God’s Good Earth (4/24/2016)

Watery Earth NASA photoA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Text: Psalm 121; Psalm 148; Matthew 6:19-21, 24-34

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

There is a profound sense in which this great poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins captures for me the dilemma with which we have wrestled throughout this Earth Month. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” “This is my Father’s world…“ “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” and, when it was done, “God saw everything that she had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God’s good earth.

And yet,

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Do we really see and understand this as God’s good earth, or have we taken the position that, while God may have created, creation itself was left for us to use and abuse was we will? What footprint have we left on God’s good earth as we trod across it, our heavy human boots searing and blearing, smearing and smudging? How do we reconcile the goodness of creation with some of the callous and careless decisions humans have made in the exercise of dominion?

My intent here is not to condemn progress. There is a place for human ingenuity or God would not have given it. Nor am I exactly on a back to nature kick (though there may be something for me to consider in that regard.) My primary concern here is for the disconnect, the ways in which we pit progress against nature in a false dichotomy that does not recognize sufficiently that all we have and are is gift from God. That is, God has given us certain abilities, among these a sort of intelligence that allows us to reason, to figure some things out, to build and even to create, in the image and likeness of God. God has also placed us in the midst of an amazing aggregation of resources. And God asks us to appreciate it all, to see its value, to delight in its goodness, and to care for it as an intricately interwoven whole of grand design. We approach it as Gordian knot, with sword in hand, at our own peril. “Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care,” urges Shirley Erena Murray.

My friend, Mark Liebenow is a wonderful writer. A good deal of his work is nature writing in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver. He has written a lovely book, Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, journaling his experiences in that wilderness. When he lived in California, Mark would spend a week at a time, almost always “off-season,” alone in Yosemite. October or January would yield beauty and mystery that the casual camper seldom experiences amid the crush of summer visitors. Of course, it also helps that Mark is dedicated to paying attention, as I suppose most good writers are.

After being awakened in the middle of the night by a bear rummaging around his campsite, he writes this reflection:

At 6:30 a.m., tired from conjuring danger from every stray noise and stiff from sleeping on the ground, I pull on clothes that froze overnight and step gingerly into the darkness, cautious of wild animals still prowling around. Leidig Meadow and the Merced River, whose waters sing nearby, are barely visible in the predawn light of the young moon. Night hides the canyon walls under a cloak of blackness while overhead thousands of sparkling, spinning stars, scattered like seeds across the infinity of the universe, dance in the dark silence that surrounds the earth. Into this wonder arises the crisp beauty of dawn, a narrow orange band of light that pierces the eastern horizon. The mountain’s scent condenses on my upturned face as I breathe in the valley and its peacefulness, then slowly exhale. My breath rises straight up in the still air.

As daylight floods over the mountains, the grandeur of Yosemite emerges and surrounds me with rivers, waterfalls, forests and sky. The fresh pine air quickens my pulse. I do not know where I am going now that I am here, but I know this is the beginning of something that has been waiting (pp. 2-3).

Surely “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and God is praised from the depths of valley floor to the heights of the sparkling heavens. “Let the whole creation cry, alleluia!”

As much as I love reading what Mark writes, I find it difficult to imagine myself spending a week alone, camping in Yosemite, at any time of year. In book group on Saturday, Hugh and I agreed that we would prefer to visit nature but stay in a hotel. I confess that something is most likely lost in this perspective. Maybe this is what Hopkins is critiquing when he rues that the foot cannot “feel, being shod.” What do we miss? What is lost when we distance ourselves from God’s good earth, enshrining ourselves in protective palaces that divorce us from the goodness of the creative order?

Our friend, Greg Griffey, has posted a couple times now on Facebook a picture of two legs, pants rolled up, feet bare, standing in the grass, seeming to revel in contact with God’s good earth. He writes of his own journey to feel at home in this new place, “4 months out and I’m only beginning to feel the ground beneath my feet in this place of bay, mountains, ocean, fog, city, and traffic.” He says, “I don’t know when I began the journey from getting here to being here, but my resistance to this beginning did not stop it from quietly forming, just waiting until I was ready to live more fully into it.” A place on God’s good earth. Praise God with ten fine toes that wiggle in the grass!

“Let the whole creation cry, alleluia!” Praise to God! This ought to be the beginning and ending of all life, ours included. If we start with praise and end with praise, how might our lives be different? How might we define or re-define our concept of dominion? How might we organize or re-organize our relationship to creation? How would we approach God’s good earth? As I’ve said before, it is difficult for us to see beyond our own self-importance. Perhaps this the curse of being sentient beings. Our self-awareness often blinds us to any thought that it is not “all about me.” Maybe that’s why I don’t want to hang out alone in a tent in Yosemite, ironically. My comfort and security are more important to me than anything I might learn by coming so close to God’s good earth. I’d rather keep my boots on than feel the “first dewfall on the first grass…sprung in completeness where God’s feet pass.”

You know, and I know, as the expression goes, “we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” We do experience anxiety and insecurity. We feel we need to short circuit any threat to our existence through hoarding resources, accumulating goods for our own personal well-being, building fortresses, and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. It’s pretty difficult to praise God from that position.

In Psalm 121 we are reminded that all the help we need “comes from the Holy One who made heaven and earth. Ultimately, it is God in whom we live and move and have our being. What more can we need? Jesus sits in the grass on a hillside, grounded in God’s good earth, and proclaims, “…where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He says, “…do not worry about your life…can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” “Look at the birds of the air…consider the lilies of the field…” If God cares for them, will God not also care for human creatures, made in her image and likeness? “…you of little faith,” he bemoans. Ouch, we didn’t want to hear that. We’re trying, Jesus. We want to be faithful. Sometimes it is so hard for us to trust, let alone take responsibility for right living.

We may live our lives somewhere between the glory of creation and the paving of paradise, but even in the deepest darkness of our fears, Hopkins holds hope for us. Our heavy human boots searing and blearing, smearing and smudging,

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

What if we focused our gaze on morning breaking, on the bright wings of the Spirit hovering over us, on the God who broods over us like a mother hen? What if we were to find our “treasure” in praising this God whose very essence is compassion and care? How would it affect our hearts, shape them, move them? How might our lives be transformed? If we were to stop and look around, where might we find creation praising God? Creation was praising God long before human beings ever came on the scene. What might we learn there? In that observation, the key to a renewed heart, one free of fear and insecurity, one made to sing God’s praise, can still be found. Think on these things. Pray about them. Let them become the ground –  God’s good earth –  from which you live your life.

Praise be to the Blessed One,
the very Breath of our breath,
the very Heart of our heart! Amen.

Bare Feet and Burning Bushes (August 31, 2014)

Three candlesA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15

There was a lot on Moses’ mind as he followed the flocks across the Sinai Peninsula, finding food and water where they could. One could say he was distracted as looked back over the way he had come – growing up in Pharaoh’s court, his curious feelings for the Hebrew people, both the ones who had helped raise him and those he saw in hard labor for the Egyptians. He wasn’t really sure how he fit in anywhere. Then there was the day he had struck out in rage, killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was abusing a Hebrew slave. He didn’t know exactly what had made him so angry. It all just seemed so wrong.

He had been forced to flee for his life, leaving behind all the wealth and privilege to which he had been accustomed. He found his way to the tiny land of Midian, where its priest had taken him in, giving him refuge. In time he had made an uneasy peace with this arrangement, eventually marrying the man’s daughter and becoming a part of his family. Now his responsibility was to tend the flocks of Jethro, a task for which his royal friends and family back in Egypt would have disdained and ridiculed him. “Oh look, the mighty Moses is a shepherd. He’s not such hot stuff now, is he? How far can a man fall? He’s living in the bottom of the barrel.”

It wasn’t that he minded the work so much. It gave him a secure role in the world and often kept his mind from wandering, but for several days now they had been moving farther and farther from Midian. Suddenly he was aware that he was in territory he’d never traveled before. He looked up and looming before him was a mountain with which he was unfamiliar. As he began to look around more carefully, trying to get his bearings, he saw something in the distance that caught his eye. It appeared to be a fire. He decided to check it out.

As he got closer, he could see a thornbush that seemed to be aflame and yet its leaves and branches were not actually burning. That is, they appeared to be unscathed by the fire. He moved in to get a better look. As he got very near, he was sure he heard a crack of thunder. Maybe the bush had been struck by lightning and lit ablaze. Only it was a hot, dry day without a cloud in the sky.

Again the thunderous sound, only this time, he thought he could make out words, like his name was being called. “Moses, Moses.” What could it be? Was there someone in distress in or around the burning bush? But how could they know his name? Again, the sound. This time he was certain it was his name. “Moses, Moses.” There was an urgency to the call. He had to respond, “Here I am.”

Thus did Moses encounter the living God. Lost, distracted, full of the challenges of his own life, God found him where he was and called to him. I suppose in his troubled self absorption, he might have wandered by and missed the whole experience. Barbara Lundblad writes, “I…know, and perhaps you do, too, if we’re honest with each other, that we have an almost endless capacity to keep walking. Schedules can do it. We’re terribly busy. We need to get someplace, no time to stop, we’ll come back later. Rationality can keep us from turning aside: we don’t believe in visions. Belief in an all-sufficient, autonomous God can keep us from stopping: God so totally other that any earthly sign could only be our own psychic illusion. There are plenty of sound reasons to keep on walking” (Barbara Lundblad, “Turning Aside,” March 5, 2000, csec.org). He also might have seen the flames and fled in fear as far and as fast as he could.

Still, there is plenty of evidence that when God comes looking for us, God will find a way to get our attention. Fortunately Moses’ native curiosity led him to “turn aside and look at this great sight.” Some would say that whatever path we take, there is something in each of us that longs for an encounter with the living God. We may be aware. It might be near the surface and a conscious quest or it may linger deep within us, out of consciousness, nagging at us indirectly. At any rate, Moses’ journey brings him to the foot of the holy mountain and here God descends to meet him in the midst of his distracted wandering. God calls him by name. God knows him better than he knows himself.

“That’s close enough, Moses. Take off your sandals. This is holy ground.” Have you ever tried to walk barefoot across burning sand? Hopping from one foot to the other, you look for shade or water or covering that will cool and protect your feet, but Moses removes his sandals and kneels in the presence of the living God. Overcome by the encounter, he covers his face, afraid to look directly at what blazes before him. There is an inherent humility that comes with such a sacred encounter.

My friend, LeAnn, used to remove her shoes to preach. She felt that standing in the pulpit was holy ground and removing her shoes was a meaningful, humbling symbol for her. There is something powerful in removing whatever comes between us and the sacred. In his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins observes,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

So much gets between us and the grandeur of God, the sacred wonders of creation, and we trudge on unaware of what is possible all around us. As Anathea Portier-Young puts it, “…in this moment, Moses is told to remove his shoes. Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling.”

Bare feet and burning bushes become markers of an encounter with the Holy One, the Living God. Such an encounter shakes us up, changes our lives, transforms us. It becomes source for our seeing, our speaking, our calling. The encounter is with the very ground our being and all being.

Portier-Young continues, “When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands” (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15, August 31, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).

Could such an experience be available for us? Will we turn aside to see this great sight, this evidence of the sacredness of Creation? Will the time come when you and I find true ground and know where we stand? Where in your own journey have you been invited to remove whatever keeps you from digging your toes into sacred soil, from rooting and grounding yourself in it, from accepting the claim that the Living God makes on you?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning advised us that

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware…
(from “Aurora Leigh”)

God is ever present and always calling us, luring us, longing for us to meet God in holy encounter, to see and embrace all of heaven, all of the sacred that surrounds us and for which we share God’s loving care. We will not each have the same experience Moses had. Moses was unique – as is each of us. God had a task for him, a monumental task, the liberation of an entire population from oppression and slavery.

God may not challenge you or I to such a grand enterprise. But God calls each one of us – “Mary, Mary. Lois, Lois. Thelma. Thelma. Lynn, Lynn. Alan, Alan. Rick, Rick. I have work for you. There’s a place for you, a calling for you, a task for you.” How will we respond, you and I? I imagine we might be as reluctant as Moses. We may offer as many excuses or more. We’ll try to talk God out of it. “Why don’t you choose someone else who is younger, better qualified, less busy, not as burdened with obligations, more faithful, more spiritual, a better person, a better Christian?”

Well here are the universal words of assurance I take from this text. In the midst of voicing his protest and making his excuses, God says, “I will be with you…” The promise is that we will not be alone; that God goes with us; that whatever the work to which God calls us peacemaking, justice work, liberation activity, compassion for others, care for the earth, it is shared work. Bare feet and burning bushes, our journeys and our encounters, our working and our living, when grounded in God, will bring us again and again to worship on God’s holy mountain. May it be so. Amen.

 

God Fathers-Forth (June 15, 2014)

Gamma-ray burst photo
Gamma-ray burst 1404191 was spotted at 11 p.m. April 19 by SMU’s robotic ROTSE-IIIb telescope at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, Texas.

GOD FATHERS-FORTH

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon

First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 15, 2014

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4

One of the biggest and hottest explosions in the universe –a rare event known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) –has been spotted on camera. [The] event . . . occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago.

(Quoted from: O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.” The London Daily Mail. June 5, 2014.)

My friend, Harold Knight, who recently retired from teaching writing at SMU, posted this photo the other day on Facebook. It was attached to a blog he had written that begins, “The headline on SMU’s website reads, ‘Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.’” The blog was written in response to this photograph that purports to be an image of something that happened 12.1 billion years ago, shortly after the Big Bang. Harold wonders how the scientists know this and so do I. It’s not that we disbelieve; it is that we are lost in wonder at something that is beyond our comprehension.

Though I took an astronomy class in college, I don’t begin to understand all the implications of the Big Bang Theory or how we can make a photo of something that occurred so long ago. I don’t even know how to get the photo off my cell phone that I took yesterday. But that’s a different story.

What I do remember from “poet’s astronomy” (as it was affectionately known) is the awe of looking at the rings of Saturn from the Columbia observatory’s telescope on a cold, clear November night, a rare occurrence in that urban setting. It was breath-taking, awe-inspiring. I suppose my impulse was to sing a song or write a poem, rather than to be caught up in the math or physics or even the cosmology of the occasion. “How Great Thou Art” was the standard response to the spectacle of stars seen on summer nights in the unsullied atmosphere of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, when we sat around the campfire at Cathedral Pines, the Baptist camp.

There are scientific wonders that are beyond my comprehension and I suspect some of you may wrestle with a similar syndrome. Some of those wonders involve the vastness of the universe and some the tiniest of cells or atoms. We live in a world of wonder and sometimes we find ourselves lost in that very wonder. In light of modern science, there are those who find it difficult, if not impossible to hold a faith position, to believe in a God who creates, a Christ who redeems, a Spirit who empowers. Part of that pattern of disbelief is attributable to the insistence of some in the Christian tradition that we understand the Ancient Word that Paul read for us as science or history.

Some of our fellow Christians insist that this ancient story be taught in science and history classrooms. They seem to fear that the modern manifestations of these disciplines are challenging religious tradition and undermining the faith of their children. In fact, there is a Museum of Creation, now open to the public, near Cincinnati, Ohio, that was met with incredulity by many of us when first announced 10 years ago. Karl Giberson, who teaches science and religion, writes that “The Creation Museum in Kentucky contains, among its many exhibits, beautiful dioramas of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with dinosaurs looking over their shoulders—an impossible scene [because science has established that dinosaurs were extinct long before humans came around]…” Still, “Millions of Americans love the strange story told in the Creation Museum—young earth creationism. Polls show that about half of all Americans—and most evangelicals—accept these ideas. However,” he concludes, “young people raised to believe this story are leaving the church in droves, according to a recent Barna survey, when they discover, usually in college, just how untenable these views really are.”

I am particularly grateful for a father, who though an evangelical and biblical scholar, was neither fundamentalist nor anti-intellectual. Long ago he gave me the gift of his belief that it was no less wonderful to imagine a God who creates through an evolutionary process over aeons of time than a God who created in seven days. In, fact, he thought the intricacies of evolution might be even more wonderful.

However, instead of spreading my scientific ignorance in a seemingly unwinnable debate, I want to cast my lot today with Barbara Kingsolver, who penned this morning’s Words of Preparation. “I’m a scientist,” she says, “who thinks it wise to enter the doors of creation not with a lion-tamer’s whip and chair, but with the reverence humankind has traditionally summoned for entering a place of worship: a temple, a mosque, or a cathedral. A sacred grove, as ancient as time.” I think that is the point of this ancient tale from Genesis – to approach the phenomena of creation with reverence and with awe. Perhaps this is a gift that religion offers science. Science no more completely answers our questions about life than does religious tradition. We need both in respectful conversation if we are to have a dominion over creation that is grounded truly in love and care.

These first verses of Genesis are not science or history. They were never meant to be. They are poetry. Walter Brueggemann argues that they were not even meant to be explanatory myth. They constitute a poem, a call, a story. The story is really not about creation per se. That is, those who told it over and over and who eventually wrote it down were not present at the creation. They were not possessors of videotape or even 12 billion year old photographs. They were a people who had known slavery and oppression, uprooting and exile. They told the story to help them remember who they were and whose they were. These ancient words are the hopeful affirmation of a people under duress, reaching to the God who made them, blessed them and traveled with them – even in Egypt, even in the Wilderness, even in Babylon.

“O God, our God, how glorious is your name in all the earth!

            When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their places,
what are we mortals that you should be mindful of us,
mere human beings that you should care for us?
You have made us a little less than divine,
and crowned us with glory and honor.
You have made us rulers over all your creation…
O God, our God, how glorious is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8)

Somehow they were able to remember this story and sing this song in the midst of turmoil, from the depths of doubt, caught up in chaos. What did these texts teach the ancients and what do they say to us today? We have our own troubles, doubts and insecurities. Is there comfort, re-assurance, hope in this creation story for us?

In the beginning, the tale tells us there was a creative and loving Presence. God hovered over, in and around the chaos, the formless yet fecund void and darkness. Maybe it was something like digging in dirt that has never known cultivation, not hand or shovel or plow, soil rich, fertile, mysterious, unknown. There will always be this ”stuff of life” that we neither fully understand nor control. Out of that stuff, God brings forth light and all manner of geology, geography, oceanography and critters to swim and fly, crawl and walk. God gives it all shape and substance, then infuses it with the breath of life. God fathers-forth all that is.

Debbie Thomas draws a set of helpful affirmations from this story for her current situation and, perhaps, for ours. She writes that “Neither history nor science as today’s scholars understand those disciplines, the first chapter of Genesis is poetry, hymn, doxology, and myth. If we in the postmodern world struggle to see truth in those art forms, it is not because Scripture is lying. It is because our post-Enlightenment imaginations are impoverished. To call the creation story true is not to quibble with science; it is to probe deeper than any scientific endeavor can take us. It is to acknowledge who we truly are and where we really come from. It is to affirm, by faith, the reality of a good God, a good world, and a beloved humanity.

She then asks “Where do I come from?” and responds “Here’s what I’ve discovered so far:

I come from a God who sees…
I come from a world that is good…
I come from a God who makes new things…
I come from the morning and the evening, the light and the darkness…
I come from the likeness of God…
I come from a God who rests…”

Following her list, can we make similar affirmations?

A God who sees what has been created. Who pays attention. Who gives things a good, long, loving look. Who sees and knows and understands. We are not left to fend for ourselves. We are attended by a God who knows us and loves us and cares what happens to us.

A world that God has seen and has called “good” and “very good.” A world in which God delights. A world to be enjoyed, loved, cared for. A world that God blesses more than once. A world that God continues to bless today, when we allow and accept it.

A God who makes new things. An inventive, creative, even playful God. In Bible study Tuesday, Alan suggested God as a tinkerer. A God who always has a project going out in the garage. Part of the amazement at being given dominion over creation is the realization that we are invited to join in the creative process. Not only does God make us new, we are invited to work with God to make all things new. It is in the very nature of God to re-new.

There is a rhythm to life. We are not promised endless sunshine or a road that doesn’t wind. We will know peaks and valleys, good times and hard times, life and death. Through it all, we walk with a God who shines in the morning, at noon, in the evening and at midnight, a God who accompanies us all the way.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We can no more account for this than we can explain the mysteries of the universe. Yet the story affirms it. We are given a certain intelligence and freedom, a certain capacity for relationship. We are made in such a way as to live in mystic, sweet communion with our Creator.

Whether days or millennia, the story assures us that 1/7 of our lives should be given over to Sabbath. This means rest, yes, but not just that. Sabbath is a time for changing pace, stepping back, taking stock and centering ourselves in the Creator and all the ways God blesses us and cares for us, to share with God sheer delight in one another and in creation.

We praise God for the infinite variety in creation, for its diversity and its union in the Creator, for its hopes and promises of new life, for its challenges and its blessings.

Glory be to God for dappled things…
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

(From Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins)