Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation." A sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Psalm 104. April 19, 2015, the Sunday before Earth Day.

Earth Day is approaching this week, and—if you turn on the news or go online, you’re sure to hear challenging ideas about caring for the environment.  So this Sunday seemed like a good day to celebrate God’s Creation and to ponder our place in it.  It’s a day to reflect on what our faith says to us about how we are called to live on the earth.
In this season of Eastertide, we are celebrating good news:   in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of sin and evil and delivered us from the way of death-- to life eternal and abundant.   We ponder what it means to live as Easter people… and what it means to live in the ways of God here and now, in a world where hunger, poverty, poor health, fear, violence, and injustice are daily realities for many of God’s people.  And today, especially, we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.

The text of the first hymn we sang this morning, “The Canticle of the Sun,”  was composed by St. Francis of Assisi.  Francis is known as one of the earliest Christian environmentalist and the patron saint of ecology.  Those of you who were in our book group a few years ago, Chasing Francis, may remember one of the characters saying the Francis “was a nature mystic.  His love for the earth shaped his whole theology…. Franciscans call it a spirituality of creation.”[1]
St. Francis believed everything we see in creation is a reflection of the Creator-- just as we are.  He treated everything in creation as if it were his brother or sister, because we all have the same parent.
For Francis, the world was a prayer book where the footprints of God,[2] could be found everywhere. 

When you ask people about God—and where they feel close to God—for many people one of their first responses would be “Nature.”
I know that I feel close to God when I work in the garden, working with God to cultivate my vegetable crops and planting  flowers to create a place of beauty.    I find joy in sharing a place on earth with Sister Robin and Brother Monarch Butterfly.
But for many of us, even those who feel close to God in nature, there’s a disconnect.   Susan Andrews puts it this way:  “If God is in Nature, if God is the designer of the complexity and intricacy and inter-dependability of Nature, then shouldn’t we honor and worship and glorify this God by protecting that same natural world?  And yet only 50% of Presbyterians consider themselves environmentalists… and only 51% of us have ever voted for a candidate based on his or her environmental positions.  It seems that we ‘discover’ God in nature, but then ignore God when we are called to put the well-being of nature before our own personal agenda.”[3]
In the Sufi tradition of Islam, there’s a story that tells of a priest who walks into an empty sanctuary and finds a young man sitting in a chair, with his feet propped up on the communion table.  “Take your feet off that table.  That is a holy table!”
“Where shall I put them?” asked the young man.[4]
In other words, where should he put his feet that wasn’t holy?

In an ancient story in the Hebrew scriptures, Moses is minding his father-in-law’s flocks in the wilderness beneath Mount Horeb when he encounters an angel of the Lord who appears in a flame from a bush that is burning but not being consumed.
Moses hears the voice of God instructing him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the ground you are standing on is holy ground.”
The ground on which Moses was standing was wilderness.  The name of the mountain, “Horeb,” simply means “wasteland.”  There was no sanctuary there, no religious shrine, nothing to make it seem extraordinary in any way.  And yet it was “holy ground.”  So I hope that, during Earth Week, we’ll all think and pray about what  makes ground “holy.” 
We can argue about the politics of environmental justice.  There are those who see the environment as another aspect of the “culture wars,”  who would like to label and dismiss people who care about the environment as “liberal” or “tree huggers” or “naïve,” and who say it’s about being “politically correct.” 
But those of us who call ourselves Christians need to take seriously what our faith says about Creation.
The Bible is a powerful witness to the sovereignty and providence and creativity of God—the Holy One who is the Source of all life.   In Psalm 104, which we read responsively today, we have an amazing picture of Creation as the work of God’s love, in which each part is inextricably bound with each other part.  Everything is both dependent on and responsible for every other part. 
Human beings don’t even show up in this psalm until verse 14, and then our role is limited.  We are described as one of the creatures that receives bounty—bread and wine to gladden our hearts, and oil to make our faces shine.  The only other place we show up is toward the end, where the only appropriate response to the wonder of creation is described.  We are to sing praises… to meditate on the exquisite gift of creation…  and to rejoice in God’s abundant providing. 

In Genesis chapter one, the scriptures tell us that when God created the world, God blessed it and called it very good.[5]  God is revealed through the beauty, power, abundance, and mystery of the natural world.  Through wind and flame, water and wilderness, creatures and seasons, God is continually present and active in the world.
Human beings are endowed with reason   and given the responsibility to celebrate and care for Creation.  God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam in Genesis 2:15:  to care for the earth.  Cultivate” and “protect” it.”
Over the years, we allowed the biblical texts to be twisted so that “dominion” came to mean “domination,”    and stewardship came to mean “exploitation.” 
Too many Christians think that we are the center of the universe   and have twisted the gospel of Jesus Christ to mean that God is only interested in saving individual human souls--  rather than all of creation. 

Sociologists like Robert Bellah and theologians like Sally McFague keep reminding us of the degree to which the strong sense of community and the priority of  “the common good” that was foundational in the biblical and republican traditions are no longer shaping life in our society today.   McFague says that, although we continue to live in communities, our motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is usually interpreted these days in personal, individualistic ways, as, for instance, the right to carry a gun or the right to do as you choose, rather than our responsibilities for the welfare of the community.[6]

We don’t all agree on the environmental problem, or the scope or cause of the problem, much less the solution.  But there seems to be a growing consensus that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.

When it comes to the environment, we need an alternative worldview.  We need alternative, faithful ways to know our place in Creation that are not naïve or simplistic.  For instance, recycling is a good thing to do, but efforts by individual and volunteer organizations to recycle will not save the planet. 
As one of my colleagues has said, the issue is too global,  too political,  too economically driven to be resolved by personal piety or individual good intentions.  The issue is ultimately theological—a matter of faith—because it raises the question, “Who owns this place?”[7]  
As persons of faith and as a faith community, our task is to imagine how the world would look if God really is ruling, and then to implement that vision—put it into action.
Theologian Robert Costanza states the challenge this way:  “The creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all humanity, to other species, and to future generations.”[8]
The key elements here are sustainability and justice.  Sustainability is about recognizing that the earth’s resources are not unlimited, and that any global life-style created on the model of American consumption is suicidal.  Justice demands that we recognize the huge gap—which widens every year—between the haves and have-nots of the earth.

Sally McFague observes that the Greek word for “house” is oikos, which is the root word for “economics” … for “ecology”  …and for “ecumenicity.”   Thus she suggests that caring for the earth is simply a matter of household economics, which leads her to offer three simple rules for our global household.
The first rule, as in any household, is take only your share.  All the cookies are not for you.    My share-- as your share-- is what is needed for a decent life:  food, shelter, medical care, and education.  There is enough for all--  if everybody would share.
Second, clean up after yourself.  The ring in the bathtub is yours.  That’s simple fairness. 
The third rule is:  keep the house in good repair for the children and grandchildren who will come after you.
Take only your share, clean up your own mess, and keep the house in good repair.   It’s a simple vision on a global scale.
But we can’t be simplistic and think this can happen through our good intentions as individuals.  We need a renewed worldview--  because the current one is not working. 
We need a world in which nations have the humility to confer and compromise...  and to sign and honor treaties to work together for global cooperation to work together on environmental and justice issues.  We need national leaders who have a vision for the common good-- in their own nations and beyond their borders…  and who are courageous enough to risk their political popularity for the promise of a viable global future.  We need economists and business leaders who are smart enough to know that it takes more than money to create a harmonious global household. 
We need faith communities—people like us—who know the earth is the Lord’s and that all the earth is holy ground.  We need to commit ourselves to living and proclaiming that alternative vision to our communities and the world.

We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   We know that we can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we need to unmask idolatries and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace, for the welfare of all.
So… let us commit ourselves to live more lightly and faithfully on this holy ground, and to care for the earth as a way of worshipping and serving our gracious Creator God!
May it be so for you and for me.

[1] Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (NavPress, 2006), p. 75.
[2] “Vestigia Dei”
[3] Ibid., p. 2
[4] Quoted by P.C. Enniss in “Holy Ground” at

[5] Genesis 1:1-31
[6] Sally McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress, 2001).

[7] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground,” in

[8] Robert Costanza et al, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (1979), quoted in Sallie McFague, Life Abundant.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Since You Asked: About the Holy Spirit

Dear Friends,

Lately I've been part of an interfaith "Bridge" group on Facebook, that's about respectful dialogue, learning about one another's traditions, and building relationships.  One of the things that happens is that someone will say something like, "So what is the Holy Spirit?  What do Christians believe about this?"  As one of the Christians in the group, I may write a piece to respond to this.  It's occurred to me that others might have the same question.  So occasionally I'll be posting one of these pieces here.  I hope that some of you may find them interesting or helpful.

So... what follows is some notes, an overview of the Holy Spirit in the Bible books of Luke and Acts.  It was a good big-picture review for me, because I'll be preaching from the book of Acts in the coming weeks, during Eastertide.  By the way, this isn't everything about the Holy Spirit, but it's a start.


Those who are asking questions about the Holy Spirit could gain a better understanding by reading through the gospel according to Luke and Acts, if you have the time and interest.  Luke wrote one of the 4 gospels in the New Testament and also wrote the book of Acts.  Acts picks up the story where Luke’s gospel ends.  He has more to say about the Holy Spirit than any other biblical writer does.  The way Luke tells it, the really pivotal points in the 2-volume story are all initiated by the Spirit.  

In the birth story near the beginning of the gospel, Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to the virgin Mary and told her “Don’t be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and name him Jesus.  Mary asks, “How can this be?”  Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit would come upon her. (Luke 1:35). 

When Jesus was baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved. 

In the temptation story, Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit,” was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  (Luke 4:1-2)

At the beginning of his Galilean ministry, Jesus, “filled with the power of the Spirit,” began teaching in the synagogues there.  When he came to his hometown, Nazareth, he went to the synagogue there, and read from the scroll of Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (This is a quote from Isaiah 61)   Jesus rolled up the scroll and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  (Luke 4:16-21)  I like to call this Jesus’ mission statement.

At the end of Luke’s gospel, the risen Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures, and he tells them they are to be witnesses.  He promises to send what his Father promised and tells them to stay in the city until they have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:44-49)

Luke begins his second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, by explaining that in the first book he wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  He tells how Jesus promised them that they would be baptized soon with the Holy Spirit.   (Acts 1:1-5)

At Pentecost, a Jewish festival, the apostles were all together when a sound like the rush of a violent wind came and filled the house. Divided tongues, “as of fire,” appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  There were devout Jews gathered from many nations, and the Spirit enabled the apostles to speak so that all the diverse people were able to hear in their native languages and understand.  (Acts 2)  In the chapters that follow, Peter and others were empowered to witness.  (Acts 2:14 – 8:3)

Stephen preached a sermon that enraged a lot of people.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit.  A crowd dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death.  Saul, who would become the apostle Paul, guarded peoples’ coats while the people were stoning Stephen, and he approved of them killing him. (Acts 7) 

This is a pivotal time.  That day, a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside.  Saul was ravaging the church, dragging people out of their houses and committing them to prison.  Those who were scattered went around the countryside proclaiming the word. (Acts 8:1-5)  The apostles heard that Samaria had accepted the “word of God,” so they sent Peter and John to them, and they laid hands on the people, and they received the Holy Spirit.  Then an angel of the Lord sent Philip out to a wilderness road, where he had an amazing encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch and ended up baptizing him.  (8:26-40)

In a sermon, Peter is telling the story of Jesus, “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him….” (Acts 10:38)

The way Luke tells it, the resurrection was the key event in Jesus’ life, but faithful Christian community is formed through their common experience of the Spirit.

By the way, I agree with some Bible scholars who suggest that “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” would be a better title for Acts.

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Good News for Uncertain Times": A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church

The Sabbath day has passed and it is the dawn of a new day.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus.  For the disciples, it has been a long and painful Sabbath.  The women had seen Jesus’ body placed hurriedly in the tomb late Friday afternoon.   Now the three women are headed back to the tomb, wondering among themselves, who would roll back the large stone that covered the door.
            Their relief at finding the stone rolled back turned to fear when they step through the door.  Jesus’ body was gone.   Instead, there’s a young man, dressed in white, sitting next to where Jesus’s body had been.
"Don’t be alarmed;" he says, "you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.   He has been raised.  He is not here."
The three women are not only alarmed—they’re terrified. They flee the tomb, and they say nothing to anyone.  In the original Greek, Mark uses a double negative to emphasize:  “They said nothing to nobody.”
            On this Easter Sunday in the year 2015, can you relate to their response?  What do you feel when you hear the news of the resurrection?  Are you confident and joyful?  Are you read to go and tell?
            Maybe. Maybe not.
            I suspect that there are a lot of people in the pews of churches-- and outside the church--  this Easter Sunday who feel like they’re living in a Good Friday kind of world.   People who struggle with grief over the loss of a loved one...  people who know the sting of failure.   Some who are angry and disillusioned about how their life is going.   Some who are struggling with anxiety...  or depression...  or confusion… or addiction.  
            Some are struggling to keep going in spite of chronic, debilitating illness.  Some are facing frightening medical diagnoses... and battles against the power of disease.  Some are distraught over the way things are going in the world today...  or in their family.   Some are unemployed.  Some are among the working poor, working full-time, maybe more than one job, trying to make ends meet.  These are people who need some good news.
            If you feel like you've been living in a Good Friday world, you can probably relate to the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning.  They're stricken with grief...  disillusionment...  bitter disappointment.  They'd hoped that Jesus was going to be the Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman oppressors.  Things haven't turned out the way they'd hoped.
            They go to the tomb to grieve their beloved friend and leader.  But
instead of finding Jesus' body, they find the young man sitting there, and hear him saying,  "Don't be alarmed.  You're looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.   He has been raised.  He isn't here.  Now, go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going before you to Galilee.  You will see him there, just as he told you."
            They flee from the tomb, filled with terror and amazement.  They say nothing to anyone, for they are afraid.   Mark’s gospel ends here, almost mid-sentence. In fact, in the original Greek, it’s even more abrupt.  
            This unfinished story bothered people in the early church enough that they wrote two different endings to tack on.  It's bothered a lot of scholars over the years--  so much that some of them developed theories about how the last page of Mark's gospel was lost…  or how it wore out and fell off.
            However, the consensus of New Testament scholars today is that Mark did indeed end his gospel with verse 8.   In Mark’s gospel, there are no joyfully amazed women rushing back with news of the empty tomb…no awestruck exclamations to the disciples that “he is risen!”   There are no reassuring appearances by the risen Christ himself.   We have to read the other gospel accounts that were written later to find these things.
            The end of Mark’s gospel doesn’t feel satisfying, so we can sympathize with the scribes or monks or whoever it was who decided to take matters into their own hands and add an ending they thought was better and that sounded more like the other, later gospels.  And so our Bibles have what have come to be called “A Shorter Ending to Mark” and “A Longer Ending to Mark. ” 
            But let’s think about why Mark left his gospel hanging on this moment of failure and disappointment.  Why would he do that?
            I agree with Professor David Lose when he suggests that Mark knew that no story about death and resurrection could possibly have a neat and tidy ending.  Lose observes that there’s a recurring pattern in Mark’s gospel.  Those who are closest to Jesus and should tell others about him often don’t.  One of the themes in Mark is that the disciples just don’t get it.
            Three times the disciples had heard Jesus predict that he is going to have to suffer and die and then be raised again-- but they end up dazed, confused, and arguing about who’s the greatest.   Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah--  but completely misunderstands what that means, and actually rebukes Jesus when he explains.  Again and again those who should understand just don’t understand what’s going on and fail to share the good news.
            Judas betrays Jesus.  Peter denies him 3 times.  The disciples desert him.   Finally, even these women, who up to this point had proved to be faithful disciples,  are too afraid to go and share the good news. And so Mark ends here, right here, inviting us all to pick up where the gospel leaves off.[1]
            The story isn’t over.  With the first disciples, we need to leave the empty tomb and go back to Galilee.   Like the first disciples, we can’t understand the story the first time.  We need to go to the cross and to the empty tomb… and then read the story again and find ourselves in the story.   We need to go back to “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[2]   This time, we need to hear the gospel with post-resurrection eyes. 
            When we go back to Galilee, we see Jesus healing and teaching and casting out demons, but always being misunderstood, even by those closest to him.  Mark is telling us that the saving action of God in the world is always hidden and ambiguous. 
            When we read Mark with post-resurrection eyes,  we see Jesus breaking through into human life as one who is powerful,  but also as one who will suffer and die.   We see a God whose power is a strange, suffering, self-giving power.  
            We go back to Galilee, and the second time around every story in the Gospel of Mark is a post-resurrection appearance.  What we see is a God who surprises us at every turn in the road,  a God whose power is expressed finally in weakness.[3]
             Mark wrote an open ending to his gospel in order to invite the disciples and everyone who reads it to jump in and take up our part in continuing it.   You see, the story of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb.   It’s only just getting started.  
            Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redeeming work in the world.  The gospel is about what God has done and is still doing for the world through Jesus the Christ and through those who follow him. 
            Mark intentionally left the story unfinished--  because it isn't just a story about something that happened long ago.  It's the story of the church, and the story isn't finished.   That first Easter, the whole urgent, world-changing story was hanging on the testimony of witnesses who run away in fear and silence. 

            “Go and tell my disciples—and Peter.”   The Risen Christ made a special point of extending his reconciling grace to fearful promise-breakers like Peter.   God’s grace invites us to go back home and to live life as people who have changed by the events of Easter.

Go.  Tell.  As disciples of the Risen Christ, we are called to live into the joy and freedom of the new creation and to share the good news with anyone who needs to hear it.  What happens next in the story depends on us.
            God's redemptive purpose for the world will prevail through those who answer Christ's call to follow him and carry on his purpose and work.
            The good news is that we are not alone.  We don’t have to do it on our own power.  The way our Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith” puts it:  In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.[4]
            That’s how the rest of the story continues.
            We are called to carry on the story.  It's our choice--   yours and mine.   Think about all the people who haven't heard the Easter story in all its fullness and power.  Consider all the lonely souls out there who long for hope...  comfort... healing… and meaning.    Do we care about them?              What will happen next in the story for them?
            Will someone tell them the good news of the Resurrection  and the new, abundant life we can have here and now through our faith in the Risen Christ?   Will they see peoples' lives being transformed by the love of Christ?  Will they see your life being changed?  Will they see the light and love of Christ reflected in what Littlefield Christians do and say?  Will they look at the church and know we're Christians by our love?
            The story continues.  What happens next is up to us.    
            The women at the tomb were terrified and amazed.  Yet they must have gone to Galilee and seen the risen Christ.   They must have proclaimed the good news to the others--  or we wouldn’t be here today.  

            Go.  Tell.  As Christians, we are called to take risks...  to make ourselves vulnerable in love...  to share with strangers...  to dare to challenge unjust power.   We are promised lives of  joy and abundance--  as we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.
            God calls us to live beyond our fears and doubts.  In the resurrection, God showed us his amazing, life-giving power.  We know that the story of our life with God has a joyful ending.
God, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, is making all things new.   So   go.  Tell.

Christ is risen!   Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

[1] David Lose, “Only the Beginning, March 30, 2015 at

[2] Mark 1:1
[3] Thomas G. Long, “Dangling Gospel”,

[4] Brief Statement of Faith