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3-17-19 — Easter for the Earth — Psalm 24, Romans 8:18-25 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Twice a year, Eastminster has a Celtic Sunday. One feature is that special music that comes from the western edge of Europe. Those Celtic lands, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany in France and Galicia in Spain, have cultures that are shaped by the convergence of land and sea and mountains. And that closeness to nature has also shaped Celtic spirituality. It has given us a rich appreciation for how entwined we human beings are with those forces of nature over which we so little control.

This time of year we can hardly help but notice that there are things going on all around us that remind us of the beauty of God’s creation. We wake up to the sound of birds staking out territory for a new generation. The buds on the trees and the fields showing the faintest tinge of green remind us of God’s never-ending bounty.

       Yet even as this week winter gives way to spring, the earth reminds us that it has another face. It’s not just the sweet, benign provider of hope and inspiration. Spring is a season of extremes. Melting snow and heavy rains make rivers overflow in the Midwest, leading to devastating floods. In Alabama, the change of seasons bred tornadoes that ripped homes from their foundations. New York City is making plans to extend the shoreline of lower Manhattan into the harbor and build a giant berm to keep out the sea as its level rises. Whenever we think we’ve mastered the earth, we’re reminded of just how menacing it can be.

       Since the dawn of time human beings have wrestled with how to relate to the earth that both nurtures us and threatens us. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they encountered the Canaanites who tried to come to terms with the earth by worshiping it. Their gods, the Baals, were deities of fertility whom they thought controlled nature. Those gods were found in the trees and the soil and the rain. They didn’t make any ethical demands of their worshipers such as loving and caring for one another. They just wanted to be appeased. So, without any ethical guidelines the worship of Baal led to immoral acts, such as child sacrifice and orgies at the holy places that involved temple prostitutes. One of the great theological contests of the Old Testament was whether Israel would worship the God who created nature and reigns over it or the false gods who were found in nature and could be manipulated to give favors like rain and good crops.

       So those, like us, who worship the God of Israel, have always had a healthy skepticism about the beauty and the power of nature. Like David who wrote Psalm 8, we see the grandeur and majesty of God spread across the star-spangled night sky. Like the author of Psalm 104, we marvel at how God has ordered the creation to provide for us. But we’ve always been wary of slipping over the line, of going from appreciating nature for what it shows us about God to worshiping nature like the Canaanites did. That’s why some Christians are not just skeptical of the environmental movement but actively opposed to it. They see environmentalism as akin to the worship of nature. And at some level, that concern is justified. How many people do you know who say, “I don’t have to go to church. I worship God in my garden.” Being outdoors in nature can definitely be a spiritual experience, but it can only go so far. Your garden or the beauty of the mountains can reveal the majesty and wonder of God who made them, but they don’t show us anything about the love God showed for us in Christ on the cross. Nature doesn’t tell us anything about how we are to love one another. Nature can’t form us into a community of faith that compels us to care for the poor and the outcast. Nature is an incredible gift of God as far as it goes, but it is no substitute for God.

       Unfortunately, that healthy distinction between God and nature has often led us to act as if it doesn’t really matter how we treat the earth. We read the first chapter of Genesis that tells us how God gave human beings dominion over the earth and told us to subdue it and fill it, and we’ve heard that as license to do with it whatever we want, as if God were saying, “Here, it’s yours. I don’t care what you do with it.” Genesis tells how intimately connected we are to the earth. We were formed from dirt. God told Adam to tend the earth – not to conquer it or ravage it. The third chapter of Genesis tells how the man and the woman overreached their responsibility to care for the earth by eating of the forbidden fruit. That changed their relationship to the earth. They stripped leaves from the fig tree to cover themselves and used the lushness of the garden to hide themselves from God. When God expelled them from Eden, part of their punishment was a changed relationship with the earth. God said to Adam, “Because … you have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

       We still suffer from Adam and Eve’s adversarial relationship with the earth. We mine the earth to bring forth minerals in ways that cause the earth to give us back polluted water and earthquakes caused by fracking. We put chemicals into the soil to make it bring forth more food, and the seas rebel at the runoff from our fields by choking off fisheries because of the runoff. We burn coal to heat our homes, and the polar ice caps melt as a result. It’s right there in Genesis 3. It’s a sign of our separation from God that we treat nature the way we do and that nature repays us for our abuse. And as the population of the Earth approaches 8 billion, we approach a tipping point where we threaten to destroy ourselves along with the planet.

       During this Lenten season, we look forward to Easter. Most of our celebrations at Easter center around what it means for us as human beings. We celebrate that Jesus has conquered the power of death so that we don’t have to fear what happens after we die. We rejoice that he has gone to prepare a place for us, and that we will live eternally with him. But Easter isn’t only about our own spiritual renewal. Jesus’ victory extends beyond the salvation of the human spirit. He brought new life to all creation. There’s something very physical about Easter that has implications for the earth and how we treat it.

       When his disciples saw Jesus on Easter evening in Jerusalem, they thought they were seeing a ghost, a disembodied spirit. They were thinking about Easter the way many people still do. They assumed that Jesus’ spirit had been liberated from his body. That’s a common assumption about the resurrection. People think it’s only spiritual. But Jesus made a point of showing that his body had been raised as well. The flesh and blood that was dead is now alive. “Touch me and see,” he told them, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.” He showed them his hands and his feet, so they could see that they were the same hands and feet that had been pierced by nails, not some replacement parts. When they still didn’t believe it, he asked them for something to eat. They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it in their presence. Ghosts and disembodied spirits don’t eat. Jesus made the point very clearly: His was a physical resurrection, not just a revival of a spirit.

       That’s what we prepare to celebrate at Easter, a physical resurrection. We proclaim it when we say the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Now, what a resurrection body looks like is a mystery. When we’re buried, our bodies return to dust. When we’re cremated, the molecules that make us up are reduced to ashes. The 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians explores that mystery of our resurrection bodies. Paul compares it to a seed that’s planted in the ground and then sprouts in the spring looking completely different from what was planted. And we’re not given those resurrection bodies right away. When Christ comes again, that’s when we’ll be raised with him and given those new bodies. In the mean time, we are with God in some dimension that’s beyond time and space as we know it, in a place that our limited minds can’t comprehend.

       The promise of the resurrection is that the whole creation will be renewed. Romans 8 said, “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  The whole creation is in this with us. It longs for redemption just as we do.

       Jesus told his disciples that his death and resurrection fulfilled everything written about him in the Old Testament. Part of that fulfillment is a restored relationship between human beings and the earth. God warned Israel not to worship the earth, but God also commanded them to care for it. Among the laws of Moses was the Sabbath for the land. Just as human beings were commanded to rest every seven days in recognition of their dependence on God for all they had, Israel was to let the earth lie fallow every seventh year so it could have a Sabbath. The earth’s Sabbath was a way not only of replenishing the soil, but also of reminding the Israelites that the earth was theirs to use but not to exploit.

       In the spirit of that earth Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe, there are things we can do to care for the earth. We can do lots of small things like recycle, drive less, take public transportation more, eat less meat, buy locally grown produce. The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry puts it like this, “It is not allowable to love the creation according to the purposes one has for it any more than it is allowable to love one’s neighbor in order to borrow his tools.”

       But there’s more to treating the earth with respect than just good care for God’s creation. The way we treat the earth has implications for how we treat other people. Another one of the Old Testament laws was that farmers were not to pick their fields clean of every scrap of the harvest but leave what dropped around the edges for the poor to glean. God intends the earth to provide for them. There are political and moral implications along with our environmental concerns. Democracies that depend on oil to fuel their economies wind up supporting dictators in countries that supply that oil. When tax codes make it more economical for a power plant to emit carbon and mercury and other toxic materials than to make the investment in clean energy, the true cost of pollution is not borne by the shareholders who own the company or the consumers, like you and I, who use the product, but it’s shifted onto those whose lungs are harmed from breathing polluted air. How we treat the earth has implications for how we treat others.

       All this is complex and overwhelming. You can’t help but ask yourself, What difference can I make? But when we care for the earth, when we take steps to live more responsibly and have a smaller impact on the environment, we’re participating in something bigger that’s already begun. We’re bearing witness to Easter. Jesus has renewed us body and soul, and he’s restoring the whole creation with us. The Bible ends with the vision in Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth. That’s the promise of Easter. It’s a promise of new life for you and for me, and it’s a promise for the earth. That’s a truly Celtic way to worship.

3-17-19 Bulletin

3-17-19-Bulletin

3-10-19 Bulletin

3-10-19-Bulletin

3-10-19 — Standing in the Promise — Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Luke 13:31-35 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       We build our lives around promises.  The promises we make to each other are the building blocks of our relationships.  Without promises, we wouldn’t know how to relate to each other.  Promises are what allow us to make plans, to count on the future, to have control over our lives.

       I invite a friend to lunch, and he promises to meet me at twelve.  Because of his promise, I arrange my morning so I’ll be at the restaurant at noon.

       When you take a job, your employer promises to pay you a certain wage, and based on that promise you make other promises: to the bank that you’ll pay the mortgage, to the insurance company that you’ll cover the premiums, to the church that you’ll meet your pledge.

       Two people fall in love and get married, and they promise that they will be faithful to each other in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

       Sometimes, in spite of their best efforts and most heartfelt intentions, people make promises they just can’t keep.  It began to dawn on me that my father wasn’t perfect when I was small and he promised me we would do something fun together – play ball or go to the zoo or something like that.  A business engagement came up that he couldn’t get out of, so we couldn’t do what we had planned.  There weren’t many promises he didn’t keep, but when I realized he was human, and like the rest of us didn’t have complete control over his life, I could forgive him for the promises he couldn’t keep. 

       The Bible is the book of God’s promises, promises that tell us a lot about God. One of the promises God made was to Abram.  God promised Abram that he would be the father of a great nation and that God would bless the whole earth through Abram’s children.  Now, God made that promise when Abram was 75 years old.  Years later, when Abram was still childless and his wife Sarai was long past the age when she could conceive a child, God spoke to Abram one night and said, “Don’t forget my promise, Abram.”

       “Sure, right,” Abram replied.  “The biological clock has run down, God.”

       God replied, “Go outside and count the stars if you can.  That’s how many descendants you’ll have.  You’ll have so many that they’ll fill this whole land you see before you.  Trust me.”

       “How can I trust you?” Abram asked.  “How will I know you’ll keep your promise?”

       Now, when you and I make promises, we sometimes seal them as a way of showing we intend to keep them.  We do something to show we mean what we say, something that holds us accountable for the promise we’ve made.  Most promises are sealed with our word.  I say I’ll meet you at noon, and you trust my word that I’ll be there.  Some promises we seal with a signature.  You sign a contract, maybe get it sealed by a notary, and it’s a promise that’s enforceable in a court of law.  Some promises we seal with symbols: a couple makes promises to each other in a wedding that they’ll do the best they can to make their marriage work, and they exchange rings as a sign of their promise.

       In the time of Abram the most solemn promises were sealed with a ceremony.  You would kill some of your best livestock, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces out in two parallel columns.  Then each party in the contract would walk between the pieces of the animals as a way of saying, “If I break my promise, then may what happened to these animals happen to me.”  You backed up your most solemn promises with your life.

       That’s how God sealed the promise to Abram.  When daylight came, God told Abram to get his best livestock and a couple of birds, kill them, cut them up, and lay them out in two parallel lines.  Abram did, then he spent the rest of the day shooing away the hawks and the vultures.  When night came, Abram fell into a deep sleep, a dark and terrifying sleep.  Then he saw a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch – God passing between the pieces – and the voice of God said to him, “Abram, your descendants will fill this land, from the river of Egypt in the west to the Euphrates in the east, the breadth of the world as you know it.”  God sealed the promise with a ceremony that said, “As surely as I live, I will do this.”

       And what was Abram to do in response, this old man who gave up hope of having children years ago?  Abram was to believe.  His side of the promise was to believe God would do as God said.  That’s what was required on his part, to believe.

       Abram never saw the great nation he was promised.  He was never surrounded by dozens of grandchildren.  But he and Sarai did have a son, one son named Isaac.  And Isaac had a son named Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.  And Israel had twelve sons and a daughter who had more children, until centuries later the descendants of Abram ruled the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates, just as God promised, and spread around the world carrying with them the promises God had made to Abram and his children.  Abram didn’t live to see it, but he believed, and God kept the promise.

       One of Abram’s descendants brought another promise from God.  Jesus came with the promise that God hasn’t forgotten about this world God made.  Jesus promised that death and evil and greed aren’t going to win, that God is preparing the earth to be the kind of place it was created to be, a place of love and peace and gentleness and justice.  But, like Abram, we need some kind of sign, something to seal such an incredible promise.  Like Abram who was aware of his age every time he moved too fast, we have lots of evidence stacked up against the promise Jesus makes, evidence that convinces us of our weakness and our frailty.  Where is this God of love who is supposed to be in control of the universe?  When the doctor tells you you’ve got cancer, when a relationship you’ve nurtured for years falls apart, when children go hungry in a world that has more than enough food to feed every person on the planet, you have to ask God the same question Abram asked, “OK, show me.  How am I supposed to believe your promise?”
       We believe because God sealed the promise to us.  God sealed it with the blood of Jesus Christ who died on the cross.  And there’s only one thing required on our part to receive that promise, to have a place in the new creation God has promised.  That is to believe, to believe that Jesus is the one who brings in this new world order, who died to make it happen, and who rose from the dead to conquer every death-dealing power in the universe.

       What we do with that promise tells us a lot about ourselves.  Not everyone who heard Jesus’ promise believed it.  The Pharisees who warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him didn’t believe him.  It wasn’t because they were bad people that they didn’t believe.  They were fine, upstanding folk.  But they thought that if good were going to triumph, it depended on them.  They believed that if you said the right prayers, made the right sacrifices, performed the right rituals, you might convince God to hurry up and make the world better.  They found Jesus irritating because he said all that’s required of you to have a part in the kingdom of God is to believe.  You can’t earn your way into it.  The Pharisees, who worked so hard at earning their way into heaven, didn’t like to hear that.  They would just as soon Jesus left them alone, so they tried to get him to go away by telling him his life was in danger.  But Jesus didn’t say thank you and run away.  He said, “Go tell that fox Herod he can’t control what I’m doing.  God will do what God will do in God’s own time.”  Herod couldn’t silence Jesus with threats, and the Pharisees couldn’t earn God’s favor with their religion.  To people who want to be in control, who want something more than a promise, Jesus can be something of a nuisance.

       The people of Jerusalem didn’t believe either.  In fact, they didn’t really see the point of the promise.  They didn’t think things were all that bad.  Life was comfortable, and whenever crackpots came along and told them they were making God angry, they ran them out of town.  They were too busy looking out for themselves to worry about anybody else.  They weren’t interested in Jesus’ promise because they already had what they wanted.  Jesus weeps over those who reject his promise.

       But God’s promise doesn’t depend on what we do with it.  God promised to change this world, and God is going to do it whether the Pharisees or the people of Jerusalem, whether you or I, believe it or not.  God made a promise, God sealed it on the cross, and it’s going to happen. 

       In Jesus God has promised to make the world a place of peace and plenty, of joy and love.  We live trusting that the promise is true.  When death looms before us like a great empty void, we know that God has promised us eternal life through Christ.  When it seems wickedness has the upper hand and that honesty, integrity and compassion are foolish, we know that God has promised a new creation where good is rewarded and evil gets what it deserves.  When our prayers don’t seem to go any higher than the ceiling and it’s hard to believe in anything beyond what we can touch and see, we know that God’s promise is more reliable than our good sense. 

We know about God by the promises God makes.  God has promised life, a full, satisfying life, where there is no pain or sadness, where there is no death or crying, life that is not tortured by greed or selfishness or evil. God has made a promise and sealed it with the blood of Christ.  God keeps promises.  Believe it.
 

3-3-19 — Passing the Mantle — 2 Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Eastminster is the tenth congregation I’ve served as a transitional pastor, and one of the things I’ve valued about interim ministry is seeing how God is at work in the midst of change. Six months ago you said goodbye to Greg as he retired from a long and fruitful ministry, and now you have a Pastor Nominating Committee working to discern the person God is calling to lead you in the years ahead.

       And as a congregation goes through change, each person who is part of the church is dealing with changes as well. That’s part of life. There are students who will be graduating in the spring, facing the big changes of starting college or a job. Some are going through significant changes in employment, some voluntary and some involuntary. Some are facing retirement, a big change in how you’ll use your time and how you’ll define yourself when people ask, “So what do you do?” And all of us who are of a certain age are aware of the change in our bodies, how steps seem to get steeper and the name of the person we just met takes a little longer to pop up in our minds.

       Today’s scripture lessons are about moments of change, points of transition. In the Old Testament lesson Elijah passes the mantle to Elisha to take over as God’s prophet in Israel. In the New Testament lesson Jesus gives three of his disciples some insight into how he is getting ready to change not just their lives but the course of all creation. There are some things those two stories can teach us about how God works through change, in our own lives and in the life of East minster.

       One thing to notice is that those changes are part of an ongoing story. Even though they marked something new, they were rooted in what had happened before.

       You may remember the story in the book of 1 Kings about God speaking to Elijah in a still small voice. Elijah had fled his persecutor Queen Jezebel and gone to a mountain in the wilderness. As he took shelter in a cave, there was a violent wind, a strong earthquake and a raging fire. Then there was a sheer silence, and in the silence God spoke to Elijah. Many sermons and devotionals have been written about how we need to be still and listen for God in silence, and I’ve contributed my share. But when God spoke in the silence, God had a message, and the message was that Elijah was to summon Elisha to carry on the work Elijah had been doing for years. Elisha was to keep on reminding Israel of their covenant with God and calling them back to it. When Elisha had that big change in his life, when he picked up the mantle of Elijah, he was part of that ongoing story of God calling Israel back to himself.

       On the Mount of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ ministry as something completely new, unlike anything God had ever done. And God was doing a new thing in Jesus, but it was part of what God had been doing since the beginning of time. One of the earliest heresies in the church was the belief that since Jesus has come we have no more use for the Old Testament. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as if they are two different gods. Remember that when Jesus said that he came to fulfill the scriptures, he meant what we call the Old Testament. The two main parts of the Old Testament are the law, which God gave through Moses, and the prophets, of whom Elijah was the greatest. At the Transfiguration, when Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah, he was making it clear that he was part of the ongoing story of God’s dealings with humanity. It was new chapter in that story, a fulfillment of what had gone before, but it was the same God and the same ancient story. That tells us something about how God works amid the changes in our lives. The God who has been with us in the past is the same God who is with us through every change.

       My son went to a university run by the Jesuits. While he was there I became intrigued by some of the spiritual practices taught by that order of Catholic priests. One practice which I’ve found helpful is called the daily examen. It works like this: At the end of each day, or first thing in the morning if you’re too tired to do it at night, you review in your mind the events of the day before. You envision the day like a movie. As you replay the movie in your mind, you notice what you did, what you saw, the people you encountered. As you do, you notice where you encountered God. Perhaps it was in some kindness that you received, some unexpected grace, maybe in a glimpse of beauty like a snowy mountain peak or the song of a bird. Each time you see in your mind’s eye some thing or some event or some person in which you get a glimpse of the work of God’s Spirit, you offer up thanks. You also notice those places where you didn’t see God’s Spirit, perhaps in some harsh words that were exchanged, or a painful loss, or something you saw in the news about human cruelty and injustice. Those things you lift up to God in prayer, asking forgiveness for the times you’ve let God down, help for those ongoing challenges you face, and God’s peace and strength for those places of suffering and need. The practice of a daily examen, where you notice what God has done in the past, helps you to notice God in the day to come.

       When we face change in our life – a new job, relocation, graduation, a loss, retirement – we can look back over our life and notice where God has been. That reminds us that our lives are not a series of disjointed episodes but part of the ongoing story of God’s mighty works.

       Another thing to notice about the stories we read today is that God is giving people a part in that ongoing story. Sometimes when we’re faced with change, we are pretty clear about what we’re leaving behind but we don’t know what to do moving forward. For Elisha the path was pretty clear. By inheriting Elijah’s mantle, he became God’s prophet in Israel. By picking up Elijah’s mantle Elisha took on his work of performing miracles and speaking God’s work of justice and purity to those in power.

       The specifics of what Peter, James and John were supposed to do once they came down from the mountain weren’t so clear. The only instruction they had on the mountain was the voice of God: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” That instruction was pretty broad. I suspect the disciples eventually found themselves in situations where they wished they had more specific direction on what to do. There have been plenty of times when I would have welcomed clearer instructions about what God wanted me to do. Wouldn’t it be great if God had given a handbook with detailed instruction on parenting that spells out how much time a kid should spend on social media? Or there was a manual for churches that described exactly how to reach out into the community and grow in membership? But the instruction God did give, “Listen to him,” is good no matter how radically things change over 2000 years.

       We may not know where God is leading us until we’ve gotten there. Luke’s gospel says that when Jesus came down from the mountain he turned his face toward Jerusalem. He began his journey to the cross. That’s why he told his disciples to say nothing until he had risen from the dead. They could not understand what Jesus was calling them to do or what the glory of Jesus means until after he had gone through his suffering and his death on the cross.

        For most of my relatively sheltered life I was put off by the way some branches of the Christian church have crucifixes in their sanctuaries, images of Jesus suffering and bleeding on the cross. I much prefer the empty Protestant cross. It’s much cleaner, less gruesome, and after all, Jesus came down from the cross and is no longer there. But as I got more acquainted with some of the communities around the world where people live lives less sheltered from violence and suffering than the places I knew, I became more sympathetic with their focus on Jesus’ suffering, on his blood, and the on adoration of his wounds. For many of those people, violence and suffering and death are part of everyday life, and in that suffering Savior they know that the God of power and might suffers with them. Just because he is risen doesn’t mean he has left them behind. He shares their pain and their tears. In their very weakness they find the strength of God.

The hope of the gospel is that God is alongside us and sweeps us into the glorious work God is doing, the work of bringing the whole creation back to God. As it says in Romans 8, we wait along with the whole creation to be set free from bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. And often it’s in the pain and confusion of life that we’re most likely to encounter God.

       I have a friend who was a lawyer in a job that crushed her spirit. She was an alcoholic and in an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend. She hadn’t set foot in a church in years, but one Easter morning she woke up and something told her to go to church. She called her boyfriend, and there they were on the third row that Easter morning. She heard for the first time in years that story of resurrection and the new creation that Jesus has begun. To make a long story short, she and her boyfriend recommitted their lives to Christ. She used her training as a lawyer to set up a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity building homes for the poor, and through the guidance of the Spirit was led to another career that she found life giving. She started on the road to addiction recovery. She and her boyfriend realized that they were not meant for each other and moved on to other relationships. Recently she retired and can look back over the last 30 years and see how God has directed her, but when she walked into that church on Easter morning, she had no idea where that decision would take her.

       Our lives, and the life of the church, belong to Jesus. We know that the one who has been with us so far is with us now. We know that we are given a place in the work God is doing to bring peace and justice and goodness to all creation, whether that’s our classroom, the work place, or the hospital room. On the cross Jesus shows us that we matter to God. What we do matters, and one day we can look back and see where God has brought us. And we’ll know that the place he’s brought us is where we are supposed to be, in the presence of God who is with us, just as God has been all along.