As we just heard Maggie read, nine centuries ago, a saintly woman was writing of her concerns about creation? Clearly concern for creation care is not a new concept. In fact, most of the Babylonian Talmud, which we just heard Brad read a few minutes ago, was compiled between the third and fifth centuries CE, and the reading tells of planning for generations to come. It speaks of care and forethought for those who will follow us on this earth. Now we see that concern for God’s creation and its healthy future was part of scholarly thinking 16 centuries ago. 1
What does all of this mean to us? If we choose not to counter what we have been doing, especially since the Industrial Revolution, we place ourselves on a path toward the destruction of God’s beautiful creation. As members of a faith community, and followers of Jesus, what is asked of us?
Is it a part of our faith to care for God’s creation? Clearly Bishop Douglas Fisher believes it is. He appointed as Missioner for Creation Care for the Diocese of Western Massachusetts Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas in January of 2014. Reverend Bullitt-Jonas travels around preaching, speaking and leading retreats. In fact, she preached at Saints James and Andrew on April 24 of this year. She expressed her gratitude to Bishop Fisher for the appointment stating, “I am grateful to Bishop Doug Fisher for offering me this opportunity to express my faith in a God who loves and redeems all Creation.” Rev. Bullitt-Jonas goes on to say, “I am very interested in the ways that religious faith can move us beyond fear, hopelessness or despair as we face the reality of climate change. I also believe that religious communities and leaders have an important role to play in shaping this country’s growing climate movement.” 2
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry includes in his description of the Jesus Movement the following: “As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, and followers of Jesus’ Way, we seek to live like him. We’re serious about moving out to grow loving, liberating, life-giving relationships with God (evangelism); to grow those relationships with each other (reconciliation); and to grow those relationships with all of creation (creation care).” 3 As one of the three major focuses of Bishop Curry’s plan for our larger church, clearly he considers creation care to be part of our responsibility. I would like to suggest some first steps toward becoming real stewards of God’s creation.
Throughout sacred text, from the creation in Genesis until today, we have been told and shown that we are God’s children. We have been forgiven and urged forward time and time again to help us see the way we should travel. We have continued to make mistakes, from the time of Cain and Abel through to the gun violence and creation destruction of today. Yet God
continually gifts us with God’s love, giving us new chances to get it right. Sometimes God sends children, like Malala and Greta Thunberg to show us what courage and dedication to a just cause look like. Sometimes God sends leaders like our presiding bishop to urge us onto the right path through words and actions. And sometimes God makes it even simpler than that. Have you ever ventured out your door and suddenly been confronted with a sunset so beautiful it takes your breath away? Or been a passenger in a car and realize that the view from the side window is truly magnificent? I believe that these are God’s way of showing us the beauty of God’s creation so that maybe, just maybe, we will be moved to prevent its destruction.
As adults, we often live life very disconnected from nature moving through life at a rapid pace just trying to get things done. Maybe the first step on our journey to creation care is to become more childlike, taking the time to really see what is around us. Children look at the sky and see magic, while we often only look at the sky to determine what to expect from the weather. In order to rekindle our love for God’s creation, we first need to really see it. Lay in the grass and look at the clouds passing by. Try to see them with the eyes of a child, and notice what they look like to you. A dog? A boat? An angel? What you see matters far less than that you see. Find a brook and look at the life that exists there; put your feet in the moving water. These are
just some of God’s creation miracles. There is a field on our way home that is filled with the light of fireflies in the summer. They never cease to amaze me. We live out of town just a bit, and I love the sound of the peepers. We can’t see them, but we can certainly hear them. And did you know that those kind of ugly water bugs actually become beautiful dragon flies?
Surrender to the awe.
God’s creation is filled with beautiful miracles, some of which we take for granted or miss completely as we move through our lives of work and worry; of the need to succeed; of believing that getting stuff will somehow help us to feel better. Jesus was never wealthy. Instead he was a man moving through life with his eyes and his heart wide open. For us to be true followers of Jesus, we may need to slow down, to be in the moment; to pay attention as we move through life. We may need to notice all the little miracles in order to rekindle our love for God’s creation. As a friend of ours said concerning how we act in the world, we need to show up, be truly present, tell the truth, and let go of the outcome. We cannot predict what
will happen if we spend our love seeking to care for God’s creation. All we can do is our best. But we are God’s hands and feet, voice and heart in this world, and God is counting on us to care for God’s creation.
In closing, I’d like to share a brief prayer with you from southern Vermont blogger Kellyann Wolfe:
'You were made for this earth, and this earth was made for you. Go forth to love and serve it, knowing in your deepest heart that you are blessed from the beginning of time. In the name of the One who called all things good. ' Amen. 4
1 Library of Congress, World History Collection
2 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Episcopalnewsservice.org, January 2014
3 Bishop Michael Curry, episcopalchurch.org
4 Kellyann Wolfe, blogger, A Dirty Mind: Spirit and Body, Intellect and Earth
The land, as it turned out, was first part of God’ covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
During the summer months in this first of the three-year lectionary cycle, the Matthew year, we follow the longest sequence that appears at any point in the lectionary – over the course of several months we follow the sweeping story of the tribal ancestors of Israel -
I LOVE THIS MATERIAL. Not only is it wonderful storytelling, with all the characteristics of great literature; it is important because it is the foundation of Jesus’s faith, and therefore ours as well.
Genesis and the rest of the ancestral stories convey Israel’s knowledge of a loving God who creates the world, who is passionately engaged with and faithful to God’s people, who is continually seeking to redeem the world through drawing God’s people into relationship with God’s self.
Although I know this will be review, I wanted to spend some time this morning setting the context for this material, since we will be hearing and living with it for the next several months.
The Ancestral Narratives are mythological in nature.
According to sacred text we share with Jews and Muslims, Abraham and Sarah were the first to know God as we know God and to enter into covenant relationship with God –
Today’s look into the story picks up with a promise, a laugh, and a rebuke.
Let’s look back at what came before -
The covenant God established with Abraham involved three promises, revealed over the course of several encounters:
Abraham and Sarah are imperfect people, as are all of the Bible’s human protagonists, and the plot thickens as Abraham and Sarah age without the awaited offspring. Sarah, unable to trust God’s promise, has hatched an alternative plan, and sent her servant, Hagar, to lie with Abraham and bear a son.
But as anyone might have predicted, Ishmael’s birth introduces new strains into household and the sense of threat and drama grows.
Which is where we pick up with today’s episode. Resting by the oaks of Mamre, Abraham spies three visitors approaching, and somehow seems to know that these are no ordinary strangers. Abraham outdoes himself in providing hospitality: he runs to greet them, hastens to tell Sarah to prepare a meal, and then runs to the herd to pick out the perfect calf. All of this on 100-year old legs!
As the visitors are eating, they ask after Sarah who, we learn, is eavesdropping behind the tent flap, and they renew the promise that she will have a son “in due season”. The storyteller reminds us that Sarah is old – we already know that she is 90 - and has passed her menopause. Listening to the visitors’ promise, Sarah laughs to herself: “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure?”
The Lord (who, it turns out, is present in the guise of the strangers,) chastises Sarah for her laughter, speaking the line that is clearly the important point of the story: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
Throughout the ancestral narratives the storytellers illustrate the faithfulness and the power of Jahweh, the one who comes through and fulfills promises, the one who overcomes all of the obstacles that the faithless human community creates. God’s faithfulness is a truth we still need to hear, for it is still true. Today, I think, though, we recognize that that it is our opportunity and our responsibility to work on the healing of the world, and that it is through us that God acts.
Having affirmed this important and central truth, I also want to acknowledge some of the difficulties in this story.
Juneteenth celebrates freedom from enslavement, recognizing the occasion when the final enslaved Americans were notified, as Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas in June 1865, that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had liberated all persons in the United States from bondage under the system of chattel slavery.
So there it is:
Who is treated with respect, is worthy of being provided the basic information that affects their lives?
Just as the ancient storytellers did not regard it as important to allow Sarah a direct part in the conversation about her own childbearing, historians suggest that some slaveholders may well have withheld information about their freedom from their enslaved agricultural workers, in order to continue to benefit from their labors.1
Let us do better in our own time.
Today’s story of Abraham’s visitors and Sarah’s laughter reminds us that despite the many troubles of this broken world, ours is a faithful God, one we can trust.
It reminds us that God’s answers for us often don’t take the shape we would choose or emerge in the time frame that we have in mind.
Is anything too wonderful for God? Let us be the bearers of hope and the workers of justice.
1 “What is the history of Juneteenth?”, brittanica.com
This morning I offer the next in that series, taking a closer look at two of the fundamental theological concepts around which our faith revolves, the concepts of “salvation”, and “grace”.
So let’s start here. My grandson Elliot is two. Every single task we undertake, when I have him with me on Mondays, takes about four times longer than it would if he would allow me to help him. Getting his crocs on, getting a slippery chunk of watermelon onto his fork, or getting into his car seat are drawn out and aggravating processes for both of us because he has to do it himself, and his way.
Here's what the Church has taught: the Elliot in all of us is the basis of what we call “sin”. We’re sure we know best, and we persist in having to do it our own way, and this leads into a separation from God, our Creator. The story our faith ancestors told about this – the second story in the Bible - is about our mythological ancestors doing it their own way, eating some fruit they weren’t supposed to eat, basically because they wanted the knowledge that would make them more powerful.
The story goes that God punished that mythological couple for their disobedience, for their willfulness and their quest for power, by making them mortal, by bringing death into human experience. Now, obviously this is a symbolic story: there was never an actual time before human beings made bad choices, or when we didn’t die. The truth of the Eden story, though, is that our inner two year old, our willfulness and drive to acquire power, to know more and be independent, leads us to separating ourselves from God.
We separate ourselves from God because we think we have a better way, a way that will keep us secure and free from discomfort. Wouldn’t you agree that we’re pretty much always drawn to the way that involves pleasure and minimizes risk? Following that self-centered and risk-averse impulse can result in a life that is short on relationships, and moreover, a life that is short on purpose.
Salvation is about being saved from bad consequences. The other theological word we use that means about the same thing as “salvation” is “redemption”. When we speak of salvation or redemption, we speak of God reaching out, from God’s deep and abiding love, to save us from the consequences of sin, in other words, to save us from the consequences of our own short-sightedness, out willfulness and insistence on our own way. We believe that this salvation, this redemption, comes about through the incarnation, the life and ministry, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The traditional formulation of the Christian concept of salvation comes straight from the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Church in Rome he says that sin and death entered the world through the error of one man, the symbolic Adam (forgetting, I suppose, the original initiative of the symbolic Eve), and that justification (or the “making right” of humanity’s relationship with God) came about through the one man, Jesus Christ (Romans 5). In the first letter to Timothy, Paul likewise observes that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (I Timothy 1:15). Paul believed that Jesus’ redeeming actions not only saved us from the consequences of sin, but also saved us from the death that because part of the human experience in the Eden story.
Now, exactly HOW salvation or redemption came about through Jesus Christ is a tricky question. For many generations the Church has relied on a theology of Atonement, the notion that Jesus’ death was required by God to “pay for” the sins of humankind, and that without Jesus’ self-sacrificing death, our redemption could not occur. The Gospel of Mark quotes Jesus as saying that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
This theology – that Jesus death was, in effect, a compensation or repayment for the sin of the mythical Adam and Eve – is no longer a compelling idea for many Christian theologians, for lots of good reasons that I won’t attempt to elucidate here. On the contrary, the predominant focus, when theologians think about salvation today, is that the living example of God revealed in the human flesh of Jesus the Christ, in Jesus’ words and actions including his submission to the power of human evil in his crucifixion, is what saves us. The “ransom for many” needed to be paid is not to convince God to forgive human sin, but to convince us, to turn our hearts. The catechism or “Outline of the Faith” in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer affirms that Jesus Christ “is one sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation” (BCP p. 849)
“The power of sin” is not the same for everyone. We all probably have our own individual things that tend to enslave us, that draw us to ways of thinking and behaving that separate us from God, from ourselves and from others. Melody Shobe, in her book (with Scott Gunn) Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs and Practices, tells a story about going to a Christian camp, as a girl, where senior campers would give testimonies about how they were saved by encounters with God in Christ. She recalls that some of the young women spoke of being saved from addiction or from hopelessness, and that others could tell of tangible experiences of the Holy Spirit, and she says she worried about what she, as a middle class white girl who had led an uneventful life, would be able to claim when it came time for her own testimony. What Melody came to realize, through prayer, was that her burden was that of the expectation that she had to “measure up” in order to earn God’s love. She says:
“Being freed from expectations of perfection allowed me to grow more deeply in my faith, to discover the love of God that knows no bounds, to begin to serve God, not out of obligation or fear, but out of joy and gratitude.” (p. 204)
So here’s the next question about this idea of salvation. Is it something that happened once, with the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, or is it something that happens in the individual lives of believers, or is it an ongoing process? Hmmm… and the answer is… all of the above.
Certainly the historical events of Jesus life and death constitute salvation for humankind. Some Christian denominations emphasize the necessity experiencing personal salvation and maintain that we need to be individually saved, each person in a conversion moment when they accept Jesus as their Savior - i.e., the one who saves them. While I assume we all go through phases of more or less closeness to God and varying degrees of appreciation for how God’s love makes a difference in our lives, it’s simply not part of the Episcopal tradition to talk about individual salvation. It does seem fair to say, however, that our awareness of God’s love and its difference in our lives is, in some way, salvation as a process. In the Melody Shobe example I just cited, the self-awareness that came to her through prayer, that freed her to live a life of joy and gratitude, was undoubtedly a part of her salvation.
All of which brings us to the concept of grace. The Catechism, again, defines grace as “God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved: by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills” (BCP p. 858) I’m not sure that speaking of grace as “favor” is helpful to me, but here’s the visual that lives in my mind: I think of grace as the power of love that emanates from the heart of God the way you can sometimes see sunlight streaming in rays through the clouds. I think of grace as the goodness and the power that God shares with us, with which God surrounds and flows through us.
Salvation through Jesus Christ is part of God’s grace, for sure, and we receive God’s grace in the sacraments, to renew and strengthen us to do the work we’re called to do. Melody Shobe and , Scott Gunn in Walk in Love, remark that “the power of God’s grace, working in us will change us, enliven and inspire us, so that we can work on behalf of God’s kingdom in the world”. (p. 207)
Let’s turn to one final biblical quote, then, again from our friend Saint Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians:
“For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
As Paul implies, we are not just saved, but saved FOR something – to live out our salvation in the world. The grace of God finds expression in the way we live.
How have you experienced salvation, and how does God’s grace find expression in your life?
We are blessed to have a diversity of preaching voices in our parish. Our guild of preachers is a mixture of lay and clergy. We hope you enjoy the varied voices.
Meet our Preachers