Monday, June 22, 2015

"Subdue It" - Sermon Text from June 21, 2015

Subdue It - The Future of the Earth                                          
Year B: 4th Sunday after Pentecost: June 21, 2015
Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 104:24-30

It is worth noting that in the Bible, God’s first words to humanity are a blessing. God creates humanity and immediately blesses us.
Immediately following this blessing, God gives us a word of instruction. And God’s first instruction to humanity addresses not our relationship with God, but our relationship with the earth. You have heard that humanity was created to be in relationship with God, and that is certainly a theme of the Scriptures. But the very first instruction God gives to us indicates that we are created to be in relationship with the earth around us.
God says, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." And we got right on that! We have been fruitful; we have indeed multiplied.In fact, some would argue for “mission accomplished.” Earth filled? Check. Nature subdued? Check.       
Some interesting words appear in the creation passage. Two in particular: “subdue” and “dominion.” The first thing you notice with these words is POWER; subduing and dominating are words of power. The unequal power dynamic implied in these words might lead us to adopt a mindset that says humanity is to wield power over the earth.
Of course, last week the earth reminded us of just how little power we actually have. The sustained rain and flash flooding in the Ozarks area was nature’s way of saying to us, “Hold on a minute, humanity. Y’all aren’t quite so powerful as you think you are.” Anyone try travelling between Springfield and Nixa last week?
            Or has anyone ever slept alone in the woods? That experience will surely convince you that you don’t have as much power as you think you do. Every noise in the woods at night is an imminent threat!

            And so, let me suggest a deeper understanding of these two ideas “subdue” and “have dominion.”
When it comes to the idea of “subduing” the earth, I appreciate what Terence Fretheim, an Old Testament Professor at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis wrote about the term. He says, “... ‘subduing’ involves development in the created order. This process offers to the human being the task of intra-creational development, of bringing the world along to its fullest possible creational potential. Here paradise is not a state of perfection, not a static state of affairs. Humans lie in a highly dynamic situation. The future remains open to a number of possibilities in which creaturely activity will prove crucial for the development of the world.”
            In other words: Our “subduing” of the earth ought to make things better. There is a divinely given potential within creation, and our relationship with creation ought to progress toward that potential.
It’s like my personal definition of the meaning of life. I don’t think the meaning of life is complicated at all. It is simple: Leave the world better than it was when you got here.
            And when we think about that second word, “dominion,” we cannot consider it in isolation. The phrase, “have dominion over” cannot be defined without also considering the meaning of the phrase, “the image of God.” Humanity is to “have dominion over” creation as a reflection of the way God would, as an extension of God’s own dominion.
            In other words, humanity is to relate to the world as God relates to us. God is sovereign; God has dominion over us. And what does God’s dominion look like? We say God is good, gracious, forgiving, just, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. These qualities comprise God’s dominion. The question becomes: How can we incorporate those relational concepts to our treatment of creation?
So, with all of that said, one way to interpret the Bible when it comes to our care for the future of the earth is this:
            God wants us to live in close relationship with the earth so that creation develops into its fullest potential. We are supposed to be partners with creation promoting the health and vitality of all the earth.

This week I asked some questions of four people whose work involves caring for creation. I asked them, "What motivates you to care for the environment?" And I asked, "How do you feel in general about the future health of the natural world - hopeful? fearful? cautiously optimistic? Something else?"
          One person I emailed was Rob Hunt, the coordinator of the Watershed Center here in Springfield. Rob said, “My motivation for caring for the environment comes from my love of the outdoors. I grew up outside and I think that fostering a love of nature is the key to encouraging stewardship of our natural resources.”
Rob was hopeful about the future of the earth. But it is hope that is grounded in reality. He said, “People can do amazing things. Even the negative things we have done to the planet and to each other are astounding. If our passion and ingenuity and ability could be guided by a more positive influence, like love of nature or one-another, then I don’t doubt people could improve the planet.”
            I also emailed Jay barber, who works at the missouri Department of Conservation as an Education Consultant. Jay's motivation for doing what he does comes from his childhood. His parents made a point to take him camping, fishing, hiking, and hunting.
          Jay's response to my question about the future of the earth is convicting. He said, "Given human's proclivity for selfishness and hard-heartedness, I am surprised that there is not more destruction of nature." Just take a moment and let that sit there. Ouch. Hits kind of close to home, doesn't it?
          But Jay is a person of faith, and his outlook is hopeful. He said, "Ultimately God is in control and while His Creation is groaning awaiting redemption, I enjoy sharing His Creation with others, to see them connect with something so simple as an insect with all its adaptations an colorful display."
            I also asked Kelly Guenther, who works with the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. Her motivation is more philosophical than the others. She said, "I care for the environment, plants and animals because I see us as all intertwined in each other's lives on this planet. The more you seek, the more you discover how interconnected we all are to each other and to the earth." That's a beautiful image, isn't it? Each of us is connected to the other.
          Kelly was "cautiously optimistic" when it comes to the earth's future. She said, "...I fear it will take a great crisis for humanity to change its course and truly stop over consuming and preserve our precious resources..." Kind of like how everybody knows about that dangerous intersection, but nobody puts a stoplight in until there's a fatal accident there. We seem to need an impetus to shock us into action sometimes.
          The fourth person I emailed this week is a member here at Campbell, so I'm going to have to be careful what I say about him, since he's likely to hear these words! Joe Fearn is a groundskeeper at Drury University, and he really is an amazing person whose ideas about caring for the earth are fascinating. I love Joe, and I love talking with him about this kind of stuff. Let me put it this way: the other three people responded with a few sentences or maybe a paragraph. Joe sent me a treatise!
            Joe does what he does because he witnesses the natural beauty of the world, and believes that humanity must live as a part of nature, “in harmony with it.”
But Joe, among all four people I spoke with, is the least hopeful about the earth’s future. In fact, he said, “I am not hopeful at all, and I cannot see us avoiding collapse …” Well that’s real cheery, Joe!
He went on to say, “I believe that man’s society takes a heavy toll on the environment in order to obtain what our society … believes it needs. This toll has and continues to greatly stress the whole earth ecosystem to a point it is near collapse.” But there was a glimmer of hope, hidden among the pessimism. Joe went on, “I believe every person has a part to play in slowing and possibly reversing this damage.”
            See, even Joe (even JOE!) can manage to find a bit of hope, if we will all realize that we are consuming more that we actually need. Joe believes the resources of the earth are not maxed out, that the earth is capable of supporting the life on it. However the level of consumption so many of us choose is far and above what we actually need.
            And we have to confess that is indeed true. Even right here and right now in this very moment, we are sitting in a low humidity, relatively cool room. We are comfortable in our air conditioning, even grateful for it. But we do not need it. We could gather for worship in shorts and t-shirts, fanning ourselves with our bulletins. We might be a bit sweaty, but we could do it.

            There was a fifth person I spoke with this week. I also consulted the Pope.
Well okay, I didn’t really consult the Pope, but on Thursday the Pope released an encyclical on the environment. However I did respond to it as I was reading it. Yes, out loud! This is what it sounded like:

Pope: "The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish."

Me: Well, Pope Francis. I wish you would tell us how you really feel about things. Quit being so vague.

"We are not God. The Earth was here before us and was given to us."

Me: There, that’s better.

"The idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology ... is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry at every limit."

Me: Um … so is there any hope?

"Yet all is not lost. (Me: Whew.) Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start."
"We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family."
"We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it."

Me: Wait, Pope Franics - I thought we were talking about the environment here. You know, nature and stuff.

"We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental."
"There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself."

Me: Oh, you mean to say that people are a part of the environment that we are supposed to be taking care of?

"What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? The question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal."

All of a sudden, as we talk about the future of the earth, we aren’t just talking about forests and clean air and water and protecting endangered species. You know, all that hippie, tree hugger stuff.
            If we are to truly understand our divine commission to care for the earth, we must include care for ALL of the earth, and that includes our care for one another, too.

On Wednesday night last week, a church had a Bible Study. Actually a lot of churches had Bible studies. But in the one we all know about, nine of our sisters and brothers were killed by a person who had been welcomed among them as a guest.
The reason they were killed is clear. It is not up for debate. They were killed because they were black. And the one who killed them was a racist.
I have lost patience with people who try to claim that we are done with racism in our nation. I have no patience with the naive suggestion that somehow we’re past it and don’t have to address it any more.
Racism is an insidious evil that permeates every single part of our world.
            Even my own mind and heart. Even yours. I look at people and make immediate judgments about them based on nothing more than the color of their skin, and you do too. It helps nothing to pretend otherwise.
The worst thing we can do in confronting racism is to pretend that we are not racist. We must confess it. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 

“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton,
Daniel Simmons, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders,
Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson

          This is not an abstract concept we're talking about. Yesterday I read Depayne Middleton-Doctor's obituary:
 Whether she was working with college students or Charleston's poorest residents, DePayne Middleton-Doctor wanted to be in a position to help people.
So co-workers weren't surprised when she decided to become a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
"She was a woman of God," said Joel Crawford, who worked with Middleton-Doctor at Southern Wesleyan University's campus in Charleston. "She was strong in her faith."
Middleton-Doctor, a 49-year-old mother of four daughters, just started her job as an enrollment counselor at the university in December, ...
Before that, [she] had been employed for several years by Charleston County, where she helped administer grants aimed at helping the county's poorest residents with problems they couldn't otherwise afford to fix such as repairing roofs or septic tanks, ...
Crawford said Middleton-Doctor often went to midweek prayer meetings at Emanuel AME Church as she worked toward becoming a minister.

          When we are confronted with an event like the shooting at Emanuel AMD Church in Charleston, our tendency is to recoil, to retreat. We think it has nothing to do with us. We think it's "too big for us," and there's nothing we can do about it.
          We offer empty words in our prayers, like "Just let go and let God." And then we just go on living our lives. We say, "I just give that stuff to God in prayer," as if that somehow excuses us from doing something, from changing, from working to make things better in the world.  
          Praying to God about the evil in our world does not preclude us taking action to eliminate it. Nor does it excuse us from doing so.
            It isn’t too big. We CAN in fact change the world. It’s actually our mission. The church is supposed to transform the world for God’s sake. And if we don’t believe that we can, then what are we even doing here?

There was one other question I asked the 4 people who work with the environment. I asked them, "What are a few simple things people could do around their homes to make the earth healthier?" 
          They each supplied a list. You've probably read them before, things like: Install a rain barrel, plant a tree, install high efficiency appliances, let your yard grow higher and mow less often - that kind of stuff. Interestingly, all four of them said to plant native plants and trees. Must be something to that if all four of them mentioned it.
Each one provided great ideas for small, inexpensive things people might do differently that, when accumulated with others, would make a great difference to the future of the earth. Joe Fearn put the idea this way, “If people viewed their yards as part of a larger whole, then stewarded them accordingly, we could have an urban/suburban/natural ecosystem that functions much better for the natural environment. Every yard is critical!”
Now, of course Joe did not know this sermon was going to go the direction it did. He sent his reply to me before Wednesday evening changed everything. But I’m pretty sure his idea applies to the bigger topic, if we make just a few minor adjustments.

            Here’s how we might say it:
“If people viewed their lives as part of a larger whole, then lived them accordingly, we could have a global community that functions much better for the flourishing of all creation. Every person is critical!”
            Every person matters. Every word, every act, every attitude, every thought. You matter. You are a part of a bigger community, and your life is critical to the life of the whole.
When something like the shooting in Charleston happens, we tend to ask “Well, what can we do? It’s too big. Surely there’s nothing I can do to make any difference.”
Well first of all, understand that it isn’t too big. We are the church - it is our business to change the world. There ARE things we can do. Real, concrete, tangible things we can do to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
So I have these four steps - they are all “C” words - I hardly ever do anything like this because I think it’s gimmicky and can be rather shallow. But I did this today so that we can remember them; it just felt like we might want something to hold onto today.
So here are “the Four Cs” - Confess, Confront, Convey, and Conquer.
            First, confess that you are a sinner. Confess your racism, your sexism, your homophobia, your classism, your ageism. Confess that you do not treat God’s creation like you should, you make unfair assumptions about people based on surface-level traits. God already knows; you are not providing God with any new information, here. So confess, and ask God’s forgiveness.
            Secondly, confront it when you hear it. Don’t laugh at that racist joke, challenge it. Do not let slurs, names, and stereotypes stand without confronting them.
            When we were moving our of our duplex in Kirksville, Missouri, I stood in the living room with our landlord. I remember it so vividly. He said to me, “And if there are some friends of yours looking for a place to live, send them our way. Because you know, we wouldn’t want any of the wrong people to move in here.”
And I didn’t say anything! To my shame even to this day, I had nothing to say to that.
Confront it. Stand up to it. Unveil it. Name it out loud.
            The third “c” is for convey. To overcome evil, convey a Christlike attitude toward others. Let everything you say to another person be grace and love and peace. Be Jesus in your interactions with other people. Convey Christ. Convey God in your demeanor and your attitude. Just radiate hope and joy and love. Smile more. Make eye contact. Hold hands. Convey Jesus.
            And finally, conquer. There is only one way to conquer hatred. There is only one tool that is effective against evil and injustice and violence. Quite simply: love. Only love.
            On Friday, the Charleston shooter appeared at his arraignment. He was there on a live video feed. And the families of his victims were in the room, and they spoke to him. Did you hear what they said to him? Did you see it?
            They forgave him.
            One by one they stood up and looked at his face. And they forgave him. Unimaginable grace. Love conquers hatred - every single time.
Confess. Confront. Convey. Conquer.

So, this started out to be a sermon about caring for our earth so that the future of the planet is healthy and sustainable. It ended up in a different place.
But not really, I guess.
I guess it’s still pretty much a sermon about the future of the planet. We are, all of us, a part of the creation that God called good. A creation that God has instructed us to care for.

I came across a prayer that churches were being encouraged to use in worship today. According to the tweet that shared the link, several hundred churches had already said they were planning to use it. Since then, I don’t know how many others might have joined on.
So I will close today with this prayer, in unity with followers of Jesus all over our nation. Let us pray.

We stand before you today, oh Lord
Hearts broken, eyes weeping, heads spinning
Our brothers and sisters have died
They gathered and prayed and then were no more
The prayer soaked walls of the church are spattered with blood
The enemy at the table turned on them in violence
While they were turning to you in prayer

We cry out to you, oh Lord
Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, heads spinning
The violence in our streets has come into your house
The hatred in our cities has crept into your sanctuary
The brokenness in our lives has broken into your temple
The dividing wall of hostility has crushed our brothers and sisters
We cry out to you, May your Kingdom come, may it be on earth as it is in heaven

We pray to you today, oh Lord
Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, souls stirring
We pray for our enemies, we pray for those who persecute us
We pray to the God of all Comfort to comfort our brothers and sisters in their mourning
We pray that you would bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes
We pray that you would give them the oil of joy instead of mourning
We pray that you would give them a garment of praise in place of a spirit of despair

We declare together, oh Lord
With hearts breaking, eyes weeping and souls stirring
We will continue to stand and cry and weep with our brothers and sisters
We will continue to make a place of peace for even the enemies at our table
We will continue to open our doors and our hearts to those who enter them
We will continue to seek to forgive as we have been forgiven
We will continue to love in Jesus’ name because you taught us that love conquers all

We declare our love for our Sisters
We declare our love for our Brothers
We declare our love for their families
We declare our love as one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism

We declare they do not grieve alone today. Amen.

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