Sermon: Care for Creation and Atonement

Luke 24:36b-48
Uncited/Unedited by J. Lavoy

Here we are, on the third Sunday of Easter. I like to remind people that we are still in Easter, so that we don’t assume were in “business-as-usual” mode. We’re still witnesses to God’s movement of resurrection. And at the same time, we’re making a special point to celebrate Earth Day which, liturgically, we’re calling “Care for Creation”. I like to use a different name to remind myself that the business and commercial calendar is different than the Christian calendar, so we have different names for holidays and festivals.

In the midst of Easter, we have a scripture lesson about Jesus’ third appearance to his disciples after his death and resurrection. And yet, on Earth Day, excuse me, Care for Creation Day, we may be tempted to deviate from the assigned scripture reading in order to pick something obvious, like the Creation story, or the account of Jesus and the empty tomb in John, where Mary mistakes Jesus to be the gardener.

But, I think there’s something much richer in sticking with the assigned reading – the reading that’s been happening on the Third Sunday of Easter, every three years since at least the 70s, before anyone even imagined “In 2015, a small group of Canadian Moravians will be celebrating environmental stewardship, so we need to pick some completely irrelevant text” – this is much richer than just choosing another text. What happens when we make sense of this Easter scripture in light of the urgent need to care for the planet, or even the universe, or multi-verse, or however large the vast expanse is?

Kudos to Karen, our wonderful music director, who, when she asked what scriptures we would use for Earth Day, didn’t even bat an eye, though I’m sure she thought me a madman, as she found fitting hymns for these apparently different themes.

So, what’s happening in our scripture? First of all, its the last section of the Gospel of Luke. But, in a way, its really the end of an extended exposition, as the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were written by the same author. Luke ends, with Jesus ascending into Heaven, and then the book of Acts begins with Jesus ascending into Heaven. Its like the beginning to a sitcom, “previously on The Ministry of Jesus and his Disciples…” cue the dramatic music.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Jesus, who had just appeared to two of his disciples as a stranger, on a sad walk to Emmaus, appeared to them as the Risen Christ when he gave thanks, broke bread, and gave it to them. Its a beautiful communion moment. Then, those two disciples ran to tell the other disciples what had just happened, and Jesus, almost instantly, appears to the whole group, and, naturally, they were terrified and thought Jesus was a ghost. So, Jesus says, “I’m not a ghost! Why are you doubting all of a sudden? Calm down! Look at my hands and my feet. See that it is me. Peace be with you. In order to fulfill the law of Moses and all the prophecies, I had to be crucified, and resurrected. Now you have witnessed these things. So go, preach repentance and forgiveness to the whole world, beginning in Jerusalem. And then he ascended into Heaven.

So that is part one of our Care for Creation scripture lesson. Part two is an excerpt from Leviticus, some Law of Moses. I know what you’re thinking; you’re on to me. After a long preface to my sermon about the value of sticking with the assigned reading in spite of our themes for worship, I did select a different Old Testament reading. I picked it, because it’s literally some of the Law of Moses that Jesus was talking about, and its a radical approach to caring for creation. Its a litany of rules about agriculture, about sabbath, and about economic equality. And, as Rod pointed out in our worship planning time, if taken literally, it would be woefully inadequate for our contemporary needs.And at the same time, if taken as a whole, there is some incredible wisdom where our cultivation of the land should never, ever lead us to exploitation for economic reasons. Its one thing to live off the land, and, most years, earn a living by cultivating the land. Its another thing altogether to recklessly and shortsightedly exploit the planet for excessive profit.

Back to the Gospel.

In terms of Care for Creation, there is one particular verse that I’m zooming in on: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in the Risen Christ’s name to all nations.”

On Earth Day, we may be tempted to stop and smell the flowers bursting out of the ground, the buds of the trees opening up, and to hear the joyful songs of the birds singing to each other. It was hard not to be delighted as I biked here in the crisp, morning air. So, I invite you to think to yourself, “what is harmony?”

I believe that these feelings of interdependendence, and inter-connectedness are nearly perfect images of the Kingdom of God, of Heaven, of Eternity. I believe that creating perfect Harmony is what God is doing. And I believe that when things disrupt harmony, whether deliberately through violence, or innocuously, by thinking that everything needs to be the same, God brings these things back into harmony through redemption. The resurrection is the ultimate example of redemption: not even death can stop God’s movement to bring things into perfect harmony.

Let me say more: sin. Sin is not an error or rule violation. Sin is not breaking the law. Sin is not something to be feared. Sin can be intentionally present, or unintentionally present. Sin is the distance between us, the absence of harmony between us. Sin exists between us and God, and between us and each other. Sin is the condition of not being in perfect harmony.

Sin is sometimes violent. In a Creation-Care context, it may include the gleeful and libidinal feelings we sometimes get when we destroy things. Has anyone read “And then there were none? or its other name, “10 little Indians” by Agatha Christie? Spoiler alert: the Judge is the murderer, and, in his confessional note, he admits that when he was a kid, he loved to kill wasps, just to see them die. That is an excellent example of violence against creation. The sin isn’t in killing the wasps: that’s just the judge being a jerk. The sin is in his remorseless desire to kill the wasps, in the satisfaction he got by killing the wasps.

And sometimes, sin is innocuous. In a creation-care context, it may include, for example, our total dependence on fossil fuels to energize the planet. Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fossil fuels. We need them to keep our homes warm, to power our cars, to power this computer for me to deliver this sermon. The sin isn’t in using the fossil fuels. The sin is in our unwillingness to imagine alternatives, because our priority is comfort, rather than the harmony of creation.

I know talking about sin, for whatever reason, is very uncomfortable, or perhaps guilt inducing. But if we ignore it, we let it seethe, we let it try subvert what God is doing.

So God, who is bringing all things into perfect harmony – the state of reconciliation – for now, and for all of eternity – has enlisted our help, as disciples.

I’d like to talk, now, about atonement. Atonment is clearly a churchy word. We don’t go to a grocery store and say, “I’d like to atone for the fact that I am out of dish soap, so I must purchase some.” Maybe, because it is a churchy word, we also think of it negatively. But atonement literally means “at one”. At-one-ment. What are the conditions or things you must do, to be at one with God’s harmony?

One thing that troubles me, is our apparent need to be in lock step, or uniform. We assume we must all believe the exact same thing, in order to be in harmony with God. We assume we must all live the exact same way, in order to be in harmony with God. This is something that our Denomination is wrestling with as we deal with some of the anxiety post-synod. How can some congregations read the Bible one way, while other congregations read the Bible another? And how can we all be the same church if that is the case? Many of us wonder. And yet, there is far greater grace in diversity than in rigidity.

In a care for creation context, this is called an ecosystem. An ecosystem is a community of living things, and their interactions with each other, and their environment. Nothing exists in a vacuum. The birds eat the mosquitos, and the mosquitos eat the people, and some people eat the birds, and so on. It’s a weird image, yes. But – if higher-than-normal temperatures cause a drought, and a drought decreases the amount of mosquitos, then the population of birds go down, and, typically, the population of humans goes down. We are interdependent, and interconnected. The more diverse the eco-system, the more grace there is. The more rigid the ecosystem, the more fragile it is.

So, what does it mean to be in perfect harmony with God`s in Heaven, Eternity, or the Kingdom of God? Extending our metaphor of an ecosystem, the more diverse an ecosystem is, it is at once more difficult and easier to find yourself reconciled. On the one hand, there are abundant options, so much nuance, and a lot of motion. That can be intimidating, at first. On the other hand, there are abundant options, so much nuance, and a lot of motion. Your bizzaro place in the world is a lot less likely to feel so bizzare when youre surrounded by other bizarre people.

Thus, being “at one“ doesn`t require uniformity or walking in lock-step, it requires a willingness to be ordered, by God, throughout eternity.

As Jesus commands us to go around blessing people with forgiveness, he is calling us into roles of atonement. The risen Christ is calling us to witness to the ways that God is making all people, all animals, all things one with God`s perfect harmony. He says, “this is how you will witness to the resurrection: that repentance and forgiveness be preached to all the nations“.

Mid-way through my sermon, today, you imagined to yourself a scene of perfect harmony. Perhaps it looked like a beautiful pastoral scene, with birds chirping and animals frolicking. Perhaps it looked to you like Rocky Mountain splendor. Or, perhaps, it looked like the image in Revelation, of a beautiful, golden city – the New Jersualem.

My question for you is: how will you be agents of atonment, witnesses of resurrection? How have you discerned your role, to care for creation, in God`s perfect harmony? For many, it will involve celebrating the beautify and diversity of God`s planet, and likewise planting a garden. For many, it will involve changing your habits, to become more aware of how your actions impact the world around you. For many yet still, it will mean going to protests to care for the environment, to remind people that Christ shows up on the side of the oppressed.
May you be blessed, you who are at one, as you become agents of atonement.
May you be blessed, you who no longer want to resist, as you witness resurrection.