Sunday, October 27, 2019

Life: What Am I to You?

Above photo depicts Endangered Species including: pandas, leopards, manatees, monkeys, foxes, red pandas, bald eagles, asian elephants, bengal tigers, and storks, among many more. 


"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.

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