Sunday, April 23, 2017

Phil Kniss: Curators of Creation

Easter 2: Creation Care
Gen. 1:28, 31; 2:8-10, 15; 9:8-10, 14-17; Col. 1:15-20; Psa. 104

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For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Ever hear that verse before?
Of course.
But probably not to open a sermon about Creation Care.
Seems odd,
to not go to that verse first,
when pondering the care of creation.

For people of faith,
the love of God for the world ought to be our primary motivation,
to take care of this world we live in.

Because that verse has often been associated with
God’s love for us sinful humans,
we often forget how broad that statement really is.

God loves . . . the world.
God really loves this whole world.
God loves everything God put in this world,
large and small.
God loves Mount McKinley . . . and Mole Hill.
God loves the Amazon River . . . and Blacks Run.
God loves the California Redwood . . . and the Shasta Daisy.

And of course, God loves us. God loves us most of all.
God created us human beings,
and placed in us God’s own image.
And God wants us to reflect that image,
and to return that love.
Of all creation, God wants to be in a unique relationship with us.
But God loves the whole world.
We would know that if we read it in Greek.
That word we translate “world”?
that word we often shrink, to mean only “human beings”?
The word is cosmos.
John 3:16 reads, literally, “For God so loved the cosmos.”

In the church, any conversation about Creation Care,
has to start with the love of God for the Cosmos.
Dig a little deeper into this word cosmos,
and you see it means “something ordered,”
an “ordered system.”
The most accurate way to render the first line
of John 3:16,
is “For God so loved the whole created order.”
We diminish the richness of this verse,
when we read that phrase “loved the world”
as, “loved the world of people.”

It’s hard for us to even imagine what God’s love for the world is like.
We have nothing in our own experience to compare it to.
We have never created a world.

We might start by saying God loves the world
like Rembrandt loves his most magnificent painting.
But that doesn’t say quite enough.
We might say that God loves the world
like my mother loves me.
But even that is a pale reflection of the whole.

God put this world together
with such love and care and purpose
and tenderness and awesome power,
it simply is too much to grasp.

And if that were too much to ponder,
we are then told by scripture
that God took this awesome work of love and power,
and handed it over to us humans,
God’s image-bearing representatives,
and said, “Here. Take care of it for me.”

The well-being of creation is not left to chance.
God, and the whole created order,
is depending on us to do our job, and do it well.

What is that job? Let’s turn to Genesis.
We will hear parts of Genesis three times,
From the first creation story in Genesis 1,
and the second version of the creation story in Genesis 2,
and the story of God’s covenant with creation after the flood.
Let’s hear the word of the Lord, from Genesis 1:28 and 31 . . .

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Dominion. Subdue.
Sticky words, for our relationship with creation.
From time immemorial, whenever we need justification
for damage we inflict on the earth,
we pick out those words, and use them.

When we clear-cut virgin forests without replanting,
as was more common in previous generations.
When we chop off the tops of mountains to get to coal,
which still happens.
When we knowingly destroy wildlife habitat,
or foul our waterways,
or burn so much carbon we change the global climate,
in every case,
people of faith have pointed to those words, and said,
“We have the right.”
The reasoning goes,
God has given us authority to tame the wildness of creation,
and use it for our purposes.
We have the divine right to rule over creation,
to use it this way.

There are many ways we twist scripture,
at some cost to ourselves and others.
But it’s hard to think of any more disastrous
misinterpretation of sacred text,
in terms of the long-lasting damage resulting
to our physical and spiritual well-being,
to our relationships,
and to the cosmos itself,
than our effort to make this a text about “our rights.”

We must reread this and recover its true meaning.

Yes, in our interaction with creation, we have rights, in a way.
But they are specific and narrowly defined,
and God maintains ownership.

Our rights are similar, in many ways,
to the rights of a curator of an art gallery.

Some of you are artists.
You know what it’s like to create something
of value, of meaning, of beauty,
something that eventually took on a life of its own,
and then you finished it, and let it go.
You toiled over it many days.
Then you stepped back, looked at it,
and saw that it was good.
And then you rested from your work, for a day,
soaked up its beauty and goodness.
You understand Genesis 1 better than any of us.

Some of you have submitted your work to a gallery,
a public show,
or perhaps to a museum.
And those entities had a curator.
One who had both rights and responsibilities
to treat your art in a certain way.
There may even have been some contract you signed,
that spelled out their legal rights,
which gave them some freedom to work with your art
in a way that fit their purposes.
But you still owned the work.
And you had protections as well,
against them using the art in such a way as to ruin it.

When you look for a curator for your work,
you look for one that understands your needs as creator of art,
one that understands their sacred trust.

If a gallery manager kept communicating to you,
over and over, in multiple ways,
“Remember, we have the right
to do what we want with your art,”
you would probably look for a different gallery.

A curator may have the legal right to hang a piece of art
on the exterior wall, outside, on the sidewalk,
exposed to sun and rain and the curious fingers of passersby.
And if they purchase your art outright,
and make it part of their permanent collection,
they have the right to do whatever they want,
including stuffing it a box in the basement,
painting over top of it,
or cutting it up for scrap.

They have the right.
But they wouldn’t stay in business long.

If we want to talk about our rights, with God’s created order,
then lets talk as curators of creation.
By definition, a curator is one who cares for something, a guardian.

When Genesis 1 says to exercise dominion, or rule over,
it’s a command to care for, on God’s behalf.
God never turns over ownership.
In Psalm 50, God says, “every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.”

If we don’t care for God’s creation,
in a way that authentically reflects
the love and beauty and purpose and tenderness
of its Creator,
we are failing in this directive given to us in Genesis 1.
We are no longer ruling as God asked us to rule—
as a vice-regent, a representative, a curator—
we are seizing ownership,
over the pained objections of the true owner and creator.

This role of curator is spelled out further
in the second story of creation that we have in Genesis.
So now . . . let’s hear the word of the Lord from Genesis 2:8-10, 15

8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Here again, our role is clear, if we open our eyes and read it.
God is landowner, designer, creator
of this Garden of Delights that is the earth,
and indeed the cosmos.
We are the gardeners, hired to till and to keep, it says.
To keep the garden.
That is, to preserve, to treasure, to guard,
to ensure that it fulfills the intent of the Creator.
We are earth-keepers.
That is our divine mandate, recorded in scripture.
To do otherwise, is an insult to Creator God.
And it is sin.
I don’t know how else to put it.

But a few chapters later in Genesis,
it gets taken a step further.
There is a covenant at stake.
Let’s hear the word of the Lord from Genesis 9:8-10 and 14-17.

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.    14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

God is in a covenant with us, and with all living creatures.
After the great flood God made a covenant with all creation
and put up a rainbow as a reminder.
We think too narrowly of the rainbow.
It’s not there just to help us remember
that God is not going to destroy humankind again.
God said it’s a reminder for God.
It’s to remind God of the covenant.
“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it
and remember the everlasting covenant between God
and every . . . living . . . creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

How often do we stop to think about the fact
that God is in a covenant relationship
with the black rhinoceros and ruby-throated hummingbird
and every living creature on earth?
We should think of that at least as often as we see a rainbow.

God’s love for creation was not a once and done thing,
when God sat back on Day 7 and enjoyed his good work.
God continues to love creation.
God continues to delight in it.

The psalmist understood this so well.

We read two sections of Psalm 104 today,
in the call to worship,
and in the reading before the sermon.
Read it again, at your leisure,
see how many times some particular species of animal is named.

God delights in them all.
Including a little rodent that runs around in the rocks
in Africa and parts of the Middle East—
the hyrax, or rock badger, or coney,
as the NewRSV referred to in v. 18.
Also mentioned are cedars, firs, storks, wild goats, and more.
And the Leviathan, or sea monster, in v. 26,
(or could be a reference to a whale),
an animal that, the psalmist says to God,
“you formed to frolic there” in the ocean.
Got that?
God formed a creature to frolic.
Sounds like the Great Creator was doing more than
functional work, being productive.
Sounds like God was having fun, creating entertainment.

That’s our creator God,
who dearly loves, who delights in,
everything that God made.

This is where we start and end
conversations in the church about the environment.
This is a matter of Christian discipleship,
and speaks volumes about our relationship with God.
Yes, it is about the well-being of the planet,
and about the well-being of the world’s poor and vulnerable,
who pay the biggest price when it comes to climate change.
But it is fundamentally about grasping the broad and deep love of God
for all of creation,
and the sacred trust God has placed in us.
It is ultimately, about our spiritual well-being.

God give us the courage to live into this high calling.

So let’s sing a glorious creation hymn
that comes from our old red hymnal,
and that we sang yesterday at Hubert Pellman’s memorial,
since it was one of his favorite hymns.
It’s about all parts of creation, especially the heavenly bodies,
sun, moon, planets,
proclaiming the greatness of their creator God.

You’ll find the final line of the hymn
on a small piece of paper in your bulletin.
So hold that in your hand, along with the back of your bulletin,
as we stand and sing together.

—Phil Kniss, April 23, 2017

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Phil Kniss: Resurrection Shakeup

Easter: We live
Matthew 28:1-10, Colossians 3:1-4

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Three days ago our country dropped a bomb in Afghanistan,
the largest non-nuclear one ever used.
The “mother of all bombs,” we are told.
It was intended to knock out some key operations of ISIS,
and intended to shake the earth so violently,
as to collapse underground caverns,
and bury any ISIS fighters hiding in them.

As a peace church,
we could certainly question the thinking
that drives such a military strategy,
and we could question, vigorously,
the morality of such massive institutionalized violence.

But that’s not the reason I opened my Easter sermon
with this very recent example of death and massive destruction.

I mention it because of the sharp contrast . . .
and . . . the striking similarity,
between the news accounts of this bombing,
and the biblical texts describing the events
of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.

In both cases, there was a cataclysmic interruption of reality.
In both cases, the earth shook violently.
In both cases, paralyzing fear was a result.
But obviously, the intent, the means, and the outcome,
could not have been more different.
And the irony of this bombing happening
the day before Good Friday,
well, it’s just beyond words.

I gave this sermon the title “Resurrection Shakeup”
well before the bombing happened.
Because that’s what Jesus’ resurrection did,
both figuratively, and literally, according to Matthew.
It shook things up—in a world-shifting way.

So let’s look at the way Matthew tells the story.
And the different Gospel writers do tell the story differently.
They each seem to want to emphasize certain aspects.
When you read John’s account for instance,
you are struck with the raw grief of Jesus’ absence.
In John’s account the women get to the tomb
after the resurrection happened,
and everywhere they look there is a distressing absence.
They don’t see what they expected to see,
and it grieves them.

But in Matthew’s telling of the story,
the resurrection happens right after the women arrive,
and what they witness is not an eerie absence,
but a fear-inducing, cataclysmic eruption
of something entirely new and earth-shaking.
As the two Marys stood there at the still closed-up tomb
there was a “violent earthquake”—violent,
and an angel appeared, rolled away the stone.
The guards were so scared,
they themselves shook so hard they apparently convulsed,
and became like dead men.
Then the angel calms the women,
reassures them that God is in this eruption,
this interruption of the normal,
and that they should go tell their compatriots the good news.
“Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee.
Go there, and meet him.”

It’s a missional message—
go where Jesus is going,
engage in the life Jesus is engaging in,
be about what Jesus is about,
do what Jesus is doing.
This is the new order of things.
The powers of evil and death
have been conquered by the powers of love and life.
This is Matthew’s bottom-line message—
“Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid.”
And even though the Gospel was written decades later,
I think Matthew meant for his readers to understand
that message was for them,
as much as for the Marys and for the Twelve.
Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid.

And it was actually on the way to find Jesus,
that the Marys were gifted with the first encounter with Jesus.
Before they ever got to the other disciples,
Jesus met them on the road, and repeated the message—
go to where I am going,
and don’t be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid” were the first words out of the mouth
of both the angel and Jesus.
Pretty appropriate, under the circumstances.
Resurrection might feel like a purely joyful and happy thing,
from our safe distance,
but that’s not really the case.
Joyful, yes. But it was a fear-filled joy.

See, it’s not simply a matter of a loved one returning.
If that’s all it was,
then surprise, delight and relief, might be the primary response.
But this was new reality crashing in, violently, on the old reality.
Any change is difficult.
World-shifting change is fear-inducing . . . always,
I think it’s safe to say.

The resurrection of Jesus is the dawning of a new creation.
New creation!
Not tweaking things a little bit here and there, to improve it.
But new creation.

The resurrection throws open the gates to a world
where God turns everything on its head.
The resurrection means we let go of a world
where we are familiar with its terrain,
where we know its contours,
and let the love and life of God have at it—
to remake it in the way God chooses.

Julia Esquivel
is a Guatemalan poet and minister and human rights activist,
She wrote a poem called, “Threatened with Resurrection.”
That poem inspired Parker Palmer
to reflect about his own hesitation to embrace resurrection.
Palmer recognized something in himself,
that maybe we can identify with.
Sometimes, he wrote, he fears the movement toward new life,
more than he fears death in its various forms.
Because he’s gotten so accustomed to the life he knows,
even if it is a diminished life.
Sometimes, Palmer said, our pathologies, our illusions about life,
are actually useful to us in some way, so we cling to them.

Quoting Palmer,
“If I lived as if resurrection were real,
and allowed myself to die for the sake of new life,
what might I be called upon to do?
What strange and difficult tasks might be laid upon me?
What comforts taken away?
How might my life be changed?”
He sounds like the apostle in today’s reading from Colossians.
When Paul wrote of our resurrection life in Christ,
he said—both as encouragement, and as ominous warning—
“For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

See, Jesus’ resurrection is not an intellectual litmus test,
it’s not intended to test the validity of our belief system.
No, the resurrection tests our willingness to act,
to move into new territory.
It tests our readiness to live a larger and fuller life
than the one we are so familiar with.

Accepting the resurrection as true,
forces us off our comfortable home turf,
and into a new land, with untraveled and unmapped terrain.
Believing is just the beginning.
God invites us to live a resurrection life.

Into these times in which we live,
where despair is rampant,
where institutionalized violence gets ever more horrific,
where kindness and gentleness are harder to find,
where hope often hides beneath the surface unseen,
into these unlikely times,
comes crashing a world-shifting violent earthquake
that sets false powers on edge—
it is the fearfully good news that
the old is being done away with,
and God’s new creation is at hand.

Did you hear that?
The old is being done away with . . .
even over the objections
of those of us who have a vested interest in the old.
The old is being done away with,
and resurrection life is breaking into our reality,
and shaking the earth.
God is making a new creation.

New life is on its way!
That’s the news we proclaim on this day—
yes, even this day that stands at the beginning of a week,
when there will be, not one, but three funerals in this very space.
On a week where people will gather here with their raw grief,
and their gratitude for the gifts of life.
On a week where we carry out rituals
that underscore the reality and finality of death,
here we will also proclaim the Good News of Easter—
that death does not have the last word—ever!
Neither physical death,
in the face of our hope for resurrection in the age to come.
Nor the countless other ways the powers of death
make their ugliness known in this world.

Whether we are ready or not,
whether those invested in death-dealing powers want it or not,
new creation has already been ushered in
that morning the Marys went to the tomb . . .
and new creation is still being birthed today
in many ways of which we now are witnesses . . .
and new creation has yet to be seen
as God readies the world
for something beyond our abilities to imagine.

This is our reality.
Why would we not have hope?
Why would we not sing and celebrate and feast at the table?
Which is precisely why we are going to keep on doing just that.

Let’s turn to number 273 in the blue hymnal, and sing
“Low in the grave he lay,”
a hymn where the music itself portrays this Resurrection Shakeup—
where the old is suddenly interrupted,
with something new that God is doing.

—Phil Kniss, April 16, 2017

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