21 April 2013

Heaven and Earth

Psalm 96, Psalm 148 & Colossian 1: 15-20

Seventh Sunday of Easter/ 21st April 2013/ 

Care of Creation Sunday

Keep America Beautiful.  “Founded in 1953, it’s still the largest non-profit, community improvement organization in the United States, with approximately 589 affiliate organizations and more than 1,000 community organizations that participate in their programs. Keep America Beautiful focuses on three key issues: litter prevention, waste reduction/recycling and community greening & beautification. These goals are accomplished through a combination of community organizing, public education and the fostering of public/private partnerships. Keep America Beautiful was founded by a consortium of American businesses (including founding member Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola) nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and concerned individuals in reaction to the growing problem of highway litter that followed the construction of the Interstate Highway System. The original goal of the organization was to reduce litter through public service advertising campaigns.”[1]  

On Earth Day in 1971, Keep America Beautiful launched a new and probably it’s most memorable campaign around the theme "People Start Pollution.  People can stop it."  The campaign included the now iconic public service announcement that included the "Crying Indian," played by Iron Eyes Cody (1904-1999). Perhaps you've never seen it or don’t remember the commercial.  

 I remember it.  I was six years old.  This commercial, probably more than any single event was instrumental in inspiring America’s fledgling environmental movement.  It left a lasting impression.  Here was a Native American looking out on urban America with a tear falling from his right eye, weeping for what had been done to his land. It raised an awareness in me at the time that a terrible wrong had been committed, that I, that adults somehow caused the destruction of this land, of his home. 

Then in the mid-1970s there was the Love Canal scandal, ironically named.  It was revealed that a residential neighborhood of Niagara, NY, known as Love Canal, covering 36 square blocks, was the site of an industrial landfill. The Hooker Chemical Company buried 21,000 tons of toxic waste on the site, and then later sold it, in 1953, to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1, and then it was later sold to a developer. The US Army used the site to dispose of nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project after World War II.  I remember hearing about this on the radio and television.  Everyone was in a panic about Love Canal.  What will be found next? What else is buried in our neighborhoods that we don’t know about yet?  Love Canal?  It wasn’t loving at all.  All this helped to raise my consciousness around my relationship to the environment. 

I saw the destruction of the environment all around where I grew up in Northern New Jersey, ten miles from both the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels.  Bordering the east of my hometown of North Arlington are the Meadows, which had become an enormous landfill; bordering the town on the west is the Passaic River, one of the most polluted rivers in the country at the time, situated downstream from the industrial mills and factories of  Patterson, and upstream from the factories in Newark, Harrison, Kearny.  My high school biology teachers took us on field trips down to the river to test the water, to see what was in it.  It was depressing to say the least.  My hometown was a nice place to grow up, don’t get me wrong, but it was surrounded by the results of industrialization from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Today, the Passaic River is much cleaner (there are now fish swimming in it); parks have been built in Newark where there were factories. Even in Jersey City, just east of the Meadows, where the enormous Colgate-Palmolive factory stood along the Hudson River there are now high-end condominiums, parks, and office buildings.  The same story can be told of any major city in the North and Northeast – Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and here in Baltimore.

While we might be in the process of cleaning up our urban environments, more conscious of our relationship to the land around us, feeling good about our recycling efforts here, reducing our carbon footprints, the ecological crisis continues.  We’re playing catch-up as we watch the climate change all around the world.  The crisis continues unabated overseas in Asia and Africa and South America.  The devastation continues and as it does, humanity becomes all the more detached from the earth, from the environment, from our home, alienated from Mother Earth.

To some extent Christianity bears some responsibility for the state we’re in.  This might sound like an odd, even ridiculous claim, but I think it’s true.  The Industrial Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth centuries originated in Christian Europe, in Germany, France, and, in England, with its “dark Satanic Mills,” as William Blake (1757-1827) put it – and they were dark and Satanic.[2]  The revolution spread to the American shores, colonial expansion helped to feed our mills and the factories, some were just as dark and Satanic.  The United States industrial expansion continued through the nineteenth century, yielding great progress, a better future for immigrants from around the world, and enormous wealth (especially for some), but it also yielded environmental devastation.  Civilization comes at a terrible price.

These were so-called Christian nations where industrialization occurred.  Did the Church ever come to the aid of the environment?  Did it ever come to the aid of Mother Earth?  Did it ever try to save the planet in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries?  Today, yes, the Church is involved in environmental concerns, but we’ve come late to this issue.  Why weren’t we there centuries ago? 

Because essentially the Church, I think, operated with three misguided assumption.  The first false assumption was due, in part, to a false reading of the creation account in Genesis—it was assumed that the earth belonged to us and not God, that God gave it to us to “use” at our pleasure, to use the resources given to us by God and then use them for the advancement of Christian civilization.

The second assumption is this: the Church, for centuries, operated with a dangerous dualism that privileged spirit over body.  The spirit was considered holy, eternal, of God.  Matter, along with our bodies, was viewed with suspicion, if not altogether bad.  For centuries the Church believed that it should concern itself with only spiritual concerns and leave material concerns for those beyond the Church.  And by spiritual, they/we meant concerns of the heart or the soul or spirit, personal, invisible concerns, such as salvation.  It’s this deep division between soul and body, preferring one over the other, which has helped to wreck havoc upon the earth.  This wedge between spirit and matter is insidious.

Contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann makes clear that both theology and the Church’s “domain became the soul’s assurance of salvation in the inner citadel of the heart.  The earthly, bodily and cosmic dimensions of the salvation of the whole world were overlooked.”[3]  In other words—and this is the third assumption—the Church viewed salvation as essentially the saving of the soul, as a spiritual concern.  That’s what God really cared about, it was assumed, that’s what Jesus came to save, that’s the Gospel.  Everything else was, is, outside the domain of the Church.  Inside and outside, sacred and secular—and so reality was divided.  The individual was elevated and separated out from its relationship to the rest of the world, to creation itself. The individual/humanity was viewed as existing apart from nature, instead of seeing humanity as part of the creation.  Reality was divided.  Some things are sacred, holy; everything else is profane, secular.  God is concerned about holy things; doesn’t really care about the secular.  Moltmann writes, “When personal salvation came to be thought of as something that had nothing to do with the world, in the same degree the knowledge and fashioning of the world ceased to have any reference to salvation and disaster.  This meant that the calamitous dichotomy between the subjectivity of human beings and the objective world of ‘mere things’ was deepened.  The truth of faith and the truth of reason split apart.”[4]

This dichotomy contributed to so many other dichotomies that continue to plague our world: the separation of faith and reason, faith and science, faith and economics, faith and politics, faith and ecology.  The Reformation helped to forge this separation and then it erupted during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, followed by developments in science in the nineteenth century, which effectively viewed God as separate from the world, absent from the world, or even dead.  There’s a direct correlation between perceiving the absence of God, the rise of secularism, and the ecological crisis caused by industrialization and technological progress.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) once observed, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you get neither.”[5]  Once heaven is divorced from having any connection with the earth, everything unravels.  The earth, and all of us with is, loses its mooring and we are set adrift.  Once God is taken out of the picture, taken out of creation, everything comes undone.  We are left with the illusion that the earth belongs to us and we can do whatever we want to it.  We are left with the illusion that this world doesn’t matter, that “we’re just a passin’ through,” so who cares if we blow ourselves to smithereens, there’s another shore waiting for us.  Once God is removed from the picture, the world loses its glory, its otherness, its holiness.  Some traditions in the Church were so keen on eradicating pantheism, that is, the worship of nature, that we defaced creation of its magic.  God can’t be found in nature, theologians said. We do not learn about God from creation, many theologians in the Reformed tradition argued for centuries.  It’s true, a crocus tells us nothing about Christ, but that doesn’t mean that the world, the universe, isn’t infused with the presence of God.

The early Celtic Christians of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, before the eighth century, had a much better sense of God’s goodness in the grandeur of creation.  Every thing was every blessed thing because everything was blessed, good, and holy. The incarnation of Jesus, God in the flesh, means that matter matters.  Many centuries later, George Macleod (1895-1991), founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, intent on renewing the Church with a new appropriation of Celtic Christianity, was right when he said that the Christian gospel involves more than soul salvation, it is whole salvation.   Because it is whole, the soul is included along with the redemption of the world, and by world Macleod included the created order.[6] 

A good example of this theological outlook is the meaning of the Celtic cross, such as the St. John’s Cross on our Communion table (from Iona).  The cross is placed over the circle.  The circle represents the earth.  The cross achieves the redemption of the earth, of creation itself.  Celtic Christians had a far more cosmic understanding of salvation.

St. John's Cross, Iona, Scotland

Macleod is right.  From a biblical perspective, any talk of dividing the world up into sacred and profane, spiritual and material is an illusion, a fantasy that we’ve created for our own questionable purposes.  Psalm 24:1 couldn’t be more explicit:  “The earth and all it contains belongs to the LORD, the earth and all who dwell in it.”  Heaven and earth are held together as one.  We need to view the world, our reality in it, holistically.  We need to stop dividing up reality, bifurcating reality.  We need healing, wholeness.  The psalms make this clear, such as Psalm 96 and Psalm 148.  It’s in the New Testament as well, especially in the cosmic hymn to Christ offered in Colossians.  Christ is viewed as “the firstborn of all creation.”  Therefore, “In him all things are held together” (Col. 1:17).  Reality, creation, the universe are all held together in him, are all one.

When we remember this, live from this knowledge, our relationship with the world changes.  If we try to imagine creation from God’s perspective—holistically, heaven and earth linked together—would we dump toxic waste in a landfill?  Would we devastate the rain forests of Brazil? When we abuse the earth, we abuse ourselves.  To treat the environment this way is a form of crucifixion, we’re crucifying Christ all over again.

What will it take for you and me, for us to be re-enchanted by the glory and presence of God? What will it take to again see the world enchanted?   Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Do you feel it?  See it?  Can we say, Praise be to God for every blessed thing and to see everything blessed?  Will the creation again be the cause for praise, help us to praise?

As the psalmist declared: 
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
            let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. 
Then shall all the trees of the forest
            sing for joy before the LORD” (Psalm 96:11-12).  May it be so.

[2] William Blake’s  “Jerusalem” (1804):  “And did those feet in ancient time./ Walk upon Englands mountains green:/ And was the holy Lamb of God,/ On Englands pleasant pastures seen!   And did the Countenance Divine,/ Shine forth upon our clouded hills?/ And was Jerusalem builded here,/ Among these dark Satanic Mills?”
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creaetion and the Spirit of God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 35.
[4] Moltman, 35.
[5] C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianty.
[6] See Ron Ferguson’s biography George Macleod:  Founder of the Iona Community (Wild Goose Publications, 2004), and also Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London:  Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1993).

14 April 2013

Where's the Love?

John 21: 1-19

Third Sunday after Easter, 14th April 2013

This is such a visual text, John 21, with Jesus appearing along the lake shore, the disciples hard at work fishing, the risen Jesus beside a charcoal fire cooking for his friends.  "Come, have some breakfast." They're surprised to see him; happy to see him again.  They gather around the fire and eat and talk and enjoy one another's company, rich fellowship, deep sharing.  The story is so real, concrete, and tactile.  You can almost smell the fish as it cooks on the fire and taste the warm bread.

            The author of the gospel is masterful in his attention to detail, which helps provide a sense of realism to it all.  This attention to detail is more than just a literary device, more than a tool used to craft of good story.  It is a tool of course, but John's attention to detail serves a theological end.  Everything in John's gospel carries a meaning; almost every word carries significance and points us toward a deeper reading of the story, something seemingly insignificant is central to the story and its meaning—something so seemingly insignificant such as charcoal.

            Did you see/hear the reference to charcoal in John 21?  Jesus was cooking around a charcoal fire.  It stands out.  Why charcoal?  You have to go to a Bible concordance to find the answer. Look up every place where the word charcoal is used:  three times.  Once in Proverbs (26:21), and twice here in John's gospel.  Where precisely in the gospel?   We heard it on Maundy Thursday:  "Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself" (John 18:18).  It's around this same charcoal fire that Peter denied having anything to do with Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times.

            And so we are around another fire and after breakfast Jesus gets down to business.  It's time to talk—to talk with Simon Peter.  "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"—meaning, more than the other disciples?  "Do you love me?"  Not once, he asked, not twice, but three times, each time giving Peter an opportunity for confession as if to undo each statement of denial.  Jesus never says to Peter, "Hey, why did you deny me?"  Or, "why did you abandon me back when I was on the cross?"  Jesus doesn't return to judge or condemn, but ultimately to restore the broken relationship, for Peter to know that he's been forgiven, that he's still loved by Jesus, and given an opportunity to begin again.  Yet, each time Jesus asks the question, Peter gets a little frustrated and testy.  Peter pushes back a little.  Was it out of guilt and shame?  Jesus never mentions the denial, but Peter knows it.  Jesus knows.  Peter knows.

            If you love me, then "feed my sheep."  "Follow me." 

            John's Gospel was written for his community of faith, it's a text that tells the story about Jesus; but it’s more than history, it's written to encourage the people in his church to participate in Jesus' story and move the story along.  Participate in the story and we discover that there's a bit of Peter in all of us.  We are all like Peter to one degree or another.  We have all denied Jesus; we all deny Jesus; and we all will continue to deny Jesus—because following him is difficult.  Yes, the denial produces guilt and shame in us.  But it needs to be stressed here that guilt and shame are rarely ever the best ways to encourage someone to do something. We might choose to do something out of guilt and shame, but there are other ways, healthier ways to get us to act, to follow.  Jesus never says anything nor does anything to engender guilt or shame.  Nothing.  Instead, he moves the conversation toward something else, toward love.  And he asks Peter—asks us—Do you love me? 

            It's love that motivated Jesus' life.  It's a love for God that defined Jesus' ministry.  It's his love for humanity that called him and sent him and put him at odds with the religious and political authorities of his day.  It's love that led him to a cross.  And it's love that brought him back to his friends because he wanted his friends to know he was—and is—about love.

            It's all about love.  It's that simple, really.  And, so difficult.  That's the Gospel.   Even the Beatles get it:  "All you need is love.  Love is all you need."  But it's easy to sing about love—and there are countless songs that prove this point.  Putting love in action, that's something else.

            Do you love me?

            What's striking here is that throughout Jesus' ministry he rarely talks about love in the abstract.  He doesn’t talk about love in general. It's not an idea.  And it's not necessarily an emotion or feeling.  Ideas are fickle.  Emotions and feelings come and go.  In the Christian experience love is always particular and love is always a choice.  We choose to love—even when it doesn't make any sense to, maybe especially in those times.  We choose to love—even when we don't feel like it.  It's always love in action.  It's concrete and real.  It's embodied.  Feeding people.  Healing people.  Forgiving people.  Raising the dead.  Washing the dusty, sweaty, smelly feet of his disciples—there's nothing abstract about this.  Before Jesus died he said, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34).  And here after his death and resurrection, the love continues.  Jesus says to Peter—and to us – feed my sheep.  If you love me, feed my sheep.

            Who are the sheep?  The disciples?  Followers of Jesus?  Members of the church?  Every one created in the image of God?  It depends upon how narrow or broad we wish to be.  How big is this flock? It's tough to say. Personally, I would rather be broad than narrow, if in being narrow I unintentionally exclude one of the sheep.  But should we even be concerned with who is in and who is out of the sheepfold?  We're called to love our neighbors, and as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) knew, the neighbor is anyone who stands before us or beside us.[1]  Maybe if we treated the people we meet as if they’re already part of the sheepfold, even if right now they don't see themselves as bearing the image of God, they might in time come to see themselves as a fellow sheep.

            Feed my sheep, Jesus said. Take care of them.  Take care of them because at times we're not too smart, we get lost and lose our way, we make poor decisions and we’re stubborn, we get tangled in thorn bushes and stuck in ravines, we get lulled away oh so easily.  And make sure they're fed and watered.  Feed my sheep. No one should go hungry, no one should go thirsty. 

            It's not surprising that the Church has been engaged in feeding and healing people, providing shelter, establishing hospitals and hospices for a long time.  We’ve been at this for centuries - soup kitchens, breadlines, food pantries. We've been helping to provide clean drinking water.  When I served in Newton Presbytery, in New Jersey, we had a partnership with Nairobi Presbytery in Kenya.  One of our projects there was providing fresh water to people living in remote villages near Kibwezi, several hours east of Nairobi.  We built an enormous tank to collect the water and then we installed a ceramic pipeline underground that brought fresh, clean drinking water from the tank to thousands of people in the villages. (I remember climbing up the ladder and standing on top of the tank and looking out toward all the villages in the bush.) It was built underground so that the elephants couldn't crush the pipes when they came barreling through the jungle obliterating everything in their wake.

            Feed my sheep.  If the sheepfold is large, then this means continuously reaching out toward people; there’s a job for us to do. The Church will never go out of business. Feed my sheep informs the work of the church and how we do ministry.  This is really important for us to note because the nature of ministry is changing in the United States.  The models for ministry are rapidly changing. We are in the midst of one of the most significant moments of transition in the history of the Church. 

For the last forty years or more the American Protestant church has been operating with what is known as a consumer church model, shaped by the consumerist bent of the American populace.  In the consumer church members says, "I go to church."  The Church is seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services—engaging worship, good preaching, inspiring music, Christian education, adult education programs, exciting youth ministry.  People go to church to be "fed," to have their needs met through quality programs and to have their seminary-trained professionals teach their children about God.  "I go to church."  I go to be fed.  And if I'm not getting fed, if the preaching isn't good or the music uninspiring or if my kids are bored with church school, if I’m not getting what I want I’ll withdraw my financial support, stop pledging, I will shop around for a different church where I can get my needs met.  In a consumer church model it's all about "I."  The customer has to be pleased.  If not, she'll take her custom elsewhere. 

            There’s nothing biblically or theologically sound in any of this.  And, to be honest, it’s not particularly faithful.

            For the last ten years or so theologians and biblical scholars have been seriously—and correctly—critiquing this model.[2]  They're trying to bring us back toward a biblical model for the church, a model known as missional.  Mission means, literally, to be sent.  A missional church views itself as a people sent on a mission.  Members do not say, "I go to church."  We say, "I am the church."  “We are the church.”  Together, we are a people sent.  We’re a people who gather together as a community for worship, for rich fellowship; we’re committed to that community of people no matter what; a community that’s not pastor or program focused.  We’re a people engaged in community engagement; we hear the teaching from the Word in worship, we self-feed ourselves throughout the week, in order to be equipped to go out into the world feeding the people of God wherever they are.

            The consumer model looks inward.  The missional model is always looking outward.  The consumer model is individualistic.  The missional model is community oriented.  The consumer model assumes that we just sit here doing our churchy thing and wait for people to flock to us, to be fed here—if they're convinced that we're worth coming to (or coming back to), all of which requires a lot of self-promotion. 

The missional model knows we need to go out and meet God's people where they are, beyond the walls of the sanctuary, to love and care and feed them—not to get them to come to church or become members, but simply to serve, because that's what we do as God’s people, that's how we witness God's love, that's how it's embodied in the world.  Becoming a member is secondary.

It's the missional model that's bringing the church back to its roots.  It's the missional model that's best suited for our post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational, post-Protestant-majority world—for we have to remember again what it means to be a disciple of Christ, what Christ calls us to do in the world, if we're going to be able to feed the sheep today and really follow.

            How do we translate "feed my sheep" for today's world?  For the church, for ministry?  Perhaps one word might help us here: compassion.  In The Secret Revelation of John, an ancient text discovered in 1945, a text that had not been seen since at least 180 AD, maybe earlier, unearthed in Nag Hammadi, in the deserts of Egypt, Jesus says to John, "Arise and remember that you are the one who has heard, and follow your root, which is I, the compassionate."[3] Jesus the compassionate.  When Jesus says, "feed my sheep," he's saying to Peter, be compassionate, extend compassion to my people.  If you love me, Jesus says, then feed my sheep, be like me the compassionate one, and live in such a way that when they people see you, they know you're compassionate, part of the sheepfold; live in such a way toward others so that they know that they, too, are sheep, that they too are the objects of God's compassion.

            Just imagine what a difference this would have upon the life of the Church, upon us as a community.  Just imagine what a difference this would have upon the world.  May it be so.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847).
[2] For a fuller exposition of a missional ecclesiology see Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church:  A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1998).
[3] Karen L. King, The Secret Revelation of John (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2006).s