern for wild animals and even for the land itself. The injunction to rest from work every seven days was made to provide rest and relief for all who work the land, including domesticated animals and servants. In this passage God’s scope of moral concern extends well beyond human beings to the welfare of all that God has made.

The alternative reading for today from the 31st chapter of Exodus ties this practice of taking time to rest more directly to observation of the Sabbath:

The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: ‘You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’

Now, I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t remember the part about being put to death for doing work on the Sabbath. How many of you have done work on the Sabbath? If we put everyone to death who worked on the Sabbath I suspect there would not be many of us left!

More seriously, however, perhaps this text has a point. Is it possible that by never taking time to rest we are working ourselves to death? Is it possible that our own work schedules and relentless lifestyles are also working others to death? Is it possible that our industrious and industrial way of life is working our planet to death?

Wendell Berry raises these sorts of questions in his foreword to Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba (Brazos Press, 2006). I read this book in preparation for this homily and found it very helpful. Berry writes:

We are living at the climax of industrialism. The “cheap” fossil fuels on which our world has grown dependent, are now becoming expensive in money and in lives.…. The industrial economy, by definition, must never rest…. Whatever we have, in whatever quantity, is not enough. There is no such thing as enough…. Six workdays in a week are not enough. We need a seventh…. We need an eighth…. We cannot stop to eat. Thank God for cars! We dine as we drive over another paved farm. Everybody is weary and there is no rest. (11)

There is very little that is sustainable about our current industrial way of life. According to Paul Hawken in The Ecology of Commerce, every day the global economy burns an amount of fossil fuel that it took nature 10,000 days to create.[1] Put another way, 27 years of stored solar energy in coal, oil, and natural gas are burned by utilities, cars, houses, factories, and farms every 24 hours. Think about that: Every day we consume an amount of fossil fuel energy that it took the planet 27 years to create.

Given the focus of these Exodus texts on agriculture, it is worthwhile to reflect on how our industrial way of life is affecting the land, other animals, and the people who work to produce the food we consume. While we have made some important strides in the U.S. regarding soil and water conservation, we are still losing topsoil faster than nature can replenish it and our applications of fertilizers and pesticides are polluting waterways and contributing to huge dead zones like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, our land use practices have destroyed and fragmented so many habitats that we are now experiencing an unprecedented rate of species extinction and loss of biodiversity.

Our industrial way of life has not been good for wild animals and it certainly has not been good for domesticated animals. The vast majority of the ten billion animals slaughtered in the United States last year were raised in massive confinement operations that gave them little room to move and little access to fresh air and sunlight. In Iowa, the nation’s largest producer of pork, the total swine herd of nearly 20 million pigs outnumbers the human population of Iowa by almost seven to one.[2] An overwhelming majority of these pigs are locked in stalls that do not provide enough room for them even to turn around. Similar conditions afflict chickens in Iowa, which also leads the nation in egg production. According to Norman Wirzba:

Chickens are crammed, eight at a time, into wire crates no bigger than the drawer of a filing cabinet. The crates are stacked on top of each other in darkness, which means that chickens higher up defecate on those below. As a result, illness and anxiety run rampant, and so heavy uses of antibiotics are required to keep the fowl healthy enough till slaughter…. “(Living the Sabbath, 26)

As we know all to well from the raid in Postville, IA, the people who work in these industrial slaughterhouses are not treated much better than the animals they kill for our consumption. The meat-packing industry is one of the most dangerous in the nation and it relies on cheap and disposable labor frequently furnished by desperate immigrants to our nation. No creature should have to live like this, whether worker or animal.

Norman Wirzba argues that we will not be able to abandon our destructive, industrial way of life until we recover the discipline and practice of the Sabbath. He does not mean that it will be sufficient merely to ritually observe the Sabbath day and to refrain from work during that day. Rather “[t]he key to Sabbath observance is that we participate regularly in the delight that marked God’s own response to a creation wonderfully made.” (15) On the seventh day of creation God steps back to rest and to rejoice in a creation that is “good, very good.”

By keeping the Sabbath we stop to praise God for the goodness of creation. Ellen Davis, the Hebrew Bible scholar, reminds us, however, that “Praise does more for us that in does for God…. We praise God in order to see the world as God does.”[3] By praising God we learn to train our desires and to value creation as gift and not possession.

A life oriented around the Sabbath should lead us to give thanks and praise for the gifts of photosynthesis, soil regeneration, clean water, and the daily supplies of sun and wind. Wirzba writes: “When we forget these gifts, or when we fail to see them as gifts and mistake them to be ours by right or by our own effort, we falsify who we are. We overlook the fact that our lives are everywhere maintained by a bewildering abundance of kindness and sacrifice.” (36)

The Sabbath tradition confronts our anthropocentrism and industrial mindset head-on. We are not independent but radically interdependent with all that God has made. We must let go of our false sense of superiority and live more humbly under the restrictions and limits God has provided so that all may flourish. To deny these limits and turn our backs on God’s creation is to deny God. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that “Any error about creation also leads to an error about God.”[4] God invites us to turn away from our failed and frenetic ways in order to live our lives rooted in God’s delight in the goodness and wonder of creation. Only with such a Sabbath mindset will be able to live sustainably in this world.

Amen.

[1] Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, Revised edition., (San Francisco: Harper Paperbacks, 2010).

[2] Iowa State University Farm Outlook, June Hog and Pig Report Summary (7/6/11), http://www.econ.iastate.edu/ifo/; U.S. Census Bureau: Iowa Quick Facts, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/19000.html

[3] Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Boston: Cowley Press, 2001), 34. Cited in Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, pg. 28

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, cited in Wizba, Living the Sabbath, pg. 143.

Blessing of All the Animals: A Sermon

By David Rhoads

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the sea, and let birds multiply on the earth. . . . And God said, “Let the earth bring forth creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good (Gen. 1: 20-25).

And Jesus said to them,“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15 from the longer ending).

. . . . through him [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:20)

First, I want to address you varieties of dogs and cats and other creatures who are here today. And I want to speak with you fish and ferrets and hamsters and parakeets and snakes brought here today by your human companions. You are here for your own sake, and you also represent all those who are not here today, animals of every kind—cattle and goats and horses and elephants and bees and cougars and crocodiles and puffer fish and eels and insects—so many we cannot name them all.

I want to announce the good news to all you creatures. I want you to know that God loves you. God loves you for your own sake—and not because of what you can do for humans.

You are good in yourselves. The good book tells us that when God created you—fish of the sea and birds of the air and creatures of the land—God looked at all God had created, and God saw that “indeed, it was very good!” (Gen. 1:12, 18, 21, 25, 31)

When God created you, God blessed you. God told you to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”(Gen. 1:28). God created you in huge swarms and in great diversity. God wants all of you to survive and to thrive on Earth.

God created the world for you, so that you have what you need to live. The psalmist tells us that God made the rain to water the trees, the trees for you birds to nest, the grass for you cattle to graze, and the crags as a refuge for you mountain goats (Ps. 104:14-24). God wants you to receive your “food in due season” and to be“filled with good things” (Ps. 104: 27-28).

The Bible tells us that when the flood came, God rescued each of your species through Noah in the ark. And God made a covenant with you fish of the sea and birds of the air and domestic animals and all animals on Earth to protect you for the future (Gen. 9:8-17). God made the first “endangered species act.”

Just like us, you are called to worship God. The hills are to clap their hands. The fields are to exalt (Ps. 148). You cattle and dogs and cats are to praise God by being who you are and exalting in it. John the seer had a vision in which he heard the entire creation—everything in heaven, on the earth, under the earth and in the sea—cry out in praise: “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to our God and to the lamb forever and ever” (Rev. 5:13).

We human animals need to confess to you that we have systematically mistreated you, depleted your numbers, destroyed you, slaughtered you, crowded you out, neglected you, dealt with you as commodities in our quest for comfort and ease. We have not seen you as God’s creatures. We have not shown proper reverence or respect. Against God’s will, we have not set limits upon ourselves so that you might live and thrive. What we have done! We are sorry!

You who are here today are so fortunate because you have human companions who care for you. But so many of your cousins are threatened with extinction—snow leopards and timber wolves and green sea turtles and condors and paddlefish and fin whales among so many others. We humans may so crowd out or deplete these kin of yours that not a single one of them will ever again exist on Earth.

When we destroy you and diminish you in these ways, we not only compromise your ability to survive, we also stifle your capacity to praise God. Along with all creation, you are groaning in labor pains, waiting for the revelation of children of God who will care for creation and make provisions for you to thrive (Rom. 8:19-23).

Now I want to address you human creaturesI want to announce the good news to you also. God loves you. God loves you for your own sake and wants you to thrive. When God made you; God saw that this too was good.

God said also to you: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth” (Gen. 1:28) Yet we have already done this! So we need to find ways to limit the impact of our species, because God did not mean for us to crowd out the rights of other creatures to be fruitful and multiply also. In developed countries, we have become like an infestation—taking over land and destroying habitats and devouring species and infiltrating homes and migratory routes of so many other animals—and we need to learn our limits and exercise restraint.

God even created us humans with a special responsibility—to exercise dominion (Gen. 1:28). This does not mean that we are to exercise domination over other creatures or to exploit them for human mis-use. Rather, we are to delight in other creatures, as God does, and respect and care for them. Our love for creation is the only basis for our right use of creation. We are to exercise dominion as servants of creation. As Jesus has said, we are not to lord over anyone, but be as slaves to all (Mark 10:42-45). We are to take responsibility for all creatures, to serve their needs, and to work to preserve them (Gen. 2:15).

And we are to do this not with a sense of superiority but in solidarity with all other creatures. We were created to be together, to be companions to one another, to thrive all together. All animals are our cousins, our kin. And God made a covenant with us and with all other animals together. Admit it, we humans are also animals, primate mammals.

And Jesus was a mammal. Jesus was born and lived in solidarity with all of life. Jesus lived to care about all who were oppressed and made vulnerable and marginalized by society; and right now that includes most creatures, not just humans. Jesus died in order that God might reconcile to God’s self all things in creation (Col. 1:20).

In response to God’s love, we are freed to behave in ways that enable all of life to thrive together. You do not need to prove anything. You can set limits on yourselves. You can simplify your lifestyle so that others may survive and thrive. You can become aware the effects of your actions on other creatures and curtail your activity. You can act to establish and restore safe homes and habitats for those animals that are endangered.

Now I want to address all of you creatures together. I had this vision in a dream during sleep at night. I was in the front row of a cathedral looking at the scene before me during a service of communion. I saw the priest passing bread to the first person kneeling at the communion railing. As I looked, the next figure at the railing was a snake! It was curled at the bottom with its back arching up over the rail and with head straining forward to receive the grace of Christ. The next figure was another person. Next was a raccoon with paws up on the communion rail leaning forward to receive the grace of Christ. Then I saw a bird perched on the corner of the railing eating bread crumbs.

As I finished surveying this scene in my dream, suddenly the side walls of the cathedral fell away and outside was thick foliage of forest and jungle on each side with all manner of wild animals roaming around. In this moment, it seemed as if walls of separation had been removed and there was a seamless web of all creation praising God and exalting in the grace of Christ.

From the time I awoke from that dream until this day, I have never been able to think of worship in the same way again. I now see all of Earth as the sanctuary in which we worship, and I see myself invoking and confessing and giving thanks and praising God and offering myself in solidarity with all of life. May that vision also be your vision.

You who are here today are very fortunate because you and have a relationship of love and care and loyalty between yourself and your human or your pet companion. You model how all relationships between humans and other animals should be. We wish to project this relationship as the model for our human relationship with all animals. May we care about all animals as we care for our companions at home.

I invite you all to come forward for a blessing. Sometimes when we have a service for the Blessing of the Animals, we bless only the non-human animals, as if we ourselves are not also animals. Therefore, as an expression of solidarity with each other, I invite all of you—non-human animals and human animals alike—to come for a blessing together. We bless you as companions together and we bless your relationship:

“May God bless each of you with health and safety and well-being and long life. And may God bless your relationship together so that it may be filled with love and joy.”