Sermon preached April 24, 2016
Texts: Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6
Last Sunday, the Scripture text was from the Book of Revelation. We spent just a few moments in the sermon talking about the book in general and I noted that New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, in his chronological version of The New Testament, The Evolution of the Word, writes about trying to understand Revelation. The heart of the message of Revelation, according to Borg is: That accommodation to imperial ways is wrong. That the struggle between the lordship of Christ and the lordship of Caesar is the great conflict. That it is important to persevere even when it looks like the beast is winning. That, appearances to the contrary, the beast does not have the final word and is not the final Word. (369) Borg speaks of the hope represented in Revelation. Its language expresses the human yearning for a different kind of world, one lived in the presence of God, in which the sufferings of this world are no more. (370)
The profound hope and deep yearning in Revelation is expressed beautifully in the twenty-first chapter. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…. See I am making all things new.”
Can’t you just feel the yearning, the hope? Don’t the words strike a deeply resonant chord? Don’t we want a new heaven and a new earth, a place without all the hurt, pain, sorrow, and inhumanity we know on this earth? We long for the day when the world is different.
What this passage represents is also an encouragement to think differently about now, about our daily lives. If the new heaven and new earth are places of healing, kindness and care, then these are the values we want to emphasize in our lives now. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth is also about new worth, what we should value now. One of the fascinating dimensions of the vision is that it reminds us that the earth itself is part of God’s redemptive work. Inspired by such a vision, we might, on this Earth Day, think about how we should re-value the earth itself. God’s work in the world is not about rescuing us all for a heavenly realm, it is about creating a new heaven and a new earth. See I am making all things new.
So how might we think in some new ways about the Earth as part of God’s redemptive work in the world, God’s work of making all things new? To be honest, what I have to share this morning may not be all that new to many of us, but I hope it is a good reminder of who we are, of how we are connected to the earth, and of how and why we should include it in our circle of healing and loving and caring.
As humans, we are a part of the natural world. We exist in a web of relationships – a relationship with God, relationships to each other, relationships to the earth, its living things, its elements. We are here this morning to tend to our relationship with God in Jesus in a special, focused and intentional way. We gather together with others, and our experience here this morning is influenced by others. Was it a hassle getting the family ready today? Did I see my best friend here today? If this is your first time here you may be wondering if someone will be friendly or will someone be overbearing? The weather affects us. If we had breakfast, we were nourished by the earth – by plant life or animal life. We are breathing air. We drink water. We exist in a web of relationships, and we are a part of that web. Psalm 148 encourages all the voices of creation to sing God’s praises, including the human voices. We are part of that chorus of nature. Biologist Charles Birch and theologian John Cobb write, “the human species is continuous with the rest of nature” (The Liberation of Life, 139).
We exist in the web of life and are sustained by the earth, its life, its elements. As human beings we are unique, though. We have a capacity for a level of consciousness and reflection and intellection unknown in other parts of the web of life. It is a source of wonder and beauty. We write poetry and novels. We create beautiful art. We invent. It is a source of terror and horror. We use our intelligence to build gas chambers and atomic bombs. We need minerals to build our inventions and electricity to run them, and we extract minerals and fuel sources from the earth often with insufficient attention to how it leaves our water or the animals or the landscapes. Animals can be violent with each other, but only for food or to protect their young. Humans destroy each other creatively, inventively over ideas. Animals kill, only humans wage war.
As unique forms of consciousness, humans have a special responsibility to create beauty and to care. I love this part of a poem by Denise Levertov (“Tragic Error”).
Surely we were to have been
earth’s mind, mirror, reflective source.
Surely our task
was to have been
to love the earth,
to dress and keep it like Eden’s garden.
That would have been our dominion:
to be those cells of earth’s body that could
perceive and imagine…
A Christians seeking to love God and neighbor, we need to understand earth as our neighbor, as part of the goodness of God’s creation, as part of God’s healing and redemptive work.
Earth is not only valuable for the way it sustains us and is related to us, it is valuable, and invaluable, as a way of knowing God more deeply and intimately. The theologian Sallie McFague writes, “Christianity also believes nature gives us intimations of the divine” (Super, Natural Christians, 172). In our relationship to nature, to the Earth, we can enhance our relationship with God. Let me share two bits of literature which testify to this.
“The Peace of Wild Things” Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
In the peace of wild things, we can experience the peace of Christ. In the grace of the world we can know the grace of God. I have experienced this on the side of the highway in a snowstorm near Itasca State Park. I have experienced this seeing a full moon along highway 2. I feel the grace of the world when I step into our parking lot on a summer night to see the bright orange moon reflecting on Lake Superior. I hear something of the voice of God listening to waves gently lap against a shoreline. Where do you know the earth and through that know God more deeply and intimately?
Annie Dillard, The Abundance, 142-143: Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. For unless all ages and races of men have been deluded… there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous. About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It is an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star. The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step off the gutter caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
Praise God, sun and moon and all you shining stars. Praise the Lord from the earth sea monster and all deeps, fire and hail and snow and frost and wind, mountains, hills, trees, wild animals, cattle, creeping things, flying birds. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there, and when we are to know that this is also the beauty and grace of God.
The earth sustains us. The earth reveals something of God to us. We are part of this rich web of life, with a unique task to mirror, to reflect, to care, to know the peace of wild things, to see beauty and grace, to wrap the earth in our circle of love and care, and to join the chorus of praise to God.
And in just a bit we will take one of the most ubiquitous elements of the earth, and one of its most critical, and we will pour it and bless it and let it bless us as we bless Charlotte. It is such a simple element, but used in this way there is beauty and grace and the peace of wild things, there is a connection to the springs of the water of life, and we are blessed as we remember our connections to each other in a community of love and forgiveness.
The vision of yearning and hope in Revelation is an invitation to us all to live with grace, to live more consciously of our connections to each other and to the earth, to celebrate with joy the beauty and grace that we know on this earth, while also working and waiting for that new heaven and new earth, working with God to make all things new. Amen.