Sunday, October 27, 2019

Cosmos: What Am I to You?

"Cosmos: What Am I to You?"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

September 22, 2019 

John 1:1-14; Proverbs 8:22-31

Forty years ago, when my eyesight was better, I was a summer camp counselor on the staff at Wesley Acres, the United Methodist campground in eastern North Dakota. The campground was tucked in a river valley, surrounded by farmland, 20 miles from the nearest town, and that town even then had only a hundred or so residents. At night we had our campfires at the top of a small hill, so that if you laid on your back you could see nothing but night sky. When the fire would die down, the stars would blaze. We could imagine ourselves falling upward into the milky way – the gravity of the stars both pressing us down and drawing us in. The constellations sang choruses of delight and wonder. My favorites were not the brightest or the easiest to connect into the creatures the ancients saw in them, but the tiny cluster known as the Pleiades. It is among the nearest star clusters to Earth and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky. The Pleiades are middle-aged, hot B-type stars. They are between 75 and 150 million years old compared to our star’s age of 4.6 billion years, and they are about twice as hot as our star.
Both Amos and Job call out the Pleiades.
Amos connects mundane, earthly injustice to the maker of the stars:
Ah, you who turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the dust –
seek the One who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns the dusk to dawn,
and day to the darkest night,
who summons the waters of the sea
and pours them over the land –
seek YHWH!
And God challenges Job’s indictment of God’s justice also by reference to the mastery over the stars:
Can you harness the Pleiades,
or untie the ropes of Orion?
Can you direct Venus from season to season,
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you fix their rule over the earth?

When I look at the faint dust of the Pleiades, I can’t help but wonder, what would the creatures on a planet circling around one of them see when gazing in our direction? Probably nothing. Our star would be invisible to the naked eye – or at the very best, it would be lost in a field of other, brighter, bigger stars. We cry out to the sky, “Cosmos! What am I to you?” And the Cosmos is silent; patiently shedding its ancient light on us.
The prophets and the wisdom tradition see a direct connection between our puny lives and systems and the vastness of creation. We are to look to this vastness for wisdom in our earthly interactions. Psalm 8 declares:
YHWH, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your Name in all the earth!
You have placed your glory above the heavens!
When I behold your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you set in place –
what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?
Who are we that you should care for us?
You have made us barely less than God,
and crowned us with glory and honor.
And yet here we are, a middling planet near a minor star in a far-flung branch of just one galaxy in a vast universe. Wisdom and the prophet seem to be telling us that we too easily think far too grandly of our place in the scheme of things. As if the message of the heavens were not enough, Psalm 8 give us two more important sources of prophecy and wisdom.
From the lips of infants and children
you bring forth words of power and praise,
to answer your adversaries
and to silence the hostile and vengeful.
Have we not heard it this week? Our infants and children are arising and declaring that they deserve a future that is unimpeded by the errors and atrocities of the past. “On Wednesday, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg appeared in front of Congress before a hearing on climate change. Thunberg, though, told Congress she didn't have any prepared remarks.

Instead, she referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's special report on global warming, which reported a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. ‘I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don't want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,’ she said. ‘And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action.’”[i]
Then on Friday, “Anxious about their future on a hotter planet and angry at world leaders for failing to arrest the crisis, masses of young people poured into the streets on every continent on Friday for a day of global climate protests. Organizers estimated the turnout to be around four million in thousands of cities and towns worldwide. It was the first time that children and young people had demonstrated to demand climate action in so many places and in such numbers around the world.”[ii]
“You had a future and so should we.”
These young people are not merely concerned with their own individual futures, but have been born into a world that is infinitely more aware of depth of the unknown universe, and also infinitely more aware of the depth of our disregard for our impact on delicately balanced natural systems of immense power. They have a cosmic outlook. And they have been listening closely to the third voice in Psalm 8, which declares:
You have made us responsible
for the works of your hands,
putting all things at our feet –
all sheep and oxen, yes, even the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, the fish of the sea
and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
YHWH, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your Name in all the earth!

A recent article in Business Insider magazine points out:
“We're headed for ‘climate apartheid,’ in which the poor will suffer while the rich save themselves, warns a chilling UN report. The consequences of climate change, including sea-level rise, more severe droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters, is likely to hit poor people hardest. According to the new report from the United Nations, climate change “could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030.” The report's authors warn of a future “climate apartheid” scenario, in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”[iii] It is the very essence of our mission as followers of Jesus – to prevent this form of injustice – this atrocity as Amos would call it – and to champion the common good.
We human beings on planet Earth are both beasts and more than beasts. We can certainly be beastly. And yet contemporary theologians are increasingly cognizant not only of our hubris in relation to our sibling mammals, our cousin vertebrates, our neighbor fauna, our compatriot flora, even the inanimate systems of weather and geology, but also, as far as we are aware, our unique position as the consciousness of the created universe. Catholic theologian Ilia Delio writes in her latest book, “Every human life is the cosmos winding its way into the future. Every life makes a difference to the life of the whole. I have come to know that the fire in my heart is the fire in the heart of the universe and that its flames will not be extinguished.”[iv] If we take seriously our place in the cosmos, we are not small after all, but essential.
What does this mean to people of faith? What does this mean to the people of the Abrahamic tradition, who from its beginning have been called to leave home in bold trust? What does it mean to us as progressive, mainline, Cascadian Christians? The care of our planet is not an optional task. If Christ, the Word, who like Wisdom – or perhaps as Wisdom – was not merely present but essential in the birth of the cosmos, then we have a special and undeniable responsibility. Christlikeness, as Paul tells us in Philippians, is a pouring out of the self. It is a setting aside of the privileged and honorable place that we are tempted to claim as the beloved of God, and to clothe ourselves in sacrifice and humility. That process may have been a solo voyage for Jesus. He certainly was painfully alone at times. His invitation to us to come and follow him, though, is an invitation to a community that delights in what God delights, that wonders at God’s wonders, and that lives a love that burns at the core of every being.
Beloved, I am the first to admit that I have done harm to our planet, and that the privilege which I have inherited is nigh on impossible to shed. It will certainly be uncomfortable. We cannot do it without each other, and we certainly cannot do it without the voices of the animals forced from their habitat, the voices of the children chanting, “You had a future and so should we!” and the voice of Wisdom reminding us that we are as significant as the task at hand, the salvation of our planet.

[iii] Peter Dockrill,”Science Alert’ “We're headed for 'climate apartheid,' in which the poor will suffer while the rich save themselves, warns a chilling UN report” Jun. 26, 2019
[iv] Ilia Delio, Birth of a Dancing Star: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to Cyborg Christian (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2019).

Life: What Am I to You?

"Life: What Am I to You?"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

September 15, 2019 

Luke 12:22-31; Job 39:1-8, 40:1-14

·      the smell on the breeze of an approaching rain shower;
·      warm sun on a crisp pre-autumn morning;
·      apples;
·      bird song;
·      buzzing bees in the trees;
·      the flash of orange in the waters of a salmon spawning stream;
·      young children before they figure out that the world is not an extension of their own body;
·      adults when they remember that their body is creation made conscious.
Hold on to these things for dear life.
We are going to need them.
Scene One
Some friends are sitting around commiserating their shared fate. Most of the suffering has fallen on the shoulders of one of them – Job – and it seems to be unwarranted. He has done everything right. He has kept all the commandments and been compassionate and generous, especially to those who have less. It’s just not fair. The well-intended friends are not very helpful, offering suggestions as to why this could possibly be happening. After all, God is not capricious. Job must have done something wrong – or at least he could have done something better. Why do the friends even care? Are they just sorry that their generous friend no longer enjoys the privilege and bounty that he once showered on them? To their credit, they sit with him in his pain, but only after making it worse by trying to explain it away. Finally, one more friend offers some tough love. He notes that Job, though compassionate, never really understood the suffering of others, and now he does – having lost everything except a shred of existence.
Scene Two
Some friends are sitting around commiserating their shared fate. Sunday morning attendance has been down all over town. The Baptists only had ten last Sunday. The Episcopalians and Presbyterians each had less than 30. The Methodists had 32. Someone must have done something wrong. It used to be different. They used to be important in the community, in the world. They used to enjoy better attendance, lots of children, importance in the community – just like Job. They begin to offer what they hope are helpful critiques. One friend believes less liturgy and peppier hymns will turn things around. Another would like to do things the way they used to do them before all this unsettling change. Finally, one friend offers some tough love. It must be the sermons. They are too long, too intellectual, uninspiring, never mentioning Jesus.

Scene Three
Some friends are sitting around commiserating their shared fate. In many places on the planet, the average annual temperature has passed the 2° tipping point. The evaporation of glaciers in the past decade would take centuries to restore, even in the best of circumstances. Habitat has been plundered at an alarming pace. Species have begun shifting their regions. Biodiversity has plummeted. Humans who live on the edges – the edges of desert, the edges of oceans, the edges of economies – have seen their homes and their livelihoods eroded. This was the tacit awareness last Sunday afternoon as Mary and I attended a meeting of the Vashon Climate Action Group – a coalition of organizations and activists that gathers monthly for the exchange of information, opportunity, and mutual support. You might call the backdrop bleak, and there is a sense that we have done this to ourselves – that we must not be as virtuous as we would like to think we are.
Both hope and alarm are present. A college senior speaks who is passionate about young people taking the lead on preserving a future on this planet. But also, a biologist details the irreversible harm done by the practice of fracking and the likely event of widespread disaster should the slightest thing go wrong at a liquified natural gas plant. Vashon Island is well within the blast range of the rupture of a super-compressed methane tank on the Tacoma tidal flats.
Three scenes with much in common. There is a striking parallel between the crisis of Christian communities and the impending cataclysmic changes to our planet. We have known about both for decades. The word crisis means the “decisive point in the progress of a disease,” also the “vitally important or decisive state of things, the point at which change must come, for better or worse,” – literally “judgment, the result of a trial,” “to separate, decide, judge.” In both church and planet, we face judgement day.
Life – the flora and fauna and the living geology of our planet – says to us, “What am I to you?” And we respond, “You are everything. But if we are honest, you are much too easy to take for granted.” We harbor some faint hope that we will get back what we have lost. The story of Job teaches that we won’t get it back, but we might – through the grace of God – get something good. There are several ways to respond to the decline of the church as we know it. Get back to the basics. Shift from performative to participatory spiritual practice. Listen to the suffering and wisdom of those on the edges. Shift the understanding of what church is.

What if we understood “church” as our coordinated activity in everything we do that is informed and inspired by the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice through Jesus’ way of forgiveness, generosity hospitality, inclusion, and justice. What if our acts of worship included these: reducing and eliminating single use plastics, refusing Styrofoam packaging, walking or taking transit when we can, eating foods that are locally sourced and in season, eliminating pesticides and herbicides, turning down the thermostat, reducing light pollution, switching to more efficient light sources, using only renewable energy sources. These practices show that we delight in what God delights – and that we delight in God and neighbor.
Jesus did not say build a barn and meet in it once a week storing away your spiritual harvest. Jesus said, “Sell what you own and give to those who are poorer.” What do you suppose he meant? And what is heaven if not the flourishing of creation that God called good and very good. Beloved, both the church as we know it and creation as we know it are in very deep trouble. Church as we know it will pass away and creation will not know or care. Civilization as we know it will pass away, and creation will not mourn. But imagine the rejoicing in heaven if we – the church – were in the vanguard of earth-keepers – worshipping God through our care for creation. Of course, we need to sing our praises, offer up our prayer, listen to and ponder holy words, break bread and pour out juice, greet and love one another. But that is merely the rehearsal. The real performance of worship – the real attendance in “church” is the day in and day out delighting of God in the world.
A recent article by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker was titled, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” Its premise is that fundamental change in the climate, and thus God’s creation, is inevitable. Instead of trying to backtrack, we would do better to accept that nothing is ever going to be the same, and work to care for what delights us and what delights God.
“All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities.

“In this respect,” Franzen writes, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons – these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.
Franzen continues, “And then there’s the matter of hope. If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely? …. It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically – a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble – and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.[i]
So, my beloved, what delights you?
Here are a few things that delight me:
·      the smell on the breeze of an approaching rain shower;
·      warm sun on a crisp pre-autumn morning;
·      apples;
·      bird song;
·      buzzing bees in the trees;
·      the flash of orange in the waters of a salmon spawning stream;
·      young children before they figure out that the world is not an extension of their own body;
·      adults when they remember that their body is creation made conscious.
Protect these things with your life.
We are going to need them.

[i] Jonathan Franzen, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” The New Yorker, September 8, 2019.