Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Creation of the Future

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Seventh Sunday after Easter: Acts 17:22-31

What does May 21, 2011 have in common with October 22, 1844?

Both were days on which the world was supposed to end according to some followers of Jesus. To be fair, those who predicted the May 21st event actually said that it was the beginning of the end. The end will be October 21, 2011. Or it will be December 21, 2012, if you believe the end-of-the-Mayan-calendar theory.

The prediction of October 22, 1844, by the way, was important here in Rochester. The prediction grew out of what is known as the Millerite movement, after an Upstate New York farmer and preacher who believed the end of the world was coming soon. The Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were both born out of this movement.

On October 22, 1844, hundreds—some say thousands—of Western New Yorkers gathered on Cobbs Hill to await the return of Jesus and the end of the world. They were disappointed and, it was reported, jeered by crowds as they descended the hill. It came to be called “the Great Disappointment.”

While I was waiting in line for a latte at Strong this week, the chatty woman behind me wanted to talk about the recent flooding and tornados in the South and Midwest. “It’s the end times,” she said, confident that I would agree with her. While I paused to decide whether to encourage this conversation or not, she added. “Yes, God is destroying the world.”

I could not be silent and let her assume I agreed with her, so I said that I was pretty sure it was we who were destroying the world. She looked puzzled. “Global warming, climate change,” I said. “Oh, that’s a hoax,” she said.

Thank God at that moment I heard the magic words, “May I help you, sir?” “You really can,” I said to the young man behind the counter.

I do not know this for a fact, but I would be willing to bet that most people who call themselves Christians these days believe that God is going to destroy the world. And I’m also willing to bet that most people who have little or nothing to do with Christianity believe that Christians believe that God is going to destroy the world.

That’s a problem for us.

This is another one of Brian McLaren’s questions in his writing and speaking about A New Kind of Christianity. Remember his book has ten questions that be believes we better get a handle on if Christianity is going to have a future. We’ve talked about five of those questions so far:

  • What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
  • How should the Bible be understood?
  • Is God violent?
  • Who is Jesus and why is he important?
  • What is the gospel?[1]

Another question he asks is: “Can we find a better way of viewing the future?” This is a good question to ask on Rogation Sunday, when we celebrate and pray for the creation, because how we view the creation is part of what he is talking about when he is asking this question.

The problem is that if you think that God is going to destroy the world, that the creation is only temporary, then you are likely to take the next step and believe that at best God sees the creation as only utilitarian, then you are likely to take the next step and believe that the creation was given to us for our benefit, to use (and abuse) as we see fit.

And all of that has been a perfectly acceptable way for Christians to view the creation, which has aided in putting us on the brink of environmental disaster. And the irony is that this view of creation was driven by human arrogance and selfishness and greed and not by the Bible or the understanding of the early Church or really any significant theologian throughout history.

St. Augustine, no wild-eyed radical he, called the creation carmen dei, “God’s song.” Augustine, like most of the early church, had a very high view of the Incarnation. “The Word,” as St. John says at the beginning of his Gospel, “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). God did not use human flesh to reveal himself. God became human flesh. The creation reveals God’s glory, and it does so because it is God’s creation that God has pronounced, “good.”

So likewise the creation is not ours to use. It is ours to live as, to be one with, to be related to, and the best word to describe this relationship is “steward.” The second creation story in Genesis says

The Lord God took adam and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it (2:15).

That’s stewardship. Yes, the first creation story says that God commanded the first man and woman to “subdue” the earth and have “dominion” over it (1:28). And those words have created much mischief over the centuries. But “dominion” here, as Walter Brueggemann says, is like the relationship of shepherd and sheep. There is absolutely no permission for abuse or exploitation in those words.[2]

I have always liked the way Eucharistic Prayer D in the Prayer Book puts it:

You formed us in your own image, giving the whole world into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures.[3]

This prayer, interestingly enough, is adapted from the ancient Liturgy of St. Basil, a church father of the 4th century. Again, we see a very creation-positive expression from the early Church.

Well, if God is not going to destroy the world, what is he going to do with it? The first answer is what we have just been saying. He is going to give it into our stewardship, our care. We know, however, that has been a dangerous thing and, as I said to that woman at Strong, if anybody is going to destroy the world, we are.

But that is not God’s trajectory. What is? I look to two places in the New Testament for a description of what God intends for the future of creation. The first is from St. Paul in Romans:

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; …in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (8:19-21).

The creation will be set free, as we human beings will have been set free. And the second is from, of all places, the Revelation to John:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… (21:1-2).

The creation will not be destroyed. It will be transformed.

Brian McLaren sees in the biblical story a sort of “3-Dimensional” trajectory, the dimensions being creation, liberation and the peaceable kingdom. These are God’s intentions for the future.[4] This, he suggests, is a better vision than the determinism offered by so many supposedly biblical prophecies of judgment and doom. In this way of seeing God’s intentions, he says

We might say that…the future is un-doomed—un-doomed…to eventual healing and joy, un-doomed to ultimate resurrection, liberation, reconciliation, and (in the fullest sense of the word) salvation, because the living God will never forsake or forget his beloved creation.[5]

God’s intention, even for the future, even for this moment of which we heard Paul speak in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, of

A day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness…

will not involve suddenly, something dreadful being done to us. Even this end, whatever it is, or looks like, will occur out of relationship. It will be participatory. That was our Anglican ancestor Richard Hooker’s favorite word for describing our place in the creation: participation.

The good news today is that when it comes to the future we are not holding on by our finger nails or cowering under our beds waiting for God’s wrath to destroy the earth or arrogantly assuming that we will be saved and everyone who doesn’t agree with us will be tormented. We are in relationship with God and the Bible does not lie when it says that this God is Love itself.

But this God does have a constant challenge for us: join me. Participate with me in the creation of the future, a future that together we will call “good.”

[1] Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (HarperCollins, 2010). He introduces the questions beginning on p. 19.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (John Knox, 1982), p. 32.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 373.

[4] McLaren, p. 194.

[5] Ibid., pp. 195-196.

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