Around Every Corner

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This summer I have harvested quite a bit of produce from my garden.
Tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers in particular.
I put up 7 quarts of salsa, 4 quarts of spaghetti sauce, 8 quarts of dill pickles, 4 quarts of sweet and spicy pickles, some pickle relish, and I’ve frozen 10 bags of roasted tomatoes.

My pantry is literally overflowing with the bounty from my garden, and you want to know what thought crossed my mind after this week?

Pickles and salsa won’t feed us if there is a disaster.

As I thought about all of the folks in Puerto Rico who are struggling with access to food and water and electricity, I tried to imagine what my family would do in that situation.
As the rhetoric has continued to rise with North Korea, I wondered what you actually could do to prepare for if the unthinkable happens.
As I sat and listened to colleagues at a Creation Care conference in Indianapolis yesterday, I heard them say that the UN no longer talks about climate change mitigation or prevention, but climate change adaptation… I began to think about how I personally need to start adapting.

If you turn on the television or scroll through your facebook feed or listen to the radio, there are a thousand threats to our health, safety, and security.
We lost 59 people last Sunday to a violent rampage from a man whose only motive appears to be that he wanted to shoot as many people as possible.
Our hearts began to race when a traffic accident in London outside of a museum yesterday was initially thought to be an act of terrorism.

The simple truth is that we have no clue what might be lurking around the corner. We can’t see what the future might hold and sometimes we allow fear to be the defensive mechanism that either keeps us from moving forward or which guards our hearts from those around us.

We aren’t the only people in history to have been afraid.

The scripture that Don read as a part of the drama just a few minutes ago comes from the 41st and 42nd chapters of Isaiah.
The people of Israel had sinned against one another and God and the prophet was called upon to bring judgment.
And for 39 chapters, Isaiah lists the sins of the people and names all of the things that would happen to them as a result.
And they did.
Everything they feared came to pass.
Jersualem was destroyed.
The people were carried off to Babylon.
Life as they knew it ended.
And they weren’t quite sure what to make of their new life.
But then Isaiah speaks into their midst once again:
“Comfort, comfort my people!” says your God.
“Speak compassionately to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended.”
The turnaround from chapter 39 to 40 is abrupt and stark. Christopher Seitz notes that this is because “ a word is being spoken from the void, against all hope and all expectation, by God.” (NIB – VI – 328)

Against all hope and expectation.
When everything appeared to be the darkest.
With the future completely up in the air and uncertainty around every corner.
God speaks:
Do not be afraid, I am with you.

God is inviting the people of Israel to not only trust in God’s presence in the midst of a difficult time… but God is inviting them to transform their fear into curiosity and purpose and assurance.

First, rather than be afraid of the things that is happening, the people are invited to become curious and inquisitive and to allow God’s power and majesty fill them with awe.
In fact, if you read through chapters 40-48, you will find God asks a heck of a lot of questions!
Who measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler? (40:12)
To whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? (40:25)
Who has acted and done this, calling generation after generation? (41:4)

I think one of the ways we can respond to the fears that creep into our lives is to be curious as well.
In the midst of a changing neighborhood and world, instead of walling ourselves off in fear, we can ask questions about what is happening and why. We can get to know our neighbors and read up on the roots of conflicts that we experience.
One of the things churches often struggle with is finances – always fearing that we will not have enough for the next year.
That fear can stun us into silence or it can keep us from taking risks and stepping out in faith.
So one way that we can turn that fear into curiosity is to look deeper into trends in giving and learn about ways to reach new people and we can invite one another to think about stewardship in new ways.
Curiosity, learning, exploration – these are all antidotes to fear.

Second, God gives the people purpose in the midst of their fears.
As our reading continued into chapter 42 of Isaiah, God tells the people that he has a job for them to do.
“I have called you for a good reason… I will give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison.”

When we look out at all of the things in this world that might cause us to be afraid – it would be easy to hunker down in our homes or within the walls of this building.
But God has given us a vision and a purpose, too!
God is calling us to engage deeper, to build partnerships and get to know our neighbors, to live a life of love, service, and prayer…
And just like the Israelites were not only supposed to be a light, an example, but were supposed to get out and heal and set others free… we believe God is calling us to help heal the lives of our members and friends and neighbors and community.
God wants us to be a part of restoration right here in this place.

Finally, God gives the people assurance.
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
You are not alone.
No matter what you are going through, I’m right here beside you.

I think this is perhaps the most important part of this message.
Because you know, fear can keep us from a lot of things.
It could keep us from visiting museums or hanging out in public places.
It could keep us from going to concerts.
It could lead us to build bunkers in our basement and never leave them.
It could keep us from doing the work of God in this world.

Every so often, folks stop in here to Immanuel and ask for some gas. We take them up the street to the Git-n-Go and fill up their tank.
Now, I’m a young woman, who doesn’t know much self-defense, and one of our previous Administrative Assistants was always afraid for my safety as I walked up the street to the gas station.
She was worried that the person might do something bad to me, or kidnap me, or some other unknown thing.

But you know what?
God is with me.
God has given me (and us) work to do.
And disaster and tragedy and violence might strike any person, at any moment, in any place.
It is all completely out of our control.
What is in our control is the work of Jesus Christ in this world.
And if something happened to us while we were trying to live that life of love, service, and prayer… well, God is with us.
God will be with us if the unthinkable happens.

Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me.
I will bring you home.
I love you are you are mine.

We are God’s.
And we have work to do.
In fact, in the midst of a world filled with fears and brokenness, we have even more work to do.
God has called us for a good reason…
We have the work of healing and wholeness and hope to do.

The Hope of the World is Us

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The President of the United States is currently weighing whether or not to withdraw our nation from the Paris climate accord. Political leaders within our country are skeptical about the science behind climate change and its causes.  One congressman said this past week: “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us.  And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

I’m a Christian, too.  And I think God has placed this problem squarely in our laps.

For the last five or six months I have been blogging fairly infrequently, because I’ve been working hard to put into words why it is important for people of faith to care about what is happening to our planet.  My new book, All Earth Is Waiting, will come out this fall along with a daily devotional for the season of Advent. I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the scriptures and asking how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world today.

One of the primary scriptures for the book is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter 8, we find these words:

The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.  Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

The earth is waiting for us to let go of our selfish ways and begin acting like the children of God. It is waiting for us to hold in our hearts a vision of an interconnected world and to remember that every part of this planet tells of God’s goodness. It is waiting for us to see the sacred worth of the elements, the flora, and the fauna; to live gently as stewards and protectors. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope and it has and will transform our lives.  But once it does, we are supposed to truly live as God’s children. Paul reminds us in this passage the world is waiting for us. Only then will creation be set free.

 

Blessed are the Debonair

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This morning, we celebrate God’s good creation.

We celebrate the gift of this world… this earth that has been placed in our care.

And I’m sure you are wondering as you heard the scriptures for today and look at that sermon title… what in the world do these things have to do with creation care?

Well, as I prepared for our time of worship today, I spent some time in the works of Lutheran eco-theologian Joseph Sittler.

Rev. Sittler was born in 1904 and in his work began connecting Christian theology and environmental matters as early as the 1950s. He firmly believed that care for the earth and our environment is one of the central concerns of our faith.

He also loved to explore the ways various biblical translations impacted our understanding of what they mean. Robert Saler points to his fascination with a French translation of the Beatitudes – in particularly Matthew 5:5.

We know the verse today as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

However, “Sittler noticed that the French would often translate this as ‘blessed are the debonair.’ “ (Saler)

Immediately, you probably have an image in your mind of what it means to be debonair. I know, for me, it was almost the opposite of meek.

Yet, as Sittler explains:

… “debonair” in French, in the time of the French Bible of John Calvin, meant a person who is not an idolater, one who hasn’t gotten hooked up in anything worldly, one who is so sophisticated as to know wealth for what it is and that it isn’t everything…

This is a person who has a kind of centeredness that doesn’t let the idols of this world capture it. It’s a kind of debonair in which you sit lightly on the offerings and temptations of this world because you have a vision of something better…

I think about this in the context of our passage from Acts.

Peter has operated under a world view his entire life that divided the world into good and bad, clean and unclean, impure and pure. He was hooked on an understanding of the world that separated him and those like him from others.

There were some things, and some people, as a part of this creation that were outside his concern. Just as he traditionally wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the house of a Gentile, he couldn’t eat certain foods.

But then he has this vision… a vision that opened up his world as never before.

As the Message translation describes that vision in modern language:

Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.

7-10 “Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’

There are two things happening here.

Missionally, God is opening Peter and the disciples’ hearts to the possibility of ministry among the Gentiles. God is helping them come to a more sophisticated understanding of their mission that is no longer limited by the old delineations. The Holy Spirit sends Peter to a non-Jewish family who is converted on the spot.

But important for our conversation today, God is helping Peter to understand that all of creation was made by God and it is all a gift. Just as there is no distinction between clean and unclean people, there is no distinction between clean and unclean animals or birds. God has made it all and to God it all belongs… yet it is also being given to Peter, to the people, to us, as a gift… as an inheritance.

In his reflections on the beatitudes, Rev. Sittler considers those debonair who will inherit the earth:

It doesn’t say they shall own the earth, or control the earth…It says they shall inherit the earth.

…The difference is: what you own, you probably earn, or make. An inheritance is something you don’t own. You don’t deserve it. It’s a surprise. You live in the world with a gentle spirit, because the whole of creation is a kind of outrageous surprise, a gift.

Blessed are they of a gentle spirit, because they live in the world not as ones who strut around as if they own the place… Rather, their first feeling for the world is one of tender wonder, gratitude, and amazement.

And Peter does have that sense of awe. The Message translation in particular captures the drama, the wonder of it all, by saying that Peter was fascinated and took it all in. That gentle debonair spirit took over.  He realized that the systems of division between clean and unclean he had lived with his entire life were stripped away.

Every little bit of this world was made by God and belongs to God and we are merely granted temporary guardianship and use. Like Adam and Eve were given creation in Genesis to care for, to steward, to use for their needs, so this world is gifted to Peter and to us.

Rev. Sittler describes a moment when he saw that debonair spirit in action:

I went with some college kids on a trip, a big Saturday afternoon walk through the gigantic Douglas-fir forest in the lower slopes of the Cascades. I watched these sophisticated kids . . . . When they walked into the woods, they became quiet, silent. They would reach out and pat the big trees as they went by. The further we got into the woods, the quieter they became.

Then the phrase came to me, “They inherit the world, because they don’t own it.”

They don’t think of it fundamentally as potential two-by-fours, though it’s all right to use it that way wisely; if you love a thing, then you’re prepared to use it wisely.”

Why should we, as people of faith lift up creation care? Why would someone like Joseph Sittler claim that environmental concerns are one of the central issues of Christianity?

Precisely because it is one of the richest gifts and inheritances that God has given us.

As we state in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church:

All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings… we should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. (Book of Discipline, ¶160)

And if we truly love God, if we truly love one another, if we truly love this gift of creation, then our love will lead us to use it wisely.

The greatest commandment, after all, is to love. And that love should fill every relationship and every engagement with the world.

And that love also leads us to periodically check ourselves and ask if we have taken this gift for granted. That love calls us to speak up when we see others abusing our common resources. That love demands that we teach our children and ourselves how to walk gently and carefully among this precious planet.

Blessed are the Debonair… for they shall inherit the earth.

We have been given this world as a gift, and we are to make sure future generations are able to inherit it as well.

 

References:

Robert Saler – “Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary Easter 5”

Jospeh Sittler, “His God Story,” in The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. Richard Lischer and James Childs, Cascade, 2013, 23-24

Listening to the Earth

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Our entire world is greening up this time of year, isn’t it. The trees are leafing out. The grass is vibrant. Shoots of green spring out of mulched patches of wood and earth.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And as we walk through the springtime here in Iowa, our hearts do feel at peace.

It’s like we take one big gigantic sigh of relief that winter is over.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

This world is amazing.

And in the midst of the green and purple and white and yellows of this time of year, we carved out space in our civic and religions calendars to celebrate this world. To honor the earth. To plant some trees. To remind ourselves once again of our need to care for this planet.

In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth and declared them good.

And then, that very same God formed us from the dust of the earth and gave to us a precious task… to care for the world God had made.

From the ancient Israelites to the earliest followers of Christ, caring for the Earth was an important means of honoring and praising our Creator.

The General Board of Church and Society put out a resource a few years ago that remind us that ancient cultures worshipped a whole realm of Gods that each controlled a different part of nature. And so as they sought to control the world: to produce a harvest or stop torrential rains, they would honor and worship this God or that.

But we believe in one God, and we believe this world is not fragmented but interconnected. We believe every part of this creation is in the hands of our Creator and that every piece of the earth tells of God’s goodness. As Jesus noted in our gospel reading this morning – the stones themselves shout God’s praises.

And the ancestors of our faith saw that this interdependent world works well when it is cared for and that it fails when it is damaged or neglected. “In response to their understanding of God and the natural world, they created an ethos for living in healthy relationship with God, the Earth, and one another.”

Today, we refer to this as stewardship.

At our leadership retreat this spring, we talked about how stewardship was a core value of who we are here at Immanuel United Methodist. We believe we are called to the thoughtful and prudent use of God’s blessings.

One of those blessings is this earth. The earth that sustains and gives us life. The earth itself speaks God’s praises.

Yes, the rocks would cry out with shouts of joy if we were silent. And if we quiet our lives just a little and pay attention, we can hear the dirt speak.

This year, I wanted to feed that part of my soul that likes to play in the dirt, so I am currently taking a year-long continuing education course called “Organic Ministry.” I have been surprised by how many times I discover something new we should be learning… or we shouldn’t have forgotten… about our world. It has been a wonderful opportunity to listen to the earth and hear what it is telling us about God’s glory.

The first thing I’m hearing the earth speak is that everything truly is connected. We simply cannot sustain ourselves on our own. And God has provided this rich world of resources to give us life.

You see, good soil isn’t just something that farmers and gardeners care about. Soil makes our lives possible.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God our creator has provided.

This is not something that we often think about, but one little clump of dirt can hardly do much. All by itself, that clump of dirt would become dry and would not have the room for anything to take root within it.

But when one clump of dirt is surrounded by millions of other little dirt particles, then, it is something to be reckoned with! We know that the outermost layer of our planet is soil… but did you know that five tons of topsoil spread out over an acre of land would only be as thick as a dime? We need soil and lots of it to have abundant life.

How many of you slept on soil last night? Well, where do you live? What is your home built on?

How many of you are wearing soil today? Cotton grows in soil! Just check the label on your clothing.

What about eating soil? Just think about all of the foods that you have eaten this week that were grown in the soil, or medicines that were taken from the ground, or water that we have drank that has flowed through and been cleansed by the soil.

The second thing the earth is trying to tell us is that whether we are aware of it or not, is that we have a relationship with the earth.

It is not simply a stockpile of resources that we can use, but our actions impact the health of our world and its ability to continue to sustain us. The soil itself is like a living and breathing organism we must care for.

We think about dirt as dead matter, but in reality it is organic – full of both living and dead organisms. Fungi and bacteria help break down matter into soil and animals such as earth worms churn and nurture the earth. Without all of that living and breathing of the soil – life as we know it would cease.

Now, as a farm girl, I thought I knew this truth well. The soil that we faithfully plant our grains in each spring needs thoughtful and prudent care. We can’t simply plant corn in the same field every single year and expect our harvests to increase. A simple practice like crop rotation insures that vital nutrients like nitrogen are returned to the soil. That describes a relationship we have with the earth, where we listen to what it is telling us and we adapt and act in a new way so that all benefit.

But if we pay better attention to the earth, we begin to see that it thrives on diversity. It is often said that a handful of soil has more living organisms than there are people on the earth. Like the body with many parts that Paul describes in First Corinthians, every part is essential to health.

Yet we gradually strip out the essentials when we plant fields upon fields of only corn or beans for the sake of convenience and production.

As we listen to the earth, conservationists and farmers and gardeners are rediscovering the benefits of companion plants, and smaller scale farms with greater rotation. We are rediscovering that if we care for the soil, the soil will take care of the things we want to grow.

The last thing we hear from the earth today, is that it needs rest and renewal just like we do.

We look out this morning and we can see the flowers budding and hear the birds chirping the sun is shining… and it all sings God’s praise precisely because just two months ago the earth was brown and dormant.

Those of us who experience all four seasons are not doubly blessed, but blessed four times over because in each transition, we witness the hope and the promise and the love of God. We see life bursting forth. We watch things die and have the opportunity to rest, to find Sabbath in the cold winter months… holding fast to the promise the new spring of resurrection is just around the corner.

The world is a miracle.

It is a treasure.

When the Ancient Israelites noticed that everything in this world is interdependent, this is what they are talking about. The dirt and the air and the sun and plant life and our lives are all interconnected and this beautiful system God created works – as long as we take care of it.