The Good, the Bad, and the Hope

(The readings for Forest Sunday are below.)

Biblical scholars think the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis were written while Israel was in exile in Babylon. It felt a bit like the end of the world. Was God with them or had God been defeated in Jerusalem? Did God even exist? Is there any hope for us?

Here is the good news from Babylon
Even though we are in this place far from home we know that God made all this. God made the trees. God made the animals. God made us. God is so involved in all this that we could say

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed. 

That's Psalm 139. It's poetry of course, and like Genesis 2, it's not a blow by blow scientific description of how it all happened. But you can see the point:  Of course God is here; God made all this!.

God made us! We belong here. We are made from the dust of the earth. This is our place.

And we are more than just animals; there is no partner from among the animals for us. We are a community given the knowledge of good and evil. We know. We understand. We see— we are "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh..."  God has made us more than animals.

There's a lot of pain with that knowledge, as we know. We will look more at the knowledge of good and evil next week. But the good news is that God is here. God is for us. God made us and God chose. This is God's world.

But here is the bad news from Athens— that's where Paul is preaching in the Acts reading— and... here is the bad news from Adelaide.

Despite all we have been given... we are separated from God.
There are "objects of worship" as Paul put it— idols—  everywhere.
We are unfulfilled.
We long for something new—something better.

Luke says

now all the Athenians and the foreigners living [in Athens] would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

What would he think of us, devoted to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter?

The life we find in the surface of our culture is not enough for us.
It does not satisfy.
It does not fill us.
We hunger.

A friend said to me, "There must be something behind all this. It can't just be...." If he had lived in Paul's time in Athens, perhaps he would have put it this way, "There must be an unknown God." A God who can fill the void. There must be something...

 Paul the apostle said there was.

There is a God beyond all the noise of our culture.

This is the God who made the whole Cosmos in which we live:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth... (Acts 17:24)

This is the God who gave us life. Not an idol we create, but God far beyond us. God

does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things... “In him we live and move and have our being...” (Acts 17:25)

So there is still some good news in Athens.

But in Adelaide and every other town and city, the news is bad, indeed, critical.

We have lived as though we own the place.
We have lived as though our garbage and our toxic waste did not matter.
We have lived as though we could cut the lungs out of the earth and nothing would happen.

We do not live on earth.
We live in earth.
We are of earth.

We depend on the biological systems of earth to survive. Without them we die. The forests are the hearts and lungs of the world.

The statistics are grim.

National Geographic  writes that more than 80% of the earth's natural forests have been destroyed. Up to 90% of West Africa's coastal rainforests have disappeared since 1900. You saw the maps of the deforestation of the USA since white settlement.

This is a disaster because 70% of the earth's land animals and plants reside in forests. Rainforests help generate rainfall in drought prone countries elsewhere. Studies have shown that destruction of rainforests in such West African countries as Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast may have caused to decades of droughts in the interior of Africa, with the attendant hardship and famine.

Deforestation will add to the catastrophic global effects of our industry and population. Trees are natural consumers of carbon dioxide— one of the greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming. Destruction of trees not only remove these "carbon sinks," but tree burning and decomposition pump into the atmosphere even more carbon dioxide, along with methane, another major greenhouse gas.

This situation is so serious that perhaps we should call today not Forest Sunday, but Forests Funeral Sunday.

Climate change is no myth. Among climate scientists I read a fear that the situation may be far worse than they have predicted. They fear that climate change may begin a positive feedback loop, where the inevitable changes we have caused feed on each other, and cause disaster like we have not yet imagined.

But this is not the bad news.

Earth cannot support its current population even at our standard of living here in Kurralta Park.

But that is not the bad news either.

The bad news that is that it is all too hard.
Half the world seems to be in denial— as though climate change is something that is not real, something we are not driving.  There is nothing we can do anyway, they say.

Our own government barely thinks there is an issue! Australia is cutting back on renewable energy programs. We removed the carbon tax!

I think this is not just the self-interest of big companies.

We fundamentally have no idea how to be human in a way that lives in and with a finite earth rather than live as though we can mine and build and pollute forever.

We are being called and forced toward a new way of being human. We have to grow further beyond some of our animal beginnings. And no empire has ever known how to do that.

For "adam" to survive and become "human" we have to get beyond survival of the individual at all costs. We have to transcend being an animal driven by our evolutionarily formed "survival of the fittest" instincts...

and become a citizen— a human being— worthy of earth. We have to dethrone our self, and live not for me, but for us

As Bill Loader says of Matthew 16:21-28's denying of the self

The call is not to lose self identity and so abandon one's responsibility, but to abandon the agenda for living which pits self against the others.

It is no longer a question of what will grow me at your expense, but what will grow us. I have no right to anything which diminishes you, or which diminishes the planet.

Instead, I must ask what will grow the forests instead of cutting them down?

How do we value Earth— all Earth—  more than ourselves? It is nothing less than this....

And I have no idea how we do that.

All I know is that this change in who we are is no mere act of will.
What we are describing when we seek to overcome the animal identity in us that survives at all costs to the others,  is the impossible  Kingdom of God, where all that seems natural is overturned.

We are talking of a way of being in the world where the fundamental enmities are reversed:

where "the wolf shall live with the lamb," "the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp," in a great reversal of the curse of Genesis 3, and

they will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.  (Isaiah 11)

This is a rebirthing work of the Spirit, to use the language of John 3. It can only come from God— "from above." It is a revelation, not something to which we can simply set our mind. We are so biologically programmed to compete and to outdo, even to destroy so that we can survive, we might as well ask how we can enter our mother's womb a second time;

How can we do otherwise? Is there any hope?

In the ancient stories of Israel is the story of a plague of serpents biting and killing people. (Numbers 21) In that story God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and hold it up on a pole, so that when people who had been bitten looked the serpent up on the poll they would be healed. It has to do with looking at the very thing of which we are deadly afraid, and which threatens to kill us. There is a deep truth of healing that.

It is this counter intuitive thing which we must do now. We must "look at the serpent." Not only the serpentof climate change, but the One lifted up on the cross. We must look at what we fear most... which is our losing control over ourselves and dying.

For our healing, we must look upon the "Son of Man," the truly human one who transcended the need to survive at all costs.

Looking at him means to try to live like him.
Just to start.
To ask what does my new shirt, my new car, my new company, do to Bangladesh – and its children?
Because the Christ is them.
They are the Christ... for they are people just like us.

John 3 says we cannot understand or control the spirit-wind of God. We cannot reach out and take what we want from God. We can either hide from God— from the flow of the Spirit,  or we can step out into the wind and let it blow around us where it will.

And that's where our hope is.

We "get in the way of the Spirit" "in whom we live and move and have our being," by living like Jesus. The Faith is a way of life, an all-of-life discipline that places us in the way of the Spirit. It helps us collide with God. It points us back in the direction of the garden. It turns us around. To do this is to repent.

When we live the way of Jesus, Paul claims, we will meet the Unknown God alongside us. We will begin the journey back into the garden-forest, and begin to be at home again, rather than being Lord-pretenders and destroyers. 

It's not magic. I said we must ask "What is my new shirt, my new car, my new company, doing to Bangladesh and its children?"
We actually have to live that: To stop buying; to give more; to vote differently; to speak up; to be compassionate.

We either give ourselves to this hope of the renewing Spirit of God or... we give up.

Jesus came so that we would not perish but have life, says John 3. God wants only good for us.

Judgement is what we bring upon ourselves.
If we will not revere and cherish the forests,
and all the ecosystems of the planet,
and all the people of the planet,
then we will be destroyed.
Judgement will fall upon us.
Not judgement willed by God, but what we have pulled down upon ourselves.

In 1877 Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote this sonnet.

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.   

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.               

Things are far worse than Gerard Manley Hopkins ever imagined when he wrote this poem, but the same Spirit is still here. Will we will let it flow around us, and stand in its way, and be healed?  Amen.

The Readings for Forest Sunday
Genesis 2:4b-22

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, [Or formed a man (Heb adamof dust from the ground (Heb adamah)] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

18 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman, [ishshah]
   for out of Man [ish] this one was taken.’ 
24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Psalm 139:13-16

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. 
15   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed. 

Acts 17:22-28

21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor [Greek: from one] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.” [Aratus, a pagan poet, from his poem Phaenomena, written about 270 BC in Athen]

29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

John 3:1-16

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus [him] by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’[anothen anew "up-place"] 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[wind and spirit are the same word] 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You [plural] must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you* do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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