Season of Creation: Oceans

I am divided this morning. Do I speak about our deep connection to the Earth’s oceans or do I address the beginnings of an oceanic apocalypse? I will speak to both, and with God’s grace, may I do justice our interconnectedness with our oceans and all life and the challenges to those oceans and to ourselves in the very near future.

The oceans originated as the planet cooled down, releasing steam that became the oceans of the earth. But there was another source of waters of the oceans as thousands of comets, made of ice struck the Earth, adding to the oceans’ water. I marvel as we are part of the Earth’s story, the formation of oceans and 2 billion years ago life arising in the oceans. The Season of Creation is an opportunity to celebrate God’s creation, that story, and how we fit into that story. This Sunday we look at the oceans.

Today’s reading is from Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, a Lutheran Pastor and author of Creation Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit. I already read her book before I attended her workshop at the Parliament of World Religions last October. She drafted me as a participant into the reading. Her refrain “I am water, I am waiting…” is so important to realize. It is even haunting. It raises a deep question for me: We are water. What is water waiting for?

We humans have our sense of kinship with water and the oceans. The oceans cover some 70% of our planet. Our bodies carry the markers of our kinship with the oceans. Our bodies are 65-70% water and we have sodium in the waters of our bodies. We enflesh ocean water in our bodies. Our flesh marks our profound kinship with all waters and the oceans, and if we did a genealogical or ancestry tree, we can trace our origins to that very day in the oceans when the first cells became alive.

The oceans are full of mystery, a myriad of life forms and species, and,
of course, beauty. When you were last on the beach, watched the waves come in, and the waters appear to be dynamic and alive with motion and life. People gravitate to the beaches not only because they enjoy the sun and water, but we are drawn there because we have a distant memory ofancestral kinship. We are interconnected.

There is a strong biblical tradition between the Holy Spirit and water, from the creation of water on this planet, to the formation of lakes and rivers, streams, to the water used to baptize Jesus and ourselves, to water we drink and bathe in. Water is a symbol of the Spirit, and the Spirit brings life and healing. Water is the vitality, and the waters of the Earth form the blood of the Earth. The Spirit is involved with life-giving faith (Jn. 1-15), baptisms (Acts 8:26-40, 11:1-18). She is the Spirit in the water flowing from the pierced Jesus’ body on the cross. As fire, there is the story of tongues of fire descending on the disciples in the upper room on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The Spirit sparks the inclusive and multicultural mission of the Jesus movement to the nations.

For theologian Mark Wallace, God’s Spirit has been infusing the universe and the Earth, in particular, since their inception. It is in its Earth-centered mode; the Spirit is cruciform—that is,  She suffers the pain and torment of the Earth and its life: “God as Spirit lives among us in great sorrow and deep anguish. She suffers and groans with creation, and she suffers in her connection to the oceans as we pollute it, trash, create climate change that warms the waters and kills the coral reefs, and as we hunt marine life to extinction.

From the viewpoint of green spirituality, the God who knows death through the cross of Jesus is the crucified God, but God is also the Spirit who enfleshes divine presence in nature and the elements of the universe. God the Spirit the Sustainer of life experience the woundedness of nature, of the oceans, and the suffering of marine life. .

Now let speak me about the spirituality inclusive of the ocean. A wonderful example is Rachel Carson, naturalist and author, and she recounts a formative epiphany in college that drew her to the sea:

Years ago on a night when rain and wind bear against the windows of my college dormitory room, a line from (Tennyson’s) “Locksley Hall’” burned itself into my mind—“For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.” I can still remember my intense emotional response as that line spoke to something within me seeming to tell me that my own path led to the sea—which I have never seen—and that my own destiny was somehow linked with the sea. And so, as you know, it has been.

Carson became a “biographer of the sea,” detailing direct, personal appreciation of individual organisms as well as her love for the Maine seacoast. Paul Brooks writes, “She felt a spiritual as well as a physical closeness to the individual creatures about whom she wrote: a sense of identification that is an essential element in her literary style.” She wrote three books on the seas, sea life and the shores of Maine. She took scientific samples of sea-life near the shore, examined them carefully and tenderly, so that she could release them back into the ocean without any harm. This expresses a profound reverence for life.

She addressed human harm to the oceans some sixty years ago: “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.” (The Sea Around Us)

In the later years of her life, Carson became a public champion for not only the oceans but for all human and non-human life:

In contemplating “the exceeding beauty of the earth” these people have found calmness and courage. For there is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; in the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.

Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, with steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water. Perhaps he is intoxicated with his own power, as he goes farther and farther into experiments for the destruction of himself and his world. For this unhappy trend there is no single remedy – no panacea. But I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

Carson models for us a spirituality of connecting with the natural beauty of the Earth’s oceans. Natural beauty and the experience of wonder was pivotal for spiritual development. When humanity replaced the natural with the artificial, Carson understood that humanity blocked its spiritual growth because we are ocean life that transitioned to the land. Yet we are still connected to the ocean. We human need nature to teach us the wonder of creation, it complexity and beauty.

At communion, after you receiving communion and the blessing, go the water in container in front of the altar. It is salt water, and touch the water and bless your forehead to indicate your connectedness to the oceans and concern for oceans ensouled with God’s Spirit.

The Oceanic Apocalypse:

The former NASA climate scientist, James Hansen, called our attention to climate change in 1988. Some listened to Hansen then, and more recently, he is co-authored a scientific study of the ice melting in Antarctica, yet to undergo review that we will find disturbing. They suggest the seal levels could rise 10 times faster than previously models suggested. It could reach 10 feet by the end of the century, and such cities as New York, Miami, London, Shanghai and Rio de Janiero, and other cities will be submerged. Some island nations will disappear, and many countries will experience massive population dislocation from the seashores on a scale hard to imagine.

Weeks ago we have witnessed massive flooding in Louisiana destroying more 40,000 houses. If we do not cut down the emission from carbon dioxide, methane, and climate warming gases, Hansen and his team share,

We conclude that multi-meter sea-level rise would become practically unavoidable. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea-level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.

This is an apocalypse, in my opinion. Let me first, say we need to vote in November for the Earth, for the oceans, and for life.

Just look not at the rising sea levels but examine what is actually happening within the oceans themselves.

But there are other Earth signs of the health of the oceans: the coral reefs are blanching and dying, the acidification of the oceans.  Scientists discovered the congregation of 35,000 seals on one beach. This indicated the increased loss of artic ice. Melting artic ice and warming oceans jeopardize all plant and marine life, and other connected life. All life in the ocean may become extinct through global warming, over-harvesting of fish, or callous hunting tens of thousands of shark for their fins for shark-fin soup or medicinal properties. The prognosis for continued life in the oceans this century is bleak.

I can’t wrap my spirit around the fact what humanity will be like if the oceans die and all ocean life. The oceans, like the Earth, are alive. The Spirit of God is the sustainer of all life and universe processes that began at the Big Bang to evolve into galactic processes and then planetary processes that produced life in the oceans 2 billion years ago. God’s Spirit ensouled in the waters and early Christians maintained that Christ is in all the waters of the Earth. When we crucify creation, even a part of creation, we are crucifying the Spirit and Christ. We trample upon what is beloved and dear to God. There, I invite you this Season of Creation to re-invigorate your commitment to fight climate change, vote for candidates that support responsible care for the environment, and live with compassion with God’s Earth.

Breakfast with Jesus (John 21:1-19)

Eating with Jesus was always event. You never knew exactly what might happen and who would join this open meal, literally open to anyone and excluding no one. A homeowner, such as Simon the Leper, invited Jesus, only to have a woman , a known sinner, wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry his feet with her hair. Or the Last Supper where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and shared a meal relating it to his impending death. Or you might be surprised by the locations of a meal—on the field with 5000, or at home of an infamous regional tax collector Zacchaeus, or in the home of a religious critic.

Meals provided Jesus with occasions to stress the central themes of his message of God’s companionship of empowerment. The themes of forgiveness, unconditional love, shared abundance, compassionate care, inclusivity, healing, the mutuality of discipleship, love, and non-violence. Jesus loved food and wine, and he took the opportunity to break all the etiquette rules and purity codes for meals held by Pharisees and other religious groups.

For outcasts, throwaway people such as tax collectors and prostitutes, these meals were therapeutic and liberative. The open table was healing for many participants. The meals were egalitarian, where all were equals and where all were beloved children of God. They shared stories of their pain at religious exclusion and social shunning at these meals and dreamt about God’s empowered companionship and the type of new society created. They experienced healing from destructive elements of Jewish religious fundamentalism with its stress on a judgmental, patriarchal God. Religious people stigmatized them as sinners, and Jesus told them were forgiven before they even came to sit down at table.

The table of radical inclusivity was revolutionary. Around meals, they found companionship with Jesus and God and with one another. In the nourishing and healing environment of meals, they discovered friendships and some felt call as disciples. Jesus’ meals as healing and empowering occasions have been overlooked by the church over the centuries.

In addition, Christians have read the Last Supper not in the context of Jesus’ meals but the only meal and gave it undue importance, making it an exclusive event for justifying an exclusive male priesthood. For Jesus, his last meal with the disciples was important but so were all his meals with folks. Its particularity was his emotional preparation of his female and male disciples for his death for God’s reign. All Jesus’ meals symbolized the inclusivity of all into God’s reign.
But meals with the risen Jesus were even more eventful. They were to be inclusive, healing, and empowering. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus invite a stranger who had accompanied them on their journey to join them for an evening dinner. When the stranger broke bread, the two grieving disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. He symbolized his continued presence in community with remembered events and the breaking of bread. His walking on the road to Emmaus and joining them for dinner addressed their grief over his death and ritualizing his mission and presence.

Or today’s gospel, after two appearances of the risen Christ, the disciples went back to what they know best, fishing. Did they have to get away from the intensity of feelings from community scoffers, doubters, or their own feelings of guilt from abandoning Jesus to the Temple police and ultimately final crucifixion? Jesus surprises a group of disciples at the Sea of Galilee; they returned to their ordinary lives and have gone fishing.

Easter night and the following week, Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room. The first meeting was mixed in its emotions, happiness in Jesus as risen from the dead, deep shame and guilt at abandoning Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Peter, both for his denying Jesus three times and his abandonment of him. Peter brashly professed his faith and commitment as a disciple to the ministry of Jesus. He faced Jesus with shame and guilt over his betrayal. Jesus forgave him and started the process of healing.

Jesus appears as a stranger, and he calls out to them: “Have you caught any fish yet?” Then he instructs to cast the net on the right side of the boat, and they did so and caught a multitude of fish. The beloved disciple recognizes the stranger: “It is the Lord!”

Peter strips off his clothes and swims to shore. The disciples bring the fish to Jesus who has lit a charcoal fire to barbeque the fish and serve bread with the meal. None of the disciples were bold enough to ask. “Who are you?” The stranger reveals himself in the serving a meal of fish and bread.

This meal on the shore of Lake Tiberias was thus no ordinary meal. Jesus was not presiding over the meal, but preparing the meal for several disciples. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ action at his final meal where he washed the feet of his disciples—the duties of slave and women. Here again he takes a service role in cooking fish for breakfast for the few disciples after a night of fishing.

Jesus’ risen presence is revealed at meals, and these risen meals also include healing and empowerment. There was unfinished business between Jesus and Peter. Even though Peter betrayed him and abandoned him, Jesus is there to restore his relationship with Peter. The grace of unconditional love and forgiveness counters the past failures of Peter. The breakfast on the beach was to continue the healing of Peter and to empower him as whole as possible for the on-going mission of God’s companionship of empowerment.

Peter got a lump his throat and became speechless for a moment; he was more embarrassed by his denial of Jesus than his nakedness, dripping with water. He is confronted with his own guilt and shame in letting down Jesus in the moment of his greatest need—his own death. He promised Jesus faithfulness and reliability. Instead he abandoned Christ; he lied and denied that he even knew him to save his own skin. He faced Christ stirring the charcoal fire and looking him straight into his eyes. He melted with shame and guilt. But Jesus served him breakfast and reminded him of the many times that they shared meals of forgiveness and love during his ministry.

Peter knew that this appearance was meant for him and about his relationship with Christ. There was unfinished business yet to be dealt with. Maybe for a moment, he wished he was anywhere but there. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus spoke to Simon Peter. Now, we are getting to the point of the story. This story is about the rehabilitation of Simon Peter. But Jesus’ questions to Peter are wider than this event; the risen Lord asks these questions of ourselves. This may be the important question asked in the Bible.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Love meaning self-sacrificing love, love “more than these.” And write “boats, nets, fish, food, family, and friends.” Jesus was asking what are you prepared to do for me? Peter answers, “I love with the love of a friend.” He is not able to love unconditionally as parent loves a child. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to follow me, let that person take the cross and follow me.”

Why did Peter deny Jesus three times in the first place? I think it was because he, like all of us, loved life and the things of this life such as family, friends, fish, boats, nets, etc. Peter loved this life, and he didn’t want to die. It is simple as that. That is why I think Peter denied Jesus in the first place. He loved the things of his own life way more than the possibility of his premature death for God and Christ. But Jesus probes Peter of his reliability. Are you prepared to deny yourself and give up everything to follow me? Can I rely on you and your word to continue my mission?

Peter’s threefold profession of his friendship love for Jesus parallels his threefold denial, that Jesus is giving Peter the chance to fill the hole he has dug for himself with three huge shovelfuls of love.

But there is more. Jesus is not only trying to bring Peter back to where he was before but to move him beyond that. Jesus looked Peter in the eyes intently. Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, I love you as a friend.” Then Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus wants to be assured that Peter loves him. Jesus is not sure about the reliability of Peter’s love and so Jesus asks Peter a second time, “Do you love me as a friend?” Jesus changes the verb from self-sacrificing love to where Peter is at and uses Peter’s verb to love as a friend. Even this friendship love requires reliability and consistency of word.

By the third time, “do you love me as a friend?” Peter feels hurt and responds, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.” The risen Christ entrusts those whom he loves to one who loves him.

Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” He goes on says, “Very truly, I tell you when you were younger you were able to fasten your belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you, and take you where you do not wish to go.” Jesus predicts, “Peter, you may love me as a friend, but over time that love become unconditional love that I now share with you.”

Suddenly it is clear. Jesus has made this encore appearance for Peter’s benefit. In the same way, he returned for Thomas in the upper room, to move him from doubt to faith, he now returns for Peter, to move him from faith to active discipleship.

Jesus also asks us that same basic question: Do you love me more than these? Do you love me more than your family, your friends, your occupation? This is a personal question for each one of us. We, too, like Peter, will come to that time and place in our lives when Jesus will ask us that fundamental question: Do you love me unconditionally more than these things and people? Do you love me more than your own life?

There is a consequence in saying “yes”. Jesus says, “Feed my lambs and tend my sheep.” The Latin word for shepherd is Pastor. How do Christian pastors feed the lambs and tend sheep?

The first purpose of a pastor’s life, of a shepherd’s life, is to feed the lambs in the community and to help them grow into good disciples. Pastors are called to remind the community of their mission, radical inclusive love—the vision of God’s unconditional grace.

He is instructing him on how to become a Pastor, open-hearted and open to the new requirements of serving the post-Easter Church. He had to reliably live up to his word with courage. Peter learned that he had to think before acting. We finally got to the core. Jesus knows everything, including the death by which Peter was going to die, by Roman crucifixion, being lifted up onto his own cross.
Jesus knew that eventually, in his old age, that Simon Peter was going to mature and that his love for Christ would move beyond friendship love to unconditional love and that he would die by crucifixion. It did come true. Simon Peter died a martyr’s death, on a cross, upside down, in Rome, under Nero. Peter who had denied Jesus three times at the home of Caiaphas would be faithful to Jesus onto death. Jesus knew the future and prophesied about Peter’s death. At his death in Rome, Peter thought that it would be too much of an honor for him to be crucified in the way Christ was crucified so he requested to be crucified upside down. Peter learned the humility to follow Christ.

The Wilderness: The Making of God’s Upside-down Kin-dom (Luke 4:1-3)

Today we hear the account from Luke of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness for forty days. Wilderness was the wild place, the waiting place, the place of preparation. It also connected then, as it does now, to very basic spirituality: a place to grapple with God, a place to learn dependence on nature and its provisions, a place of extremes or contrasts, of wild beasts and desert.

Displaced peasants fled into the wilderness from the imperial Roman system that stole their lands for larger plantations. The wilderness was a place of safety as well as to carry out raids against the system. Many had to become bandits to rob from the rich to share what they secured for those impoverished by the system.

Jewish religious revolutionaries sought out the wilderness as a staging platform to fight against the Roman Empire and the Temple authorities. The hopes for liberation lived from the stories of liberation, especially the story of Moses who fled into the wilderness, called by God to return to Egypt to liberate his people.

Pious groups, like the Essenes, created the Qumran community, a priestly and pure settlement in the wilderness, waiting for the messianic drama and climax. Individual religious figures like John the Baptist made the wilderness their starting point where his baptismal ministry would be forged.

Jesus went to the wilderness. He has had a profound experience and revelation of God’s beloved child during his baptism. I suspected that he needed time to process the meaning of the event. In the wilderness, today’s gospel focuses on the temptations that Jesus faced for his future mission. I will talk about those later, but I want to speak on what we usually don’t’ focus: the wilderness.

A number of authors suggest that Jesus learned and accepted his messianic ministry in the wilderness; some of have suggested that he learned his lifestyle there. My observation is that the wilderness presented him with opportunities to learn about the “wild grace” of God, his dependence upon God, and perhaps an itinerant, carefree lifestyle. In a wild habitat, the Spirit is everywhere, and one needs to pay close attention so not to miss the Spirit.

Passionist priest and earth theologian (geologian) Thomas Berry recognizes at the heart of nature there is “a wild component, a creative spontaneity that is in its deepest reality, its most profound mystery.” He comments on the wilderness:

Wilderness we might consider as the root of the authentic spontaneities of any being. It is that wellspring of creativity whence comes the instinctive activities that enable all living beings to obtain their food, to find shelter, to bring forth their young: to sing and dance and fly through the air and swim through the depths of the sea. This is the same inner tendency that evokes the insight of the poet, the skill of the artist and the power of the shaman. (Berry)

The wild, especially in the wilderness, presents a sense of sacredness. If the natural world reflects the image of God, then the wilderness reflects a wildness of God that we witness in the action of the Holy Spirit as coloring outside boundaries and human categories. Nature is wild, and the Holy Spirit, and we come from the wild—original life from the surging oceans, then our hominid ancestors from the savannahs of Africa. Wilderness is a type of out of bounds or wild gardening by God, and we discover in the wilderness the wildness of God in the uncultivated and disordered wilderness. I believe that Jesus discovered this insight about the wildness of God/

Wendell Berry, American novelist and ecological activist, understands “wilderness as a place” where we must go to be reborn—to receive the awareness, at once humbling and exhilarating, grievous and joyful, that we part of creation, one with all that we live from and all that, in turn, lives from us.

Wendell Berry writes of the three principles of the “kin-dom of God.” I will suggest that Jesus learned these three principles of the kin-dom of God:

The first principle of the Kingdom of God us that it includes everything in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it whether we know it or not and whether we wish to be or not. Another principle, both ecological and traditional, is that everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it, that is to say, the Kingdom is orderly. A third principle is that humans do not and can never know either all the creatures that the Kingdom of God contains or the whole pattern or order by which it contains them.

Wendell Berry described the kin-dom of God as, the Great Economy or what Jesus includes in his notion of the companionship of empowerment, for Jesus expressed the economy that God designed in creation. It is a considerate economy found in nature, and all human economies need to fit harmoniously with that companionship ship economy. It is an extension of the Great Economy of companionship of empowerment into the natural world. Berry perceives an ecological and economic sustainability within the words of Jesus. He sees an inclusivity of human and nonhuman animals and nature as part of this kin-dom.

The image of wilderness most characterizes our relationship with the Spirit. Jesus discovered he wildness of the Holy Spirit in the wilderness across the Jordan. And in in the wilderness, he discovered how God sees life so differently from human beings.

The wilderness experience revealed how God colors outside human categories and religious boundaries, for God’s grace is wild, untamed, and disruptive of human exclusions. God’s grace and love were wildly inclusive, beyond human imagination. God’s inclusivity was incarnated in his own flesh and blood, and he sensed that in his intimate moments with God in the wilderness. He intuited a sense of God’s inclusive love for all humans and for all other life. God’s providential care was expressed in God’s love for the lilies of the field, and God’s sustaining the life of the birds of the air and for animals in the wilderness.

For Jesus, God’s empowered companionship denotes community, mutuality, co-creating together through the mobilization of diverse gifts. It includes the virtues of forgiveness, unconditional love, non-violence, compassion, sharing goods, and care for the vulnerable. God’s inclusive love was extended to humanity and nonhuman animals.

The wilderness retreat helped Jesus to distance the option of empire and power games of domination and conquest that he witnessed with Herod Antipas, the co-opted Temple rulers, and the Romans . He affirmed the counter-option of the companionship of empowerment. Let me read quotations of authors that capture what Jesus learned in the wilderness:

There are no more outsiders! Everyone is in—irrespective of their religious state or condition. Radical inclusiveness is a core value in the new companionship. And then comes the bombshell, the queerest twist; the final act of inclusiveness is done by one regarded as a radical outsider, and a hated one. (a Samaritan who shows compassion for Jewish man beaten and left for the dead on the road to Jericho). Diarmuid O’Murchu

Here is the radical act of inclusion envisioned in his retreat in the wilderness. This would significantly impact the style and flavor of his ministry.
The three temptations in Luke’s Gospel are temptations to a style of messiah, exemplified by the rulers of the Temple and the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors were proclaimed as gods and saviors in conquering the world through the force of the Roman legions.

The first test is the temptation for food: He rejects the temptation for his own self-interest and comfort. He will not have a regular place to lay his head to sleep. He will be itinerant and dependent upon Abba God. Jesus will be hungry and dependent upon the gracious gifts of others to receive shared gifts. This temptation is based on false notions of scarcity, for it points to the abundance of shared goods by disciples of the companionship of empowerment. Empire takes food, and its logic is one of scarcity, abundance for the elite and taking away of what is necessary for life of the poor and the peasant. God’s logic is shared abundance for all is celebrated in the new meals, not of scarcity of food or grace but an extravagant abundance of both. Scarcity is the logic of the ruling classes, the 1%. for Jesus, God’s table had to always be open to everyone. Scarcity, privilege, and exclusion were not God’s ways, but abundance, inclusiveness, and compassionate care.

The second temptation is the possession of power and domination: It is the logic of empire, mainly the Roman Empire.

To resist empire—as-such we must know what we are up against. It is something inherent in civilization itself. Non-imperial civilization is something yet to be seen upon earth. John Dominic Crossan

The logic of God’s kin-dom is not imperial domination and ruling, but service of the greatest as the least and the least the greatest. Those who wish to be disciples must choose the lowest position at table, that of a slave, in serving the rest. The first will be last, and the last first. He would tell his disciples, some of them with their notions of power share similarly those notions with the Romans: You are to take the role of the lowest, a slave in service to all. This is the counter-vision that Jesus learned of the upside-down kin-dom in the wilderness. It is humble service over dominating power and coercion of Empire.

The third temptation is to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. It is a temptation to test God. God does not need to be tested but trusted. It is not wonders and miracles that will generate faith, but the great miracle of all, changed lives—the transformation of people, who have become more compassionate, and who are reaching out to outsiders as brothers and sisters in love and care. It is God’s grace that is effective in people’s lives:

The logic of domination, violence, reward, and punishment that prevails in the everyday world is challenged and replaced by a new logic, the logic of grace, compassion, and freedom. Peter Hodgson

Grace is ordinary and unseen, but more effective than the powerful signs.
All three temptations have bearing in shaping Jesus’ ministry of God’s empowered companionship when he returns to society. They were rejected as style of ministry. It chose not the privileged position of religious leaders then and now in many churches. Remember the priest who walked by the man beaten and left for dead on the road of Jericho. Just imagine a high priest, or now a bishop, elder, or moderator who refuse to take up Jesus’ model of humble service, willing to wash the feet of his disciples or serve at table. These temptations were countered by a new vision of service and inclusiveness with forgiveness and compassion.
Jesus would begin his ministry by preaching the good news of the forgiveness of sins without requiring any penance, he would invite the pure and impure to sit at table to eat at God’s table, he would heal on the Sabbath because compassion was greater than the law.
So in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus recites from the scroll of Isaiah:

To preach good news to the poor.
To proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the
blind.
To set at liberty those who are oppressed.
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Jesus preached a new vision of God’s compassion for those who are not included in the vision: God care for the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, and those enslaved through indebtedness. Jesus proclaimed a new freedom of God’s Spirit for a new era. It was the freedom that the Holy Spirit, who is God’s wildness,” and whose wildness was passed into the message, ministry, and person of Jesus.

The Transfiguration (Lk. 9: 28-36)

This story is traditionally read as a miracle story during Jesus’ ministry. But all indications from a careful reading this story is a resurrection or Parousia story. This story in the gospel attempts to help the disciples come to an understanding of the difficult moments of Jesus ministry, his arrest, and death. And his death leads to the victory of Easter Christians have called this event the “transfiguration” of Jesus. Transfiguration means to change forms or transform, but it is a transformation into something more beautiful or spiritually elevated.  So Jesus’ face changes, and his clothes are transformed dazzlingly white. This event occurs on a mountain top, usually, a place of encounter with God.

These are other indications of a resurrection appearance. Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mountain top, and they converse with Jesus about his death. These two figures, Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet, are religious prophets in past history. Climbing up a mountain is significant to Jews of Jesus’ time. Mountains are places where God is met. Think of Moses on Mt. Sinai where he receives the covenantal law.  Elijah is taken to heaven by a fiery chariot in a whirlwind.

There was a common belief that these two prominent figures from the Hebrew Bible would return to earth at the end of the messianic period. Todays’ gospel story is thick with biblical allusions and symbols. Moses and the exodus are part of Jewish history of liberation from slavery in Egypt.  Here is a comparison to the death of Jesus as the new exodus, a liberation from oppression and the bonds of death to resurrection.  Elijah is a prophetic hero from the past, and at the end of his life, he is transferred by a fiery chariot in a whirlwind or tornado into heaven.

When Peter is mentioned in the gospels, you know to expect something will go wrong. He is well-intentioned but brash and does not often think through what Jesus says or does. Peter wants to do something to capture the moment, to make it possible to stay there in this light, in this understanding, in this encounter with God. He was wants to build three shrines or tents to honor the three religious figures.  His babbling indicates how uncomfortable was he at what was taking place.

A radiant white cloud covered Jesus and, Moses, and Elijah, and the three, and a voice rendered Peter silent, proclaim Jesus as the beloved child and said to them, “listen to him!”  They fell to the ground in terror. Jesus touched them, told them to get up and not to be afraid.

Like Peter, silence often makes us uncomfortable, but if we are not silent, how will we ever hear the voice of God? Can we be simply still ourselves and be silent in the face of the wonder of that surrounds us?  How can we listen if we are babbling like Peter, how can we really hear if we are not first silent?  If we are not still enough to take in what is being offered to us?

 

God reminds the disciples to commune or listen with nature. God says, “Be open. Receive. Don’t share yet. Don’t freeze this moment. But be aware. Enjoy the moment. Keep your eyes on Christ. And receive.”

 

This practice of stopping and listening is difficult, for it takes practice for those who are not used to being receivers, but it can be done when you relax the business of your mind and remain receptive.

300 million Orthodox Christians read this story of the transfiguration of Jesus as very important to the practice of their spirituality. They turn to the Earth as a location to encounter the Incarnate Christ transformed into the comos. They understand nature has the potential to become sacramental or transfigured and how God becomes present in nature from this story.  Nature is generally empty, but it is also sacramental. Orthodox Christian spirituality has much to offer our own on encountering the natural world.

The heart of Orthodox Christian spirituality consists of the vision and the experience of the world as sacrament. This means that the world becomes a place for the transfigured presence of the risen Christ. To know and accept the sacramentality of the world in a truly effective way for encountering God yet, that experience transforms the way we feel and act toward creation and God present within it. All encounters with trees, rivers, oceans, deserts, and mountains can become “transfigured.”  What they mean by “transfigured” it to be transformed into something beautiful, or in this case, something wonderfully magnificent and divine, God.

Nature is an icon. For Orthodox Christians, an icon is pictorial representation of sacred—God, Christ, and Spirit–or saints or event from the scriptures. They are not just for beautiful decoration of a church. Icons teach us as we see and contemplate them. They remind us what we are and what we should be. They show us the importance of matter and of material things. But they also show us the transfiguration of matter under the power of the Holy Spirit.

Some have called icons a window into the sacred.  When you gaze at the icon, you see something beyond the representation. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, you bring the silence of James and John in today’s gospel story. It is the proper response at what you are really gazing. The icon calms the mind, it brings an inner stillness as a wakefulness or deep look at the heart of the icon to listen and see God.  We experience that presence within the icon.

Today’s gospel about the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain top is an important lesson for training us to not only appreciation and experience transformation from engaging icons.  The Orthodox Christians also understand nature as an icon of God’s presence. If we take the attitude of James and John’s silence, not Peter’s response, we come to nature with silence and awe. We come to an experiential realization of the presence in all created things.

Humanity has de-sacralize nature, taken the sacredness out of nature. And we commit ecological atrocities to the Earth and sin against God. Today’s gospel and the ancient practices of silent meditation and prayer in the Orthodox churches point to an openness to meet nature as the site of the holy.  When they speak of nature as containing sacred presence, it is just like realizing that our blessing and consecration of the bread and grape juice at worship on Sunday. They become windows or icons into the sacred.  The sacramentally charged nature of creation defies all sacrileges on our part, reminding us at all times that the world embodies the divine, the triune God. Ordinary nature can be transformed and revealed the transfigured Christ.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Churches Bartholomew has been called “Green Patriarch” by the Orthodox churches.  For the last 25 years and well before we heard about “climate change,” he has carried on a campaign to sensitize Christians to the issues of human harm and degradation of the Earth.

It follows that to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands, for humans to injure moral ground, other humans with disease, for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances—these are sins.(Bartholonew I)

He names pollution, destruction of forests, contamination of waters and streams, releasing toxic carcinogens and other toxins into our atmosphere,  change of climate and the extinction of species, these are sin.  It is sin against God’s creation and God’s body.

The Ecumenical Patriarch has tirelessly convened symposia around the world, including one in Santa Barbara, on degradation of global bioregions at most risk.  He launched September 1st as Creation Day to pray for the healing of God’s creation. That starts the ecumenical practice of the Season of Creation, which we as a church observe for four weeks, ending with the blessings of our companion animals. Like Pope Franics, he has been a vocal champion around the world for Earth protection and Earthcare.

The Earth and all its life forms and processes are not just objects to be exploited but a vast sacrament revealing God’s presence as Christ was revealed on the mountain and God spoke through a cloud over the risen Christ.  The sacramental principle is the understanding that world around can break open, become transfigured, and reveal the radiant presence of Christ. In other words, nature becomes an icon of the sacred, the place we can encounter the risen Christ. Mountains, clouds, water, gardens, lakes and rivers, the wilderness can become spiritual windows to envision Christ.

Where are our icons?  I first look to the gospel. The stories point to nature where Jesus experienced an intimacy of Abba God. The gospel becomes a visualized icon to experience the risen Christ.

Nature and God’s incarnation in Jesus are intertwined. Jesus is born in a cave. His parables are full of natural images: the good shepherd, the vine, the mustard seed, planting seeds, and so. Jesus experienced Abba God under the night stars in the countryside, in the olive groves, at the Jordan river, the wilderness,

Jesus is experienced on the mountain top, but the cloud becomes a manifestation of Abba God who declares that Jesus is the beloved child.  And there is Jesus’ baptism in Jordan.  Or in the wilderness. Jesus found God at night under the stars in countryside. Or in the gardens: the garden of Gethsemane and the resurrection garden where Jesus was buried.

You can nurture an opening of your mind which acts like a portal of connection with them and they will use this portal to commune with you. Sometimes this connection can happen quickly, surprisingly so, and some will need some time. A type of trust is needed to develop, not with the tree or whatever your source, but you must trust in your mind to become relaxed and vibrantly receptive.

The natural world becomes a window to experience the transfigured Christ in the world.  The natural world is a window to find manifestations of the presence of God.  When I speak of God is green, it means that the face of Christ is found in all living things.

This Lent make it a practice to visit our church garden. Find a plant that captures your attention.  It may be the shape or color or something personal.  Note the shape and color of the main body of the plant. If the plant has blossom, relish and enjoy the richness of the color. Try to develop a relationship with the plant, and give it a one word description. Focus on the word and the plant. Express your gratitude for this plant.

Try to be still to appreciate the plant. Be still and listen to the plant. Plants have a different language than ourselves. Listen to the plant, try to envision that this plant is God’s creation, it Remember when God look at the plants, God said it was good. This plant is precious and valuable to God.  Remember how Jesus was transfigured on the mountain top; the risen Jesus is here today. In the plant and in you, and in your interrelating, there is the risen Christ. Honor the Christ in you and in the plant. Recognize that this is sacred moment together. Before you leave for reflection, repeat your holy word.  By bookmakring it, the next time you visit the plant, use the word and it will transport into the experience where you left off. Thank God for this time with a beloved creation of God.

What might happen this Lent? Here is a description of Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas give us a clue.

I also began to connect with nature.  I began to see that God loved not only my body, but also the whole ‘body” of creation. My prayer began to change. It was like turning my pocket inside out; whereas once I found God merely in the silent inward contemplation, now God began showing up around me—in the pond, the rocks, the willow tree. If you spend an hour gazing at a willow tree, after a while it begins to disclose God. 

 

 

Blessing Our Companion Animals. Who is Blessed? (in honor of the blessing of Animals on the Feast of St. Franics of Assisi.

St. Francis of Assisi is not only honored by Catholics but also by Christians of many denominations as well as many non-Christians. We honor him and we remember animal life. The great historian Arnold Toynbee called Francis “the greatest of all men who ever lived in the West.” He goes on, “The example given by St. Francis is what we Westerners ought to be imitated with all our heart, for he is the only Westerner who can save the earth.” I believe that there is a lot of truth in Toynbee’s last claim. St. Francis inspires many folks who care deeply about the environment and love their companion animals.

Today we remember the great saint of ecology and model of living with nature and God’s creatures as siblings. I like the description made by some environmentalist who use “human and non-human animals.” It stresses that we human are animal as well and removes the attitude that humanity is above animals, The two Genesis creation accounts make the point we human are siblings to other life. On the sixth day, human and non-human animals were created. Or in Genesis 2, God forms adamah, the earth creature, and animals from the stuff of earth. St. Francis stressed human and other life were siblings.

We bless our companion animals, recognizing how our family members are blessings for us and are part of our household. Our companion animals are not poster children for environmental concerns, but they begin the process of helping how important are animals to the Earth community. All have intrinsic value to God the Creator.

There is no question that Francis never fit into his time; he was considered crazy, perhaps better described as a “holy fool,” during his lifetime. He did not fit in the early 13th century. I am sure that Francis would not fit well in our time as well. But he certainly presents a model for all of us to consider.

I want to focus on Francis of Assisi and his kinship relationship with other life, for this is why we bless our companions today. Blessing honors our relationships within our household companions and blesses our households. In my blessing, I pray for the companions who live together and mutually relate.
Francis’ Canticle of Creatures was written in the final year of his life. One

Franciscan writer Ilia Delia affirms,

(the Canticle) is the way the universe looks after ego has disappeared. It is a vision of the whole that sees the self as part of the whole in the unity of love. The way to this vision for Francis was compassion. His life was an ever-widening space in union with the divine, a space between God and Francis that included the leper, the sick brother, the sun, moon, and the stars. …He felt the tender love of God shining through creation.

When he saw the weakness of another creature, whether it was a human or non-human, he saw Christ’s passion re-enacted and saw Christ in the suffering. To be compassionate is to be related to others and view ourselves as a mirror of the others and Christ.

But what about non-human animals show compassion? The non-human animal does not itself reflected on the other; but non-human animals intuit that a human or non-human animal is in need and is kin, part of the pack. I want to share a wonderful story why it is important to develop a kinship relationship with our companion animals.

I ask the pardon to cat folks, but I am a dog person and will focus on dog stories. But I welcome you sending me or sharing with me your cat stories. So next time I can balance off today’s sermon.

The first story is the called the “Dogs of Egypt:” I took this story from Dr. Ken Stone, a Hebrew Bible scholar in an article in Divanimality. . He tells the following story.

Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French philosopher, was drafted into the French Army to fight against the Germans during World War II. His unit was captured by the Germans, and he spent confinement in a military prison camp and assigned to the Jewish barracks. Levinas narrates a story of his time in the prison about a dog named “Bobby.”

One day he came to meet this rabble as we returned under guard from work….We called him Bobby, an exotic name, as one does with a cherished dog. He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight. For him there was no doubt that we were men.

The philosopher makes a clear distinction between Bobby the dog and the Nazi guards in the concentration camp. The Nazi guards treated their Jewish prisoners as animals. They dehumanized them. Levinas observes, “We were subhuman, a gang of apes.”

Bobby recognized these prisoners as human, part of the pack, and greeted them with joy and unconditional love as dogs are wont to do when you leave and return. Again Levinas points out, “For him (Bobby) there was no doubt that we were men.” He reminisces,

He (Bobby) was a descendant of the dogs of Egypt. And his friendly growling, his animal faith, was born of his forefathers on the banks of the Nile.
Levinas reminisces that Bobby was like the dogs of Egypt in Exodus, where Moses speaks about the last plague, the death of the first born, that the dogs do not bark. They silently recognized the humanity of the Hebrew slaves in Exodus.

Biblical scholar Ken Stone observes,

By holding their tongues, the dogs mark the liberation of Israelite slaves. And here, Levinas observes we see what it means to say that the dogs are friends of humanity, for…. “the dog will attest to dignity of its person.”

Levinas speaks of “animal faith” and “friendly growling” of Bobby. Bobby recognizes the humanity of the prisoners. Levinas associates dogs in the scriptures with human freedom and the dog Bobby with humanity. That is a wonderful story of how dogs humanize us.

St. Francis knew that loving animals provide human animals with an expansion of relationships. “Animals” then and often now are perceived less than humanity. In history of Christianity, most Christians have viewed dogs and animals as inferior to humanity and having no soul.

Humans are thoroughly relational, and we realize that we are human through other human beings and companion or non-human animals. I have had five dogs in my life since 1978, and I have been with four of them as they were euthanized, several weeks with Joe and his dog Harley. It was emotionally hard to lose a household companion, Harley. I cling to a statement of Pope Francis to a young boy whose dog died: “One day we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” Pope Francis’ words, I believe, speak to a truth that St. Francis could have easily uttered, and I have always believed since my first sacred event of saying good bye to a good friend.

I have heard folks say that they would never have another dog after they experienced the death of dog and the pain of grief and loss. But despite the grief of loss, an non-human animal theologian Stephen Webb claims:

Like forgiveness, animals are a gift; they come to us with their own beauty and dignity, and they plead for patience and understanding. In turn, they give us more than we could otherwise have known about ourselves by allowing us to venture into a relationship that goes further, due to its very awkwardness and limitations, than the boundaries of human language normally permits, “The fact that animals are so generous in answering us is what makes it okay to train them but a human duty one way we enact our gratitude to the universe that animals exist.” (Webb)

I want to add the training is mutual. My dog Friskie trains me as I train him. There is a reciprocal giving and sharing. He responds to people speaking to hm. He communicates with myself by gazing into my eyes, or sitting not to me, jumping in my lap grabbing my hand to herd me, communicating “let’s go to church” or later “let’s go to the dog park.”

Companion animals bring joy but expect a return, care, attention, and love. They show us love and will extend that love to others. One day I was in the church social hall talking to a couple, one of which was disfigured from cancer, and he had a hard time speaking. Friskie immediately jumped into his lap and started to lick his face and gave him unconditional love. His canine intuition was correct about the need for love in this situation. I know that many dogs as they get to know you they love you naturally and unconditionally. When I think of how dogs have been introduced into nursing homes for the chronically ill, they have a therapeutic presence by being themselves. The introduction of dogs has produced remarkable successes in alleviating loneliness and help healing. One program that promotes and use dog therapy writes:

Therapy Dog volunteers and their dogs have contributed significantly over the years in bringing warmth and joy to residents of nursing homes. Residents learn, in the company of dogs, to overcome loneliness and fear. The residents are delightfully entertained by the dog’s tricks and antics and warmed beyond words by their unconditional love and acceptance.

They connect physically with touch and emotionally with the residences of nursing homes, and they provide touch so vital to all of us as human beings.
Stephen Webb makes the insight:

The interconnections among God, humans, and dogs are rich. Both God and dogs love unconditionally, both God and humans are masters in their own realms, and both dogs and humans are creatures and servants. Humans are in between, both masters and servants, loved by God and dogs alike.

Dogs are remarkable companions if we take the time to listen and learn from our dogs, and they will communicate with us in many different ways if we engage them.

Both relationships– God to us and dogs to us—are places we experience unconditional love. When we come back to either, there is a joyful hospitality of welcoming.

Finally, there is a Native American legend that when you die, you cross a bridge into heaven. At the head of the bridge, the soul of the human meets every non-human animal that they have met during their lifetime. The non-human animals, based on what they experience of this person, decide who may cross the bridge and who will be turned away. Companion or non-human animals have an uncanny ability to judge character.

In her book, Certain Poor Shepherds, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas tells the story of a goat and dog who are companions on a journey to Bethlehem on the first Christmas day. They are searching for an animal redeemer, not human. Thomas writes, “No redeemer appeared for the animals; however none was needed. The animals were much the same as they are now, just as God had made them, perfect to God’s plan.”

That is why we not only bless our companion animals but they bless us. We could not be fully human without them. And that is why take the time to remember St. Francis who reminds us that animals our siblings.

Let us pray: I want to share a prayer sent to me from Kathleen:

O God, you are a playful puppy; I’ll never be lonely. You knock me over in your desire to have fun. You return eagerly no matter how I behave. You calm my spirit. You remind me to keep things in perspective because the only thing that matters to you is love. Even though life can threaten to crash in on me I will not be overcome; your bark and soft fur soothe me . You bring me to the park to play in the middle of the work week. You lick my face and my hands. We never get tired . Together we’ll keep playing as long as we live. And the sun will shine always. (Erik Walker Wikstrom)

Eco-Theology Powerpoint

Educational resource in developing basic eco-theologies for Christian communities. It was part of training program for developing an Environmental Justice Team in congregations and in UCC Conferences.

Eco-theology Powerpoint

Eco-Actions: Resources for Building an Earth-centered Church

 

 

Doubting Thomas: What does He really Doubt

The Gospel of John is one of the most beautifully written gospels. It stands in Greco-Roman multiculturalism. But what I want to talk about the clashing cultural beliefs about death and afterlife in John’s community. I will use the example of the Beloved Disciple and Doubting Thomas. They make the case for counter positions. This is not just a historical exercise of reconstructing this morning. It also reflects a deep divide and compromise.

Celsus, a non-Christian writer, criticized the appearance accounts of the risen Jesus. He actually mocks Christians.

If Jesus had wanted to demonstrate his power was truly divine, he ought to have appeared to those who maltreated him and to the one who condemned him, and to all everywhere.

Celsus makes a point that I thought as kid when I heard the Easter season resurrection readings each Sunday. Why didn’t Jesus just appear to the high priests, Pilate, and the masses in Jerusalem that chose Barabbas over himself?
Let me explain: The community of John, somewhere in Asia Minor such as Edessa or in Syria, is composed of Greek-speaking Jews and Greek converts. The appearance accounts of the post-mortem Jesus risen from the dead were a terrifying prospect. In Matthew, the women at the tomb are told by angels to “stop fearing.” And the second apparition of Jesus, some of the assembled disciples are doubtful.

Even before Jesus appearance in the upper room, the Beloved Disciple runs to tomb and looks into see Jesus’ funeral shroud thrown aside into a bundle but observes the funeral napkin rolled up neatly. He places his faith in Jesus and his words without seeing the risen Christ. In today’s gospel, the disciples neither fear nor doubt when Jesus appears in the upper room. I always thought it might the case of suddenly facing the risen Jesus with feelings of guilt and shame over abandoning him or Peter denying him three times. From that encounter, the Beloved Disciple and the disciples on Easter Sunday are full of faith trying to convince Doubting Thomas of their experience. Thomas was not present during that resurrection appearance, and he expresses doubt. The resurrected dead body makes no sense to him. What is a clue to the gospel today is Thomas’ need for a physical demonstration of the physical reality of Jesus.

In Luke’s story of Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus is not merely a ghost without flesh and bones. When they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, Jesus says,

Look at my hands and feet that I am myself. Touch and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. And when he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. But they were still incredulous. (Lk. 24: 39-41)

It was logical for the disciples to believe that Jesus had died and thus they were now experiencing a ghost or the soul of Jesus separated from his body.The community of John suffered division among its members—the primary group affirming that Jesus really died in the flesh. The other group asserted that Jesus did not have a real fleshy body on either side of death, either on the cross or after burial. They denied the reality of the earthly and physical Jesus or the resurrected Jesus. In 2 John v.7, a letter from that same community that wrote the fourth gospel mentions deceivers who have left the community and “who do not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” This is the later community who claimed Thomas as their apostle. We have writings from this group of Christians: The Gospel of Thomas and The Acts of Thomas. Some speculations went as far to deny that Jesus died on the cross, it was an apparition, not real flesh and blood man.

Many Christians at the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, somewhere between 90-100 CE, some 70 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and well after the death of the all Jesus’ immediate disciples, had conflicting views of the afterlife. Early Christianity proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus yet it inherited traditions of a variety of religious notions of the afterlife, few of which included the resurrection. Some included the ascension of Jesus, angelic body of Jesus, and the exalted and transformed body of Jesus,

On one side of the afterlife, there is a group of Jews that held to resurrection of the body at the end of time. This notion comes from the ancient Persian notions of the end of time in which God will resurrect the dead and unite the body and soul for a final judgment. This seems to be held by the followers of Jesus and some of the Pharisees such as St. Paul.

The prevalent Greek notion stresses the soul over the body. Many Christians held Jesus had risen from the dead as a spiritual being, in a spiritual body of light. For them, the body was corruptible, mutable and mortal flesh, while the soul, the spiritual body, was eternal. The earthly body was bonded to the material body, and it weighed down the soul. Upon death of the body, the soul was released to go to God. For those emphasizing the soul, the post-resurrection body of Jesus is something other than the very same flesh in which he was crucified. Both the resurrection of the body and the release of the spiritual body were two methods that early Christians tired to describe Jesus arisen from the dead.

Doubting Thomas is described as not having faith (apistos) in the tale of the physical resurrection of Jesus from the grave. There is division between the immediate disciples of Jesus who have experienced Jesus as fleshy human being, now resurrected, and Thomas who holds an alternative position of the release of the spiritual body of glory.

If the disciples had said to the absent Tomas, “We have seen the spirit of the Lord,” there would be no problem. There are many common stories of ghostly appearances in the Greco-Roman world. For Thomas, the body was the negative accompaniment of earthly life, and death was release of the spiritual body from its limitations. The post-mortem soul could participate in all embodied functions such as eating and joy.

But the disciples in the upper room said to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” meaning in the same physical body with which he died. Thomas and his later faction of Christian community hold that the body traps the soul. He is weary of any talk about the fleshy existence of the risen Jesus. Greeks believed very much in an immortal soul.

Yet John’s community is different from the other communities which developed gospels. It affirms in the opening hymn that we recite during the Christmas Eve service; “the word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Incarnation is about the flesh and blood of a very human Christ.

No cultured Greek would ever ask to stick his hands in the wounds in Jesus’ arms from the spikes or the holes in his feet or the wound in his side from the centurion’s spear.” Would anyone here in Thomas’ position ask the risen Jesus? “Let me put my fingers in the holes in your body from crucifixion.” But does the insistence of Thomas, which we traditionally understand as doubting really doubt as much as holding a different viw of the resurrected Jesus?

The wounds in Jesus body indicate that the earthly fleshy Jesus, who has died, now survives the grave. The retention of the holes in the body of Jesus would not necessarily authenticate that the risen Christ is Jesus who died on the cross. So Thomas asks to touch the risen body, rather than just seeing the risen apparition.
Thomas’ doubts express his not placing faith in Jesus and his words at the resurrection of Lazarus in the tomb. “I am the resurrection and the life; that anyone who has faith in me shall live even if they die.” (Jn. 11:23) Thomas is expressing a position that the resurrection of Jesus is just purely spiritual. He emphasizes the spiritual body of Jesus, not the flesh while the disciples are holding to the resurrected Christ in the flesh. When Jesus appears to Thomas, he has faith in the risen Christ affirming ‘My Lord and My God!”

Let’s step back and review a few points.

The risen Christ is neither a resuscitated body nor a ghost or a spirit. What bodies can go through walls and appear in the midst of the disciples in the upper room!
It is a body that can’t be touched. Jesus says that to Magdalene, “not to cling.”

There are stories in the appearance accounts where the disciples do not easily recognized Jesus until he does something familiar from his earthly life. Mistaken as the gardener by Magdalene, Jesus says “Mary” in a recognized familiar tone for her to respond with “Rabboni.” Or there are the two disciples not recognizing Jesus as he walked with them on the road to Emmaus until he breaks bread with them. Or Jesus on the beach cooking fish when the Beloved Disciple realizes that is the Lord. Then Peter strips down and jumps into the lake and swims to shore. There is something discontinuous as well as continuous with the risen Jesus from his previous fleshly existence.

What we see in the original witnesses is human attempt to make sense what happened on Easter with the cultural stories and notions of death and afterlife various had at their disposal.

But there is a deeper issue that stands at the center of today’s gospel between the Beloved Disciple who looked into the tomb, seeing the rolled napkin and placed his faith in Jesus’ words and the absent Thomas who refused to place his faith in Jesus until the risen Christ asked him to place his hands in the wounds wrought by Roman torture and crucifixion.

For some of the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples, they believed in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. It seems Paul believed that when a person died, that person would not be raised until the end of time. And then there was the Greek position that the soul was trapped in the body, and when a person died, the soul was released to join God.

Both positions have come to be our modern Christian position on death. At memorial services, we speak of the spirit of the deceased joining God. Many of us have had the experience of the dying of a dear one, dreaming about her or sensing the presence of the deceased through something remembered or a song or an anniversary or place that generates a vivid memory. The deceased person is physically absent but present to us, and that is real. Something of our life force, spiritual energy, or soul joins with God and Christ.

But God created us with bodies, where we learn and appreciate a physical world. Christ too was incarnated in the flesh and experienced what it means to be human, experience our joy and our pains. We believe that the material universe was created for an intended purpose to be joined to God in unimaginable ways. This is the vision of the future for all of us—spirit and physical flesh united and recreated anew with God’s flesh and Spirit.

Early followers of Jesus proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus as the foundation of their faith; and it is certainly the foundation of my discipleship in following the Christ. Thomas’ position of a spiritual resurrection of Christ was probably the understanding of Paul in his vision of the resurrected and glorified body of the risen Christ.

It says to me that both the Beloved Disciples and Thomas were each partially correct in some fashion, offering us a vision of the risen Christ who united physical body with spirit. They were attempting to comprehend what happened Easter morning within their own languages of the afterlife. Both the followers of the Beloved Disciple and the disciples of Thomas hope to share the resurrected life of Christ. Some looked to an afterlife with fleshy bodies and others imagined spiritual bodies like angels. We will answer that question in the afterlife or something more unimaginable than we can conceive. It maybe the new speculations will talk about the quantum body of the crucified and resurrected Christ. All these are speculations, our attempts to understand something beyond our comprehension.

The tensions played out between these two perspectives leading the Christian movement to a clear proclamation of the real fleshiness of Jesus during his life and in his afterlife. It stands as sign of our fleshy connection to the resurrected Christ and our fleshy connection to the pain and sufferings of people, other life, and the Earth. We all shared a fleshy origin, and our flesh and bones are important to our spiritual journey and facing our mortality.
But for me I recognize this story of doubting Thomas. I recognize the disciples on the first night of Easter and on the eighth day after. I look to the resurrected Christ who carries the wounds of his crucifixion and all other crucifixions continued today. The world needs answers to our crucifixions and crucified Earth. The world looks to us for something tangible for our world to hope. It is the mystery of resurrected life with the wounds that Christ carries. God cares not only for the crucifixion of Jesus but all crucifixions whether it is brokenness of homelessness, the woundedness of poverty or mental or physical illness, or the human ravages of the Earth and its degradation, the world is looking to us to turn the passion of Christ and all crosses into compassionate change.

I look to Christ’s resurrection as the source of compassion for the world. Compassion is the inner message of the resurrected Christ. We are called to live our faith in the risen Christ who says, “Blessed are those who have not seen but placed their faith in me!” (Jn 20:29)

Easter is the Source of Our Green Faith, John 20:1-18

It is amazing how many Christians fail to see Easter as the greening event par excellence in biblical history. Even the Green Bible that has each sections of the Hebrew and Christian marked in green for environmental issues, but it does not mark out today’s gospel in green. Why do Christians miss the obvious, for me at least, dimension of ecological spirituality and themes in the resurrection story of Magdalene discovering the risen Christ in the garden?

Maybe it is my Catholic heritage that opens my eyes to environmental significance of the story. In Catholic Easter vigil, the paschal candle is dipped into the baptismal waters, signifying ancient symbolism of fertility and new life. For Christians, symbols of fertility and rebirth aptly signify the risen Christ, the new life of Easter. Christ is born to new life as we all hope and dream for ourselves.

There are so many clues that point to themes around earth, life, gardens, risen from the tomb, the dead cross and the green garden. The resurrection garden stands in contrast to the Garden of Gethsemane and even the Garden of Eden. It symbolizes the new life that God intended for us from the beginning.
If your green imagination is challenged, think about C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe of the Chronicles of Narnia. The long winter of the Witch’s reign is broken under the warmth of Christ’s springtime. The springtime here signifies new life, new growth, and the restoration of nature by the death and resurrection of the Aslan/Christ figure. Seeds sprout, fruit trees blossom with colors, lilies and flowers in bloom, birds chirping and life filled with hope. All these herald life; they point to God as creator and Spirit. It is time of birth and renewal.
Unlike many Christians who continually throw the Earth into God’s trash bin for a heavenly salvation for themselves alone, I see glimpses of hope in Easter: so marvelously inclusive and extravagant.

And let me tell you that many folks who fight for the Earth and all life are either there with Jesus on the cross Good Friday or with Jesus’ corpse in the tomb. They are so aware of the polluted rivers, the toxic waste dumps that harm us and other life, the extinction of millions of plant and animal species, the radioactive spills into the Pacific Ocean, the thousands of coal plants pumping unceasing carbon and toxic pollution into the air to warm our climate. I can’t help associating the unbreathable atmosphere in Beijing where millions of people have to wear masks against the heavily polluted atmosphere with the experience the asphyxiation that Jesus did on the cross. Humans tortured Christ and other humans through asphyxiation. Or Jesus being slaughtered at the time of thousands lambs for Passover celebrations. He suffered as animals suffered merciless killings or the extinctions of species. Global warming is and its ravages will continue to be a reality that we and our descendants have to live with for generations.

It is hard to maintain hope when you stand before the cross of the crucified Jesus and not think that the Roman Empire and religious fundamentalists have won; or lay in the dark tomb with Jesus’ corpse, realizing the body has been scarred and remains lifeless. This is where many environmental activists are today. They have been shocked out of hope by human degradation of the Earth and all life on the planet. Many mourn the passion of the Earth. Our mission given to us this is Easter to be people of hope and to share that hope with those Earth caregivers who still at the foot of the cross and mourn in the tomb. It is easy to fall into such thinking for myself when I look at the on-going news reports of the growing climate change and unusual severe weather events.

The tomb represents our groundedness with the Earth. It is the primal matrix of the soil from which we evolved. In Genesis, we were named adamah, earth creature because we came from the soil. We were bound to the soil. Dr. Daniel Hillel, a soil physicist, notes that humanity is associated with the soil:

The ancient Hebrew association of man with soil is echoed in the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil. This powerful metaphor suggests an early realization of a profound truth that humanity has since disregarded to its own detriment. Since the words “humility” and “humble” also derive from humus, it is rather ironic that we should have assigned our species so arrogant a name as Homo sapiens sapiens (“wise wise man”). It occurs to me, as I ponder our past and future relation to the earth, that we might consider changing our name to a more modest Homo sapiens curans, with the word curans denoting caring or caretaking, as in “curator.” (“Teach us to care” was T.S. Eliot’s poetic plea.) Of course, we must work to deserve the new name, even as we have not deserved the old one.

Jesus, like of all us, is tethered to the earth, and through our embodiment, we are tethered with Jesus in the tomb when we die. But we know that we join God’s Christ, alive and part of the mystical body of Christ. We know that existed in the biosphere, he breathed oxygen as we do, he ate food as we do, and many other actions we commonly do.

And the resurrection is the promise that all life has a future in God, not just us. God is calling us and all creation to communion with God’s self, in ways for us inconceivable. Yet God communicates that history is not predetermined but an open future.

Easter, then, is God’s victory over it all. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the decisive for all of us—the world, all life, the Earth, and the universe. What happens to Christ raised from the tomb will happen to all—transformed into resurrection life. Easter reveals the fullness of the matrix of all life with God; it is the web of grace that links all life, human and other life and the Earth together. That web is God’s Spirit, the Spirit that pulsed new life and energy into the risen Christ.

Creation is all interconnected bodily together through the Spirit. Creation is not just the beginning of the universe, it is the on-going evolution of cosmic and biologically processes, the coming of the incarnate Christ—now dead but risen to the new life intended for all—and the Spirit the navigator subverting all human distortions and destructiveness of life. That last point I hold on for dear life as I engage in Earthcare and fighting for the Earth and all life. It is too easy to become overwhelmed emotionally, loose hope when you see on daily basis human arrogance and human denial, exploiting the Earth recklessly, contaminating the waters and ground water, polluting the atmosphere, raping the mountain tops by harvesting coal, undoing the EPA just trying to protecting human well-being from human created diseases and cancers, greed and short term profit over the expense of all others.

Human violence, self-centeredness and callous disregard for other life, and exploitation of the Earth and the community of life will not be the last word. The crucial issue of God’s incarnation, death and resurrection, reveals the seamless web of interrelationship of all life. At the intersections of this seamless web of interrelated life is God’s incarnated Child. The incarnate risen Christ weaves the web of interdependent life into his body. And the divine community of life and unconditional grace will have the last word. Resurrection, Life, Greenness!
We are all interconnected and interrelated. We are all siblings, human and other life. We are together in the body of Christ. Diarmuid O’Murchu, Irish priest and writer, envisions:

When you weep, we weep When a tree is felled prematurely, an animal in pain because of crazy experimentation, a teenager rebelling authority, a couple at their wit’s end trying to make a relationship work, an African woman burying the last of her seven children because of AIDS, a Peruvian farmer seeing his last piece of land swiped by a transnational corporation, we too feel the pain, the helplessness, the rage the cruel injustice.

What becomes stressed by Easter is that God’s ultimate act of compassion is Christ, his life and death, and then the resurrection. All the efforts of God at creating; incarnating, interrelating with us, all life, and creation; reconciling and sustaining and spiriting us to new birth and new love—all this is the outpouring of God’s unconditional love for all creation. It links us together in solidarity with all others. This the web of grace within we were created and within which Christ’s resurrection strengthens us together with the universe. God became human and materials so that humanity, all life, and the universe would become divine.

God will be victorious over human violence, greed, and selfishness. God will have the last word. I hold onto to this hope with all my faith and commitment though I see such human foolishness and arrogance.

The Resurrection of Christ is also about the transformation of the universe. Jesus’ resurrection is the hope that defies all hopelessness—even the hopelessness of Earth caregivers and activists. God proclaims that the relational matrix of the divine community of life outpouring an unconditional love and invitation to participate in that flow of love. On Easter, God announces radical inclusiveness. Nothing that we imagine as inclusive is inclusive enough for God. There will be no more outcasts: not any human, no other life, nor the Earth herself. Everything falls into God’s matric of interrelating graces. All creation! We now belong to the reign of God’s inclusiveness. God cares, and invites to care for all and to proclaim the hope of a new belong for all. We all belong to God.
God will not abandon creation and all life, but will continue to be presence to creation and all life and weave them continuous into a matrix of interconnected grace.

Christ’s resurrection was a wakeup call to his disciples, birthing a movement of compassion, forgiveness, peace-making, love, non-violence, radical inclusiveness, and extravagant love. It a wakeup call to God’s green grace that flows from the heart of divine love, birth in creation, thriving in evolutionary chaos and organizing life into more complexity, incarnating God’s self, and re-embodying in ourselves and all life, listening to the invitation of love at the end of this journey of all towards God.

Alleluia, God will triumph over all: climate deniers, fundamentalists, human exploiters, politicians committed to undo any efforts to stop climate change. God will be victorious.

Easter Message: Easter: Gardening as Spiritual Practice for Earthcare

for the message with pictures of our church garden: clik on http://www.scncucc.org/voices/2015/03/ucc-conference-church-life/easter-gardening-as-a-spiritual-practice-for-earth-care/

Rev. Dr. Robert Shore-Goss

“…or speak to the earth, and it will teach you.” — Job 12:8

Gardens have been sacred spaces for many religions. For Islam, there are three gardens: the garden of Creation or Eden, the gardens of this world, and the
Paradise garden at the resurrection of the dead. The Buddha was enlightened in a grove under a Bo tree in Bodhgaya, and he preached his first sermon ever in Deer Park. Japanese Zen Gardens have become a familiar landscape in American botanical gardens. The etymology for the ancient Avestan (Persian) word “Paradise” (pairidaēza) means orchard or a hunting park.

The Jesus movement became an urban movement within three years after the death and resurrection of Christ. It forgot its garden and rural roots and when it was propelled into an imperial religion under Constantine, urban Christians stood against pagans (paganus, Latin for rustic or country-dweller). Christians as they expanded throughout Europe during the late Roman period and in the Early Middle Ages cut down the trees of sacred groves of competing indigenous religions. It forgot that Jesus’ burial tomb was in a garden.

I love our church garden, it is surprise in an urban setting with desert landscape and indigenous California plants. I sit in the garden for prayer each day, often with my companion dog Friskie. He loves the garden fragrances and enjoys chasing the birds eating the bird seed. The garden teaches me about abundant life, the language of grace. I share this reflection with you at Easter as a time to re-covenant ourselves as individuals and churches to Earth-care and environmental justice, for me the Earth is one of God’s gardens.

The first truth about gardens is that they are created; they are relational. In Genesis 2, we have the primal myth about God and gardens. It is metaphorical history that speaks about a grace relationship between God gardens, and ourselves. Unlike the first chapter of the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1, where God speaks creation into existence, the Yahwist poet communicates that God didn’t speak the garden into existence but knelt down and fashioned a garden it out of dirt and placed our primal ancestors in the garden to live and care for the garden. It was a graced God’s space, but we alienated ourselves from the garden. This is perhaps more true than myth about contemporary humanity in the last two centuries as we have further disconnected ourselves from nature and gardens. For myself and many of the congregants, our garden is God’s graced space, and it grew of our decision to make the Earth a member of our church and our hope to restore our connection to the Earth. We have a remarkable garden in the urban space of North Hollywood. It is landscaped with flowers and indigenous California plants but also includes vegetables that we harvest and share with church members. Our folks tour the garden before to witness the latest blooms and sit in the garden to talk after service.

Our garden is truly a gift, literally because every plant has been donated by members, by stakeholders using our facility, and even by strangers. Gardens are gifts of natural beauty, with an abundant network of life. Gardens are works of art intended to be enjoyed. We co-live with them and participate in them whether as gardeners or visitors. We have a relationship with a garden whether we cultivate and care for the plants or are a visitor meditating and enjoying the garden.
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I have watched our church gardener for years, tenderly caring for each plant, watering, pruning, planting or transplanting, fertilizing, mulching, or enjoying. It is his spirituality, and he communicates with and listens to each plant. Our gardener is a member of our pastoral team, and he takes seriously that he has a pastoral responsibility to the Earth since we made the Earth a member of our congregation. He listens to the plants in the garden and is attentive to their needs. I commented to him several weeks ago how much his listening skills and compassionate care for congregants have matured with remarkable attentiveness and kindness to church members. I attribute this growth in pastoral skills to his listening and attentiveness to life in the garden. The garden has provided him with a pedagogy of listening and care, transferable also congregants.

The second truth about gardens is that they create a holy place where the sacred and nature come together. I experienced profound truth that God loves gardens and creates gardens. Dorothy Francis Gurney writes, “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden/ Than anywhere else on earth.” Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw also observes, “The best place to seek God is in a garden.” How many of us find now God in our own gardens, church gardens, botanical or urban gardens, or the wilderness gardens of the Earth? I treasure my daily prayer time in our garden, often spent with companion dog.

Early Christians grasped the depth of meaning of the garden scene between the risen Christ and Magdalene. They understood that God is a gardener, for God began the gardening process of creation, and God the Gardener is lost in a kind of revelry or enjoyment on the Sabbath in Genesis. Since the garden is so lovely and so interesting, there is no other place that God wants to be, for God wants to attend to the garden and the gardeners. God’s hands are dirty from garden care fashioning and creating. In the poetry of the book of Genesis, God the Gardener takes clay, breathes into clay, and fashions the first earthling–adamah. Dr. Daniel Hillel, a soil physicist, observes that the feminine Hebrew noun adamah indicates humanity’s origin and humanity’s destiny. In other words, we are tethered to the Earth from beginning of our lives to the end of our days. This is a profound truth of earthly embodiment and foreshadowing our destiny to return to the Earth until we resurrected from Earth tomb as plants arises from the soil.

Of note in Genesis 2, God takes human beings and places them in a garden, and it is paradise because it is the place where humans can walk, talk, and intimately meet God in a graced space, and we can enjoy the beauty of the garden together. Hillel writes,

The ancient Hebrew association of man with soil is echoed in the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil. This powerful metaphor suggests an early realization of a profound truth that humanity has since disregarded to its own detriment. Since the words “humility” and “humble” also derive from humus, it is rather ironic that we should have assigned our species so arrogant a name as Homo sapiens sapiens (“wise wise man”). It occurs to me, as I ponder our past and future relation to the earth, that we might consider changing our name to a more modest Homo sapiens curans, with the word curans denoting caring or caretaking, as in “curator.” (“Teach us to care” was T.S. Eliot’s poetic plea.) Of course, we must work to deserve the new name, even as we have not deserved the old one.

Gardens provide not only a Sabbath delight to God but also to ourselves because they are created space for intimate encounters that have been made fragrant to the smell and pleasurable to our senses. We have two primary relationships to a garden—actually as care-taking or as visitor invited to take care and preserve the garden. God loves and takes delight in gardens whether it is the immense garden that we describe as universe or the smaller Earth garden named Eden. And I understand this mystery as I and others sit in our meditation garden to pray and meet God or meet Christ each other in the garden while we share refreshments and conversations on a Sunday morning.

Czechoslovakian writer and gardener Karel Apek writes the following in his lovely book The Gardener’s Year. He describes a gardener, but I want you this Easter to imagine that he is speaking about God the Gardener.

I will now tell you how to recognize a real gardener. “You must come to see me,” she says; “I will show you my garden.” Then, when you go just to please her, you find her with her rump sticking up somewhere among the perennials. “I will come in a moment,” she shouts to you over her shoulder. “Just wait till I have planted this rose.” “Please don’t worry,” you say kindly to her. After a while she must have planted it; for she gets up, makes your hand dirty, and beaming with hospitality she says: “Come and have a look; it’s a small garden, but —– Wait a moment,” and she bends over a bed to weed some tiny grass. “Come along. I will show you Dianthus musalae; it will open your eyes. Great Scott, I forgot to loosen it here!” she says, and begins to poke in the soil. A quarter of an hour later she straightens up again. “Ah,” she says, “I wanted to show you that bell flower, Campanula Wilsonae. That is the best campanula which —– Wait a moment, I must tie up this delphinium . . .”

In the above description, I enjoy the delightful image of God as a female Gardener, poking, tilling, fussing, watering, fertilizing, and tenderly caring and fussing over her garden with a wonderful hat. As I earlier claimed, gardens are pure gift. We receive them as networks of abundant life, and they are places of life-giving beauty—splashes of color, designs that still our soul, and intoxicating scents that incite enjoyment. They still storms of raging emotions for a few moments, and they center us on beauty of life and the one who has graciously given life. For myself, our garden teaches me about God’s grace, it is a convergence of the scripture of the natural world and our written scripture. It speaks of resurrected life of Easter grace and God’s beauty.

Now Golgotha, the place of the skull, where Jesus was crucified and others were murdered by the Romans, was not far from the garden tomb, where the crucified Jesus was laid to rest. Golgotha was near the garbage or refuse heap of Jerusalem. In reflecting on our garden, I have grown to understand Golgotha as composter, a place of death where God uses the compost of Jesus to raise Jesus up from the garden tomb and bring new life to the Garden of the Earth.

On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the empty tomb in the garden, and she found no emotional peace in the garden. She spoke her emotional anguish and grief to one she thought was a worker in the garden. Jesus appears to her in the garden, symbolic of Eden resurrected and restored to a new fullness and the cosmos yet coming to life fully within God. She recognizes the gardener as her Teacher only when he calls her by name.
What Easter morning proclaims is the good news that, out of destruction and death, Jesus rises from the earthen tomb as the new Adam or resurrected adamah from the soil. God the Gardener, who planted a garden in Eden and then raised Jesus to new life in a garden, is still at work creating life and beauty in our world. No wonder at the empty tomb in the garden did the risen Christ appear to Mary Magdalene as the gardener. Her mistaken identification of the risen Jesus as the gardener bears much prophetic truth. Jesus, in fact, is the Gardener who transforms our lives now and finally and becomes at the same time the ultimate Garden where we meet the God of life anew and profoundly.

Magdalene’s inclination is to touch or to cling onto Christ. She reaches out to cling to Jesus, but Jesus tells her that she cannot continue to hold on this way as his resurrection transformation is not completed until his body becomes transformed from one plane of existence into the entire eco-system. The resurrection of Jesus is not only the radical transformation of the crucified Christ but the “green” transformation of all things in God. All things become divinely interconnected through the risen Christ as he described himself to his disciples at the Last Supper as the vine connected to the branches and Abba God is the vine-grower or the gardener. (Jn. 15:1-ff.) This strengthens the irony of Magdalene’s mistaken identity of Jesus as the gardener. The risen Christ now assumes the divine position of being God’s garden and the Gardener at the same time. Ultimately, what gardens and Christ’s resurrection have in common is the gift of abundant life. The sense of gift is the heart of the Easter experience–bringing surprise, abundant life, hope, and emotional peace and tranquility.
Magdalene and the other disciples were called to follow in the steps of the Christ the Gardener. They were invited to participate in the important job of co-creating and co-participating, co-creating, and co-living with the Spirit in giving life to the garden and bringing that garden to the fullness where God intends. As gardeners, Christians co-create gardens to help others find and meet God.

But God’s garden, the Earth, is dying, and human beings are responsible for killing the garden through our impact on climate change. Our reckless greed for fossil fuels and reckless exploitation of the Earth’s resources at the expense of other life has jeopardized God’s garden. One of the contributing causes is humanity’s disconnection with the Earth; we have separate ourselves from the web of life. We are separated from gardens and need to reconnect with gardens as intimate part of faith experience.

The most urgent need of today and the next decades is the transformation of humanity to reconnect intimately with our garden the Earth. Our arrogance has led to a radical disconnection and alienation from the Earth, and we have ravaged, exploited, and damaged the Earth garden and its life. We as Christians need to foster a gardening spirituality that not only connects us with our foundational experience of Easter but overcomes our arrogant separation from nature by learning to reconnect reverently to the web of interrelated life. The key to human immersion is to re-discover the wonder, enchantment, and beauty of God immanent in the natural world. I have witnessed as people fall in love with nature, they will fight for what they cherish and love.

Thomas Berry, a Christian eco-theologian or self-described as a “geologian,” points out that humanity must learn to listen to the language of the Earth. Natural phenomena—plants and other life—have their own language, and the natural world resonates with the voice of the Creator and Gardener. Just as the gardener in my church learned to listen to the voices of each plant and the birds in our church garden and just as I sit attentive in the garden, listen to the voices of the Earth in the garden and pray. I discover the resurrected Gardener who teaches me what Thomas Berry describes as “wonder-filled intimacy” with all life and the planet Earth.

All human resources are required to heal, nurture, cultivate, and restore health to God’s garden. It is the fundamental revelation of Easter that we follow Christ as disciple gardeners. We create gardens and cultivate and care for gardens, for gardens are on a spiritual quest. Human beings have sought the Garden of Eden as place where God and humans once co-lived. But God has promised us something greater—what God intended with the garden of the universe and the Garden of Eden—is to create them into a cosmic resurrection garden—where we walk once again with intimacy God in the garden.

We in the United Church of Christ are called to be healers of the wounds of the Earth—making amends for our sins of consumptive greed and for placing our heads in the sands. It starts with a personal conversation and mistaken identity that began on Easter Sunday when Christ appeared to Magdalene in the Garden and invited us to participate in God’s mission of gardening the Earth. Easter is about gardening the Earth and nurturing life on the Earth for God. One of my favorite quotes that I will conclude my Easter Garden reflection:
When crated the earth, God “made room” for us all and in so doing showed us the heart of divine life, indeed all life, is the generous and gracious gesture. As we Garden, that is, as we weed out the non-nurturing elements within us and train our habits to be more life promoting, we participate in the divine life and learn to see and feel the creation as God sees and feels it.

Help commit yourself and your church this Easter to become gardeners of the Earth for Christ the Gardener and re-covenant your congregation and yourselves with the risen Christ and the garden of the Earth. You can do so by forming an Environmental Justice team in your congregation, join or create Environmental Team in your Association and/or Conference, and definitely connect yourself and your community to the Environmental Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Explore the denominational Environmental Ministries website. (http://www.ucc.org/search_results?q=environmental+justice) Take a virtual tour that is explore the site and its multiple levels of resources, play with the site, led the Spirit and your curiosity direct yourself. I did and that, and the Holy Spirit brought me into the UCC by the wonderful resources and documents that I discovered as a gardener of the Earth. Make sure your conference website and church website has listed environmental justice resources and interconnections. Let the Spirit help you discover as Mary Magdalene did that Easter is the celebration of God’s Garden and risen Christ as the Gardener.

Listening to the Cries of the Earth and the Cries of the Poor (Climate Change Sunday)

The scriptures, both the Jewish and the Christian, present God’s concern for the poor (anawim). God has always been partial to the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. To practice care for the poor means that we identify with the poor, listen to their struggles to survive and the tragedies that they experience. In the segment “Crimes Against Nature” from the video series, Renewal, we witness how mountain tops are wastefully harvested through explosions, toxic chemicals polluting the water table and streams harming humans and other life. I am deeply touched by the testimony of the mother who bathes her child in water laced with arsenic and other toxins. We hear the cries of the land as the coal companies explode the mountain tops and the cries of animal and human life. Here the poor are the cries of the Earth community and all life, human and non-human. They are the poor, and they will be the ones to most suffer the climate changes of the future. The poor always suffer while the wealthy have means to escape the ravages. God’s option for the poor includes the Earth and all life that inhabits the Earth. Albert Schweitzer remarked, “Ethics means unlimited responsibility for everything existing and alive.”

I want to address how we as Earth-centered Christians might approach the scripture and try to listen to voices of the Earth in the Bible and how Jesus gives an example how we relate to the cries of the Earth and the poor.

The prophet Hosea utters these words some 2600 years ago, but they could today over what humans are doing to the land.

Hear the words of the Lord, O people of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness and loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, murder and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and who live in it languish, together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea. (Hosea 4:1-3)

This reading could be easily applied to human recklessness in mountain top harvesting of coal, destroying the environment, harming animal life and human beings alike for greed of energy. Here in Hosea we hear the land, the Earth voicing its indictment against humanity.

Humans are created in God’s image so they can exercise dominion of the earth. They ordered to subdue and dominate the Earth in Genesis 1. And this has become a human principle in dominating the Earth, exploiting greedily its resources, without any constraint or thought of future generations. Sallie McFague has three principles for human beings living with the Earth: Take your share (of resources), Clean up after yourself, and Keep the house (Earth) in repair for future occupants. These are good principles to remember as we live out vocation as “Green” or Earth-centered Christians.

First, Hosea states, ‘there is no faithfulness and loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land.” Because of the command to subdue and dominate in the account of Genesis, humanity has often attempted to dominate, exploit recklessly, and without any thought than short term profitability and greed. But what about life impacted? What about the future for later generations? Hosea’s indictment that “no knowledge of God in the land” points to the secular devaluation of the Earth and other life to serve its own purpose. It has forgotten the wisdom that our ancestors and native people have long known…
We have lost our ability to listen to the voices of the land, the plants and trees, and animals and the voices of the sea. We ignore the agonized cries of all those from the Earth-community. There is a profound selfishness that ignores the poor and homeless and blame them for their plight.

We listen to the voice of the Earth here and other places in scripture. There are six “green” or creation-centered principles that we need to be aware of when we read the Bible according to biblical scholar Norman Habel who has shepherded the Earth Bible Project:

1) The universe, the Earth and all its components have intrinsic worth. All creation is loved by God.
2) The Earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival.
3) The Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice.
4) The universe, Earth and its components are a part of dynamic cosmic design within which each piece has a place to play in the overall goal of that design.
5) Earth is a balanced and divine domain where responsible custodians can function as partners with, rather than rulers over Earth, to sustain its balance and a diverse Earth community.
6) Earth and its components not only suffer from human injustice but actively resist them in the struggle for justice. Introducing Ecological Hermeneutics

These Earth-centered principles are used by Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Bible. Such readings shift a human-centric reading of scripture and provides a more inclusive creation-centered perspective, that is, a perspective from God.
I read the first reading from Hosea 4:1-3 as the cries and mourning of the Earth and the prophet Hosea hears those cries. It points to our need to carefully hear the cries of the Earth community today and give them voice to those unable to listen to the Earth.

Hosea observes, that the land mourns over those who live in it languish. Rather the Earth mourns the subversion of God’s created order depicted poetically in the creation account in Genesis. This time creation is reversed, from humanity to wild animals, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea. Israel. Now modern humanity, has upset the balance of God’s created order. So the Earth indicts humanity and mourns the degradation resulting from human destruction. Humanity has the destructive power and now the capability because our technology and industrial waste released into the atmosphere, into landfills, and into the oceans, we can undo the evolved created order of the evolution of a balanced Earth capable to support diverse life.

In Genesis 2, God gives humanity the mission to serve. God cares for all creation. How do we move from a human-centric perspective of acting towards the Earth to identify with the Earth community as siblings and seek the voices of the Earth community who are our sibling relatives?

There are several places in the scriptures to look for answer to my question. I want to look at Jesus an example. Certainly, Jesus was not aware of the environmental issues of today’s climate change, environmental degradation, and the extinction of species during his life. However, he had first-hand experience of domination by the Roman Empire and its colonization of Galilee and Judea. He witnessed the impact of conquest, spiraling indebtedness of peasants and their displacement from their farmlands, religious fundamentalism, and burdensome Roman and religious taxation, and so. Given the choice between domination and service, we see in the gospels that Jesus chose service. Here is his words in Mark 10:42-45)

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not among you: but whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Child of Humanity came not to be served but to serve and give his life as ransom for many.

Jesus’ commitment to service and compassionate care for the poor can be extended to the Earth and all life. Biblical scholar Norman Habel writes,

The way of Jesus –serving rather than dominating—clearly stands in tension with the mandate to dominate in Genesis 1. I would go so far as to say that the way of Jesus supersedes the mandate to dominate. (Habel, An Inconvenient Text)

The principle of Jesus is service as a slave. Jesus is freely choosing service as a slave, the lowest and humblest position in his society. His introduction of his disciples and his audience into the new ways of God’s reign is that of serving, not being served. Serving has the built-in notion of listening and caring for the needs of the “other.” Jesus chooses to serve rather than the path of domination and ruling.

He models for us in the 21st century how we might care for the Earth and its community of interrelated life. As the incarnation of God, Jesus models the most profound image of God. He defines God as who is other-centered in love and compassionate care.

I want to end with a story:

The Maori of New Zealand reenact the arrival of their ancestors from across the ocean more than a thousand years ago. They are confronted by four fierce guardians of the volcano, the ocean, the forest, and the wind. As they come unto the land, they hear the cry of mother Earth: will you be guardians of my land? Their call echoes the cry of the Earth in Genesis 2. Will you be my guardians? (Habel)

Indigenous peoples like the Maori are more in tune with listening to the voices of the Earth—the plants, the animals, ocean, forest, volcano, and wind. Indigenous peoples factor in their ability to co-live with the Earth; they focus their attentiveness on living with and maintaining the existence of other beings because other beings are our siblings and have the right to exist.

Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff has spoken for the indigenous peoples of Brazil. He tells us modern folks we need to recover a shamanic consciousness:

Inside each of us lies the shaman dimension. That shaman energy causes us to stand speechless in the face of the immensity of the sea, to sense the eyes of another person, to be entranced on seeing a newborn child. We need to liberate the shaman dimension within us, so as to enter into harmony with all around us, and to feel at peace.

Will you follow Christ and use his principle of service to care for the Earth? Will you commit yourselves to be guardians of the Earth community this climate Sunday?

Join Me in the following Earth Covenant:

We, the MCC / United Church of Christ in the Valley, proclaim our love for God’s Creation and profess our belief that the Earth and all life are an interconnected part of the sacred Web of Life. We acknowledge we too are part of the Web of Life.

We covenant together to commit ourselves as a church and individuals in the great work of healing, preservation and justice as we strive to reduce our individual and collective negative impact on the environment and to repair the damage that has been done to God’s Earth. In worship and church life we will express our appreciation and give praise for the Earth and display a reverence for the Earth community of life. We commit ourselves to principles of taking only what we need, cleaning up our damage to Earth we do, and keeping the Earth in repair for the future.

We make this covenant in the hope and faith that through our Earth care we will be able to help improve and sustain the health of the land, air and water for the benefit of all current and future inhabitants of this Planet. Amen!