Sermon: June 25, 2017 – “Creation Theology According to Jesus”

“Creation Theology According to Jesus”

Text: The Gospel of Thomas; saying #77

Jesus said, “It is I who am the light which is over all things.
I am All. From Me All come forth, and
to Me All attained. Split a piece of wood, and I am
there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there.”

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a few parts of my creation theology as part of that sermon. I received a little bit of interested feedback from that very brief synopsis and so I thought it might be interesting for you to have me expand on that thinking just a bit.

So for starters, I wanted to recap what I said a couple of weeks ago about how I see God and our universe and our planet connected. These are the very same points that I spoke of briefly in that sermon two weeks ago.

*God created it – the how doesn’t matter, but God created it.

*God is present in creation – what we do to the planet, we do to God.

*Creation belongs to God – Creation is God.

*Our relationship with creation mirrors our relationship with God.

*How we care for creation mirrors how we care for one another.

*The pulse of creation is the energy of God and is the source of all that is.

So to expand on these ideas is what I will be up to for the next several sermons. This may be a bit of a jigsaw puzzle over the summer, but that is one of the reasons I always try to make copies available of each sermon. That way, if you miss a Sunday, or as was the case last week, when I miss a Sunday, we can all keep track of what is going on.

Before we begin the expansion of these tenets of what I call my creation theology, I thought it might be good to look back and explore some of the things which I think have influenced the formation of this theology. The text I read a few minutes ago is probably a good place to begin.

Before I entered Seminary I had never heard of the Gospel of Thomas. There were fragments of this Gospel as part of some writings that had been discovered in the 1800’s, but it wasn’t until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that we had a complete manuscript in our hands. At first, when the Gospel of Thomas was discovered many thought that this could be the lost gospel that has become known to scholars as “Q”. I have mentioned previously that “Q” is considered by many to be a second source that the authors of Matthew and Luke used in the preparation of their gospels, in addition to the Gospel of Mark. The “Q” theory proved not to be the case, and the Gospel of Thomas was matched up with the fragments we already had and scholars then knew what it was. In terms of Biblical manuscripts, the Gospel of Thomas is very new to us, having been discovered as recently as 1945.

So when I found myself in Seminary I was exposed to the Gospel of Thomas for the very first time. It is an interesting gospel, in that it is a “sayings” gospel. This means that the text does not attempt to put anything in context of a story, it just simply says Jesus said: this or that. Then it goes on to the next saying. The sayings are just numbered 1 through 114; the one I read this morning as mentioned is saying number 77.

This particular saying, when I heard it the first time, confirmed for me much of what I already believed to be true. I have always had a connection with the earth and with nature. I have always felt closer to God in the woods or in the mountains than anywhere else. This saying confirms that Divine presence which I had always felt.

A second confirming experience also happened in Seminary. This came in the form of a book which I read called “The Body of God” by Sallie McFague. This book is an in depth look at creation and the presence of God in creation. Sallie McFague is a contemporary author, so the ideas and the concepts put forth in her book represent very modern thought. Sallie McFague teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity Seminary and here is what one of her colleagues from Harvard had to say about this book.

“A very distinctive and important new option for Christian theology. McFague proposes in a clear and challenging way a theological program based on what she calls ‘the organic model’ for conceiving God. Her model is in keeping with contemporary scientific understandings of the widely accepted common creation story and provides a good basis for reconceiving the Christian understanding of human existence in an ecologically ordered natural world. Very illuminating, with some brilliant insights.”

— Gordon D. Kaufman, Harvard Divinity School

Of course, I think you can see how this book may have had some significant influence in how I view God and how I relate to God in the natural world.

I mentioned that Sallie McFague was a contemporary author with modern ideas and concepts, but some of those concepts are still very ancient. I think the saying from the Gospel of Thomas we looked at mirrors much of what McFague says in her book, but there is another person of interest that also has articulated much of what I believe to be true about God. This person is from the 13th century; you may have heard of him, it is St. Francis of Assisi.

Even before seminary, I had a connection with St. Francis. Having had the opportunity to actually visit Assisi that connection has grown even stronger. St. Francis is well known for his popular prayer, which we recite here often. But he is a much more diverse and interesting character than just his prayer. Legend has it that St. Francis was particularly well connected to animals and some say he could communicate with them. Statues of St. Francis often include birds resting on his arms or other animals around him. When asked why the animals would come to him, he simply said that he tells them he is no danger to them and they listen.

Less famous than his prayer, but still very well-known is a manuscript authored by St. Francis that has taken many forms over the past 8 or 9 hundred years. This manuscript is often called the Canticle of the Earth, but portions of it and other expanded versions have appeared in a variety of names, but generally all are accredited to St. Francis. Just so you know, a canticle is a hymn or a song, often from a Biblical text, but not limited to that. A canticle is most often used in a church or religious setting.

What I have done is I have chosen a variety of the texts I have found attributed to St. Francis and combined them into my own interpretation of the Canticle of the Earth by St. Francis of Assisi. I hope you enjoy it.

Sermon: June 11, 2017 – “All that Borrows Life from Thee”

“All that Borrows Life from Thee”

Text: Mark 12: 1-9

Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5 Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

This is a crazy parable. At least that is my reaction to it; as you are reading, I find myself thinking that these tenants are really ignorant. How do they think this episode is going to end? How could it possibly end well? What were they thinking? It’s not like they were in hiding. It isn’t as if the owner of the vineyard didn’t know where they lived. This cycle of escalating violence always leads to a disturbing conclusion. It really makes no sense that anyone in their right mind would act this way.

Yet, the parable rings true on a number of different levels. We have all experienced situations that seem to mirror this parable. Often it leaves us wondering.

As we look at this parable and the scholarship around it there are a couple of things that I think are important for us to know about this particular story. The first thing that I think is important is the level of authenticity that seems to surround this parable. This story appears in varying forms in all three of the synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke. It can also be found in the Gospel of Thomas, which is thought to have been written similar in time to Mark and qualifies as one of the writings we have that is closest to the execution of Jesus.

In spite of the wide acceptance of this parable by the authors of these Gospels, the fellows of the Jesus seminar fail to attribute the parable to Jesus. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main idea is for us to know that all scholars do not agree as to the origin or interpretation of this parable.

This is important for us to recognize because when the Bible scholars cannot agree about source or interpretation, then I find a little freedom in that conclusion to go ahead and find my own personal interpretation as well. It’s not like the meaning of this parable has been cast in stone and any other interpretation is absolute heresy. I think we have a green light to ask questions, to dig deeper and to apply the concepts of this parable to our 21st century lives in ways the original Gospel authors could never imagine.

That being said, I’m going to unpack this parable in a new way with an interpretation I’m pretty sure you will not find in any Bible commentary anywhere. Before I do, let me add that these are my ideas around this parable. You don’t have to agree with me, but I do hope it creates a thought process within your minds as to how we might interpret ancient observations within a 21st century context.

The first observation I want to make about this parable is that much the available scholarship wants to focus on the allegory of the landowner being compared to an apocalyptic return of Jesus. There is certain death and destruction awaiting these wicked tenants and the comparison of the landowner finally sending his son who ends up getting killed, with the eventual execution of Jesus is just too tempting for interpreters to ignore. Everything just seems to line up and fall into place.

But my response to those interpretations is simply to say not so fast. There are other ways of looking at this text which lie outside of any apocalyptic return of Jesus.

For example, I think the parable makes a very valid point about how greed can cloud our thinking. A few minutes ago when I first began to make comments about this story, I said something about the tenants not being all that astute. I mean, how did they think this little episode would end?

So this is an important part of a parable. It is supposed to have certain elements which turn the tables, or turn things upside down or have certain events which don’t make sense. As we read about these wicked tenants, we can’t help but think that these people are a little dim. How could anyone be so cold and cruel and calculated and actually think they could do this and not suffer any consequences? Of course the answer to this question is that they can’t. Of course there will be consequences. The text says they will be destroyed. And yet the wicked tenants persist. They kill and beat one slave after another until the landowner finally sends his son and they kill him as well. What are we to make of this behavior?

I think the parable is really about this lack of vision on the part of the tenants. It is incredibly shortsighted to engage in this level of violence just because you don’t want to pay a portion of the harvest to the landowner. What conclusion I come to when reading this parable is the power of greed has the ability to overthrow common sense and common decency. The power of greed blinds us to the otherwise obvious truth and compassionate behavior. The power of greed propels us forward into events and circumstances that have no possible chance of ending well. All is lost and given up when the greed of the short term is allowed to invade our thinking and dominate our common sense.

This parable is about how greed can color our thinking to the point that we are willing to commit atrocities to other fellow human beings just to increase our bottom line. I don’t think the tenants in this story were stupid or ignorant; after all, they were smart enough to run a vineyard, collect a harvest and smart enough to recognize the son of the landowner. So what happened to this apparent level of intelligence? It was displaced with greed. The intelligence was no longer functional and greed had taken its place.

It is like filling a glass of water. When you begin the glass is full of air; as you pour in the water, the air is displaced because the water is heavier than the air. That doesn’t mean the air no longer exists, it is just displaced out of the glass. Common sense and basic human decency can suffer the same result when displaced by the stronger and heavier components of greed. When our minds fill up with greed, common sense and decency can be displaced, and things which should be obvious, are no longer so clear. Our good judgment is displaced with greed.

I find another parallel with this parable that I find particularly disturbing. That parallel is that we are tenants of this earth. As tenants of this earth have we allowed our greed and economic zeal to cloud our thinking? Has our common sense and human decency given way to economic stimulus and greed for a larger bottom line? I think so.

I want to offer a little perspective on how I view this planet that we call our home. You are welcome to disagree with me, but I don’t think you will. This is what I believe to be true about planet earth.

*God created it – the how doesn’t matter, but God created it.

*God is present in creation – what we do to the planet, we do to God.

*Creation belongs to God – Creation is God.

*Our relationship with creation mirrors our relationship with God.

*How we care for creation mirrors how we care for one another.

*The pulse of creation is the energy of God and is the source of all that is.

Have we been good tenants of planet earth? Has greed blinded us to common sense and common human decency? Can we see planet earth and ourselves in this parable of the wicked tenants?

In our closing hymn one of the lyrics, (which was written over 300 years ago) I believe supports the understanding of creation as I have outlined. Watch for it. In the third verse, there is a line which states that everything in creation borrows life from God. In other words, every living thing and all of creation borrows life from God and eventually returns to God. God is creation and creation is God. Everything is part of the whole.

I was recently in a conversation with someone about climate change and the Paris Climate agreement and issues surrounding all that. The argument was raised that if scientists can’t agree, how are we supposed to understand climate change and come to our own conclusions.

Here’s what I think. There isn’t any scientific debate.

As for understanding climate change; if you have sense enough to know that you don’t leave a pet or God forbid, an infant in a car seat, inside a parked car on a hot day, you understand climate change.

If we read the parable through the lens of being tenants of planet earth can we see ourselves in this story? Does it end well? Can we change the ending?

Food for thought.

Go in peace.

Amen.

Sermon: June 4, 2017 – The Never Ending Story

The Never Ending Story

Text: Joel 2: 28-29

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Welcome to Pentecost Sunday! In our faith tradition this is the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The primary story of Pentecost is found in the second chapter of Acts; in that story Peter is quoted as saying the event fulfilled the prophecy of Joel, which is one of the reasons I chose that text this morning rather than the traditional one from Acts.

I think most of us are familiar with the story found in Acts. The disciples and others had gathered together for the celebration of Pentecost when there came the rush of a mighty wind and tongues of fire appeared on the heads of the disciples and some spoke in other languages and for a few minutes it seemed there was chaos. Some thought that others were drunk. But Peter stood and preached about the coming of the Spirit and what the significance of that as understood through the context of a crucified and now risen Christ.

But I want to back up a bit because there are a couple of things I want us to understand about Pentecost and why we can add even more significance to our story. The first thing I think we need to be aware of is that that the disciples had gathered together with others to celebrate the day of Pentecost. Now we need to think about this, because they had gathered together for Pentecost, before there was a Christian Pentecost to celebrate. They had gathered together as was the custom in the Jewish faith tradition for the day of Pentecost.

Does anyone know what the Jewish day of Pentecost celebrated for that faith tradition? Most of us do not; we think that Pentecost is a Christian holiday, but we have more or less coopted the holiday from the Jewish faith tradition and put our own Christian spin on things. But what I find interesting is that the two holidays are not that different in terms of what they celebrate.

I did a little research and found that the Jewish holiday of Pentecost is the fiftieth day after the Passover and it celebrates when the Torah was first given to the people of Israel. The Torah, in the Jewish faith tradition is the sacred text that we call the Old Testament, or in a more politically correct way, it is often referred to as the Hebrew Bible. I think this is interesting because in the Jewish faith tradition the Torah is considered to be, at least in part, the dwelling place of the Spirit of God.

If you have ever attended a Jewish service in a synagogue you may remember that part of the ritual is around the Torah. When you first enter a Jewish synagogue, you may notice that at the front of the sanctuary, where our altar and candles usually are is a very ornate, highly decorated cabinet. In that cabinet are scrolls of the Torah. Often the scrolls are held in some sort of velvet pouch or bag as well.

Then at some point during the service the scrolls are removed from this cabinet and walked down the aisle. As the scrolls pass the people on each side of the aisle, those seated on the end reach out and gently touch the scrolls, and then press their fingers to their lips, as if they had kissed the scrolls. This blessing is then passed down the pew to others by a touch of the hand and the symbolic kiss.

I would lift up to you the possibility that the two observances of the day of Pentecost are not as different as we might think. In the Jewish faith tradition the giving of the Torah in many ways represents the presence of the Spirit of God. Of course from a Christian perspective the coming of the Holy Spirit is exactly the same thing. Part of me wants to consider the day of Pentecost not as a Christian observance or a Jewish observance, but rather a continuous and never ending celebration that the Spirit of God is always with us. It may have begun 6,000 years ago in a unique Jewish setting, but I believe it continues today within both faith traditions.

I think it is important for us to recognize that our Christian day of Pentecost has its roots in the Jewish faith tradition.  I think we should look at the Christian day of Pentecost, not as a new holiday in the church, but a continuance of an already established tradition of celebrating the gift of the presence of the Spirit of God.

That is the first observation I wanted to make, this idea that we should view Pentecost as a continuance of the Jewish holiday, but the second observation is a little more obscure. Often when we speak of Pentecost we use the term that the disciples received the Holy Spirit at that time. While that is true from a certain perspective, I would like for us to think about the celebration of Pentecost as the giving of the Spirit rather than the receiving of the Spirit. I know this sounds like a subtle difference, but allow me to elaborate just a little.

If we look at the book of Acts, we can find the story of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit in the second chapter. Then again in the 8th chapter of Acts we find another instance where the disciples prayed for someone and they received the Holy Spirit. Specifically, this is found in Acts 8: 15-19 where we find this event;

15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then later in Acts we find another instance where others received the Holy Spirit, this story is found in Acts 10: 44-47;

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

What this implies to me is that we all are continuously receiving the Holy Spirit, but what we celebrate is the giving of the Holy Spirit. In other words we can look to the giving as the event recorded in the second chapter of Acts, but the receiving is something that has been continuously underway ever since that event.

Even as we view the Christian celebration of Pentecost as a continuance of the gift of the Spirit of God, from the original day of Pentecost when the Torah was given to the Jews, we can see the connection of our Pentecost celebration today to those celebrations from thousands of years ago. In like manner, I can say with confidence that I think the gift of the Spirit of God from long ago will continue to be celebrated, the reality of the receiving of the Spirit of God will be an event which continues to happen from this century into the next and the next and so on.

In the 1980’s there was a great movie that was a favorite of our boys when they were younger. You might remember this movie, it is called “The Never Ending Story”. That is how I think we should view Pentecost; it is the never ending story. Because we can remember and celebrate the one time event of the gift of the Spirit of God, but also look forward to the continuing events of receiving the Spirit of God.

So go in peace and receive the presence of the Holy Spirit as we celebrate the gift of the Spirit and the receiving of the Spirit as past, present and future events. May the never ending story of the Holy Spirit continue in your lives from this day forward and for all time.

Amen.