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.)
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.
 Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing: The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.
 Revelation 21:2-3
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.
Attributed to Luther, cited in Awakening to God’s Call to Earthkeeping, elca.org
LW 37:61, ibid.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.” 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.”
 David Schnasa Jacobsen, “Mark,” Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2014, p. 120.
 Richard of Chichester, 12th century
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!
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. 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. 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.” 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.” 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.
 Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, Revised edition., (San Francisco: Harper Paperbacks, 2010).
 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
 Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Boston: Cowley Press, 2001), 34. Cited in Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, pg. 28
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, cited in Wizba, Living the Sabbath, pg. 143.
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 creatures. I 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.”
Sermon for Epiphany 5A, the Rev. Lisa E. Dahill, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Worship and Christian Spirituality, Trinity Lutheran Seminary
IPL Climate Preach-In, Trinity Lutheran Seminary
Epiphany 5A, February 12, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
This week is the annual Preach-In on Climate Change sponsored across the country by Interfaith Power and Light. This Preach-In urges pastors, priests, ministers, rabbis, faith leaders of all kinds to call attention to the ways climate change is destroying God’s creation already and threatening future life on Earth. All across the U.S. preachers will be preaching this Friday, this Saturday, this Sunday. Here at Trinity we too are taking part, so I volunteered to preach.
I signed up to preach… about climate change. Kind of a big topic. Just a bit – overwhelming.
How big? You know: the forms of the future of life on Earth at stake… millions of species going extinct… catastrophic storms and droughts killing the poorest already – and no idea how much hotter and more chaotic the climate will become just from the emissions we’ve already burned – let alone all the emissions we’re planning to keep on burning since even with all the disruptions so far and the warming and acidification of the oceans and the deforestation of jungles around the world and the rising seas and wilder storms and unpredictable growing seasons – even with all this already threatening the fragile hold the poorest humans on Earth have to life, we are apparently helpless to find a new way – helpless to stop the gas guzzling and the petroleum-based food systems, stop the fossil fuel extraction, stop the burning and the burning and the burning… Why should we cut carbon emissions when China’s not going to? Why should China cut emissions when we’re not going to? Why should we mobilize to pull together in sacrificial action across national borders or even, heck, just across political boundaries within our national borders, and act already when, it’s just too big, too diffuse, too far off, the danger screened from our view… and we keep ourselves busy with other things.
So how on Earth do you preach about this? How?? Dr. Langknecht – how am I to preach about this? You senior preachers – how…?? It’s too big, too huge… there are no words.
There are no words because the ones who would say them – who are right now shouting for the world’s attention – will drown when the monster storms and rising seas finally wash over their Pacific Islands home, lowest-lying islands of the world
There are no words because what can we say? God will fix this? Science will save us? The promise of magical salvation doesn’t convince the peasant farmers who rely on meltwater from the Kilimanjaro glaciers that will be gone soon. Once their children too have starved, there will be no words.
There are no words because in the face of danger too big to address we hide… of course we do! We shut down. We shut up. We preach about other things – needs we can address, not the ones that jolt us awake in fear for great-grandchildren who will never know a planet as beautiful and abundant and healthy as the one we were born on. We can’t bear to hear the cries of those not yet born – there are no words.
Or, even worse – we do hear them, we do hear the science, but how can we act? It’s not like we want the heating of our homes and the running of our seminary to addright this minute to the poison in the air and the heating of the Earth – but what choice do we have? We’re all enmeshed in this. We might want to speak out, but what would we say? There’s no easy place to grab hold and mobilize; it’s too complex and huge and pointless – the system’s broken, the powerful won’t listen, why speak? Why put ourselves at risk, speaking out when no one else is? [In an earlier generation Christians watched the rounding up of the Jews, week after week, and said nothing – because we’re afraid, because it could get us in trouble, because what good would it do anyway?] There are no words. It’s too big.
In fact, there is only one Word big enough to hold all this chaos and the planet itself – one Word small enough to inhabit the finest structures of each delicate hair on an insect’s back, each drop of water on Earth. We who love this Word – this living Word, this Logos through whom all things were made, and are made – we who have no words for our planet’s future, but who love this Word through whom it all was made, are poised in an unprecedented place. More starkly than any previous generation of Christians, we are faced globally with this choice: to participate in the speaking now of this living Word, in all its beauty and power, or to be increasingly complicit in the actual ongoing silencing of this Word, the Logos of God in all that is. For make no mistake: it is precisely this living Word, the Logos permeating the creation in unique and marvelous forms all over this Earth, that our present way of life is exterminating. This living Word in all its complexity is the very thing our Earth-destruction isunraveling, the very voice and Word and heart and Logos of God woven throughout the intricacy of species and life-forms. Letting ourselves be silenced in the face of this ongoing erasure will permit more and more of that Word being silenced, day after day after day. The longer we continue our present course, the fewer there will be left – of any species – to speak the Word…
That’s one option, to be silent about all this. It’s safer and quieter and more sickening. But it’s not the only way. This day we also hear the call to SPEAK that Word incarnate throughout creation, enfleshed in Jesus, poured out into us! For what do we hear this Word of all-that-is saying, this week? Shout out, do not hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet! Call the people to conversion! Be fearless: you’re salt! You are light! Don’t suffocate yourself under a bushel – speak!
This can only be a communal call, this speaking the living Word in an eco-cidal age. Alone it’s too hard. We are a GreenFaith seminary – what will that mean? How will we act?
It’s not all up to the president and the Board – but we need the President and the Board to set us on a course for real prophetic ecological witness to a threatened world, and to authorize bold discernment and action. Geo-thermal, anyone?
It’s not all up to the faculty – but we need the faculty to use this curriculum process to think even further outside the box, to equip leaders for radically immersive connection to the Word alive in the natural world, the voice of God spoken and alive, just as deeply as we teach our students to love the Word in the Scriptures.
It’s not all up to the staff, to the students, to the spouses, to our congregations – but we need every single voice and heart, everyone’s best creative joyful imagination, to grow this place into a vibrant seedbed where we learn how to step off the grid and into the soil, how to use our land responsibly and how to breathe the sky and the Spirit and [to give up our privilege and] to rattle the cages of Congress and local leaders and join with others as long as it takes till there’s change, and life, and to invite inner-city kids to the woods – and to learn ever more fully to pray in the languages of our creek and our trees and wind and storm and garden.
This living Word is calling us all on Earth to a new immersion in the Logos through whom all things were made, a new intimacy and immediacy of senses, a much bigger circle of kin, a congregation wide enough to include all Earth-systems of life. We are creative people – we are reforming people – we are imaginative people, sacramental people, and we are people of the Word, this Living Word, who calls to us through this Earth and gives us voice when we’ve lost our voice. When we have no words, in the face of all we’ve lost already and all we will yet lose in the years ahead – when we have no words in the face of our fear and pain this Word itself carries us. In life and in death we belong to this Lord, woven into our very cells. And this Word enfleshed in all that is will never cease to fill us and breathe in us and come pouring roaring bursting out: Shout out, do not hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet! We are salt! We are light! Let’s go!
The Rev. Dr. Lisa E. Dahill
Sermon for Sixth Sunday in Epiphany, Year A
Saint Andrew and Emmaus Lutheran Churches, Racine WI
February 16, 2014 – National Preach-In on Climate Change
Dr. Peter W. Bakken
Executive Director, Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In our first reading, from Deuteronomy, this morning, we heard some of Moses’ final instructions to the Hebrew people. He had led them out of slavery in Egypt and through forty years of wandering in the desert. They were about to cross the river Jordan and enter the Promised Land, though he would not be going with them.
Moses makes it clear that in their new home they will face fateful choices, choices that will determine whether their future will be one of prosperity or adversity, blessing or curse, life or death.
His words also make clear that their choices will be made and their future lived out as creatures within creation: as dwellers in the land in the presence of heaven and earth.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
Like the people of ancient Israel, we are faced with choices that mean life or death, blessings or curses for ourselves and for our descendants.
Creation is God’s gift to us – of a world of abundance, beauty and mystery, a living and life-sustaining planet with water to drink and air to breathe and fertile soil in which to grow food; a world of forests and prairies, of oceans and mountains, of an unimaginable variety of plants and animals from the sparrows, squirrels and dandelions in our back yards to tropical rain forests, polar bears and coral reefs.
Creation is indeed God’s gift to us – but not for us alone: rather, it is a gift for all people and for all creatures.
Sadly, though, throughout our history as a species, we have not always treated creation and other creatures with the respect they deserve. We have not always justly shared the earth and its fruits with our neighbors. Too often, we have not chosen to walk in God’s ways, in the ways of justice, peace, and the care of the earth. To often, we have chosen instead to bow down to and serve the gods of greed, hatred, domination, and self-indulgence.
Past generations have made both good and bad choices, and we, and the rest of creation, live with the consequences of those choices.
One of those choices has been to get the overwhelming majority of our energy from fossil fuels – from coal, oil, and natural gas. In Wisconsin, nearly three-quarters of our energy comes from coal – which we have to import, because we have no coal of our own, at a cost of over eight and a half million dollars every year.
That choice has brought both blessings and curses, life and death.
In many ways, fossil fuels have been a blessing. They have been a treasure trove of millions of years of stored sunlight that we have released in the twinkling of an eye, geologically speaking. With that energy we have created industries and technologies that have brought undreamed of prosperity – although not for everyone. And the livelihoods of many people are dependent on the fossil fuel industry, although for some, like coal miners, it may be at the cost of their health and safety.
The use of fossil fuels may not have been the wrong choice in the early stages of the industrial era. But as a society we have clung to that decision in spite of growing evidence that it is not sustainable, that the costs of continuing on this path are outweighing the benefits.
Some of the costs are quite clear and immediate. There have been quite a few news stories recently of trains carrying crude oil exploding, rivers contaminated by coal ash spills, and coal processing chemicals infiltrating water supplies.
Other costs are more indirect: health problems from breathing the by-products of burning fossil fuels such as fine carbon particulates, nitrous oxide, and ozone, or from eating fish contaminated with mercury.
And others may be less obvious but are no less real: the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is causing acidification of the oceans and disruptions in the earth’s climate as a result of global warming.
These are matters of justice because many of these costs fall more heavily on those who are the most vulnerable, like children, the chronically ill, and the elderly. And they are also borne by those who live in poor and minority communities. They are often more directly exposed to pollution from power plants and have fewer resources to protect themselves from flooding, heat waves, and crop failures caused by climate change.
As a society, we can debate the relative weights of various costs and benefits, the advantages and disadvantages of alternative technologies, the details of particular scientific projections and analyses. But surely we can and must demand a cleaner, healthier, safer world for ourselves and our descendants. Surely we want to be remembered as a generation that chose life rather than death. Surely we can do better than this!
We can’t turn back the clock. We may not be able to retrieve and contain all the toxic chemicals we have released into the environment. We can’t resurrect every extinct species. We can only reduce, not stop, global warming.
But we still have choices, important choices that will have consequences for ourselves; for the most vulnerable neighbors in our communities and the world; for our children, grandchildren, and descendants; and for the creatures with which we share this planet.
I had the privilege and pleasure of spending last night not far from here, in the hermitage at the Racine Dominicans Eco-Justice Center. In real and practical ways, the Center is a signpost pointing to the sorts of choices we must make and the path that we need to follow if we and future generations are going to live long on this gifted and graceful earth in faithful obedience to God, with love and justice toward our neighbors, and with care and respect for the whole of creation.
If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to visit the Center and see for yourself the wind turbine, the solar panels that provide electricity and hot water, and the gardens and the chickens, bees, alpacas, goats and other creatures they care for. And you can see their respect for the history of that place, even as they help to teach schoolchildren the knowledge and values that we all need to learn in order to create a more sustainable society.
The people of Israel said farewell to their prophet Moses before they crossed the river Jordan into the Promised Land. Not long ago, we took leave of a latter-day prophet with a passion for justice and care for the earth, who for decades used music and humor to cajole us into making choices that will lead to life rather than death. In his song, “Rainbow Race,” Pete Seeger sang,
One blue sky above us,
One ocean, lapping all our shores.
One earth so green and round,
Who could ask for more?
And because I love you
I’ll give it one more try.
To show my rainbow race
It’s too soon to die.
Go tell, go tell all the little children!
Go tell mothers and fathers, too:
Now’s our last chance to learn to share
What’s been given to me and you
One blue sky above us,
One ocean, lapping all our shores.
One earth so green and round,
Who could ask for more?
Heaven and earth will bear witness, in very concrete ways, to the choices you and I make today.
Green the Congregation through Worship
Reflections and Ideas by David Rhoads
Worship is the central recurring event in the life of a Christian community. Worship is a ritual. In ritual, we participate by immersion in a communal process that changes us by placing us in right relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. Worship is also an event. The call to worship, the proclamation of the Word, and the offer of Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine are actions of God that generate changes in our lives. They are events by which we as a church are transformed and renewed.
It is in the gathered community at worship that we celebrate our life together and affirm our identity as children of God and followers of Jesus. Worship is the place where we can be transformed anew each week as we seek to return from the struggles and vicissitudes of life in the world to restore our spiritual and moral rooted-ness in the life of God. Worship is also a central place where we articulate our fundamental beliefs and values. Therefore our love of God’s creation and our commitment to care for God’s creation should play an integral role in our worship life.
Worship as Re-Orientation .
One way to look at worship is to say that it is the place where we can express with the larger community the Christian life we have nurtured at home and work throughout the week. Another way to look at worship is to say that it is about reinstating our proper place in relation to God, ourselves, and other people when we have had difficulty maintaining these relationships through the week. It is like being lost in the woods and then stopping to orientate ourselves to the directions by means of a compass and our nearness to the edge of the forest—and then finding our way home. It is like being lost at sea and then stopping to locate ourselves from the stars in the sky so that we know where we really are—and then returning to solid ground. It is like using a global positioning locator to know just where we are in relation to everything else—and then being moved into the right position. Worship is a matter of getting/keeping our bearings and being situated in our rightful place in the universe. In this process, it is important to emphasize that it is not we ourselves who get our bearings. Rather, we put ourselves into a position to allow God to give us our bearings, to restore us to our rightful relationships.
Restoring relationships with God and one another : Through the rituals and events of worship, we find ourselves restored to right relationships. Through worship we are oriented to wholeness and our true purpose in life by being brought back into proper relationship with God, ourselves, and others. For example, by praise of God, we restore God to God’s rightful place in our lives as the one who created and sustains us. By thanksgiving, we recognize our human dependence on God for life and health. By confession and forgiveness, we seek to overcome our self-alienation and the brokenness of our relationships. By hearing the word of grace and challenge, we rediscover a proper sense of direction and our purpose in life. Through the offering, we give ourselves and our resources to this renewed vocation. Through prayer, we express a longing for all people who are lost or broken to be restored to a place of wholeness in relationship. By communing together, we return from alienation to a harmonious connection with others of the human community. With a blessing and a benediction, we go out with a renewed sense of who we are, where we are, and where we are going. We have become orientated. We have found our bearings, and we have reaffirmed who we truly are and whose we truly are—and, in so doing, we have found our home, our place of belonging in the world. Of course, it is our responsibility to seek to remain in these relationship from communal worship to communal worship.
Restoring our Relationship with nature . Unfortunately, our restoration/reorientation to place often leaves out an important and, indeed, crucial relationship. We reorient to God, self, and others, but often without restoring our relationship to nature. Yet nature is the web of life out of which we have come and where we will go. Nature is the inextricable matrix in which we live and move and have our being. We are a part of nature. Along with all other living beings and non-living things, we are nature. And if we are out of sorts with the rest of nature, if we are displaced from harmony with the creation of which we are such an integral part, if we are sinning against the natural world from which we ourselves have emerged, then we cannot fully find our bearings or our place.
If God created the world as a place in relation to which human life is inextricably woven, then we need to make the whole natural world an integral and important part of our worshipping experience. If worship is restoring ourselves to our proper place in the world—to recall who we are, where we have come from, the things upon which we depend, and that for which we are responsible—then worship must be a celebration of all life and an orienting of ourselves to our proper place within it. Nature can and should be such a fundamental dimension of the Christian life that we reflect the triad: Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself, and Care for creation.
Worshiping with Nature . To be fully into right relationship, we are called not only to restore our relationship with nature, but also to experience our solidarity with nature in relationship with God. That is, we humans are to worship and praise God with nature. Remember that the Psalms call for the hills to clap their hands and the trees to shout praises, along with animals and sea creatures, the seas and the soils, the trees and the grain—thus calling: “All creation, praise the Lord.” Hence, we can think about nature as our partners in worship. Nature itself is part of our worshiping community. It is important then that we are both in nature and with nature in our worship.
Worship as Counter-Cultural . Restoration to relationship with God, others, and nature is not the same as accommodation or assimilation into the society and culture around us. In fact, it may be quite the opposite. Reconciled relationships with God will orient us to values, actions, and structures that may go against the grain of the world around us. Reconciled relationships will place us in an alternative community that reflects the vision of God for human life. Reconciled relationships with others may set us at odds with the injustices, oppression, neglect, and discrimination of groups and individuals not sharing the values of the church. Similarly, reorienting ourselves to love of nature and care for creation may lead us to resist and oppose the practices of local and national government, businesses, corporations, and others who may contribute to the flagrant degradation of Earth’s natural systems and life. Worship can be quite radical in its call for discipleship. Worship can be subversive of the culture and an expression of counter-cultural thinking and acting. It can lead us to advocate for public policies and laws that foster love of neighbor and care for creation. At the same time, our re-orientation in worship may lead us to affirm many movements and actions in the culture that further the values and behavior fostered by our Christian way of being in the world.
Care for Creation in Worship.
There are many ways in which we can enhance our experience of nature, our connectedness to it, our solidarity with it, and our advocacy for it. It is helpful to think about the elements of worship and the seasons of the church year as contexts for incorporating care for creation. Following here are some reflections about this process.
Elements of Worship . The rituals of worship can integrate the place of all God’s creation with every part of worship and thus help to restore us fully to our place of health and wholeness.
- Invoking the Presence of God: We can name not just the church but the whole of creation as the sanctuary wherein we worship. “The whole earth is full of God’s glory.”
- Call to Worship: We can call to worship not only the human community but also we can invoke all creation as part of the worshiping community.
- Praise: In worship we can celebrate the wonder of creation and marvel at God’s handiwork. We can praise the God who created the blue jay and the raccoon, the poplar and the gardenias, the mountain spring water and the rich soil of the field. There are many Psalms that celebrate creation. These Psalms also invoke the praise of all creation in worship of God.
- Thanksgiving: We can give thanks for the air we breathe and for the water we drink and for the provision of food—and for the beauty and majesty of it all. We can give thanks for the whole of nature upon which humans depend. We can delight in all plants and all creatures for their own sake. We dare not take the rest of nature for granted.
- Hymns: We can include hymns that express praise for God the creator and our relationship to the rest of nature. There are many traditional hymns as well as new hymns and hymnals that deal with the love of nature.
- Litanies of confession: We can confess the greed and indifference by which we humans have despoiled and exploited the earth and other human members of earth community. We can incorporate into our litanies some specific confessions concerning our pollution of water, our defiling of the air, our arrogant use of creation without respect and limitations.
- Litanies of concern: these can always include expressions of our longing for creation to thrive, as surely as we pray for peace among human creatures.
- Declaration of Forgiveness: We can seek pardon for our violation of the hills through mining or our degradation of the air and water through pollution or our threat to the ozone layer and to the species whose survival is uncertain because of our human actions or for the human contributions to the global warming that may change the cycles of nature upon which we have come to depend. We can acknowledge how our actions have affected vulnerable human communities. Forgiveness can free us to act out of compassion rather than guilt.
- Scripture Reading and Preaching: Through the Word proclaimed, we can announce the love of God for creation, the grace that God offers, and the mandates that God gives as means to address the eco-justice problems of our age. We can see the human harm we do when we exploit the earth, we can be reminded of the common graces of nature, and we can be summoned to the challenge to care for the Earth.
- Prayer and Petition: We can pray for the capacity for all God’s creatures to thrive together on earth. We can intercede for endangered species, threatened eco-systems, and changing global conditions. We can grieve nature’s losses and destruction. And we can pray for the courage and wisdom to act.
- Offering: In the offering, we can offer ourselves to the care and redemption of all that God has made—as agents of God to be guardians of nature, stewards of its resources, lovers of life, earth-keepers, and caretakers of the land.
- Blessing: We can go out from worship with a blessing to till and tend this garden Earth on which we “live and move and have our being.”
- Hence, in order for us to be truly oriented by our worship, we can incorporate love for, celebration of, concern for, prayer for, and a commitment to care for all creation into each dimension of worship. If worship is a transformation restoring us to wholeness by restoring our proper relationships in life, then our relationship with the rest of nature needs to be an integral part of that power of worship to change us.
Care for Creation in the Seasons and Days of the Church Year. Also, each season of the year lends itself to the thematic development of our relationship with all creation:
- Advent Season : all creation groans together as we await redemption and restoration of all of life. Advent is a time to repent in preparation for a new age in which the leaves of the trees will be “a healing for the nations.”
- Epiphany Season : here we celebrate the manifestation and glory of God not only in the arrival of the Christ child but also in the light and glory present in the whole natural order of life.
- Lenten Season : During Lent, we recognize our complicity in sin, not only in relation to one another but also in our individual and corporate actions that have degraded the rest of nature. We grieve the losses to God’s creation and reflect on the sacrifices we can make to stop our sins against creation.
- Easter Season : We celebrate the resurrection of human life and envision the restoration/ regeneration of all of life.
- Pentecost Season : We reflect on the spiritual wisdom we need and the actions we can take—as individuals, as congregations, and as a society—to live a life in which all human and non-human creation can thrive together.
- Season of Creation : We focus on God as creator and the wonders of creation, all designed to help us love creation as God does and commit ourselves to care for it.
- Special Days . here are many special occasions in the year when it is especially appropriate that care for creation becomes the focus of the whole service, such St. Francis Day and Rogation Day. There are also days in the life of the US culture for celebrating creation, such as Thanksgiving Day and Earth Day Sunday. Special services might include a Blessing of the Animals, a tree planting ceremony, the greening of the cross, among others.
In all of these seasons and days, there is the opportunity to include all of God’s creation in our observances and celebrations. Seasonal decorations, banners, and sayings can keep this message before the congregation throughout the year. Furthermore, w e can enhance the experience of worship to bringing nature into the sanctuary: worship outside, place greenery/flowering plants into the church, give people seeds or seedlings to plant, decorate the sanctuary with natural art, and opening the sanctuary to natural light through windows and skylights. In all these ways, we can create an ethos in the congregation that will pervade worship with a care for creation and an experience of nature itself. .
The sacraments are occasions to reflect on human relationships with the rest of creation. Different Christian communities recognize different sacraments. We will reflect here on the two most common sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The presence of an element of nature and the pronouncement of a word in relation to the offer of the element of nature assure us that the reality of Christ/God will be present in, with, and under the elements and the whole event, so that they are sacramental—capable of bearing the holiness and grace of God into our lives so as to transform us.
We often focus on the symbolic meaning of the elements used in sacraments: water, bread, and wine. But in the context of our concern for the environment, we can focus on the elements themselves. Notice how the status of grapes and grain and water as vehicles of the divine can in turn serve to give meaning to and to enhance our experience of these tangible realities of life for their own sake. For example, as a Eucharist or “thanksgiving,” Holy Communion can be an opportunity to express gratitude for all the natural order that sustains life at a material (and a spiritual) level, leading us to delight anew in the creation. To see the natural elements of both sacraments—water, grain, and grapes—as vehicles of grace is to realize that the finite can indeed bear of the infinite to us. This in itself elevates the goodness of nature as worthy and capable of being the means by which we establish a relationship with God and by which God establishes a relationship with us.
Baptism . Traditionally, baptism involves water for cleansing and for judgment or it symbolizes death and resurrection. However, what about also exploring the richness of the symbol of water in new ways in light of our contemporary knowledge and experience of water? We now know that water is the primordial context out of which life emerged and evolved to its present state. Why not connect this with the new creation at baptism? If baptism symbolizes a new beginning to life, then we can reflect on the new beginning to humanity that comes by immersing ourselves in water—so that we can, in a sense, re-emerge from water as a renewed humanity or as renewed life in all its manifestations—and in solidarity with all the life forms that led to human evolution.
Or could we not emphasize how vital water is to life—how our bodies are 90% water and we cannot live long without it? In this way, the water of life in baptism reinforces our gratitude for the water upon which we depend for life and health. Or baptism may remind us of how tragic it is to consider being baptized by water that is polluted rather than the pure living water that God created. Such a connection could lead us to see anew our vocation as baptized people to preserve clean water on the Earth. Or by baptism in water, we may acknowledge how much of the whole earth is comprised of water. In this way, the very fact that we are declared a child of God by immersion into nature itself can serve to get us in touch with our em-beddedness in nature as human beings. In all these ways we may re-connect the water of baptism to the water around us in nature.
The Lord’s Supper . The sacrament of Holy Communion is another opportunity to realize how integral is our humanity is embedded in nature. In the Eucharist, we are using natural fruits of Earth as a vehicle for God’s presence: wine from grapes and bread from grain. But it is more than that. Grapes grow from the vine that brings it forth, the ingredients of the soil, the water that nourishes the soil, the beetles that aerate the soil, the sun that shines on the plants, the air that surrounds the plant—and the composition and the combination of these elements is unique to the particular area or region where the grapes are being raised. Add to these factors the wood from the trees used to make the barrels in which the wine was stored and the ingredients employed as fermenting agents. We can reflect in a similar way on the bread used for communion. Some congregations use organically-grown, whole grain bread. Some congregations use bread made of multiple grains originating from several continents. In these ways, the elements of the Eucharist get us in touch with all of nature.
In addition, the Eucharist is connected to all of life in another way. It is a reminder of the death of Jesus, a recollection that all of life is a cycle of living and dying and resurrection. This is not to reduce the particularity of Christ’s death or the efficacy of it for salvation to the processes of nature. Rather, it is simply to recognize that the death of Jesus is an analog to the natural order in which death gives birth to life. The deaths of trees and other plants and the death of animals over the life span of the planet have made the earth into a great store of energy and one great compost heap that is the source of life and energy today.
The Sacramental Presence of God/Christ everywhere . Finally, it is important to observe that the elements of the sacraments are “common” elements of life—elements of food upon which we depend for life—assuring us that if God can be present in and through such common elements as bread and wine, then surely God is present to us everywhere in life. What difference does it make to our view of the daily food we eat and the daily drinks we drink knowing that bread and wine are sacramental? What difference does it make to our experience of water and soil and air, knowing that water is sacramental? The Eucharist is meant not only to lead us to experience the particularity of its symbolic meaning in the communion meal. It also leads us to think differently about all common elements of life—in such a way that our common experiences of them also become sacramental. That is, all elements of nature may convey for us the grace of God, that dearest freshness that lies deep down all things. As Martin Luther wrote, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
When we see all of life as sacramental, it changes our relationship to and our responsibility for creation—concern for pure water, our desire not to waste food, the problems with pesticides on grain and grapes, and a host of other ecological problems to which humans have contributed. We re-dedicate ourselves in worship to stop our actions that degrade nature and to find ways to restore God’s creation.
Preaching the Word.
Whether following a lectionary system or doing thematic preaching, here are some subjects that could and probably should be included in preaching: Human responsibility to care for the earth; Our proper human role/place in relation to the rest of creation; Our human degradation of creation; Reasons why we fail in our responsibility to care for creation; Reasons why we ought to care and act on our convictions; The inter-relationship between human justice and environmental problems; The scriptural connection between human sin and the languishing of Earth; Celebration of God as creator; Celebration of all of life for its own sake; The extent of human dependency on life around us; Gratitude for life; Exploration of Christian symbols that are rooted in nature; Connecting the sacraments to the realm of nature; New ways of thinking about God that foster our change of attitude and action; Proclamation of God’s enduring grace in and through creation; The extension of the efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection to all life.
Personal Devotions .
It is important for Christians to incorporate their relationship with nature not only into corporate worship but also into their private devotional worship. We cannot depend on worship alone to rescue us each week from the fractured relationships that result from the vicissitudes of life. Rather, we are called to nurture and maintain our love of God, our love for others, and our care for creation on a daily basis. There are many resources available—devotional books, collections of prayers, poetry, selected scripture passages, exercises and experiences, among others—that can give our community members a daily experience of closeness to nature, the nourishments of its common graces, and the sense of responsibility for it that are so important in the world today.
In order for us to be truly reoriented/confirmed by our worship, we should incorporate love for, celebration of, concern for, prayer for, and a commitment to care for all creation into every dimension of our worshipping experience. If worship is a transformation restoring us to wholeness by restoring and securing our proper relationships in life, then our relationship with the rest of nature needs to be an integral part of that power of worship to change us. Just as we cannot imagine worship without praise of God or prayer for those in need, so too we should not be able to imagine worship without expressions of our love for and our commitment to care for God’s creation.
By immersion and by osmosis, the weekly connection with nature through words and symbols and ritual actions and the presence of nature itself in and around the sanctuary will work a salutary effect on the worshipping community. A transformation can occur that leads people to see our profound connection with all God’s creation and that enables people to come to a place of renewed gratitude for nature and a sense of responsibility to care for creation as part of our vocation as humans and as God’s people.
Find some materials to watch/share with your council to describe the Season of Creation and how it is critical to our faith journey: Explore our YouTube Channel’s (see playlists).
The Catholic Climate Covenant has a global perspective with inspirational events across the globe: seasonofcreation.org