Monday, January 23, 2012

Sacred, Abundant, Life. - Kurt Nelson

Kurt Nelson
Rollins Chapel, 1/22/11
Romans 8: 14 - 22
“Sacred, Abundant, Life.”

Many popular novels these days –
at least, novels which are deemed “deep” or “about something” –
contain at the back,
 a question and answer with the Author.
Honestly, they’re not usually terribly interesting.
But it would be nice, I think,
if our scriptures contained something similar.
A little back and forth between the Harper Collins Editors,
and Jesus.
Or God.
Or even Paul.
“Grace seems like an important theme in your work.  Say more about that.”
“Where exactly is this 'Kingdom of God'?
“Not just life, but abundant life?  Is that this messy thing we’re living now?
Or something else?”
Sadly, no such Q&A exists.
So we’re forced to muddle through on our own.
Wading through centuries of commentary
and scholarship and theology.
Plumbing the depths of our minds and hearts,
and gathering together
to ponder the question of life.
“Choose life” says Deuteronomy.
It is set before us.
And not just life,
but abundant life, says Jesus.
And we are left to wonder,
what exactly might that mean.

Two weeks ago Richard,
channeling his great spiritual forebear William Jewett Tucker,
reminded us that so often,
we equate “abundance”
with success.

We become fixated on the various things of the world,
and lose sight of that which is truly important:
God, community, friendship, learning,
contributing good to the world,
alleviating suffering.
All that stuff.
And I think he was right.
But I’m going to take a different tack.
When I think of abundant life,
I can’t help but think of the abundance of life,
on our fragile planet.
And while I think we surely become
too fixated on material things,
we Christians are also often critiqued,
for not caring enough for the natural stuff of this world.

And without question
Christians have,
like many others,
contributed to the razing of forests,
and the extinction of species,
to the poisoning of the waters,
and the changing of our atmosphere.
And all its attendant issues,
- drought and disease and famine.

Further, I suspect you, like I,
have met many Christians
who say they are “just passin’ through.”
Christians who care not for the ‘worldly’  concerns,
of our environment.
seeing them as mere reminders,
that our true home is in heaven.
And indeed the bible itself,
has been blamed,
for shaping the ecological state of affairs.
Casting man, as it does,
 in a position of dominion,
and earth as a thing to be subdued.
Setting humanity apart,
as separate  and special,
thus encouraging us to plunder the natural world.
But of course, this is a really narrow view of scripture.
This is an earthy and earthly text
we have before us.
Such a reading misses the “manifold works of God”
set forth in Psalm 104,
Misses the laying of the foundations of the earth,
and the naming of the vast array of Creation
in the book of Job.
Misses creation itself,
bearing witness to God’s creative and sustaining love.
named not in abstraction,
but in individual variety
( this is fleshed out well in Wendell Berry's Life is a Miracle),
And misses, perhaps, most of all,
God in human flesh.
Eternity come down to earth.
And as the poor and suffering come before Jesus,
he doesn’t say, “don’t worry, heaven will be awesome.”
He heals them.
He demands justice for them.
And reminds us all that we are living in this world,
toward something better.
Which we don’t yet understand.
But t is clear
 that this world matters deeply.
Not in spite of the fact
that we believe there is something yet to come,
but because of it.
Creation itself speaks
of the presence of God
and God’s ongoing work.
And I think this is, perhaps,
at least part of what “abundant life” might mean.
Life lived in meaningful relationship,
to all life.

And the fact that we struggle to connect
our life of faith, to live in the world,
is, I fear, part of the reason for the ecological challenges
now facing us.

I spent nearly every day
of nearly every summer during college,
in a canoe,
on the lakes and rivers of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
And for two of those summers,
I did so for Lutheran Bible Camps.
So I was out,
with kids,
leading bible studies, learning to appreciate nature
and leaving no trace.
And it took me, I’ll admit,
an embarrassingly long time,
to draw the connection between the natural world,
and the life of faith,
even living as I was.
And as I think back to why that might be,
I think about how I certainly learned and knew
that God had been the creator of all,
but it always seemed like God was the God  of humanity.
God wasn’t so much the God of rivers and lakes,
and mosquitoes and deer.
And I could tell,
because we never talked about them in church.

And I think we miss an opportunity,
not so much to sing the praises of nature,
but to ponder and take seriously,
the abundance of life,
ethically, spiritually and theologically.
And to discover our place,
in the ongoing story of creation.

And make no mistake,
I don’t think we’re doing very well on this front right now,
in our human history.
And I think it matters.

Today’s reading from Romans 8,
is the broadest and most radical vision,
of our role for the whole world.
“All Creation waits with eager longing,
for the revealing of the Children of God.
and Creation itself will obtain the freedom
of the glory of the children of God.”
That’s us, the children of God.
And that’s a tall measure.
Paul collapses the dualism,
of spirit and nature
into a single vision of God’s redeeming relationship
with all the world,
human and otherwise.
This is a passage which,
perhaps more than any other,
forces us to wonder,
'If Christ really came to redeem the whole world,
what does that mean for the whole world?'
isn’t that a bigger story than overcoming human sin?
Doesn't that mean,
the work involves all things?
And perhaps more poignantly,
how do we understand ourselves –
the children of God –
in this work?
It’s a big idea.
And I think it’s an often missed piece,
of this message of abundant life.

At  the heart of this challenge,
for a more just and sustainable world,
isn’t technological or economic,
but spiritual.
Understanding “abundant life”
means claiming that all life,
and the fragile balance of life,
is sacred.
I do not use that term lightly.
The great environmental priest,
Fr. Thomas Berry ( in The Great Work)wrote:
 “We might think of a viable future for the planet less as the result of some scientific insight or as dependent on some socio-economic arrangement than as participation in a symphony or as renewed presence to the vast cosmic liturgy.”
 from life,
and from God the giver of life,
is at the heart of our ecological challenges.
And I think spiritual conversion,
to reverence,
to love,
and to abundance is the starting point for transformation.

Like all Christian work,
this doesn’t mean perfection.
It doesn’t mean moving to a hut in the woods,
cut off from society.
(as appealing as that might be from time to time.)
It doesn’t mean we stop buying things
or making things.
or burning things.
But I think it means doing so with reverence.
with thoughtfulness.
In relationship to this vast, fragile creation.
As Wendell Berry (in The Art of the Commonplace)writes:
"To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, and reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, and destructively, it is a desecration."
Now this is a big idea, I know.
Life:  abundant and sacred.
But fear not,
for I think we have,
as Wendell Berry reminds us,
the perfect symbol for how this can work.
Each week,
 millions of Christians gather across the globe,
to break bread and drink wine,
in Communion or Eucharist, or whatever else we call it,
And we believe this meal participates somehow
in the divine life.
And it’s easy to understand this as a sacred meal,
surrounded as it is,
with sacred words and reverence.
Even though it’s just bread and wine and people.
But it’s harder,
to extend this sacredness,
to the very act of eating together.
But I wonder if that wasn’t the point all along.
What if when Jesus said,
“Do this in remembrance of me”
He didn’t mean on Sundays at 10:30 AM.
but meant each time we ate.
What if,
as 1 Corinthians says,
“every time you eat of this bread or drink of this cup
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”
that means every time we eat of any bread,
or drink of any cup?
What if that sacredness spilled out onto all our meals?
filling our bellies
as we sit at tables,
gather with family and friends,
or rush between meetings and classes.
Perhaps if we saw these all,
as part of that sacred, amazing relationship
between God, and the earth, and us,
we’d be less willing to underpay our laborers,
and cage our animals.
Perhaps we’d be less willing to spray toxic chemicals,
and more interested in knowing the farmers,
and the animals that contributed to that meal.
Since they too are part,
of that sacred act,
sacred balance.
sacred abundant life.

Maybe we would thus be more willing to understand all life,
as a miracle, and gift,
and sacrament,
and thus treat it differently.

Our sacred meal is but a small taste,
of that abundant life.
life lived in sacred balance with all life,
lovingly and reverently in relationship.
We can, I hope,
reclaim this idea of ‘the sacred,’
bound up, as we are, with earthly things,
and let it spill out onto our whole lives.
taking life and earth seriously,
as God does,
And Jesus does throughout our scriptures.

After we worship,
most of us will go eat.
Maybe even together across the street.

And I hope together,
we can take a moment to give thanks,
and notice the sacredness of that act of eating
together as ordinary people.
participating, as we are,
 in the vast, ongoing, cosmic liturgy,
of life, sacred and abundant.

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