Sunday, September 28, 2014

Deep River: Sermon on Revelation 22:1-5

 Scripture can be found here....

Deep river—my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Don't you want to go to that Gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace.
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

~ African American Spiritual

From the beginning, people in anguish have called out to God for relief. At least 2500 years ago, the writer of Psalm 13 wrote,

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?

~Psalm 13:1

And almost 20 years ago, Dan Haseltine, the front man for the Christian group Jars of Clay, wrote,

Rain, rain on my face.
Hasn’t stopped raining for days.
My world is a flood. Slowly I become one with the mud.

~ “Flood”

Who hasn’t felt like that? These songs, disparate as they are, are all part of the same genre, songs of lament, songs of supplication to God. Help me God. Rescue me God. Can’t you see me God?

“Deep River” is an African American spiritual, and like so many songs in that tradition, it grew out of the experience of slavery. On one level, we hear words that evoke images from scripture: the deep River Jordan, the place of baptism and renewal, beyond which is a place of safety and rest—heaven, maybe? And on the other hand, we have a song that is speaking in code of real opportunities for escape—cross the mighty river, and the hounds that are tracking you lose your scent, and you have a chance for freedom.

This morning we have reached the final Sunday of our September “Season of Creation.” I particularly love the text from last week. But instead of preaching Wilderness Sunday, I got to go to the wilderness—my own private little, short-lived wilderness of pain, fear, calling out to God for help, and restoration.

The Season of Creation lectionary is set up to take us through that story. It gives us the story of salvation in four weeks—a very abbreviated story, to be sure, and not the story the way we usually hear it. But it gives us the story of creation, fall, wilderness, and salvation/ restoration/ resurrection. The first week, we heard the story of the garden—God’s perfect creation, filled with all the things we need to thrive. The second week, we heard stories of sin and suffering—we watched as disobedience turned murderous, though—did you notice? God was faithful still. Last week, you heard the story of Jesus’ baptism—his immersion into all of humanity’s pain and beauty—turned to the story of wilderness wandering, complete with wild beasts—and angels.

Today, we come to the river, the river of salvation. The river of restoration and rescue. The river of resurrection. The river at which we gather—for baptism. For new life. For welcome into the household of God. For refreshment. For a life-sustaining drink. For healing. And our immersion into this river comes from the book of the Revelation to John. Hear these words from Holy Scripture:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

~ Revelation 22:1-5

The Book of the Revelation to John is just that—an uncovering, a dreamscape, maybe, of John, a devout Jew, a mystic, who lived out his life in exile on the Isle of Patmos.[i] It was written during a time of deep anxiety in the early church, a time when people were wondering when, or even if, Jesus would ever return to rescue the people from persecution under Rome. And the theory that it describes the way the world will end, is a relatively recent notion, not even 200 years old. And all this idea has done is: to scare some people to death; to cause some people to demonize people they disagree with politically; and to make other people massively, obscenely rich through their twisting and exploitation of the scriptures. This book was written for comfort. It was written for hope. Author Elaine Pagels says, Revelation is not about how the world will end. It’s about how John’s world ended. The destruction of the Temple. The long, agonizing wait for Jesus to come to save and comfort.[ii]

Near the end of Revelation, John shows us this river—or, more accurately, John tells us how an angel showed him the river. And the river is described like this:

It flows with the water of life.

It flows from the throne of God.

It flows through the middle of the streets of the city.

It waters the tree of life, which gives twelve kinds of fruit, and, whose leaves will be used for the healing of the nations.

The river flows with the water of life: in a sense, isn’t all water the water of life? In our service for baptism there’s always a prayer of thanksgiving over the water. This prayer is a little walk through scripture. We thank God for the watery chaos of creation, the cleansing and renewing waters of the flood. We thank God for leading Israel through the parted waters of the sea, and for Jesus being nurtured in the waters of Mary’s womb. We thank God for John baptizing Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, and for Jesus speaking and hearing the truth from the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s all there: Creating, cleansing, renewing, parting to make a way for freedom; birthing, baptizing, springing up: the river flows with the living water, the water of life.

The river flows from the throne of God. In the end, we go back to the beginning. The river flows from its source, the place and person of its origin: It is a creation of God. From God, it flows out to the whole world.

The river flows through the streets of the city. One of my seminary professors was famous for the simple but astute observation that the bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.[iii] It begins in the pristine perfection of creation and plenty—call it childhood, call it innocence—and it ends in a place where people are called out of childhood and into maturity; out of innocence and into wisdom; out of the protective cocoon of the individual family unit and into community. And still:

A river and its streams bring joy to the city,
    which is the sacred home of God Most High.
God is in that city, and it won’t be shaken. God will help it at dawn.

~Psalm 46:4-5

God is with us. The river of the water of life flows through the streets of the city.

The river waters the tree of life. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. And really, the remainder of our passage describes this perfectly:

Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him… And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…     ~ Rev. 5:3, 5

The Season of Creation comes to its conclusion by reminding us that God is with us at the end, just as God was with us at the beginning, whether “the end” is “the end of the world as we know it,” or the end of a stage in life, or the end of this day. Last week I lay on a gurney in the Emergency Room and pondered the “end of life as I knew it.” Lying there in pain, I seriously contemplated the possibility that my fall at the ‘Y’ might be the beginning of decline, disability, a life of pain, and surgeries. Nothing many of you haven’t been through, or haven’t been present when someone you love has gone through it. The fact that I was wrong (Hallelujah! for now) doesn’t mean that I wasn’t in a real wilderness of fear and pain for those hours and days. And God was there, which I know because I cried out for help, and God helped. I’m not talking about the fact that my back wasn’t broken (though, that was definitely a good thing). I’m talking about the fact that God put a little sentence in my head, that went, “I am completely powerless here.” And that’s the God moment. The moment when we know we need God, is the moment in which there is a space for God to enter. Spirit, enter here.

It wasn’t, as it turns out, the end of life as I knew it two Wednesdays ago, though I am profoundly grateful these days for things like being able to walk unassisted, and being able to reach out my arms without doubling over in pain. But in all circumstances, God, our creator, is in our endings and our beginnings, our source and our goal. God our redeemer turns our endings into beginnings—new life, flowing through that river. God our sustainer teases out our gratitude, alerting us to the ways we can begin again, no matter what kind of ending we have just experienced.

Deep river—we are carried along on the river of John’s dreams, which are our dreams, too, as we live the cycle of creation over and over again. Dreams of new and vibrant life beginning. Dreams of failure and falling, literal or metaphorical. Dreams of wandering and wondering in the wilderness. Dreams of renewed life, the gospel feast, the promised land where all is peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Blake, “4 Big Myths of the Book of Revelation,” CNN Belief Blog, March 31, 2012,
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Trouble in the Land: Sermon on Genesis 3:14-19, 4:8-16

 Scripture can be found here...

There are a few ways we could talk about today’s passages. I’m thinking we could go micro, focus in; or we could go macro, we could pull out and use a wide lens.

Here’s what we see when we pull in close: In the beginning, the woman and the man eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, against the express directions of their Creator God. After their disobedience is discovered, God doles out punishment. The serpent that tempted them is made the most despised of creatures and his offspring become eternal, mortal enemies of the humans. The woman is given painful childbirth and the punishment of being “ruled over” by her husband. And the man? His punishment is all about the land. The ground is cursed. Instead of a garden producing things for him to eat without any effort, he will have to work hard—and he’ll get thorns and thistles for his pains. And then that final reminder to the man that, after all, he came from the ground—the dust—and he will return to it. In the next generation, sin continues to infect and affect people and land: brother murders brother for no good reason we can discern, and the blood soaks the earth and calls out to God.

At the micro level, we have a story of sin and disobedience and punishment.

Now, if we pull back, take a wide view, we see: a story in which sin adds to the suffering of the world.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about sin. “Sin” is not a word or a concept most of us are comfortable with. To add to that, we Presbyterians have, as part of our Constitution, something called “The Book of Confessions,” which contains eleven historic statements of faith, beginning with the Nicene Creed, dating from the fourth century, and continuing through the ages to our most recent “Brief Statement of Faith,” dating from 1983. The concepts of sin found throughout the confessions are startlingly diverse. For example, one of our older creeds, the Scots Confession (written in 1560 during the Reformation) describes the outcome of the events the garden this way:

By this transgression… the image of God was utterly defaced in man, and he and his children became by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin.[i]

On the other hand, the Confession of 1967 was written in during the Civil Rights movement in this country, and is founded on a single verse from 2 Corinthians: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…” Here, sin is described this way:

In sin, men claim mastery of their own lives, turn against God and their fellow men, and become exploiters and despoilers of the world. They lose their humanity in futile striving and are left in rebellion, despair, and isolation.[ii]

The descriptions of sin are diverse, but a common thread runs through them: Sin is separation from God, and enslavement to something other than God.

In our passages, that separation seems to take on a very distinct shape: the humans, created from the earth, are no longer at one with it. Instead of living in harmony with the land, as the original design for Eden demands, the humans struggle with the land. Instead of living peacefully on and with the land, they are at war with it. “…Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:17b). “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). “When you till the ground, it will not yield to you its strength” (Gen. 4:12).

Sin adds to the suffering of the world. Literally. Separation from God leads to trouble in the land. The land suffers, the earth cries out. And the humans cry out, too. Cain cries out, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face…” (Gen. 4:13b-14). The land suffers, the earth suffers, and we suffer.

It’s often said that liberals like to focus on corporate sin—the things we do as societies, or governments, or big corporations. And it’s further said that conservatives like to focus on individual sin, the things we do one-on-one. These passages don’t allow any of us to retreat to our comfort zones, liberal or conservative. Sin—personal and corporate—has devastating effects, and we can’t ignore them.

Early last year, the New York Times reported:

A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.[iii]

Last year the percentage of lost hives came down to 23%, which, according to one researcher, is still “not a good number.” He said, “We’ve gone from horrible to bad.”[iv] One scientist speculated that, if all the bees should die out, humans would not be far behind. He gave us four years.[v] God created us to be connected, to one another, and to the earth. Science fiction movies that have us relocating to Mars notwithstanding, we cannot live without it.

It’s not clear what’s killing the bees, but lots of people are working on it. It IS clear that the world is suffering, and we don’t even have to look outside our own country: from the hives of California, to the particulate filled air of Wyoming, to the devastated marine life and birds of the Louisiana Gulf, to the toxic drinking water of places as disparate as Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, the earth is crying out. This is God’s creation, God’s gift, given to us for our sustenance and plenty. And we have a part to play. It is described right there in the story… in last week’s passage. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

The verb translated “keep” is a verb I am very familiar with. It’s the Hebrew verb, shamar. I’m familiar with it because, when we were taught the Hebrew verb forms in seminary, shamar was the verb we always used. And the meaning of the verb is “to guard” or “to protect.” And that verb, translated “till”? It turns out that is the verb form of the Hebrew word for “slave” or “servant.” So, this little verse, really, properly, could read, should read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to serve it and protect it.”

Imagine. We are all creatures of God, created from the earth. And our first job, the thing God tells us to do, right off, is to serve the earth, and protect it. That is our first vocation, our first calling. Our first priority. And, of course, it is a calling that is completely self-serving, since, without the earth thriving and healthy, our time as a species is not long.[vi] The call to protect the earth is not a call to self-sacrifice. It’s a call to save ourselves.

At the end of our passage, God consoles Cain, who has murdered his brother, by telling him he will not be killed. God brands him with a protective mark so that no one will harm him. This is how God responds to our sin, to the things we do that cause the earth to run with blood, human or honeybee. God protects us. God serves us. God reassures us. God sends us on to a new place, in hopes we will do better from now on. God reminds us, as in Psalm 139, that, there is really nowhere we can flee from God’s presence. Sin might be separation from God, but God is having none of it. God won’t be separated from us even if we try to climb in our roadsters and make a getaway.  Sin adds to the suffering of the world, but God steps in to ameliorate even that with second and third and four-thousandth chances. God remains faithful. God remains creative! God keeps inviting us to be a part of the divine creative plan. God’s love never fails. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Scots Confession 3.03, Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution Part I: The Book of Confessions, 11.
[ii] “The Sin of Man,” Confession of 1967 9.12, op cit.
[iii] “Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms,” New York Times, March 28, 2013, p. A1.
[iv] “Report Says Fewer Bees Perished Over the Winter, But the Reason Is a Mystery,” New York Times, May 16, 2014, p. A 19.
[v] Leonard Shlain, quoted in the documentary “Connected: An Autoiography about Love, Death, and Technology,” 2011.
[vi] Noam Chomsky, “The End of History?”

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Forest for the Trees: Sermon on Genesis 2:4b-22

 Scripture can be found here...

I was born in a beach-town, a suburb of Atlantic City, the daughter of parents who were born and raised in Philadelphia. We didn’t spend a lot of time in forests. In fact, my mother considered forests to be kind of sinister. Maybe she read too many spooky fairy tales in the Philadelphia Public Library, but when it was time for me to go to Camp Acagisca, mom sent dad to drive me, saying “Put me between two trees, and I’ll get lost. Put me between two trees, and you’ll never see me again!”

That said, I’ve had a kind of gentle initiation into forests all the same. My parents took me to California when I was seven, and we spent a day among the giant redwoods. I’ve been camping on Cape Cod. I’ve roamed through the beautiful and well-marked trails at the Waterman Center, inhaling the sweet smell of pine and cedar. I’ve read J. R. R. Tolkien! These are my limited credentials, as we start our four-week “Season of Creation” series with “Forest Sunday.”

But trees: ah. Trees are another matter. Trees, I know. I have fallen in love with trees, individual trees, in my life. Let me tell you about one such tree.

There is a weeping copper beech outside the parish house of West Presbyterian Church. When I went there to work as director of Christian Education almost fifteen years ago, I parked near the tree on my first day in the office, and was very nearly late because I was so taken by it. For those of you who have never seen this tree up close, it is very like the image of a woman with extraordinarily long hair, flowing right down to the ground, which she can completely hide beneath. Think Cousin Itt, only not weird and creepy. You usually can’t see the trunk of a weeping copper beach. But the sight of such a tree makes you want to part those cascading boughs and walk into the fragrant darkness of its canopy. It’s mysterious, you want to step inside. I did. On warm days I took my lunch and picnicked there. I can truthfully say that not one day of my tenure at that church passed without me stopping and taking grateful notice of that extraordinary, stunning tree.

On Forest Sunday we are offered a creation story, and it features no forests, but a number of trees, some trees with names. The tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And then more ordinary trees— let’s say apple trees, and peach trees. Since Eden as it is described is probably somewhere in modern day Iraq, or Turkey, or even Israel, let’s be sure to include orange trees, and also date, plum, apricot, and olive trees. Lemon trees, very pretty. Fig trees, powerful biblical symbols of wisdom and peace.

And there, folded into the stories of the creation of trees and forests and food-crops and animals, is the creation of man and woman. And do you notice how connected everything is? The earth is created, and later man is created from the earth. The man is created, and woman is created from the man’s own body, “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh,” as he will call her, right after our passage ends.

And all the parts of creation—all of them—are in some sense made for one another. The man and woman to “till and keep” the trees and forests and food-crops, and the trees and food-crops to provide the humans with food and even, science tells us, air. When we exhale, we provide carbon dioxide for the plants and trees, and the plants and trees, in turn, provide oxygen for us.

Everything is so connected, so intimately connected, that, a theory emerged in the 1960’s that the earth is, in fact, one complex organism. Think of the remarkable photographs of the earth taken from space by the Apollo astronauts. There are no borders. Everything is connected. God has created it all in such a way that we have real impact on one another—for good or for ill.

And that is the story of the man and the woman. They will have an impact on one another. Their fates are inextricably entwined, and not simply because the woman is described as the man’s “helper.” [By the way, if you do a search for the word “helper” in scripture, roughly a third of the references are to God. God is our helper. It’s a good word.] The fates of the first humans are connected, and so, I believe, are the fates of all humans today, sometimes in ways we can’t see or predict in advance. This is how we were created: we were made to be a part of one another.

Recently I saw an illustration of a stand of redwood trees, with a written description that went like this:

Redwood trees are among some of the most majestic trees. They grow to be over 300 feet tall, and can live thousands of years, and their wood has special properties that make it resistant to mold, insects, and rot. Also, despite growing so old and so high, they have relatively shallow roots – around 6 to 12 feet deep. This root system could not hold up the tree by itself if it were not for a unique interaction between the trees. Redwoods get their stability and strength from growing up together with other redwoods in groves, and then intertwining their roots. In essence, they hold onto each other, and this enables them to grow incredibly tall, strong, and live long lives.[i]

We are like those redwoods, we people of faith. This is how we were created. We come together in a community of believers and seekers and people who are looking for a better way to live. We seek to put down roots here, roots that stretch out broadly, connecting us, not so much to the place, as to one another. What holds us up is what holds us together. We intertwine our roots, we hold on to each other. This is what enables us to grow strong, in our faith and in our lives.

Everything is connected. This is how everything was created. Trees in forests. Men and women in gardens. People to plants, plants to animals, animals to people, in an endless round-robin of creation, one that was designed by God to give us delight and abundance of life. We find that abundance by noticing that some fruits are delicious and nourishing. We delight by pausing to notice its sheer deliciousness and beauty and mystery. We find trees that take our breath away, and make us want to sit in their shade for peace and solitude. We see late summer flowers that make us want to take pictures so that we share them with our friends. We hold on to each other, like the stands of redwood trees.  And all this connection—to nature and to one another—points us back, again and again, to the One who fashioned all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful. The Lord God made them all. Thanks be to God. Amen.