Sunday, November 29, 2009



"St. John the Baptist" (Da Vinci)



I.
My dear friends, we are called to be voices in the world’s wildernesses.  There is no shortage of wilderness places in which you and I must cry out.
Generally speaking, in the minds of those who wrote the various documents that we now call “the Bible” and in the minds of those who first heard these episodes told then read, “wilderness” was a scary place, a place most people didn’t want to be, and if they had to be there, they didn’t want to be there any longer than absolutely necessary.  
The wilderness was a place where one’s life was in danger.  Wild animals were out there.  Evil spirits were thought to be lurking there. Thieves and other bad guys hid in the wilderness.  Communities forced those failing to live up to communal standards out of polite society and into the wilderness.  Nourishment and water were hard to come by in the wilderness.  A lot of people who went into a wilderness never came out.  If you had to be in the wilderness--say, because your necessary travel took you there as a required part of your journey, you wanted to make sure you were with other people.
The wilderness was thought, therefore, to be a godless place for the most part.  God may visit in the wilderness, they seemed to think, but rarely.
  • A wilderness today might be a place of limited habitation by human beings such as in areas of central Australia where only handfuls of Aboriginals attempt to survive, but our modern, thickly populated urban areas have been called--for good reason--”concrete jungles.”
  • The wilderness is that place where the unemployed parent must decide whether to pay rent or buy food for the kids.
  • The wilderness is that out of the way corridor at school where bullies wait for their next victims.
  • A wilderness might be a nursing home, or it might be the house where lovelessness prevails--and maybe abuse too--to which someone goes sadly or fearfully every evening after work or school.
  • The wilderness is a war zone in the sandy deserts of Iraq or the unscalable mountains in Afghanistan; the wilderness is the plane the soldier boards to fly into combat while her mother holds the soldier’s little boy crying, “Mommy, Mommy!  Please don’t go!”
  • The wilderness is the church where the gay or lesbian teen is required by parents to attend and hear most every week a homophobic preacher consigning homosexuals to hell.
  • The wilderness is the oval office where a president ponders the pain of the people who are looking to him for decisions that will make their lives at least bearable.
  • For someone suffering from acute bereavement, a wilderness is everywhere I walk or look or wake up only to find her or him not there.
  • For someone who is depressed, a wilderness is the sad place--any place, every place, peopled or not--through which she or he must make today’s painful trek.
  • The wilderness is where I find myself when I have unwittingly cut myself off from God within me and don’t know how to find my way back.
The wilderness figures prominently into several key biblical passages.  In many of those places it’s worth noting, from a literary perspective, that the person or persons portrayed as being in a literal wilderness is/are also in the wilderness figuratively speaking.  
Hagar is an exceptionally important figure both in terms of understanding the ancient Hebrews as well as Arabs.  Hagar was not the wife of Abraham; in fact, she wasn’t even his concubine.  Hagar was Sarah’s maid, Sarah being the wife of Abraham, the wife who was not able to conceive and bear children.  Even so, Hagar was the mother of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, in a culture where first born sons ranked as of highest importance.  Finally, Sarah--in her old age--is able to conceive when she and Abraham make love, and their son, Isaac, is born.  
From Abraham down through Isaac, Abraham’s second born son, Judaism traces its ancestry.  From Abraham down through Ishmael, his first born son, Arabs trace their ancestry.  
The story of how all of this came about is fascinating and delightfully complicated.  In short, the culture provided a means whereby a man married to a woman unable to bear children had the opportunity to divorce the woman, or she could offer her husband her maid, if she had one, who would serve in her stead, as it were.  That’s what was done in this case.
Aside from the fact that the maid of Sarah, Hagar, wasn’t Abraham’s wife, neither was she of his and Sarah’s ethnicity.  Some have suggested that Hagar was Egyptian, but the efforts to make her name an Egyptian one are unsatisfactory.  This doesn’t matter a whole lot, but it is worth nothing that the slave was of a different ethnicity than the woman who owned her; and even though she did her master the great service of bringing a child into the world--ruling out the possibility that Abraham could divorce Sarah on the grounds of “barrenness”--Hagar and her son, Ishmael, became objects of contempt in Sarah’s mind.  
The tension and anger on Sarah’s part toward Hagar and Ishmael didn’t happen over night.  It didn’t happen until after Sarah’s son, Isaac, was born--some years after Ishmael’s birth.  The contributing factors were many, but that straw that broke the camel’s back was Ishmael’s making fun of little boy Isaac--almost certainly not in a hateful way, but in an older brother kind of way.  Aggravating a little brother is probably almost a universal tendency.  Abraham knew about what was going on, and it didn’t bother him though he was very protective of his second son.  Still, Sarah convinced him that there were going to be long term effects so she was somehow able to convince Abraham that Hagar and her son, Ishmael, had to be banished to the wilderness.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Abraham was prepared never to see them again; being sent into the wilderness alone was tantamount to a death penalty.  Yet, part of the reason Abraham did send them into the wilderness was that God promised to make another great nation of Abraham’s seed, in addition to the one that had been promised through Isaac.  We don’t know how Abraham could have entertained both notions, but somehow he did.
Ishmael, with God’s help, learned how to survive in the wilderness, and that is where he stayed.  He was still out in the wilderness when he married the Egyptian woman his mother arranged to be his wife.  Some people are called to make their lives in a wilderness where most would never willingly go


II.
One of the most important insights I gained from studying systematic theology with Dr. Dale Moody was that the Bible must not be taken or used as what Dr. Moody called “the flat Bible.”  The flat Bible is the approach of biblical literalists who say everything that managed to get passed down to people who lived long after them in what we now call “the Bible,” meaning the Judeo-Christian scriptures collection, is all God-breathed and without error of any type; this applies to every book of the Bible so that the teachings of Jesus are on the same level and of the same use as the laws discussed in the book of Leviticus and the meanderings, sometimes self-serving, of the Apostle Paul.  
Hardly a theological liberal, Moody’s point is vitally important and doesn’t allow for casually treating every part of the Bible as of profound importance.  Certainly, there is no notion that any part is inconsequential, but some parts are clearly of greater importance than others.  
In Professor Moody’s view, the New Testament insistence that death did not defeat Jesus is the pinnacle of the Christian scripture collection.  As for the high point, and the most valuable part of Hebrew scripture, he said clearly we must look to the story of the Exodus.  Through Moses, God leads the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage and into the wilderness on their way to finding and claiming what they said was the land God had promised them.  In this whole Exodus event, God revealed Godself as liberator.
The story of the Exodus is powerful and remarkably nuanced.  We can’t even begin to consider the whole narrative today, but we need to see that right in the middle of it, a necessary part of the most important story told in all of Hebrew scripture, there is wilderness.  Liberation isn’t instantaneous; it’s a state or a condition to which the Hebrews move one painful step at a time, and if you add up all those painful steps together you get forty years worth.
Sounds like a long time, doesn’t it?  Most modern folks, at least we westerners, are inclined to say, “Anything that takes forty years to gain or achieve isn’t worth it.  Anything worth having should be mine shortly after I decide I want it!”
While there are strong reasons to doubt a literal forty year sojourn in the wilderness for the once-enslaved Hebrews, the prolonged struggle in the wilderness was a part of their story and a part of what shaped their understanding of the privilege of freedom.
The wilderness, however long the actual stay, was no picnic.  Few days were easy; most days were hard, and the difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that they didn’t know exactly where they were going.  Though most of the Hebrews didn’t like to say so out loud, neither did God seem to know where God wanted them to end up.  I realize, as did they, that God’s ways are not human ways, but forty years of wandering is a long time just the same.
Their time in the wilderness was not marked by clear progress or steady movement toward a pre-established goal; in fact, that word I used a minute ago, “wandering,” was key in how their storytellers passed on the details to the children and grandchildren of those who made the trek.  Obviously, not everyone who began the journey was able to complete it, and there was lots of second guessing from the get go about the wisdom of ever having left Egypt in the first place along with unyielding criticism of their leader Moses who had told them an exciting story about how God had appeared to him in a burning bush with a plan to liberate them, the Hebrews, from their Egyptian overlords.
That had all sounded so good until the first time their feet got tired!  And remember that the Hebrews were no wimps; they’d been doing hard labor for the Egyptians for a long time.  They may even have helped build some of the pyramids so when they said they were tired, they were tired; and when they said they were thirsty, they were parched.  When they said they were hungry, their stomachs were growling.
The rank and file Hebrews who had no role but to follow along for all that time must have had the same kinds of feelings, though intensified, that the passengers on the Northwest flight must have had as their pilots overshot their destination because, they have said, they were distracted because they were focusing on their laptops.  How can two people in a small, confined space with a very specific job to do that involves backing each other up for the sake of the safety of those who have put their lives in the pilots’ hands be “distracted” for exactly the same amount of time to the degree that neither can answer the pleas for attention from the air traffic controllers?  My guess is, there was a third party in the cockpit helping with the distraction.  But I’m a suspicious type when it comes to such news stories.  Like, I don’t believe Mrs. Tiger Woods used the golf club just to knock out the glass of the vehicle he was driving.  Back to the wilderness, though.
Those following Moses were increasingly discouraged.  Day by day they lost hope that anyone would make it through, and given the hopelessness influencing their state of mind the physical challenges of being in the wilderness were worsened.  Thirst came to be not just thirst, but I may never sip water again!  Hunger wasn’t just hunger, but there’s a good chance we will die of starvation out here.  The heat wasn’t just oppressive heat, but we may all die of sun stroke.
This is an odd way to give the gift of liberation, isn’t it?  They wanted a God who could and would snap the divine fingers and make the magic happen in an instant!  And so do we.  
Demanding more from God than God could deliver, they were unhappy with how much God was requiring of them in the process of attaining liberation.  There was no way to be free without the journey through the wilderness, and though the divine voice wasn’t loud it was consistent. God spoke in the provision of their needs, and God spoke in God’s direction of Moses.
One of the wilderness insights that came to a group of Hebrews who confronted a later wilderness was that there are some preparations that have to be made if one wants to meet God in the wilderness.  The connection between struggling people and God was envisioned as a great highway.  The Reverend Todd Weir has proposed that the image of a spiritual highway grew out of a literal desert highway called the King’s Road or the King’s Highway:

The King’s Road, which connected Heliopolis (modern Cairo) to Damascus, literally put Israel on the map as spices, gold, textiles and olive oil flowed through the great caravans.  Unfortunately, armies traveled the highway as well, as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Rome all coveted the strategic dominance that came with subduing Palestine.  It was a perilous and wondrous journey that traversed the Sinai desert, wound through the ravines of Petra and across mountain ranges, fighting heat, thirst, stubborn camels and bandits along the way. 

Someone cries out in the wilderness, “Let us prepare a way for the Lord!”  The highways to our hearts and minds must be straightened out.  The highway cannot sink into valleys and strain toward higher elevations.
Having ever heard Handel’s putting Isaiah’s words to music, we can never forget the tenor recitative:  

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:   And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.




III.
John the Baptist, of necessity, figures prominently into the story of Jesus’ birth and the early story of Jesus’ public ministry.  Indeed, John tried his hand at ministry before his younger cousin, Jesus, did.  
John was Jesus’ mentor.  When Jesus decided that it was time for him to begin his preaching and teaching and healing work, he called on John to help him formalize his intention.
John was one of those people who preferred the wilderness as the place for his abode.  There were several reasons for his choice, and one was that his party of affiliation within Judaism, the Essenes, preferred the wilderness partly because the wilderness gave them less interference with their studies and spiritual practices.  John did not live alone in the wilderness; he lived in a monastic community in the wilderness so in John’s story the remarkable thing is not that he lived out in the middle of no where, but that others, mostly his fellow Jews as far as we know, came to the wilderness to hear his sermons and to be baptized by him.  
In our thought challenge for today, you heard an excerpt from some of the writings by Dr. John Dominic Crossan, one of our generation’s most insightful Jesus scholars.  Professor Crossan was drawing a strong and clear distinction between the attitudes of John and Jesus with regard to what was going to have to happen in order for the world to get “fixed” from their first century Jewish perspective.  Remember that Rome who was in power didn’t think anything needed to be fixed, and that typically is the position the power people ultimately take.  
Professor Cornell West, a staunch supporter of President Obama’s before AND after the election, still sees Obama as less inclined to change some of what needs to be changed than he was on the campaign trail.   Why is this the case if it is the case?  Well, theologically inclined West says the reason is clear.  Obama now lives in “Pharaoh’s house.”  Equating the White House, metaphorically of course, with the palace of the Pharaoh who held the Hebrews captive before their wilderness sojourn, West is making the point that people in power, sometimes the best of them, get to liking that power and want to keep it.  
Rome was happy with life in the first century, but the Jews having to live in subjection to Rome did not have the same perspective.  According to John Dominic Crossan, John the Baptist was convinced that the world as it was lacked resources, insights, motivation, the wherewithal to change; indeed, as I’ve said, the status quo saw no need to change.  Jesus, in contrast, also had a sense that the world would someday end though he refused to get into predictions of when or even to worry about it at all; but Jesus believed that human beings had the capacity and the means to make many of the corrections that needed to be made on their own as long as they relied on God’s leadership and God’s empowerment of them to do the right things, even when the right things were going to have to be the hard things. 
While Jesus and John had begun on the same page, their convictions took them in not opposite but different directions.  Neither of them, I assure you, would have made it through even the most careless of security check points trying to crash a state dinner at the home of Emperor Tiberius.
Not only were their senses different in regard to how the world would end, but also their approaches to criticisms of the power structures were not the same.  John the Baptist, from his wilderness pulpit, was more blatantly critical of Jewish puppet leaders who were more concerned about pleasing Rome than they were with the well-being of the Jewish people.  Jesus, as Crossan has brilliantly shown in other writings of his, was revolutionary, but subtly so.  They both ended up dead at a young age though, didn’t they?  This may have been why John, near the end of his life, wondered out loud if the Jesus he kept hearing about was his cousin who’d begun his ministry sharing John’s sentiments.  Did John think Jesus had gone soft on the enemy?  Well, yes, he thought so, but it wasn’t true; it’s just that in his optimism Jesus wanted to make the world a better place for as many people as he could get around to.  
Another point of divergence between the cousins, John the Baptist and Jesus, was each one’s attitude about the wilderness.  Jesus had lived through a painful wilderness experience--either geographically or emotionally and spiritually--on his way to understanding how his gifts could best be used in service to God and humanity, and he realized that he could not do what he needed to do if he separated himself physically from the locus of the enemy.  The reason was clear; the most needy and troubled lived near the enemy.
John, in contrast, as we’ve seen, joined his brother Essenes out in the wilderness to be far removed from daily encounters with his enemies in Jewish and Roman hierarchies.  The wilderness as lonely and as dangerous as it was for John wasn’t nearly as risky a place as the Temple or the palace of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
Certainly, both John and Jesus agreed that God did come to people in their wildernesses--literally and figuratively.  This is why John the Baptist could preach his fiery sermons out there wearing animal hides for clothing and never worrying about getting his hair cut.  This is why Jesus could say to people who were afraid of the wrong potential enemies or afraid of their own capacities to be up to the job of ministering as he had taught them and charged them, “Fear not!”
The Gospel comparison of John the Baptist being the one Isaiah had prophesied about who would come to prepare the way of the Lord has been taken to such extremes over the centuries that it has lost any effectiveness it might ever have had.  The comparison would be much more on target if we looked at John as someone who introduced us to Jesus who was the one who prepared the way of the Lord God!
In either case, Isaiah had no interest in a future time.  He was concerned about the plight of the people to whom he preached.  He, in fact, was the voice crying in the wilderness.
Isaiah was encouraging his own people who were in exile and who thought that God could not get to them away from their homeland and their central place of worship to rethink that limiting concept.  He was urging them to make a way for God to come to them by getting rid of all the kinks and detours of thinking that keep people convinced God can’t get to them.  Isaiah was preaching to his own people in their suffering and angst that God absolutely would come to them in the wilderness if they did what was necessary to make a way for God to come.  
God never forces God’s way into our lives.  We cannot separate ourselves from God since the presence of God is within us, but we can surely live as if God passes us by or refuses to come to us.  The corrective to this is exalting valleys and bringing down every mountain and hill, and making the crooked places straight. 
The story is nothing more than an interesting reflection written by one or several of the early followers of Jesus, trying to make theological sense of all he did, unless, UNLESS, we individually and we as a church and we as a part of other organizations that try to bring light into the darkness of this world, unless we become voices in the world’s wildernesses. It is our responsibility, it is our calling, to convince those who are trapped in those horrible wilderness places where they don’t want to be that God comes as readily to them in the wilderness as God comes to someone whom they regard as “close to God,” but God comes by invitation only.
Those who don’t prepare themselves to receive God by building that highway somewhere down inside allowing God to travel from that place where God has been made an outsider TO that place where God is an insider will have to sit endlessly and hopelessly in the wilderness where their days will be filled with loneliness and fear and want for a figurative or a literal forty years or more.

The voice of one who crieth in the wilderness:  Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the desert a highway for OUR God.

My friend, that voice is YOURS.  Or else, there is no voice to lift up the strugglers.



Sunday, November 22, 2009




I.
    One of our country’s preeminent professors of preaching, Dr. Tom Long of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, has this to say about divine judgment in his commentary on the book of Hebrews:

We must be careful not to hear [the language of judgment in scripture] through the mouthpiece of a thousand petulant hellfire and brimstone sermons.  In the Scripture, the judgment of God is good news, a sign that God’s love for the world will allow nothing to stand that will harm or destroy.  The idea of judgment does not convey a picture of a peevish God who gets mad at sinners and strikes out in retaliation; rather, God exercises “good judgment.”  God’s judgment sets things right, repairs the broken creation (Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox, 1997, p. 109).

That is really good news!  But those hellfire and damnation sermons to which Professor Long refers have gotten the attention of all too many people, clergy included, and we have become caught up in fearing God’s judgment personally here and hereafter along with a violent, sudden upheaval to bring a so called “final judgment” to the Earth and all its inhabitants. 
    Half-informed pastors, some preferring to stay half-informed and others ignorant through no real fault of their own, are to blame, and so are money-hungry doomsdayers who have made big bucks by trying to keep passive hearers of their sermons and readers of their books and viewers of their DVD’s scared nearly to death.  Those passive hearers have to share part of the blame--at least in a country where information is as widely available as it is in ours.  Martin Luther’s foil, Johann Tetzel, hawking his indulgences, set a powerful precedent for those who, in any age, love to relish in a god (lower case g intentional!) whose greatest pleasure is damning as many people as possible to a burning eternal hell.
    Tetzel and the Roman Catholic Church of his day and Luther’s had a solution to such horrible punishments.  There was a way, after all, that God could divert people from the horrors of eternal punishment.  Here is an excerpt of one of Tetzel’s sermons explaining the details:

You should know that all who confess and in penance put alms into the coffer according to the counsel of the confessor, will obtain complete remission of all their sins....Why are you then standing there? Run for the salvation of your souls! Be as careful and concerned for the salvation of your souls as you are for your temporal goods, which you seek both day and night. Seek the Lord while he may be found and while he is near. Work, as St. John says, while it is yet day, for the night comes when no man can work.

Don't you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, “Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small [contribution of] alms and yet you do not want to do so.” Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother to the daughter, “We have created you, fed you, cared for you, and left you our temporal goods. Why then are you so cruel and harsh that you do not want to save us, though it only takes a little? You let us lie in flames so that we only slowly come to the promised glory.” You may have letters which let you have, once in life and in the hour of death, full remission of the punishment which belongs to sin.

While his Pope, Pope Leo X, praised him, many of Tetzel’s contemporaries who didn’t react as negatively as Luther did still renounced Tetzel’s message and his methods, and he died in relative obscurity--a rather broken man.  Even so, Luther was unable to get rid of the deeply entrenched view that God is ready to send people to hell--without reservation and without regret.  This concept of such an angry God is alive and well today, and it is the perceived judgment of this God that motivates untold numbers of people across the lines of religions and denominations within Christianity.
    Many of you have undoubtedly heard about or read for yourselves the most famous of all the sermons preached by the influential New England divine, Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards titled this now infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  It’s a very long sermon, typical of its historical and cultural context, and if you were to require of yourself the exercise of reading through the entire sermon, I can almost promise that you will have new appreciation for the length of my sermons whether or not you agree with their content. 
    Edwards, a leader in the so called “First Great Awakening,” preached the sermon on July 8, 1741, in Enfield, Connecticut.  His sermon text was a part of this verse, Deuteronomy 32:35:  “To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.”  These were words attributed to God by the Deuteronomic writer, and Edwards really liked one little snippet from the verse:  “...their foot shall slide in due time.”  The God of Deuteronomy seems to be predicting and perhaps gloating a bit in the fact that the rebellious Israelites will eventually fall as they walk, figuratively speaking, further and further away from God.
    After a contextual word or two, this is how Edwards began his sermon that in the minds of many defines early American preaching.

The expression that I have chosen for my text, “Their foot shall slide in due time,” seems to imply [that] the reason why they are not fallen already, and don’t fall now, is only that
God’s appointed time is not come. For it is said, that when that due time, or appointed time comes...they shall be left to fall as they are inclined by their own weight. God won’t hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then, at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction....There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.

Now to the part of the sermon, just past the halfway mark, that is probably the most remembered and quoted:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment....[There] is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell.

    My dear friends, like it or not--and I take it that most of you do not like it--this is our heritage, both the Hebrew scriptural perspectives on which Edwards based his sermon and Edwards’s views that were widely embraced in his day and remain so in our day.  The angry God of Jonathan Edwards and the eternal burning hell to which that God consigned and consigns unrepentant sinners in all likelihood captivate the minds of more people today than the lofty thoughts of a God of unconditional love. 





II.
    Psalm 98 is a corrective for the unfortunate and inaccurate understanding of God as angry.  It points us toward a sense of the true nature of God’s judgment. 
    Just as we have hopefully gotten away from the notion that God, like Zeus, is a weather man so also we have surely gotten away from the idea that God is spending God’s days and nights figuring out whom to zap and how hard and when.  Pain and suffering do not come to us as a result of God’s judgment; nor does God personally calculate and assign a negative consequence for every wrong deed done; rather, judgment is a way of referring to the logical consequences that follow from bad choices, wrong choices, immoral choices.  Judgment is not the dark side of karma, and, for the record, judgment is not executed the second a wrong is done.  Sadly, evil people often make all kinds of trouble and hurt untold numbers of people before an end comes to their influence and activity.  We’ve had an abundance of stories about such serial criminals in the news lately, haven’t we?  We have no control whatsoever over when an evil person will be stopped, but eventually each one will.
    Instead of fearing and fretting over an angry God who is so enraged with humanity that good folks too are hurt or destroyed by whatever God does to express God’s wrath, including retaliation against evil doers, the psalmist here sees the joyful side of judgment.  This is to say that every time judgment is determined by judge or jury, one side or the other has cause to celebrate--at least to some degree.  Part of judgment is beyond the punitive aspect of it--if there is that (and with the God we learn about in the teachings of Jesus, we have reason to doubt it).  Judgment in this positive respect often sets right what has been amiss.
    Recently, a very popular young performer was sentenced to five years of probation and 180 days/1400 hours of community service for a serious attack on his girlfriend who sadly kept coming back for more as is often the case in domestic abuse situations.  He cannot undo the trauma to her body and her spirit that he inflicted on her, but the judgment does fix a few things.  He can’t go near her, and the judge in the case is determined that this entertainer will do some hard physical labor as his community service--making life better for a few people and a few places.
    The psalmist was clued into this aspect of divine judgment.  God isn’t concerned about inflicting pain on anyone, even the evil and even the guilty.  Their acts and deeds carry inherent consequences with them.  Eventually those consequences will catch up to them.  God is concerned, from what we get here, with the constructive side of judgment, with making things right for the people who have been hurt, downtrodden, abused, excluded, overlooked.
     Since the psalmist wrote what she or he wrote with communal worship in mind, it was easy to think of joyful judgement calling forth song.  This is where the psalmist takes us in this worship piece of high praise.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
   break forth into joyous song and sing praises. 
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
   with the lyre and the sound of melody. 
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
   make a joyful noise before the Sovereign, the Lord.

    The old songs written and sung by those who misunderstood the divine determination to see that world eventually becomes what it was created to be fade away as a new song is sung.  The sad songs about a violently angry god, the songs of fear about a god who takes out god’s frustrations on helpless human beings, the songs of angst about a god who is capricious are wasted melodies.  They are songs from a time gone by for people who hadn’t understood what this particular psalmist understood. 

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
   the world and those who live in it. 
Let the floods clap their hands;
   let the hills sing together for joy 
at the presence of the Lord, for God is coming
   to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with righteousness,
 and the peoples with equity.

    The reality of evil in the world is no cause for passively accepting it, which is tantamount to approving of it!  We can speak out against evil, but judgment for wrongs will have to be taken care of in some other way.  God’s judgment condemns the wrong, but the divine energy is expended making things right--healing those who have been damaged by the forces that work against what God intended for this world. So let’s stop singing the old songs; it’s time to sing a new song about the restorative justice of God.
    There is no containing the excitement as we see justice prompt joy.  From one end of creation to the other, the expressions of joy are loud and unmistakable.  The seas are roaring, the waters are clapping their hands, the hills get together and sing their deafening refrains!
    Creation unites to sing and play this new song.  Humanity and the created order rejoice.  God’s ways are winning out over evil--unevenly and only little by little, but winning out nonetheless because God keeps on doing marvelous things.  The loving Creator will not be outdone by any part of the created order, and most of the world in its joyful singing and celebration has already realized it.
    We have a wonderful image before us here in this Psalm.  God is coming to create or restore justice.  There are those in our world, as is sadly the case in every era in history, who live their lives from start to finish and never experience the reality of justice; their lives are bounded entirely by the fact of injustice--one injustice or many.  Some have lived with justice prevailing, but it was taken from them. 
    We have to remember when we are dealing with ancient Hebrew scripture that, whatever God’s judgment is, the results of divine judgment come about in this world--not in some far off heavenly future.  There are certainly views of God’s judgment in Hebrew scripture that are plenty violent, but whatever happens--whether angry judgment or joyful judgment, as our psalmist for today sees--happens in the here and now.
    Some theologians have speculated that part of the reason an idea of a future in which rewards and punishments are fully meted out is because many people across time began to believe that there wasn’t sufficient time or means to settle scores in the present.  I mean, how could a martyr for the faith get her or his true reward in this world; a martyr is deprived of any life in this world the second life is stolen from them by an enemy of the faith.  Similarly, how can there ever be enough time in the present earthly sphere to inflict sufficient punishment on someone who has made a career of evil or who, in a short time, committed atrocities against large numbers of people.  The trial of the 90 year old German former army officer who was recently found guilty of murder for what the prosecution said was his role in killing 11 Italians during Hitler’s reign will undoubtedly set the stage for bringing 89-year-old John Demjanjuk to trial; he is charged with being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 people at the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland.  Even if he were half that age, how could an adequate punishment be devised? 
    For these reasons, before the first Christian century was over, the majority of those in the Christian communities evidently believed that persons who embodied evil, such as Roman Emperor Domitian, would get his punishments in the next world; indeed, there wasn’t enough time or means in this world to punish him adequately.  Similarly, justice could never be done in this world for the martyrs at the end of the first century; thus, they’d have to get their true rewards in heaven.
    Not so in ancient Hebrew thought.  All the good that’s going to come to anyone is going to come in this world just as all the punishment that’s ever going to come to a guilty person is going to come in this world.  So the justice that the writer of Psalm 98 sees coming, and which moves him to joy, was coming in this world.  He believed that God was moving to set things right, to establish or restore justice for all, in this world. 









III.
    I have a slogan affixed to my office door here at the church.  The little sign was a gift from Pam Cummings, and it reads simply, “Non-Judgment Day Is Near.”  I love it and enjoy all of its implications every time I enter my office.
    Pam’s hopeful and hilarious sign does not, however, represent the outlook I was taught in my childhood and early teens when the subject of God’s judgement was nothing to smile about.  In fact, the subject of God’s plan to judge humans based on how well they’d lived up to divine expectations brought utter terror to children and adults alike, and I’m not exaggerating in the least.  I can tell you this:  plenty of people decided to believe and do whatever the pastor demanded of them for some modest reassurances that they might escape God’s wrathful judgment, which could very well land them in a burning hell for all eternity.  They came not affirming God’s love but in fear of God’s rage. 
    That didn’t happen just at my little country church in Halls Crossroads.  Plenty of religious movements, Christianity certainly among them, have made good use of fear as a major motivator of people.  The fear factor is more useful than the proclamation of the power of love because love is associated with the absence of expectations.  If God loves me, someone may say, then it doesn’t matter what I do, God is still going to love me.  That person would be right, which is why it’s much easier to fill a church or a synagogue or a mosque with people who are afraid of a deity than it is with people who want to come together to celebrate a deity who loves them unconditionally.
    If you’re a member or friend of our church and are on our e-blast list, you recently got a picture from me of a van that was parked in the lot up at the Giant grocery store on 202.  That van had painted on both sides a prediction of a fearful end of time on May 21, 2011, at which time God’s angry judgment will be displayed, and those found lacking in God’s estimation will suffer God’s violent acts of punishment--leading ultimately to an eternal burning hell, of course. 
    I love the hymn words that are often attributed to Francis Xavier.

My God, I love Thee; not because
I hope for Heav’n thereby,
Nor yet because who love Thee not
May eternally die.

.....

Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Nor seeking a reward,
But as Thyself hast lovèd me,
O everlasting Lord!

E’en so I love Thee, and will love,
And in Thy praise will sing,
Solely because Thou art my God,
And my eternal King.

There is no hint here of embracing a connection with God in order to get any kinds of rewards including a promise of a hell-free future.  Xavier or whoever wrote these words felt deeply that responding to the reality of divine love with our love is an end in itself.  Owning love of God is not a bargaining chip or a fire insurance policy.
    I wonder about the value and the validity of any relationship that is established or sustained because of fear.  I mean, it’s not a real relationship, is it?  I don’t know what people who have worshipped God out of fear because they believe God is angry and vindictive and ready to drop them into hell in a heartbeat think they’re going to find when they get to heaven.  I mean, is God supposed to have gotten over all that anger so that in heaven God has had a change of heart or was God’s wrath only against earthlings all along?  I don’t think there could be that much of an absolute transformation.  If God can be as angry as God has been portrayed to have been, then I wouldn’t trust God to be able to hold the divine anger even in a future state and realm.
    It is no secret that I love Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE in all its forms.  The transformation of the central character, Celie, from abused and frightened girl to mature, loving woman stirs my heart every time. 
    From her early teens on, Celie is sexually and otherwise physically and verbally abused by her stepfather, but she doesn’t know that he’s her stepfather; she thinks he’s her biological father.  He impregnates this young girl twice and both times takes the baby away from her.  The father pawns her off to a man who doesn’t like her at all, but who needs someone to take care of his children and his house.  Celie is thrown from the frying pan into the fire.  The man who takes her home will eventually marry her, but most of the time treats her with contempt and treats her like a slave, a prisoner in home where she has no choice but to live.  Demeaning her and beating her, he adds to her heartache by preventing Celie from seeing the one person in the world whom she loves and who loves her--her sister, Nettie.
    An unlikely savior comes into the picture in the person of a honky tonk singer named Shug Avery.  Shug and Celie’s husband, Albert, have an on again, off again affair.  And he makes no bones in talking to Celie about how much he loves Shug and in what low regard he holds her, Celie. 
    In Alice Walker’s marvelous imagination, Celie and Shug fell in love with each other and for a time were lovers.  That didn’t last because ultimately Shug preferred men intimately, but the love they shared absolutely transformed Celie.  She didn’t believe any longer that she needed to hurry up and get to heaven so she could be free of the pain and abuse that had defined her life in this world; the present suddenly became a good place for her to be.  And self-love along with love from someone whom she loved had given her tremendous strength.  With Shug’s support, Celie finally mustered up the courage to leave her abusive husband and the house that had been her prison, but Celie didn’t just walk out or disappear.  No, ma’am.  She told Albert off so thoroughly that I’m not sure anyone else has ever been told off so well.  
    Said Celie to Albert:  “You a low down dirty dog....Time for me to get away from you, and enter into Creation.”   She said to him, “I curse you. Until you do right by me everything you think about is gonna crumble!”
    There is no true relationship between partners or spouses if one is afraid of the other and largely stays around for fear of leaving.  There is no true relationship between children and parents when the parents have beaten the children into submission, and the only true emotion the kids have toward their abusive parents is fear.  Similarly, there is no true connection with a god who can only get your attention and keep your attention because you’re afraid of that god.  There are only two possible long-term responses to being linked to someone who abuses you--physically, emotionally, in whatever way.  You either come to believe that this is what you deserve, which includes the assumption that if she or he abuses you it’s your fault.  Or you look for any way to get away whenever you can. 
    We have loads of people around the world today gathered to worship God because they’re scared to death not to.  They have been taught that anything and everything bad that comes to them and their loved ones comes because God is judging them, and the horrible turns in their lives--from physical illness to accidents to loss of home and job--are God’s ways of slapping them around.  They can appease God, or have a shot at it at least, by doing the modern day equivalents of ancient sacrifices.  Some cultures made plant and animals sacrifices to their angry deity or deities; some resorted to human sacrifice. 
    My dear friends, if your god judges you and others by inflicting physical or other pain, the problem is not with you; the problem is with your god.  The God known to the writer of Psalm 98 and the God known to Jesus of Nazareth comes to demand justice, not to harm.  This is joyful judgment, and the God who so judges does not want to be feared. 
    The writer of 1 John got it.  He wrote the truth:  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment....”
    Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

CREATURE PRAISE






I.
Debra Mumford is a preaching professor at the Presbyterian seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  Last fall, she preached at their convocation, and in her sermon, giving the student body and her faculty colleagues direction for the academic year, she had this to say:

A life of total praise affirms interconnectedness and interdependence of all of God’s creation. A life of total praise denies the Judeo-Christian notion of humanity as the center of the universe wherein nature exists to fulfill all human desires. A life of total praise acknowledges God’s capacity to love beyond all human understanding. A life of total praise is a holistic one wherein the complete self is developed for the ultimate purpose of discerning and fulfilling God’s will for all of God’s creation. 

I want to use two of Dr. Mumford’s insights as springboards for further reflection on our part--the notion that there is an interconnectedness as well as an interdependence of every aspect of God’s creation AND the bold conclusion that the longstanding and powerfully influential Judeo-Christian scriptural perspective of humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation is erroneous.
Some of you have heard me say before that I absolutely loved Disney’s “Lion King” on Broadway.  The movie was terrific, but the live production was amazing, and the pivotal song, “The Circle of Life,” came to life on stage in a way it didn’t in the film.  Same music by Elton John.  Same lyrics by Tim Rice.  But it was still different.  

It’s the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

Interestingly, those of us who affirm evolution, which by no means requires a denial of the existence of God or of God’s involvement as Creator, are affirming the absolute connection of all life forms to each other.  A PBS publication put it this way:

Evolution describes the change over time of all living things from a single common ancestor. The “tree of life” illustrates this concept. Every branch represents a species, each connected to other such branches and the rest of the tree as a whole. The forks separating one species from another represent the common ancestors shared by these species. In the case of the relatedness of humans and single-celled organisms, a journey along two different paths--one starting at the tip of the human branch, the other starting at the tip of a single-celled organism's branch--would ultimately lead to a fork near the base of the tree: the common ancestor shared by these two very different types of organisms. This journey would cross countless other forks and branches along the way and span perhaps more than a billion years of evolution, but it demonstrates that even the most disparate creatures are related to one another--that all life is interconnected.

“...even the most disparate creatures are related to one another...all life is interconnected.”  Does that mean anything to us?  Should it mean anything to us?
In Indigenous American thought, there is a powerful and a perpetual bond between animals and humans, which led and leads to an unfailing respect for the animal world on the part of humans.  Humans are two-leggeds, and animals are four-leggeds; and they support each other.  One old tribal tale held that animals existed before humans, and when human males came along they first married female four-leggeds.  If you let that image become more than a myth for you, you might need to hold off on canceling out with your therapist!  In the myth, however, it was a way of saying that there was and always will be a powerful connection between humans and animals.  
Most tribes who ate animal meat to survive believed that their human spirits and the spirits of the animals lived on in the spirit realm after life in the earth realm was over.  The hunters expressed appreciation to the animal before killing it, appreciation for providing for them and their families.  The bones of an animal, once eaten, were carefully buried--just as the remains of humans were buried--at sites that became sacred.  The hunter believed that she or he would see the spirit of that animal in the spirit realm once the time came for the hunter to make that journey or transition.  
Now we look at the idea that humanity is the pinnacle of creation--that is, human beings are of greater value than are animals and/or humans were created to rule over animals and use them for their purposes, even if that means cruelty to the animals.  There’s a new book out, Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology.  The author is Mark Barrow, and it was reviewed by Claire Hopley in this past Thursday’s Washington Times.  Wrote Ms. Hopley:

Nature's Ghosts is...a detailed intellectual history of the way Americans have thought about the natural world. Two-hundred years ago it was axiomatic that humans were the pinnacle of creation, licensed to use animals and land as they wished. By the late nineteenth century, national pride and scientific curiosity fostered the first serious and sometimes effective efforts to preserve species. In the twentieth century, more species have been saved (although many are still being lost) as the intellectual focus has turned from individual species to the preservation of biodiversity--a variation of the old idea of a chain of being.

Several years back, the National Council of Churches began to study the theology of ecology, and after several heavy hitters from the ecumenical world made their views known, the treasured theory that creation was created to serve humanity rather than God was blown to bits.  God made humankind stewards, caregivers, of creation, not users of creation except to the extent that they, humans, were to benefit from its SUSTAINABLE bounty.
Four and a half years ago, then, a lengthy statement on the subject was released, and it remains an important document that needs to be redistributed as it seems to have been overlooked first time around.  The document was called God’s Earth Is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States.  Listen to this excerpt:

We stand with awe and gratitude as members of God’s bountiful and good creation. We rejoice in the splendor and mystery of countless species, our common creaturehood, and the interdependence of all that God makes. We believe that the Earth is home for all and that it has been created intrinsically good.  We lament that the human species is shattering the splendid gifts of this web of life, ignoring our responsibility for the well being of all life, while destroying species and their habitats at a rate never before known in human history.

This business of thinking of humans as the crown of creation in the sense that animals and objects are here purely for our use, our pleasure, our comfort regardless of any pain or abuse or destruction we heap upon them needs to be gone for good!
Madeleine and Will Tuttle have said this about the interconnectedness between humans and animals.  It is both moving and memorable to me:

The spiritual connection between animal beings and human beings grows out of the understanding that we are all expressions of an infinite loving Presence, and as we acknowledge this interconnection and live in harmony with it, our very lives become prayers of compassion and healing.



II.
When I read or hear read Psalm 148, this song in the deep recesses of my memory comes to the front or the top or wherever it is in the brain that this kind of information is brought back for actual use.   The title of the song is “Creature Praise.”  And for its time, the song had congregants, who were used to sitting still and silent, tapping their toes and bobbing their heads.   I recently found the song again on iTunes, and the rhythm still makes me move!

Large creatures, small creatures, short and tall creatures... young creatures, old creatures, hot and cold creatures...day creatures, night creatures, left and right creatures...near creatures, far creatures, any where you are creatures, come now and praise the Lord! (Mike Curb Congregation).

  Psalm 148 is about the whole of creation coming together to praise the Creator, and the writer of this portion of liturgy for the ancient Temple worshipers is comprehensive in her or his perspective, constantly moving in this sweeping call of everything and everyone to praise God.   The movement is from high to low, as it were, and low to high in all realms.
         Did you notice the flow?   In the created order, from heavens, meaning skies, to heavenly bodies and then to the earth before calling out to the waters and the depths.   The highest mountains and then hills that aren’t as tall.   Now, back up again:  fruit trees before the call to the towering cedars.   Earth creatures and then flying creatures above them. Sovereigns then commoners.   Young men and then young women.   (Sorry, ladies!)  Young then old.   
Did you hear?  The physical earth too is called to praise in this psalm because God created it too.  The psalm is a comprehensive call to praise God, the Creator, and I see it as the way life is to be lived every day--not just at an occasional convocation or convention.  Life on earth is lived out with each member of the created order, those that we call inanimate along with those parts that are animate, fulfilling its God-intended role; that is true praise.  
It’s important for us to notice here that human praise alone isn’t adequate; nor are humans alone able to generate sufficient praise of God.  The rest of the created order must also be involved.  Neither is there any assumption in this magnificent image that the humans have taken the lead, or should take the lead, in the praise of God.
Praise of God isn’t limited to any one language--not any human language or human language all.   Pure praise isn’t logocentric, not mainly words and maybe not words at all.   The primary basis of praise is in being the best we can be at what we were created to be.   Animals, ironically, never have any problems with that.   Neither do rocks and trees or skies and seas--if greedy and careless humans leave them be.   This psalmist even has the sea monsters, generally the most frightening of all creatures for the ancient Hebrews, praising their Creator who happens to be the same Creator who created us humans.
  My older son was a first or second year high school student when he first became an animal rights advocate.   He was a “latest cause” kind of guy, and while I respected all the causes he wanted to support, well most, I didn’t get drawn into each one.   When he was into a cause, he was into it wholeheartedly; promoting his cause became his passion and filled many hours of each day.  This one really, the animal rights cause, began to get to him, and when I caught on to how serious he was about the ways animals were being tortured for human greed and vanity I began to learn myself--much to my dismay.   I probably have never told you how I first discovered Jarrett’s level of seriousness about stopping animal cruelty.  
I had four generations of McCormick Spice folks in my congregation in Baltimore.  They were all most gracious people and not at all flashy with their considerable wealth.  The wife in the second generation of McCormicks in the church at that time had allowed herself one noticeably fancy item--a full length mink coat.  One Sunday after church I saw Jarrett eyeing that mink as it hung on the coat rack with much less fancy coats.  I asked him what he was doing there staring at coats, and he said that the literature he’d been reading called protectors of animals to spray paint an X on mink coats.  I explained to him that Mrs. Joy McCormick’s mink coat was specifically excluded from an X unless he wanted me to get fired!  Eventually, he realized he couldn’t destroy what belonged to someone else in order to protest a difference he might have with her or him.  I don’t know what Jarrett thinks of such protests now, some 12 years after the church coat rack incident, but I do know that NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez and his wife, October, have taken up the cause, and they have a very, shall we say, transparent way of protesting as you can see if you look at this month’s issue of the periodical from PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.   
Jarrett was hardly a bleeding heart just for the heck of it.  I had no idea that certain cosmetics were tested on rabbits’ eyes until the rabbits went blind or killed themselves first from the constant burning in their eyes.   It never occurred to me that monkeys were placed in machines that made them stand up and then sit again on “easy chairs” to see how many times it would take before the fabric began to wear; the monkeys sometimes died of exhaustion, or their bones or joints broke.   Who could have imagined that cows were often fattened up to the point that they couldn’t walk any more and had to be held up in slings--all so there would be more cow to sell at market?   I’ve never forgotten what I initially learned about these and related practices, and they changed my mind.   Ultimately, they’ve changed how I live.  
This is not what God’s creatures were created for.   No argument in favor of that can stand.   God’s creatures are co-creatures with me and with you, and like us humans they have a function in praising God.   William Ralph Inge, in 1922, made a comment that, once I’d heard it, made a permanent impression on me:
   
We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so bad that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form (“Outspoken Essays”).

I don’t get these people who make a sport out of cruelty to animals.  Dog fighting and cock fighting.  We all know the story of the rich and famous athlete who got caught funding dog fighting rings.   He had to spend his time in jail, and he came out only to be picked up by an unnamed big time professional sports team that will make him filthy rich all over again if it hasn’t already done so.   He was one of many, killing dogs by the dozens for blood-thirty, sick entertainment.
Animal cruelty in general is horrible, and beyond the pain and suffering inflicted on creatures created by the same God who created human beings it is symptomatic of other problems.  More than a few of these kids who go berserk at school and kill their peers were torturing and killing animals when they were children or in their early teens.  
One former FBI profiler, Robert Ressler, who once specialized in creating profiles of serial killers for the agency said that many of these disturbed and violent people have a history of animal abuse.  Studies from professionals such as Ressler have now convinced increasing numbers of sociologists and psychologists, law enforcement officials, and judges that acts of cruelty to animals deserve attention. They can be the first sign of a violent pathology that may eventually include human victims.  
Research in the behavioral sciences and criminology shows that people who commit acts of cruelty to animals often, not rarely, often move on to commit violence against their fellow humans.  I think that is really scary, and we have to wonder if we taught all our children to be more respectful of animals the run away violence would be capped or reduced.  One thing is certain, if we sit back and do nothing except to wring our hands and hope things will get better some kind of way, not a thing will happen, and where there are trends of increasing violence they will continue to spiral.
John Allen Muhammad was put to death this past week for his part in the terrifying DC area murder spree.  His teenaged partner in crime could not receive the death penalty in Virginia because of his age though he, too, was convicted of having taken part in the murder of numerous citizens in association with Muhammad.
During the trial of Lee Boyd Malvo, a psychologist responded to evidence that Malvo had shot at and killed some cats for no reason at all when he was about 14 years old.  There’s no way we can ignore the inhuman treatment of animals either practically or spiritually.  The days of chalking it up as coincidence are over.



III.
I can’t help thinking today of the vision the prophet Ezekiel had when he with his people had been taken away from their homes and their homeland in the Babylonian deportation, 593 or so years before Jesus was born.  In this vision is contained one of the most astounding, yet mysterious, perceptions of God presented anywhere in Hebrew scripture.

As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies (Ezek 1:4-9 NRSV).

I am intrigued by how the writer conceived of these creatures who attended the mobile throne of God.  Each one had the body of a human, and each one had four faces--the face of a lion, the face of an ox, the face of an eagle, and, finally, the face of a human.  The lion symbolized wild animals, the ox domesticated animals, the eagle the birds of the air, and the human face humankind.  God had created all of these; each one was a part, a necessary part, of the created order, and each one, according to the symbolism of the vision, had a direct role in serving God attentively and in carrying out God’s plan.  
Hold that image as I read a little snippet from the book of Revelation.  John in his vision has just had his first glimpse at the throne of God.  He is nearly overcome by all the light emanating from the throne when he sees God’s closest attendants.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.  And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 5:6-8 NRSV).

The writer has taken what she or he knew of Ezekiel and incorporated it into this marvelous image.  This isn’t God’s mobile throne; this is God’s stationary throne where God is attended to by the four creatures--one like a lion, one like an, ox one like an eagle, and one like a human.  These are covered with eyes, symbolizing that they have the capacity always to keep a focus on God and, at the same time, to see where they need to go in order to serve God.  As they attend to God they sing a hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
The belief that only humans have either the responsibility or the capability of serving God, of praising God, is just plain wrong.  Those religious groups that are challenging human centrality in the created order are onto something, but it isn’t something new; it’s something ancient.
I sometimes share with my seminary preaching students what I am working on in regard to a sermon series or, now and then, a given week’s sermon.  This week I told both classes the subject on which I’d be working, and Kurt Pleim, my student who was here last Sunday with his sons, sent me an email and asked if the information included in the note he was sending was related to my upcoming sermon.  Indeed, it was.  Right on target as a matter of fact.  Since we have some serious Boy Scouts around here, I was especially pleased with Kurt’s comments that I now share with you.

In the Boy Scouts there is a program called “Leave No Trace.”  The idea is that we are to leave campgrounds in the same or better condition than we found them so that they are preserved for future generations of scouts. We do not cut down any live trees. We move our tents periodically so the grass does not die, and we pick up all trash in the area to ensure that we carry out all of our trash (and any that may have already been there) when we leave. God gave us dominion over the animals, not to hunt them to extinction, but to manage them so that we flourish together in a symbiotic relationship. The other aspects of the environment can be considered in the same way. God put us here as caretakers of this planet, not as consumers of all of its resources.

St. Francis of Assisi is, in Roman Catholic tradition, the patron saint of animals and the environment.  He left a life of wealth and comfort for a life of begging for enough food just for a day so that he could devote his time to helping the kinds of ignored and forgotten people whom Jesus had served.  In addition, it seems that having thrown off the burden of materialism, he could see the beauty in the world and in all of life.  Sad to say, but it seems that materialism blinds most of us and keeps us from witnessing the true wonders of life in this created world where we share life with all sorts of creatures and things God created in order to make one wonderful whole.
Laudes Creaturarum, “Praise of the Creatures,” is a song composed by St. Francis himself.  It was originally written in Italian, which worked out well since that was his native language, and--here’s a Jeopardy fact for you, these written lyrics are believed to have been the first literary composition in the Italian language.  Tradition has it, and there has been no strong reason to doubt this, that St. Francis wrote most of this song while he was recovering from an illness late in the year 1224.


Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.


To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.


That’s fascinating to me. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce God’s name so in that case, look who is praising God!


Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.


Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.


Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.


Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.


Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.


Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.


Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures!
Our task as creatures is not just to praise God ourselves, but, rather, to enhance and not impede how our co-creatures praise God. Indeed, they are praising our God.
Amen.