Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Loved back to life

Psalm 148; Revelation 21: 1-6
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 24, 2016 – Earth Sunday

            There’s not much that needs to be said and demands to be heard in this congregation about Earth Sunday. The New Ark has been an Earthwise congregation since 2010, and hopefully we will renew that commitment with a heartier, more robust Earthwise resolution at the quarterly meeting following worship. The United Church of Christ passed its first resolution on ecojustice in 2001. Our own Jane Schaefer participated in the People’s Climate March in 2014.

            We all try to recycle as much as we can, throw out as little as possible.  When feasible, we compost.  We strive to use more LED lights and other low-energy lighting sources.  Some of us have vegetable gardens or solar panels, energy-efficient appliances or geo-thermal systems.  Many of us purchase a share or half-share of community agriculture each year.  Here at church we try to use china, flatware, glasses, and ceramic mugs more than we do paper, plastic, and Styrofoam.  We send our announcements and newsletters electronically.  We grab a bunch of reusable grocery bags before we head off to the store.  We turn off lights we’re not using, turn down the thermostat, turn off the car engine at the drive thru or the ATM.  Some of us drive a hybrid or other fuel efficient vehicle. 

            At first some of these lifestyle changes were not easy. Sometimes we still forget to do them; there are other changes we still need to make or that we resist or require a change in our culture.  For instance, how do we lessen our carbon footprint and yet fulfill our dreams of air travel or use air travel for work?  We depend on ease and convenience, especially in our stress-filled lives.  It can also cost more money and time to be green.  It requires some sacrifice and doing more with less.  If we think about it, loving the earth is not all that different from loving another human being, from having a family, from putting someone, something ahead of our own desires and wants.  And since saving the earth involves all the love we can muster, it also has the power to save us too.


            Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution, writes in such a way as to suggest, if there is such a thing as original sin, it would be that we live apart from the land, from the dirt of the earth.  We strayed from our first love, “the living ground from which we come and to which we return”.   The story of Adam and Eve, whose names mean Soil and Life, is more about how we are to care for the earth from which we came rather about two proto humans.  Adam and Eve become consumers by eating that which is forbidden, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  And indeed we are consuming the earth.  Without dirt—good rich soil—we have no food, no trees, no life.  In essence we are walking, talking, breathing dirt.

Sun is up a new day is before you

Sun is up wake up your sleepy soul

Sun is up hold onto what is whole

Take up your spade and break ground

How many of us played in the dirt as children?  I can remember making concoctions of dirt and water, dandelions and some kind of red berry that grew on the bushes in front of our house.  Nowadays, though, not so much.  Luckily I married someone who is a farmer at heart.  David has started an orchard of sorts in our house and in our yard:  three citrus trees (lime, lemon, and orange), two avocado trees grown from grocery store avocado pits, one peach tree, four apple trees, plus a cherry bush hybrid, five blueberry bushes, and four patches of strawberries.  Then there’s the vegetable garden: broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, garlic, beets, carrots, peas, beans, pumpkin, zucchini, watermelon, acorn squash, and maybe a volunteer cantaloupe if we’re lucky.  You have to love not only farming but also the earth that food comes from to commit to such an effort.

         The Bible is replete with the Creator’s love affair with the creation. “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the sky proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Ps. 19) God renews the face of the ground. (Ps. 104) Mountains and hills break forth into singing; all trees in the field shall clap their hands. (Is. 55) God saw everything that was made, and behold, it was very good. (Gen. 1) And from this morning’s reading of Psalm 148: “Praise God, all the angels; praise God, all the heavenly host! Praise God, sun and moon; praise God, all you shining stars!”

         But it’s not a perfect love relationship by any means. In Genesis 2, right from the beginning, the relationship between Creator and creation is conflicted. In the story of Noah and the ark, God is grieved by the evil of humankind, wipes the face of the earth with a flood, saves Noah and his family plus two of every creature, but then promises never to do it again. Paul writes of the whole creation groaning in labor pains. Jesus tells us we cannot worship, we cannot love both God and mammon—the greedy pursuit of gain. In the Hebrew scriptures particularly, God, the earth, and all its creatures, including us, are intertwined. When we injure one, we wound the bonds that knit us together.

         Much of the harm that has been done to the earth has been done in the name of progress, but the harm continues because of the greedy pursuit of gain. We cannot speak of climate change without also speaking about wealth and money and how we spend it. Major faith traditions—Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, even evangelical Christians and also the United Church of Christ—have declared climate change a moral issue. Environmentalist Bill McKibben once said in regard to climate change, that this is a moment for which the Church was born. We cannot love the earth, love God, and our ease and convenience at the same time. Now more than ever, we need the Church’s message of repentance, of turning away from the path of destruction and turning toward the path of wholeness.

Shake off your shoes leave yesterday behind you

Shake off your shoes but forget not where you’ve been

Shake off your shoes forgive and be forgiven

Take up your spade and break ground

         In John’s Revelation we hear the good news of a new heaven and a new earth. Marcus Borg, in his interpretation of Revelation, says that this is not about the end of the world but the end of the world as we know it: the end of empire. When the ways of empire come to an end, indeed there will be a new heaven and a new earth. In an empire, dirt, soil, the earth, is something to build cities and roads over; something to use up and move on; a resource to serve the interests of the empire, not everyone. And if we love the earth, truly love the earth, empire will come to an end. I believe the end of empire is indeed near, which accounts for a lot of the anxiety and violence present right now. We are witnessing the death throes of the old order. Yet in the language of faith, hope, and love, the end also means the beginning of something else.

            So how can we not only begin but continue to love this earth back to life? There are lots of things we already do. How could we not only encourage each other but others in our communities to do likewise? This may sound too simple but what if we had a blog or other online presence where we posted what we do on a daily basis to love this earth back to life? The link to this online presence would be on our webpage and on our Facebook page and on Twitter and in our newsletter and weekly announcements. #LoveNotesToTheEarth. 

         We could post things like “Flushed my toilet with gray water”; “Started a small vegetable and herb garden”; “Biked to work or to school today”; “Parked in the church parking lot and walked downtown for dinner”; “Asked a local restaurant to stop using straws”; “Stopped buying water in plastic bottles”; “Picked up litter on my walk”; “Planted a tree”; “Cooked dinner with food I grew in my backyard”; “Volunteered at Bright Spot Ventures or the Newark Co-Op or at Brewer’s Hideaway Farm”; “Worshipped in a re-purposed building”; “Bought secondhand furniture”; “Spent less money today, bought fewer things”; “Continuing to slow down”; “Still believing that this all makes a difference”.

            If we feel sheepish evangelizing for God, maybe instead we can evangelize for the love of the earth.  The earth is our Church, the Body of God, the altar in which we live and move and have our being.

Give thanks for all that you’ve been given

Give thanks for who you can become

Give thanks for each moment and every crumb

Take up your spade and break ground

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Resurrection rut

Acts 9: 36-43; Revelation 7: 13-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 17, 2016

             What do you think of when you hear the word “rut”?  


             Endlessly repeating pattern
             I'm in a ...
             What pigs do when they search for truffles
             A hole

            Most of the time the word ‘rut’ has a negative connotation.  It’s a habit or way of being that’s boring and ineffective but also difficult to change.  We can often think of a rut as sucking the life, taking the joy out of something.  A rut can be mechanical, automatic, brainless.

            But a rut also implies that a relationship has been established, whether it’s between wheel and road, plow and soil, or two people who share a life together.  Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Two-Part Invention, writes about the evening ritual she and husband Hugh fell into after more than three decades of marriage.  In the late afternoon she reads the mail, and then plays the piano for an hour.  At 7:00 Hugh comes into the living room with drinks, and then they cook dinner together, eating in the dining room by candlelight, followed by walking the dog, and preparing for bed.  For some this may sound dull, but ritual is never dull when love is present.  Several times during one of those evenings the same as the one before it, Hugh remarked to Madeleine, “I love our rut”.

            I say that when the heart is engaged, a rut is more like a groove.  So what do you think of when you hear the word “groove”?

            Record player
            I'm in a ...
            Stella got her groove back
            Full steam ahead
            We're going somewhere
            In sync (not the band!)

            I think of musicians getting into a groove with each other; a place of deep trust, mutual respect, and vulnerability that allows for improvisation, for emotions to find unheard of expression, for magic to happen.  I think of vinyl records and a needle in the groove that releases sound.  I think of friends who can complete each other’s sentences, community that responds and moves with the fluid grace of Jesus, who was in the groove of the One who sent him.

            The whole premise for this sermon came from a cartoon I saw online a few weeks ago.  A husband and wife are shaking hands with a pastor after worship on Easter Sunday.  The husband remarks to the pastor, “You’re in a rut, Reverend.  Every time I come here, you preach about the resurrection.”

            After the chuckle and the knowing, rueful smile, I thought, “Wouldn’t that be an interesting way to live, to be in a resurrection rut?”  To always be seeking resurrection, new life, rebirth—joy—and to always be putting oneself in its path.  To trust that resurrection doesn't just happen once, but over and over again.  Resurrection is not only our past, but also our present and our future.

            In this morning’s reading from the book of Acts we’re at that point in the story when we’re well past the resurrection, Jesus’ ascension, Pentecost, even’s Paul’s conversion.  The faith of the resurrection of Jesus is on the road, beginning its journey beyond Jerusalem, beyond those of the Jewish faith and into the world of the Gentiles.  The story of the raising of Tabitha echoes the story of Jesus raising a little girl in the gospel of Luke.  Jesus simply tells the little girl to arise: talitha cum, much as Peter says “Tabitha, get up.”  These stories of resurrection may have begun with Jesus, but they continue beyond him and his lifetime.

            In John’s Revelation we have a vision of the resurrection to come.  Those who have been through the great ordeal come through much in the way that Jesus came through the crucifixion: through pain and suffering.  I’d like to be fond of this resurrection rut, but it circles right through the valley of the shadow of death, the broken road, the fearful unknown, the worst that life has to offer.

            We could show up only on Easter and hear the good news of rebirth, and let that be our resurrection rut.  But then the worst that life has to offer becomes that giant pothole we didn’t see, the bridge that’s washed out, the ditch we get stuck in.  When hope gets confused with positive thinking, life can not only blindside us, but derail us.  We see only a pathetic power at work in our lives or in our life together and we despair.

We could put our heads down and bear our way through the pain, brace ourselves, and endure our way through whatever ordeal we’re facing.  We could be cynics and skeptics, judge and jury, keeping our hearts above the fray.  “The trouble with steeling yourself,” Frederick Buechner writes, “against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.”[i]

            Stephen Jones, in his reflection on the story from Acts, writes that these early Christians, “they were unafraid to wade into each other’s lives in transforming ways”.[ii]  This kind of transformational hope and courageous community comes from journeying in that rut that yes, leads us into the valley of the shadow of death but also from having come out on the other side.  And the only way to come out on the other side is to travel into that valley, no matter how long it takes; to wade into the lives of others, allow others to wade into our lives, and enter into ruts of pain, hopelessness, and fear, injustice, prejudice, and discrimination that we all might be transformed.

            A resurrection rut is a direct and repeated encounter with the cross.  There’s just no getting around it.  And yet it is this gritty faith, this unbowed willingness to embrace life’s messiness and pain that also gives us the irrational ability to hope against hope.  In a world that profits from the pain, suffering, and death of others, believing in resurrection is a rebellious act!  

         We become able to love even more than we thought was possible.  If you’ve ever received an email from me, you’ve seen these words from Henry David Thoreau: “There is no remedy for love but to love more.”  When loving is hard, downright difficult, seemingly impossible, the only remedy is to love more.  The only remedy for the resurrection rut, the rut of life, death, and new life is to live more deeply, fearlessly, and hopefully; to move into that rut and groove with it.

            Simply put, the resurrection rut is this:

            Holy One, you are my shepherd; I shall not want.

            You make me lie down in green pastures.

            You lead me beside still waters.

            You restore my soul.

            You lead me in right paths for your name’s sake.

   Even though I walk through the valley 
   of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, 
   for you are with me.  Your rod and your staff, 
   they comfort me.

            You prepare a table before me 
             in the presence of my enemies.

            You anoint my head with oil.

            You fill my cup to overflowing.

            Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me 
            all the days of my life.

            And I will dwell in your house my whole life long.




We were made to walk through fire in our dance shoes.
We were made to sail upon the meteors.
We were made to love the heck out of our bones.
God gave us words, they were 
“I love you, please, and thank you”.
God gave us thirst, and it’s a hunger for the universe.

God gave us hands so we could pick up our broken pieces.
God gave us feet so we can find our own way home.

May you find grace when overtaken by the tempest.
May you find humor in the cynic and the pessimist.
May you find faith in the Great Unknown.[iii]

[i] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey.  San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1982.
[ii] Stephen Jones, Homiletical Perspective on Acts 9: 36-43 in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2.  Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.