Sunday, May 6, 2007

A sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter

A contextual note: here is where I pray and preach these days. The bit in italics is how the congregation describes itself.

St. Mary’s House is the Episcopal Campus Ministry for UNCG and Guilford College.

For 107 years, St. Mary's House has served college students in the community of Greensboro. We are a welcoming and inclusive communion of friends who come together to nurture faith through the Eucharist, nurture the spirit through fellowship, learning and the arts, and nurture change through social action.

Note: Our congregation's mission is to students, but many of them do not attend church, or they come to the Sunday evening gathering during the academic year. Much of our Sunday morning congregation is made up of non-students, though at least half of us are affiliated with the local colleges and universities as faculty, staff, and alums. The congregation is tiny, but a disproportionately high percentage of its members are active in a variety of endeavors in the community (with both local and international concerns) and in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter
(Year C, Revised Common Lectionary)
May 6, 2007

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

In the name of the Triune God:
the One
***who is life and gives life,
Jesus Christ, savior,
***who makes us whole
and their Holy Spirit, consoler and advocate,
***who will dwell with us for eternity.

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars;

Wild beasts and all cattle,
creeping things and winged birds;

kings of the earth and all peoples;
princes and all rulers of the world;

Young men and maidens,
old and young together,

Let them praise the Name of Lord... [Psalm 148]

I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
For the first earth had passed away,
And the sea was no more...

See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them as their God...

God herself will be with them
And will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more...
For the first things have passed away. [Revelation 21:1, 3, 4]

The creation in which we live
and the new creation whose vision we dream:
into this dimension of today’s rich scriptures
I want to invite you.

But first, a story about a bird.

A couple of weeks ago, just a few days before Earth Day,
I was walking through the Guilford campus,
from the office to the house.
I was smelling the spring
and listening to the birds,
and one of the birds, a little one, chirping away,
was perched above me on a telephone wire.
“Hello, bird!” I said.

But of course the bird was up there on the wire
and probably didn’t hear me, or care,
which was just fine
because it made me think:
when we humans look
at what we know and perceive,
that our way of perceiving and seeing
is the only way,
we are not in our right minds.

The world looks entirely different
from a bird’s point of view.
I am curious to know how, but never will know.
One thing I can do, though,
is imagine that point of view enough
to displace or de-center myself.
I can imagine enough to realize
that the big lumbering human below who said “hello, bird!”
is of not much importance to the bird,
and that this is as it should be,
because the world does not revolve around humans,
much as we have thought of it that way.

Theology, biology,
philosophy, physics,
and all manner of other fields
are finally telling us otherwise –
though it did take the environmental crisis
for Western philosophy and religion to wake up
and begin reformulating their vision of the universe.

In religious and spiritual traditions worldwide
–including our own Christian tradition–
we are both reformulating and re-examining.

we delve into the meaning of our scriptures
and liturgies
for ancient insight
into new dilemmas.

But back to the bird, briefly.

Of course I like it when I say hello to a cat or a dog
and the animal talks back,
or when the deer come out of the woods
and we look at each other, curiously and quietly.

But there is something healthy in saying “hello, bird!”
and not getting back an answer, or even the slightest notice,
and realizing that the ecosystem functions just fine without us humans,
thank you very much,
and sometimes fares worse
because of the way we walk the earth.

Which is not to say that birds don’t speak to us sometimes.
I am not sure why, since that day,
birds have occasionally swooped down very close to me
as if to say
“I know you’re there”
or perhaps
“... and I’m telling you something!”
It is perhaps best that this bird behavior
remain a mystery
and that I not know
whether or not
the bird and I are having a conversation
or whether I have just, at last,
begun to notice
God’s creation at work
and my own smallness within it.

I have decided we would do well
to consider the bird-centered view of the world
as best we can
as a spiritual discipline.

Which brings me to the Bible.

We live today
between the two creations:
the one of which the Psalm speaks
with its wild beasts and winged birds,
and the one in the book of Revelation,
written to console persecuted Christians
and raising for us all manner of questions:
Was the author in a trance?
What hallucinogen had this person ingested?
Or how had this person prayed?
And what did God mean
by offering to human mind and heart
these fantastical visions?
What do they mean today?
Why is this book, so full of symbol and coded speech,
one of the favorites of some –not all–
Christians who tend toward a literal interpretation of scripture?

We live between the two creations:
the vision of what is not yet
and the vision of what is already here;
but we have trouble remembering
even what is around us
until a bird
or a Psalm sung for four thousand years
brings us back
into divine perspective.

Birds and sea monsters and God’s perspective?
Let me say what I mean
and lift up one biblical value
that sings out from the Psalm today.

In the Bible, especially in the Psalms,
there is always an intertwining of nature and history.
Creatures both animal and human,
mountains and seas,
wild springs and cultivated olive trees
spring to life side by side in the text
as they do in God’s vast creation.

There is rarely a “nature” section and a “culture” section,
an “ecology” bookshelf
and a “history” bookshelf.
We made those.

Intertwined in the text,
the presence of God in history
and the glory of God in nature
are, for the biblical writers –in the Hebrew Bible certainly
and also in the stories of Jesus in the Gospels–
theologically, spiritually, practically,
yea even cosmically

Now, we have to be careful about reading into Scripture what is not really there.
but it is helpful and legitimate to look for
consistent insights and consistent lessons:
the trend of wisdom, as it were;
the holy threads.

One consistent lesson from many centuries of biblical writers
and from God whose ways they teach us to understand
is that the language of history and the language of nature
do not live in separate realms.
History and nature
are all part of creation.
All life, natural and social, is from God and returns to God.

All the creatures praise God in their own manner.
they have a life of their own.
At the same time they are interrelated with one another
and we with them.

Many commentators on the lectionary
note that the readings from Easter to Pentecost
–the season in which we find ourselves now–
are about community:
its formation, its shape, its struggles, its growing pains,
and the constant presence of Jesus
in the young and growing communities of his disciples,
Jewish and Gentile,
Palestinian and broadly Mediterranean.

We, the creatures, and our societies,
the seas and the trees,
are all part of the same community.

Our culture is paying increasing attention to the community of earth,
prompted, perhaps, by a certain Oscar-winning documentary.

I’m seeing this in many places,
the latest issue of People
which I read while standing in line at the supermarket checkout counter
this week, with the story of
“How One Family Went Green”
the new NPR series on climate change.

I saw it in an article informing me this past week
that Darfur may well be the first war influenced by climate change.
The article is from a magazine called Seed.

In recent years, increasing drought cycles and the Sahara's southward expansion
have created conflicts between nomadic and sedentary groups
over shortages of water and land.
This scarcity highlighted the central government's gross neglect of the Darfur region
—a trend stretching back to colonial rule.
Forsaken, desperate and hungry, groups of Darfurians
attacked government outposts in protest.
The response was the Janjaweed and supporting air strikes.

Chalking the Darfur conflict up to climate change alone
would be an oversimplification.
The governmental, religious, ethnic, and other factors are real,
as are our own inaction and the slowness of the United Nations to respond.
But the earth and climate factors are just as real,
and they are inextricably bound up with the social realities of Darfur.

I want to share with you one more story, closer to home,
about Earth and human community.

One of my students recently wrote a reflection paper
about his participation in Earth Day.
This student, who cares deeply about the earth
is committed to working for justice
and is not particularly religious
or interested in being religious.

Whenever the course examined religious beliefs and observances,
he had to be persuaded that these things were practical.
In the course on “Health, Spirituality, and Justice,”
we examined the relationship among health, poverty, race, and
the environment.
We also learned about four spiritual practices from different traditions:
Zen mindfulness practice;
the Jewish Sabbath;
the rule of St. Benedict and its applications both ancient and contemporary;
and Quaker testimonies of simplicity.

This student had the most trouble with the Rule of St. Benedict.
Even after our learning that the Rule begins with word “listen”
and after I had invited the class to ponder what it might mean
to “listen with the ear of the heart” as Benedict puts it,
the notion of following any communal path,
especially one intruding on individual freedom,
remained foreign to this young man.

Benedict’s invitation to the monks to sing
only to benefit their hearers
was not to the student's liking at all.
If you want to sing, sing out loud and have fun,
he wrote;
do it for the fun of it, and do it for yourself....
I think, he continued,
that when you sing for yourself
you are listening with the ear of your heart.
I think that you can listen to that ear quite well without a rule,
and in some cases...
that listening to the ear of your heart requires the abandonment
of the guidelines laid out by Benedict.

Reflecting on the first three of the spiritual practices we had examined, he noted:
I know that the ideal way to live would be in complete awareness of all my actions,
but I think that the Sabbath is a great alternate.
It is not ideal, but it is a good way to live,
especially in comparison to the craziness of the rule of Saint Benedict.
The Benedict tradition is just too intense.

All my professorial protestations in favor of old Benedict,
my explanations of the social chaos of the 6th century and
of the contribution of monasticism to civilization, and
my observation that whether we notice it or not, we all have a rule of life
– we do brush our teeth in the morning, don’t we? –
were unpersuasive.

But just weeks later, in the student’s reflection on his Earth Day project,
the value that surfaced,
surprisingly for him and surprisingly for me,
was community.

Originally, he wrote, he had wanted to focus on the woods on our campus,
their uniqueness in this urban setting, and
all the ways [as he put it] in which people
can improve their mental, physical, and emotional health
by simply taking a walk once in a while.

All this, he noted, makes sense and is very true,
but as we got up to the actual day of the event and then throughout Earth Day,
I realized that the community which had planned and executed
and the community that came out to the event
were much more... what I was looking for in improving communal and individual health.

From long meetings to plan the details of the festival day
to slicing potatoes in the shade,
care for the earth and life in human community came together, intertwined,
as they are in our Psalm and in our lives.
They became visible and conscious.

But what about that passage from the book of Revelation?
Read through our contemporary lens
it can be frightening.
And this is probably the most consoling passage of the entire book:
who can fail to be moved by the image of God wiping every tear from our eyes?
With its vision of the sea being no more
the passage raises in today’s climate
–and I mean climate both literally and metaphorically–
the specter of destruction,
though I am not sure that this is what the writer meant.
It is, most certainly, a vision that speaks of change, even in the earth we know.

We don’t know the shape of this change.
And, as Jesus reminds us in the gospels,
we know not the day nor the hour.
Speculation about the details of the end time is not a fruitful task.

What is striking, though, is what the vision says about God
in this transformed creation.

Revelation’s vision of the new creation has God dwelling among us.

How interesting.
We humans creatures are not raptured from above
or left behind.

The righteous do not fly up to heaven.
God and the new Jerusalem
come to earth.

The new life that we celebrate during this Easter season
is a new community among the creatures of earth.

Today’s lessons invite us to meditate on our place in creation – God’s creation.

It does not matter where we start;
whether in a conversation with a bird on a wire
or a student Earth Day project
or action in the Save Darfur coalition
or in the struggle to balance action and contemplation
in our busy lives.

The earth is the Lord’s,
says another well-known Psalm of creation.

The earth will be the dwelling-place of God,
says the early Christian mystic. [Rev. 21:3]

Living between the two creations,
still in the first one,
a foot in the next one because of the risen Christ,
how then shall we live?

How then shall we live?


I requested hymn 412 (“Earth and All Stars”) as a recessional. Everyone loves the “loud boiling test tubes” and it worked with the Psalm and the sermon. I love the syncopation and key it’s in, too. And it makes Episcopalians sing loud, which is always a good thing. Alleluia! Stir up them folks.


Edward said...

Beautiful sermon. I finally posted a little follow-up item on this here which you might enjoy.

Jane R said...

Thanks, you're sweet!

And thanks for referring people here. I'll post a little something in your comments section later (have to write academic-life reports all day and deal with technological things) -- enjoyed the hymnal creativity.

Won't be preaching for a while since the academic year is over and I am going to be in hiding writing for a chunk of the next several weeks -- then at conference in LA (Catholic Theological Society of America, a.k.a. CTSA). Write me off-blog jredmont at guilford dot edu if you can, perhaps I can find a way to visit the church while I am there. It's a pretty intense nonstop conference as all these events are, with a liturgy at a Catholic church on Saturday evening (I haven't checked yet here) and conference events Sunday a.m. so I probably can't visit for Sunday worship, but I am pretty sure I will be in town for a bit before the conference and/or a bit after. My buddy Algernon (stage actor and Zen Buddhist Dharma teacher) lives in LA too, and other friends.