Friday, April 24, 2009

the sacrament of creation

On Easter Sunday we announce the good news of the resurrection. On the second Sunday of Easter we reflect on the implications of this central event for our lives going forward. In this way we are not so different from the first disciples.The epistle lesson for today, from I John, echoes the better-known Gospel ("what we have seen with our eyes...and touched with our hands"). Just as the earliest Christian communities needed to relate the truth of the gospel to their own lived experience, so do we in our own time. "We declare to you what we have seen and heard," John writes on behalf of his community, about the Easter experience.

Easter is a day, but it is also an experience, it is a moment in time, but it has implications that change us, and not only us, but all of life.

After the resurrection, the disciples gather together, they try to make sense of what has happened, they get on with their lives. But in a sense everything has changed. If anyone is in Christ, the Apostle Paul wrote, there is a new creation, the old has passed away, all things have been made new. We move from resurrection to new creation. Easter is not limited to the renewal of an individual life. Easter is the renewal of the creation. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.

In the overlapping of calendars Easter Sunday precedes and falls very near to the festival of God’s creation, which coincides with Earth Day. And there is a vital connection. Someone has noted that Christianity is the most materialistic of the world’s great religions. Christianity was really defined, in the first two generations, in contrast to gnosticism, a worldview that was sharply different.
Gnosticism held to the conviction that spiritualilty was good, and materialism was bad. Gnosticism, which was later identified as a heresy, separated the spirit and the body, the soul and the earth, and wisdom about spiritual things was given only to a few, as a kind of secret knowledge. Thus the word “gnosis”.

Christianity is something altogether different. We were created from the dust of the earth, or the mud of the ground. God created everything that existed and called it good. The Psalmist could look at skies and proclaim that the “heavens are declaring the glory of God”.

Jesus was the divine word made flesh. He stood in the waters of the Jordan River and was baptized. He spent time in the wilderness, where his priorities were tested, hiked to the top of Mount Tabor to listen for God’s voice. He used the substance of the earth---water, wine, bread---to point to the things of God, to show their essential connection. The animals that surrounded him---the birds of the air, for whom God provided, or the foxes who had dens to live in----were reminders of how we as humans are sustained daily.

In speaking of what it meant to give our lives fully to God, he said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7. 38). He related his own spiritual thirst, at the point of his greatest need, to his desire for God. People who lived in the desert understood. After the resurrection he was present to the disciples as a physical body: he asked them to touch his wounds, he ate meals with them.

Jesus looked at the natural world to understand who God is and who we are in relation to God and to each other. He modeled this for us, he taught us in this way. Consider the lilies of the field, he said, and then he would contrast them to Solomon, the great king, in all of his splendor. Which is more glorious? And, of course, the disciples would have to say, the creation.

The creation is God’s gift for our renewal. The creation is God’s very gift of life itself. I asked a few friends in our congregation to think about faith in relation to the environment, in preparation for today. One who is a leader in the conservation of water talked about our waste of this most precious and basic resource, and the demands in the near future on the water that we take for granted. Someone else talked about initiatives that have been supported by our church, to dig wells in Africa, some in partnership with the YMCA and others in partnership with a native African student minister. I think of the pump in front of our medical clinic in Haiti, and the water system developed just this year for the Haiti School of Mercy.

If we are thirsty, we walk out of the sanctuary to the nearest fountain. It is cold and plentiful. We are refreshed and renewed. And we are also very fortunate. We are blessed.

2.4 billion people in our world are not so fortunate. They do not have access to clean water.
God created the world for his own enjoyment, he created us to protect and to shepherd all of the other resources. One of the central images in scripture is the harvest, and Israel’s life was organized around harvest festivals. The wine and the bread symbolized God’s provision for his people through difficult, wilderness times. A land flowing with milk and honey was the promise to those who were faithful.

And so the renewal of the earth happens as we receive the gifts of the earth, our food, and as we give thanks for that. A part of giving thanks is our remembrance of those who lack what we have been given.

How does this happen, in practical ways? Members of our church have put together several thousand meals for the hungry through Stop Hunger Now. Those who lack shelter during the winter share a meal with us on Wednesday evenings. Meals are taking to the homeless, to the homebound, and sometimes placed in backpacks for elementary school students who would otherwise go to bed hungry and wake up hungry over the long weekend. We are trying to figure out how to provide a meal a week for students at the Haiti School of Mercy—that’s 190 students. Maybe we will start with the Friday meal.

It is a hungry planet. At its most basic level, God’s provision is water and bread. For Christians, we connect this with the sacraments---baptism, God’s gift of water, and holy communion, God’s gift of bread. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

When we bless the water with a prayer of thanksgiving, we remember how God has used water to save and sustain his people. When we bless the Holy Communion, we remember how God created the world, and then us in his image, and how Jesus blessed this meal, and encouraged us to eat it, and likened the bread to his body.

One of the words for Holy Communion, the one that comes from the literal New Testament greek, is eucharist, which means thanksgiving. Those who have died and risen with Christ see the world in a new way. We see all of life as a gift, perhaps all of life as a sacrament.

We receive it with thanksgiving, we offer it to God with thanksgiving, we share it with thanksgiving. After Easter, and because he is risen, we live in the new creation.

In the new creation, spirituality is not something that happens only when our eyes are closed in prayer. One of our members, a student who attends college in the mountains, sent me a note with three photographs attached, and talked about the powerful experience of standing under the waterfall with the water rushing right down in front of her. Another friend talked about walking along the ocean and the immensity of it and his humility in the face of the creation.

When we are in the presence of God, we are aware of his power and our humility, and for many of us this happens in the creation. Many of us had some of our most powerful spiritual experiences as young people at camps, as scouts, on retreats. This is also related to the beauty of creation, I think of the flowers last Sunday that really were stunning, the beauty of the cross that stands in our atrium today, the work that is done by those who care for the gardens of our church. I think about the last 2 or 3 days in Charlotte! What a gift!

In the new creation, we begin to see that mission is not something we do for other people. Mission is sharing the creation that God gives to all of us, and this includes water, wine, bread, the word, all of the gifts of God. In our congregation this happens in a variety of ways: a woman is an environmental educator, a man spends a lot of time with rural farmers, a nurse serves in Haiti, a develop leaves a substantial part of a several thousand acre project undeveloped, to be enjoyed by future generations, and a restaurant manager supplies gift certificates to those in need of a good meal. In all of these ways we share the gifts of God’s creation.

In the new creation, we understand stewardship in a new way. We sometimes think of stewardship in relation to money, and money is important. We might think of stewardship in relation to the church’s need for money in order to support God’s mission. Your money makes all of the ministries of this church possible, and I think you for your generosity. This is a part of stewardship, but only a part.

Stewardship is about how we use all of the gifts that have been placed in our hands. This has macro implications----climate change---and micro implications, and I want to focus there. I want to focus on our habits. As the usher said in the rural church that I served many years ago, “I am going to stop preaching and go to meddling.” How does all of this relate to our faith, at the level of our behavior? I received this note from a member of our church.

“I have begun to understand what many have understood for centuries – the interdependence of all life and that we throw that interdependence out of balance when we consume huge amounts of resources without regard to the damage we do. I think I had a road-to-Damascus moment when I began to see what was happening as we, the consumers, went about our normal existence in our throw-away, consumer-driven economy.”

How does all of this relate to our faith, at the level of our behavior? This question leads me to other questions.

What if the Christians of the world made the decision to provide safe drinking water for every person on this planet?

What if the members of Providence United Methodist Church decided not to drink bottled water, and to give that money, a dollar or two here and there, toward wells in the Gambia or Haiti?

What if the Christians of the world decided to share their bread with the hungry, beginning locally?

What if the members of Providence United Methodist Church decided to eat a meal each week that conformed to the average meal eaten on our planet---rice, beans and tap water, and what if we set aside that money to feed the hungry in our midst?

What if we did all of this because bread and water really are signs of God’s grace and real presence among us?

What if we came to believe that grace should never be wasted, but received with grateful hearts? What if we became more conscious about what we purchase and what we throw away?
What if we began to live more simply, so that we could be more generous?
What if we began to be more present to the beauty in this world as a testimony to God’s glory?
What if we paid attention to the footprints we leave not only on mountain trails, but on the planet?
What if we began to think not in the short-term, but in the long-term, about the air that our grandchildren will breathe and the water that our great-grandchildren will drink?
What if we began to believe that our renewal is connected to the renewal of the earth, that our salvation cannot be separated from the salvation of the earth?
What if we began to live in the new creation?
What if we began to believe that all of life is a sacrament?


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