Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rock Badger Don’t Care: An Earth Day Sermon

by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached April 24, 2016

Scripture: Psalm 104: 16-18, 24 (ESV)

The title of today’s sermon is “Rock Badger Don’t Care: An Earth Day Sermon.” And not just because it gave me an excuse to watch videos of honey badgers when I was supposed to be preparing to preach this week. Though that was a consideration.

And I will offer this sidebar that if you google the phrase, “Honey Badger Don’t Care” and you watch the video associated with the phrase – I cannot under any circumstances be held responsible for all the profanity you will hear. Though there is a good PBS show about honey badgers that is family friendly. So just watch that one instead. So to review…PBS show. YES. Random YouTube video. NO.

So now that we have that cleared up…I will tell you that a rock badger and a honey badger are not the same thing. Though I did find out that they both live in the Middle East in the same area in which our psalmist would have been writing. But the rock badger is the one that shows up in this psalm and in a handful of other places in the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus for example will tell you not to eat the rock badger (because they are so cute!).

And as their name, and this psalm implies, they like to hang out on rocks. In fact, the psalmist writes that the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers. And in this litany in Psalm 104, the psalmist lists how God cares for a number of God’s creatures. One commentator frames what is happening in these verses in a way that really struck me, and I want to share it with you in spite of its sexist language. (It was written in 1975, so take the exclusively male pronouns with a grain of salt). Professor Walter Harrelson writes:

“God made fir trees for the storks to nest in, and he made storks to nest in the fir trees. He made high, inaccessible mountains for the wild goats to run and jump upon, and he made wild goats to do the jumping and cavorting. He created the vast expanse of rock-covered earth in eastern Jordan for rock badgers to live and play in, and he created rock badgers for the rocks.” 

… and then he writes:

“Storks and goats and badgers do not serve mankind. They do what is appropriate to them.”

In other words, rock badgers don’t care. They don’t care about humans. And in fact, God did not make rock badgers, or any animals described here, to serve humans.

Now to be clear, this is not to deny evolution. We can notice that God’s creation is ever-changing. In my reading about rock badgers, or coneys, or rock hyrax, whatever name you would like to use, I learned that they are sort of slow to evolve. The reason they are laying around on the rocks or even in little piles of rock badgers is that they have a poorly developed thermoregulation system. In other words, they can’t regulate their own body temperature very well. So they need other rock badgers and warm rocks to help them do the job.

So even if we can acknowledge evolution, we can still step back like our ancient psalmist and observe that rock badgers are able to live and thrive and are cared for by participating in a delicate and interconnected system that has nothing to do with us humans. Rock badgers don't care about humans, and their sacred place in creation ain't got nothin' to do with us.

To go further, we can look at all of nature and notice that God is continuously creating and sustaining the earth and everything in it for its own sake. And so we are called to honor the sacred in all of creation, not because of what it does for us. We are called to honor all of creation because as God's creation, it is valuable in its own right.

And now we get to the flunking part of our flunking sainthood series. We as a human species typically flunk at caring for creation beyond what it can do for us. The end of Psalm 104 draws this to our attention saying, “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more!” In the context of this psalm, the sinner is not someone who breaks one of a litany of rules and regulations: the sinner is someone who fails to honor God’s sacred creation.

And we flunk at this. To start with, we humans can't even seem to value other humans as sacred beyond what they can do for us. As I chose the song we will hear during the offering, a song that employs ideas from the Lakota (Native American) tradition, I did so with a bit of hesitation. I wanted to share and honor the beauty and wisdom of the song, which calls us to this standard of mitakuye oyasin, an acknowledgement that all creatures are our relations, that all of the earth is our family.

But in good conscience, I couldn’t use this song without mentioning the way that Christian ideology fueled manifest destiny: this idea that God was calling white Christian Europeans to colonize North America even if it meant killing and displacing millions of Native Americans who already lived here. In 2012, our denomination, The United Methodist Church, participated in a formal Act of Repentance to acknowledge atrocities that were committed by Christians against indigenous people around the world. But this act was just the beginning of a remembering that needs to happen at every opportunity.

And Native Americans are not the only people we have difficulty valuing in their own right. The way we politically talk about issues shows that we can get behind taking care of each other – as long as it benefits us. We hear politicians argue for changes in immigration law – not because immigrants are of equal sacred worth to citizens – but because immigrants can contribute to our economy, and that’s good for us. We hear arguments about providing preventive health care to all people because it will make the health care system more economically efficient, and that’s good for us. We rarely simply say every person is sacred and deserves health care!

And we also flunk at valuing the non-human creatures of the earth. We argue for creation care as a means to an end. We talk about saving the earth "for our children." We lament the extinction of species due to climate change and deforestation because the lost animal or plant life might contain some cure to a human disease. We create national forests, so humans can enjoy them.

It is so hard to value creation beyond what it can do for us. It is so hard to see animals and plants and ecosystems as truly sacred, to see them as created by and sustained by the same God who sustains us. I confess this is hard for me personally. Sometimes at my very progressive seminary, I would almost roll my eyes and be all like, “enough with the ecotheology” because I too find it easier to care about people, particularly people I know. It is hard for me as well – to value creation beyond how it sustains human life.

And that is why I am thankful that our Christian and Methodist tradition, while not perfect, offers us a theology of redemption: this idea that we can and should recognize when we are not living in a way that honors God and loves neighbor. And it also offers us a theology of sanctification, that when we recognize our failings, we can do better. And that God can transform us to live differently so that we can transform the way we encounter world.

But how to begin this transformation? Well, we have started here, meditating on Psalm 104, this new way of looking at creation that invites us not only to see the sacred worth of all people, but invites us to see all creation (the rock badgers, the storks, the cedar trees) as sacred and holy in its own right.

And perhaps we can continue. Perhaps we can be formed to encounter creation as God encounters it during our prayer after communion. If you’ve been here before, you know the words it includes: “it is enough that you see me for myself, that I see you for yourself. That we bless what we see and do not borrow, do not use one another.” Perhaps as we pray that prayer this week and beyond, we can expand our notion of who is part of that prayer. Who do we mean when we say "one another”?

Maybe we can be invited into the spirit of mitakuye oyasin, an understanding of all of creation as all our relations. And perhaps the “other” that we bless and do not use can extend beyond this community, beyond neighborhood, beyond country, and beyond even just humanity.

And maybe, just maybe, by praying in this expansive way week by week, we might catch a glimpse of all of creation, even just for a moment, from God's perspective.

May it be so.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

You are God’s Audaciously Diverse Creation

A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached April 10, 2016

Scripture: Acts 11:1-18

So here we are in our second week exploring the theme of flunking sainthood. And this week, we are again looking at the apostle Peter. Poor Peter can’t catch a break – apparently both the writers of the Gospel of John and of Acts really wanted to show his flaws.

Because here in Acts, we have Peter telling a story about how he flunked sainthood…and how he grew. He is telling this story to a group of people who are upset because he has begun sharing the gospel with those who were previously seen as outside of the sacred community. See-- he used to agree with these folks who thought Christ had come just for those who were part of his own ethnic group. But he had a major change, a transformation.

Here is how it happened: God communicated to Peter through a dream or a vision. And in the vision, Peter sees all of these animals that, as an observant Jew, he is not supposed to eat. But God says to Peter “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” We know Peter knows this is the voice of God, because he replies, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

Now I’m not sure about you, but I’m thinking if I literally heard the voice of God in a dream, I probably wouldn’t argue with Her. But Peter does. In fact, Peter refuses to listen to God three times, even when God says “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

But no worries, God has other means of convincing. As Peter wakes up, three men arrive. And God had told them to go get Peter and bring him to the house of Simon of Caesarea. Simon of Caesarea is a God-fearing Gentile. He is not ethnically a Jew, but he does love God and does what is right.

And when Peter arrives, Peter witnesses something amazing and unexpected. Something that helps him to understand that his vision was not just about dietary restrictions– but it was about whether Gentiles were part of God’s beloved community or not. Peter sees the Holy Spirit come upon the Gentiles, just as it had come to the Jewish believers on the day of Pentecost. And seeing that God chooses Gentiles as well as Jews to be part of the beloved community and part of God’s work of salvation, Peter finally gets it. He says essentially, “If God chooses to give these people the same gift that God gave us, then who am I that I could hinder God?”

Peter has come to understand that God includes all people in God’s work of salvation and restoration. Peter finally understands the meaning of “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This is not about meat. This is about human beings.

Peter’s world, like ours, contained binaries. You were either this or that. A Jew or a Gentile. And one of those things was clean, and one of those things was profane. In our world, we are overrun with binaries. Male or female. Black or white. Gay or straight. Cis-gender or transgender. Rich or poor. Able-bodied or disabled, American or immigrant. And one of those things is always seen as the norm, and one of them is always less than. In this biblical language: perhaps one is clean, and the other is profane. One is understood as fully created in the image of God, and one…not so much.

And this is where my tattoo comes in. In seminary, we read the writings of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott in my Christian ethics class. Dr. Mollenkott is a self-described progressive evangelical. In an article called “Trans-forming Feminist Christianity,” she quotes part of the poem “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. You heard it in the opening prayer. And if you looked at my tattoo while you heard it, you may have noticed some of the images reflected on my arm.

Here are some lines again:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…

And Mollenkott writes, “Father Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, here praises God for everything that is queer, as is he himself." [1] She goes on to explain that Hopkins was a closeted gay man, and possibly also transgender.”  And she writes that in this poem, Hopkins expresses a theology that is “profoundly healthful for LGBTQ Christians...: a glad acknowledgement that in all our uniqueness we are embodiments of a Creator who loves diversity so much that She created all sorts of spotted, freckled, in-between, counter-expectation, original, unusual, strange landscapes and creatures.” [2]

God’s delight in diversity in this poem is not just about nature. It is about human beings. And we are called to see that God delights in human difference. Because God created all of it! If we think back to those binaries I mentioned, there are two falsehoods at play. The first lie is that one is better than the other. And the second is that God’s creation fits neatly into human-made categories at all!

And I think that engaging with this queer theology can be liberating for everyone – including of course, but not just those who identify as LGBTQ+ and have perhaps found themselves directly named as being outside of God’s good creation. I think the miracle of this poem is that it helps us to see the very things that perhaps we wish to change about ourselves because our culture tells us we are not okay...and it invites us to experience those very things as gifts from and reflections of God.

And I also think that God has given us a way to receive this truth, just as Peter received it. It is revealed to Peter that he has to expand his mission, expand his notions of who is made in God’s image, who is included in God's plan of salvation. He is clued into this expansion in his vision, this dream from God. I too believe that God works within us to reveal to us that all people are made in the image of God, beyond all our binaries and categories and prejudices. But Peter needs more than that – he resists God at first! It’s only when he sees the gift that God gave to the very people he once would have categorically excluded…only then does he understand that God shows no partiality, that we are all created in the image of God and are part of God’s dream for the world.

Like Peter, we are called to be in relationship with, to be in ministry with, all kinds of people. Partially, this is because we are called to be like Christ and stand with the oppressed and marginalized. But also it is because encountering the phenomenal diversity of God's creation -- a creation that we might understand as an expression of God's very self – is the only way that we can get a glimpse of the phenomenal complexity of God Herself / God Himself / God Themself.

And when we understand the audacious diversity of God’s creation, it might just free us to look at ourselves – with all of the ways we have been told we don’t fit in, we don’t live up, we don’t count, we aren’t good enough, we need to play some role that we cannot play – maybe it will free us to see ourselves as part of the beautiful creation, the one that reflects God’s image – as well.

So back to my tattoo. When I met with my tattoo artist Devin, I told him that I didn’t want just a solid sleeve tattoo. I wanted something more delicate, something with open spaces where you could see my skin through it.

And what happened, though I did not plan it, is that in the parts of my arm that are not covered with ink, you can see my freckles, my moles breaking into this tattoo. And it seems to me a poignant reminder that I am a dappled thing too.

We are dappled things too.

Our sacred beauty and goodness transcends everything that the world would call flawed. And it reflects the very image of God.

As Hopkins wrote:

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.

Praise Her. Praise God.


1 Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. “Trans-forming Feminist Christianity” in New Feminist Christianity, edited by Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Path Publishing, 2012.
2 Ibid.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Making Disciples

We believe disciples are:
Servant-hearted, light hearted.

Joy-filled and faith-fueled,                                                          
Listening for God in prayer, scripture,                                  
words spoken in love or sung in a song.

Authentic and vulnerable                                                                      
brave and ordinary                                                                  
wise and humble, honest and strong.

Present. Present in the everyday.                                                
Present in the hard spaces and ready to grow.                                                      
Present with ears open and voice, even if trembling,                                
ready to stand up and speak out.

Generous with time, money and talent.                                
Generous with grace and gratitude,                              
compassion for self and others, in the face of mistakes.    
Generous with food to share, bread to    
break and room to make for one another.

On fire for God in a way that orders life,                                    
burning brightly, deeply calm, living with purpose,                              
drawing the best out of others,                            
sincere and alive to love in all moments.

Willing to try and then try again.