All God’s Creatures

All God’s Creatures June 20, 2011

All God’s Creatures

Genesis 1:1-2:1a; Psalm 8; Luke 15:1-10

Many of you are aware that we held a benefit auction here at the church in February, an event to help us get ready to celebrate our 150th season as a church, which began two weeks ago on Calvary’s 149th birthday.  To help  make the auction a success, many people donated: some talented musicians provided entertainment; some amazingly organized folks pulled all the details together; some of you helped with creating a delicious dessert spread; and many of you donated items to be auctioned off in a silent auction: valuable pieces of art, antiques, time at personal vacation homes, etc.  I wondered what I might have to offer…. 

Finally, I decided what my contribution would be.  Though admittedly not up there on the level of a week at the beach in South Carolina, hey, you know, we all do what we can do.  What I offered in the auction was a sermon: you choose the topic, I write and deliver the sermon. 

The moment I agreed to do this, as you might imagine, I started getting very nervous.  For one thing, in the world of preaching there are different kinds of preachers.  Some of us prefer to preach topical sermons, choosing topics of social, theological, or even personal significance and securing biblical texts with which to explore those topics.  However, I have never really been all that comfortable in the camp of topical preaching; frankly, I can’t think of anything more scary than subjecting all of you to week after week of whatever topic happens to be on my mind at the moment. 

You’ll usually find me instead in the camp of lectionary or text-based preaching, where we follow the church year and a three year cycle of assigned texts each week that many Christian churches around the world also follow.  I figure it’s hard enough to keep me in check up here with the discipline of assigned texts; topical preaching might lead us all somewhere we really don’t mean to go.

And another thing that made me nervous was that I of all people should know the kinds of questions all of you regularly send my way, questions like these that were recently scribbled on the back of a bulletin for my thoughtful consideration: Philosophical and Literary Underpinnings of the Sacred Text, Particularly Leviticus’ Rules; Resolving Conflicting Messages in the Bible Text; Understanding the Removal of Apocryphal Books from the Canon, you know, topics I have learned to skillfully deflect by looking thoughtful and saying meaningfully:  “That’s a really great question.  Tell me: what do you think?”

This could have been really, really bad, as you can see.  However, Kim Sisk won the sermon.  Kim would never do anything as mean as asking me to preach on something I knew nothing about.  Or would she?  But Kim’s eventual topical choice, God and Animals, is not one I learned all that much about in school, other than (of course) the indisputable theological connection obvious in the fact that the word “dog” is God spelled backward. 

Thank goodness for me (and for Kim and all of you), the truth that “God cares for fools and children” also proved true, when several of the lectionary texts assigned for today have to do with God’s care for the world and the relationship God has set in place for humanity and the world all around us. 

And so, with this background we jump right in.

Our lectionary begins today right at the beginning, page 1, chapter 1, verse 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….”  Our Holy Scripture begins with a grand, sweeping poem of substantial beauty and depth, the song of creation as many have called it.  These chapters at the beginning of Holy Scripture were born as a way for human beings to tell the story, to sing the song, of how it is we came to be…and not just us, the whole entire world, too.  Lovely, amazing, powerful poetry, whose ancient language dips and turns, spins and unfurls across the page, painting a picture of a creative and creating God who absolutely delights in every little piece of handiwork born of his imagination.  And, the truth is: you can’t talk about God and animals without talking about the whole of the creation song, the underpinnings of God’s relationship with the whole world, with us, and our role and responsibility as stewards of creation.

Because we’re human beings and we have a tendency to try to contain or understand or put parameters around God, we often miss the beauty and creative power of this poetry.  

On the one hand, we super religious types have tried to read the poetry of Genesis and extract black and white understanding of the mechanics of creation: the world was created in six days, no more, no less.  There was a special order to creation, an order that indicated prominence, power, and ownership for humans.  God gave us permission, in other words, to lord it over everything else on earth, including subsets of human—men are better than women, etc. 

On the other hand, non-religious, scientific types have studied the structures of life and devised other theories of how we all came to live and be in this vast universe, theories that, in some minds, discount the entire story of creation in Genesis and, therefore, invalidate the idea of God altogether.  They would say the Genesis story is ridiculous fairytale, created for the purpose of comforting weak people who need something to believe in.  Science, once we figure it out, will rule the day.  And whoever figures it out first will be in charge!

And, you know as well as I do, that both of these extremes have led us to dangerous, oppressive, destructive, and violent places.  Struggling for human-centered dominance of creation, a direction in which both of these perspectives and many in between have led, has caused the song of creation to fade, to grow fainter and fainter until we become so busy grasping and achieving, acquiring and exploiting, that we can barely hear it at all.  These texts of creation are not history.  They are not science.  They are poetry: a love song of joy and wonder, amazement and awe in the gift and the promise of God’s creative love in our world.  Genesis chapters one and two and texts like the Psalm we read today speak of a time when God’s ideal for creation was still a song we could hear. 

Surprisingly, the system of domination and exploitation in which we live and function here and now is one that emerged out of what was relatively peaceful, agrarian society, where human beings lived in the world caring for creation and for each other in ways that truly celebrated the beauty and divine spark in every ounce of creation.  When subsistence and peaceful cohabitation began to give way, however, to values of dominance, acquisition, and ownership, it was then that exploitation became the order of the day.

We forgot who we are.

We forgot the love and beauty with which we were created.

We forgot the divine spark and promise of every little bit of created life on this planet.

And we forgot, most and worst of all, the song: the song that reminds us how much God loves and cares for us…which in turn led us to forget how much we are called to love and care for the world in which we live…and which limits the considerable gift all around us of seeing God in every ounce of life there is.

Take a look: even when we open our Bibles and read passages like Psalm 8, we land in, say, verse 6, where we read something like: “You have given humans beings dominion over the works of your hands, you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air…, etc.,” and we immediately apply our theories of domination and exploitation to our situation.  “See…there it is, right there, in the BIBLE!  God has given us dominion, God has put everything under our feet!  Surely that means we have sole and total control, the right to do whatever it is we want with anything we have!”  And so domination and even exploitation become the order of the day.

It’s right then that the notes in the song of creation become so very faint, playing at decibels so far out of our range of hearing anymore that we find ourselves in a nightmare we’ve created all on our own, a cycle of destruction that goes against everything the divine poet imagined when he spun the world into being with every ounce of hope and conviction he could muster.  It seems the song has died. 

It seems we forgot what it means to be cared for by God and, in turn, to care for creation all around us.

And so it was, that on and on we lived, scrambling for dominance and struggling to acquire more and more, ignoring the fact that this struggle was not making us richer or wiser in any way that mattered at all, but was in fact diminishing us…and the world all around us.

And into all of this a strange carpenter from Nazareth started telling stories.  Out in the Galilean countryside he would start to spin tale after tale that was so compelling, that spoke of something deep and true, that touched chords deep within our human souls and reminded us—even faintly—of a song we used to know. 

And on one particular day, Jesus told a story about sheep and a shepherd.

In his story there is a shepherd who is tasked with caring for 100 sheep.  The truth is that the shepherd most likely does not own these sheep—a flock of sheep that size would bespeak a wealth and dominance in which one would definitely not spend his days herding, feeding, tending sheep, that’s for sure.  No, almost certainly the shepherd of whom Jesus spoke was hired to care for these 100 sheep.  And on this particular day the shepherd noticed, as only those who have years of expertise working in his field would notice, that one of his sheep was missing.  99 were there and were fine, but one…one was gone.

Out of concern for that one sheep—just the one—the shepherd leaves the other 99 to fend for themselves, and he goes out into the wilderness to search for the one.  99 will stick together, but that one is lost and all alone, vulnerable and at risk, and that shepherd will not rest, will not sleep, until he searches as long and as far and as hard as he can to find that one lost sheep, to bring it back to the fold, to return it to comfort and safety and care.

Everybody listening to the story would have been puzzled.  It doesn’t make sense, really.  In the system of dominance and acquisition, of course, it’s much smarter to cut your losses, to forget about that one missing sheep (he can be replaced!), to worry instead about maximizing your assets and capitalizing on what you have.  Your goal should always be to minimize your risks and cut out the extra baggage weighing you down, holding you back from your potential.  After all, what’s one sheep when you have 99 others?

And with that story, Jesus turned up the volume again, finally, on that song of creation that had faded and become so faint we could hardly remember it anymore at all. 

This is the nature of God, don’t you remember?  God lovingly created the whole world.  God tends it with care and compassion.  God loves us, we human beings created to reflect a divine spark, and even when we wander so far away from God’s intended hope for our lives, for our world, God will not give up on us. 

And if this is the nature of God, that the one who has total power and can dominate us at every turn, unfailingly shows us mercy, love, tender care, and loving compassion, why on earth would we ever, ever think that we who have been given the holy task of caring for this beautiful world, should ever consider behaving any other way?

Because every little ounce of teeming life around us is holy and sacred, shiny mirrors that reflect the creative genius and loving power of the God of the Universe.  And when we forget to care for each other and for all of creation, we destroy what we have been entrusted to care for and end up running the risk of completely forgetting altogether how much God loves even us.

I know that Kim asked me to talk about God and animals because Kim is a deep lover of animals.  I confess that, while I am a dog owner, I have never really thought of myself as a particularly committed animal person—at least in the way I know Kim and others of you to be. 

However, after reading the poetry of creation again in this way and hearing the stories Jesus told about the deep love God has for the world, I began to rethink my opinion of myself on this matter.  I think I might recognize the song of creation, if I heard it.  Maybe you could, too.  And if we could hear the song of creation, if we could make it an ongoing part of our personal repertoires, well, then, maybe we could remember how very much God loves even us?

After all, as many of you know, I grew up in Hawaii, one of the most beautiful natural places on this entire planet, an everyday experienced filled with plants and animals the fairly SHOUT the creative brilliance and lavish love of the divine.

There is no way you could grow up where I did and not be confronted with beauty, genius, grace every direction you turn.  And what, specifically, do my memories of the natural world entail?  Days spent on the beach, combing the sand for shells with such intricate patterns they almost take your breath away…and hours spent walking along the reef, searching the tide pools for different kinds of fish, learning lessons of tenacity from the shellfish and adaptability from the sea cucumbers.  My memories include diving with my father, hearing over and over about how important the reef life was to the health of the islands, and gathering for pot luck dinners on the beach, the sound of the pounding waves in the background and the sting of sea salt in the air.  You could never look in any direction—any direction at all—and not be confronted over and over again with the beauty of creation and the gift of the earth, the created genius of animals and the opportunity to live alongside them in the role of caretaker and custodian of their well-being. 

These precious memories of my own, along with the poetry of creation and the lessons Jesus came to teach about a love so tenacious it would go to the ends of the earth to search for me when I am lost reminded me again of the music. 

What might it take to help you remember the tune to the song of creation? 

Because it’s steady thrumming fills each one of us, reminding us—even subconsciously—to look around: all around us are signs and evidence of God’s deep, abiding love for the world, God’s love for us.

Perhaps those who find space and time in their lives to nurture and care for creation, who love animals and care for them, can help some of the rest of us who get too caught up in the day to day busy-ness of life…because there’s something deep and powerful and true about caring for the earth and caring for animals and caring for those who are little, helpless, unable to reciprocate.

When we show love, tenderness, compassion, and concern for the least of these among us, we can hear the music more clearly.

When we look for God in every little bit of life all around us, the notes crescendo and peak, pushing our hearts closer to heaven.

When we think not of our own acquisition and dominance but instead make room in our lives for the care of creation and the love of animals—even knowing we will never recoup what we lay out—then the music…the song of creation…might become again, finally, the soundtrack of our lives.

And when all of this happens we are perhaps the most fortunate of all: for we are living the gracious, unselfish love that our Creator God has for us.  Love shown to the least, the weakest, the most vulnerable…that’s when we remember the song of God’s love deep in our hearts…and we know without a doubt that God loves us just the very same way.

Amen.

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