Serving Over and Under and With: Sermon by Keith, 9.13.15, Season of Creation 2B: Humanity Sunday

Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-28, 2:4b-7, 15; Mark 10:41-45

Raise your hand if you have a pet or ever had a pet; say a cat, dog, or a fish.  Keep your hands up.  How many of you have or ever had livestock like cows, goats, or chickens?  Keep your hands up.  Now, how many of you have ever had to take care of a plant, be it a house plant or a garden?  Good, looks like most of you.  You can drop your hands now.  For those of you that raised your hand, in that relationship with that pet, livestock, or plant, who did the serving?  Did they serve you or did you serve them?

It is kind of a hard question to answer.  A dog provides companionship and protection, but that dog needs to be walked, fed, and watered.  Cattle can provide an income and livelihood for rancher, but they need feed and fields, fresh water, some level of protection from wind and snow, vaccinations.  A garden will provide a bounty of fresh foods for the table if the ground is fertilized, bugs are squished, and countless hours are spent weeding.  Does creation serve humanity or does humanity serve the rest of creation?

I also want us to think about that question theologically in light of who we are as creatures, who we are in relationship to our Creator and who we are in relation to the rest of creation.  And to do that, we are going back to the beginning.  Amy just read about the beginnings of humanity in the two creation stories found in Genesis.  Yes, the two creation stories.  If you read chapter one into the first couple verses of chapter two of Genesis, there is a marked difference in what you will read next.  One way I was told to think about the differences is that the first story starts wet with the watery chaos and ends dry with the earth and all the animals and humans on dry land.  And the second story starts dry with the creation of the earth and the plants, and the animals, and the man and then the woman.  A river comes out of the garden and because of the sinfulness of humanity; we end that story with Noah’s flood.  Wet to dry versus dry to wet.

Scholars think these stories were written at two different times in Israel’s history.  The first, with the seven days of creation, may have been written during the Babylonian captivity.  The second, the Adam and Eve story, was possibly written earlier, during the height of Solomon’s temple. When you read them, you can’t quite mesh them together into one cohesive creation account.  But we also can’t separate the accounts, thinking one is superior to the other.  As Walter Brueggemann says, we are not free to choose one at the expense of the other.  We have to live in the uneasy tension that exists between the two.

Let’s look at the first one.  The good news of this text is we are created in the image of God and commanded to have dominion over the earth.  Well, what does that mean?  The imago Dei, or image of God, gifted to humanity, has been widely discussed and hotly debated since the time of the early church.  Is it the ability to reason?  Is it something spiritual?  There are so many interpretations that it would leave us dizzy in the head.   I’m going to add to the levels of complexity by sharing what I think.

If this creation account was given to the Israelites while in Exile in Babylon, the whole message is pastoral, giving hope and meaning to a people who had lost all hope and all meaning.  One of the first things King Nebucnnezer would have done when Israel was defeated was place a statue of himself there to remind people he had dominion over them and that place.   In Babylon, they were surrounded by a people who said the God of Israel had been completed defeated their gods and they were surrounded by the images of these gods.  Everywhere they looked, there was an image of a king or a god of Babylon.  During the exile and being surrounded by idols, Israel resisted every temptation to image God and resist the notion that anything in the world resembled God.  For them, the God God of Israel, the one and only true God, in freedom and grace, created the world.  It was the freedom of God which gave these exiles hope against the massive power of the empires around them.

And within this situation of the temptation to idolize God, the text gives a surprising counter-assertion.  There is one way in which God is imaged in the world and only one:  humanness.  This is the only creature, the only part of creation, that discloses to us something of the reality of God.  No molten or carved images.  God is known through this creature who exists in the realm of free history, where power is received, decisions are made, and commitments are honored.    So, like the king who places statues of himself to assert his sovereign rule where the king himself cannot be present, the human creature attests to God by exercising freedom with and authority over all the other creatures entrusted to its care.  The image of God in the human person is a mandate of power and responsibility.  But it is power exercised as God exercises power:  In freedom and love.  Basically, everything we do is to be a reflection of the one whose image we are created in.

The good news of the second account of humanity’s creation is we are given the gift of the dust and the gift of the breath of life with the command to till and keep creation.  The first part of that good news reflects the Hebrew understanding to be alive.  It is both physical and spiritual.  You are not alive if you don’t have both, and death meant the end of both the physical and spiritual.  There really wasn’t a concept of an afterlife because life was here and now in the midst of creation.

The second part of this deals with vocation.  And if this came out of the era of the temple, then the idea of a specific role of humanity makes sense.  If you read the law codes about who is doing what, who is serving who, how a priest is served at what roles and duties, you can see where the question of “what role, what task, what vocation would God call humanity to?”  The human creature is to care for and tend the garden.  The word pair, “till and keep,” may suggest a shepherd or a gardener.  In either case, work belongs to the garden.  Work is good, surely, to enhance the garden.   From the beginning of humanity’s beginning, God is preparing to entrust the garden to this special creature.  From the beginning, the human creature is called, given a vocation, and expected to share in God’s work.  The word translated “keep” is found in the book of numbers with Moses’ blessing upon Aaron and his sons.  “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.”   Keeping is a form of blessing and sanctuary.  The first job of the first human, Adam, was to work with God as God intended in blessing the garden and enhance its fruitfulness by their work together.

So, I go back to my original question:  Does creation serve humanity or does humanity serve creation.  As we delve into these texts, the answer would appear to be “yes:” It’s a both/and.

I’ll share a story that might help.  Who here likes bats?  Bats are an amazing creature, eating up to a 1000 mosquitoes in just one hour of their nightly flights.  So, when I was probably about 10 years old, my cousin and I would go out to his barn in South Dakota and shoot the bats that lived in the rafters with our BB guns.  There were no complaints about guano on the hay or fears of rabies; just wanton, senseless killing of the bats.  If creation, and the bats, could have turned to me in an attempt to see the image of a loving, caring, grace-filled God in and through me, I would have failed miserably.

Age a few years, and in what could be called seeking redemption for those stupid acts of shooting bats, I decide we need to hang a bat house at the seminary in Austin.  And to involve the community, we had a bat house naming contest.  The winner:  “Bat-leham.”  To me, in that moment, I didn’t think I was doing much with one simple bat house.  But later when I spoke with someone from Bat Conservation International, I learned how much more that putting up that house meant, not just for me, but also for the human family and for other parts of creation.  Besides mosquitoes, these bats in Texas eat millions of moths whose larvae destroy the corn crop.  And many of their roosting spots had been damaged or destroyed by development.  This one bat house brought the seminary community together but had repercussions on corn crops well past the city limits of Austin.  In serving the bats, the bats were now serving us.  The fruitfulness of God’s garden had been enhanced by what we did.  It was like one small act of service to creation came back to me several times over from many different directions.

Will we get it right, serving each other and serving creation with and for God and each other?  Will we get it right, being image bearers of God as we learn what it means to tend this  garden with and for God?  Sometimes.  But God has promised not to give up on his creation nor will he give up on us.  And he has fulfilled that promise is by giving his son, Jesus Christ.  For in him we find the true image of God on earth, and in Jesus we find a servant’s heart and life reflecting God’s love and grace.  It is a life that led the way to the cross, reconciling not only us to God, but all of creation.  Amen.

Intersections: 6.15.14 Trinity A and “Summer with the Psalms”:

Scriptures: Psalm 8, Genesis 1 As we begin our sermon studies of the Psalms, we need to take a moment to settle in and prepare to listen. The Psalms are poetry, and I don’t know about you, but I often find it difficult to slow down enough in my mind, body, and spirit to really enjoy poetry. Ours is prose-filled world, and we are bombarded with rapid-fire information in bullet-point sound-bites. Poems are often dense with imagery, wordplay, and meaning, and though they may have few words, it takes time to receive them fully. Poems mean do more than communicate information. Often they express an experience in such a way that the reader or listener is drawn into that experience.

The Book of Psalms is an amazing gift of scripture, rich with poetry and hymns meant to draw us into an experience of worship, helping us become available to receive anew God’s purpose, presence and power in our lives. Here we have 150 pieces of literature which encompass just about every mood or disposition human beings can experience. Many of them have been used for thousands of years—even before they were all gathered together in this Psalter—to voice the praise, petition and protest of our ancestors in the faith. To read and experience the Psalms again is to be joined to a congregation of all those who have gone before us, and by entering their reflection and prayer, we ourselves become available to new awareness and adoration of God.

Now, we have a beautiful sanctuary, but this particular Psalm might be best received under the sanctuary of stars and moon or in the thick of a wooded place surrounded by birdsong. So, we are going to take some silence, and I invite you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in your favorite outdoor space. See in your mind’s eye the sights of that place, hear the sounds of the wind or the water, smell the damp earth or sand, and feel in your body what it’s like to receive that place again…here we go…(moments of silence, and then read Psalm 8). Would anyone like to share a brief description of where you were in your memory as you heard the Psalm? …thank you.

I was at Menucha, a retreat center on the Columbia River Gorge, when I first entered this Psalm this week. I had just been on a walk which led me to an overlook, where I could see the great river flowing onward through layers of misty green ridges receding into the distance. All around me were mossy trees and thick green undergrowth, wonderful huge ferns and flowers that grow on the rainy side of the Cascades. I could hear birdsong and the wind. I could also hear—and if I leaned in enough, see—the constant hum of vehicles speeding along the I-84 corridor, and at regular intervals, airplanes roared overhead. Sometimes the birdsong was all but muted in the roaring hurry of the human world.

It was a place of intersections: the hazy heavens above, the rain-refreshed earth below, animals going about their daily tasks, plants stretching up toward the sun, and me, a human being, consciously taking in that panorama, reflecting on its beauty, aware that its current state has been defined and shaped by all kinds of human decisions and activities.

I think the Psalmist wants to draw us into just such an awareness of the vast and various intersections of God, humanity, and the whole of creation. And the first thing we are called to do there is simply marvel at the wonder of being alive. It’s so easy to get caught up in a list of things to do each day that we can lose sight of this basic, wondrous truth. How often do you wake up in the morning aware of how amazing a gift it truly is, just to be alive, to be a human being in this intricately created world?

But then the Psalmist takes it further, not only marveling at our existence in a creation but also pondering the particular honor of human beings within creation. The Psalmist imagines God handcrafting the heavens, placing moon and stars with careful fingers.  Isn’t it a wonder that the majestic God who did that not only chose to make human beings, but continuously remembers and cares for us? Perhaps yet more awe-provoking is the intricate web of relationships in which God has placed human beings. God not only chose to create us, earthbound bearers of God’s image, but God also gave us a purpose within that creation.

The Psalmist, like the Genesis account, remarks that God gave human beings “dominion” over the animals, birds, and sea creatures. Now, the trouble with that word, “dominion” is that sounds so much like the word “domination.” These are related words, both having to do with influence over something or someone else. But the kind of authority God has given human beings to influence the ongoing reality of creation is intended to be quite different than we have often understood.

Lynn White, an historian, wrote an article in 1967 in which he pointed to traditional Christian ideas of “the divine right of dominion” as the roots of the ecological crisis. Based on these texts, White said, people have viewed themselves as ‘superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.’ Another author called this attitude “despotism.” [i]

A lot has changed in our world since 1967. Churches like ours have sought to teach human stewardship of nature rather than domination. Yet as the ecological crisis continues and is perhaps accelerated by climate change, I believe we must continue to reorient ourselves to a different relationship with God and God’s creation than we may have been taught in our culture. We must be engaged in the continual repentance of study and action toward a more ecologically just and sustainable human way of life.

The key to understanding God’s plan in giving human beings dominion can be seen in the framing verses of this Psalm. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” As creatures made in God’s image, to understand how humans are meant to exercise dominion over the animals, birds, and fish, we must look to how God exercises dominion over us. How does God exercise sovereignty? From the creation accounts, we have a picture of a careful, orderly Maker in a gracious and joyous process, creating the world day-by-day. At the end of each day’s creative work, God declares the creation “good.” Humans come into being on the sixth day, and along with the animals with whom we share the planet, we are given plants to eat. Then, God looks at everything God has created and “indeed, it was very good.” So on the seventh day, God rested. It was the first Sabbath, an act of restraint and trust that what is “very good” is enough.

Psalm 8 gives us another curious picture of God. Verse 2 reads, “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark…to silence the enemy and the avenger.”  This verse seemed kind of out-of-place to me, until I read Eugene Petersen’s version of it in The MessageNursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs/ That drown out enemy talk, and silence atheist babble.”[ii] I think this verse points to a characteristic of God, God’s predilection for using what seems most weak and vulnerable resisting the powers of chaos, violence, and sin in our world.

I doubt the Psalmist had an inkling of him, but one particular infant comes to mind. An infant who became a man whose life, death, and resurrection revealed the incredible extent of God’s strength in weakness. Of course I’m talking about Jesus, the fully human, fully divine One, in whom we see the character of God, and what it means for human beings to shine forth that image. Jesus is the ultimate example of what it means to exercise dominion in the image of God. As we read in Philippians 2, “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross.”

Our professor Bill Greenway suggested that Jesus Christ shows us the posture of human beings exercising such dominion: Not a strong-armed posture of triumph, but an utterly gracious bow of humility before all beings less powerful than us. That’s what God does in Jesus Christ, and that is what we are called to do as we relate to one another and all other creatures on this earth. We exercise Christ-like dominion as we give up domination and humbly seek obedience to God’s purposes in the ongoing creation.

In our time, marked by the ongoing escalation of the economy of consumption, I believe we best live into our purpose as human beings, those creatures at the intersection of heaven and earth, and we best exercise our dominion, by learning the ways of restraint and “enough.” Like God who rested on the seventh day, we are not only called to rest ourselves, but to work towards conditions in this world that allow our fellow human beings, creatures, and the earth itself to find rest. It can be an incredibly counter-cultural thing to just stop something we are accustomed to doing and with gratitude and trust say, “I have enough!” But we can begin to do so in little ways that can have great impact.

Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist and the founder of the One Square Inch of Silence project. This project is dedicated to preserving one square inch in Olympic National Park, one of the few remaining places in the United States where “natural silence,” free of human-made intrusions, can be experienced. The idea is that by preserving just one small inch of the natural soundscape, large areas of the park will actually be impacted. Noting that, “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything,”[iii] Hempton makes us aware that our voluntary restraint can make space for the fullness of creation to flourish. I’d like to close by allowing us to hear the soundscape of that One Square Inch as Hempton has recorded it. As you listen, I hope you become aware again of the spaciousness and wonder, the gift and the responsibility, of the place God has made for human beings within the vast scope of the glory of Creation. (Listen briefly to the soundscape…) Amen.    

[i] Lynn White, quoted from the 1967 Science article by Barbara Brown Taylor in “The Dominion of Love,” essay in The Green Bible, San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, I-88.

[ii] http://presbyterianrecord.ca/2012/10/01/hand-crafted-world/

[iii] Gordon Hempton, http://onesquareinch.org/

Giving Up Control: Sermon by Keith, 3.9.14, Lent 1A

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

I came across something this week that really spoke to me about this text.  And I wanted to share it with you.  It is a commercial that really isn’t selling anything.  It comes from an organization in India called the NAIK foundation.  I don’t know much about them, except that they are a charitable group working in community development among India’s poor.  The commercial tells a story of a boy who finds some money.  Now, I can’t really tell you how much he finds, the bill says 50 on it.  50 Rupees, maybe.  If that is the case, it would be worth about .80 cents in the US.  But in a country where about 1/3 of the population makes about a dollar a day, what he finds is a lot.  This kid feels rich…and tempted.  It might be compared to finding somewhere between $25 and $50 on the ground while out on a walk.  Let’s watch and see what happens.

(show video)

I was kind of nervous about showing you that ad at the beginning of sermon.  That little boy is a lot cuter than me and your mind might stick with him.    But I love his story and how it is the perfect entrance into these first passages about Lent.  These are texts that we might at first think temptation is the main topic.  But it’s not.  Yes, the serpent or the devil are in both, and yes, something tempting is offered in both, and one story is what happens when Adam and Eve give into those temptations, and the other one is a story of what happens when Jesus doesn’t give into the temptations he is faced with.  But that’s just part of the story, and to get the whole picture, we have to go to the beginning.

God spoke, and the Spirit moved over the chaos and creation was: the earth, the oceans and waters, the sun, the moon, the stars, the trees, the grass, the birds, and the fish.  And the sixth day, God created Adam, the first human, and declared “it was very good.”  Now, God didn’t say this because Adam was the most perfect thing God had made and it took him 6 days to figure it out, after all God also made the creeping things that day.  We rank right up there with the worms.  But God said it because he looked out over all of creation, all of it, and declared it very good because it was complete.  Now everything could live in relationship with each other as God intended.  That’s very good.

God created so that a relationship could exist between the Creator and creation.  The creation story first and foremost is a story about God.  And that is good.  But it is when we make it a story about us, when we move God to the sideline, that’s when the story becomes not so good.  That’s what happens to Adam and Eve.  They attempt to make the story about them.  God puts Adam in the garden to till and keep it, to be a part of it, to literally be a slave to it.  “Adam, I’ve surrounded you with everything that is good for your needs.  I will even walk with you in garden, I will give you a partner as you name the animals and do the work of the master gardener I created you for.  But, do not eat of tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

What happens next opens up lots of theological questions, like “Who created the serpent?” or “How do animals talk?”  I don’t want to go there, not today anyway.  But what I want to look at is what the serpent tempts Eve and Adam with.  Adam was right there, so the fall isn’t all her fault, guys.  He tempts them with the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Even though they are surrounded by everything God has declared good, the serpent says that they can have the power to declare what is good and evil, too.  Just like God.  And they bite. And suddenly all the good things they are surrounded by don’t look so good anymore.  They look upon their own bodies as something that must be hidden by the plants that were once food.  Even being in the presence of God is something that is no longer good, but something to be feared and hide from.

What happened?  What’s this story about?  What does it tell us that when surrounded by the good gifts of God, Adam and Eve choose to turn from those gifts and the one who provided them?  This story is about trust and control.  The serpent convinces them that God can no longer be trusted, that God just might be holding back on the really good stuff.  And if trust in God is eroded, then the relationship with God is broken.    Adam and Eve’s story shows that when that trust is gone, they attempt to control and define what is good for their lives.   But when Adam and Eve aspire for that control, they damage their relationship with God, they spoil the bond that exists between the two of them, and they even mar how they live in and with the creation.  What they have done is attempt to play the role of creator, because they can’t trust the Creator, the one and only one who has authority to define what is good.  Maybe lack of trust in the Creator is the commonality of all of temptation, because lack of trust seems to be the basic root in desire for control.

So, what could be so wrong with an ice cream cone (or four of them) as we saw in the video we watched?  Maybe that young boy only tasted a cone once before and the sweet taste has lingered on his thoughts since then.  And what could be so wrong with bread?  Jesus was famished.  The thought of his mother’s homemade bread probably crossed his mind a thousand times since he went off into the desert.  What’s so bad about showing the religious leaders and the people of Jerusalem that Jesus was truly the Son of God by throwing himself off the temple?  Angels would surely catch him and set him safely on the ground.  Then all the people would turn their hearts and minds and praise to God, no more divisions, no more religious fights.  All would be united behind Jesus.  And look who was on the throne when the tempter unrolled the maps of the world before Jesus on that mountain:  Caesar.  He ruled with an iron fist and thousands across the empire had been enslaved, imprisoned, crucified or thrown into the arena for entertainment.  Who wouldn’t want Jesus, who Matthew calls the Messiah early in his gospel, on the throne, replacing the Pax Romana with the Kingdom of God on earth?  All these things the tempter offers up to Jesus looks not only good from our perspective, but very good.

So, what is good?  Can we discern the good?  First I have to say it cannot be done outside of a trusting relationship with God and trusting who God is.  Then it gets harder.  Temptations of materialism, security, and prestige are not foreign to us, and I mean us as individuals and as a church and society.  Whatever form temptation we may experience, we can pass through it only when we trust God to provide what we need and what is truly good. It starts with understanding that God is a God who creates in love for the sake of relationship, and since the fall, a God who acts in love as a relationship restorer.  As you go through scripture, everything God does is to restore the broken relationship that exists between the Creator and creation.  He sent the prophets, he gave the law.  And God even gives up control, when he sends his Son, himself, Godself, in Jesus, the Word made flesh living with us.  But that doesn’t mean he was temptation-proof.  He was fully human, and I think fully capable of giving into the temptations before him.  But his humanity lived in perfect relationship with his divinity, and in that relationship, humanity embraced and trusted the divine.

Maybe that is how we start trusting.  We first recognize that we aren’t God and by the grace of the Spirit, we also recognize that the One who is God is worthy of our trust.  We start depending on him for what we need.  And then we give up control, trust God, and become relationship restorers, too.  Jesus knew the path to a restored relationship with God wasn’t through satisfying his own hunger at the snap of his fingers.  But he did feed the thousands on the shores of Galilee so that they could come to a deeper understanding of the love of God.  He didn’t throw himself from the heights of the temple to prove who he was, but he did overturn the tables of the moneychangers and said they had made his Father’s house into a den of robbers when it should be a place where all are welcome.  He didn’t take a throne.  He took up a cross.

And it is there he faced his final temptation that came at him echoed in the words of the tempter in the desert.  “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  And in a way that I wouldn’t have chosen, because in so many ways it makes no sense to me, Jesus died.  What looked like the end was the new beginning to something very good.  My relationship, your relationship, creation’s relationship with its Creator was restored by means of an empty tomb.  The ultimate relationship destroyer, death, was overcome.  Who would have seen it coming?  Not me.

That little boy we watched in the video was a relationship restorer.  He gave up what control he held in that 50 rupees so another could be lifted up and restored.  And my call to you, friends in Christ, is that during Lent, you give up control and trust the one who is in control, too.  During these forty days, look around.  Ask yourself, how can you use the good gifts that God has given you not to build up your own security or your own prestige, but to be a relationship restorer as well?  When you do, you just might hear a whisper from God, “Now that is very good.”