Kinship with Creation

May 29, 2016

Bible Text: Psalm 96 |

Remember, when you were young, how you liked to blow a dandelion and send all those seeds flying into the wind? It was almost impossible, though, to get all of them off in one breath; there was always that one tenacious, little holdout clinging on. So picture that in your head: that round ball that is the center of the dandelion, with one seed stuck to it.

And now, imagine that round ball as our planet. It’s earth. And that seed? It’s an arrow pointing directly to one particular spot. It’s pointing to the temple in Jerusalem – that precise place where one could meet God more directly than anywhere else on the planet.

That’s what the Jews believed during the time of King Solomon. Solomon was the third king of Israel and it was he who built the first temple around 950bc. And when that temple was being dedicated he prayed a long, long prayer – a portion of which we read this morning for our first reading. And in that prayer Solomon anticipates how foreigners from around the known world would come: to worship this God, in this house, because that’s where God could be found.

Now, before we start looking down our long, sophisticated noses at these ancient Jews for having such a cramped perception of where God could and couldn’t be found, it’s worth saying that God is gracious in meeting us in ways that make sense to us. Humans have always built houses of worship. We have an intrinsic need to set space aside as sacred –  somewhere we can direct our focus. If you think about it, it’s not too different from how we perceive the Eucharist today: God has given us a place, a cup, a loaf, a single set of prayers. Amidst all the clamor of this world, there is a dependable place where we can return again and again with hope that God is there, even when we don’t sense him.

So yes, these come as gift to us. But faithful people throughout the centuries have also discovered that our holy sites and sacraments can never contain or confine God. Solomon himself prayed elsewhere in this same passage, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet, may your eyes be open toward this temple, that when your people pray toward this place, you would hear from heaven and forgive” (paraphrased, 1 Kings 8:27-30).

Holy places are simply reliable starting points in our pursuit of the God whose dwelling is without boundary or limit. Beyond temple or sacrament, God is found in meadows and beaches, through friends and strangers alike. God appears in prisons and desolate places, and even in sickness and death.

There is no place – no circumstance – where God cannot be met by the soul who is ready. And so consider the dandelion again. But this time picture a full dandelion, perfect and delicate and whole. Each seed is an arrow insisting, “God is here, and God is here, and God is here,” in endless and exquisite beauty. And when the Spirit blows releasing the seeds, then the presence of God extends further still – now borne on the winds – to land in fresh soil, where it will grow anew for another generation: an endless revealing of God … everywhere. This is our hope forever.

Like this vision of the dandelion, for many of us, it is through nature that we see God most clearly. Its beauty and aliveness, its peacefulness and grandeur, are all gateways for discovering the same attributes in God. Our psalm today was most likely written for worship in Solomon’s Temple. And yet, those temple walls were too confining for the psalmist, who cries out:

Sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.

Let the heavens rejoice, and the earth be glad;

let the sea thunder and all that is in it;

let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy

before the Lord when he comes (Psalm 96:1b, 11 – 12a).

I’ve always liked scriptures like these. They’re robust and dramatic. But I’ve never read them literally. The earth gives witness to its creator in the same way that the Mona Lisa gives witness to Leonardo da Vinci. She never actually says anything, because she can’t. She’s not real. She’s simply the work of his genius. And that’s how I’ve tended to regard the witness of nature. A tree is without brain or mouth, so how could it have something to say?

Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t far more going on between God and all creation – that perhaps each created order has a relationship with its creator that is just as sacred and real and mutual as ours. We are human and relate to God in a human way. But what if the fir trees and the dandelions, the whales and the ants, each have their distinctive way of living with God and – dare I see it – worshiping their God?

What if the psalmist is tapping into a deeper, more universal reality when he calls upon the oceans and fields and all their inhabitants to be joyful in their God? Why not? Does it make our gospel smaller, or our Christ less important, or we less beloved? Or, to the contrary, does it magnify the glory of our God all the more, and the wonder of being God’s creation, together? I don’t know about you, but such thoughts arrest me and cause me whisper in wonder, My God, I’ve hardly begun to discover who you are.

We know from our own lives that children will always be a reflection of their parents. Our physicality is a mysterious product of their physicality. Be we humans or koalas, we look and behave like our parents. And so I wonder, if that is true of us within species, is it possible that all the species are ultimately a reflection of our common parent in heaven? After all, I don’t believe God created these worlds from nothing, but rather, from his very essence. So wherever creation is undefiled it reveals the nature of its origin. We rightly say that we are the imago dei, the image of God. But perhaps we are not alone in that honor. We are image bearers, in part, and the Bible and the tradition of the church direct us in our search. But perhaps we also need to look to the ferns and the tides and the clouds and the chorus of all nature to teach us a fuller picture of God.

As I’ve begun to consider such mysteries, it’s changing the way I interact with nature. There’s a kind of kinship growing between me and the moon and the flowers and the bugs. I’m less inclined to ignore them or to treat them merely as resources for my consumption or pleasure. There’s a growing respect for their integrity. And – this is the truly strange part – I’m awakening to the potential that they feel that way towards me (whatever it would mean for them “to feel”). But, curiously, this is also changing the way I regard my fellow humans. I don’t want to talk badly about anyone. I’m tired of dismissing or ignoring these glories who surround me. We’re all in this together. We are the family of God, and this family is creating a much bigger reunion than I’d ever anticipated. And, you know, I love it, all of it. And God is getting bigger and bigger and infinitely more wonderful.

But here’s the other thing about nature. It’s not all beautiful in the “ooh let’s take a picture of the bunny rabbit” kind of way. Intrinsic to its grandeur is a dynamic rhythm of birth and decay, and the perpetual creation of new life through the consumption of what came before. Everything is in transition. And if this comes from God, then it must – in its way – reflect the nature of God and how God is at work in this world. And frankly, I find this to be a rather fearful consideration.

Recently though, I was weeding around my hypericum plants. As I pulled the weeds out of the soil, I found that I was speaking to them – not with words, per se – it was more a voice of the spirit. And my message was something like this:

Weed, you do have value in yourself. In your living and in your growing you give glory to God. You are doing what you exist to do. But your season is over, and it’s time to make space for this other plant to flourish. But God is not through with you, now or ever. I’m going to carry you to the compost pile, and there you will change. You will join with other things, and have a new future together with God.

And Weed was okay with that.

And I know it sounds all hokey and “Circle of Life.” But I tell you, at that moment, I entered into a profound peace, a peace that dealt – not only with the death of this weed at my hands – but also with the death of all living things that die within the realm of God’s sovereignty including the violence in this life and the reckless, unnecessary killing beyond the natural cycles of life and death.

The existence of this violence can make me very uncomfortable with God. It’s not that I believe God causes murder with the same deliberateness with which I kill a weed, but that God remains sovereign in such a world. I struggle especially with the profligate destruction of lives throughout the warfare of human history – of innocent young soldiers thrown on the battlefield, of refugees washing up dead on the beaches, and the countless souls shattered by what they’ve endured. I see no glamor in war. Yet I do accept that it is sometimes necessary, our hideous responsibility in the face of tyrants and aggressors. Yet even when our participation is inescapable, warfare itself remains the most flagrant expression of our human failing – the violent consequence of our greed for resources and power.

But as I pulled out the weeds, speaking my benediction to them, I found it also to be a benediction for all those who have died in war:

You gave your life on behalf of another: another’s will or another’s safety. But whatever the causes and conditions were, they are no more. You are now returned to the God of your beginnings, in whom nothing is lost and nothing is forgotten.

May the God of all compassion and wisdom continue you in life, and join you to the chorus of life, world without end. Amen.

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